Interview: Carl Worth: Birth of an Art Center, May 19, 2007
by Richard Whittaker, Sep 28, 2007
In 2007 the Berkeley Art Center celebrated its 40th year. Amazingly, soon after it opened its doors in 1967, the place became one of the most exciting and popular art venues in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the keynote of that evening's program, founding director, Carl Worth, talked with me about those years of creative energy and high spirits. - Richard Whittaker.
Director Jill Jimenez: Hello, everyone. This is one the events I was most looking forward to here at our 40th Anniversary Celebration. Richard Whittaker has been doing our Berkeley Treasures Interview Series for about two years. It’s a wonderful series because it puts us in touch with some of the people we hear about, but don’t ever have access to. When we were talking about this celebration we thought, “Let’s look back at our history.” So it seemed logical to invite Carl Worth, who is the founding director of the art center here. He was here at a very significant time, and the center was thriving. I for one, as the new director, am going to be taking notes here today. So, Richard and Carl…
Richard Whittaker: Thank you, Jill. It’s been a pleasure making Carl’s acquaintance in preparation for this conversation. We’re going to ask Carl to reminisce a bit and give us a picture of the founding of the Berkeley Art Center and those early years, which were so rich and exciting. But first, Carl, would you tell us something about that young man who got the job in 1967 through the forces of fate?
Carl Worth: They were forces of fate. I was 32 years old. I'd been in the Bay Area for quite a while, but first I’ll give a little background. I was born in the Bronx in New York. My parents came from Eastern Europe and never went past high school. My father was a Sunday painter, a plein aire painter. We used to go out into the nearby park and I would watch him paint.
I was someone who had to learn things through my own personal observations. I began to go down to the Metropolitan Museum when I was seventeen or eighteen, wander around in the galleries and look at the artwork. Certain things were compelling and I was drawn to them - for instance, Van Gogh’s paintings. One day I discovered a beautiful sculpture installation right above the main lobby and saw Rodin’s work for the first time. It was so dynamic and powerful. About the third time back at that mezzanine gallery another artist’s work caught my eye. I was confronted by Malliol’s work. I’d seen photos of his work and had thought of it as academic and stale. But suddenly I began to see a powerful new sense of form in restraint and order. I saw that everything didn’t have to convey movement and realized that I didn’t have to make a choice between one or the other.
These were two different aspects of art sensibility. Both were tremendously exciting. That’s how I began to become a curator. Once you begin to see the multiplicity of impulse and the possibilities of human creation, then I think you’re on your way to becoming somebody who wants to explore the art world, make contact with artists and maybe begin to put together exhibitions to share with others.
I had the good fortune of going to UC Berkeley and getting a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in 1960 and 1961. While there, I studied with Herschel Chip who was a remarkable teacher. Herschel was an art historian who was aware of the roots of contemporary art as well as African and Oceanic ritual art. He just opened up so much to us. As a practicing painter at UC Berkeley, I had the wonderful good fortune of studying with David Park during the last semester David taught before his death in 1960.
David came into the classroom and said, “I’m going to teach you to paint like David Park. If you feel your individuality is threatened, then I think your individuality is insecure.” Here was this man who had rebelled against the established art at UC, Abstract Expressionism. He had broken away to become a figurative artist.
It was a great experience. I had the opportunity to observe a mature artist’s way of seeing the world, an artist who had struggled to develop a consistent style and point of view, and to see the world through his own eyes. That was something that I never forgot.
I went back to New York City and had the good fortune, for two years, to serve as the assistant to the curator of decorative arts at the Cooper Union Museum of Decorative Arts. Here I was, an Abstract Expressionist painter, and I was working with delicate porcelains, embroideries and glass. It was all very alien to me. How to handle and exhibit these things?
Hedy Baklin, the curator, was a remarkable arts professional with an incredibly clear sense of gallery operation. She taught me a great deal about display, lighting and layout. I had an apprenticeship at the Cooper Union Museum before returning to Berkeley.
RW: So your perspective had expanded, having studied with David Park right in the era of Abstract Expressionism, and then going back to Cooper Union and working with these decorative objects. And I know it’s an interesting story how you actually got this position at the Berkeley Art Center. Why don’t you tell us about that?
