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Summer Reading

by James Croak
Last March, the number of Kindle downloads bypassed the quantity of Amazon’s printed books sales. Six centuries ago, Johannes Guttenberg terminated the millennia-long profession of hand copying with his invention of a machine that could print hundreds of sheets per day; another device displaced his in four short years. Things can change just that fast.

Herewith, a selection of three summer books worth purchasing in print for your bookshelf or coffee table -- a review of contemporary political Arabic graffiti, a scholarly study of totalitarian art (and its patterns) and, last but certainly not least, Artnet Magazine correspondent Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's new book, Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s.

Pascal Zoghbi and Don Karl aka “Stone,” Arabic Graffiti, 2011, From Here to Fame, 200 pp., $34.95.

“Aw, perfect,” I said out loud when Arabic Graffiti arrived. The single biggest movement of human freedom in our time is the Arab Spring, a 22-country uprising in which democracy fights to displace theocracy and oligarchy. The bewildered Middle Eastern governments have a leash on most media, including the internet, but one medium remains out of their control: graffiti.

Italian for “scratched,” graffiti appears in pre-history, home-grown and on the loose; it is a despot’s nightmare. Americans, advancing on Nazi Germany, scrawled “Kilroy was here” on anything they could find, and the words so terrified the enemy that Stalin inquired about Kilroy’s identity at Potsdam; the tag is now engraved on the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Soviets tossed union leader Lech Walesa in the slammer, but they couldn’t stop the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) logo from tearing across across Poland, which indicated a loss of Communist control and mounting pressure for the government to accommodate a new Eastern Block economy. The 1980s social provocateur Blek le Rat stenciled political graffiti on walls around Paris, bringing the reality of inequality to the fore of popular consciousness. His hit-and-run stencil-painting method is now commonplace throughout the world.

This photo-essay, co-authored by Lebanese designer Pascal Zoghbi and German tagger Don Karl aka “Stone,” begins unexpectedly with thorough essays on the history of Arabic calligraphy, and brings depth to this last manifestation of the Semitic alphabet writing. The 29 letters of the Arabic alphabet have sounds similar to the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet, and the authors provide a guide for readers who are inclined to pronounce the letters out loud. After firmly establishing that historical context, the book takes us on a graffiti tour of Beirut and Palestine, describing wall writing that ranges from shop signage and workers’ humor -- especially the curious sub-culture of writing marital warnings on trucks -- to political party tags that mark off turf like Los Angeles Street gangs.

Much attention is paid to the graffiti that covered Israel’s newest Wailing Wall -- the Israeli Security Barrier, an emblem of human suffering raw and ubiquitous. My favorite spray reads “CTRL + ALT + DELETE,” a desperate plea that we “reboot” the situation. The book’s final chapters are dedicated to ­­­­­­­­13 graffiti artists who spray in Arabic throughout the world, including eL Seed in Montreal, Mohammed Ali in the UK, and -- my personal favorite -- the duo Native & ZenTwo, who work mostly in Paris. It’s an interesting and pictorially beautiful book. Put it high on your list.

Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art, 2011, Overlook Hardcover, 464 pp., $45.00.

Structuralism, in its various stripes, dominated the humanities for decades -- but fell apart because it wasn’t predictive. When a curious light was shined into the Structuralist toolbox, we saw that sentences themselves wandered about. It was with some surprise that I encountered Russian writer Igor Golomstock’s published theory, Totalitarian Art, which puts forth the notion that totalitarian rulers produce a known sequence of heroic images, a sort of monthly paint-by-numbers club for fascists. Since his proof is an abundance of research and hundreds of works in painting, sculpture and architecture, I would place his structuralism in the true-enough category.  

Golomstock was born in the Soviet Union, and as a member of the official Union of Soviet Artists, it can be assumed that he knows of what he writes. Golomstock tackles the structural problem head on, explaining that the imagery of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China all have “an eerie similarity” -- so much so that totalitarian propaganda should be regarded as a “second international style,” the one which was developed after modernism.

