Shrouds & Lost Scrolls
“We are a family of very fast walkers,” says Bridgit Koller. “If you want to keep up, you have to kind of run.” She has a vivid mental image of her mother, Ciel Bergman, blazing through the streets of Pleasanton, California, on a visit to see Koller in early 2016. Shortly after that, Bergman jetted off to Cuba for an action-packed vacation. Then came a lung cancer diagnosis, several surgeries, news that the cancer had metastasized to the brain, and Bergman’s death at seventy-eight on January 15, 2017.
“The diagnosis was this huge, ‘Oh, my god, wait a second,’” says Koller. “That was in May, and I traveled to Santa Fe in July for a pop-up show she was doing. That’s when we talked a little bit about The Linens.” On top of her vigorous studio practice, Bergman had been planning a solo exhibition at Center of Contemporary Arts with Angie Rizzo, then the visual arts curator of the nonprofit institution. Bergman’s swift passing altered the path of the project and tied Koller and Rizzo together at a decisive period in both of their lives. Luckily, Bergman encoded a philosophical map into The Linens during a strikingly similar period of her own life.
Rizzo and Bergman first met at a party in the home of a CCA board member in early 2016. “Ciel was ready to pitch this project, so she actually brought the proposal with her to the party,” Rizzo says. Bergman’s concept was so ambitious that it could easily fill CCA’s entire exhibition space.
Through a show and catalog, the project would present Bergman’s earliest body of work as a whole for the first time. She created The Linens, a series of forty-eight monumental paintings on unstretched and untreated linen, in California and Oregon from 1970 through 1977. It was a period of tumult and raw inspiration for Bergman, a seemingly bottomless wellspring of ideas that nourished her artistic practice thereafter.
Several of the works won art world accolades—two appeared in the 1975 Whitney Biennial and a third won a SECA Award from SFMoMA—and helped launch Bergman’s decades-long career, but most of The Linens had never been exhibited. Still, Rizzo was hesitant to lock down the show until she saw the works in person. The project would be a big commitment for CCA, and she couldn’t get a full sense of the paintings from the images Bergman provided. “It’s really hard to actually visualize their size, even when you look at the dimensions on paper,” Rizzo says.
Rizzo requested a viewing of The Linens, so Bergman pinned several of them to the walls of her workspace. “Most of them have only ever been exhibited in her studio,” Koller says. “She had big studio spaces but never more than two or three of them at a time could fit.” Many of the works are over seven feet wide and six feet tall, and Bergman painted them using an acrylic binding agent that allowed her to work up luminous washes of color. Over the span of the series, the artist developed an elaborate system of crosses, letters, portals and other symbols and marks. They appear in grids, nebulae, and surreal landscapes, shrinking to the size of charms and then towering above the viewer as strange monoliths. For Rizzo, the effect was staggering.
“I pretty much immediately said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’” says Rizzo. “She’d never shown this work before, and I think it was kind of haunting her in a way. She only exhibited a few of them, and then she just rolled them all up and put them away for forty years.” Bergman’s sudden passing threw into question whether they’d ever see the light of day.
Maps & Missives
“After Ciel died, the project more or less had to start over,” Rizzo says. She emailed Koller and her family shortly after Bergman’s death to ensure them that the show would move forward. The process proved to be more complicated than she initially imagined. CCA had recently hired a new director, Stuart Ashman, and most of the staff had also turned over. The institution was in a period of flux, while The Linens were suddenly frozen in Bergman’s estate. “Stuart could see that coming a little more than I could,” says Rizzo. “I said, ‘Oh, no, it’ll be fine.’ And it really was fine, but certain things became more difficult. For a while, I didn’t have any access to the artwork.”
Bergman left behind over two thousand art pieces, and though she’d faithfully kept an inventory system, her next of kin faced an enormous task. “She was very cognizant that she was leaving a burden,” says Koller. “I just thought it would be at a later point in my life. Her mother lived to 103, and I thought for sure she had another ten to twenty years, at least.”
Koller studied art history in college, aiming for a career in the museum or gallery world. She ended up on a different path and is now the vice president of a home building business. “The irony of this is not lost on me, let me put it that way,” Koller says. “In college, I had an art professor who would chase me around and say, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to become an artist?’ I was like, ‘I’ve lived that life. I grew up in that world. No, thank you. I have other things I want to do with my life.’”
Now it was time for Koller to crash-land in the paint-spattered universe she’d left behind decades before. In the year after her mother’s death—while working her full-time job—she traveled to Santa Fe seven times to catalog every artwork in the estate. Meanwhile, Rizzo was fast approaching her own major life transition. As she prepared her catalogue essay and narrowed down a selection of The Linens that would fit in CCA’s galleries, she was also planning her wedding and considering a job change. For both women, there was perhaps no better series of artworks than The Linens to accompany them on their respective quests.
Bergman was thirty-two when she started The Linens and residing in her birthplace of Berkeley as a single mother of two. She had married young and lived in Europe for a number of years with her husband, who was enlisted in the U.S. military. Her exposure to art overseas radically changed her trajectory. “She divorced her husband, moved home, raised two kids on her own, and started studying painting—and this was in the late 1960s,” says Rizzo. “She had enormous courage to do everything she did at that time.”
