by David M. Roth
In 1967, two years after graduating from UC Davis, Stephen Kaltenbach moved to New York and found himself thrust into the white-hot center of the then-emerging conceptual art scene. His rise was meteoric, even magically fated, you might say – from finding a loft on Greene Street upon exiting a cab in Soho to landing a teaching job at the School of Visual Arts to befriending a good many of the era’s most influential figures.
Over the next three years, his work appeared in every historically important exhibition of conceptual art: 9 at Castelli (1968), which included Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse and Richard Serra; Harald Szeemann’s Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form at the Bern Kunsthalle (1969); 955,000 organized by Lucy Lippard for the Seattle Art Museum (1969); and Information at the Museum of Modern Art (1970). The Whitney Museum of American Art awarded him a solo show 1969 at which he displayed Room Cube (1967), a room-within-a-room that could be sensed but not fully seen, one of several perceptual puzzles involving architecture the artist would devise over a 50-year career.
In 1970, without explanation, he abruptly left New York for Sacramento, where, for the next 35 years, he taught sculpture at Sac State. Working out of studios in Davis and Sacramento, he produced public art and created conceptual works much like those he made in New York, as well other things that you couldn’t have imagined had you known Kaltenbach in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This self-willed transformation, from emerging art star to semi-obscure (but highly revered) “regional artist,” has long ranked among the artworld’s most intriguing mysteries. In 2010, Kaltenbach pulled back the curtain. He claimed his disappearance was the final installment of a multi-decade “Elephant Project” designed to give him room to develop and lay the groundwork for his eventual reemergence as a kingpin of the international avant-garde. However much the story strains credibility, it’s consistent with the persona he invented in which hoaxes, deceits, dodges, feints, poses and concealments of various kinds have long been his stock-in-trade. Gathered together and displayed chronologically, they form a beguiling and often contradictory portrait: Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and the End. Organized by Constance Lewallen, adjunct curator of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and independent curator Ted Mann, this meticulously researched and beautifully presented exhibition gathers representative samples from the essential phases of Kaltenbach’s career. They range from the minimalist ceramic sculptures and architectural blueprints he made as a student, to the Time Capsules that are the show’s centerpiece, to his infamous series of Artforum ads, to documents detailing ephemeral and unrealized efforts, to large-scale paintings and works on paper that point to the artist’s life-long obsession with mortality.
From the start, Kaltenbach adopted a contrarian stance. You see it near the beginning of the exhibition in the ceramic sculptures he made while studying under Robert Arenson at UCD. In these, it’s apparent that Kaltenbach was taking his cues from East Coast Minimalism, not from the various strains of Funk that were then emerging locally. Two of the objects, one a black wedge, the other consisting of four horizontally aligned girders, look as if they could have been fabricated by Donald Judd. But there’s a twist: instead of emptying these objects of all possible meaning, as minimalists were wont to do, Kaltenbach cut diagonal slits into Wedge (1965), exposing a yellow mass inside whose identity is impossible to pin down. That piece, Lewallen asserts in a catalog essay, marked the beginning of a long history of purposeful obfuscation. Personal Appearance Manipulation (1970), a photographic self-portrait stationed nearby at the entrance to the gallery, amplifies that point. Instead of revealing the artist’s eyes, what we see in this blunt, close-cropped picture, are reflections of a street scene, achieved with mirrored contact lenses. Variations on this bait-and-switch strategy in which things are transformed into their opposites (or negated entirely) would continue for the next half-century and brand Kaltenbach a formidable trickster and thinker. Backgrounding this activity were the drug-fueled social, political, sexual, musical and artistic revolutions then sweeping the country – all of which encouraged artists to overturn the formalist strictures that ruled art in the years after WWII. The two main thrusts of this period — separating art from commerce and artistic thinking from object making — resulted in art that left viewers with little to see. Exhibitions often consisted of books filled with texts, diagrams for imaginary actions, cryptic phrases or instructions for activating ideas. Kaltenbach, for his part, employed what he called “the protocol of opposites,” the credo by which he questioned radical tenets already in place. For example, in response to Conceptualism’s call for the “dematerialization” of art objects, Kaltenbach asked why stop there? Why not erase evidence of authorship entirely?
One strategy he employed was to embed into sidewalks bronze plaques carrying single words (e.g., “EARTH,” “AIR,” “FIRE,” “WATER”). The idea was to insert into urban spaces, pieces artworks that would be eroded over time by passersby who had no idea they were walking over art objects. Nine are on view in the show; another is set in concrete outside the museum; two others are stationed outside Mondavi Center, a nearby concert hall. Kaltenbach also engaged in plenty of guerilla actions, another hallmark of conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s. He stenciled cryptic phrases (“Nothing is Revealed” and “Expose Yourself”) onto bathroom walls and rubber-stamped imprints of his lips onto Fruit of the Loom ads in subways. Another provocation, the one Lewallen says “catapulted Kaltenbach to international fame,” was the series of “mini-manifestos” that he disseminated as blind ads in Artforum over the course of one year, 1969. Each consisted of phrases or single words (“Tell a lie,” “Start a rumor,” Perpetrate a hoax,” “Build a reputation,” “Become a legend,” “Teach Art,” “Smoke,” “Trip”) designed to grab the attention of specific audiences: curators, artists, critics, collectors. Initially, Kaltenbach kept his identity secret, but it was later revealed by a staffer, exposing the artist’s naked ambition, his equally strong ambivalence about that ambition and a desire to transmit ideas through unconventional means, in this case, an anonymous campaign of self-promotion/institutional criticism that ran alongside ads for gallery exhibitions and MFA programs.
