Another L.A. Look




Another L.A. Look by Peter Plagens

A symptom?! Why does a book celebrating the talents of individual Los Angeles artists suddenly go all Fernand Braudel on us

November 11th, 2011 reset - +

AS ALL THE WORLD KNOWS — especially that part of the world that runs from the eastern borders of San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial Counties to the Pacific Ocean, and from the northern borders of San Luis Obispo and Kern Counties to the Mexican border — the Getty Center has encouraged, facilitated, and funded to the tune of $10 million a vast exhibition project entitled "Pacific Standard Time." It consists of about 70 exhibitions at not-for profit venues, and a passel of commercial gallery shows aiming to recapitulate the history of Los Angeles art from 1945 to 1980. They started rolling out in late September and will continue opening for the next five months or so. Most of the institutional exhibitions boast their own catalogues (except, oddly, the Getty Museum's own greatest-hits exhibition), so the aggregate literature from the endeavor might seem a little fragmented, sprawling — much like Los Angeles itself.

But there is an overview book published by the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Museum: a big, silver, coffee-table hardback, Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980. (My slim book, Sunshine Muse: Contemporary Art on the West Coast, published by Praeger in 1974, is what the current Getty volume intends — and with good reason — to obsolesce. Suffice it to say that, although I'm probably inordinately fond of my own bouncy youthful prose, there's nothing covered in Sunshine Muse that isn't in Pacific Standard Time, and there's plenty in the Getty book that didn't make the cut in Sunshine Muse.) Although the volume has only five chapters, they're long and inclusive, buttressed by no fewer than 31 "sidebars" on such topics as the Case Study houses, gay "physique" photography, the great artists' fabricator Jack Brogan, and "Hermann Nitsch Visits Los Angeles." The number of authors approaches a couple dozen, and the total word count must flirt with six figures.

So if you're only going to purchase one guide to the art within the PST purview this century, let it be the Getty catalogue. (In this essay, Pacific Standard Time in italics refers to the book under review, while PST indicates the entire exhibition project.) I'd also advise (with some reservations) sitting down and reading the bloody thing all the way through before, over the next half-year, you suffer all that traffic and put all those extra miles on your car trying to see all those PST shows from Santa Barbara to San Diego. It's always good to know the route the art took to get to the exhibition, too.

The bottom-line reason for the whole PST undertaking, and especially for the Pacific Standard Time tome, is a basic art-historical correction. According to the book's preface, California art has been "overshadowed by New York-centric views of modernism ... [P]ostwar American art history is fundamentally different when told from a West Coast perspective, and it is time for that history to be told." In his review of the book, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight chimes in, insisting that "[a]nyone who thinks that major postwar American art must begin with practitioners of Abstract Expressionism will never understand art history or L.A.'s art."

Let's throw in a couple of small rebuttals here: First, a "West Coast perspective" on postwar American art history isn't objective truth; it's just countervailing bias coming from the West Coast instead of the East. Second, John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin, and Ed Moses — all major artists who, in the 1960s, helped mightily to put the L.A. art scene on the map — started in the 1950s as Abstract Expressionists.

Difficult though it may be to believe today, Los Angeles was a very conservative city right into those 1950s. The Times blustered about "industrial freedom" (code for zero tolerance of Red-infested labor unions, like the ones that plagued L.A.'s then chief rival metropolis, San Francisco). In the early 1950s, the Los Angeles City Council officially stated that modern art was Communist propaganda; one councilman - the infamously philistine Harold Harby — speculated that some abstract paintings were actually coded maps of U.S. military installations meant to be read by Russian spies posing as museum visitors. Nearly 20 years after the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the actor-collector Vincent Price tried and failed to keep a smaller modern art museum going in Beverly Hills. Today, 30 years after PST's cutoff point, the problem for gallery and museum art in L.A. is not that it's so far out and weird that it repels the public, but that, for a public accustomed to the big, noisy, and spectacular fare cranked out in the movie, television, and music precincts of the "Entertainment Capital of the World," it's a dull, pale inside joke.

