Navigating Boulder: Connecting with Roland Reiss
Imprint and Influence; Roland Reiss and Boulder
By Chris Michno
Artists make themselves – within fields of ideas, in a context of peers, out of the energy of shared enterprise, from ideas gained within a collective intelligence. The subtext of Navigating Boulder is formed in the unseen tendrils of influence, not in the sense of artistic or aesthetic lineage, but in the sense of how artistic practice is informed. It is reflective of the kinds of subjects that the writer Howard Singerman asserts occupy the construction of artists within the university setting – and which, it can be argued, have become a model outside of the university as well: that the artist is an object of her own creation. She is a performative presence at the center of her own practice.1 Navigating Boulder proposes to observe a group of artists who are connected from a common point in history, a point which is now removed and distanced by time and proximity. At the center of this flux is Roland Reiss, who as the head of the graduate art program at the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, fostered an environment of plurality, seriousness, critical inquiry, and aesthetic expansiveness.
Reiss was exploring what contemporary artists will recognize as the template for graduate art education across the country: a vibrant visiting artist and critic program, students treated as professionals capable of shaping their own formation, and a non-hierarchic, democratic approach. Although Reiss has always been an object maker, the core of his practice has been focused as an intellectual enterprise. 2 That critical core has been evident to artists who have encountered Reiss throughout his career.
While this template for graduate art education was coalescing at a number of schools across the country over roughly the same period, and the visiting artist program was well in place at CU before Reiss began teaching there (Mark Rothko was a visiting artist at CU in 1955, two years before Reiss was hired),3 Reiss represented an exciting vitality and an orientation to emerging ideas that made him distinctive at CU.4 That radical stance was reflected in Reiss' studio practice as much as in his pedagogy. 5
William T. Wiley, one of the central figures in the Funk art movement centered in the San Francisco Bay area, spent the summer of 1967 in Boulder as a visiting artist at CU. The legendary status of the Slant Step Show of 1966, which helped define the Funk art movement, was a murmur on people's lips. Of the objects in Navigating Boulder, one in particular points to the imprint of Wiley: Jack T. Edwards' cast resin Polyester Slant Step, which appeared in the summer of 1967 in a riotous public event that took on aspects of a happening.
Edwards first heard about the Slant Step Show a few months before Wiley was set to arrive in Boulder. Edwards and a handful of other CU graduate students were having coffee with Reiss, and the conversation turned to Wiley and the story behind the Slant Step Show. So the story goes, Wiley found a perplexing object in a salvage shop. It was an odd approximation of a step stool with some strange modifications. Sloping where it should be flat, curved where it should be square, and covered with funky green linoleum; the 'slant step' seemed to present a fundamental contradiction: it appeared to be an entirely useless object of dubious aesthetic value. Wiley returned alone to the shop a number of times, to examine the slant step. He also returned later with his student, Bruce Nauman, who asked Wiley to buy it for him. Wiley ultimately purchased it and presented it to Nauman as a gift. Over the next year, Wiley finished a number of pieces based on the 'slant step,' and the Slant Step Show came together in 1966.
Reiss added a wrinkle to the story. He produced a detailed drawing of the slant step on a napkin, and said he had seen the original artifact in the back of Richard Serra's car. On his way to New York, Serra stopped in Boulder to visit Reiss. He had been living in the Bay area and had seen the Slant Step Show. While they talked, he mentioned that he had stolen the slant step. Some days after the opening reception, Serra called the gallery posing as a writer. He gained access and snuck off with the step. Reiss asked, "Where is it now," and Serra took him outside to show him the ugly green whatever-it-is. Reiss' story caught the imagination of the graduate students, and they began preparing for Wiley's arrival with a frenzy of slant step fabrication.
Son of Slant Step happened in Boulder in the summer of 1967. It was an extensive show; a sprawl of slant steps in varying sizes, shapes, and media – drawing, painting, poetry, song, twigs, paper, clay, marshmallows, plywood, steel, bronze, wax, chewing gum, plastic – spilled through downtown Boulder and across the Courthouse lawn, where Edwards built the super-sized Twenty Foot Slant Step.6
That summer, Wiley challenged student expectations. Tom Jenkins, who was in graduate school at the time, recalls, "Wiley starts with, 'ask me anything you like,' then he turns on a phonograph. I saw it as permission – 'you can do whatever you like'." 7 Jenkins adapted that sense of permission, and the sense of playfulness he found in Wiley's practice. 8 Reiss' example added the encouragement to explore multiple sets of interests over the course of his career. Jenkins' current body of painting integrates his long-term investigations: the kinetics of the human body, performance, his performance-based invented sound devices (modeled on the instruments of Appalachia), and his manufactured metal tops which reflect his sense of play.
