Introduction - San Francisco Art Institute
Founded in 1871 by artists, writers, and community leaders who possessed a cultural vision for the West, the San Francisco Art Association (SFAA) became a locus for artists and thinkers. The California School of Design (renamed California School of Fine Arts in 1916 and San Francisco Art Institute in 1961) was launched by SFAA two years later, and has been central to the development of many of this countryâ€™s most notable art movements. During its first sixty years, influential artists associated with the school included Eadweard Muybridge, photographer and pioneer of motion graphics; Maynard Dixon, painter of San Franciscoâ€™s labor movement and of the landscape of the West; Henry Kiyama, whose Four Immigrants Manga was the first graphic novel published in the US; Sargent Claude Johnson, one of the first African-American artists from California to achieve a national reputation; Louise Dahl-Wolf, an innovative photographer whose work for Harperâ€™s Bazaar defined a new American style of â€śenvironmentalâ€ť fashion photography in the 1930s; John Gutzon Borglum, the creator of the large-scale public sculpture known as Mt. Rushmore; and numerous others.
In 1930 Mexican muralist Diego Rivera arrived in San Francisco, invited by William Gerstle, the president of SFAA, to paint a fresco at the schoolâ€™s new campus on Chestnut Street. Many of the schoolâ€™s faculty had visited Rivera in Mexico, and the school had a distinguished program in fresco painting. Riveraâ€™s arrival sparked intense debate in the city over a number of political, social, and artistic issues. In 1933 Ralph Stackpole, who, along with other faculty, had worked with Rivera on his mural commissions in San Francisco, asked the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to fund a series of murals for the interior of the new Coit Tower. This project became the prototype for the agency, and most of the artists employed were faculty or students at CSFA.
After 1945, the school became a nucleus for Abstract Expressionism. New York artists Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko taught here, along with David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Nathan Oliveira, and others. Although painting and sculpture were the dominant mediums for many years, photography had also been among the course offerings. In 1946, Ansel Adams and Minor White established the first fine art photography department in the US, with Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange among its instructors. The first film course at CSFA was taught by Sydney Peterson in 1947. Jordan Belson, who had enrolled as a painting student in 1944, showed his first abstract film, Transmutations, in 1947 at the second â€śArt in Cinemaâ€ť program, co-sponsored by CSFA and the San Francisco Museum of Art. In 1949, an international conference, The Western Roundtable on Modern Art, was organized
by CSFA Director Douglas McAgy, and included Marcel Duchamp, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gregory Bateson, among others. The object of the roundtable was to expose â€śhidden assumptionsâ€ť and to frame new questions about art.
By the early 1950s, San Franciscoâ€™s North Beach was the West Coast center of the Beat Movement, and music, poetry, and discourse were an intrinsic part of artistsâ€™ lives. Collage artist Jess (Collins) renounced a career as a plutonium developer and enrolled at CSFA as a painting student in 1949. In 1953 he, along with his partner, poet Robert Duncan, and painter Harry Jacobus, started the King Ubu Gallery, an important alternative space for art, poetry, and music. CSFA faculty Park, Bischoff, James Weeks, and Richard Diebenkorn were now the leaders of the new Bay Area Figurative Movement, informed by their experience of seeing local museum exhibitions of work by Edvard Munch, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. A distinctly Californian modern art emergedâ€”a fusion of abstraction, figuration, narrative, and jazzâ€”in their work as well as that of their students, including William T. Wiley, Robert Hudson, William Allan, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Carlos Villa, and Fred Martin. The studentsâ€™ interest in new ideas and new materials became the core of the Funk Movement.
Renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961, SFAI refuted the distinction between fine and applied arts, and expanded the definition of art to include performance, conceptual art, graphic arts, typography, and political and social documentary. 1968 was, as elsewhere in the world, a pivotal year in the history of SFAI. Among the students at SFAI that year were Annie Liebovitz, who had just begun photographing for Rolling Stone magazine; Paul McCarthy, well-known for his gross but hilarious performance videos; and Charles Bigelow, who would be among the first typographers to design fonts for computers. Alumni Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones (also faculty) were documenting the early days of the Black Panther Party in northern California, and the photographs were exhibited at the de Young Museum.
Installation art, video, music, and social activism continued to inform much of the work of faculty and students in the 1970s and â€™80s. SFAI was at the forefront of recognizing an expanded vocabulary of artmaking that was no longer based on mediums, but was a hybrid of many practices. The faculty during this period included George Kuchar, Gunvor Nelson, Howard Fried, Paul Kos, Angela Davis, Kathy Acker, and many other influential artists and writers. Among the students were a number of performance artist/musicians, including Prairie Prince and Michael Cotten, who presented their first performance as the Tubes in the SFAI lecture hall, and were pioneers in the field of music video; the Mutants, the Avengers, and Romeo Void were all punk bands started by SFAI students. Technology became part of art practice, with faculty Sharon Graceâ€™s Send/Receive project using satellite communications to create an interactive transcontinental performance; students joined Mark Paulineâ€™s Survival Research Laboratory to stage large-scale outdoor performances of ritualized interactions among machines, robots, and pyrotechnics. Alumni John Martin and Marshall Weber founded Artistâ€™s Television Access (ATA), providing free access to video equipment for artists and nonprofits. Student Karen Finleyâ€™s performances challenged notions of femininity and political power.
Since the 1990s the studio and classroom have become increasingly connected to the world, via telecommunications and community actions. As students at SFAI, Barry McGee, Aaron Noble, and Rigo23 among others were part of the movement known as the Mission School, taking their art to the streets and alleys of the city. As a student at SFAI, Devendra Banhart began singing his assignments in Bill Berksonâ€™s poetry class. Harrell Fletcher combined relational aesthetics with digital media to create collaborative projects. Alumnus and faculty Tony Labat led several class trips to Cuba, with students participating in the 2003 Havana Biennial. In 2005 Labat started teaching â€śAlternative Contexts,â€ť a performance class that used alumnus Ira Sandlerâ€™s 1015 Folsom nightclub as their venue. Other alumni entrepreneurs include Robert Gamblin, creator of an environmentally-friendly oil paint; Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burtâ€™s Bees; Rob Reger, creator of Emily the Strange and Cosmic Debris; and Betsy Sussler, founder of Bomb magazine.
SFAIâ€™s renowned Film department is known primarily for its emphasis on the experimental genre. Yet many alumni have achieved distinction in documentary and commercial film. Among those who have received Academy Award nominations are Richard Beggs (1980 award for Best Sound on â€śApocalypse Nowâ€ť), Menno Meyjes, (1985 nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for â€śThe Color Purpleâ€ť), Peter Pau (2002 award for Best Cinematography on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Laura Poitras (2007 nomination for Documentary Film â€śMy Country, My Countryâ€ť), Lourdes Portillo (1985 nomination for â€śThe Mothers of Playa de Mayoâ€ť), and Ruby Yang (2007 award for â€śThe Blood of the Yingzhou Districtâ€ť).
SFAI faculty, students, and alumni continue to investigate and further define contemporary art and the role of artists in todayâ€™s global society.
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