by Robert Atkins
The artist Richard Kamler, who died on November 1, a day before his 82nd birthday, was unusual: a conceptualist and social practice artist before the terms existed. He was trained as an architect and to say he was unconcerned about conventional disciplinary categories is to be guilty of understatement. His first museum installation, Out of Holocaust (1976), was as close to architecture as he would get again — it was a life-sized replica of a barracks at Auschwitz, produced for the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. After that his work eschewed history for more contemporary concerns expressed in more hybrid idioms. He assembled a nationwide network of artists, for instance, to create visualizations of the concept, Seeing Peace, on unused billboards across the US. But it was the violence, racism, and wasted human potential typifying US prisons that became his signature subject.
His prison-related works ranged broadly, from The Sound of Lions Roaring (1992)—for which he recorded the thundering roar of lions and blasted it from a boat on the bay near San Quentin the night the death penalty was reinstated — to theTable of Voices (1996-2013), a stunning installation that brought together the recorded conversations of murderers and their victims’ family members, which would eventually be shown on Alcatraz. As I write this, what looks to be an unappetizing TV dinner rests on a nearby table but is actually one of a series depicting the requested last suppers by convicts on Texas’s death row. Crafted of lead by Kamler, each comes complete with the perpetrator’s name and date of execution incised in the dull metal. (He culled this information from surprisingly comprehensive, official sources online.)
Kamler and I met more than 40 years ago. I was a grad student in art history at UC Berkeley and a conservator-in-training at the state lab at UC Davis while he was an art prof at Laney College. I needed remedial classes in chemistry and drawing and Richard was my art instructor. We went out for coffee one day and a four decades-long conversation ensued. Between 2010-14 our lengthy email discussions morphed into what we eventually called the Conversation Project. Talk about a process piece!
When I returned to the Bay Area a few years ago we produced what was intended to be the first of a series of performances based on the WPA-era Living Newspaper project and submitted a proposal for the New York AIDS memorial in Greenwich Village. The lengthy transcript of our email conversation documents his sometime impolite, always authentic voice, which both
complements and contextualizes his work. Out of Holocaust revealed to him the necessity of subverting the potentially distancing technical expertise of which he was capable in order to ensure that viewers ponder matters such as empathy and social engagement rather than craft.
Born before World War II, Kamler seemed the quintessential product of the post-war Beat and baby boomer generations—as evidenced by his pursuit of social justice, his eco-concerns and a streak of bad-boy, non-conformism that even led to a youthful, quixotic pursuit of a career as a lounge singer in Los Angeles. He was both mischievous and deadly serious, sometimes simultaneously, and was always ready to speak truth to power.
“When I am sitting in foundation meetings or civics groups or any place where I am the only artist,” he wrote. “I feel the need to immediately establish that we artists are essential to whatever the meeting might be about. To claim some turf, I guess. As if to say: ‘Pay attention. jeran artist and I understand complex issues. I have something to offer here.’ And I sometimes find myself being provocative. Or is it defensive? I still bristle when I hear ‘Well, it’s just art.’ Well, fuck you. You are wrong! It ain’t just art. It is an essential activity for our survival! And then, of course, I fit all the stereotypes of the crazy artist. “
Richard believed the artist had many responsibilities, not all of them overtly political: “Like everyone else’s the artist’s responsibility is to do no harm. To have fun and to make the world a better place. To imagine what’s impossible and what’s conceivable…For instance, Joseph Beuys’ proposal to raise the Berlin Wall 3 cm just to improve its proportions…. Art heals. And it reveals and it transforms. Which I guess is basis of my definition of art.”
There’s been an abundance of art discourse the past half century about narrowing the gap between art and life. But I never met any one whose life was as inextricably bound up with his art as Richard’s. His life nourished his art and vice versa. This could be problematic when one intruded on the other. He wrote this, for instance, about the toll his Table of Voices, took on his family life:
“Don’t you think all artists are obsessive? And some are narcissistic of course. After I’d completed the Table of Voices I had time to reflect on the emotional turmoil built into working with victim’s families and perpetrators and the chaos it caused at home with [my wife] Joya and [my son] Josh. I realized that none of it mattered, though. What I really wanted was TO DO THE PIECE. “ He continued in lower case: “I was also counseled not to do the piece by Assistant Sheriff Michael Marcum and by Sheriff Mike Hennessey. I would be opening up an enormous can of worms and would be worn down by the victim’s pain and anger and grief, they warned me. But I kept working on it, meeting the families over and over again and even becoming long term friends with some of them! When the piece was installed we began to have the ‘community conversations,’ the bringing together of the victim’s and perpetrator’s families, the mediators and sheriffs department, etc. We learned that bringing in a family member of the victim to tell her story–it was always a woman–could be transformative.”
Our emails caromed from art and politics, to Judaism and activism, to teaching (he was the founding chair of the University of San Francisco’s art department with his emphasis on a curriculum aptly titled “The Artist as Citizen.”) The peculiarities—at least to us– of the next generation were frequently discussed. Toward the end of his life, the role of grandfather was among his greatest pleasures. Personal experience was always his touchstone and he evoked his training with émigré, Jewish Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler far more frequently than any of the other experiences that shaped him. “Our relationship was more important than I can relate. It was that old master/apprentice model, which I still think is the best. As far as I’m concerned, tear down the art school walls!”
Kielsler emigrated to New York in the ‘30s after having collaborated with the de Stijl group and Duchamp on avant-garde projects that blurred the line between art and architecture. When Kiesler died in 1965 he’d just completed his best-known work, the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. It’s a literal container for the Dead Sea Scrolls and its name points to its highly symbolic nature as an emblem of the entirety of Jewish culture and history.
