“I got to spend a lot of time on roof tops with my dad,” says Heather Krebs. She recalls a postcard from her father, dated 1974, telling her the laser piece they worked on had been turned on. She laughs. “I was five.”
Rockne Krebs, the father of laser art, got rooftop access to some atypical locations for his installations—The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Memorial, parts of Disney Land—and often took his daughter. “It was sort of like having this backstage pass….hanging out in these areas and looking over the scenery and the laser sculpture from views that few would see,” she remembers.
During a roughly 20-year period in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Rockne Krebs’ use of lasers (and a friendship with curator Walter Hopps) shot him into the stratosphere of the art world, rubbing elbows with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell, as he bounced around from DC to LACMA’s Art and Technology program, and then on to the U.S. Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka. When Congress held hearings on Capitol Hill in the mid-1970s about royalties for the resale of fine art works, Krebs was among those who spoke to lawmakers. In 1989, when 900 people protested the canceled Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the (now defunct) Corcoran Gallery of Art, Krebs projected Mapplethorpe’s photos on the facade of the building. In between, he would receive awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
In the years leading up to her father’s death, and in the five years since, Krebs’ daughter, Heather, has been consumed by a single problem: what to do with her father’s archives. “Unfortunately my dad had no organization. I have been working with total chaos.” File cabinets full of papers. Boxes labeled “stuff.” Whereas other artists who achieved his level of success usually had a gallery assistant or manager—like his longtime friend Sam Gilliam—Rockne Krebs lacked such organization. When Heather began to sort through the archive, she quickly discovered he didn’t even have an exhibitions list on file, or a list of collections that possessed his work. “I started the biography and bibliography before dad died,” Heather recalled. Working through boxes of articles, papers and letters her mother saved over the years, Heather would visit her father in the nursing home after work. “He was so funny. He had forgotten the extent of his career: how long it was.” She eventually reconstructed his career and notable achievements, from the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., through 1988 where, at the age of 50, a 12-year hole opens up in Krebs’ exhibition history. “I know he was still doing a couple commissions a year,” his daughter laments. Truth-be-told she’s still combing through the boxes labeled “stuff” in search of any other clues about his career.
When it comes to artist archives, there are basically two kinds of collections: one for objects and one for papers. The objects tend to run the gambit from finished art works to process pieces, artist tools to objects lying around the studio that might have some significance. This was the case with the Nam June Paik Estate Archive, when it was awarded to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And with the Paik archive, the objects are housed in a separate location from the papers.
Handling archives isn’t strictly a matter for large museums, either (as the bidding for the Paik archive might indicate). Numerous locations across the country might absorb a paper or object archive. For example, if you want to read about Patty Mucha’s activities (Claes Olenburg’s first wife and collaborator) you would need to contact the NYU Library. People researching the history of the moving image would find curator John Hanhardt’s archives at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. Even the D.C. Public Library has an archive of the city’s Punk scene.
Where the Rockne Krebs estate paper archives goes isn’t much of an issue, per se. Prior to his death in 2011, Rockne Krebs had expressed his preference for his papers to get donated to the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC. Philip M. Smith, a prominent collector of Krebs’ work, and Jay Belloli, interim executive director for the Pasadena Museum of California Art championed the decision, as well. But, before Heather Krebs felt ready to donate anything, the Archives of American Art contacted her. “I showed [Liza Kerwin] my archives and what I was doing. She didn’t realize we had a warehouse that needed to be catalogued and go places.”
A part of the Smithsonian Institution since 1970, the Archives of American Art is an immense repository of paper archives of artists, curators, critics, writers, and collectors within the art world. It’s deputy director, Liza Kerwin, prefers to receive things in the order the person used them. “Sometimes the original order tells you who that person is and how the files functioned.” She indicated that the existing order would be maintained if possible, with one notable exception. “If the order makes research impossible, then we would reorganize it.” Such reorganization might especially be the case with a warehouse stuffed with copious boxes labeled “stuff.” Even then, the Archives of American Art wouldn’t absorb the broken lasers in those boxes, or the clothes and detritus packed around them; they’d only take the papers.
