Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s newest piece, “Land(e)scape,” is a striking addition to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (or BAMPFA).
As soon as you enter the museum, you are greeted by a wide open space with multiple paths branching off of it. In the middle of the room, a set of giant steps descends to a basement floor, forming a casual amphitheater. The far wall of this amphitheater has been home to a number of site-specific artworks since the museums opening, including mythical brush paintings and expansive textile installations.
Former BAMPFA director Jacquelynn Baas interviewed Solomon Thursday about her development, her recent work and her most recent piece at BAMPFA. The artist’s assistant, who performed the physical labor of laying out gridlines and painting, was also present to contribute to the conversation.
The current and latest installation is from an artist who is no stranger to working on a huge scale. Solomon created the 1960s architectural trend Supergraphics when she added her simultaneously graphic and architectural paintings to numerous homes in Sea Ranch. The trend consists of large-scale interior paintings of fundamentally geometric shapes with sharply defined edges in bright colors.
Her new piece for BAMPFA, a wall painting, is straightforward but enrapturing. It asserts itself with punchy shades of bright orange and red. Crisp vertical lines define blazing fields of color, and stanch black stripes are limited by diagonal bordering lines, which stretch between corners of walls and stairs. On an adjacent rectangular wall, a right triangle split by wide vertical stripes of blank space, revealing the white wall, highlights the careful placement and proportion of both the wall and the artwork. The abstract patterns simultaneously evoke skylines at sunset, industrial signage and tropical fish.
Solomon cited her education in Switzerland as the major influence for Supergraphics. Originally trained as a dancer in San Francisco, she moved to Basel to study graphic design at the Basel Art Institute with Armin Hofmann in 1956. Hofmann, along with other Swiss designers of the 50s and 60s, was interested in establishing a modern, universal style for art and design.
Hofmann’s influence remains in her work today. Solomon cited the grid as one of the most important parts of her work. “The first thing you do is make a grid,” she stressed.
Another core aspect of Supergraphics is a willingness to interpret and work within the context of an exhibition. Solomon emphasized the importance of seeing and using architecture in her latest piece — she was given some drawings of the existing building to work on in her studio but requested larger and more detailed versions from the architectural firm in order to get a better idea of the room. She insisted that the space “tells you what to do. You don’t make it up. You’re not expressing yourself,” referring to her process being driven by inevitability rather than self-expression. For Solomon, her large-scale artwork is the inevitable collision of form, geometry and color added to a space. Her process at Sea Ranch was similar — she simply started from one wall and progressed through the space, responding to the internal geometries.
But while her works often reside inside, Solomon weaves constant connections to nature into her art. The title of this piece, “Land(e)scape,” hints at the possibility of seeing many things in her simple, precise lines — and that there is something to be gained or learned by taking a moment to explore them. Her technique and practice predates digital technology, and she makes a strong case for the power of physical phenomenon. She touched on this in her conversation, emphasizing her reliance on physical media and her fascination with the final wall piece being a duplicate of her plans.
This is evident as some of the guiding lines were left on the wall. Smudges of blue, as if not fully erased, stretched between corners and across fields of white. These emphasized the underlying grid and the geometric skeleton of the piece. Solomon’s temporary BAMPFA installation is bold in its simplicity and adherence to analog methods. The art wall is both captivating and thought-provoking despite its simple means.