GRONK Untitled (Three Sisters) 1982 detail
LATE ONE NIGHT in April 1972, three young men from East Los Angeles drove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a red Volkswagen Bug. The men parked on a side street, out of sight of museum guards. They stepped from the car and crept through the La Brea Tar Pits toward the museum’s Wilshire Boulevard entrance. Their movements were stealthy but the men decidedly were not. Long haired and barely into their twenties, each was heavily made up and wore an eye-catching assortment of clothes: red dinner coat with tails, green bowler hat, turquoise patent leather shoes and a World War I-era gray suit. They carried cans of black and red spray-paint. Arriving at the entrance, the men proceeded to tag their names — Herrón, Gronkie, Gamboa, Jr. — on the side of a bridge spanning a pond. They did the same thing to the museum’s other entrances. Then they got back into the Volkswagen and drove home. It was 2:00 a.m.
The following morning at eight o’clock, one of the men, Harry Gamboa, Jr., returned to LACMA with his friend Patssi Valdez. Valdez, also heavily made up and dressed in a ruffled pink tank top and tight jeans with jeweled appliqué, posed on the bridge above the graffiti-ed names. She looked coyly to the side. Gamboa snapped her picture. A few hours later, museum attendants whitewashed the names away.
Spraypaint LACMA (Project Pie in De/Face), as this act of proto-street art was named by its perpetrators, was witnessed by exactly no one. But it has gone on to become one of Los Angeles’ most famous graffiti tags. Gamboa’s photograph of it twice has greeted visitors to major traveling museum retrospectives of Chicano art. The most recent of those retrospectives, Asco: Elite of the Obscure, premiered at LACMA late last year. The museum devoted nearly an entire gallery floor to celebrating the four-person East L.A. art collective that, beginning in 1971, single-handedly redefined what it meant to make Chicano art. Spraypaint LACMA is famous because it marks a seminal moment in American art history. Four kids from East L.A. with no art school education showed that Chicano artists, hitherto regarded by the art world as at best ethnic spokespeople, could match or even exceed the intellectual daring of the mainstream art world’s avant-garde.
Asco means disgust or nausea in Spanish. When the four members of Asco — Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk (born Gluglio Nicandro), Patssi Valdez and Willie Herrón — tagged LACMA they expressed their own disgust at an arts establishment that had no time for Chicano culture. Hours before Asco’s 2:00 a.m. escapade, Gamboa recalls that a curator at LACMA told him Chicanos “are in gangs; they don’t make art.” Using gang-style graffiti to transform LACMA into the world’s largest piece of Chicano conceptual art was the inspired response to that put-down. Over the next decade and a half Asco would go on to produce some of the most original and provocative works of contemporary art — walking murals, fake monuments, stills from movies that never existed, bogus crime scenes — in the Chicano community or anywhere in America. They made no money and gained almost no recognition. But by word of mouth and gradual scholarly interest they ended up decisively influencing practically every young Chicano artist working today. They told off LACM...read more