L.A.stories: a roundtable discussion.
Michelle Kuo: We all know the myth: "The Cool School," coined by Philip Leider himself in these pages [Summer 1964]. Leider was speaking of a "new distance," a remove, which he saw manifested in the adamantine surfaces of the work of the Ferus Gallery artists and which came to stand for LA culture as a whole. But how might we attend to art in LA now, without reducing it to the same cliches about regional or even outsider production that persist, rather astonishingly, in many exhibitions, in much of the literature, and certainly in the market?
How might we attend to the relationship--if any--between the city and the art produced there in a meaningful way? How can we deal with both the underrecognized and understudied art produced in LA historically and the great prominence of more recent art made in the city, without lapsing into old categories of "importance" or "center/periphery"?
Andrew Perchuk: I was recently in Venice for the Biennale, where the "Venice in Venice" project presented a group of Los Angeles artists from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Most of the New York and European curators, dealers, and writers I encountered had never heard of many of the artists, including someone like Mary Corse, one of the major artists to emerge from the 1960s. I kept having to spell her name. Talking about more recent art, though, I am not sure Los Angeles needs a compensatory move, as since the 1980s it has produced as many artists of international standing as anywhere.
Richard Meyer: When I first arrived in LA to teach art history at USC and I was asked to develop courses on California art and contemporary art in Los Angeles, this struck me as boosterism. Or, indeed, as a compensatory symptom. But then 1 learned just how rich and wide the history was. My question is: Could the same excavation of art-historical and contemporary riches have implications for rethinking the history of postwar art elsewhere? Might a model of creative and scholarly site specificity--rather than of regionalism--be applied to post-1945 art?
Thomas Crow: It would be an intriguing exercise to put the shoe on the other foot and mount a reassessment of art in New York as a regional scene. We might account for the expansive, liberating gesture in the painting of the 1 950s as compensation for enduring cramped living conditions. Pop art might be explained by proximity to Madison Avenue advertising agencies and the television networks on Sixth Avenue; the crisp lines of Minimalism a response to the ragged ness of a decrepit and decaying infrastructure. Exactly parallel pop-sociological hypotheses have constantly distorted discussions of art in Los Angeles, while New York art hasn't been subjected to this reductive treatment as a localized phenomenon.
John Baldessari: Of course everybody you talk to is going to give a different narrative, and that's what history is. When I got to CalArts, I very consciously wanted to provide an alternative for students--so they wouldn't get this idea that art in Los Angeles is only about plastics and light and space, you know. There are other ways to do art. And so I purposely never invited any LA artists to CalArts to speak, other than Ed Ruscha and Bob Irwin. But I was doing a lot of exhibiting in New York and Europe, so I would bring a lot of European and New York artists up to CalArts.
One of the students asked whether she could open up a gallery in one of the classrooms, and we had no budget, but I was able to give her some money. When artists would come from Europe and New York they would often have shows in the gallery. Its name was just the classroom number: A402. I remember Konrad Fischer in Diisseldorf asking me, "What is this Gallery A402? It's the only gallery showing any interesting artists in Los Angeles!" And it's true. A lot of Europeans and New York artists had their first shows there in that little student gallery before they were in any commercial shows.
Maurice Tuchman: It's hard to believe how skimpy the support system was in Los Angeles at the time. The collectors really didn't have a high profile; the galleries--of course everybody knows about Ferus. I promoted that as much as anyone. But there was Dwan, Nicholas Wilder, David Stuart, Felix Landau, and Rolf Nelson. And Everett Ellin was one of the very first. Nevertheless, all of this amounts to a hill of beans compared with what was happening in New York at the time.
Ali Subotnick: One issue with LA and how it's been perceived and talked about in history books and exhibitions is that it's always the heaven/hell, dark/light, Helter Skelter, sunshine/noir model posed. There has to be another way to look at what's happening and has happened here. Helene Winer: Indeed, we are talking about a very romanticized, fictional idea of Los Angeles that did enter into artists' views of themselves and into decisions about their work, at least during the '60s. Yet there was not a lot of theorizing or discussion.
