Richard Kamler Dies — Artist and Activist Used His Works as Social Protest
By Sam Whiting
The San Francisco Chronicle
8 November 2017
Photo courtesy of Far Out Gallery
College of Environmental Design (CED) alumnus Richard Kamler (B.Arch ‘58, M.Arch ‘73), an artist-activist known for bringing art into prisons and the prison experience into museums, died on November 1 in San Francisco after a 12-year battle with thyroid cancer. Kamler was 81.
For 40 years, Kamler created art intended to initiate social change through installations, sound pieces, sculpture and drawings. For example, on April 20, 1992, Kamler led a protest at San San Quentin State Prison on the night that executions were to be resumed after the reinstatement of the death penalty. Prior to the protests, Kamler went to the San Francisco Zoo and recorded lions roaring.
Kamler then organized a small fleet to anchor as close to the shore outside the prison as he could get. Around midnight, when the execution was scheduled to happen he played the audio recording loud enough to be heard within the prison. The audio continued until the Coast Guard came to arrest him on charges of noise pollution.
Kamler taught art at the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of Arts and Crafts as well as the University of San Francisco, where he was a tenured professor. He served as chairman of the fine arts department there from 2006-2009.
His last major exhibition was a career retrospective mounted in 2012 at the Thacher Gallery on the USF campus titled “Celebrating Four Decades of Socially Engaged Art,” and included pictures of some of his installations and interventions. This included photos of the loaf of French bread, 75 feet long and 20 feet tall, that was launched on the San Francisco Bay in 1995. The loaf was towed behind a boat operated by Greenpeace and accompanied by the banner “Make Bread Not Bombs” to protest nuclear weapons tests conducted by France.
“I’ve always been interested in how art can be used to make a difference, politically, socially and culturally, and lead to transformation,” Kamler told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jesse Hamlin at the time of the show.
Born Nov. 2, 1935, Richard Dean Kamler grew up in the Sunset District of San Francisco. He was a graduate of Lowell High School and UC Berkeley, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture. Upon graduation he served an apprenticeship with Frederick Kiesler, the visionary painter and sculptor.
Kamler’s first major installation was “Out of Holocaust,” a full-size replica of one of the barracks buildings at Auschwitz, done in 1976 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. He later worked in collaboration with artist Elin Elisofon to create “The Desert Project,” an earth installation in New Mexico.
Drawings, photographs and objects from the installation were exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979. His work was also shown at the McMullen Museum of Art in Boston, Long Beach Museum of Art and on the grounds of the San Francisco County Jail.
“Richard’s intentions were never to become a blue-chip, gallery artist,” said Stephen Vincent, a poet and artist who had known Kamler since the mid-’70s. “His life’s work was devoted to re-interpreting the role of the artist as a fully engaged citizen, a legitimate and obligatory member of the public table.”
As such, he became interested in the topics of incarceration and capital punishment. In 1981, Kamler began a three-year stint as artist in residence at San Quentin State Prison. During this time he taped interviews with both inmates and their families, as well as with the families of victims of violent crimes.
This became the audio portion of his best-known piece, “Table of Voices,” (1996-2013). He set up a replica of a prison visiting room, with phones on either side of a divider. Visitors on one side of the partition could pick up the phones and hear the real stories of the victims, as told by family members. On the other side they could hear the stories of the convicted, often expressing remorse. “Table of Voices” was installed at Alcatraz and later traveled the United States.
For an exhibition called “Maximum Security” at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, he built two full-size prison cells, each with a maggot-infested lamb carcass rotting in the corner. Patrons examined this through barbed wire. For an exhibition called “Last Meal” Kamler sculpted the trays of food that condemned inmates ordered on Death Row in Huntsville, Texas out of lead. In describing the motivation for exploring the last days of condemned prisoners, Kamler said, “When you hear that heart stop beating, someone has just been killed. It still affects me.”
Kamler stayed active in the art community his whole life. In August 2016, he had his last hometown show at the Far Out Gallery on Taraval Street, about 15 blocks from the house where he lived for most of his life. At the time, Kamler was recovering from cancer surgery, but he made it to the opening, riding from his home on the L-Taraval, to indicate his dedication to Muni.
“He was frail but raring to go,” said Anne Herbst, owner of the gallery. “He was still making art and had big plans.”