by Renny Pritikin
Jim Melchert, one of the Bay Area art community’s central figures for more than half a century, died on June 1st, of heart failure following a stroke in April. He was 93. He was a beloved educator and mentor to several generations of artists, a role model for a life in service to the field, and an artist never satisfied with settling for the conventional path.
Melchert’s long life included three distinct phases. After many years of teaching, mostly at UC Berkeley, he retired as chair of the art department there in 1992. He took two four-year leaves from that post between 1977 and 1988 to lead the Visual Art Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and then the American Academy in Rome. Following retirement, he entered into a productive period in which he threw himself into a remarkable new body of work that brought renewed critical attention. He continued working up to the time of his stroke last month.
Melchert was born in 1930 in Ohio. He graduated from Princeton in 1952, then taught in Japan for four years, where he met and married his wife, Mary Ann (Hostetler). He received an MFA at the University of Chicago in 1957, but feeling unsatisfied with painting, relocated to UC Berkeley to study with sculptor Peter Voulkos. Voulkos’ project was to bring the muscular aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism to bear in ceramics, and working with him gave Melchert the confidence to explore other possibilities in clay. After receiving a second master’s from Cal in 1961, Melchert became a leader of the movement among ceramicists who rejected functionality and decoration. Melchert and such figures as Viola Frey, Robert Arneson and Ken Price succeeded in having ceramic sculpture become an acknowledged part of contemporary art. Melchert was especially successful at embracing conceptual practices and performance, both in ceramics and his other work. Infamously, when invited to an international ceramics conference, he asked the participants in his panel to dip their heads into buckets of wet slip—liquid clay—and let it dry. He titled the event Changes, Amsterdam (1972).
Among his most admired conceptual works were rubbings he made of postcards and envelopes, leaving the viewer poignant hints as to their otherwise hidden content via the titles he assigned. Melchert also made several slide show works that played with perception over time, and a slow-motion film of a nude young couple having a water fight that managed to be at once a study of bodies in motion a la Muybridge, and a Keystone Kops-like homage to slapstick. His work is in the collections of SFMOMA, the Oakland Museum of California, the LA County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Among his students were such standout figures as Carlos Villa, Jim Pomeroy, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and dozens of others. The premature deaths of Pomeroy and Cha cast a shadow over his teaching career that stayed with him for many years. At the NEA Melchert prioritized support to the newly emerging field of artist-run organizations, like the Bay Area’s New Langton Arts and Southern Exposure. He also had conflicts with his colleagues in the traditional crafts community who mistrusted his experimental interests. In Rome, Melchert brought new life to the program, widening the interdisciplinary scope of the residency program, and using his enormous network to diversify and update the artists invited to visit.
In retirement Melchert became a prolific sculptor. He made large wall-hung pieces utilizing commercially purchased large ceramic tiles—which once again tweaked the noses of traditionalists for whom commercial tile was anathema. He studied the ways that these tiles cracked when dropped from short heights. He then used chance rules, responding to the cracks, to apply colored glazes systematically. The result was a kind of visual jazz (Melchert was an adept pianist) that swooped across the plane of these often yards-wide objects. He succeeded in combining Cagean aesthetics with expressionistic élan, and Japanese grace with a trained painter’s eye.
Melchert was admired for his undiminished passion for ideas and aesthetic innovation and his curiosity about the world. He was a gifted storyteller with a loud, infectious laugh. He loved to swap anecdotes with friends around the dinner table. Shortly after Melchert’s death, his dealer, Griff Williams (Gallery 16), posted a heartfelt statement, saying “Jim’s life was a light for me, brightening a path that showed me how one could live a life in the arts, both as an artist and one who used their agency to assist others along the way.“
Melchert is survived by three children, Christoph (Oxford), David (Oakland) and Renee (Indonesia), five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2005. In a Facebook post, Renee wrote Melchert’s final days were peaceful, but that he regretted he “still had so much to learn.”
To learn about Melchert’s life and art, read the extensive interview I did with him for the Archives of American Art.
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About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. His memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists, will be published this fall.