CW: In 1967 I was living on McGee Avenue in Berkeley in an attic, and doing terrible paintings. A friend of mine came by one day— she’d been at city hall—and said, there’s a job listed there and I think you qualify. They were looking for a community arts director for a city run gallery program.
Here I was living hand to mouth and they were offering over twenty thousand dollars, a king’s ransom in those days. I had the background, so we found my old suit folded away somewhere and a white shirt so I could look pretty straight for the interview.
Well, the day before the interview was the day of the Human Be-In in San Francisco. It was an important cultural event, all the hippie people in the Bay Area coming together to celebrate. There was Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg and all these exciting people. So there we were listening to mantras and people talking about dropping out, but there was a self-consciousness about it. We were just standing there and hearing words.
The sixties was a time of getting involved and experiencing things, and words didn’t really connect. Well, suddenly someone shouted, “Hey, look!” We looked up and there was a guy parachuting down into the crowd and everyone started running towards him. It was a happening, an event, and the party just broke loose. It was contagious. The immediate spirit of the thing just infused everybody.
So, when I went to the interview the next day, I was trying not to appear unconventional and to answer questions as carefully as possible. And somehow, spontaneously, I began to share my experience at the Be-In.
I said that I wanted to try to create an exhibition program that had some of the galvanizing, dynamic quality of the parachuting event that brought people together. I said I felt that art was a way of doing that and I thought Berkeley was the right place to create that kind of ambiance.
The next thing I know I was asked to come in to be interviewed by the program director. And suddenly Gene Salwachter, the Recreation and Parks Director—was offering me the job. He was taking a big chance. So I guess I didn’t appear crazy enough to scare him away, but I seemed weird enough to attract him. So in February of 1967, I became the Community Arts Director of the City of Berkeley for an art center that was to open in May of that year.
RW: The Be-In was really something. [to audience] I wonder if any of you were there at the Human Be-in in Golden Gate Park? I happened to be there myself. How many thousands were there, Carl?
CW: It was huge. It was very rich. It had that Bay Area diversity to it that has such a wonderful quality.
RW: So all of the sudden you’ve been handed this job and this big task: create an art center. Tell us about some of the early questions you faced. I take it that this building existed…?
CW: They were in the act of building it. I had very few decisions about that. My big decision was should the closet in the hallway be entered from my office or not. The gallery was burlap. The big aesthetic in architecture at that time was focused on natural materials. This wheat-colored burlap absorbed all of the light, so it was a murky, dark place. It wasn’t until the Tom Akawie retrospective, about five years later, that we finally painted the walls. We painted them a neutral gray and we called the color Akawie gray. But I had virtually no say over this design of this space.
The first problem I had was with the name. From my point of view, becoming the director of a facility called the Rotary Art and Garden Center was a curse. There’s a tradition in the Bay Area of being irreverent to the establishment. Artists in this area are independent people and are suspicious of the establishment. The idea of a Rotary Art and Garden Center was just an impossible name. Now when I came in here earlier today, there happened to be a gentleman who was the head of Rotary in the 60s, and he described the situation as he’d seen it then. He told me that “Some clever designer took out the second and forth words”—Well, that was me. [laughter] To their credit, the Rotarians took the thing in good spirit.
RW: That’s a great story. I’m sure many of you here know something about the art world of 1967, but others may not. Could sketch a little of that out for us, the art scene you’ve made reference to? Give us a little background.
CW: In my notes here I’ve put down “unique regional pluralism.” That sums it up wonderfully. The Bay Area has this sense of being a unique blend of people who have their own sense of identity, their own need to experiment and the need not to have things imposed upon them. One of the strange blessings for artists in the area was that there wasn’t a really good gallery system. So it was hard to support yourself selling and artists learned not to make commodities in this area. Art was not something that was made to please others. To survive, artists became teachers or bohemians. One could live as frugally as possible. The community lent itself to that kind of thing. We have a tradition of social rebelliousness and experimentation that goes back to the cultural roots of the Bay Area.
Abstract Expressionism, when it first came into the region in 1945 or so, was a new powerful force. Clyfford Still had come to the Art Institute in San Francisco bringing a new mystique about the artist and the artist’s place in the world. Initially it was a positive thing, but the problem was that it hung on too long at the University of California, which became kind of an Academy where it was taught as the only alternative all the way into the fifties.
