UC Davis and the Slant Step

William T. Wiley and Robert Nelson drumming on Stephen Kaltenbach’s Slant Step 2, 1971. © 1971 Gunvor Nelson & Dorothy Wiley. From the film Five Artists: BillBobBillBillBob. Film still courtesy of Canyon Cinema Foundation.

Intro text

In 1951, UC Davis established the College of Letters and Sciences, and an energetic new art department formed under the leadership of Richard Nelson at what was, up until then, a well-known veterinary school. Many of the teachers were artists who were drawn by a department that embraced new ways of teaching and spurned school bureaucracy. The flexible environment nurtured collaborative relationships between teachers and students that played a pivotal role in the development of art in Northern California.

Story

A shared mystery also helped fuel the relationships among teachers and students: a peculiar object resembling a slanted step stool. William T. Wiley, who joined the faculty in 1963, stumbled across the thing while visiting the Mount Carmel Salvage Shop in Mill Valley, California. The junk shop was near his studio, and he returned many times to examine the oddity, bringing along grad-student-turned-friend Bruce Nauman on one visit. Wiley recalls that only a week later Bruce contacted him, asking, “Why don't you go buy it and bring it up? I think I wanna do something about it.” A well-spent 50 cents later, the “slant step” became a fixture—and impromptu foot stool—in Nauman’s studio. The slant step became a fetishized object among the faculty and students at UC Davis and many began making sketches, performances, sculptures, and other artworks inspired by its mystery. This experimental and collaborative spirit epitomized the young art program at UC Davis and the creative teaching and non-hierarchical relationships between students and faculty.

Image

Artist unknown, The Slant Step, 20th century. Wood, linoleum, rubber, and nails; 18 7/8 × 15 × 11 in. The Fine Arts Collection, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California. Gift of The New York Society for the Perservation of the Slant Step. 2012.027.20S. Photo courtesy of The Fine Arts Collection, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis.

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  • 01

    William T. Wiley explains how the slant step ended up at UC Davis.

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Audio Transcript

So I notice this little—strange little slant step in there and thought it was peculiar. At some point after that, Bruce [Nauman] came down for a visit. And so I said, "Come on with me. We'll walk down to the salvage shop. I want to show you something." And so, I took him back and showed him the slant step. And he spec—looked at it. And speculated about what it might be and be used for and everything. It looked like a step stool but with a slant on there. That was what was so curious about it because it obviously had been used. The next week, I was up at Davis and Bruce said, "I been—keep thinking about that strange little step stool thing down there." And he said, "Why don't you go buy it and bring it up? I think I wanna do something about it." And I said, "Okay." So I went to the salvage shop and said—I brought this out and said, "I wanna buy this piece here. How much do you want for it?" And they said, "Oh, we can't sell that. That's our step stool." And she put her foot on it. And then she said, "No, this isn't it. Can't stand on this." She said, "What is it?" And I said, "I don't know. It's some kind of a slanted step there." I said, "But I want to buy it. How much you want for it?" She said, "50 cents." I said, "Okay." Overpriced.

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In 1966, William Witherup, a high-school friend of Wiley's, was given the opportunity to put on whatever kind of show he wanted in the Berkeley Art Gallery. He invited Wiley and many of his other friends to participate, and after much disagreement about the theme of the show, Wiley offered the slant step. Wiley, Nauman, and many other artists participated in the first Slant Step Show in 1966 at the Berkeley Art Gallery. Afterwards, the slant step was stolen by Richard Serra and taken to New York. Stephen Kaltenbach discovers it there and creates Slant Step 2.

Artwork image

Stephen Kaltenbach, Slant Step 2, c. 1969. Fiberglass and rubber mat; 14 ¾ x 16 × 14 in. (37.47 × 40.64 × 35.56 cm). Collection The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, gift of Michael Asher and Pamela Allen.

Funk section

Wiley's slant step–inspired work Slant Step Becomes Rhino/Rhino Becomes Slant Step was included in the 1967 Funk exhibition curated by Peter Selz at the University Art Museum, Berkeley. Selz, who coined the term “Funk” art, described the style in the essay “Notes on Funk”: “Funk art, so prevalent in the San Francisco-Bay Area, is largely a matter of attitude. But many of the works also reveal certain similar characteristics of form-or anti-form.” 1 The exhibition also included by artists such as Bruce Conner and Roy De Forest.


  1. Peter Selz, "Notes on Funk," Funk, exh. cat. (Berkeley: University of California, 1967), 3. 

Artwork image

William T. Wiley, Slant Step Becomes Rhino/Rhino Becomes Slant Step, 1966. Plaster, acrylic, paint, and chain; 22 × 12 × 12 in. (55.8 × 30.5 × 30.5 cm). Collection Ron Wagner and Bonnie Ruder.

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Wiley also contributed to Phil Weidman's Slant Step Book (1969) alongside Nauman and Kaltenbach.

Kaltenbach continued his exploration of the slant step with the 2012 video work How to make a slant step (short version) in which he constructed a slant step out of coat hangers and newspaper—a reversal of the lack of an artist's hand found in his Slant Step 2.

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Stephen Kaltenbach and David E. Stone, How to make a slant step (short version), 2012–13.

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In 2014, more than 50 years after it's discovery, the slant step's secret was finally revealed: it's an old-fashioned “squatty potty” toilet stool.1


  1. "Mystery of a 50-year-old Nauman art object solved," Phaidon, accessed November 12, 2018.  

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