John Baldessari: f hate being called a Los Angeles artist--just like I hate being called a Conceptual artist.
Harry Gamboa Jr.: Los Angeles coexists as a highly volatile desert environment that has produced globally seductive mirages and myths. All freeways lead to a dizzying spiral effect where it is still possible to catch a glimpse of a nonstereotypical view of LA.
Richard Meyer: Harry, your comment sent me back to Reyner Banham and his Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies : "Simply to go from the oldest monument to the newest [in LA] could well prove a short, boring and uninstructive journey, because the point about this giant city, which has grown almost simultaneously all over, is that all its parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once." Obviously, Banham was writing well before the Getty was built on high in Brentwood--not all the parts of the city "are equal and equally accessible." But Banham's larger point, it seems to me, is about being freed from the weight of traditional history and monumentalism. Is this the "glimpse of a nonstereotypical view of LA" from the freeways that Harry mentioned?
Andrew Perchuk: Banham's view of Los Angeles had a strong element of myth, which led to the brilliant riposte by Peter PI a gens in Artforum: "The Ecology of Evil" [December 1972]. Nevertheless, the major cities that grew exponentially after World War II--Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Mexico City--took Los Angeles as more of a model than cities like New York or London. Too little attention has been paid to how the experience of this new city form has impacted art production. Ed Ruscha has said that driving leads to a different manner of attention, a different way of looking, than being a pedestrian. His photo books explore new ways of perceiving the city, presenting new modes of depiction.
Maurice Tuchman: My God, it's amazing that Peter--he's a friend of mine--could go on about how much he detested it but never for a second would think of living anywhere else. My favorite image of LA is actually the title of Gavin Lambert's The Slide Area, his collection of short stories about Los Angeles, published in 1959. It's still that: There aren't deep roots, you know, and it's a fabulous metaphor, in a way better than Peter's fantastic "ecology of evil."
Richard Meyer: I agree with Andrew, and with Banham, who wrote, "I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original."
Thomas Crow: With the Banham-inspired network idea of LA--driving the freeway system, an endless grid of streets across the alluvial fiats, scattered semiurban nodes--the usual tendency is to look for these aspects to appear numerically, somehow, in the art. Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip  is regularly taken as a paradigm for this condition, as if it were depicting just some random stretch of Pico or Western and not a circumscribed and storied precinct of rolling topography that dramatically stands out from its surroundings. Ruscha's linear deadpan plays against his subject, not with it.
Wide geographic dispersion has been a fact of life for LA artists, to be sure, but it affects first of all how artists organize their lives. It can lead to a tightness of face-to-face coterie culture as easily as it can to an expansive, scanning point of view.
Andrew Perchuk: Yes, one of the fascinating questions is how artists organized their lives. At the beginning of the era we are discussing, in the 1950s, two very different models in particular presented themselves. The hard-edge painters, whose work was receiving little attention and who felt a sense of isolation, with everyone around them painting like an Abstract Expressionist, created a kind of imaginary community--that is, most of them didn't know each other very well and lived far apart, but they saw affinities in one another's work and selfconsciously created a movement. By contrast, the ceramic sculptors at Otis [College of Art and Design]--Peter Voulkos, John Mason, Paul Soldner, Ken Price, et al.--spent nearly all their waking moments together, moving around the city, looking at the modern architecture going up, going to jazz clubs, visiting galleries, and setting up a model for art production where what transpires outside the studio is as important as what happens inside.
John Baldessari: The real difference is that we're horizontal and spread out in LA. Bob Rauschenberg had a great line; he said: "LA is thirty-five miles by thirty-five miles by seven inches deep."
Because of the geography, you don't socialize much, you have to play phone tag, whereas in New York you can walk down the street and bump into six artists very easily and go have a drink or coffee. You're always talking back and forth, and we don't have that. The chances I'm going to walk out of my studio and bump into an artist are pretty remote. Besides, in LA we don't walk anyway. Double jeopardy.
