Gene Thompson
on California Art


Mana’s Gene Thompson on his life and art in the California scene of the 1960s and 70s.

Installation is underway at Mana Contemporary for Made in California: Selections from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, a star-studded exhibition of West Coast art opening to the public on January 24. As we prepare for the show, we sat down with Gene Thompson, director of Mana’s Crate Shop. Thompson was studying and making art on the West Coast during the 1960s and 70s, rubbing shoulders with many of the rising art stars of the time, including some of those in the Weisman show, so we decided to get the inside story. Thompson is now based in New York City and creates multimedia sculptures, watercolor paintings, and aerial works—balloon sculptures—such as his Helium-inflated mylar works shown in 1987 at Socrates Sculpture Park.

Thompson studied painting and sculpture, earning his BFA at California College of the Arts in Oakland and his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. From 1965 to 1975, he was responsible for building the Sculpture Department at California State University, Fresno, developing an active visiting/lecture artist program that included stars of the time such as Stephen Antonakos, Yvonne Rainer, Gene Highstein, Robert Grosvenor, Mel Edwards, and Richard Artschwager from NYC; Sam Gilliam of Washington DC.; Judy Chicago, John Baldessari, and Chris Burden from LA; and Wayne Thiebaud, John Battenberg, Mel Ramos, Robert Arneson, and Robert Hudson from San Francisco. After two years teaching at the University of Iowa, he permanently settled in New York City, occasionally giving watercolor lessons at Kingsborough Community College at Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. Watercolors were and always have been his love and providence.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Thompson continued constructing multi-media sculptures and aerial works such as his “Double Helix” launched from Nassau County Museum of Art in 1979, and “Paradox,” a helium-inflated mylar work constructed on the East River adjacent to Socrates Sculpture Park, 1987.

What was it like growing up in California at that time?
I was born in Oakland. My mother and father were highly creative people, and they somehow guided me into the arts, hoping I had talent and imagination. My mother was interested in early California history. She organized field trips to historic sites, telling stories of early Spanish explorers, the Ohlone Indians, and the indigenous cultures of the Bay Area. My father, a horticulturist, naturalist, landscaper, and owner of a nursery, provided me an outlet for earning and learning. He was a scoutmaster and trained many of us in the art of living in the wilderness. Back in the Depression of the 1930s, he worked as a farm laborer gaining early knowledge of the land and working conditions at that time. He found ways of making a profit from farm and field waste and passed that onto me. This provided the needed funds to pay for college.

Artichokes in California are a main coastal crop. Every four years, farmers had to replant their fields. They dug up and hand cut by machete the large roots separating them into much smaller pieces for replanting. My father found a market for the leftover roots at United Seed Company on the Embarcadero, however they had to be cut, which we did. Sawdust from lumber mills fortified with fertilizer and sand was another byproduct that we developed into a planting mix. The two cubic bags that I mixed and bagged were delivered and sold at his nursery. These two odd jobs enabled me to pay rent, have a car, put myself through art school, buy top quality art supplies, plus buy a beer now and then!

How did you decide to become an artist?
In junior high I won an art competition with a painting of a tree using pastels. The teacher at that time who judged the show, Gerald Irving, was my high school teacher. He had graduated from California College of the Arts and got me a scholarship to attend there. I was introduced to photography, printmaking, lithography, lettering/calligraphy, drawing, oil painting, sculpture, aesthetics, art history, U.S. history, and anatomy. A classmate of mine introduced me to Peter Voulkos. He was the head of sculpture/ceramics the University of California, Berkeley. He took me under his wing, became my mentor and introduced me to the world of sculpture, ceramics, and poker. I really don’t know when I decided to become an artist… it just evolved.

What was it like studying and teaching art in California in the '60s and '70s?
California College of the Arts wanted me to stay for my MFA, but I was advised to go to Cranbrook Academy for sculpture, or Cooper Union in New York for painting. A friend of mine was going to Ohio and offered to bring me to Michigan. It was mid-term, winter. I had never been in the Midwest during winter. Upon crossing a bridge in Michigan, the car lost control on the icy surface and went into a spin, crushing the front end and radiator. We had the car towed to a wrecking yard and roped a used radiator onto the front end. The weather was bitter cold. When I got to Cranbrook, my hand stuck to the main doorknob upon entering the school. I hadn’t applied, I just showed up. They had one studio left. The master teacher, Julius Schmidt, asked why I was also considering Cooper Union for painting. I said it was basically the same thing! He asked how I would get to New York, as my friend with the car had to leave. I said, “I’ll hitchhike.” He asked how much money I had. I said, “five dollars.” He initially let me stay two weeks. He had me do some welding for him the next day. Then he asked me to be his TA. I taught two sculpture classes a week working from a live model using clay. One of the requirements was to do a head study in clay. Even though I’d never done a head study, the first demonstration I did went well—I had learned from my students by observing them. That changed the orientation of the class—everyone got involved in teaching each other.

