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L.A. Rising:

by James Croak
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Lyn Kienholz, L.A. Rising, SoCal Artists Before 1980, California / International Arts Foundation, 2010, 516 pp., $75

In the early days of the Los Angeles art scene, in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, local artists were routinely dumbfounded that their city was not considered a proper art capital, as compelling ideas frequently had their debut there. Andy Warhol officially launched Pop Art at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962 with his first exhibition, now famous, of paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. In 1963, Marcel Duchamp had his first retrospective in Pasadena, a mere taxicab ride away, years before he was so honored by the Tate Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Artforum magazine was founded in 1965 in a space rented upstairs from Ferus, and L.A. native Larry Gagosian began his gallery empire there in the 1970s. Man Ray upended photography from L.A., where he moved in the 1940s, and deconstructivist architect Frank Gehry has lived in Santa Monica since the ‘50s. Jacques Derrida might have been the toast of the Sorbonne, but he eviscerated critical theory from his seat at U. Cal. Irvine, where he was a professor since the mid-‘80s.

It hardly helps, or matters, that the implicit comparison is to New York City. Whereas the New York art scene is an outgrowth of centuries of European art history, Los Angeles is a continuation of the Mojave Desert, and that’s not really fair. But something about the single-season mix of blinding sunshine and the Hollywood fantasy factory gave Southern California a head start on the it’s-all-relative, I-can-do-anything art production that became known as Post-Modernism.

A few brave souls tried to pin this sprawling esthetic metropolis to the page as a historical artifact, notably Peter Plagens in his 1974 book, Sunshine Muse. In 1997, Denmark’s Louisiana Museum put together a show of L.A. art called “Sunshine and Noir,” but it was the French invasion of Los Angeles, so to speak, that resulted in the book at hand.

In 2006, the Centre Pompidou in Paris opened a substantial survey show entitled “Los Angeles 1955-1985: The Birth of an Artistic Capital” and including more than 300 objects by over 80 artists, from John Baldessari and Judy Chicago to Bill Viola and James Welling. The Napoleonic first paragraph of the exhibition announcement didn’t help matters when it suggested the curators would reveal the “specific characteristics of an artistic context yet to be discovered.” The old guard was not amused.

Cal Arts dean Thomas Lawson suggested in Artforum that the show should be redone, perhaps by the Tate, while Maurice Tuchman, founding curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, described “Birth” as a “mishmash” without a point of view and began shopping another show of his own design. Lyn Kienholz got busy assembling an encyclopedia.

The founder and director of the bustling California / International Arts Foundation, which launched in 1981 to organize SoCal exhibitions and other programming, Kienholz was a first-hand witness to the scene’s early days -- she was once married to Ed Kienholz and an employee of Ferus Gallery. On the flight home from Paris, Kienholz -- her advice sought by the Pompidou but then ignored -- sketched a remedy: an encyclopedia of all professional artists working in Southern California prior to 1980, limited to those with a published review from that time.

Five long years later the result is a beautiful and fairly massive volume of 497 artists and 943 images, laid out Facebook style so each artist is given a solo page. A sprawling appendix lists all the galleries and art clubs from this period, as well as an astonishing 26 art colleges in the city and its vicinity.

The undertaking was not without its bumps. Some artists declined to respond, others had gone to ground, and still others didn’t need no stinkin’ encyclopedia. Occasionally, artists are omitted because they were never reviewed, a stricture that is almost as problematic as it is simple, considering the incurious L.A. press of the day. For instance, the Party Boys performance cabal is absent, even though its inventive and well-attended productions would class them with performers like the Kipper Kids and Bob & Bob, who are included.

What’s more, 1980 is a little early for the cut-off date -- the Paris exhibition more accurately used 1985 – since, as Tuchman notes, “the California art world exploded in 1975,” forming over the next ten years an influential scene in downtown Los Angeles.

Such small objections aside, though, L.A. Rising is a complete encyclopedia, a huge labor of love for Lyn Kienholz and her team, and future art historians and curators will thank them for it. The book documents a recent past that saw Los Angeles turn into a global art capital. I parked this book on my shelf between Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting (1970) and Paris, City of Art (2003). L.A. has risen.

JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.