I asked Richard to describe Kiesler and he opened with a telling visual detail. “He was under 5 feet tall and when talking to anyone he would always make it a point to be seated. That way he wouldn’t be looking up at anybody…I got there because I’d written a soul-baring letter to Kiesler the year before I graduated from Berkeley. He invited me to come for the summer and see what his office was like. He had started a bio-design lab at Columbia, so the first project I worked on was a drawing tracking literally every movement I made for 24 hours.”
Kamler’s time in New York belongs to that storied moment when post-war art in America emerged onto the global stage: “Part of the summer we spent at Kiesler’s Long Island studio in Amagansett. We shuttled out with many of the remarkable artists of the day–Willem de Kooning, Saul Steinberg—who we sometimes worked with. Kiesler was highly respected and I saw no reason to go back to school at the end of the summer. But Kiesler persuaded me by assuring me I could return in the spring.”
“One thing I learned from Kiesler was his notion of ‘the space between.’ Just this morning, Joya and I were re-arranging the art in our house and my focus was on the space between the pieces. It’s a metaphor about the relationships — social, cultural, aesthetic, physical — that make up a totality. One of the reasons that I did not want to practice architecture is because it is too program-bound and prescribed. There are too many codes and requirements for what the ‘space between’ must be.”
After Kiesler died and Kamler had completed his first teaching stint in Bozeman, Montana, he and his first wife spent a year and a half in the village of San Blas in Nayarit, Mexico. He recounted in vivid detail his time there. “The first person I met,” he recalled, “was a dancer from the states who had married a local man named Luis. Luis ran a bar and in its center was a pit with a wall around it, about 2’ high. In the pit were his “pet” alligators who were constantly trying to crawl out! So you would be eating and you could sense their presence near your feet!….I loved San Blas. It was a small village of maybe 500 people then, surrounded by jungle and savannah. I made drawings, ephemeral things which I left in and around the village, and began to conceptualize a foundation, for the study and realization of eco art.”
It’s easy to imagine Richard drawing up plans for an as yet un-named genre of art rather than making drawings for a palm thatched hut of his own or a water treatment plant for the community. The drawing medium was the essence of Richard’s art, although he worked with every material from a Xeroxed and shredded Koran to molten lead, in both two- or three-
dimensional formats. Drawing was his way of thinking, a cliché that in this instance is true. If you knew him, you know that his favorite question, which could be addressed to anyone, was some variant of a query about the physical or imaginative worlds of appearance: What does peace look like? What does community look like? For him these were hardly rhetorical questions. It was the artist’s job, he believed, to answer them.
But there was a less literal side to this question, too. Richard may have employed the term looking but he really meant seeing, with its capacity for understanding transcending the sensory. Seeing and understanding were, for Richard, conjoined in a seamless marriage of two different kinds of intelligence. This coupling was acquired from both intellect and experience. The following, lengthy description of the way he worked offers unusual insight into this artist’s process. He describes one of his many encounters of the past 15 years with the horrific deaths of Mexican women in Juarez at the hands of the drug cartels. (This was a subject Richard also hoped to explore in an installation sited on the partly dry Colorado River bed that forms the border separating Juarez and El Paso.)
“Every morning I would go to the studio. I had a list of the names of 456 of the women murdered through September 2006 and I would read it to myself. Among the murdered was an 8 month old, who died of head wounds. When I got to it, I would say out loud, with an intention and focus, the name of the next woman on the list, her age, and her cause of death. Then I would write it down. Then I would say it again. And then the next one and the next one and the next one. When the page was filled, I would take my hand and brush down the sheet, blurring the names, but leaving them completely readable. I have 10 of these sheets. And then I made 10 drawings of TV sets called The Nightly News, Cuidad Juarez. And then I made drawings of clouds from appearing and disappearing names.”
“I chose this approach becauseI think it resonates the most. As you say, I’m trying to represent the blurring of memory. But what the fuck does it look like? Well, a name is one thing that ‘clearly’ identifies someone. It’s not the only thing, but the one I chose. And because I also know that the circumstances surrounding these acts are horrific and maybe not ‘easy’ to remember, I blur it a bit, but not entirely. Saying their name out loud is a form of honoring them. I’m focusing on what it sounds like as well as what it looks like.”
He continued: The Juarez work is about bearing witness and acting. It’s often said that to ‘bear witness’ is a Jewish thing, but it seems more human to me and probably rarer and rarer as practiced by anybody. ‘ Pay attention!’ It screams. Is bearing witness the beginning or end of the process? The point of the ‘community conversations’ in much of my work was to prod and produce some change, some action. It is the layering process. The social responsibility of the artist goes beyond the making to include bearing witness. The final layer is the act, which is the art for me. There’s nothing passive about that.”
“The teacher of my Buddhist meditation group suggests something different, though. He talks a lot about ‘noticing,’ but NOT re-acting. I never understood how to do that. What and where is the ‘I’ after one deconstructs everything that constitutes the personal. What is left?”
“Buddhists also talk about the notion of impermanence, expressed as ‘all things rise and all things pass away.’ For me, I guess it’s best to act with as much heart and concern as I have or can muster. After all, even the pyramids, will rise and then pass away…Or I will first.”
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Richard Kamler’s drawings and other two-dimensional works are currently on view in the Bay Area in “ROAR,” a solo show @ Far Out Gallery (FOG) through April 22, and in the group exhibitions “Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists” @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) through July 29 and in “Way Bay” @ Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) through June 3, 2018.
About the author:
Robert Atkins is presently at work on a volume of his collected writings, The Eternal Frame: Sex and Politics in Recent American Art, and is co-directing with Betti-Sue Hertz, On Susan Sontag: Media, Modernity & Morality, a city-wide project slated for fall 2019 sponsored by the San Francisco Art Institute.