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Department History

The Department of Visual Arts was founded 50 years ago by a highly distinguished group of conceptual artists including Paul Brach, Helen and Newton Harrison and David and Eleanor Antin, who designed the MFA curriculum around theoretical and critical issues, rather than medium and technique, as was traditional at art schools. The founders were soon joined by other leading experimental artists, including Harold Cohen, Allan Kaprow, Jerome Rothenberg, Manny Farber, Standish Lawder, Patricia Paterson, Italo Scanga, Ernie Silva and J.P. Gorin. The department quickly became known as site for advanced and experimental art with a faculty who worked across disciplines and practices – the Harrisons for their engagement with environmental science, Cohen for his pioneering work on artificial intelligence, David Antin and Rothenberg for poetry as well as performance, Eleanor Antin for writing as well as photography, video and performance, Kaprow for his theory as well as his happenings, Farber for his film criticism as well as his painting, Gorin for his writing as well as his film-making. This distinguished faculty and the innovative character of the program attracted such an extraordinary applicant pool that the alumni/ae from the first five classes alone included such widely renowned artists as Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, Yolanda Lopez and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as Fred Lonidier, Phel Steinmetz and Kim MacConnel, who were then recruited to join the faculty. Media was an area of particular strength and Babette Mangolte and Louis Hock were recruited to teach along with Gorin, Lonidier, and Steinmetz, in a program that was often ranked as the top the nation. By the early 1980s, department artists and alumni/ae had made crucial and lasting contributions to photography, video, performance, political and environmental art, computing art, art theory and criticism, the pattern and decoration movement in painting and Chicano and border art, and the post-studio, concept-based curriculum developed and shaped at UC San Diego was imitated at other institutions.

A key principle of the department’s conceptually based education was that art is best studied and produced when artists, critics and theorists are brought into close dialog with historians and scholars. Early on, three unusual art historians were added to the faculty: Jehanne Teilhet-Fiske a specialist in Oceanic Art; Moira Roth, a feminist scholar and critic deeply with deep knowledge of performance art and artists; and Sheldon Nodelman, a scholar of both Ancient Roman Art and Modern and Contemporary Art. They taught art history along-side Antin, Kaprow, and Rothenberg, who offered courses on contemporary art, in an innovative undergraduate major, which, rather than seeking to provide a conspectus of the Western art, interrogated the idea of art, the models of art history, and the multivalent connections of art with social and political history, through the comparative scholarly study of art in diverse historical and cultural contexts. A position in Renaissance art was added in 1982, filled by Jack Greenstein, who studies art theory as well as art works, and new undergraduate curriculum instituted in 1984 spurred the growth of the major and led to positions medieval, filled by Susan Smith, a pioneer in woman’s studies in art history, and in Contemporary, filled by John Welchman, a leader in critical theory as well as European and American art history and criticism. In the next decade, as the number of undergraduate majors grew to over 80, the department recruited Mary Vidal, a specialist in 19th century French art, who later took the lead in designing the PhD program, and Elizabeth Newsome, specialist on MesoAmerican art and Native American art and culture.

By 2000, the stage was set for a Ph.D. program which would realize the founding principle of the department as a site for advanced study of art through scholarship and history as well as theory, criticism and practice. In anticipation of approval, the department recruited two media scholars whose worked bridged art history and art practice, Lesley Stern, a film scholar, theorist and ficto-critical writer, and Grant Kester, historian and theorist of photography, media, and activist and socially engaged art, and upon its approval, Norman Bryson whose reframing of the field was a model for the innovative program. Like the MFA program, the Art History PhD goes against the grain. Period and area specific courses (under the Times and Terrains heading) are placed within a critical and theoretical context which analyzes and contests the constructions and methodologies of art historical study. In the next few years, the department expanded the discourse by recruiting Kuiyi Shen, the leading scholar of twentieth century Chinese art, and Roberto Tejada, an historian and critic of modern Mexican art and media as well as poet. When at the end of the previous review period, Tejada left for another university, Mariana Wardwell (Botey), an film-maker as well as scholar of modern and contemporary Mexican and South American art, was brought onboard.