But there were other artistic directions happening in the Bay Area at that time. There was the Beat Generation with its skeptical, heavy attitude toward the world. People, such as Bruce Connor and Jess used materials that were unstable and not made to last. They created work that wasn’t made to sell, but dealt with a particular alienation. That same spirit that existed in the beat generation moved into Funk Art ten years later. Peter Selz, who’s with us here today, in 1967 at the Berkeley Art Museum developed the Funk Art Show, a presentation of that sensibility, which had grown out of the beat thing.
So you have this continuity, this sense of adventure, this sense of the artist being outside of the society as a regional tradition.
What happened in 1967 when we started the Art Center was a culmination of this historical process. I’d like to read a very short paragraph from Thomas Albright’s book Art in the San Francisco Bay Area that summarizes what I walked into with the Art Center:
“By 1967 a rich outpouring of creative directions had emerged from early local sources. Artists were exploring both high-tech and recycled materials. Traditional crafts were being recast into new art forms. Images and symbols of the human body, personal fantasies and mythologies, racial or gender identities, conceptual or visionary art installations and happenings abounded in the Bay Area. Such diverse styles as formal abstraction, pop art and photo realism co-existed."
So it was a wild time. In 1967 we walked into a plethora of creativity and diversity. It was a wonderful time to found an art center.
RW: That’s a great summary. Of course, San Francisco was such an intense hub of energy—even worldwide at that time— a center of change and energy and excitement coinciding exactly with the founding the Berkeley Art Center. So okay, now you’ve got the job and there are a few practical issues to deal with in front of you. Tell us a little about that.
CW: Yes—which I was totally unprepared for! First of all, I was blessed with a great staff. The first person I choose as an installer was Kelly Hart. Kelly was an archetypal hippie with a wonderful sense of craft. He was so laid back. I needed his relaxedness for balance. My first secretary was Regina Shoen. She was a very precise, responsible organizer who pulled everything together. I depended on her immensely. Beyond that were other assistants, Richard Sargeant, who came after Kelly left and who contributed enormously to the art center. Richard was a photographer and designer and wonderful installer. Toward the end of our run he took over some curatorial responsibilities. Another gifted installer was Foad Satterfield, who today is an artist and teacher in the area. My other secretaries were Helen Schneider and Gerta Wingard, who’s here today. Gerta, why don’t you stand up? [applause] Gerta was not only a superb secretary, she was a good friend, a wise friend.
We also ran the theater in Live Oak Park for a number of years. It was an exciting experiment. We presented an “open theater” series, a constantly changing format at the theater. Different theater groups would perform each week. The Bay Area, especially Berkeley, was filled with small, inventive theater groups. There was this genius I found, George Forest, who ran the theater. He understood theater profoundly and totally restructured this program so it could function in a flexible manner.
I was faced with how to start a new facility from scratch. How do you organize the place? What do you do in the gallery and the office and workshop? What items should go there? How do you find the wherewithal? What kind of a partition system would work? What kind of lighting system do you put in? Where do you store things? What kind of flow and space happens in the lobby?
I had no experience in this, so I had to wing it. I ran all over the Bay Area to find the resources. How do you imagine an operating budget for an ongoing program that doesn’t exist? How can you imagine what the needs of a daily operation are when you have no background to compare it to? So I learned something about that. How do you fit into a city structure where there are procedures, policies and people of higher rank than you—how do you learn to be a part of such a thing? How does the art center fit into that? Finally, how do you relate to the commissions in this city?
There was a Recreation Commission that I was responsible to, because I was part of the Parks and Recreation Department. Gene Salwachter, who hired me, was the rec and parks director. That made some people in the Civic Arts Commission resent me. Here was this person who came along and ran an arts program that they had no say in. So when I was invited to the first Civic Arts Committee meeting I received a very cold reception. People asked me questions as though I was going to take the fifth amendment. I felt like an outsider. So how was I going to learn to work together with the Civic Arts Commission to make the arts program stronger in Berkeley? These were problems that would take me many years to try to work out.
RW: One can begin to get a picture of the challenges you faced. I was thinking, as you were talking—you probably know John Toki [yes]—I’d told him I was going to be interviewing Carl Worth, and John said: “Carl Worth. Good man. He was a hard worker.” [laughter] John respects that.
