Tanya Zimbardo, SFMOMA assistant curator of media arts, invites artists Gerald Gooch, Richard Lowenberg, and Robert Moon to reflect on their experiences of an SFMOMA-sponsored trip to Baja.
In 1974 the San Francisco Museum of Art accepted an unusual exhibition proposal from Bay Area–based artists Robert Moon and Gage Taylor: along with artist friends Robert Fried, Gerald Gooch, Bill Martin, and Richard Lowenberg, Moon and Taylor would take a monthlong expedition to Baja, Mexico, covering 2,500 miles in two vans and a pickup truck. The resulting exhibition, Baja, offered the artists’ personal interpretations of the desert environment through approximately 80 works in diverse media made on location and later in the studio. Straddling offsite and onsite creative production, Baja and, later, Richard Kamler and Elin Elisofon’s The Desert Project (1979) were two of the major projects that the museum’s auxiliary SECA cosponsored in parallel to its ongoing art award program.
Baja has been of particular interest to me since I learned that it was among the first exhibitions at SFMOMA to include video and film in the gallery context. I recently located several videotapes from the exhibition in our library archives, including Moon’s films Breath (posted below) and The Entire Trip (at bottom), as well as Lowenberg’s three video journals. These sequences of water, the road, and other scenes and situations were composed to play at random on monitors in alcoves within an adobe-like structure, part of an immersive environment that included holography, objects, prints, and sounds.
At the opening the artists learned the shocking news of Fried’s death at age 37 from a stroke earlier in the day. Fried was known in the San Francisco psychedelic music scene for his concert posters, and members of both art and music circles organized benefits (including the Grateful Dead and Friends’ “Bob Fried Memorial Boogie” at Winterland in 1975) to support his widow and children. Visionary painters Taylor and Martin passed away in 2000 and 2008, respectively.
Here, Lowenberg, Moon, and Gooch share their recollections of the journey.
So many years ago and yet many of those memories are so clear. One month with five friends traveling and camping in the Baja desert before there was a paved road. The flavor of the Wild West still lingered, though it was clear even then that those days were numbered. Of course, as soon as the paved road was in, there was a flood tide of campers and Americans bringing with them civilization and development. Gage Taylor and his wife and son spent a week touring Baja with myself and my son. Time was limited, so we were only able to see the northern part of the desert, but we saw enough to want to return and see more. We were sitting around a campfire on our last night when the idea of an artists’ tour of Baja came to us. As soon as we got back to Marin County we began formulating a plan and discussing who we wanted to join us. Bob Fried, Gerald Gooch, Richard Lowenberg, Bill Martin, Gage Taylor, and myself made up the tour members, and the museum graciously provided the finances, the space, and time for a show of the work we would produce. When we returned to the Bay Area we had six months to put together a major show; though a daunting prospect, personally it was one of the most productive and creative periods of my career as an artist. I can’t speak for the others, but from what I saw it was a very creative time for them, as well. Notably, Bob Fried seemed especially motivated and produced a large body of work in a very short amount of time. Later we would find out why, although we should have known the reason for the many hints that he dropped during the trip. Bob had a terminal illness that would result in his death the afternoon before the opening. I remember walking in to the museum opening of the Baja show so elated and full of expectations, only to be plunged into grief at the news of my friend’s passing.
The trip itself was filled with adventure, vehicle breakdowns, a case of severe sunstroke, and just the day-to-day problems encountered while traveling in a desert hundreds of miles from the paved road and any kind of settlements. The month flew by very quickly, and we were able to see only a few of the sites that were on my list. This was my third trip to Baja, and so I was familiar with all of the areas that we explored, though I saw them in a different way through the eyes of my friends. It was an experience that I will always look back on as one of the finest.
Robert Moon, Breath, 1974; Courtesy the artist and SFMOMA Library Archives
The six of us in three vehicles left the Bay Area, driving south on Interstate Highway 5. Crossing the border, we proceeded south, stopping in Ensenada to buy needed gas, food, refreshments, and supplies, and to have a delicious south-of-the-border fresh seafood meal and overnight stay before continuing on the journey.
Before leaving Ensenada, Bob Fried, by pre-appointment, arranged to meet with the postmaster of Northern Baja, to formally offer a signed sheet of BAJA stamps that Fried had designed and printed prior to the trip. After documenting their official “thank-you” handshake, we departed.
Bahia de Los Angeles
Driving down newly paved Baja Highway 1, we reached a giant boulder field, which we explored in the late afternoon amid brilliant sunset light, and where we stayed overnight. The next morning we headed on to Bahia de Los Angeles, on Baja’s east coast, along the warm Sea of Cortez.
On approaching our destination, we drove through deep, soft beach sand, to get as close to the bay as possible. Purposely beached, we knew that we would spend each morning for the next five days carrying rocks and branches to build a track that would allow us to drive back out onto the solid roadway. It was midsummer and daytime temperatures reached 115 degrees. There was no shade — other than Fried’s parachute, which we stretched between our circled vehicles — to cover our central camping area. Much of each day was spent in the water, as flies and swarms of small bees were attracted to us (and to our colorful paints) when we were on the beach. Wearing wide-brimmed straw hats, Bill Martin and Gage Taylor sat on lawn chairs in the water with floating pads, doing watercolor sketches.
I hiked around the bay in the heat of the day, exploring other isolated beaches, one of which was widely strewn with shark carcasses and large sea turtle shells discarded by fishermen. I set up props, photographed and videotaped environmental installations, and took lots of scenic shots.
