sfai news

January 23, 2012

SFAI remembers Robert Nelson, 1930-2012

The San Francisco Art Institute is saddened to acknowledge the death of experimental filmmaker Robert Nelson, an SFAI alumnus and faculty member who helped build the school’s Film Department in the 1960s, and who has served as an inspiration to generations of filmmakers. He died on January 9 at home in Laytonville, California, at the age of 81.

Robert Nelson was born in San Francisco in 1930, and trained as a painter, studying at SFAI and Mills College. In the 1960s, he began to pursue film—often as a pathway into collaboration—teaching himself the processes as he went along. In these early days, Nelson worked extensively with William T. Wiley, Bruce Nauman, William Allan, composer Steve Reich, and others. One of his earliest films, Plastic Haircut (1963), was made on a borrowed camera with fellow painter Wiley. As REDCAT wrote on the occasion of a 2008 retrospective: “Known for prankster experimentalism and on-the-spot invention, the films of San Francisco native Robert Nelson are among the defining landmarks of the post-Beat American underground of the 1960s and ’70s. His free-spirited approach, sharp wit, and artistic rigor … helped shape a language and style for the burgeoning psychedelic culture.”

Nelson began teaching at SFAI in 1965, and was the first chair of the Film Department. By the time he left the school in 1969, he had helped the fledgling department become one of the leading film schools in the United States. He also became an integral member of Canyon Cinema, a San Francisco-based distributor of independent, experimental, and avant-garde film. After leaving SFAI, Nelson continued teaching at other California schools as well as at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His work remains an important benchmark for experimental filmmakers, and SFAI presented Nelson with a Special Recognition award at the 133rd Commencement in 2011.

“I always found him incredibly open, curious, wise, attentive, interested,” writes the Academy Film Archive’s Mark Toscano of Nelson, his friend and colleague. “How many people over 30 (let alone 80) still approach life, conversation, questions, EVERYTHING, with a completely open, curious mind, capable of considering and reconsidering, changing, reorienting…?”

In addition to being shown around the world, Nelson’s films are included in the collection of museums such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As a director, writer, cinematographer, producer, and actor, he received numerous grants and awards, including the James D. Phelan Art Award in Film.

Some of Nelson’s other film experimentations include Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), which was commissioned by the San Francisco Mime Troupe to be shown during their politically-charged The Minstrel Show—Or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel; his collaborative work with William Allan, The Awful Backlash (1967); and his celebrated work Bleu Shut (1971).

Read the New York Times obituary.

Robert Nelson, photographed by Jack Fulton in the late 1960s.