CW: John is a hard worker, too.
RW: So you met these challenges, and under your tenure here you did 89 shows in twelve years. Would you tell us a little about your first show? It must have been such an important moment for you.
CW: What do you do with the first show? I had watched Peter Selz open the Berkeley Art Museum with a show called Excellence. What Peter did there was to show the quality of the program and the breadth of the collection. It was a very smart choice on his part. You make an initial statement about an institution you’ve started and it makes an impression. On a smaller scale, I was facing the same problem of making this initial statement. How do we do something that will catch people’s imagination and will be saying something meaningful? How do we demonstrate that we’re a serious program and that we’re aware of what’s going on in the art world?
So I came up with the notion of organizing a show about figurative painting. I had noticed, at UC and other schools, that a lot of the faculty that had done non-objective work for so long were moving toward the figure as important subject matter. I thought, gee, that would be an interesting statement to make. It would talk about what is happening now. Also there are some really good figurative artists working in the area. One was Robert Bechtle, who was into his early Photorealism. He had just completed Nancy Reading, a superb painting, extremely psychological, and a beautifully thought out. Richard McLean, later a super-realist, was doing painting with a surrealist bent at the time. He exhibited a painting of a woman bathing on the beach lying with her back to the viewer. You see her footprints leading to where she was and she’s staring off toward the ocean where it’s as if a wall has parted and an elephant is stepping through. Jerrold Balaine was fabricating plastic works with suggestions of the human body that actually came out from the wall and onto the ground. They tumbled out of the picture plane. You know, the picture plane was holy for the Abstract Expressionists. Thou shall not break the picture plane. So that was new and exciting. Earl Loran, who was one of the high priests of AE at UC Berkeley, had returned to recognizable images. So I included Earl’s version of Pop Art. Boyd Allen was another Abstract Expressionist who was finding new direction in symbolic figuration. We showed his work. Gerald Gooch depicted stop-action work like the cells in a film. Here were twenty-four views of Carol Doda doing her striptease act. The work was called Big D. It was not well taken by the Rotary people, but it was a superb work. Those were the six artists we opened with.
RW: Well, that was an interesting move on your part and a very substantial step into the art community. There are so many different things we could talk about, but I’m wondering about the question of your own curatorial attitude about the art object and about the role of the curator. How did you view the art work itself?
CW: I think curators and museum directors throughout the Bay Area were going through this dilemma. Here you’re faced with an explosion of art ideas and you can’t compare them with one another. You can’t say A is better than B. The old idea of the authoritarian curator had broken down. You couldn’t make those value selections so you had to find some other criteria to make your judgments. One thing became clear, that the Art Center was not to be a place that stood for a particular style or a particular approach to art. We were open to everything that was going on in the area. You could see this approach going on in the museums as well. They were attempting to report what was going on rather than dictate what was supposed to happen in the art world. That clearly became our function.
So in looking at art and trying to choose work for the art center, I came up with the standard of asking how creative and compelling was the work in relation to the artist’s intent? Hopefully, the art work itself should be so crystal clear that you should be able to see the artist’s intention in it. Once the artist established an intention, you held the artist to his own standard. How fully did they realize that? How compelling was their solution?
So I would go into the studio, view the work and talk to the artist to find out where they were coming from. That did not happen overnight, but that concept became key to understanding and selecting art. I used it for the next twenty-odd years as I worked here and at the Civic Art Center in Walnut Creek.
RW: I’m wondering what took shape for you over the years in your role as director. What did you like about it? What was exciting about it? What were some of the problems?
CW: First of all, we made a lot of mistakes as well as making good choices. I learned that this was a great space for a one or two person show. We did a number of wonderful shows in that regard. Sometimes there would be a contrast between two artists. Sometimes it would be two artists who shared a commonality. But the space lent itself to effective juxtapositions.
