DAVID IRELAND – San Francisco’s Most Famous Art Home

by Kim Steele

David Ireland with Broom Collection (1978)

David Ireland with Broom Collection (1978)


The first time I had the honor to walk into the home at 500 Capp Street of the renowned artist in 2001, about whom I knew very little, I realized it was a special place. I was introduced by the Director of Crown Point Press, Valerie Wade, a friend of Ireland. Ireland was elderly then and none too nimble, but with engaging and riveting eyes. The home was sparse, but rich with colors, details and art installations. He grew up in Bellingham, Washington, a son of an insurance broker whom he joined for a brief period before pursuing his artistic career. He also formed an African import business, titled “Hunter Africa.” Ireland began his education locally but soon traveled to California, where he remained until his death, to attend the progressive California College of Arts and Crafts. He also later attended graduate school on the GI bill, at the San Francisco Art Institute where he met many of his life-long, influential friends.


Wire Wall Drawings 500 Capp St. SF, photograph by Kim Steele

Wire Wall drawings, 500 Capp Street, SF,
photograph by Kim Steele


Ireland’s work is difficult to categorize.

He employs many sensibilities in his work which makes it unique. “Like a great Naturalist, who sees life in the landscape when others see only trees, David Ireland has an uncanny ability to find art in forgotten histories and cast-off materials,” observed by Richard Andrews, Director of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Ireland’s choices of materials were of commonplace materials, wood, dirt, paper, concrete and discarded objects – chairs, wire, stones, and rudimentarily constructed objects. He harkens to an aesthetic found in the Japanese word Wabi-sabi, a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence… specifically impermanence. When he first moved into his home, he intended to restore it, but the process evolved into a dialog between the building and his artistic expression.


Dining room Still Life at 500 Capp St. SF, from Ireland's African days

Dining Room still life, 500 Capp Street, SF, from Ireland’s African days

Understanding David Ireland’s sensibilities, it is not surprising that he was a devotee of the great master of the ‘found object,’ Marcel Duchamp. In his home, he had several references, including photos of the artist. Ireland came of age in a very volatile era of American art – the 1950’s. This was the hey day of the first American art movement that globally affected the art world – Abstract Expressionism, in which he did not practice but it cast a long shadow over many artists working at that time.  Though concentrated in New York, San Francisco had its share of influential artist, most significantly Clifford Still, Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn. Ireland’s first concentration was printmaking, which he returned to two decades later. Ireland also worked at set design at this time.

At an early age, Ireland was influenced by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. It sowed the seed that would follow his life long interest: the interaction of life and art. Ireland: “I think art making is a matter of finding things out and not considering practical issues…”. His interest in Minimalism came during his Masters’ education, under his advisor Kathan Brown (who went on to found Crown Point Press which printed many images for Ireland). Minimalist interest led him directly to his life-long passion for ‘reductivism.’

The 1970’s was a heady time, and painting was not in fashion-it was the performance era. At this time, Ireland returned to the art world after his commercial enterprises and attended the SF Art institute, at age 42. Tom Marioni influenced him greatly.  Marioni’s  Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco, the first to exhibit both video and sound art in the country – feed his own creativity. Marioni instigated ‘Relational Aesthetic’ which was based on real life dynamics, often beer drinking with friends. (Marioni will have a beer piece at the soon to be opened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in May). Marioni quoted to this author in an interview, that Ireland, “was very charming and the most eligible bachelor in San Francisco.” This exposure introduced him to the flux of art as an evolving enterprise, to mold and re-visit time and time again – nothing is permanent. Dadaist in theory, Marioni’s work crossed several art categories, even until his death.


Interior upstairs hallway, 500 Capp Street, photograph by Henrik Kam, 2015

Interior upstairs hallway, 500 Capp Street, SF, photograph by Henrik Kam, 2015


Joseph Beuys was clearly the most influential artist to Ireland. Incorporating common objects, furniture, clothing and everyday implements; this created a sort of sounding board to our perception of art. The Beat generation of the 1950’s in San Francisco indirectly coached Ireland to adopt a Zen Buddhism influence, “I was trying to…give credence, give place to all things, give place to the uneducated image, give place to the earth, give place to everything” claimed Ireland. Alan Watt’s book The Way of Zen, liberated Ireland from the confines of arbitrary delineations of art (a copy of this dog eared book still sits on his shelf at 500 Capp Street). He eschewed the formal concerns of art.

This brings us to the present. Ireland purchased his Italianate home in the Mission District of San Francisco in 1975. An accordion maker had occupied it. His sign still remains on the building.


500 Capp Street, San Francisco, photograph by Kim Steele

500 Capp Street, San Francisco,
photograph by Kim Steele


David Ireland chose to allow the decrepit nature of the home to become an evolving art piece, like an archaeologist. “I think it’s the manifestation of creativity particular to David,” said Lawrence Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum. “ Art occurs in the process of life itself.” Exampled by one of his most famous pieces “Dumbbell,” which consisted of Ireland tossing a glob of concrete (one of his favorite material due to its grayness) from one gloved hand to the other until a perfect ball was formed.


David Ireland creating his Dumbbells

David Ireland creating his Dumbbells


Carrie Wilmans saved the house from destruction in 2008. She and her team restored the home to the intended nature of Ireland. New spaces were created, like an excavation of the basement where Ireland had dug dirt for his pieces, into a study space while shoring up its derelict brick foundations, but the Zeitgeist was maintained, complete with pealing paint and lacquered walls. Wilmans did not know him well, but claimed that he once suggested they run away together, “he was a total flirt.” The intention was not to “preserve” the home but provide a fluid space for visitors and art functions – a living museum, if you will. “I sealed it forever,” Ireland noted, “to protect it from the attacks of the future.” The home will be open to the public on January 15th, 2016, by appointment only. There are many related events, including a retrospective at the Anglim Gilbert Gallery on January 20th. The uniqueness of Ireland’s aesthetic is a very endearing submersion into a life richly lived.


Dining Room at 500 Capp Street, SF, photograph by Kim Steele

Dining Room, 500 Capp Street, SF,
photograph by Kim Steele

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