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Sam Richardson
Painting; Sculpture
(Oakland, California, 1934 - May 3, 2013, Seattle, WA)

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The history of landscape art in Western culture is rich and varied, and Sam Richardson’s innovative sculptures of the late 1960s and early 1970s helped to push the boundaries of the evolving genre. When Richardson first began his artistic career in 1961, his love of nature and the outdoors prompted him to create paintings of the natural places he treasured. Not long after, Richardson pioneered a new type of sculptural landscape because, as art historian Patricia Sanders has noted, “landscape painting was known and sculpture was not.”1 Although Richardson has embraced new themes and shifted directions many times during his career, much of his work has focused on the unpeopled, anonymous landscapes of his imagination.

A California native, Richardson was born in Oakland in 1934, and aside from a brief stint in New York when he served as the art director of the American Craft Council and the Museum of Contemporary Craft, he has lived in the Bay Area his entire life. After receiving his B.A. and M.F.A. from the California College of Arts and Crafts, he began teaching at San Jose State College (now University) in 1964. There he joined an art department faculty that was exploring new teaching methods and expanding the scope of the school’s art curriculum. Many of them had also embraced a range of newly invented high-tech plastic materials, including polymers, sprayed lacquers, fiberglass, and acrylic resins, which they used to craft artworks with pristine, highly polished surfaces.

In Northern California, the push toward innovative sculpture, according to art critic Thomas Albright, was particularly noticeable at San Jose State, where the new “sculpture tended to lose its rough edges and to take on some of the sleek, technological finish of Formalist painting”2 Richardson found the creative atmosphere in the South Bay especially inspiring. “Everybody was experimenting with plastics,” he once reminisced in an interview, “and I was just totally enthralled with the stuff. Bob Strini knew how to spray; he was the best spray painter anywhere. … And then Fred Spratt and Will Nelson, in particular, were very hip on plastics and how they worked.”3

Richardson’s earliest sculptural works were three-dimensional square landforms, whose minimalist qualities emanated a cool air of detachment. In That’s a Small Island with Snow and Frozen Water, Richardson carefully fabricated a section of contoured land from Plexiglas that art historian Suzanne Foley once described as “a square plug of Mother Earth.”4 Emerging from a sea of cerulean blue, the snow-capped island is marked by delicate shadows that appear on its gentle slopes. The sculpture’s rolling contours bring to mind the geographic terrain often captured through aerial photography, while its square configuration recalls the demarcation of topographical maps. Richardson’s landscapes always hover on the verge of the imaginary, however, and the views he renders often assume an otherworldly aura. According to Foley, “In these physically isolated plots of land, scaled to bird’s-eye-view, the natural phenomena described are small dramas. Their witty, folksy titles situate the drama in everyone’s realm of experience.”5

It is tempting to compare Richardson’s sculptures from the late 1960s to the cool, plastic-based works of the avant-garde Finish Fetish artists working in Los Angeles at the same time. But unlike his Southern California contemporaries, whose completed works were the culmination of abstract formal experiments, Richardson always embraced a straightforward, focused content. “I’m a landscape artist,” he once declared. “But rather than simply record the natural, I seek to use nature by taking landscapes as a visual theme within which to treat surfaces, make marks, paint colors, manipulate scale, and play shapes one on another.”6 While his finely crafted sculptures from this period exude a certain formal simplicity, his commitment to exploring the land that we all share generates a rich, poetic resonance. —A.W.

1. Patricia Sanders, “Embracing Space: The Work of Sam Richardson,” Color in Space: A Sam Richardson Retrospective, exh. cat. (San Jose: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2002), 35.
2. Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–1980 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 161.
3. Jo Farb Hernandez “An Interview with Sam Richardson,” Color in Space, 41–42.
4. Suzanne Foley, Sam Richardson, exh. brochure (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1970), n.p.
5. Ibid.
6. Sam Richardson, quoted in Henry Hopkins, 50 West Coast Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in California (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1981), 60–61.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

Born in 1934 in Oakland, Sam Richardson earned his B.A. and M.F.A. from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1956 and 1960, respectively. He served briefly as the art director of the American Craft Council and the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York. Since 1964, Richardson has taught at San Jose State University. Richardson has shown work at the M.H, de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, the Triton Museum in Santa Clara, and the San Jose Museum of Art. His work is in the collections of the Dallas Museum of Art, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, the Oakland Museum, the National Museum of American Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. This would be the seventh work by Richardson to enter SJMA’s permanent collection. (SJMA Collections Committee, 2004)

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