Thomas Crow: These last comments point to a fundamental consideration about understanding art in LA, which is far from being a unique city in its physical arrangements. Think about the Bay Area. Yes, San Francisco has its picturesque density, but an artistic life there will entail regular movement to the East Bay, Marin, down the peninsula, maybe up to Davis; i.e., plenty of driving across dramatically varied terrain. The nature of LA urbanism won't yield specific art-historical answers easily. Key figures like Walter Hopps, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, George Herms, and Richard Diebenkorn cross between north and south, but the aggregate trajectories of the two California regions remain markedly different.
What LA provides as a laboratory is a chance to build a new, fuller model of historical understanding around a lot of art that is intuitively fresh and strong, made in a more typical, late-twentieth-century edge city and not encrusted in stale critical vocabularies. It would be difficult to duplicate those conditions elsewhere, a fact that for me obviates worries about regionalism, center/periphery, or any other obsolete comparative perspective. As we saw it, when Andrew and I arrived at the Getty Research Institute in 2000, it's like Everest; you just have to climb it because it's there.
Helene Winer: It's true, there has long been an East/West divide that the artists associated with certain attitudes and intentions. I first became aware of this with the Topanga groups versus the Beach artists, i.e., Herms, Berman, Ed Kienholz versus Billy Al Bengston, DeWain Valentine, Ed Moses, Price. Ruscha and Joe Goode stayed in the basin, around Hollywood and West LA, an area that had been the location of painters of the hard-edge era and then Bill Leavitt, Bas Jan Ader, Guy de Cointet. Later generations made their decisions based on these already established distinctions and associations. The last Chouinard [Art Institute] generation split between the Venice of Bengston and Price and Downtown, where Jack Goldstein, Tom Wudl, Hirokazu Kosaka, and others found storefronts or warehouse spaces. Subsequent generations extended the borders toward Pasadena and east of Downtown.
Thomas Crow: Helene, you rightly bring in the necessity of seeing the various semilocalized scenes as being in a dynamic relationship with one another over time. The Ferus artists in Venice became something of a closed club by the later 1960s, with less convincing aspirants like the Dill brothers following along. The geographic axis between Immaculate Heart College in eastern Hollywood and the old Chouinard Art Institute directly south in MacArthur Park centered the Ader, Leavitt, Ruppersberg, van Elk cohort, along with, to some degree, Goldstein. With them, the Venice artists' organic relationship to amateur tech and craft pursuits gave way to a more knowing and conceptual grasp of the mass entertainment coming out of the studios they passed every day.
It might be asked, why Immaculate Heart? Which leads to the figure I fear will be underestimated in this whole "Pacific Standard Time" exercise: Sister Corita Kent. If we're looking for immediate responses to the Watts rebellion, the antiwar and antipoverty movements in LA art, we need to look to her repurposing of Pop. Ger van Elk was attending Immaculate Heart when his Dutch schoolmate Bas Jan Ader arrived in California, and Ader's early work, though he enrolled at Otis, is unmistakably marked by Corita's example. Mike Kelley was looking to her graphics while still a teenager in Detroit and would later come back to it with his banners.
Another strand of this lies in van Elk being in LA in the first place because his father, a renowned animator in the Netherlands, had been hired by Hanna-Barbera studios to paint backgrounds for the likes of Scooby-Doo, all of which bears on Ader's overlooked drawing skills and penchant for sight gags.
Richard Meyer: I wonder about the broader issue of art-historical memory and erasure. Every reclamation project, including "PST," is predicated on exclusions and blind spots no less than on expansions and rediscoveries. This was a painful and complex part of the "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" exhibition that Connie Butler heroically curated at LA moca in 2007. Many women artists active in the feminist art movement--including in Southern California--were not included in the exhibition, even as a good number of those in the show were not participating in the women's movement at the time.
But what this critique of "WACK!" missed was the broader effect on the art world--including commercial galleries, art fairs, magazines, and other museums--that the exhibition helped to instigate. In other words, what mattered was not only the inclusions and exclusions of the checklist. What also mattered was that a major museum was mounting a large-scale survey of feminist art and claiming it as a movement no less important than Conceptual art or Minimalism to postwar art and cultural history. It would be great if "PST" achieved something like the same effect in terms of remapping art since 1945.
