David Ireland dies at 78; Bay Area conceptual artist

David Ireland, a conceptual artist whose quiet embrace of life-as-art made him a beloved guru in the Bay Area and a highly admired freethinker in international art circles, has died. He was 78.

Ireland, who had been in failing health over the last few years, died Monday of pneumonia at the Davies Campus of the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, his sister, Judy Ireland, said.

Best known for transforming a decrepit 1886 Victorian house in San Francisco’s Mission District into a home that was also a work of art, Ireland saw ordinary things around him as extraordinary raw materials. After buying the 500 Capp Street building in 1975, he embarked on a renovation that became a sort of excavation of the structure’s history.

As he peeled back layers of materials, he exposed information about former inhabitants and made collections of remnants, sometimes turning old woodwork and scraps of wallpaper into artworks. Periodic “open houses” allowed visitors to follow his progress and participate in an experience that got to the core of Ireland’s philosophy of art.


“Whether San Francisco artist David Ireland qualifies as a Zen master I cannot say, but certainly he’s a master of Zen art,” Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote in a review of his work in 2005. “He doesn’t make zenga -- the word the Japanese use to describe bold calligraphy, traditional paintings of monks and other staples of this age-old Asian repertoire. Instead he makes Conceptual art, and his idiom is fully Western and completely Modern. But his work seeks to produce in the viewer what can only be called an awakening. Nothing is more Zen than that.”

Among works that elicited many critics’ comments were “dumbballs,” spheres of concrete made by tossing a lump of wet concrete back and forth, from one hand to another, hour after hour.

The finished sculptures offered little to look at, Knight wrote. But he deemed them “theoretically provocative” works that “stress an acute awareness of the slow transformation of materials from one state to another.”

Born in Bellingham, Wash., on Aug. 25, 1930, Ireland was the third of four children and the only son of Martha and David Kenneth Ireland. He majored in art and mathematics during a two-year stint at Western Washington University, then transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in Oakland, where he studied theater, industrial arts and printmaking.


He developed a strong interest in Africa in the 1950s, living and working in Johannesburg and traveling throughout South Africa. Drafted into military service, he served two years in the U.S. Army from 1956-58, then returned to his hometown. He married Joanne Westford, also a native of Bellingham, in 1961. They had two children and were divorced in 1970.

In his early years, Ireland tried many occupations, including selling insurance and leading African safaris. Finally launching his art career in his 40s, he moved to San Francisco in 1972 to attend graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he joined a circle of adventurous artists, including Tom Marioni, Terry Fox and Paul Kos.

In the late 1970s, Ireland worked on a property near his house that evolved into the Capp Street Project, an artist residency program. But in the early 1980s, he began making sculpture and installations that were shown at museums and outdoor venues. Over time, his work was exhibited in prominent institutions such as the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Center in Washington, D.C., and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“The Way Things Are: The Art of David Ireland,” a traveling retrospective exhibition, was organized by the Oakland Museum of California in 2003. His work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Ireland’s health problems forced him to leave his house in 2005, and the building’s fate was uncertain for several years. Carlie Wilmans, an arts patron, recently spearheaded a campaign to save 500 Capp Street as a repository, study center and archive of the artists’ work.

In addition to his sister, Ireland is survived by a son, Ian; a daughter, Shaughn Niland; and five grandchildren. A memorial gathering is being planned.




Sample pieces

More photos of David Ireland’s artwork can be seen in an online gallery.