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Back to the ’70s, When a Traffic Jam Could Be Art


The following ran in the March 1, 2012 national edition of the New York Times. Art Professor Michael Corris provided expertise for this story.

March 9, 2012

By Andy Wright

“Do you feel that?” Constance Lewallen, a curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, said to a group of journalists and students. The crowd, gathered just inside the museum entrance, stopped, looking perplexed.

“It’s a column of air,” she explained, the work of the artist Michael Asher. The group could not see it, but they could feel the air blowing straight down. “It’s very hard to recreate,” Ms. Lewallen said.

The column of air, like the nearby neon signs, cardboard cutouts and a block of ice flanked by microphones, is one of many surprising displays that greet visitors to “State of Mind,” an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum on California’s influential ’70s conceptual art movement.

“So much of what we’re seeing in art finds its roots in that period — collectives, an emphasis on process and social interaction,” Ms. Lewallen said. “All these things are current today.”

Curated by Bampfa and the Orange County Museum of Art, the show is one of a handful of exhibits from Pacific Standard Time, the huge Los Angeles-based exhibit about California art, that has made its way to the Bay Area. More than 60 collectives and artists are featured, including Bruce Nauman, William Wegman and Ed Ruscha. It runs through June 17.

“State of Mind” was not intended to be a Bay Area-centric show, but almost half of the artists featured are local. Conceptual art — known more recently as “social practice” or “relational art” — has been one of the most salient art forms in the always-experimental Bay Area.

Conceptual art reached its heyday in the ’70s and is defined by its emphasis on ideas, not objects. Much of the performance-heavy work was meant to exist in the moment and often there was nothing to sell or touch. As such, the art presents unique curatorial challenges: much of “State of Mind” consists of documentation of live happenings.

“Once we got rid of the kind of demands that an artist behave and make work that shows a very special expertise, like painting or sculpture, then the whole thing is opened up and art can be information. It can be about anything,” said Michael Corris, an art professor at Southern Methodist University who is the author of “Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth and Practice.”

The movement was happening around the world, but the Bay Area was a unique incubator, where artists drew inspiration from the protest and free speech movements. ...