Nevertheless, as Pacific Standard Time amply documents, L.A. had its share of epochal moments during the three and a half decades following the end of World War II. There was the Big Bang of the 1959 Four Abstract Classicists exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum (no "Art" in the institution's name back then, when paintings and dinosaur bones cohabited under the same Exposition Park roof), comprising the hard-edged paintings of Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin. There was also the decade-long dominance of the Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood ("BORN 1957, DIED LIMPLY 1966," according to the inscription on a small sculpture by one of the gallery's founders, Ed Kienholz). Ferus promoted a combo of Pop and abstract techno-slickness that became loosely known as the "L.A. Look." It also became infamous, especially among the women of the California art world, as a bastion of male chauvinism. The book describes the ambience thusly:

 

The surf, custom-car, and motorcycle-club subcultures that attracted artists like Ken Price and Bengston - and that have played an outsized role in Southern California's image - were dominated by men. Mirroring the region's activities and communities, the L.A. art world embodied a cavalier culture of male kinship, camaraderie, and vigorous rivalry - as well as outright sexism - that persisted well into the 1970s.

 

This bro-hug atmosphere did, however, provide some entertaining moments. Early on, the bumptious, blue-collar Kienholz and the Ferus's Cary-Grant-handsome front man, Irving Blum, didn't get along. For a while Kienholz refused to enter the gallery. When a door hinge needed fixing, Blum wrote a letter permitting the "artist, forager, balladeer, and crack pistol shot" to come in and make the repair.

"Light and Space" art constitutes one pole of the "L.A. Look" spectrum (Ed Ruscha's Pop art being the other). Larry Bell made it with electro-coated glass, first in small boxes, then in walls; Robert Irwin used translucent nylon scrims stretched across otherwise empty rooms; James Turrell projected quasi-blinding light into a gallery's corners. In between, such artists as Peter Alexander, Fred Eversley (an African-American artist rather short-shrifted in PST), Helen Pashgian, and De Wain Valentine "were fascinated by the transparent quality of polyester resin, which enabled them to create objects that drift into and out of the viewer's perceptual field." Whatever you think of L & S art (and a lot of female, African-American, and Latino artists, I remember, thought it was bunk — overproduced, NASA-fetish, bank-lobby abstraction concocted to guiltlessly amuse rich collectors and museum boards), it was the L.A. equivalent of the Marshall Field's department store, whose slogan once was, "There's nothing like it back home." ("Home," in this case, meaning New York.)

Meanwhile, back at the assemblagist ranch, such artists as Wallace Berman, George Herms, and the redoubtable Kienholz were paralleling the "pot-assemblage" of Peter Voulkos at the Otis Art Institute's kiln by cobbling together bits of commercial detritus (broken baby dolls, pieces of mannequins, and moldy old books were favored materials) into sometimes emotionally searing, sometimes nihilistically gothic works of art. Lucy Bradnock's and Rani Singh's Pacific Standard Time essay makes the perceptive point that while William Seitz's "'collage environment' [in his 1961 MoMA exhibition, "The Art of Assemblage"] was situated in the urban grid of Manhattan, much California assemblage in the 1950s was located in the rural environments of Redondo Beach, Venice, or Topanga Canyon." It's a little far-fetched, though, for Alex Potts to add that "[a] lingering unease about Kienholz's rough-and-ready-realism and his apparent lack of concern for formal mediation may explain why his reputation among East Coast cognoscenti in the United States was apparently short lived." Even without the sneer embedded in the phrase "East Coast cognoscenti" (L.A. didn't have cognoscenti?), the statement ignores the fact that Kienholz chose to make this the case; he abhorred the gallery system and elected to not pass GO, to not collect his measly 200 New York Monopoly dollars, and to deal directly with Europe, where his reputation was (and continues to be) enormous.

