Sue Bitney's Biography

Sue Bitney was a Northern California established contemporary artist and sculptor whose work was generally classified as “funk”.

Sue Bitney was born in Seattle in 1942; attended U.C. Berkeley and was largely influenced by the 1960s. Her abstract sculptures, of brightly painted wood and stuffed canvas, are cheerfully   bizarre organic abstractions that resemble the playthings of a child’s nursery. There were among the more characteristic works displayed at the Funk Show at the Uni. Art Gallery in Berkeley in 1967 and were frequently reproduced.

The universal impact of the 1960s was truly astonishing across the globe. Illustrative of a time inspiring both hope and anger, the 1960s prompted an explosion of cutting-edge ideologies and movements, truly exciting and spectacular. Historically established in the context of the Cold War, which would have a highly powerful impact internationally, mainly defined by the Iron Curtain separating Europe both physically and spiritually, and drastically marked by the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The 1960s re-defined all pre-existing expectations on gender, race and justice, questioned education as well as morality and selfhood – for instance through the civil rights movement and second wave of feminism, as well as student political uprisings. The significant escalation of mass consumerism also defined the era, generating new trends in marketing and advertising. Minimalism established the crucial idea that art should subsist in its own reality, and not try to represent the real world. Born of a desire to eradicate all pre-established conceptions about art, Minimalism became a radically progressive movement, highly influential worldwide, with artists such as Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin as key figures. Minimalism became significant through the works of artists such as Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley, while Pop art was a fundamental by-product of the latter, at the same time critiquing and glorifying popular culture. The iconic contemporary art movements that reverberated through the wave of radicalism of the 1960s also had their own nuances and scopes, distinctive to different regions or countries. Spatialism, for instance, was founded in Italy by Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, and its ideologies adopted by the Zero group in Germany. Throughout Europe, the philosophy of Existentialism strongly influenced artists like Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, who strived to depict the raw human emotions often associated with reflections on death and the haunting anxiety of the meaninglessness of life.

Her work became quite popular in Europe, and Kurt von Meier contributed a commentary about her art for a 1967 catalogue produced by Studio Marconi, in Milan, Italy.

Kurt von Meier commentary: “Sue Bitney comes on strong for a chick. “Funk” is the quality in her work—a stylistic element that is almost impolite: tough, gritty and almost surreptitiously pungent. There are many “almosts” when talking about funk. It is elusive without being nebulous, like some hidden ga­mey odor in the work of art.

For no really convincing reasons that anyone has been able to produce, funk art has flowered in California, especially around the San Francisco Bay Area within the last few years. But the roots of this nightshade like phenomenon go back se­veral years. Usually it has been the guys who were grinding out the funky work in the placidly hostile atmosphere of Northern California. The real scene, involving truly relevant artistic activity, came more and more to be centered around the artist’s studios. And the art came more and more to manifest a common sensibility: it could be piercingly vigorous or outrageously ribald while remaining totally devoid of Fine Art’s conventional self-consciousness. In general, funky art wasn’t nice. So all the nice-nice people around San Francisco who use art as a convenient commodity with which to shore up their own social and cultural pretensions tended to turn their backs. Somehow funk art just didn’t look right in the marble museum halls of Mammon’s minions. This might have been the best thing to happen anyway, for America’s would-be aristocracy of commercial mentalities has seldom been interested in developing that attitude of respect for the arts so fundamental to any civilized approach.

With their crass and callous power of cash, or with the brutal threat of censure, the Art Establishment first of all usually tries to tell the artist what to do. The best thing to happen to funk, then, was that it remained free from the patronisation of official acceptance without any understanding. With the beginnings of understanding came the discovery that funk art had the power to blow so­ciety’s mind. Eventually, international recognition had to come to artists of major stature, such as Bruce Conner, Harold Paris and Peter Voulkos. This, in turn, led attention to a range of other California artists who slowly began to attract the attention they deserve. Among these, surprisingly, was Sue Bitney. This is unexpected because of that lingering something around the context of funk art—something just a little dirty, suggestive, tough and mean about it. And Sue is really quite nice. But the art! Like the rest of the funksters, her work has to be described-around, and all with unofficial terms, such as raucous and raunchy, or gutsy and goosey. It is not just out-and-out erotic representation—there is something more seditious and disarming. And that is what makes it all the more mind-blowing, when Sue Bitney comes along with sculpture to match the men, but then strikes the double low by adding a sweet smile.

En garde, Milano, for the sugar-coated, semi-sublimated violence that lurks in the loins and pervades the psyche of America. Funk is becoming respectable, which may be the cruelest ruse of all.

Kurt von Meier

September 1967”

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