The 1980s and 90s were a period of both growth and retrenchment for the MFA program. The recruitment of Faith Ringgold in 1987 solidified the Department’s reputation for leadership in the pattern and decoration movement, performance, and social and political activism. In 1992, Sheldon Brown was recruited to work with Harold Cohen on developing an undergraduate major, which would make use of the large computer lab the Visual Art Facility, then being planned, which the Department occupied in 1995. Going beyond the focus on Artificial Intelligence pioneered by Cohen, Brown developed with colleagues in the Department of Music a new interdisciplinary major for computing in the arts. The new major ICAM (Interdisciplinary Computing in Art and Music), established in 1998, quickly grew peaking in the early 2000s at around 200 majors. The founding of CALIT2 (the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology) in 2000 and a series of faculty recruitments established the MFA program as a national leader in new media arts as well as in studio, media and performance art. Between 1996 and 2007, we were fortunate to have the following faculty join the department: Lev Manovich, a leading new media theorist and programmer, Adrienne Jenik, a computer and media artist working in interactive cinema and telematic performance, Jordan Crandall, a media artist, theorist and performer engaged in particular with surveillance and automated technologies, Brett Stalbaum, a new media artist specializing in information theory, database, software, and collaborative projects, Ricardo Dominguez, a digital and new media activist artist and performer, Amy Alexander, a new media, audiovisual performance artist, Michael Trigilio, a multimedia artist, working in sound, music, film and virtual reality, and Benjamin Bratton, a new media, sociological, and systems design theorist and developer. Also, in 1992, the Department entered into an agreement with local artists in San Diego and Tijuana to establish a biennial art exhibition called InSite, dedicated to commissioning site-specific works for the San Diego/Tijuana region by local and international artists. The bi-national exhibition helped establish the Department as leader in the fields of public and collaborative art, even as it built on the early success of its faculty and alumni/ae in Chicano and border art.

When an early retirement incentive program, developed in response to the recession of 1992-94, led over the course a decade to the separation of eight key faculty – including Kaprow, Lawder, the Harrisons, and David and Eleanor Antin – these interests would help shape the recruitment of faculty going forward. Steve Fagin, a video artist who was rethinking the narrative form and organization of the medium was recruited in 1995 to bolster the Media area, and in the 2000s, the Studio program was revitalized by the recruitment of Jennifer Pastor, a sculptor whose work explores complex ideas of space and social collaboration, Ruben OrtizTorres, a painter, photographer, film-maker and theorist who was developing a distinctly Mexican form of post-modernism, Barbara Kruger, a conceptual and political activist artist, Haim Steinbach, a conceptual installation artist and theorist, Amy Adler, a film-maker and studio artist rethinking the status of drawing and its relation to painting, and Anya Gallaccio, an artist who creates site-specific, minimalist works with organic materials that challenge tradition notions of monumentality and permanence that long defined sculpture. In addition, the Department built on its long-standing commitment to activism and socially relevant art by recruiting two faculty in public culture: Teddy Cruz, an architect and theorist studying urban ecologies, public policy and the border, and Kyong Park, a new media artist, curator, writer and theorist of public culture, urban landscape, and social geography.

Also entering retirement in recent years after long stints in the Department were Jack Greenstein, Norman Bryson and Sheldon Nodelman, with Elizabeth Newsome following soon thereafter. The Art History program maintained its vigor, however, with the hiring of William Tronzo, a specialist in medieval and early modern art and architecture, whose field of expertise includes as well the world of Islam, and the recent tenure of Jordan Rose in nineteenth and twentieth century art, culture and politics, and Alena Williams in modern and contemporary, whose fields include media, film and photography and landscape and the environment. Lisa Cartwright, a joint appointment between Visual Arts and Communication and Science Studies, also affiliated with the Design Lab and Critical Gender Studies, has brought a sustained commitment to the intersection of art and science, particularly with her recent Getty project undertaken in conjunction with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. On the side of Media, Studio and ICAM, new appointments include Memo Akten, Janelle Iglesias, Jessica D’Elena-Tweed, dean erdman, Malik Gaines, Mariah Garnett, Lorena Mostajo, Alexandro Segade, Pinar Yoldas and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, with professional interests and involvements that span the globe. The wide reach of the Department across continents and fields is ever more in evidence. With the re-invigoration of the Mandeville Art Gallery, with an award-winning architectural renovation under the direction of Ceci Moss, this outreach, in turn, finds a new stage for its enactment on campus itself.