Show of Shows - Los Angeles magazine
 

Show of Shows

Taking over cultural institutions up and down the coast, Pacific Standard Time documents the city’s emergence in the art world

10/1/2011

 

 

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While you were sleeping, a sprawling, multi-headed cultural initiative—kick-started by $10 million in Getty money—began to take over the city, or at least its art institutions, for the next six months. Its goal is to tell stories like that of the Ferus Gallery, a maverick art space of the 1950s and ’60s that gave Andy Warhol his first show and established L.A. as an art capital just a few years after the city council declared modern art to be Communist propaganda. But the movers behind Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945–1980 want to reach beyond the pantheon of Ferus’s white-guy heroes—Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Ed Kienholz—who have become as much a part of L.A.’s narrative as the concept of sunshine and noir was in the 1990s.

PST’s rambling extravaganza will involve about 70 exhibitions from San Diego to Santa Barbara, Santa Monica to Palm Springs; an 11-day performance festival; college courses and symposia; oral histories of familiar and overlooked figures; and media buzz that could make it Southern California’s most sweeping visual arts program ever. Each organization is focusing on a different aspect of the story—LACMA on design, the Hammer on black artists, the Norton Simon on printmaking (see the sidebar on page 94). It makes you wonder, though: Does Los Angeles—whose art scene now commands international respect, with market prices to match—need this kind of extravaganza? Lyn Kienholz, fourth wife of Ed Kienholz—the Ferus cofounder whose confrontational installations almost sparked a riot when they appeared in his 1966 show at the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art—is unambiguous. “We’re really hot all over the world. Europe is one thing. But local people don’t know shit. Or they don’t care. You talk to young kids out of art school and they say, ‘Who’s that?’ ”

With the late UCLA professor and curator Henry Hopkins, she approached the Getty Foundation nearly a decade ago, insisting on the importance of documenting the scene for posterity, and was about as subtle as her husband had been. “We just got pushy,” she recalls. Kienholz and Hopkins wrangled a grant from the Getty Foundation that led to two years of chronicling the often undersung story of L.A. art. “As artists and gallery directors died, their papers were being discarded,” says the foundation’s Joan Weinstein. Before long this scholarly pursuit—revenge of the archivists—had become a blowout, with a much larger jolt of Getty money and some corporate sponsorship. “We think it’s important to understanding modern art in the 20th century,” she says, calling the West Coast lineage “an alternate history.”

Compared to surfboards and motorcycles or a papier-mâché couple petting in the back of a Dodge or an artist gleefully urinating on his audience—all key elements of the era’s art scene—cardboard boxes full of old papers seem a little, ah, dry. But in the kind of paradox Kafka would savor, those unread documents gave rise to this region-spanning effort. 

*****

Telling the tale of postwar art in California without the Ferus guys is like talking about ’60s music without mentioning the Beatles. The city was still a frontier in those days: The lack of a visual arts infrastructure—museums, established dealers, critical discourse—made it easier for a bunch of outcasts and eccentrics to redraw the cultural map. Walter Hopps, the curator-genius who steered the gallery in its radical early days, originally supported his art habit by working as a psych-ward orderly. Kienholz lived, as he put it, “on the fringes of society, like a termite,” so poor that he bartered a painting for the removal of an aching tooth. Irwin made his money winning dance contests—the lindy mostly—and betting on horses. Billy Al Bengston was so broke that he couldn’t afford a battery for his car: The art school dropout parked his ’37 Pontiac facing downhill, nose toward the Malibu surf, so he could roll-start it.

This gang helped make L.A. a credible alternative to New York as a place where a serious artist could conduct a career. After various arrivals and departures, Ferus members would become some of  the brightest stars of the art world: The mid-’60s painting, Burning Gas Station, a dramatic pop art canvas by Ed Ruscha (known in humbler times as “Waterboy”), sold in 2007 for a hair under $7 million. Fascinated with surf and hot rod culture, they were the first bad boys of an art movement that would be defined by a certain anti-intellectual machis-mo and a fixation on the sensuality of light.

In the short term, Pacific Standard Time will amount to a string of shows, loosely coordinated and grouped into events such as “regional weekends” that will allow people to consume, for instance, all the offerings in Pasadena or the Westside in one fell swoop. Certain exhibitions have had culture vultures drooling since early summer, including It Happened at Pomona, which looks at how a small liberal arts college incubated some of the most risk-taking art in America. (A morals crackdown in the ’70s broke up the band.) A physically (and conceptually) enormous show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego will present an extensive collection of Light and Space art ever assembled, including sumptuous pieces by Irwin, James Turrell, and De Wain Valentine.

