Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and The End
On ViewJan Shrem And Maria Manetti Shrem Museum Of Art
Stephen Kaltenbach’s story is framed by hereafters. He comes and goes, came and went, reappeared to prove he never left. Fitting that the hereafter is a euphemism for something unending—Kaltenbach is always in the ether of contemporary art. His legend, in summary: upon completing the fledgling graduate art program of the University of California, Davis in 1967, Kaltenbach headed to New York City. There he fell in with Conceptualism and rose to the top of the art world. Then, in a remarkable act of divestment, he gave it all away, returned to California, and dug into what had always been, after all, at the heart of his practice: the long, slow idea.
From 1970 on, Kaltenbach carried on his conceptual practice behind a hedgerow of conventionality. As a teacher, family man, Yolo County resident, he side-stepped the pressures of the global scene and followed his own trajectory, one that has rendered his about-face permanent. His story is framed by hereafters—hereafters strung together so that they eventually begin to resemble the arc of a career, long and low and similar in contour to the 80-degree arch schematized in Hall Arch (Plan/elevation) (1967/2007), a blueprint plan for one of his “Room Constructions,” early minimalist forays into confounding spatial play.
Hall Arch (Plan/elevation), Hall Arch (Isometric perspective) (1967/2007), and a selection of other “Room Construction” blueprints are some of the artworks that constitute(d) Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and The End at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis. Promoted as the “first US solo exhibition in 40 years,” which “coincides with the 50th anniversary of [the] artist ‘dropping out,’” The Beginning and The End opened on January 26, 2020, only to have its program disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Its curatorial intent appears to have been to proffer a definitive benchmark, if not an undeclared terminus, to the career that, per the press release, the exhibition traced. At the time of writing, however, The Beginning and The End is limited to digital records and photographs: its retrospective nature can be understood in detail only through secondary, tertiary, and quaternary documents. To grasp the full picture, one is required to skim the digital ether. Skim it as you would the air of a summer’s night with an electric bug-zapper racquet, listening for the crackle that means contact.
Crackle: “An Interview with Stephen Kaltenbach,” conducted by Cindy Nemser for the November 1970 issue of Artforum, hidden behind a paywall.
Crackle: A reference librarian on remote-request duty willing to locate and scan “An Interview with Stephen Kaltenbach” from the buckram-bound periodicals in the basement of the Pasadena Public Library.
Crackle: In “An Interview with Stephen Kaltenbach,” the artist says: “For conceptual work, the taste buds are mostly in the mind,” and “New art is often an aspect of old art emphasized with the older percentage removed.”
Crackle: A 2005 press release for OBJECTS FOR INVESTIGATION at Another Year in LA, a once physical, now virtual gallery, touts “a 40 year survey of Conceptual Art by Stephen J. Kaltenbach,” 15 years before the “first US solo exhibition in 40 years” at the Manetti Shrem.
Crackle: A 2010 press release for LEGEND (Annotating the Elephant), also at Another Year in LA, boasts “a 40-year secret project by Stephen Kaltenbach revealed…”
What he revealed in LEGEND was the nature of his many hereafters, the constitution of his so-called arc, into which was fitted more than his cryptic Artforum “ads” from 1968 and 1969, more than his “Protocol of Opposites” activity—a project that indulged contrarian social behavior during the same period—and more of his enigmatic “Life Dramas” than anyone had anticipated. The “Life Dramas” are best defined as a trio of elaborate role-playing acts: the first two present a talentless painter of living-room art called Es Que? and a hack sculptor named Clyde Dillon. The lives of these artistic alter egos, such as they are, played out over many years. Es Que? attempted a career in the commercial interior design industry, while Clyde Dillon exhibited his work as Clyde Dillon, identity uncontested. The third of the “Life Dramas” is, of course, Stephen Kaltenbach, the regional artist, Christian-convert, the son who spent seven years painting a portrait of his dying father. He is and always was Stephen Kaltenbach, the conceptual artist with a mind and a taste for the obfuscated timeline. His 40-year secret was that the “Life Dramas” had long ago extended into the drama of life itself. He calls this “The Elephant Project” in honor of its enormity.
What my skimming reiterated was that the new is often an aspect of the old emphasized, with the older percentage removed. In this case, the majority percentage of the old—physical artworks, made to exist in a physically interactive world—was removed. Thankfully, Kaltenbach’s ideas are not necessarily beholden to the vehicles that convey them, a quality that might redeem the image-only experience of The Beginning and The End for keepers of the non-retinal faith. That the galleries of the Manetti Shrem are inaccessible is also sweetly apropos. They have become confounding spaces, adjacent to time yet an artifact of it, much like the artist’s innumerable and self-explanatory “Time Capsules.” Kaltenbach began to make these as early as 1967. They are seldom dated but always labeled. “INVERTED OBSERVER” reads the epitaph on one. Another: “FUGITIVE IMAGE.” The show itself has entered an extended denouement, drawing out the conclusion of the arc indefinitely.