Could Los Angeles art be ready for its Cinderella moment? After spending decades as a poor relation, is L.A. art finally being invited to the big art-world party in New York and Europe? It certainly seems so. In Paris last year, L.A. art triumphed in "Los Angeles: 1955-1985, Naissance d’une Capitale Artistique" at the Centre Pompidou, featuring works by 60 artists ranging from John Baldessari and Billy Al Bengston to Alexis Smith and Christopher Williams. Angelinos had always known that their art was extraordinary and highly experimental, and now Europeans could see the evidence as well.
The idea seems to have legs. Three local museums -- the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Orange County Museum and the Frederick R. Weisman Museum at Pepperdine University -- are presenting surveys of homegrown California contemporary. Though the shows are drawn mainly from the institutions’ permanent collections and are therefore not conclusive, the curators played to their considerable strengths.
"So Cal" at LACMA
"So Cal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and ‘70s from LACMA’s Collection," Aug. 19, 2007-Mar. 30, 2008, organized by curator Carol Eliel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is concise and chronologically straightforward. The show begins with Ed Kienholz’s seminal sculpture -- seminal in more ways than one! -- Back Seat Dodge ’38, a truncated blue coupe whose radio blares 1940s tunes and whose open door reveals a sexually engaged couple made of chicken-wire and plaster. Recessed in an alcove that casts viewers as voyeurs, the sculpture famously scandalized city fathers in a 1966 retrospective, who insisted on posting a guard to warn museum visitors. No guards these days, but the piece is unsettling nonetheless.
Eliel finds sympathetic visual connections between works by Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Gordon Kauffman and George Herms, who used found objects in their assemblage, and the artists associated with Pop art. Joe Goode’s 1963 gray painted canvas with a lovely little pencil drawing of a house plays off his 1966 eight-pack of Coca-Cola bottles sprayed in silvery paint. Tony Berlant’s 1963 collage Rainbo includes tin snippets advertising coke and bread. An eye-popping trio of paintings by Llyn Foulkes features enlarged photographic renderings of giant, sensual boulders on grounds of pink, green or blue paint. (Foulkes’ more recent works can be seen at Kent Gallery in New York, Sept. 6-Oct. 20, 2007.)
Ed Ruscha clearly belongs here, but his painting Actual Size (1962) is reserved for the galleries of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the Renzo Piano-designed addition to LACMA that opens in February 2008. The Pop section should also include the 1960s ovoid ceramics of Kenneth Price, but the museum owns only later works, such as the wooden shelf containing cups from his 1970s series, "Happy’s Curio Shelf." David Hockney, the greatest art-world chronicler of the city’s architecture and residents, is missing from the Pop section as well. With such absences, the exhibition had to be slanted in a different direction.
Los Angeles Light and Space art, which took advantage of the unique quality of L.A. light as well as a far-sighted and experimental embrace of non-traditional materials, quickly becomes the show’s primary focus and best reward. Several works by Larry Bell, the inventor of radiant minimalism, demonstrate his passage from geometric paintings and his vacuum-coated glass boxes to a towering angle of coated glass. (His recent glass boxes were on view at Danese Gallery in New York in September.)
Similarly, Robert Irwin is represented by a stylistic progression, beginning with sage-colored abstract painting from 1962 and a 1964 square white painting covered in colored dots that seem to hover above the canvas surface. A convex disk from 1967, one of Irwin’s signature works, is lit from four corners so that it appears to dissolve into the space of the room. The final gallery features a 1974 wall covered in scrim, an architectural intervention of extreme subtlety. (The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego opens a new survey of Irwin’s work, "Primaries and Secondaries," Oct. 21, 2007-Feb. 23, 2008.
Doug Wheeler, an artist who completed a small body of potent but rarely seen light installations, is represented by his 1968 Light Encasement, a wall-sized square of plastic surrounded by a border of light within a pristine white room. James Turrell is represented by Afrum (1966), a light projection that creates the illusion of a fushia cube hovering in a gallery of lavender ambience. (Turrell’s first public skyspace opens October 13 at Pomona College, his alma mater, along with an exhibition of his work.)
These Light and Space pioneers are complemented by peers like Norman Zammitt, whose enormous portrayal of dawn-to-dusk color makes a case for the Los Angeles school of hard-edge geometric abstraction. Peter Alexander, who is now known for richly hued paintings of water, night lights and palm trees, is here represented by the sculptures of his surfing youth, molded polyester resin wedges that stand like containers of watery color.
Another sculptor of pure color is John McCracken, whose 1967 gleaming red lacquer plank leans against a wall. Lloyd Hamrol, an early Happenings artist and minimalist who is known for his public sculpture commissions, contributes Goodboy (1965), which fills the corner with a pyramid shape painted in caution-sign yellow. Billy Al Bengston’s "dentos," sheets of metal pocked with holes and dents, include the 1968 Hatari, airbrushed with gorgeous swirls of butterscotch and a chevron smack in the middle.
Here we enter the realm of the "finish fetish" artists, who worked with poured resin, polyester resin and all forms of plastic, in some cases using techniques carried over from the world of surfboard manufacture.
These artists represent a peculiarly Californian approach to Pop abstraction, as does Craig Kauffman, an L.A. artist who now lives in the Philippines. His minimalist, biomorphic abstractions are made from vacuum-formed plastic in a variety of saturated hues. Ed Moses’ poured resin painting is articulated by red and blue chalk lines snapped into place. Ron Davis’ Roto integrates illusion and geometry in resin paintings while Ron Cooper’s wall-mounted box of resin captures and reflects light.
