Walking through an ornate gothic portal from Chestnut Street on Russian Hill into the courtyard of the San Francisco Art Institute’s 1927 campus, I enter another world. I am greeted by a captivating Moorish-style, tiled octagonal fountain. This was the site of the Bakewell & Brown-designed, Spanish Mission Revival campus’s opening party where “[m]usicians played on their stringed instruments and bouquets of marigolds were scattered about the fountain...” This historic art school is an arcadia of adobe-ochre walls and red tile roofs, a bell tower, and a church-like space hosting Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.
San Francisco’s status as the epicenter of sexual liberation fostered an art school with a particularly libertine bent. My dissertation-in-progress, The Fountain: Art, Sex and Queer Pedagogy in San Francisco, 1945–95 was inspired by the SFAI fountain, which has acted as a social hub at the school for generations. I see the SFAI fountain as a model for a “wet” art history ready and eager to grapple with sexuality, and as a metaphor for all the libidinal and creative energies coursing through the Bay Area. The water cycles through the fountain as young people arrive year after year, make friends, learn how to be artists (and how to be queer), make and show their work, and pass on. The campus is currently locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and SFAI’s future is uncertain: if it survives, it will turn 150 in 2021.
Images by and of (alphabetical order): Jay DeFeo by Jack Fulton, Geoffrey Farmer’s A way out of the mirror (Canada Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale) by Francesco Barasciutti, Jack Fulton, Haluk Kecelioglu by David Hallinger (?), Richard Laughlin, Curt McDowell, Carlos Villa, and myself.
Special thanks to Jeff Gunderson, Librarian and Archivist, Anne Bremer Memorial Library, SFAI
Jon Davies is a curator, writer and PhD Candidate in Art History at Stanford University.