Bernard Kester, UCLA professor emeritus of design media arts who was sweepingly influential in elevating craft and fiber works into fine art worthy of high-end museum exhibitions in the United States, died Oct. 26 of natural causes in Studio City. He was 90.
Kester was a critically important figure in the California and national studio craft movement from the 1950s into the 70s, and his contributions helped usher in an entirely new era for craft in the 20th century. An accomplished ceramist and weaver, his work was shown in major regional and national exhibitions, including the Museum of Arts and Design (formerly the American Craft Museum), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center and the Smithsonian Institution.
His groundbreaking 1971 exhibition, “Deliberate Entanglements,” is regarded as a benchmark in the history of fiber art. Kester believed that “’learning to see is as important as learning to read” and was convinced that artists of any medium needed a universal liberal arts education to enlarge their worlds and enrich their capacity for creativity.
Kester’s UCLA ties ran deep. He also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA before becoming a professor. Kester taught ceramics, weaving and design from 1956 to 1993 at UCLA and initiated the university’s fiber art program.
He encouraged his students to think of fiber in sculptural terms and to see their endeavors in textiles and fiber as fertile media for artistic experimentation. He also served as chair the art department from 1972 to 1975. And during his four-year tenure as acting dean of the College of Fine Arts, Kester oversaw the school’s restructure into the School of the Arts and the School of Theater, Film and Television.
After leaving UCLA following his tenure as acting dean, Kester went onto a storied tenure at LACMA, where he would serve as principal exhibition designer. His architectural designs elegantly presented and enhanced the perception of artworks in the museum for more than 40 years; he designed more than 100 exhibitions there, tastefully reconfigured its many galleries, and oversaw the periodic rotation of the permanent collection.
Exhibitions such as “Craftsmen USA ’66,” “Age of the Pharaohs” (1974), “The Great Bronze Age of China” (1982), “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” (1986), “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries” (1991), “The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World 1880-1920” (2004), and “SoCal: Southern California Art of the 60s and 70s” (2007) are memorable examples of Kester’s discriminating eye — his extraordinary mastery of light and space, appreciation of the art object and grasp of the harmony and power of color.
In his promotion of craft as a respected art form, he introduced the nation to California and Western craftspeople with his “Letter from Los Angeles,” which appeared regularly in Craft Horizons magazine from 1965 to 1979. He was a contributing artist of all the influential “California Design” exhibitions, and designed the 1968, 1971 and 1976 shows.
Over his long career, Kester received several honors. He was a fellow of the American Craft Council and trustee emeritus of the Museum of Arts and Design. He served on the board of trustees of the Craft and Folk Art Museum and the board of directors of the UCLA Arts Council and was the recipient of the International Association of Designers award in textiles.