Beer, Art and Philosophy: A Memoir

by Tom Marioni, San Francisco: Crown Point Press, 2003. Introduction by Thomas McEvilley. 223 pp. With illustrations by the author

The subtitle and leading epigraph to Tom Marioni’s memoir, Beer, Art and Philosophy: A Memoir is appropriately, “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art.” Those familiar with Marioni’s art know immediately that this pronouncement is no idle statement of passing humor, but a proven fact of his work itself, since his studio includes a full bar where he meets every Wednesday with selected friends to drink beer, converse, and create the “highest form of art.” (p. 27) After being removed from his position as curator at the Richmond Art Center, in Richmond, California, for his provocative and daring exhibitions, Marioni founded in 1970 the Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA) in San Francisco. This museum became his “life’s work for a decade.”

Through the museum, he tried “to define Conceptual Art with words and demonstrations.” He is particularly concerned with defining California Conceptual Art, as distinct and different from International Conceptual Art and New York/East Coast Conceptual Art. The distinctions he makes and substantiates through his works, and now in this memoir, are significant and clarifying. Italian Conceptual Art of the ‘60s and ‘70s, for example, is all about Arte Povera (poor art), whereas Germans usually define Conceptual Art as “a scientific principle.” (p. 26). As an international movement Conceptual Art “took on different forms depending on its location.” In England, prehistoric earthworks and stone circles, like Stonehenge, influenced the development of Land Art. In “New York, Conceptual Art meant Language Art,” but a Language Art based on “systems.” California, however, “is like a separate country,” where there was “no literary tradition except the Beat poets.” This judgment, of course, is not historically accurate, for it denies the clearly established literary tradition of California writers of the 19th century and those of the 1930s and ‘40s that included such recognized poets as Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and William Everson (Brother Antoninus), all writing in San Francisco in the decade before the Beats. Conceptual Art in Los Angeles, for Marioni, is influenced by the beach, the weather, Hollywood, Mexico, and Japan. In San Francisco, “the culture is European and Chinese.” And, Marioni declares, “I am a product of that tradition.” (p. 27)

The Museum of Conceptual Art no longer exists. The “social artwork, Café Society,” which he created in the ‘70s, included one of his best-known works, The Art of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970). This social artwork has now “evolved into an artist’s club called the Society of Independent Artists.” One of Marioni’s most famous conceptual works, of course, is his sound art piece (Piss Piece), where after drinking several bottles of beer he climbed up a ladder and urinated into a bucket (with his back to the audience, he notes), which produces a sound of different tones and frequency as the bucket fills.

This art memoir is also truly an interesting personal memoir, for Marioni starts with his life as a child in Cincinnati in the ‘40s, tells us about his family and friends, and brings us forward with him to the present. He recounts many interesting coincidences in his life where his life touches famous artists and architects early in his career, and then later he becomes friends with them or creates works that are part of their works—like his relationship with John Cage and Marcel Duchamp and his commissioned sculpture for the Marin Civic Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. These stories and the explanations and descriptions of his many conceptual works of art and the circumstances surrounding their evolution and development, create a text of engaging interest with important historical context and documentary evidence.

Marioni deliberately writes in a simple style, with short epigrammatic sentences that by their very simplicity produce the depth, texture, and fabric of parable. His subtle humor only lightly covers the seriousness of his intentions, however, as when, for example, he criticizes museum curators he has known for the incestuous nature of their cyclic nepotism. The drawings that accompany the text graphically recall his works and add not only pictorial interest to the book, but in fact become iconic depictions of the conceptual works themselves, like sketchy records of remembered physical events.

This is an important work for sculpture, for Marioni holds that the origin and impetus of Conceptual Art resides not in pictorial art but in sculpture. His analysis of the development and influence of Conceptual Art and its origins is indispensable for a true comprehension of this important worldwide movement. The introduction by Thomas McEvilley presents an aesthetic setting and background for the memoir and puts an art historian’s perspective on Marioni’s life and work. McEvilley views New York Conceptual Art as derived from the idea of the sublime, a preoccupation of Abstract Expressionist painters of the ‘40s that which became essentially a theological movement based on the theory of Edmund Burke. To give Marioni his due, however, he admits himself that the curator in him “likes to talk about what my objects mean to me,” but that the mystery can disappear if “things are overexplained.” Now when people ask him what he is working on, he replies, “Psychic sculpture.” When they ask, “What is that?” He says, “It will come to you.” (p. 186)