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The Slant Step comes home for good

7.20.2012

Art history with a slant

Photo: Frank Owen and the Slant Step (portrait)

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AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Flatlanders on the Slant

WHEN: Through Aug. 17

WHERE: Nelson Gallery, Nelson Hall

SUMMER HOURS: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Saturday; and Friday by appointment

CATALOG: A fully illustrated catalog is available.

More Exhibitions.

By Dave Jones

Two UC Davis artists came upon it nearly 50 years ago, this odd assembly of wood covered in green linoleum, a footrest of some sort — and a slanted one at that.

It cost 50 cents at a salvage shop, but, as the old saying goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, or, in this case, the art world’s treasure, an icon of the 1960s — a muse for countless other works.

It came to be called the Slant Step, made a splash in a Bay Area show, and, then, after just a few years on campus, the step was gone, off to see the world, or the East Coast, anyway, returning occasionally for exhibitions like the one this summer at the Nelson Gallery. See separate story about the show, Flatlanders on the Slant.

The show’s opening reception July 12 included a surprise announcement: UC Davis art alumni Frank Owen (an abstract painter) and Art Schade (sculptor) had donated the Slant Step to the university’s Fine Arts Collection.

“This is a very important piece of UC Davis’ art history, and we are so grateful to have it,” Dean Jessie Ann Owens of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies told Dateline UC Davis.

In fact, in any discussion of the UC Davis art department’s claims to fame, the Slant Step ranks right up there with the California funk movement.

The Slant Step’s history as an “objet d’art” began in 1965 when Professor William T. Wiley and graduate student Bruce Nauman came across the seemingly useless object in a Marin County shop. Wiley paid the 50 cents and Nauman kept the step in his studio for inspiration (and footrest!).

Owen studied art at UC Davis around the same time (bachelor’s degree in 1966 and master’s in 1968) and would become the Slant Step’s caretaker for 45 years. “Somebody has got to keep the damn thing, so we — myself, Arthur Schade and a couple of other buddies — kept it,” Owen said in a 2010 interview with the Vermont Quarterly, out of the University of Vermont, a few months before his retirement from the art faculty.

All through his academic career, Owen used the step as his “teaching pal” — in Sacramento, San Francisco, New York, Virginia, North Carolina and, finally, Vermont, asking his students to ponder its meaning (and their own).

Still, in his interview with the Vermont Quarterly, he cautioned: “We shouldn’t take it too seriously; it’s essentially a whimsical entity. It’s just some clunky, funny, funky object that nobody knows what it’s about. And it looks so humble.”

Coming out party in 1966

In 1966, Wiley organized the Slant Step Show that served as a coming out party of sorts for what would become a symbol of American art of the era. The San Francisco show featured Slant Steps “made of bread, of colored plastic with electric lights inside, of wood and metal and silk, and probably of chewing gum, too: It’s that kind of show,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s account.

About the aesthetic meaning of Slant Step-inspired work, Owen told the Vermont Quarterly: “It’s so characteristic about an attitude that Bay Area artists had — well, compared to New York — at the time. ...

“So the Slant Step, I always have seen it as a San Francisco version of a Bronx cheer to all of the theoretical folk — raising the point that art is what artists make, not what theoreticians say you should make. If we want to make art about this stupid, humble, little, green linoleum object, why, we’ll do it.”

In 1967, Owen took the step along for the first day of his first paid teaching job, advanced drawing, at California State University, Sacramento:

“I plunked it on the model stand and I unrolled a scroll on which I’d written all of these different constructions using meanings of the word to draw — drawn close, drawn against, drawn through, drawn fine — and I told the students to make drawings based on this language of this object.”

The next year he and his wife left for New York. “We drove across the country in a VW beetle and the Slant Step rode in the back seat. Thus began its time in the East.”

Bouncer, no; patient model, yes

The legend of the Slant Step grew to include stories of a vagabond existence, with Owen recounting how the step washed dishes at a Taco Bell, worked as a bouncer at an Upper East Side brothel, and suavely dazzled society matrons and debs at the Ak-Sar-Ben (that’s Nebraska spelled backward) ball in Omaha.

“But, alas, it would not be true,” Owen wrote in an e-mail to Dateline UC Davis. “The poor little thing didn’t get to have any of those adventures. But as it was in my loft in the new neighborhood of Soho in Manhattan in the 1970s, it did have a deal of fun. It met all kinds of art luminaries and sat around with them while they ate my chili and drank beer. It was exciting.”

Sometimes, he would pack the step in a formidable crate and ship it off to galleries and museums for retrospective shows, but, mostly, the step resided with him. (Well, except for the time Richard Serra spirited it off to New York, and someone else spirited it back.)

Owen joined the Vermont faculty in 1991, and, on the day he retired, in December 2010, he gave his advanced drawing class the same Slant Step assignment that he had given at Sac State in 1967.

The Slant Step which he described as “probably the shabbiest teaching tool at Vermont,” retired, too.

“Throughout New England (especially Vermont) and other states, gathering dust in the garages, basements and attics of parents, are hundreds of undergraduate drawing class portfolios that include at least one drawing of the Slant Step,” Owen said in an e-mail.

“This was its job — to pose on a model stand patiently (which it is very good at) and be drawn while also posing its eternal question: What is this thing, what is it for and why do we attend to it?”

Part of the UC Davis art story

When his teaching career ended, Owen started thinking about a new home for the Slant Step. He said he and Schade — “the active members of what was called the New York Society for the Preservation of the Slant Step” — chose UC Davis for a couple of reasons, among them the donors’ status as alumni (Schade received a Master of Fine Arts in 1970).

Other factors: The Nelson Gallery already holds a rich collection of step-inspired works, and the university plans to build a museum where Northern California art will be a focus.

“The Slant Step is certainly part of that story,” Professor Owen said.

“Finally, I had enjoyed the companionship of the Slant Step for 45 years and thought it time that it could frolic happily on the shores of Putah Creek.”

The Slant Step, when Owen shipped it around the country, carried an insurance valuation of $250,000. But don’t think for a minute that he and Schade are splitting that amount for tax deductions.

“The valuation for the purpose of making this gift is 50 cents,” Owen said. “That is the amount that legend has it that Bill Wiley paid at the Mount Carmel salvage shop in Mill Valley way back when.

“So, if I or Art Schade are to benefit financially from this donation, it will be in the Schedule A tax-deductible amount of two bits.”

Reach Dateline UC Davis Editor Dave Jones at (530) 752-6556 or dljones@ucdavis.edu.

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