Allan Sekula (1951-2013)

Artist, critic and UC San Diego visual arts alumnus made his mark

By Dirk Sutro on September 6, 2013

Artist, educator, critic and UC San Diego alumnus Allan Sekula died of cancer on August 10. He was 62. Sekula taught at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) for more than three decades. His art—photography, film, mixed media—often focused on oceans and the implications of global maritime trade.

Sekula was an undergraduate biology major at UC San Diego in the early 1970s when he took a photography class in the visual arts department. He earned his MFA in visual arts in 1974 at a time when the faculty included David and Eleanor Antin, John Baldessari and Newton Harrison.

“My earliest memories of Allan are of him and others producing a ‘body bag’ installation in Revelle Plaza in the spring of 1970, when the campus had been shut down due to an antiwar strike,” said emeritus faculty and photographer Fred Lonidier, who completed his MFA just ahead of Sekula and became a visual arts department professor. Lonidier and fellow faculty member Phel Steinmetz launched a photography program as part of the media major.

“I did not know Allan’s work those first few years when he did mostly sculpture,” Lonidier said. “His first photo/text/video installation, Aeospace Folktales, clearly established his potential, and a few of us collaborated on an installation, Vacation Village Trade Show: A Raw Material Piece, where, in addition to Allan’s photos, his writings were on the wall.”

Following graduation, Sekula taught at New York University and Ohio State University before joining the CalArts faculty in 1985. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship (1986) as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Getty Research Institute, the Deutsche Akademischer Austausdienst and the Atelier Calder.

In the decades following his graduation from UC San Diego, Sekula showed his work at dozens of exhibitions and venues around the world. In 2013 alone, these included Mecaniques des fluides at Gallery Cécile Fakhoury in Abidjan on West Africa's Ivory Coast, Voices of the Sea at the Musée des Beaux-arts in Calais, France and This ain't China at Simon Fraser University Gallery in Vancouver.

Sekula’s 2010 documentary film The Forgotten Space , co-directed by Noël Burch, explored the shipping industry and other forms of international commerce. The film won the Orizzonte Jury Prize at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, and the New York Times called the film "unabashedly polemical and rigorously pessimistic, a sustained Marxian indictment of 21st-century capital."

As well as an artist and educator, Sekula was known as a critical thinker and writer.

“He was an insatiable reader, a questioner of politics, philosophy and representation,” Steinmetz said. “He reworked and reworked his writings and art works, refining them over and over until he had exhausted his sense of perfection. This process resulted in some the most succinct essays on contemporary art and the economic politics in which it was often embedded.”

Sekula’s books include Fish Story (2003), Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes (1997) and Dismal Science: Photoworks 1972-1996 (1999). Last year, the College Art Association gave Sekula its Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art, in acknowledgement of his books including Photography against the grain: Essays and photo Works 1973-83 (1984) and Performance Under Working Conditions (2003). Many of his books are out of print and collectible. A copy of Fish Story, for instance, was recently listed online for $2,475.

“More than anything, it was his intellectual engagement that Allan brought to the rest of us,” Lonidier said. “Along with his fellow graduate student Martha Rosler, Allan gave us a greater breath and depth in our thinking and practice of documentary photography as well as connecting us to the rich history of art and culture on the left. He brought this all together with his seminal Massachusetts Review article Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary: Notes on the Politics of Representation (1978) and his MFA thesis on photographer Alfred Stieglitz, later revised and published in ArtForum.”

Sekula’s work is a part of many private collections, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently acquired images from Sekula’s Fish Story series—documenting maritime workers in San Diego Harbor—validating his status as an important American artist.

Photo by Fred Lonidier