North Beach to Haight-Ashbury: Underground Artists and Community in 1950s San Francisco

Schoenthal, Rebecca Kelley Young, Department of Art, University of Virginia

The dissertation is a sociological study investigating the effects of lifestyle - habitat, proximity, companionship - on the production and reception of art made by "underground" artists between 1950-1965 in San Francisco. It contends that the aesthetics associated with post-war non-conformist values were both constitutive of and shaped by the specific geographic and temporal moment. The perceived cultural provincialism of San Francisco was the ideal setting in which the definition of art could be challenged and expanded, outside of the purview of the institutions of the art world centered in New York City. During the 1950s these artists used ''art" as the name of a certain countercultural ideal that served as a vehicle for self-discovery and identity formation. The dissertation explains how and why art was able to take on this role by examining in full and in detail the specific historical moment.

The first chapter describes the dissolution of the academic community at the California School of Fine Arts in North Beach after the abstract expressionist peak and the subsequent emergence of an underground dynamic unaffiliated with the arts institutions of San Francisco, such as they were. Chapters two, three and four and five trace the emigration of these artists to the Fillmore neighborhood where inexpensive communal living spaces and experimental artist-run galleries were critical to the development of an underground aesthetic that was decidedly progressive. These chapters look closely at the work of five artists whom I consider to be at the crux of this issue: Jess, Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo and Wallace Berman. In the conclusion, I investigate the dispersal of the Fillmore underground after local urban renewal projects changed the shape of that neighborhood, forcing yet another intra-city migration. The rise of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood as the new space for non-conformist practices within the city also registered the divorce of underground visual arts production from avant-garde art production in the form of conceptual art as it was reabsorbed into the university system during the 1970s.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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