The History of Funk Art

The Basics of this Art Movement Spanning From the Late 1950s-1970s

By the middle of the 1950s abstract expressionism had held sway in the art world for a full decade, and there existed certain artists who felt the adulation had gone on for roughly nine years too long. In an uncoordinated artistic rebellion, a number of new movements began to gain traction. The one characteristic these movements had in common was shunning the abstract in favor of the tangible. From this, the delightfully-named "Funk Art" movement was born.

Origins of the "Funk Art" Name

The romantic version of Funk Art's etymology says it came from jazz music, where "funky" was a term of approbation. Jazz is also perceived as unrefined and -- especially with late '50s free jazz -- unorthodox. This fits neatly, for Funk Art was nothing if not unrefined and unorthodox. However, it is probably closer to the truth to say that Funk Art came from the original, negative meaning of "funk:" a powerful stench, or an assault on one's senses.

Whichever version you believe, the "baptism" occurred in 1967, when UC Berkeley Art History professor and Founding Director of the Berkeley Art Museum, Peter Selz, curated the Funk exhibition.

Where Was Funk Art Created?

The movement got its start in the San Francisco Bay area, specifically at the University of California, Davis. In fact, many of the artists who participated in Funk Art were on the studio art faculty.

Funk Art never outgrew being a regional movement, which is just as well. The Bay Area, the epicenter of the underground, was probably the one place in which it could have thrived, let alone survived.

How Long Was the Movement?

Funk Art's heyday was in the mid- to late-1960s. Naturally, its beginnings were much earlier; the (very) late-1950s seem to be the point of origin.

By the end of the 1970s, things were pretty much over as far as artistic movements go. To include all possibilities, it can be said Funk Art was produced for no more than two decades -- and 15 years would be more realistic. It was fun while it lasted, but Funk did not have a long life.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Funk Art?

  • Found and everyday objects
  • Autobiographical subjects
  • (Frequently inappropriate) humor
  • Audience engagement
  • Elevation of ceramics

Historic Precedent

Funk was preceded by another Bay Area art movement known as "Beat Era Funk" or "Funk Assemblage". Its attitude was more surrealistic than funky, but it did add a few notes to Funk. Despite also being regional, Beat Era Funk never garnered much popularity.

In terms of humor and subject matter, Funk Art's lineage goes straight back to Dada, while its aspects of collage and assemblage hearken to Pablo Picasso's and Georges Braque's Synthetic Cubism.

Artists Associated with Funk Art

  • Robert Arneson
  • Wallace Berman
  • Bruce Conner
  • Roy De Forest
  • Jay DeFeo
  • Viola Frey
  • David Gilhooly
  • Wally Hedrick
  • Robert H. Hudson
  • Jess
  • Ed Kienholz
  • Manuel Neri
  • Gladys Nilsson
  • Jim Nutt
  • Peter Saul
  • Richard Shaw
  • William T. Wiley

Sources:

Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area: 1945 to 1980.
     Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Nelson, A. G. You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Studio Art Faculty (exh. cat.).
     Davis: University of California Press, 2007.

Oral history interview with Bruce Nauman, 1980 May 27-30,
     Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Oral history interview with Roy De Forest, 2004 Apr. 7-June 30,
     Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Selz, Peter. Funk (exh. cat.).
     Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Tinti, Mary M. "Funk Art"
     Grove Art Online, accessed 25 Apr. 2012.