More interesting from a boundary-pushing standpoint are the schemes Kaltenbach devised but never enacted. For Visualization Hoax (1968), the artist sent letters to 80 artists, asking them to submit ideas for a book that would, he wrote, “stimulate visualization in the mind of the reader.” In truth, co-curator Ted Mann explains in a catalog essay devoted to this aspect of the artist’s production, “Kaltenbach had no intention of publishing a book; nor was he especially interested in the responses…Rather, his letter was a vehicle for transmitting his own ideas to fellow artists – a means, in his words, of ‘making an idea go around the world.’” The letter, alongside others of similar ilk and intention, is one of several displayed in a vitrine. My favorite, and the one that best illustrates these tendencies, involves Kaltenbach’s response to Lucy Lippard’s invitation to participate in 955,000 at the Seattle Art Museum in 1969. For this, he submitted a blank card without attribution. It contains only Lippard’s typewritten text: “No information available.” There were, of course, other artists who pushed the ontological envelope further.
Roger White, in a chapter devoted to Kaltenbach in his book The Contemporaries, details the activities of several, among them Robert Barry, who conducted experiments involving ESP and telepathy, which were not, when you consider what was happening at the time, all that far-fetched. Artists seemed to be arriving at a lot of the same conclusions simultaneously, either through direct contact or chance. Kaltenbach’s experiments with drapery, seen here in a swatch of purple fabric (Modern Drapery, 1968-2020), which is reconfigured periodically by students, for example, echoed those being conducted by Robert Morris. And the mirrored contact lenses Kaltenbach wore in Personal Appearance Manipulation? That wasn’t a singular act, either; Vito Acconci is said to have done the exact same thing at about the same time – unbeknownst to Kaltenbach. As for street actions, you could find them being widely performed, both in New York and on the West Coast. Lewallen, in her catalog essay, cites many such instances, including a “semi-organized, rather loose series of Street Works…that involved anywhere from 20 to several hundred artists, performers and poets doing anything from handing out poetry to looking up at buildings to see if others followed suit to staring at people coming toward them, to placing artworks in the street to see the reactions of passersby.”
At some point, however, Kaltenbach sensed the limitation of these ephemeral strategies and began using objects to communicate his ideas. By far, the most fascinating (and enduring) of these efforts are the Time Capsules (1970-present). Made of various metals and plastics and fashioned into sealed cylinders, disks, canisters and boxes, their content remains a mystery. It could be studio detritus, the artist’s toenail
clippings, enriched uranium or nothing at all. Kaltenbach has never said, and it’s safe to assume no curator or collector will ever wield a blowtorch to find out – even though several capsules carry instructions to open at specified dates, some already passed, others far in the future.
At a glance, the Capsules appear to be exercises in Minimalism, but their epitaph-like inscriptions reveal them to be something else entirely. Revolving around issues of value (Worthless; Priceless), fame (Open Before My Retrospective at the Tate in London; Open Before my Retrospective at MOMA in New York) and mortality (Open After My Death) they are, by far, Kaltenbach’s most potent creations. Three of them, set side-by-side on a waist-high plinth in the final gallery, establish death as the exhibition’s overarching theme. They’re flanked on one wall by three monumentally scaled paintings, and by six smaller works on an opposing wall that approach the subject from different angles. Portrait of My Father (1972-79), believed by some to be among the most significant paintings of the 20th century, is an exercise in psychedelic photorealism. It shows, at close range, a dying man’s face overlaid with prismatically colored 10th-century Islamic patterns that conjure a luminescent vision of what limbo might look like. I’ve viewed this painting many times at the Crocker Art Museum where hangs on permanent display, and each time I am riveted by one particular feature: the beard; it swirls around the bottom of the canvas, looking as if had been etched in light. Kaltenbach, whose father died in 1974, spent seven years making the portrait, and after completing it, he suffered a breakdown for which he was hospitalized. Look closely at how the multi-layered details coalesce and you’ll begin to understand, at least in terms of labor expended, exactly why.
Of the other works in this section that explore death, two stand out. One, Heartbeat (2001), is a computer monitor that displays the amount of time the artist will live if he survives as long as his mother. The live countdown, denominated in seconds, made me shiver. By that measure, Kaltenbach, 80, has slightly less than four years left – 3.78 to be exact — based on the number shown when I visited. The other piece, Coffin Cam (2001), made me laugh. It’s a drawing of the artist in a coffin illuminated by a bare bulb. Text at the bottom reads: “Instructional video to be sent to the internet. Light and camera to be accessible so that they may be served and kept running in perpetuity.”
Between this and the time capsule (Open After My Death) that opens the show, no one can say that Kaltenbach only recently adopted the long view – he began contemplating his legacy long before he had one. And while Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and the End doesn’t provide the retrospective view many have long hoped for, it’s the fullest measure of the man yet to be taken in the US, and its appearance here, if nothing else, shows the artist’s life and career spinning full circle, ending precisely where it began: in Davis with meditations on how it all might end.
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“Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and the End” @ Jan and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art through May 10, 2020.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.