MOCA’s chief curator, Paul Schimmel—the man behind Ecstasy: In and About Altered States and Robert Rauschenberg: Combines—has put together a compre-hensive show, Under the Big Black Sun, which reassesses the often denigrated 1970s through more than 200 pieces. It explores such subjects as feminist art, ethnic and racial identity, and the kind of explicitly political art that was scarce in the previous decade. “In the history of art you have the ‘on’ decades,” says Schimmel. The ’60s had hipster sex appeal, and the ’80s saw L.A. art busting out internationally. But what Schimmel calls the “off” decades can be more significant as well as more mysterious. We associate the period with an explosion of feminist, Chicano, and black artists, but that’s hardly the whole story. “We barely know anything about the ’70s,” Schimmel maintains. “It’s not a whole lot less confusing 40 years on than it was at the time,” he says. “People were still looking for the next big art movement, but by the end they realized the Next Big Thing was that there would not be a Next Big Thing.” Art history’s linear path fragmented into gender-, ethnic-, and other personally based subgenres. Says Schimmel, “People stopped believing in the idea of the avant-garde.” 

*****

Even people excited about the city’s art history have second thoughts about Pacific Standard Time. Dave Hickey, the ornery and brilliant Las Vegas-based culture critic and longtime champion of West Coast art, sees no need for a scholarly driven, top-down variety show on Southern California art. “It’s a sign of insecurity. The city can go right on without all this. I think L.A. is fine.”

Art critic Peter Plagens, who wrote Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970, the key book on the period, hears an admission of sorts in the program’s very name. “You’d never have to do something in New York called ‘Eastern Standard Time,’ ” he says. “Is it essentially and inherently provincial for L.A. to be even doing Pacific Standard Time? I don’t know.”

In fact, a number of ironies gather around Pacific Standard Time. One is that here is a massive, chest-puffing art event that has virtually nothing to do with Eli Broad, the city’s chief cultural patron. Another is that its local boosterism is often in the service of artists whose work was subversive to the values of chamber of commerce L.A. It’s like the British government funding a tourist attraction dedicated to the biting, skeptical songs of the Jam, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols.

Perhaps the greatest irony, though, is that the most ambitious initiative to date on contemporary Los Angeles art is helmed by the Getty, an institution that has displayed only limited interest in contemporary art or Los Angeles itself. The vaguely 23rd-century-looking Brentwood campus is considered by many in the art world to be somewhere between a classroom bully and a hall monitor: Its leadership scandals—Barry Munitz’s high living, a history of plundering antiquities—are hard to forget, and the Getty Center’s location “at the top of the hill,” looking down on the teeming city, has generated resentment since before its 1997 opening.

While there’s been some low-level your-logo-is-bigger-than-mine grousing—along with competition for various works and for attention—among institutions, everyone seems to be playing well together so far. Of course there’s still plenty of time for bad blood to develop, but  to optimists the city’s museums have hit a golden mean—both mature and symbiotic. “In other periods or in other cities,” says Schimmel, “you might have some institutions crushing others when it comes to loans of work.” The Getty’s role, though, is enough to turn some people against the entire effort. “The Getty’s standing among L.A. art institutions is about as low as it can get,” says Hickey. “I think they did this to buy their way into the good graces of the L.A. art world. And I don’t think it’s gonna work.”

Whatever the local reputation of the Getty, Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh of the Getty Research Institute re-sem-ble neither schoolyard bullies nor hall monitors. Both New York transplants, they’ve worked on a project about Harry Smith, the eccentric polymath best known for his Anthology of American Folk Music, and they idolize the late jazz photographer William Claxton. They’re curators for the Getty’s overview show, Crosscurrents, and important forces in getting the research institute to wag the giant, slow-moving Getty dog.