The weirdest, most bloated section in Pacific Standard Time, Chapter Four, tries to herd several artists whose work has few commonalities into a so-vast-as-to-be meaningless corral called "Duration Piece: Rethinking Sculpture in Los Angeles." Here we find Chris Burden's notorious private performance piece, Shoot (1971); Douglas Huebler's offer of his own reward for the capture of bank robber Edmund Kite McIntyre (1969); Doug Wheeler's L & S installation — fluorescent light recessed behind the edges of a ghostly gallery wall — in Eindhoven, Holland (1969); Mowry Baden's "instruments" for altering perception (1970); Bruce Nauman's perceptually goading Green Light Corridor (1970); the Chicano collective ASCO's protest Spray Paint LACMA (for Project Pie in De/Face) (1972); Faith Wilding's feminist Crocheted Environment(1972); Al Ruppersberg's tongue-in-cheek restaurant, Al's Café (1969); Bas Jan Ader's I'm Too Sad to Tell You (a photograph of the artist crying, 1970); and William Leavitt's gold-framed, badly painted portrait of a dog on a cheap display easel, Painted Image (1972).

"Were these works sculptures?" ask the chapter's writers, Donna Conwell and Glenn Phillips, at the outset. "This is not the type of question we even debate today, so thoroughly have such ephemeral and bodily practices been accepted into our definitions of art making." Notice that Conwell and Phillips don't say these practices now fit into our definitions of sculpture. True, several of the artists may have indeed "[seen] fit to describe these works somewhat provocatively as sculpture" because "the boundaries between artistic media still held enough sway in the 1960s as to need attacking." But that's a pretty lame excuse for placing work motivated by such different impulses (social protest, perceptual fun 'n' games, simple boho fun, satirizing taste, extreme introspection, etc.) under a single heading.

Am I carping? After all, Pacific Standard Time is beautifully made, gloriously illustrated, thorough, reliable, comes with an index in which the first term under each letter of the alphabet is conveniently boldfaced, and costs maybe 20 bucks less than it might have from another publisher. And it has some really good descriptive writing in spots (e.g., a long paragraph on Voulkos's ceramic methods, and Richard Meyer's whole sidebar, "Los Angeles Meant Boys"). Aside from some inevitable puffery — such as noting that "Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock ... were all students in Los Angeles before being identified with the New York School'' (like, yeah, dude: high school students) — and the occasional rhetorical groaner — Chapter Two is entitled "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag: Crafting an Art Scene" — the book is fairly readable and eminently reasonable.

Well, with two big exceptions. Conwell's and Phillips's chapter begins by claiming that "what has been classified as Light and Space art was, if anything, simply a symptom of the specific, unique environment in Los Angeles in which a confluence of technical, craft, and scientific industries made new materials available to artists at a time when they had access both to expansive definitions of art and to empty spaces in which to experiment — not only with plastics and light but also with fog, smoke, and vapors." [Emphasis added.]

symptom?! Why does a book celebrating the talents of individual Los Angeles artists suddenly go all Fernand Braudel on us and insinuate that if Turrell and Irwin had not existed, socioeconomic conditions would have produced other artists who would have made the same work? Similarly, Jane McFadden, in her piece on the art of the seventies, asserts that

 

there is a connection between Irwin and [David] Hammons [the African-American artist who said he'd like to be doing L & S art but that his black brethren were "too oppressed for me to be dabbling out there"]: through Irwin's exodus from the studio and his struggle to challenge the function of art, he grappled with long-standing questions about the value and place of artistic practice that had marked modernism across the twentieth century, just as Hammons's remark notes the machinations of exclusion in that same period.

 

A struggle against some amorphous machinations of exclusion unite Hammons and Irwin artistically? This is an awfully big and unwieldy bowl into which to throw such disparate apples and oranges. Kumbaya, everybody.

Despite these gaffes, you could do much worse than to take Pacific Standard Time as an embarkation point. And if PST turns out to have sufficient protein in it, the whole Getty project will turn out to be not the capstone of Southern California revisionism, but, one hopes, the launching pad for something new.

 

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