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San Diego Defense Industry Served As Patron For Mid-Century Artists

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Stacy Keck

The exhibition "Print Culture" at the San Diego Central Library, seen on Dec. 10, 2016, showcases the graphic designs of San Diego artists in the 1950s and '60s, including their work for defense contractors and the military.

San Diego Defense Industry Served As Patron For Mid-Century Artists


Dave Hampton, guest curator, "Print Culture"

Kara West, arts and culture exhibition manager, San Diego Public Library


Photo credit: Courtesy Bob Matheny

A notebook divider page for Atlas E-Series Intercontinental Ballistic Missile flight test data for Convair Astronautics, a division of General Dynamics, designed in 1959 by Bob Matheny.

While San Diego defense contractor General Dynamics was building Atlas rockets in the late 1950s, the region’s developing art community became an unlikely beneficiary.

Now-prominent artists, including John Baldessari, relied on General Dynamics and the Navy Electronics Laboratory for work as graphic designers that could support their more personal projects. Some of their modernist graphic designs are part of “Print Culture,” a free exhibit at the San Diego Central Library running through Feb. 26. Included are flight test guidelines, financial reports, logos and a cover sheet for secret documents.

Curator Dave Hampton says General Dynamics division Convair sought out trained artists to help project a cutting-edge image and became a spawning ground for San Diego designers.

“That’s what good modern design symbolizes,” Hampton said. “When they built their new building in Kearny Mesa, it was a modernist building: floor to ceiling glass expanses, pools of water, spiral staircases. Graphic design, just like architecture, is a specific conscious choice to say ‘Our brand is totally advanced and at the forefront of our field.’”

But while the artists saw the work as a means to sustain their art, they didn’t necessarily hold the contractors in high regard.

“Oh, God, that was the worst job I ever had,” Baldessari said in an oral history interview with the Archives of American Art. “I mean, the day was so long, and I was just drawing these stupid drawings of Atlas missiles.”

The exhibit also includes announcements for art shows and poetry readings, greeting cards and other ephemera documenting the San Diego art world in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“It tells a story of the activities they were supporting,” Kara West, the library’s arts and culture exhibition manager, said. “Through these objects we see the relationships.”


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