On ViewJan Shrem And Maria Manetti Shrem Museum Of Art, Uc Davis
Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and the End
January 26 – May 10, 2020
“What can I say, I’m kind of a secretive person,” joked the artist Stephen Kaltenbach to curators Constance Lewallen and Ted Mann at the opening of his show for the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis. Only three years old, the museum itself is a welcome addition to a campus that boasts former students and faculty as crucial to the unfolding history of American contemporary art as Bruce Nauman, Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud, and Kaltenbach himself. In conjunction with the show, Kaltenbach has made a triumphant return to his alma mater to teach a course on conceptual art, a topic in which he is clearly well versed.
This exhibition is not quite a retrospective, as Kaltenbach’s career has not quite taken a conventional path. Rather, as the show’s name insists, Lewallen and Mann have selected works from the beginning of Kaltenbach’s career and from its alleged end—a nod perhaps to the conclusion, with this exhibition, of the artist’s self-imposed exile from the art world at large. After spending only three prolific years in New York City in the late 1960s, Kaltenbach returned to the Sacramento area, where he has since resided.
One through-line that unites the otherwise disparate periods of working and theorizing that make up this show is the penchant for secrecy and concealment that Kaltenbach humorously acknowledged at the opening. In his brief term on the east coast, however, the artist made a name for himself by attempting to do precisely the opposite: he flirted with publicity. In 1969, Kaltenbach took out space for an advertisement in each monthly issue of Artforum. Alongside busy commercial ad copy promoting retail and museum visits, Kaltenbach anonymously published straightforward words and imperatives—a device that would be popularized by John Carpenter’s They Live nearly 20 years later. A student of Minimalism, he left ample white space that allowed his simple texts to seep through the publication’s visual noise. He called upon an art-inclined yet nonetheless unsuspecting readership to, amongst other things, Start a rumor (March), Perpetrate a hoax (April), and Teach art (September), before closing out the year with arguably the most magnetic statement: You are me (December). These interpellations appear simultaneously as invitations to the audience and dictums of their mysterious speaker.
Another early work featured in the Davis show is a series of sidewalk plaques that similarly display deceptively simple statements such as Earth (1969/2010)—fitting for the ground upon which it is installed—or the more ambiguous Art Works (1968/2019), Fire (1969/2019), and Air (1969/2010). The ideal setting for these pieces is not a gallery nor the glass cases in which they currently reside, but rather a paved walkway where few would presume that these are indeed pieces of art. Countless pedestrians could tread by without even noticing the etchings underfoot, but a wandering eye might nonetheless suddenly settle on them and become captivated.
Kaltenbach faded to white, as if ending a film on a note of questionable finality, when he sent Lucy Lippard a blank note card that served as his farewell announcement to an arts community into which he had only recently been welcomed. Returning to the other side of the continent, Kaltenbach became a regional artist of note in Northern California. He emerged as a painter of large scale works with psychedelic overtones and a creator of public sculptures commissioned by the city of Sacramento. Amongst these later works is the impressive Portrait of My Father (1972–79), which was painted over the course of seven years. Here Kaltenbach overlays a faintly colorful arabesque on the soft features of his then-recently deceased father’s face. Across the room is a 1995 painting that boldly proclaims “EVERYTHING IS FINALLY ANONYMOUS,” a straightforward, utopian assertion that conveys what is simultaneously the artist’s deepest and most superficial desire. To have his name nonetheless so prominently associated with this high-profile show, however, seems a knowing contradiction that gets to the core of Kaltenbach’s witty, earnest, and above all, playful relationship to art.
That Kaltenbach has always been obscuring something from our sightline (including himself) is perhaps best evidenced by a series of time capsules he sent to various people and institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and art historian Barbara Rose—none have been opened. Regardless of whether these sleek, curved brass and stainless steel containers are empty or filled with treasures, Kaltenbach’s extensive career and work have consistently exposed the significance of the act of concealment itself.