Perchuk, who wears a goatee and chunky glasses, recalls how as a grad student at Yale in the ’90s he told his department he wanted to focus on postwar L.A. art. Only Tom Crow, a farsighted art historian who later ran the Getty Research Institute, was sympathetic. “The other members of the faculty sat down and said, ‘We really doubt there is enough good art there for one dissertation,’ ” Perchuk says. He keeps track of the disses aimed at the local scene (even the 2006 Centre Pompidou show, Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital, referred to “the provincial art scene of the 1950s and 1960s”). He also points out that the notion of L.A. as a cultural wasteland was kept alive by the artists themselves. “Because it’s like, ‘I was a pioneer in the wilderness,’ ” he says.

Singh, a former assistant to Allen Ginsberg, playfully shakes her curly head of hair for emphasis. “It would be great,” she says in a rush, “for people to walk out and say, ‘There was a lot of cool shit that was made here’—in response to things I see every day when I drive to work or when I go to Santa Monica on the weekends. ” These artists were inspired not by Renaissance icons or the neurotic emotions of abstract expressionism but by elements from custom-car and surf culture—part of the pop culture of our time and place.

Of course, it’s impossible to predict what exactly people will come away with after all those millions are spent. Exhibitions—even hyped-up ones—close, and then they’re just memories. As good as parts of it were, most people don’t recall LACMA’s Made in California initiative, which opened in 2000 with high expectations.

Pacific Standard Time, however, will have very tangible long-term impact. Not only has the Getty Research Institute begun to assemble an archive of the period, but PST will produce more than 25 catalogs featuring reproductions of the work as well as the one thing L.A. culture has, for better and for worse, lacked: a substantial body of criticism. (Plagens’s Sunshine Muse remains, almost 40 years after its publication, the most authoritative record of postwar West Coast art, although Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s new Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s makes a gossipy, wonderfully readable sidebar.)

Those boxes, sitting in the corner or on their way to the Dumpster, are being opened, and there are more than just words in them. They contain the contradictory-seeming ambiguities of John Baldessari, the serene light experiments of Doug Wheeler, the dry-ice art-in-the-mind of Ed Ruscha, the patriarchy-smashing of Judy Fiskin, the found-art assemblages of the black artists who coalesced after the Watts riots, and a lot more—with a soundtrack by Charles Mingus and Art Pepper. They’ve got not just the T-shirts and shades of the Ferus studs but dashikis and dreadlocks and burning bras. There’s a lot of nasty stuff, too, and maybe some hope at the bottom.

Header photographs by top row (from left): Artists’ Tower, 1966, Charles Brittin and Mark Di Suvero, Getty Research Institute/© J. Paul Getty Trust; It Terrifies Me..., 1980, Raymond Pettibon, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Sad Girl, 1979, John Valadez, Lena Torslow Hansen Collection, Los Angeles/© John Valadez; Chocolate and Young Men, c. 1990-1993, Beatrice Wood, Dr. and Mrs. William P. Klein collection, Newport Beach, CA/© Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts/Happy Valley Foundation; Free Richard Mohawk and Paul Skyhorse, 1976-78, Dave “Buffalo” Greene/© Peace Press. Second row (from left): An intermedia performance at CalArts, 1983, CalArts Archive; Elephant, 1945, Charles and Ray Eames, Eames Collection LLC/© The Eames Foundation; City of Angels, 1983, Marina Abramovic/Ulay, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York/© Marina Abramovic; In Mourning and in Rage, 1977, Leslie Labowitz Starus and Suzanne Lacy/courtesy of artist; Judy Chicago, from the first Feminist Studio Workshop brochure, 1973, photographer unknown, Woman’s Building Image Archive at Otis College of Art and Design/© The Woman’s Building. third row (from left): La Chaise, 1948, date of this example, 1996, Charles Eames and Ray Eames, Eames Collection LLC/© Eames Office LLC; La Mexicana Market, C. 1970s, Oscar Castillo/ © Oscar Castillo; Black Girl’s Window, 1969, Betye Saar/Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York; Oxnard Madame, 1961, Matsumi “Mike” Kanemitsu, Japanese American National Museum/© Japanese American National Museum; Number 4, 1968, Karl Benjamin, Huntington Library Art Collections. Bottom row (from Left): Untitled, 1965, John Altoon, Norton Simon Museum/© 2010 Estate of John Altoon; Scene from Ashes and Embers, 1982, directed by Haile Gerima, UCLA Film & television Archive; freeway, 1966, vija celmins, j. paul getty museum; Olvera Street Grocery Store, Not dated, Jake Lee, Chinese American Museum Collection; Untitled, 1972, Hirokazu Kosaka, courtesy of artist

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