David Ireland: Revisiting 500 Capp Street

The reopening of 500 Capp Street earlier this year, and several recent exhibitions on his work, recall the influential Bay Area artist's playful-but-profound, self-effacing sensibility. by Kenneth Baker

David Ireland with dumball. Photo: Elisa Cicinelli

Gentrification has hit hard in San Francisco’s Mission District, long a predominantly Latino working class neighborhood, abruptly and ironically disadvantaged by its relative proximity to Silicon Valley. An invading digerati class commutes there from the Mission on unmarked buses fit-so they say-for a rock star’s entourage. Amid the ongoing tumult of residential property upgrades, a singularly meaningful one passed little noticed, except by the art crowd: the restoration of the late conceptual artist David Ireland’s house-his Gesamtkunstwerk, or the nearest thing to it-known by its address, 500 Capp Street. Officially designated The David Ireland House since its reopening in early 2016, 500 Capp Street now serves as a repository and study center for the work of this cardinal figure in Bay Area conceptual art-a creative current with scant imprint on the wide public’s mental map of the region’s art history.

Ireland (1930-2009) bought the house in 1975 and lived in it until 2005, when collapsing health forced him to move to an assisted living facility. Consequently nearly every surface and object in the house bore the marks of Ireland’s comically profound sensibility, though many autograph traces resulted less from incursions than from his having left things pretty much the way he found them, sometimes subtracting elements, such as window and door moldings, rather than sprucing them. Stripping the peeling wallpaper in his early forays into home renovation, Ireland decided that he liked the crackelure and discoloration of the walls’ exposed plaster, so he cleaned them and sealed them with coats of glossy, clear varnish. The floors got a similar treatment, making daylight ricochet through the interior, especially on the many-windowed top floor. The recent restoration has re-awakened that vividness.

The present-tense immediacy of leafless daylight counterpoints the overall golden tone of the walls, and lends the interior the aspect of a specimen timelessly trapped in amber. A chandelier of ignited blowtorches graces a central room, a brace of brooms bound upright to a long-handled, cement-caked dust collector forms a sculpture reminiscent-characteristically for an Ireland work-of both Giacomo Balla’s Futurism and the trouble Mickey Mouse gets into as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” (The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now owns the broom piece and has loaned it for the reopening of 500 Capp.) The variously timeworn brooms, left by the house’s previous owner of 45 years, stand tilted in a brace, ordered by size, as if about to move about on their own, like the legs of a centipede.

Visits to 500 Capp, especially when Ireland himself hosted them, became storied experiences for fellow artists, for students, collectors and curators from near and far. In his last years, Ireland sadly found himself reduced to a visitor.

Around the time of his death, I got to explore the Oakland studio that Ireland had maintained for some years, and found there a jumble consistent with the character of the house. Scanning the studio’s contents, apart from a few marginally signature forms-kitchenware stuffed with food-like gobs of cement, lengths of stiff wire in tangles that might have been contrived or prized as found-I had a hard time distinguishing among the materials of potential artworks and their accomplished or abandoned forms. Absent were the animal skulls and antlers that stud the house rooms, nature-made sculptures-a few enhanced by Ireland-betokening the business of safari guide and importer of African exotica that supported him before his full turn to art as a way of life.

The year before he bought the house Ireland spent largely in New York, where he made a series of “paintings” and “drawings” in which cement served as medium, a nullification of style that must have looked then like belated Post-Minimalism, but were for him an exercise in working free of all except the most rote notion of accomplishment: carrying on using up materials.

The concept of a project “definitively abandoned,” or somewhere short of that, owed to Marcel Duchamp, one of Ireland’s heroes, came to mind again and again on the visit to Ireland’s studio. (A picture of Duchamp sits, like a family photo, in a back room at 500 Capp.) The house’s interior, ordered by an antic sense of decoration, tended, when Ireland lived there, to evoke a more organized flux of things, notions and tweakings. Thus, pertinently, it also evoked Fluxus, the unbounded cohort to which critics-if not Ireland himself-said he might belong.

A number of major works by Ireland pay homage to a second Marcel in his pantheon: Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976). In addition to his frequent use of the sort of salvaged cabinets Broodthaers favored, Ireland made a major piece titled Marcel B. (1980-94). A collection of paint-dipped sardine cans meant to be dropped percussively by a performer into a stave-like receptacle, Ireland’s piece alludes to a sculpture by Broodthaers in which mussel shells in plaster stud a music stand, forming what looks like a musical score.

In 2008, to rescue the then helpless artist’s dwindling finances, his sister Judy, a local realtor, prepared to offer the house for sale. The tech-driven Bay Area economy having weathered the shocks of the great 2007-08 downturn better than most American places, the shambling house might easily have fallen into the hands of a buyer who knew or cared nothing about its peculiar history, eyeing it merely as a well-sited tear-down. Fortunately, local arts patrons rallied in time to keep the house off the open market. One of them, Carlie Wilmans, bought the property for $895,000. The following year, she established the 500 Capp Street Foundation, which has funded the house’s restoration and partial re-purposing to the tune of $2.5 million.

