10 Bay Area Artists That Shaped the San Francisco Art Scene

San Francisco has had a thriving art scene for decades. Bay Area artists have made artworks that challenged artistic and social conventions.

Jun 12, 2024By Pierre-François Galpin, MA Curatorial Practice

bay artists san francisco art scene


San Francisco Bay produced many groundbreaking artists who worked in different fields in the second half of the 20th century. Using a wide range of techniques and mediums, these artists have participated in and shaped art distinctively unique to the Bay Area. While their intentions and practices are diverse, some common characteristics include advocacy, humor, and experimentation. Let’s dive into the fascinating practices of ten contemporary Bay Area artists.


10. Bay Area Artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) 

Ruth Asawa in Her Studio, San Francisco, 1969. Source: Ruth Asawa’s website


Ruth Asawa was born in Southern California to Japanese parents. When she was a teenager, her entire family was sent to internment camps. After this painful experience, Asawa was able to pursue art at Black Mountain College, where she practiced drawing, painting, and sculpture. She moved to the Bay Area in 1949 and started making her signature works—suspended abstract sculptures made of wire.


She first learned about this wire-looping technique from Mexican people crafting baskets. Installed as immersive environments, her suspended sculptures took very organic shapes. Asawa’s impactful work pioneered Post-Minimalist concerns with using simple, everyday materials and creating abstract shapes.


She lived in San Francisco and was very involved in the community. In 1982, she helped create a public high school dedicated to art education. In 2010, the school was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School for the Arts in her memory.

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9. Robert Arneson (1930-1992)

California Artist by Robert Arneson, 1982. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Robert Arneson contributed to redefining the art of ceramics, pushing the medium’s boundaries beyond craft techniques and its functional properties. He studied at California College for the Arts in San Francisco and began teaching at UC Davis in the 1960s. His tongue-in-cheek works would later be seen as part of the Funk art movement. As an anti-establishment movement geared against then-revered Abstract Expressionism, Funk artists created figurative and whimsical artworks, playing with moral limits and absurdity.


His sculpture California Artist (1982) is a self-portrait condensing all stereotypes of West Coast artists. It’s a portrayal of a man standing with his arms crossed, wearing an open denim jacket and sunglasses, with a cool grin on his face. A marijuana plant grows along the timeworn painted-brick pedestal, littered with beer bottles and cigarette buds. The overall style is grotesque and more caricatural than realistic. Arneson often used self-deprecation as a way to reflect on the artist’s place within our society.


8. Bruce Conner (1933-2008) 

Partition by Bruce Conner, 1961-1963. Source: SFGate


Bruce Conner grew up in Kansas and studied art at the University of Nebraska. In the mid-1950s, he lived in New York City and then San Francisco, creating an impressive amount of works with various techniques. Conner was involved with the counterculture Beat movement active in San Francisco during the 1960s. The movement embraced free-spirited artists and writers.


His unconventional assemblages, made with a variety of found materials and objects, particularly drew the Bay Area community’s attention. His large-scale assemblage Partition could be used as a functional screen yet its hectic arrangement looks closer to an artist’s nightmare. An overwhelming amount of material is glued on the wooden panels. There are fringes, nylon stockings, feathers, mirrors, artificial flowers, paper, wax, and metal fragments. Conner wanted to explore fears and desires by creating an off-putting yet enticing piece of furniture. Simultaneously, he also created experimental films that addressed the Cold War.


7. Viola Frey (1933-2004)

The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization by Viola Frey, 1992. Source: Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan


Viola Frey saw ceramic as fine art like many other artists from the Bay Area clay movements. She primarily studied painting at California College of the Arts, just so that her work could be taken seriously. After her studies, she turned to ceramics. Her first works were smaller-scale figurines, sculptures, and painted plates. In the 1970s, Frey started to make large-scale and often oversized human figures which were made of clay and painted with bright colors.


Frey’s 1992 work The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization is a monumental ceramic sculpture installation. This work is also representative of her technique. Frey made individual ceramic pieces that, when assembled together, form a greater composition. Each ceramic piece was painted and drawn on.


6. Joan Brown (1938-1990)

The Dancers in a City #2 by Joan Brown, 1972. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Joan Brown was born in San Francisco. Working with oil painting, Brown created colorful works that were partly inspired by her own life as well as made-up universes. She studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and is recognized as a member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement which also featured artists like Richard Diebenkorn. Though she first started by making abstract works, she later chose to switch to figurative painting, with vibrant colors and wide brush strokes, often representing herself and her family members. Later on, she changed her style again, adopting a more detailed approach. The Dancers in the City #2 is an example of that shift, with dancers and a dog drawn with an animation-like quality. The San Francisco skyline in the background adds some grounding to the work, but it’s also the thing that emphasizes the solitary urban experience.