After my MFA in Michigan, I received a call from Cal State Fresno. They wanted me to build a sculpture department. I wasn’t interested, but this was 1965—there was a war in Vietnam. I was told by the draft board that if I took the job, I most likely wouldn’t be drafted… I took the job.

The ’60s and ’70s were a time of turmoil. The farm workers were protesting miserable wages and conditions. Although affirmative action was law, people of color were still sidelined. The war fueled just about everything and protests were nationwide. Starting with demonstrations at Berkeley and elsewhere, the distractions from teaching were evident, however, developments to new ideas and methods were emerging. [At Cal State Fresno] a new art department was being built and by 1970 we had a new facility. I felt comfortable asking artists if they would be participants to a new guest program that I founded at the university. I called a friend of mine in New York. He suggested Stephen Antonakos, who was working in neon and had just been published on the cover of Art in America. It was a long shot. A good friend of mine said no one will ever come to Fresno. The very next day I received a letter from Stephen saying that he would be delighted to come to CSUF for the coming semester! That was the beginning of the guest artist program and lecture series.

How did the art scenes compare between Los Angeles and San Francisco? 
Fresno is in the Central Valley of California, and about three to four hours from LA and San Francisco. I was more familiar with Bay Area artists and what was going on compared to LA. However later on, as a result of hiring Judy Chicago in the ’70s, that changed. She introduced me to Stanley Grinstein at Gemini G.E.L., a major printmaker and others from LA. I got a better view of the art that was coming out of LA. It was about new commercial materials that were being introduced. Fiberglass, poured resins, plastics of all sorts, Lucite, and new and experimental methods of casting embellished the art work. Artists were influenced by industrial finishes and spray painting with over- and under-layers of metal flake and pearl developed by custom car builders. Classic oil painting tubes were being replaced more frequently by acrylics. Sensation was replacing content. Luster and finish seemed to carry the day. It was about the look. Not to say that was the only thing that was going on. Ed Kienholz’s fiberglass figures brought upon us the horrors of aging and the macabre. The Ferus Gallery was among the avant garde at the time and had unconventional, controversial works of art. Frederick R. Weisman began to establish a sizable collection of works, buying emerging and established artists of the day. LA was hot!

Although San Francisco/Bay Area artists were also using experimental materials and methods, it was also more provincial in nature and figurative in thought. Manuel Neri, Nathan Oliveira, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and Wayne Thiebaud were some of the figurative prime movers. Landscape was also a dominant theme among many artists. Peter Voulkos led the path to ceramics and sculpture. Robert Hudson and Kenneth Price reveled in unique ceramic funky forms and spectacular glazing. Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra emerging at that time influenced ideas on a grand scale.

What was it like to be part of such an emerging, community-oriented art scene?
I was mostly connected to the Bay Area and its environs in the late ’50s in undergraduate school. The only time I ventured outside California during that time was with a high speed trip with a friend in a 1958 Ford interceptor convertible to a sculpture conference in New Orleans and back. We somehow survived! For me, the community was the art schools and universities in the Bay Area and the artists who taught there. They were riding on the wave of Governor Brown's expansion of the universities and the commissions for public sculpture, part of the building boom and development of the interstate highway system. 

Graduate school in Cranbrook brought about a wider community, introducing me to the artists and jazz musicians of Detroit. After Cranbrook, my experience teaching at Fresno was isolating. I organized personal field trips to both San Francisco and LA to keep abreast of what was going on. In LA there were maybe thirty to forty artists that were prime avant garde. Most everyone knew each other.

Because my parents lived above Silicon Valley and my sister lives in San Francisco, I always had a place to stay while visiting the DeYoung Museum, San Francisco Museum of Art, and The Legion of Honor.

During my teaching years in Fresno I began constructing aerial events (metal casting and other methods of creating sculpture were set aside for lighter materials) for festivals, poetry readings, protests, and performances. The DeYoung hosted eight weekends of my outside aerial constructions. I also constructed aerial works at dams and sites chosen for their uniqueness: Yosemite Valley, Pine Flat Dam, the John Rex ranch, and the immediate foothills of the Central Valley. The landscape and mild weather allowed aerial works – lightweight, connected to the earth, the sky, the water, and air… The sky was my ground!


Images top to bottom:  Gene Thompson with his artwork at the Mana Crate Shop, 2016. Photo by E. Lee Smith.  Gene Thompson, Aerial Work, 1979, At Sacramento City College, California. (installation view)
Photo by: David Deangelo. Gene Thompson, Paradox, 1987, At Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, New York. Helium inflated structure of metallized and optical-quality mylar. 10 Cones Spanning 800 ft.; each cone: 40 ft. x 4 ft. 6 in. (installation view)