Widening his pictorial theory to encompass Iraq, he writes that “Islam strictly forbids representational art,” and claims that Hussein ignored this stricture, reverting back to this stock dreck in order to influence the masses. A poor argument, as there is much representational art spread throughout Islam. Take, for example, centuries of Persian miniatures or the Calat Alhambra, an Islamic palace freely decorated with lion sculptures. While Iraqi official pictures do display oddly comparable imagery to that of other fascist countries, Golomstock would have done well to leave out this inaccurate factoid.

Still, Golomstock has written a bear of a book, one that is immensely researched and carefully annotated -- a solid piece of scholarship which advances our understanding of the pictorial manufacture of consent. He used a telling line from Marx’s writings to illustrate his point: “The head of the movement’s party should be depicted with the stern colors of Rembrandt in all their living clarity.” Gold helmet, stern colors. Got it.

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s, 2011, Henry Holt and Co., 288 pp., $32.50.

“I am more interested in artists than art,” announced Marcel Duchamp, and he would have looked favorably upon this rollicking tale of artists and curators working in 1960s Los Angeles, written by Artnet Magazine contributor Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. It’s also a timely book, given the current “Venice to Venice” exhibit at the Venice Biennale, which presents a more or less identical subject.

Drohojowska-Philp has produced a portrait of the social odd-lots who were gathered together by L.A.’s Ferus, Nicholas Wilder and Dwan galleries, as well as others, detailing their foibles and failures, overlapping lovers and finances, tempers, broken marriages, poverty and binge drinking. Together, they made art in a town without a center and brought together a scene without a theory.

Peter Plagens’ 1974 work Sunshine Muse told this story 37 years ago from a modernist perspective, describing the formal relations of its relevant types of art, but he revealed little about the artists -- the thought without the thinker. Years later, Plagens admitted that he “didn’t know how the story turned out,” and that he would have written his book differently if he had.

Drohojowska-Philp has that advantage, and she begins with “Andy and Marcel,” a chapter about Warhol and Duchamp, both of whom loved Los Angeles as the antithesis to European culture. Warhol had his first show at Ferus, and Duchamp had his first retrospective in Pasadena -- both were curated by the estimable Walter Hopps, whose colorful and sometimes embellished past is also laid bare in the book.

Ferus was in fact the first gallery to exhibit the new SoCal clean objects. It was opened in 1957 by Ed Kienholz and Hopps with help from Dennis Hopper, though Irving Blum would soon replace Kienholz, who couldn’t remember “who had bought things.” Blum, Kienholz, Hopper and Hopps: I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that the Rat Pack has nothing on these four.

The devil is in the details, and Drohojowska-Philp mined aplenty for this volume: drifter Kienholz, with more wives than Newt Gingrich, sought odd jobs in a pickup truck with “Expert” painted on the door. Walter Hopps repeated Army basic training and was still washed out, going on to invent a University of Chicago degree in Art History -- one which actually belonged to his wife.

John Altoon, a black-out drunk, flipped his car, putting Blum in the hospital for six months. Architect Frank Gehry, Larry Bell, Ed Moses and Altoon briefly put together a band called Five Bags of Shit. Moses, working as a messenger, claimed to have bedded Marilyn Monroe, Esther Williams, and Elizabeth Taylor. Sure.

Drohojowska-Philp was fortunate enough to interview Walter Hopps, Dennis Hopper, Craig Kaufman and museum director Henry Hopkins -- all of whom passed away during the course of her research. In addition, the book has excellent sketches of Wallace Berman, Moses, Bruce Nauman, Judy Chicago, Ed Ruscha and others.

Today, Los Angeles supports four contemporary art museums, none of which would have come into being without this crucial link to the past. The book is an entertaining page turner and I couldn’t set it down. Drohojowska-Philp wanted to make sure these stories were not lost, and thanks to her research and smooth narrative, an earlier time is effectively brought to life. Anyone wishing to write a period history should read this book to see how it is meant to be done.

JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.