Bay Area Conceptual Artist David Ireland Dies at 78


Bay Area conceptual artist David Ireland died of pneumonia Sunday after suffering from dementia with Lewy bodies for several years. He was 78. Born in Bellingham, Washington in 1930, he was educated at Western Washington University in Bellingham, the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in Oakland, and San Francisco Art Institute, where he received his graduate degree in the mid-1970s. In 1975, Ireland purchased a house at 500 Capp Street, in San Francisco. He spent decades renovating the space using many of the methods and motifs he employed in his artistic practice. In 1979, he bought a second home at 65 Capp Street, which later became home to Capp Street Projects following is purchase by CCA board member Ann Hatch; the two co-founded the highly regarded artist residency program in 1983. Ireland’s work was featured in a 30-year retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California in 2003-4, “The Way Things Are.”

Stephanie Cash considered Ireland’s legacy in the October 2008 issue of Art in America:

The longtime home of Bay Area artist David Ireland was purchased in August by local collector Carlie Wilmans. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the 78-year-old conceptual artist had to move out of the house several years ago due to health problems that made navigating the staircase difficult, leaving the fate of the 1886 Victorian structure at 500 Capp Street uncertain. Over the 30 years that Ireland lived there, the house itself became a constantly evolving artwork and a uniquely installed repository of his work in various mediums. Beginning some eight years ago, the San Francisco Musuem of Modern Art considered acquiring the house, but complications arose, from funding and administration to necessary physical upgrades.

Wilmans is the director of the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation, named for her late grandmother, who was a major collector and local philanthropist. An SFMOMA board member, Wilmans told A.i.A. that she learned that the house would be put up for sale at an acquisitions committee meeting in late 2007, when the museum was in the process of purchasing a seminal Ireland sculpture. Recognizable to anyone who has visited the house, the piece is an agglomeration of old brooms that Ireland found when he moved in. Wilmans toured the house in February and subsequently purchased it for $895,000, before it was put on the market, and has set up a foundation that will maintain the site. Ownership of the house and its contents, including Ireland’s archives, will be turned over to the foundation once legalities are worked out. Wilmans said that 500 Capp Street may become accessible to the public and to scholars and students interested in Ireland’s work. She also hopes to initiate the return, through donation or loan, of former Capp Street artworks that have been sold in recent years.

Ireland’s house is sparsely installed with furniture of his own design, found objects and family pieces, some altered, some not, and a variety of Ireland’s often process-oriented works, such as a number of his Dumb Balls, concrete spheres that he tossed back and forth in his hands for hours until the material set. Visitors to his home are likely to remember the propane-torch chandelier that spins when lit and the copper-covered broken window, at which he recorded a rapid audio description of what could be seen from the window before the view was sacrificed. (Wilmans plans to digitally preserve the cassette recording.) Ireland considered his labors on the house to be a form of performance art. Always charming and hospitable, he would often lead guests on tours, pointing out humorous touches. Where the Safe Got Away, for example, consists of the titular text on wall plaques next to dings in the stairwell wall where a safe he was moving escaped his grasp. Throughout the interior he “restored” the walls, peeling off wallpaper and layers of paint – but leaving cracks and imperfections that revealed the passage of time and traces of use – before applying varnish to the resulting warm yellow surfaces, a treatment he also applied to rooms at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artist residency program in Sausalito.

Neither a preserved artist’s studio nor a single-artist museum, 500 Capp Street is more akin to a living artwork now frozen in time. While future plans may allow for tours of the residence, no one will be able to shed light on its history and personality than the former docent who once called it home.

[Interior of David Ireland’s house at 500 Capp Street, including the piece Rubber Band Collection, 1977. Image courtesy California College of the Arts.]