“Far Out: The University Art Scene 1960-1975”
Each generation finds unique ways of expressing its enthusiasm for people, things and happenings. For instance, in the late 1940s and early 50s, jazz musicians simply said “cool” when extolling music that had been liberated from the conventions of popular scoring – in praise of improvisation. “It’s cool, man!” In time, cool was co-opted by a wider constituency, and, in the process, its original meaning was diffused.
Today, members of the youth culture often invoke “awesome” when attempting to emphasize a favorable point of view. Regrettably, it is often called into play because the speaker’s meager vocabulary will not permit a more original way of saying it; “awesome” is overused, a lame short cut to expressing momentary approval.
The exhibition that this catalog documents is titled “Far Out: The University Art Scene, 1960- 1975.” Between 1960 and 1975, “far out” became a term used to describe persons who preferred dress and behavior that rejected many middle class values; in other words: hippies. Initially, a term of derision in some circles (by squares), it came into wider use as the hippie movement migrated from west coast university communities, across the United States, and eventually to urban centers around the world. Whether opponents of the war in Vietnam, peace-seeking fl ower children, or those who dropped out and joined the back-to-theearth movement, “far out” provided counterculturalists a quick and satisfying way of giving whole-hearted assent.
In July 2011, Special Collections in the University of Nevada, Reno Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center sponsored an exhibition titled “Post-war Bohemians in Northern Nevada.” It was featured for several months on four levels of the Knowledge Center, the works of sixteen visual artists who had vigorously challenged the style and subject matter that had dominated the Reno art scene during the early to middle years of the 20th century. The paintings by these so-called Nevada Bohemians revealed the infl uence of surrealism and cubism, particularly the modernist art of Picasso, Braque and other European visionaries. Their work also contained formal elements that had appeared in the controversial Armory Show in New York City in 1913. When compared to the earlier Northern Nevada tradition of restrained, impressionistic landscapes, portraits and still lives, the paintings by the sixteen artists were abstract, almost unintelligible to some, and unrequited in juried competitions.
The curators of the Bohemian show were aware that its catchy title might prove to be disconcerting, in some cases inaccurate. Bohemian did attract some criticism from several of the adult children of the sixteen artists; they asserted that their parents had not been Bohemians in the conventional sense of the word. On the other hand, it was also suggested that a bland, academic title might lessen interest in the show. When the title “Postwar Bohemians in Northern Nevada” was fi nally selected, it was with the understanding that Bohemian was a kind of clarion call representing artistic departure, and not a scholarly attribution. For the most part, viewers seemed to get it.
One year later, early in 2012, as plans were being made for the current exhibit, its organizers again had to confront the challenge of giving the show a title that was compelling, yet not misleading. When refl ecting on the era that the show would represent, curators gave consideration to a number of phrases that might capture the essence of the years between 1960 and 1975. Timothy Leary’s “Tune in, turn on, and drop out” came to mind, but a reference to the drug culture didn’t seem to be right on the mark as far as the Northern Nevada art scene was concerned. “Off-the-wall” was considered, as was “outta sight,” which would have been an ironic appellation, to say the least.
When the title “Far Out: The University Art Scene, 1960-1975” was fi nally agreed upon, it was with the understanding that not all of the thirty-fi ve artists represented in the show were, in fact, far out. Artists associated with Reno’s counterculture seemed less attracted to the vigorously patterned psychedelic images that were typical of the posters coming out of San Francisco’s music, art and drug scene, and more caught up in abstract expressionism, from the fi gurative to the non-objective. On the other hand, the Bay Area was only 225 miles to the west—a fi ve-hour drive out of Reno on old U.S. Highway 40. This proximity to The Haight, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West and the San Francisco Museum of Art gave rise to an annual chartered bus tour to the Bay Area—an unoffi cial part of the UN art department curriculum. At the time, young painters and ceramic sculptors teaching in art departments in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Davis also captured the attention of Nevada students …and their instructors. Two galleries in Sacramento, Artist’s Contemporary Gallery and the Art Company, on a number of occasions exhibited the works of Northern Nevada artists, along with the well-established California artists in their stables: Wayne Thiebaud, Bob Arneson and Darrel Forney, among them. The connection between the University of Nevada and the more free-wheeling counterculture of the coast was well established by the late 1960s.
While the Bohemian exhibition represented the most adventuresome aspects of the visual arts in Northern Nevada from the mid-1940s to 1960, “Far Out: The University Art Scene, 1960-1975” picks up the story from the perspective of the University art department as it experienced a period of dramatic expansion—in terms of facilities, faculty and student enrollment.
Prior to 1960, the entire art department had been housed in four dilapidated Quonset huts tucked away in a corner of the University of Nevada campus called Skunk Hollow. As the 1950s came to a close, renderings appeared on the drawing boards of the fi rm of internationally recognized Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra, which addressed the space needs of an art program that was lagging behind other areas of instruction at the University of Nevada. Art department chair Craig Sheppard, who arrived in Reno in 1947, had built a solid base of support for the visual arts, not only on campus, but also around town. His unfl agging efforts to promote the department undoubtedly hastened the design and construction of the J. E. Church Fine Arts Building, which opened in the fall of 1960.
The Church Fine Arts Building proved to be a catalyst for a number of forward-looking programs in the arts, particularly in relation to the Northern Nevada cultural community. It brought three departments together under one roof: art, music and speech and theater, and eventually the building played a signifi cant role in creating the Nevada Repertory Company, Nevada Opera Company and Church Fine Arts Gallery, later named the Craig and Yolande Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery.
The events that kicked off the formal opening of CFA were intended to attract a diverse towngown audience. The art department mounted an impressive exhibition entitled 70 by 50 that drew in students, faculty and local patrons in signifi cant numbers. As the inaugural show in the Church Fine Arts Gallery, it featured works by artists such as Degas, Picasso, Braque, Henry Moore and Alexander Calder—gleaned almost entirely from the collection of Reno rancher, businessman and philanthropist Wilbur May. In addition, a number of large contemporary paintings were hung in a back hallway of CFA, adjacent to faculty offi ces, likewise brought from May’s 2,600 acre Double Diamond Ranch on the southern end of the Truckee Meadows. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and other Op and abstract painters, relatively new to the eastern art establishment, were displayed in the poorly lit passageway, unseen by a security guard who had been hired to protect the works by the marquee artists in the main gallery off North Virginia Street.
It is at this point that “Far Out: The University Art Scene, 1960-1975” takes over. Aware that the CFA building offered space for new programs of instruction, the faculty readied itself for the infl ux of students who came anticipating a more comprehensive curriculum, and the equipment to support it.
-- Jim McCormick