Excerpt from interview with Rebecca McGrew, July 23, 2009
Rebecca McGrew You grew up in Portland, so how did you choose Pomona College?
Hap Tivey My father lived in Santa Barbara, which was kind of a base for me during high school. The draw of Pomona was Southern California. I chose that instead of going to Brown, because I thought if I go to Brown, I’m going to be in this cold place with no surf. [Laughs.] Actually, Pomona offered a five-year plan where you’d go three years, either at Pomona or Cal Tech [California Institute of Technology], and do two years at the other institution. So you ended up with a bachelor of science and a bachelor of arts. I went intending to be a physicist.
RM When did you discover the art department?
HT In the middle of my sophomore year, I had classes with John Mason. That was really a turning point for me. Guy Williams was a big influence, too. But when Mowry Baden arrived, then everything really opened up. Los Angeles was opening up at the same time. There was all this energy coming out of the city and landing in Claremont. The art part of that seemed like the most important, vital way to be doing things at Pomona. The ability to design a show with Mowry, to design a thesis with Stephen Erickson in philosophy, and to carve out your own space was ideal. I really loved it. Mowry, and later Helene Winer (who was at Pomona when I was at Claremont Graduate School [CGS]) played a big part because they brought the visual information into the community. Before John Coplans became the editor of Artforum he was the adjudicator for my senior show. Larry Bell and Coplans were the judges. Gus Blaisdell was on campus. Charles Bukowski and David Antin were there as well. Antin and Eleanor Antin were progenitors of this new kind of social involvement that was spinning out of Happenings. We always went to shows in Los Angeles. You’d see the minimal thing at Irving Blum’s gallery, and Riko Mizuno and Coplans were supporting the light people. There was this sense of information filtering into the community and a sense of the presence of players. You didn’t always have to go to Los Angeles; it came to Pomona, too.
RM Lewis Baltz said this era at Pomona College has assumed a mythic aura. Did it seem that way to you?
HT Well, I think there was certainly something happening. The other part of this mythic time was the politics. You’d be on the phone with somebody in Berkeley and hear that someone was killed. At Century Plaza, you had 125 people seriously injured or killed at the protests. And those kids were coming back to campus. There was no sense that this was an ordinary world any more. We were going to go get killed. What did we have to lose?
Another example was my graduation, the class of 1969. The valedictorian presentation was a poet, James E. Rosenberg, who read an epic poem. The metaphor was that America was a huge elephant driven by people from the inside, who couldn’t see out, and they were crushing innocents all over the world. The audience of local people and the parents of the graduating class booed and booed. The class stood up, turned around, and was yelling at their own parents, “Fuck You!” There were no rules.
RM How did this connect with your senior art project?
HT Kay Larson and I began a program at Pomona called The Honors Project. The idea was that students would design their own senior year, where you would have two senior projects in two separate divisions. I worked with Fred Sontag and Stephen Erickson in philosophy, and I wrote a thesis on various philosophers, discussing how art changed due to a shift in philosophy. My artwork played off of [Robert] Irwin’s discs and Richard Smith’s shaped canvases.
There was a place, called Edwards Air Force Base, where you could get surplus stuff. I got a tank, which was a sphere. I opened the gas end of it, so you were looking into this completely perfect sphere. It was like looking into the sky.
I really liked what happened with that, but I also liked what happens with fabric and how you light fabric. So in my senior year, I made walk-in paintings that were a block ten-feet wide, seven-feet high, and four-feet deep, with a vertical cylinder removed from the center. All surfaces, including the cylinder, were stretched canvas, so they assumed a parabolic curve formed by the fabric tension. I was also thinking of Morris Louis. You walked into this central interior, and the inside of it was glowing. It was like you were standing in this vertical room, in this glowing space. You could walk into them and feel surrounded by light.