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Arts & Culture

Remembering Iconic San Diego Artist Bob Matheny

Bob Matheny
Bob Matheny, Untitled (from The Personification of Marcel Duchamp), 1972, digital print, courtesy of the artist. Photo: Bob Schneider
Remembering Iconic San Diego Artist Bob Matheny
One of the most legendary and influential leaders of San Diego's midcentury contemporary art scene has passed away at the age of 91.

Bob Matheny made art every day, even towards the end. The San Diego artist died Wednesday after a battle with an illness. He was 91. The longtime Baldessari contemporary and friend will be remembered for defining the region's midcentury art scene and building community college gallery and art programs — particularly at Southwestern College.

"It’s a huge loss," said longtime friend and curator Dave Hampton. "He was this wonderful, ebullient, open-minded creative person. Really, really amazing. And sad that we’ve lost this living link to our own history, someone that shaped the contemporary art scene in San Diego."

Bob Matheny
Bob Matheny's 'Zayin, 1965, carved walnut, 21 x 7.75 x 6 in.'

Hampton said that many of the shows he curated involved Matheny, including a show at Oceanside Museum of Art called "Spitting in the Wind." The title comes from a quote attributed to John Baldessari — the idea that a lot of contemporary art made in the region since the '60s and '70s was really important, but "very few people were paying attention," said Hampton.

In fact, the Baldessari quote, found in a 1994 Union-Tribune article about the Southwestern College art program, specifically shines the spotlight on Matheny. "… in retrospect, Southwestern College was very important, even though a lot of we did was just spitting in the wind. And, if you had eliminated Matheny from the picture, none of that stuff would have happened," Baldessari said.

"Part of what I tried to do with the 'Spitting in the Wind' show is basically put Bob’s work and John Baldessari's work side by side, saying these guys were friends, contemporaries, they were doing the exact same kind of things, because they were in the same social pool, looking at each other’s work and exploring the same things. And perhaps Bob Matheny is just as wonderful an artist as Baldessari, but because he was humble, because he stayed in San Diego, because he never took things too seriously, he was also easy for people to dismiss," said Hampton.

Courtesy Dave Hampton
Bob Matheny, circa 1959, pictured with a letterpress.

Born in 1929, his career spanned a major transformation in modern art as well as transformation of San Diego. In the 1950s, he was already experimenting and collaborating with others in the region like Richard Allen Morris and John Baldessari. When the new, Matheny-instigated art gallery at Southwestern College opened in 1961 (its inaugural exhibition was a Baldessari show that apparently "outraged" administrators when it opened, according to Hampton's essay), the town was still very much living in the shadow of the Navy.

Matheny, in fact, worked in the aerospace defense field in the art department of General Dynamics. And his graphic design and the tactile skills associated with being a working designer bled into his work too. With his deft touch with a letterpress, Matheny would create elaborate posters for art shows around town. Hampton said these posters became "terrific art pieces" as well as a historic archive of who was doing what in San Diego at the time.

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.

But what stands out the most in Matheny's work and life is the way he kept a sense of humor. The idea that his art was and is still considered important would be the kind of thing Matheny might scoff at. Never one to take art too seriously, many of his projects were a delightful brew of absurdist commentary, joke and practicality. Sometimes his work involved everyday objects, the blending of the mundane and the fine.

"Bob’s work almost always involved some degree of humor," said Hampton, adding that humor in art invites a viewer to write off the work's gravity, which can be risky. "Bob did it very, very well."

Take the Art Disposal Service project for example.

Spearheaded in San Diego by Matheny in the late '60s, the Art Disposal Service was intended to get rid of all that pesky, unwanted art. While Matheny really did create immense volumes of art — when making art as often as possible for as many years as he did, it goes without saying that he'd have more lying around than he knew what to do with — what the Art Disposal Service did was remind people that the best way to enjoy art is to take it down a notch or two.

Artist Bob Matheny, founder of the San Diego branch of Art Disposal Service, passes the torch and cloak to curator Dave Hampton.

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"Bob was a really wonderful artist and important, so critically important to our contemporary art scene but because he was kind of just a regular guy at the same time, I think he could be dismissed. His work changed in the latter years of his life, but he was still producing. He was making stuff constantly. He had that full-blown disease of art making. He couldn't not make art," said Hampton.