Wiley also confounded Reiss' expectations. The performance of Wiley's Parachutes, Dumbbells, and Meat: a Space Opera in Boulder leveled any sense of hierarchy, and reinforced the permission that Wiley exuded. It confirmed Reiss' commitment to democratic practice in his educational approach. It was a moment which Reiss found pivotal as did the other artists involved in the project. Wiley refused to direct when everyone expected the opposite. In the vacuum, the ten artists working on the performance, graduate students and faculty on equal footing, stepped forward with ideas, each building on another. Each artist realized something unique – how to take advantage of particular design peculiarity. 9
A rigorous conceptualized approach characterizes the practices of the artists in Navigating Boulder. From varying vantage points, Merion Estes, Connie Jenkins, and Joan Moment address similar concerns centering on the natural world and ecology. Connie Jenkins' practice of photo-realism lends a sense of hard-edged criticality and documentary to her landscapes. Her current body of work originates from an ongoing survey of coastal biodiversity in the Channel Islands. While Merion Estes shares similar ecological concerns, she skates on a razor's edge between non-objective painting and realism, suggesting the possibilities of metaphors against the starkness and the jarring reality of species extinction. As Jenkins drills into the specifics of micro environments, Estes explores the interplay between specificity and abstraction in her lusciously vibrant lyrical vocabulary. Moment approaches her interest in cellular forms and cosmic proportions from a more abstract vantage point, allowing process to direct the outcome, which in an extended metaphor, relates to her galactic expanses and allusions to stellar formations. Clark Richert's interest in cosmology, mathematics, the theories of Buckminster Fuller, and visual structure inform his austere canvases and animated projections.
Social commentary occupies the work of Joe Clower, Judith Hudson, and Jim Richard. The multiple layers of Judith Hudson's pithy and sardonic Sex Advice drawings send up contemporary preoccupations and incorporate clever art world references. It is a world where philosophical musings in painting come off as so much self abuse. Jim Richard's dry, ironic paintings also explore contemporary culture. These claustrophobic interiors bereft of people were described by Ken Johnson in the New York Times, in a paraphrase of Alan Watts' famous dictum, as depictions of "the places where art goes to die," and Joe Clower's painting reflects his interest in weird subcultures, underground commix, and the need to undermine the distinctions between high and low culture.
Ultimately, the artists at CU influenced each other, which is the end game for a nonhierarchical system –influence flows in many directions. In Boulder, artists arrived at a sense of theory through a series of experiments, in which artists engaged in an oscillation between individual studio practice and participation in collaborative projects. Collaboration removed individuals from their particular practices to focus on a new 'problem' requiring flexibility and introducing new media. Navigating Boulder represents an eclectic smattering of individuals, out of the many who studied at CU during the Reiss years. It is group of distinctive individuals who, as Joe Clower said, couldn't help but be influenced by each other. The question of influence is resolved not in terms of appearance but with respect to imprint. And Reiss' commitment to possessing an exhaustive knowledge of the art world, and his generosity about sharing that knowledge – an orientation which benefitted his students as it benefitted him – is a practice which has been a hallmark of his career.
Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 4.Interview with Christopher Miles, critic/writer/artist, Art Department Chair, California State University Long Beach, July 15, 2010.Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 127.Interviews with Connie Jenkins, Tom Jenkins, Joan Moment, Clark Richert, Joan Moment.Peter Frank, Roland Reiss Rocky Mountain Finish Fetish, (Andi Campognone Projects, 2010).
Information about the Slant Step Show, Son of Slant Step, and the slant step artifact comes for a variety of sources which include interviews with Jack T. Edwards and Roland Reiss, an email from Jack T. Edwards, and the following publications: Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 127, and Phil Weidman, Slant Step Book (Sacramento: The Art Co., 1969). Thomas Albright