Gerry Gooch had hardly traveled far from the Bay Area in his over 40 years. Baja was far afield. On our first day camping and working at Bahia de Los Angeles, Gerry spent too much unprotected time in the sun, got badly sunburned, and by day two began to suffer from the increasingly debilitating effects of sunstroke. By day three, he was unable to care for himself. We then made the difficult decision to get off the beach as soon as possible to get him to critically needed medical care.
At this point, less than a week into the proposed three-week journey, we assumed that the trip might have to be aborted. One possibility was to get Gerry to the nearest airport and onto a flight back to San Diego or Oakland. The nearest airport was across Baja in Guerrero Negro.
We headed west on a route that Moon knew. Along the dirt road that would pass through San Borja, we sighted a bent-over curved Boojum tree, which became an immediate group photo-op. The image of the six of us under the Boojum was used for the exhibition announcement card.
San Borja is the site of an old Spanish mission ruin, located on a small, fertile, palm-treed oasis, along a rugged dirt road cutting across central Baja. Two families, seeming not to care for each other, lived at the site, caring for their spring-fed fields and watching over the mission. We befriended Belizario Smith and his family, as his muscular teenage son helped us reinflate our truck tires with a hand pump. The cooler, higher-altitude inland air seemed to be making Gerry more comfortable.
Guerrero Negro turned our journey into what seemed like a bad “gringos south of the border” movie. A Japanese company–supported salt mining town, located halfway down the Baja Peninsula’s cool Pacific coast and on the eastern shore of Scammon’s Lagoon, Guerrero Negro is famous as the spawning waters for migratory Pacific gray whales.
We were desperate to get Gerry onto a plane and back home for needed care. He was feeling better and expressed his not wanting to return or to scuttle the trip. While Gerry and others waited in the plaza, two of us went to the airport to check on next flights to San Diego or north, and to phone his wife. Wandering in the plaza, Gerry was picked up by the local police and their gray-suited Japanese “advisors” for his peculiar “anti-social” behavior. We retrieved him by agreeing to all get out of town immediately. We high-tailed it, but covertly camped in the Guerrero Negro city dump overnight, in order to catch the only scheduled flight the next day.
The next day, the flight never came. Gerry, feeling better, wanted to stay on. Change of plans. Moon arranged with a man named Pedro, who had a small open fishing boat, to take us about 30 miles out across rough waters to an endlessly windswept, sand dune coast, where the Japanese current has washed up Pacific flotsam since earliest times. After a scary sea crossing, we spent the next many hours hiking along the white dunes under a pale blue sky, covered from head to toe to keep our skin, hands, and faces from being painfully sand-blasted amid the high winds.
As we had gotten out of Pedro’s fishing boat, an unexpected balloon-tired ATV with hooded rider had zoomed past. Along our path lay whole whale skeletons, an endless blanketing cache of sand dollars, and, half-submerged in the dunes, a marooned old fishing boat: “Satan’s Bride.” On our way back to Pedro’s boat, the ATV rider passed us on his return, this time carrying what looked like a space capsule. A large seagoing landing craft pulled onto shore and the ATV drove up a lowered ramp, the crew suspiciously eyeing us as they efficiently set off to sea again.
The next day, we drove southeast to El Arco, the middle point on the border of North and South Baja, in a vast, parched, open expanse of geologically shaped desert landscape. Climbing to the top of a high mesa, we viewed a 360-degree panorama of the expansive wilderness. Moon set up his specially constructed film box, containing a Bolex 16mm camera, motor drive, and time-lapse unit, to shoot continuous single frames at set intervals during days and nights in the landscape. He did so at all of the locations where we stayed, later to edit them into a time-lapse film of our journey.
On our way back north, we stopped near another boulder field with a small hot-spring pool. We cavorted, swam, and soaked in the warm pool waters, sleeping that night on top of giant boulders. Exploring the area, Gerry found a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on one of the boulders.
We finally headed back somewhat short of our intended stay, with some in the group having had enough of what had become not just an artists’ journey, but also a difficult survival adventure.
Between the end of July and installation of works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in December, the six of us retreated to our lives and our studios to create, develop, and finish works for the scheduled exhibition. Museum staff collaborated closely and creatively with us.
Gerald Gooch spoke with me by phone. He observed, “You can’t separate what happened in Baja or isolate it from an evolving life, but it was a firestone in my experience.” After taking time to recoup and digest his personal ordeal in the desert, a “heavy and enlightening” trip, for the show he created several sculptures with inscriptions that symbolically echoed his spiritual journey — a fisherman catching himself, a wrapped figure with fragmented mirrors pouring onto the floor. Baja had also turned out to be a “crash course in what my paintings were about” and an extension of certain ideas present since the sixties. Paintings that were in flux, like The Son Created the Father Two — begun years earlier with numerous friends collectively contributing vibrant marks from paint-filled cake decorating tubes — took on a new meaning in this context.
The watercolors and gouaches by the other artists in the exhibition were largely based on imagery of the unpopulated desert landscape, with its unique vegetation and derelict automobiles, but several works, like Gooch’s, were instead evocative of infinity, timelessness, and energy. Fried, for instance, had created a series of sculptures based on his wooden-shoe walking stick and its associations with divining tools.
Robert Moon, The Entire Trip, 1974; Courtesy the artist and SFMOMA Library Archives