Ron Boise’s infamous Kama Sutra sculptures from the early 1960’s look almost quaint now. A series of eleven small (the tallest was a foot high) sculptures depicting sexual positions from the ancient Hindu text on sexual behavior, the Kama Sutra, were formed out of scrap sheet metal taken from wrecked cars. And that’s when the prudish shit storm began.
Boise grew up in Colorado and Montana, where he learned to weld from his father, before moving to California. In addition to being a self-taught sculptor, Boise was one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and even used old tools, car parts, bucksaws and old scraps of metal to create the always-locked front gate on Kesey’s La Honda, California property, on the far side of the rickety bridge that spanned La Honda Creek.
Boise himself lived and traveled in an old telephone company service van which he painted wild psychedelic colors and modified to become a mobile studio and camper.
In 1964 Boise’s Kama Sutra series was shown at the two-year-old Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco, then located in the alley behind Vesuvio Cafe and a few steps from City Lights Bookstore. (Still open, it is now located in the San Francisco Civic Center at 444 Market Street.) Art professor Richard H. Grooms described the pieces:
His sculpture was extremely sensual and the rendering of flesh and texture of the sheet metal made you forget they were scraps of metal at all. He had a sensitive line in his work that made all the metal personages seem to have a personality all their own. They became like real people, but without the idea they were portraits.
The sight of fewer than a dozen small, charming depictions of a man and a woman engaged in various heterosexual activities was enough to completely freak out the upright citizens of San Francisco. San Francisco police raided the gallery, confiscated almost all of the sculptures, and arrested gallery owner Muldoon Elder for offering “lewd objects for sale.” An obscenity trial ensued, where expert art historians Walter Horn and Catherine Caldwell and philosopher Alan Watts testified in defense of Boise’s work. Watts’ statement was reprinted in The Evergreen Review in June 1965:
Ron Boise is a sculptor who is doing something which I call ‘pushing the line back’ – in the same way as great modern writers, such as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce have been pushing the line back in literature. We haven’t seen much of it in sculpture – or in painting…
Here we see an extraordinary example of getting away with murder but in a fantastically good way. But it’s not actually getting away with murder; it’s something much worse than that; it’s getting away with love…Very rarely, unless we are familiar with Hindu sculpture or Tibetan painting can we see anything like this done with superb mastery.
Elder was found not guilty. He wrote in 2004:
Thank God the A.C.L.U. defended me at the two-week trial since in 1964 I hardly had a penny to my name to pay for a lawyer and I doubt if the public defender would have been as eloquent as Ephriam Margolin and Marshall Krause were in that courtroom. You’ll have to ask me about the trial sometime, it was a hoot.
During and after the trial, the Kama Sutra sculptures became a rallying point for the local counterculture. Calendars and postcards were sold featuring the sculptures. Hip Pocket Bookstore in Santa Cruz, California proudly displayed one of the original sculptures over the front door. Another sculpture was installed on the roof of the Anchor Steam Beer Factory in San Francisco in full view of the freeway until Fritz Maytag took over the company in 1965 and removed it.
Boise died of the blood disease hemochrotouisis in 1966. He was on his way to Mexico to celebrate a successful show in California, where he sold nearly all of his works. He had told friends that he did not expect to live a long life and wanted to fully enjoy what years he had allotted to him. In a 1968 Martlett magazine article Richard H. Grooms wondered what had happened to Boise’s unsold sculptures after his death. Photographs of the Kama Sutra sculptures that were to accompany Grooms’ article were censored by Martlett’s printers.
Excerpt from a documentary about Boise’s work. It contains footage of him working on a sculpture shortly before his death in 1966.