5. Yolanda López (1942-2021)

Virgen de Guadalupe series by Yolanda Lopez, 1978. Source: Los Angeles Times


A third-generation Mexican-American, Yolanda López was born in San Diego. After high school, she joined an activist group called the Third World Liberation Front in San Francisco. During the 1970s, she studied Fine Arts at San Diego State University and UC San Diego. Her work explored the Chicano identity, reappropriating cultural symbols and adding her own experience to her paintings, prints, and drawings.


An activist, she contributed to the diffusion of the Chicano Art Movement, working at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. Her series Virgen de Guadalupe is emblematic of her practice. This series of oil pastels on paper reinterprets the iconography of the Guadalupe, an important Mexican symbol of faith and love. In the triptych, she represented herself, as well as her mother and grandmother, as the Virgin Mary. In doing so, López altered the meaning of this religious icon and denounced patriarchy by highlighting Chicana womanhood.


4. Mildred Howard (b. 1945)

Ten Little Children Standing in a Line (One Got Shot, and Then There Were Nine), by Mildred Howard, 1991. Source: Parrasch Heijnen


Mildred Howard is a native of San Francisco who studied at the College of Alameda and John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley. She later taught at Stanford University. Howard has created public artworks that helped build the Bay Area artistic scene’s distinctive character. In her work, Howard uses everyday objects and familiar tropes to recall social issues such as racial inequality. Her practice is both conceptual and material-oriented, and decisively militant.


While containing the tendencies of post-modern art, Howard’s installations mix her personal experience with a more global conversation about identity. She focuses on the African-American experience in the U.S. Her installation Ten Little Children Standing in a Line consists of two parts: a grid made of bullet cartridges fixed to the wall and copper glove molds installed on a low pedestal. This work directly points to school shootings, a socially relevant topic in American culture. Howard, however, chooses to evoke the feeling of violence rather than display it.


3. Hung Liu (1948-2021)

Resident Alien by Hung Liu, 1988. Source: San Jose Museum of Art


Hung Liu grew up in China. As a young adult, she was forced to work in fields. She was able to find shelter in her artistic creativity using a sketchbook and a camera. After working as an elementary school art teacher, she studied painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. During the 1980s, she studied at UC San Diego after years of trying to overcome Chinese bureaucracy. She later moved to the Bay Area. Her paintings are often autobiographical, commenting on multiculturalism. Her 1988 painting Resident Alien is a large-scale painting of a copy of her green card. The author played with the fact that the word alien is often used to describe immigrants living in the USA. She changed her name to Fortune Cookie, which symbolizes cultural hybridization since the product is neither an American nor a Chinese commodity. With a useful amount of sarcasm, Liu emphasizes the importance of words related to immigration.


2. Enrique Chagoya (b. 1953)

Uprising of the Spirit (Elevación del espíritu) by Enrique Chagoya, 1994. Source: Glasstire


Enrique Chagoya grew up in Mexico City in a family where art was omnipresent. While studying at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, he created political and satirical cartoons for union and student newspapers. He moved to the United States as a young adult and studied art both at the San Francisco Art Institute and UC Berkeley.


In his work, Chagoya combines American pop culture imagery and icons with pre-Columbian figures and existing colonial artworks. In his painting Uprising of the Spirit, he juxtaposed Superman and 15th-century Aztec philosopher King Nezahualcóyotl. He also painted colonizers murdering Indigenous people. While Superman is globally recognizable, Nezahualcóyotl is lesser known as a ruler who wanted to end human sacrifices in religious rituals. Chagoya wanted to highlight Nezahualcóyotl’s superhero-like character that is far from archaic stereotypes that have dehumanized Mexican Indigenous civilizations for centuries. Moved by a strong urge to fight social injustice, Chagoya aimed to create a piece for post-colonial dialogue.


1. Bay Area Artist Barry McGee (b. 1966)

The stars were aligned by Barry McGee, 2004. Source: Kaldor Public Art Projects


Barry McGee grew up in San Francisco. Under the tag name of Twist, McGee became an important figure in the local street art scene in the 1990s, which later became known as the Mission School. His recognizable graffiti includes characters with droopy faces, colorful optical shapes, doodles, and paint drips. He graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1991. His works have influenced global tendencies in street art. His pieces have also largely contributed to the rise of street art on the art market.

Author Image

By Pierre-François GalpinMA Curatorial PracticePierre-François is a curator, writer and teacher. His interests overlap between photography, new media, and performance art with a focus on conceptual art, storytelling practices and sociopolitical issues. He has curated contemporary art exhibitions both in museums and independently in the United States. His writing has been published in such media as YIELD Magazine, The Exhibitionist, Art Practical, and for RITE Editions. He holds an MA in Curatorial Practice from California College for the Arts and an MA in Regional and Urban Strategy from Sciences Po Paris.

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