We did some effective group shows and also some theme shows: Fly Sky and Waterworks—are examples of such installations. The gallery lends itself to dramatic lighting and several of our shows dealt with a totally darkened gallery. You’ll notice that the seven skylights on each side are blocked out. Well, the original design had those skylights flooding the gallery with a confused light that washed any drama and control out. By the second show, those were closed. Then we could control the interior light and that became a presentation strength, as for instance, with Fletcher Benton’s self-illuminating kinetic sculpture. In a darkened gallery, we built little niches so that each piece of Fletcher’s work was contained. The electronic events that made up the activity of each particular piece emanated from each niche. It created an intensity of energy and focus for the viewers as they walked around the open space.
Or we could surround the space with giant screens and have different images bouncing off them. In one show, 480 Slides, a group of photographers went out into the community to photograph. We had six projectors set up with images popping off each screen about every seven seconds. Since your perimeter vision could only take in about three screens, you were always curious about what else was going on around you. Viewers stayed at that show for long periods of time. It kind of locked them in. It was like an anti-surfing TV device where the viewer was caught in the middle.
That was one of the things I loved to do in the gallery, to deny that idea viewers often have that they can see a show at a glance. There was a visual pacing that I tried to build into every installation.
It’s impossible to go into each show, but over a period of time we dealt with ethnic identities, for instance. Betye Saar is a black artist who did an exhibition entitled Black Woman’s Window that dealt with stereotypical images of black people, very painful images— Aunt Jemima, Minstrals and that sort of thing, and how she perceived those images via her sense of self.
We showed a number of visionary artists. We did a show called Inside the Moon where large areas of scrim were twisted up into the beams so that the upper reaches of the ceiling became a three dimensional projection screen. Quadraphonic sound filled the room and a large harp came down in the middle of the room so viewers could pluck on the strings and sounds would emanate from around the room. And there were large backlit, liquid-filled tubes which would slowly turn so that water would undulate inside them. The whole floor was covered with about ten inches of a thick foam pad so that viewers could lie down and look up at these things. You were invited to relax and become a part of the space. There were all kinds of events that we did in relation to that exhibit. One of them was so wild that everyone took their clothes off in the middle of the event and I lost control of the gallery completely. So I decided to take my clothes off also and the event continued. There would be a knock at the door every once in a while and I would answer. That was one of the things that could happen in the late sixties and early seventies. I was expecting the police to arrive. They never did. If you opened up the space and invited people to be free and participate, then you couldn’t always control the situation. You’d occasionally lose control of things.
RW: Well I wondered if you could say something about the reception the Berkeley Art Center got from the greater Bay Area. This was a happening place, from what I’ve heard.
CW: In a lot of ways, it was. We filled a particular niche with some major art critics in the Bay Area. I think that was important. About the forth or fifth show, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Alfred Frankenstein came out and did a very warm review. He said, “If someone were to ask me what is my favorite art gallery, I would say it’s the Berkeley Art Center.” That was a significant breakthrough. As soon as Frankenstein gave us his imprimatur, it seems as though everybody accepted us.
Tom Albright started to come out and regularly wrote major reviews in the Chronicle. Albright was a magnificent critic and he became a dear friend and supporter of the gallery. That’s not to say that if he didn’t like something he couldn’t be a harsh and nasty critic. But that made his praise only more valuable. So many, many shows were received with substantial reviews in the Chronicle. And there was Miriam Cross from the Oakland Tribune. She was a fantastic supporter of the Art Center and her feature weekend articles helped make us accepted by artists and the art professionals. Artweek regularly gave us in-depth reviews.
This favorable critical response opened a lot of doors to us. It meant that artists wanted to show here, even major artists. They knew they could have a show that was well installed, well thought out. And art institutions did not hesitate to loan us art from their collections. We could get work from the UC Art Museum, from the SF Museum of Modern Art, for instance. This was invaluable. We did a show on the impact of African sculpture on German Expressionist prints. There was a wonderful scholar in the area, John Alsberg, who was the creative force behind that show. I just assisted him and we managed to get work from all the major museums and collectors in the area. It was a beautiful show. We couldn’t have done that without a lot of credibility.
RW: There’s so much more, I know. I see Joe Slusky [sitting in audience] for instance, one of the artists you showed here. There’s the Romare Bearden mural that you had a big hand in…
CW: Joe had two shows here, one with Pat McFarland and another one with Charles Simonds. That last one is worth talking about. Joe was doing these large, active, three-dimensional pieces with pearlescent finishes. They were quite elegant and powerful. Simonds’ work was extremely flat and frontal, essentially cast pieces that were self-contained. It was like Rodin meets Maillol. I mean, these two artistic polarities and yet the work co-existed beautifully—I think to the benefit of both artists.