The 1886 property lacked a foundation when Ireland bought it in 1975, so the whole structure had to be suspended to facilitate excavation and shoring up of a basement level. A well-known 1988 photograph of the artist shows him tilting back in a rickety chair beside a floor joist, beneath a single bright, bare bulb, looking like a pensive miner, enclosed by the earthen walls of the “cellar”-the pit on which the house sat-in which he occasionally dug for ingredients to make cement. The renovation has provided a seismically sound foundation and basement space that now houses archives of the artist’s work and a small study and meeting area to serve research and educational purposes. The restoration has also converted a derelict carport at the back of the property into a small but flexible gallery and function space, with an outdoor terrace. The gallery displays a group of Ireland’s works on paper for the inaugural presentation.

I first, memorably, encountered Ireland’s work in Santa Barbara in 1988, when I reported from there for The San Francisco Chronicle on “The Home Show,” a project in which contemporary artists intervened in the private residences of a dozen or so owners willing to let the public troop through on a restricted basis. In the home of Betty Klausner and her late husband Bob, Ireland had blockaded the interior staircase of the sleekly modernist house interior with lapped rectangular slabs suggestive of movable walls having jammed during ill-advised reconfiguration. (In 2003, having long since relocated to San Francisco, Betty Klausner would publish an artistic biography titled “Touching Time and Space: A Portrait of David Ireland.”) As in the cement paintings, Ireland seems to have had on his mind minimalist form as outcropping of architecture and art as an illuminating barrier to ordinary thoughtless courses of action and intention.

I thought of that Santa Barbara piece again when I saw a related work re-created at the San Francisco Art Institute, Smithsonian Falls, Descending a Staircase for PK (1987), for a show this spring that celebrated the opening of the restored David Ireland House. Smithsonian Falls… calls for a mass of wet cement to be slathered down the interior concrete staircase of the SFAI gallery, rendering it impassable. As its title suggests, the piece salutes both Duchamp and the sculptural precedent of Robert Smithson’s 1969 Asphalt Rundown, known to nearly everyone only through photographs. Though a wry personality, Smithson apparently intended nothing humorous by his work, which allowed dumped, semi-molten material to find its own form on the crevassed slope down which it spilled.

In 1987, Ireland’s piece seemed to be about treating a staircase (and implicitly, an institution) as a sculpture mold, plus sheer orneriness in the face of SFAI’s bestowal on him of its Adaline Kent Award. (Ireland received an MFA from SFAI in 1974 and an honorary doctorate from 1999.) In the late ’80s context, Smithsonian Falls… evoked materially a nascent crisis of institutional identity that has since become epidemic in higher education. Today’s version of the piece echoed more the treachery of education’s promise of upward social mobility.

Another major work at SFAI, Angel-Go-Round (1996), has gained intensity since its first presentation. Its more or less life-size components are cast fiberglass and concrete sculptures- vaguely or explicitly religious figures: low-grade garden or architectural ornaments. A single winged example hovers above a mass of toppled ones in a circular heap on the floor. Strapped to a spiraling mechanism on the ceiling, the levitating figure circulates like a prayer wheel, nominally bestowing-what? blessings, the promise of redemption, condemnation?-on the fallen mass below.

Thoughts of the arte povera artists’ use of pre-cast statuary are relevant here, so perhaps are memories of the opening sequence of Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” in which a helicopter delivers a huge Christian icon, emblematic of ecclesiastical cynicism and the hollowness of religious observance. Against today’s background, the Angel-Go-Round more likely brings to mind the refreshed hypnotic power of religiosity in a post-colonial world buffeted by the cross-currents of high-speed, borderless capital flows.

These examples attest the capacity of Ireland’s art to garner new relevance from the shifting circumstances of people’s encounters with it. A low-definition aesthetic, respecting chance and whim, guarantee Ireland’s work this sort of staying power, but its self-effacing quality has also tended to make it forgettable to many who do not know it well or already share its predilections.

Two commercial gallery shows in San Francisco also marked the resurrection of 500 Capp Street. A selection of Ireland’s art at the Anglim Gilbert Gallery, which represents his estate, accompanied a group show that included former colleagues, students, friends and admirers such as Terry Fox, Mildred Howard, Paul Kos, Ann Hamilton, Gay Outlaw, and John Beech. Meanwhile, a group of Ireland pieces, among them a couple not shown previously, drawn from the estate of a second sister of the artist, filled the intimate Telegraph Hill Gallery.

“Dumbballs” figured in all three exhibitions, as they do in the house. Typical of Ireland, the signature form of the “Dumbball”-a softball-size concrete sphere-is so simple and objective as to cancel everything personal about itself except the effort it represents. Each such pearl of unwisdom betokens unnumbered, uninterrupted hours spent by Ireland tossing a glob of wet cement from one rubber-gloved hand to the other until it hardened into a coarsely perfect globe. Though absurd, the “Dumbballs” have the weight of evidence: proof of Ireland’s commitment to art production as a means of emptying himself, of emptying his work of himself, and of bearing witness to the false fullness of so much that we unthinkingly desire and take pride in possessing. At a more playful extreme, Ireland toyed with identity in various pieces pivoting on the anagram of his initials: I. D.

Ireland received high but very intermittent recognition for his work-awards, inclusion in prominent exhibitions nationally, gusts of critical and collegial admiration. Yet the fresh presentation of the David Ireland House and the concurrent San Francisco exhibitions had an almost archaeological air about them, as if something about his work, and now his legend, continues to resist memory.

The art market has never known quite how to handle him, but a new test awaits: Frieze New York, the season’s biggest contemporary art fair, will favor his work with a “Spotlight” exhibition in May.

—Kenneth Baker

Preview Image:
500 Capp Street archival exterior view
Photo: courtesy of 500 Capp Street Foundation