It has been an art-world puzzlement for nearly 50 years, but the mystery of the Slant Step appears to have been solved.
The Slant Step is an eccentric, near-mythic object in the annals of 1960s Bay Area “funk” art. A found object, it looks like something produced in junior high shop class that didn’t get a passing grade.
Constructed from a stained wood frame covered in black rubber and green linoleum, now well worn, it suggests an ordinary step stool -- the kind you might keep in the kitchen for those occasions when you need to reach all the way to the back of the uppermost cabinet.
Except for one thing: The tread on the big, blocky stool tilts downward toward the front at roughly a 45-degree angle.
The step is slanted, not parallel to the floor. Step on it, and you’re likely to slip and fall forward, landing flat on your face. So what’s its point?
The Slant Step was found in 1965 at the Mt. Carmel Salvage Shop in Mill Valley, a half-hour north of San Francisco. (The shop is still there.) Accounts differ as to the details of the discovery, but artist William Wiley, who was teaching at UC Davis, and his graduate student Bruce Nauman -- who would soon become an international sensation -- were understandably perplexed when they came across the thing. The Slant Step was purchased -- accounts also differ as to the price, but most say 50 cents or a dollar -- and brought back to school.
There it acquired a certain mystique. Such was its charisma that the oddity inspired “The Slant Step Show,” a 1966 exhibition conceived by poet and playwright William Witherup for a co-op gallery in San Francisco. Wiley, Nauman, Robert Hudson, William Allen, Jim Melchert and 17 other artists made homages to the Slant Step in cast metal, plaster, bread, colored plastic, silk and more.
The cover photograph of the show’s small catalog has the Slant Step worn like a helmet on a reclining man’s head. Nauman’s own ghostly, rough-hewn plaster-cast of it -- like an old museum-casting of an ancient Greek masterpiece -- was featured in his 1966 debut solo exhibition at Nicholas Wilder Gallery in L.A. Now it’s in the collection of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
It’s easy to see why the thing Wiley and Nauman found was appealing to artists. The carefully handcrafted object has a strange integrity. It seems it must have a purpose, however inscrutable. The item has plainly been well-used, although why is difficult to say. And it keeps a viewer’s mind engaged in contemplation of just what it is he is looking at.
All that made the Slant Step seem very much like a work of art -- especially Dada or Surrealist art. And so it entered into Bay Area art history as a kind of funky totem.
Time passed and eventually the oddity disappeared, as these things tend to do.
But two years ago, it returned. UC Davis alumni Frank Owen, a painter, and Art Schade, a sculptor, donated the Slant Step to the university’s art collection. Owen had been using it throughout his peripatetic teaching career, which brought him -- and it -- to schools in California, New York, Virginia, North Carolina and Vermont.
And now, it looks like we finally have an answer to the mystery of what the Slant Step was originally made for.
Peter Plagens’ new book, “Bruce Nauman: The True Artist,” which I reviewed for the Sunday Arts & Books section, includes an email from Witherup, sent shortly before the poet died. Plagens obtained it as part of his research.
“We did not know at the time,” Witherup wrote, but the Slant Step was made to -- well, I can’t use his exact language. Let’s just say it is a footrest meant to be used when seated on the toilet, in order to improve the sitter’s posture for excretory fitness.
Plagens doesn’t elaborate, but in 1965, when Wiley and Nauman found the thing, the Slant Step form and function were in the air.
As coincidentally reported in Slate not long ago, according to a standard medical text, the 1964 Bockus Gastroenterology, “The ideal posture for defecation is the squatting position, with the thighs fixed upon the abdomen.”
Two years later, in 1966, Cornell published “The Bathroom” by architect and famed design critic Alexander Kira. The now well-known graphic study of the ergonomics of bathroom fixtures argued that, when it comes to the commode, human physiology is better suited to the squat.
Apparently a good idea has staying power. Recently, radio personality Howard Stern has been obsessed with a new, modified, mass-produced plastic version helpfully called the Squatty Potty, which advertises on his show. Stern insists it has changed his life.
The new one isn’t likely to inspire an aesthetic movement. Somehow, though, it does seem a fitting funk-art coda to the legendary Slant Step tale.