Mystery and revelation
A new Manetti Shrem exhibit showcases Stephen Kaltenbach’s eclectic range in paintings, ceramics and sculpture
The last time Stephen Kaltenbach heard his father's voice was the night after he died.
It came to him in a vision. “Too much,” his father's voice said, accompanied with a clear image of a pile of treasure.
The moment inspired the son to rid himself of possessions and spend much of the 1970s in a barn, painting a portrait of Wayne Franklin Kaltenbach. He started the painting before his father died, but that morning, Kaltenbach said he clearly saw the portrait in his mind. He struggled with it several years, but eventually finished a piece that mirrored what he envisioned.
Kaltenbach's “Portrait of My Father,” which usually is on display at Crocker Art Museum, is now at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis as part of a new exhibit, Stephen Kaltenbach: The Beginning and The End, that chronicles an eclectic career that includes ceramics, paintings and sculptures.
In the massive acrylic-on-canvas painting of his father, Kaltenbach captures a moment of mystery and great impact. His father, who had Alzheimer's disease and also suffered a stroke, couldn't speak for nearly a year before his death.
Kaltenbach recalled the last words he said to him before passing: “One day—it may have been the day I was photographing him for the portrait—[my father] says, ‘I have to get up and go to work. And then he says, ‘When I get there, I'll contact you. I'll be able to get in touch with you because the boss will let me. The boss was a great guy. Don't ever work for anybody else.'”
The meaning might not have been crystal clear, but it had a profound effect on the son nonetheless.
The painting is rendered in muted, multicolored textures. Patterns intertwine with every wrinkle and whisker of the dying man's face, filling the space with a glowing, electric otherworldliness. Kaltenbach's father gazes off canvas, his mouth open and his gaze pulled up.
Death and mystery—as well as playful themes of concealment and anonymity—have followed Kaltenbach's art throughout his career as a UCD graduate, a Conceptual art pioneer in 1960s New York City and his current work as a regional artist.
Rachel Teagle, Manetti Shrem Museum's founding director, said the exhibit serves as a celebration of the accomplished, yet overlooked artist.
“We are particularly proud when we have the opportunity to showcase overlooked stories or offer a new perspective on artists we know well,” Teagle said in an email to SN&R. “Our Kaltenbach exhibition does a bit of both. Not nearly enough people know of Stephen's pioneering work and, at the same time, the art world does not appreciate California's important role in the development of conceptual art.”
Constance Lewallen, the exhibit's co-curator with Ted Mann, says it highlights a range of pieces.
“We decided to focus the show on his earlier work and his later work, but at the same time, emphasizing that there is sort of a through line to it all,” she said.
The show also features small ceramic objects Kaltenbach created while still a student at UC Davis. He eventually moved away from sculpture into more conceptual mediums.
In 1967, shortly after receiving his Master of Arts degree from UCD, Kaltenbach moved to New York. He taught at the School of Visual Arts and throughout the '60s gained a promising reputation during a pivotal time in modern art, focusing mainly on conceptual work, which values the concept behind the work, instead of traditional forms and materials.
“I was looking to make art that brought into play certain other things besides something to look at,” Kaltenbach said.
His efforts proved effective as he dove into unexpected mediums and concepts, and was featured in art shows in the U.S. and abroad. Kaltenbach's reputation also gained traction from the anonymous ads he placed in Artforum magazine. The ads featured phrases like “Perpetrate a hoax,” “Build a reputation,” “Become a legend” and “Teach Art.”
“I was creating micro-manifestos … and it was an announcement of something that I was thinking about and doing,” Kaltenbach said. “It was also a suggestion that people could look into if they wanted to.”
The ads carry one of the major themes of Kaltenbach's overall work, according to Lewallen. “He was among the first artists to use that format for his own art anonymously,” she said. “Anonymity was another one of his major themes. It was just another form of hiding.”
Many of his “micro-manifestos” also found themselves as bronze plaques installed in public places, which imitated municipal signs. Lewallen says that some of Kaltenbach's bronze signs have been installed permanently on the UC Davis campus, though keeping with anonymity theme, there's nothing to indicate their locations.
Just as his career was rising, Kaltenbach left New York in 1970, seemingly abandoning his conceptual art, and returned to the Central Valley, according to Lewallen. While she says there's a possible number of reasons why Kaltenbach was drawn back to the Sacramento region, the truth remains a mystery.
“He, himself, says that he felt like he was getting too much exposure and he really wasn't ready for it,” Lewallen said. “He said that he always intended to re-emerge, but he probably didn't think it would take 40 years.”
Kaltenbach taught at Sacramento State University between 1970 and 2005; there he returned to his roots in sculpture, commissioning large public art pieces.
Sacramento residents might recognize the intertwining body parts of his sculpture “Time to Cast Away Stones” outside the Sacramento Convention Center, or the clasping hands of his “Peace” sculpture on Capitol Mall, or the bodiless, bronze legs of his “Ozymandias” on the Sac State campus.
One art form Kaltenbach has continued to explore is the construction of time capsules, each inscribed with its respective due date.
The capsules come with instructions: “Open after my death,” “Bury with the artist” and “Nothing of great value.” Each carries themes of concealment and death.
“I want to conceptually bring you to the last moment you have to do things with your body on the earth,” Kaltenbach said. “I think it's a little bit difficult for some people but healthy.”
While some capsules have reached their due date, Lewallen said their mysteries remain sealed. “We don't really even know if there's anything in them,” she said. “They could be empty. To open them is to destroy them physically because they're welded, and no one's ever done that.”
Kaltenbach said he never expected museums to open his work and that part of the concept was the conflict it created for galleries and collectors. It's a philosophy that underscores his legacy, past and present.
“I don't know how I would feel [if one of the capsules were opened],” he said. “I tend to like to let happen, what happens. I think I'm having too much fun with my art now.”