Despite the commitment from the Archives, or perhaps fueled by it, Heather’s holding onto her father’s estate archives for a little longer. She spends free moments on evenings and weekends looking through folders, scanning items she comes across. “I work on something for a couple hours and it seems like a drop in the bucket,” she confesses. The finds appear on a website dedicated to her father’s work, along with posts on Twitter and Facebook: all in an effort to reintroduce him and reestablish his reputation.
Since Rockne Krebs’ death, there has been a mild groundswell of interest in his work. Some have appeared in group shows, like From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971 and Notations: Minimalism in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Miami, his public art work, Miami Line—a 1540-foot long light installation along the length of a Metrorail trellis spanning the Miami River—is getting rehabilitated: from broken, burned-out neon, to LEDs. More recently, his smoke-drawings, executed from 1973–1975, exhibited at Hemphill Fine Art, in Washington D.C. in the spring of 2016: A lesser-known body of work, gallery owner George Hemphill described them as, “somewhat an extension of his laser works,” no doubt because of their near ethereal quality. In a generation where a beam of light can be directed at a slide during a classroom lecture, the smoke drawings still possess the magic, if for no other reason than the unknown nature of their making.
But the most significant survey of Krebs’ work was in 2013 at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, Krebs’ alma matter, where he studied under sculptor Elden Tefft (founder of the International Sculpture Center). Philip M. Smith—who, according to one obit, served as a science policy advisor from the administrations of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton—had amassed a significant collection of Krebs’ work. “He knew about the Spencer, and he knew that we had some interest in art and science issues,” recalled Stephen Goddard, the Spencer Museum’s Associate Director and Senior Curator for works on paper. Between 2010 and 2015, Philip M. Smith (and his estate) donated 25 works: mostly works on paper. “The drawings themselves form a kind of notebook, some being more polished as presentable drawings than others,” Goddard considered. Previously there had only been one piece in their collection: a lithograph entitled “A Rainbow Tree,” purchased by the museum in 1972 through the NEA and friends of the museum. It exemplifies the sketchbook with illustrations of trees radiating rainbows from prisms nested in their branches, and the suggestion of misting water to see the spectrum of light. But the drawing is surrounded by copious notes. “It has lots and lots of writing,” Goddard laughs. “That can be off-putting at times, but it is kind of worth-while to read Rockne’s handwriting on these things. They’re chockablock full of ideas and great fun!” As was the artist himself, as Goddard relayed. Apparently when preparing for the exhibition, Goddard asked around the faculty—those who would have been in the department in the early 1960s. Among them was the late art historian Marilyn Stokstad who recalled he wasn’t a good student, but since he was a bit of a prankster, he was a lot of fun to have in class.
While such a recollection sheds little light on the working process of the artist, it’s that personality that Heather keeps finding in bits and scraps throughout the archive. Reviews of an exhibition talk about the work, but finding a doodle on the side of a letter bears a fingerprint of preciousness. “I found a scrap of paper with a grocery list, a to do list for his assistant George,” Heather remarked in an e-mail. “Scribbled on the side it said “my beautiful horses are in jail in Texas!” I knew what he meant.” It was a clue about the whereabouts of a sculpture. A Google search and a phone call later, Heather learned One of Rockne’s prism sculptures from the early 1980s was donated to the Old Jail Arts Center by a Texas art collector. Despite the victories, Heather is aware of her limitations. “I wish I could keep doing it with him,” she reflects, as she talks about the first time going through the boxes her mother gave her when her father was still alive. “Sometimes I’d go in the nursing home with lists of questions: things only he could answer.” While Rockne Krebs’ laser pieces might never again cut through the darkness, by Heather’s efforts she’s helping to shine a light on a nearly lost master.