Bergman studied painting privately and worked as a psychiatric nurse for a number of years in the 1960s. Then she enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute and audited classes at the University of California, Berkeley, landing smack in the middle of the Bay Area’s avant-garde milieu. Abstract Expressionism had hit its peak in the region, while the Bay Area Figurative Movement was on the rise. Bergman hungrily absorbed it all but also started clearing the drawing board to create space for her own aesthetic language.
“She called the early works in the series Spiritual Guide Maps,” says Koller. “You can see they have references to cartography, and the lines that run through them look like rivers. There are these ‘water holes’ that appear, which were like lakes in this desert oasis. It was spiritual for her, and she was also coming up with her own philosophy.” The Spiritual Guide Maps represent a period of “emptying out” that Bergman deliberately initiated in her work. The artist excised all symbolic representation from her paintings, seizing on the newly developed acrylic emulsion Rhoplex AC-33 to fill frayed linens with rich pools of color, her own riff on the vernacular of the Color Field painters.
“Ciel started this massive soul search,” says Rizzo of Bergman’s work on The Linens. “It was a test of faith. I think she was trying to push herself and this idea of her identity as an artist, to see if there would be any breaking points.” As the series progressed, Bergman graduated from UC-Berkeley and began lecturing there. She furthered her studies of the seminal conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, whose work had captivated her during her time in Europe. She began to envision The Linens as an epic conversation with Duchamp across time and space.
The tiny marks from Bergman’s Spiritual Guide Maps blossomed into full-fledged, idiosyncratic symbols, and text also surfaced in the works. The artist made frequent reference to Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. “That’s where I see this strong feminist thread emerge,” says Rizzo. “She was examining how everything she was going through at that time was based in her gender identity, and also challenging that. She wasn’t at all playing the traditional role of a woman at that time.”
Backdrops & Buttes
Rizzo strolls past an enormous photograph of Bergman and into The Linens exhibition, which opened at CCA in February. The show features twenty paintings from the series and several smaller studies, lining the Tank Garage and Spector Ripps galleries in loose chronological order. Each painting is suspended a few inches from the wall to highlight the flowing physicality of the linen. Rizzo mentions that sheets of linen at this scale are often used for theater backdrops. It’s easy to imagine Bergman pacing this floor, reminiscing about the different stage sets she’d imagined for her life.
“When we first started planning this show, this room didn’t exist,” says Rizzo, pointing to a walled-off section in the center of the space that currently houses an installation by Tom Joyce. “Originally, the paintings were going to be hanging from the rafters in the middle of the space, in a sort of Zia formation.” The new approach to the installation was one of the many details that Rizzo had to firm up after Bergman’s death. “There are all sorts of things that I’d really like to ask her about,” she says.
Partway through the curatorial process, Rizzo left her role at CCA for a job as the programs and exhibits manager of CENTER, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit arts organization with a focus on emerging photographers. She’s also newly married and pregnant, though she isn’t showing quite yet. Even after her official departure from CCA in August 2017, Rizzo continued working on the show as a freelance curator. “I would have felt awful if I hadn’t gotten to do it,” she says. “I feel like that’s something I would have regretted for the rest of my life.”
Bergman made a number of career moves while she worked on The Linens. She left UC-Berkeley for an adjunct teaching position at the University of Oregon in 1975 and landed at University of California, Santa Barbara, as a full professor a year later. Koller notes that Bergman’s academic work allowed her the financial freedom to continue making art in the Bay Area; she completed an immersive installation piece at Santa Barbara Contemporary Art Forum in 1987 and exhibited extensively in California and elsewhere.
Rizzo turns a corner into the Spector Ripps space, where the final works in The Linens series are grouped together. Bergman referred to them as the Black Tools paintings, and they’re recognizably darker and more representational. “This is after she won the SECA award and was in the Whitney Biennial, and she started to question where she was in her career,” she says, approaching a 1975 piece titled Photodocumentation of the Tools Used in Performing the Fifth Ascent. The work references a book called Mount Analogue by early twentieth-century French novelist René Daumal, an allegory that sends a group of mountain climbers on a hunt for a mystical, possibly insurmountable peak. “Often, the first step defines the last,” Rizzo says. “I think she was questioning whether she’d hit the top of her career and if she would know when she had.”
After retiring from teaching in 2006, Bergman moved to New Mexico—a place she’d dreamed of living since meeting Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch early in her process of painting The Linens. She built a studio at the foot of Cerro Pedernal, near Abiquiu, and later moved to Santa Fe, where she became a beloved member of the art community. She painted prolifically and passionately for the rest of her life.
Koller still sees a lot of work to do when it comes to marketing Bergman’s work, and her collaboration with Rizzo is hardly over. “To continue to promote her work as my moonlighting job, absolutely I’m going to do that,” she says. “I know it was a hope and dream of hers that this show would be a traveling exhibition. That’s my next step. I’m still pushing.” It’s clear that these women have yet to hit the summit of their shared endeavor. If they have anything to do with it, Bergman’s career as an exhibiting artist is far from over.