Throughout the exhibition, Eliel includes what might be called parenthetical inserts, that is, art from the ‘80s or ‘90s by artists such as Betye Saar, John Outterbridge and Michael McMillen in assemblage, Alexis Smith in Pop, Roy Thurston and Mary Corse in perceptual minimalism. Though no wall label explains their presence, they demonstrate a continuum of activity.
Seeing so many pieces together underscores the extraordinary quality of discovery in the 1960s. The missing artists reflect lacunae in the museum’s collection, and Eliel did borrow a few pieces (including the Turrell from PaceWildenstein gallery). For the most part, Eliel presented works that would bring out mutual strengths and parallel concerns in abstraction and further define an L.A. esthetic that can seem elusive.
"Art since the ‘60s" at Orange County
The exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art, organized by curator Karen Moss, casts a wider net. It is the middle entry in a trio of shows exploring the history of Southern California art since the 19th century and includes considerable didactic material. A catalogue of all three shows is due in 2008. "Art Since the 1960s: California Experiments" opened on July 15, 2007 and is due to remain up till Aug. 24, 2008.
Drawn largely from its permanent collection but including a few loans from the Norton Simon Museum, Moss’ exhibition starts with Bengston’s 1961 Birmingham Small Arms, the B.S.A. motorcycle logo painted in the center of a canvas and the first picture purchased by the museum when it operated under the quaint moniker of the Balboa Pavilion. Goode’s 1961 One Year Old, an orange-painted milk bottle standing before a large orange canvas, and Ruscha’s 1965 Annie, a large-scale rendering of the comic strip logo in red, yellow and blue, recall the fact that both artists had their first museum show, together, at that museum. Moss also features Ruscha’s books of photographs, such as the 1966 Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Since Andy Warhol’s first show was at Ferus Gallery in L.A., Moss has included Brillo Box and Electric Chair serigraphs.
Dennis Hopper took remarkable photographs of the L.A. art scene of the 1960s, and the show includes one of Claes Oldenburg and the plaster cake he’d made for the wedding of LACMA curator James Elliot, as well as documentation of his 1963 Happening, Autobodies. Such inclusions demonstrate the connections between the East and West coast artists that are not always acknowledged and underscore an improvisational sensibility that pervaded the city at the time. The assemblage section features Foulkes’ small and troubling painting from 1974, For Father, W.B., as well as a 1959 nylon stocking assemblage by Bruce Conner, and works by Herms, Berman, Kienholz and Saar.
The show gives significant attention to the development of Conceptual art in California, notably with John Baldessari’s Voluable Luminist Painting for Max Kozloff -- a plain canvas with the titled painted on it by a sign painter in 1968 -- and his 1971 video, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, for which the artist wrote the title phrase over and over in a notebook. Vija Celmins’ 1972 lithograph of the ocean has been installed in this section, while her 1967 giant pink eraser made of balsa wood stands with the Pop artists. Either way, at least she is given her due.
A gallery of performance and video includes the Northern California artist Tom Marioni who, on opening night, executed his beer-drinking performance An Aid to Communication. The sculpture of 216 beer bottles on a wooden shelf remained in the show. The Feminist Art movement is represented largely by performance videos by Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Martha Rosler, Suzanne Lacy and Barbara Smith.
A screening room with 1970s videos by Chris Burden, William Wegman and Paul McCarthy recalls those heady times, along with artifacts and photos from Allen Ruppersberg’s 1969 Al’s Café, wherein the artist spent one night a week for a time in a restaurant as the cook offering surreal meals to customers inclined to pay modest prices for a dish of pine cones with a cookie. Also on view is his 1969 Location Piece, not seen for decades, which originally appeared in the museum’s Conceptual art survey "The Appear / Disappearing / Image / Object."
The works engaged with perceptual phenomena, such as a lovely 1969 disc by Irwin, are included as part of a section on installation art along with documentation of Roden Crater by Turrell, a work by Maria Nordman, and a rarely seen and powerful 1981 wall mural with collages on the theme of the "Porgy and Bess" opera by Alexis Smith. The show continues with work made into the 1990s of a "neo-conceptual" nature by Charles Ray, Catherine Opie and others.
"Made in California" at the Weisman
While the museum shows made thematic presentations based to some degree on what was available in their permanent collections, another show presents work by many of the same artists, but of later vintage. "Made in California: Contemporary California Art from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation" draws its title from Ruscha’s 1978 orange lithograph of those words dripping as though rendered in juice. Organized by Billie Milam Weisman, the collector’s widow and director of the Weisman Foundation, it is on view at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art in Malibu, Aug. 25-Dec. 16, 2007. The works are mostly from the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
It opens with Goode’s 1979 expanse of torn gray canvas revealing an underskirt of blue, as though clouds had parted to reveal clarity, though the wall label calls it Calitopia. The show includes two 1980s paintings by Ruscha, both painted in the colors of a sunset, one stating "End" and the other showing an elongated road trip with white words designating distant destinations: Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska.
Bell’s vapor drawing features three panels of black and iridescent silver that appear to float in and out of one another. Berlant’s 1985 tin collage is contained in a pair of tramp art wood frames. Moses’ painting layers abstract patterns with the shape of a helix. Alexander assembled a spectacular collection of stitching, glitter and beads on unstretched black velvet in Dabs.
Though each of these shows offers a different and specific overview of art produced in L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s, the real value is in being able to see so many pieces by these artists at one time. Here is an opportunity to gain some sense of the area’s art history. It requires driving hundreds of miles -- but if you missed the show in Paris, it is the next best opportunity. This brings up a long-simmering issue: When will a Manhattan museum summon the moxie to host a show of contemporary art from Los Angeles?
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.