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May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Dimensions of Black: A UCSD-Organized Museum Exhibition
By Robert Stearns, Muir '70

If you have any stories about your years at UCSD, we would love to hear them.
Email the editor

Dimensions of Black was the product of the brilliantly creative and motivating young professor, Jehanne Teilhet-Fisk, who taught in the Muir College art department from fall 1969 to 1994. It was germinated in a small African-art appreciation class that Jehanne—as she asked to be called—initiated as soon as she arrived on campus. I had spent my freshman and sophomore years (1965-67) at UCSD and left to study architecture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. After a year-long, concentrated course load, I learned that UCSD had, in that short time, created a stellar art program and assembled an all-star faculty. So, I returned in January 1969 and enrolled in Jehanne's class. Understandably, resources were limited to books and photographs. The best historical study investigates real objects, so our class imagined creating a small show in the Art Department's Matthews campus Quonset-hut gallery by assembling objects from Los Angeles collections.

It was 1969. African-American tempers had exploded. Some cultural institutions were attempting to address the issues. That year's most controversial exhibition, Harlem on My Mind at New York's Metropolitan Museum, related the history of that neighborhood's early 20th-century black artists. Jehanne had recently returned from two years as a staff member of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities. She posed the question: How were these American artists influenced by the African art that we were studying? Jehanne also pointed to European Cubist and Expressionist artworks that incorporated motifs in African art. Our exhibition started small…but didn't stay that way.

The focus of our modest exercise emerged: It would include West African art and artifacts; 200 years of African-American art spanning the slave trade era to contemporary art; and a collection of early 20th-century European art influenced by Africa.

This was not going to fit into the Matthews campus art gallery. Armed with intelligence and charm, Jehanne convinced the La Jolla Museum of Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego) to commit its entire facility to host the exhibition, and all this with less than a year before opening.

To research our topic properly, field trips were planned. I was selected, along with Carol Funk, Muir '91, and Steve Schauss, to accompany Jehanne on the most challenging one: a 20,000-mile circuit of the U.S. and Caribbean beginning in April 1969. Major stops included museums, university galleries and private collections in Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz.; Austin, TX; New Orleans and Southern Louisiana; Miami; Jamaica; Haiti; Washington D.C.; New York; Boston; and Chicago.

Back at UCSD, we shared our research notes with the class and drafted a list of what we would like to include in the exhibition. In addition to living artists and private collectors, we would ask for loans of works from other University of California museum collections as well as museums in New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, Washington D.C. and elsewhere. They all agreed to lend; 341 works in all. And, the University was able to raise $65,000 for the project—a fortune at the time when a quarter's student fees were around $100.

More than 100 students participated in the project. Some researched and wrote catalog essays. Others created public relations programs, designed promotional posters, educational tours and music events. I was assistant director of the project under Jehanne. Peter Waasdorp and John McElhose, Muir '70, worked closely with me, as did artist Robert Kushner, Muir '71, who, with me, co-designed the 150-page catalog, sporting an unprinted, fuzzy black velour cover cheekily influenced by the era's media guru, Marshall McLuhan.

Several of the then-emerging contemporary artists featured in the show are the subjects of current exhibitions throughout Southern California that are part of the massive Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945-1980 initiative funded by the Getty Foundation. These include Fred Eversley, David Hammons and Samella Lewis. I am proud to have met them then.

Robert Stearns is director of ArtsOasis in the Palm Springs region. He previously served as a founding director of The Kitchen Center for Video and Music in New York and director of The Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati.