In Memoriam: David Ireland 1930 – 2009
This afternoon, SFMOMA is hosting a special memorial service honoring Bay Area sculptor and conceptual artist David Ireland, who passed away last spring. Ireland was a central figure in conceptual art in the Bay Area and beyond. From the 1970s until his death, he produced a highly idiosyncratic body of work concerned with the creation and function of art within everyday life. In place of the blog’s usual mid-month “Collection Rotation”, today we also pay tribute, with a collection of contributions from younger artists, organized by SF artist and musician Scott Hewicker.
My home, my work, my artistic and musical practices—essentially my whole life—co-exist on a steady fault line between David Ireland’s two Capp Street houses in San Francisco’s Mission District. 65 Capp Street was the site of the first Capp Street Project, and 500 Capp St, Ireland’s former home and studio, is now also, to my mind, his greatest lasting artwork. The two houses seem at times like two footprints of a standing giant, and he was a giant to me and to many. Fearlessly beginning his career late in life, David’s essential concern was the Zen-like observance of, and dedication to, the ever-lasting present. Using common, readily available materials such as concrete, found wood, and other debris, with the lightest of touch. David could make dirt sing, rewarding our acceptance of his work, but never asking for it. “You can’t make art by making art”, he often said, and you can see in some of the contributions below how many artists have taken that simple but profound idea to heart. I didn’t know him well, but his work and the ideas inherent in their making have always deeply resonated with me, as with others. David’s refusal of personal attachment to the works he made gave me the courage when I left art school to discard all my old work and start over again from scratch.
His passing last May, though expected for a long time, nevertheless struck slow and deep. I was surprised by what seemed to me a muted media response, or in the case of the art world outside the Bay Area, what felt like too little response at all. I never considered David Ireland “just” a San Francisco or West Coast artist. We were lucky to have him here and lucky he wanted to be here, and his ideas and creative spirit seem embedded in the foundation of a working artists’ community here. From spontaneous street sculpture to DIY art spaces, David helped you appreciate the beauty inherent in everyday things, and in happenings outside the sphere of marketable art. News of his death I thought should have rung out through the streets like the death of Victor Hugo in Paris. He touched so many people, so many artists.
I see echoes of David Ireland’s work in many artists, and wondered what it would look like to ask a cross-section of people here, or who used to be here, to select a work of David’s and a work of their own to engage in a kind of visual interplay that reflects how they’ve felt David’s impact on their own work or lives. Some have also contributed memories and personal insights. A tribute like this one couldn’t begin to be representative of everyone Ireland touched. I hope we can take this tiny part to indicate a much greater whole.
From the basement to the roof, I had many favorite spots in David’s house. He used to have me stay there to look after it when he was away – sometimes for only a couple of days and sometimes for weeks on end. I explored every corner of that place a million times over and never tired of it. I always came across some new aspect of it that would blow my mind. Through it, I came to understand and love David Ireland. He was a good artist and a good friend and I miss him. —Allison Shields
When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 80s, one of the first artists I heard about was David Ireland. His easy humor, warm intelligence, and deep courtesy were common knowledge even then. After a couple of years I had the chance to be the custodian of an installation at Capp Street Project, and got to know David a bit better and experience those qualities firsthand. He displayed genuine interest in the work of younger artists, and the more I experienced his work the more it impressed me. A couple of years ago I got rid of the studio I was renting in Greenpoint and started making work out of my home. I returned to David’s work as a model of how to live with objects and think through them. I made a show of things I assembled from castoffs from around my neighborhood. It seems to me that the example of David’s broom piece was in the back of my mind. Many artists make a great show of erasing boundaries between art and life, but David did it with a matter-of-factness that is a shining model. His work never looks down on anyone, and instead stands as a record of intelligent inquiry, and diligent craft. Both in his personal affect and artistic practice, he is someone I would always hope to emulate. —Nayland Blake
Changing our point of view, transforming our awareness of life and seeing reality as it is, if only for a moment, was why I feel David Ireland believed “you can’t make art by making art.” Like most simple things, it sounds like the easiest thing in the world: it’s not. He made it look effortless. —John Zurier
I took a class with David at the Art Institute way back in the late 80’s. He wasn’t into any of the performances I was doing at the time (a lot of loud autobiographical stuff I would NEVER do now). But he taught me a lot about formalism and presentation, and to appreciate a handmade materialist aesthetic I still use to this day. —Cliff Hengst
One of my favorite works of David’s were his “Dumbballs.” I love the mundane material and the conundrum that he presents in their making: the concrete must be kept in motion in order to find its form. David was in service of the sculpture until it was complete. As a young artist, I found that idea to be an inspiration. —Gay Outlaw
a mindless act yields a complex conundrum.
its repetition informs a meditative mind
yet its outcome is always different.
David comes out wearing an oversized rain jacket or heavy coat. He proceeds to enter and he stands on something-at first I thought it was something more formal like a podium, but in writing this to you I think he just used a chair that was by chance there to stand on. He started to take off his coat, then another and another, allowing his coats to just flop down on the floor forming this mass of piles of jacket. It was really ridiculous, surprising, funny and an insightful analog of the devastating account of El Nino. Getting to know David Ireland’s approach to his life and to his art I will always remember this 2 – 3 minute performance as a highlight, and in the same way I enjoy his dumb balls: funny, and on point. —Veronica De Jesus
David Ireland’s playfulness generously let place and things have their own private lives. An offering and an idea. Architecture and Ecology may potentially be similar, if not interchangeable, contemplative devices when one enters with wonder and in a spirit of close attention, like in the inspiring life and work of David Ireland. —Keith Evans
In 1988 I was working at the Berkeley Art Museum, and worked with David on his Matrix show. We went to UC Salvage together to look for the chairs that became School of Chairs, one of several installation/ sculptures in the exhibition. In 2007 I was traveling in Sweden and Finland and ended up taking a lot of photographs of chairs. This was the first, and I was thinking of School of Chairs when I shot it. One of the things I appreciate most about David’s work is the way he used simple, actions and things. It’s stuck with me, so that I end up seeing things (more or less) through his eyes. —Nina Zurier
In 2001 I curated a show at Apex Art called Making the Making. The exhibition included objects made by artists in order to help make them make their work. David was represented by a Dumb Ball and a pair of rubber gloves. When the show was over, David generously gave me the Dumb Ball. It is one of my most prized possessions. —Charles Goldman
I first met David in 1996. David hired Will Rogan and I to help build a big chair at Gallery Paule Anglim. We didn’t know what we were doing but David had complete faith in us. I continued to work for DI and take care of 500 Capp. I stayed there while David was out of town so it always looked like someone was home. Some of my fondest memories are of dinner at David’s, I feel lucky I had the opportunity to spend as much time as I did at 500 Capp Street. David lived in a world where repairing a home could make it a sculpture and a sculpture could be a bent wire above your head, concrete on the floor or a wet dollar bill left to dry above the sink. David was both an inspiring artist and a friend, I will miss him very much. —Bob Linder
Story has it, David Ireland began making art because of an elephant stool. A seat, made from the taxidermied foot of an elephant, was for sale in his shop and caught the eye of a young artist who needed it for a piece. Ever-curious Ireland allowed him to borrow it and attended the show. Here he first glimpsed the world of contemporary art and determined wholeheartedly to join in.
Many will scoff at conceptual art as they suffer neither desire for possession nor awe of craftsmanship. Ireland’s own drive to delight was independent from desire. He considered the works of man, without judgment, from a point of view generally reserved for the appreciation of nature. This blithe benevolence should not be confused with lack of sophistication; to me, it is proof of his rare and pure vision.
“If you have a regard for light- its gentleness and the subtleness and intensities on different days- you can only treat what the light illuminates with the same kind of regard” –David Ireland (from Jesse Schlesinger)
I live within three blocks of David’s 500 Capp St. House, and have been making sculptures directly with ready-made-trash and debris I find on streets of our neighborhood. His home has a presence in our neighborhood which has influenced many of the artists’ projects that have happened at my home at 667Shotwell. David’s home sculptures carry the residue of history that came before. This sculpture was made on 20th St, just down the street from Capp St House. —Chris Sollars
David Ireland’s home at 500 Capp Street was one of the inspirations for my site-specific installation/environment Home 1996 – 2008. I loved how David integrated his work so directly into his everyday life and living environment, challengingthe definition of what constitutes “art”, and using materials and practices that weren’t necessarily popular or accepted by the standards of the art world at the time. I’m very grateful to David for the different perspective and the delight he provided in experiencing life and art. His work lives on in the work of those of us he inspired. —Megan Wilson
Impediments are stars here
On a missing leg
Come in, mind the empty mason jar
Ration time, fog and will
The winter’s sail won’t be still
—Rebecca Goldfarb, from SOLIDIFY, for David Ireland
I had the fortune to meet David Ireland walking past 500 Capp St. in early 1970’s. I told him I was taking a painting class at SF Art Institute. He invited me to show him my work and visit his house later that week. He had great presence.
His house changed my life. He was very generous with his time. I must have asked him a million questions about how the walls were transformed into a zen-like cathedral space. By stripping the wallpaper off and varnishing the plaster, the walls became like marble, yellowed and cracked with time.
There in the corner across from a gray marble arched fireplace were five, seven, eight? brooms each lovingly worn until they were no longer of use tucked waterfall-like into the corner with the essence of the hands that had used them, a monument to their service.
At the top of the stairs from the front door you were greeted by an alligator head, jaws open, delicately holding a fortune cookie paper in it’s sharp teeth…”You will travel far in this life”.
I felt, I had suddenly arrived. He was my zen master.
David Ireland’s Capp St house was an inspiration when I saw in in process and I will always remember it. We all live in at works we are making.
this was simply, awesome. thank you!