RW: We could go on, but I wonder if anyone has a question for Carl?
Peter Selz: You did some fantastic shows. They were really beautifully done. Did you encounter any opposition, and how did you deal with it?
CW: I got some opposition. There were groups of people within the city who had their own agendas and generally, when those people come at you, they don’t understand what you’re doing. They see things through the narrow view of their particular bias. At the beginning I did a show of some of the funky artists of the Bay Area, Tyler Hoare and a number of others like that. I didn’t think the work was offensive, but some people on the Arts Commission were very offended. They thought there were no standards, that it was chaos. Well, you can’t argue with those people. I couldn’t convince them that there was a certain kind of order that their eyes could not see. I knew it was there, but there was no answer to that.
There was the crafts movement, which was so wonderful in the Bay Area—fiber art, ceramic art, glass art. People were doing astounding things! What had been crafts were being brought up to the level of quite powerful art—Peter Voulkos, for instance, opened those doors. So I did a number of shows that dealt with fiber, and some people were upset about it. They thought it was not a valid medium. I think the weakness of our program, Peter—in being able to answer those people—is that I didn’t have an education program. I was not savvy enough at that time, nor did we have the facilities to establish an education program. In a way we were vulnerable, but no one ever tried to close us down.
We did a festival on Peace and Love. It was really a wonderful event. In the seventies a lot of the street people were being harassed on Telegraph Avenue. A number of “riots” occurred. Some windows were broken and real tensions existed. So I got together with Richard York of the Berkeley Free Church, with Fred Cody and a number of people from Telegraph Avenue, and we put on the Festival of Peace and Love in Live Oak Park. We invited people out to the art center to see what the young people were making and what their music was like. Well, it went well until the phone calls began to come into the City Manager’s office on the weekend. These bands were playing with their sound turned way up. This part of Live Oak Park is like a funnel. It amplifies the sound way up the hill. So the residents, in their nice quiet environments, were suddenly assailed by this. I was on the phone to the City Manager constantly that weekend. We managed to keep the show open until that night. There was a group called the Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company and they were beautiful. They created an event, it was like a happening, a procession through the park. There were little niches throughout the park like parts of a Hindu temple with figures installed, Krishna with his various consorts. And a route went through the whole park with viewers moving along holding candles. It was beautiful, a spiritual event.
The problem was that there were horns that were being blaring and drums that were being beaten. The phone calls began to come in. The City Manager said, “By ten o’clock. You’ve got to close it down. The police are going to move in at ten.” So there we were standing out in the middle of this open lawn and a performer was pounding a large drum. I grabbed the drum and pulled it into the nearby theater. Everybody followed the drummer into the theater. We closed the doors and the police left us alone. Sometimes you had to improvise. We never were closed down.
You remember, Peter, there were some events like the Phoenix Gallery displaying new comics work actually being taken away by the police. [yes]. There was an obscenity trail and you testified at that trail. So there was a repressive spirit out there, that if you went too far the police could actually move in.
Question: You mentioned four art schools. I can think of three of them.
CW: Yes. UC Berkeley, CCAC, San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State.
Questioner: You’re not counting the Art Academy then.
CW: No. That did not exist then. The four major art schools here have profoundly affected this area. When you think that every year they’re graduating a large number of artists and many of them remain, then where do these people show their art? It becomes an increasingly heavy problem. Places like the Berkeley Art Center are extremely important as exhibition sites.
RW: Well, since time is short, maybe you could tell us some of the things you take the most satisfaction in out of your tenure here.
CW: I’m very proud of the Romare Bearden mural that I helped develop with Peter Selz. I think we gave something significant to the city of Berkeley. When you realize that the logo of the city of Berkeley used to be the campanile and then became the profiles of the races of humankind, depicted in the Bearden mural, you see how the municipal symbol was transformed from the university to the people of the city. That’s a remarkable thing for a work of art to have accomplished.
I think it was important that we established a credible art center here, and I’m proud of the rich diversity of art we exhibited. When I look back at the quality and range of the work we exhibited, I’m extremely proud.