Andrew Perchuk: "Pacific Standard Time" comprises more than sixty museum exhibitions, which together include the work of some 1,350 artists, and Sister Corita's work will actually be featured in four of these shows. This points to what I think is one of the more interesting aspects of "PST": that artists will be presented in a variety of contexts. Asco, for example, will be in six museum exhibitions--as part of shows that explore pluralism in the charged political climate of the 1970s, California Conceptualism, "Mexicanidad" within modernist and contemporary art in Los Angeles, strategies of communication between artists and their publics, and the artists' groups and art spaces that sustained and exhibited Chicano art. Nevertheless, Richard is absolutely right that artists, even quite important artists, will not be included in "PST." I think it would be a positive outcome if, as in the case of "WACK!," people mounted counterexhibitions or wrote articles on artists who are not included. It would, in fact, be disappointing if people thought that this one project, however large, adequately explained art in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1980--and that, therefore, this chapter of art history was closed.
John Baldessari: In one way "Pacific Standard Time" is good. ... I just hate to have the California feeling: Mother always loved you better.
Richard Meyer: LA was and is a key site for different branches of radicalism. Have Chicano or feminist movements, for example, changed our perceptions of art in LA, or has LA changed our perceptions of radical art and activism?
Harry Gamboa Jr.: The term radical was an official governmental epithet under cointelpro that effectively neutralized dissent and creative acts during the '60s and '70s and into the '80s. My late-twentieth-century experiences with Asco in East LA were in the eye of that storm. Performing in the streets was interspersed with threats of official violence and other punitive actions.
Decoy Gang War Victim is an Asco image that I photographed in 1974. It shows a young man stretched out, seemingly lifeless, across an East LA street lighted by road flares emitting reddish sparks and by the bluish hue of mercury vapor lamps. The resulting 35-mm color slide was delivered to various local TV stations and accompanied by the notice that the "last gang member" had been killed, thereby ending violence in the barrio. The image was televised by at least two TV stations. The project was a response to the incendiary tabloid-style journalism of the two major Los Angeles newspapers, which often listed the names, addresses, workplaces, and gang affiliations of victims or their family members in an effort to maintain high levels of reciprocal gang violence, thus selling more newspapers. The desired effect of Decoy Gang War Victim was to generate a pause in the violence in order to rob the newspapers of their daily list of victims.
Helene Winer: The '70s marked the beginning of the influence of CalArts and [UCJ Irvine, which changed the complexity and sophistication of the exposure that art students were getting. It also drew students from elsewhere to LA for art. Artists like Kaprow, the Antins, and Baldessari were instigating a more rigorous emphasis and discourse. The diversity of the art in the LA orbit was becoming both larger and less aligned. I later discovered that there were many artists whom I did not know of, like David Hammons, working in a very isolated fashion. This was true of Bruce Nauman as well--he did have an early exhibition at lacma in 1972 but remained relatively uninvolved with the art community.
Ali Subotnick: The whole scene with Hammons and other relatively unknown black artists in LA is the focus of the "PST" show we're presenting at the Hammer Museum: "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles." They basically made their own community and exhibition sites because they weren't embraced by the mainstream, white art community.
Because of the landscape in LA, it's incredibly easy to disappear. You have to make an effort to stay part of the dialogue and remind people you're alive. But those disappearing acts can be incredibly fruitful.
Michelle Kuo: This ability to disappear may have allowed artists to think about pacing production over the course of a career, messing around with their oeuvre--as when, John, you burned your work; or I think of John Knight, who seems strategically and compellingly slow.
John Baldessari: John Knight would be slow anyplace. He's very anal. And John did live in New York for a while you know, on Fifth Avenue. Well, it's been a slow haul. I remember the first review I read of any LA artist in New York was about Billy Al Bengston. He was trashed. This was genuine hostility, because the attitude was: "Anyone from LA is a lotus-eater, they don't have to suffer like New York artists." But of course, that wasn't necessarily the case.
Michelle Kuo: How did you see critique and Conceptual art in the context of other models of politics and protest, other kinds of oppositional public spheres in LA at the time?
John Baldessari: It's weird--I never knew the Asco artists, for instance. I think it's due to the geography; you don't have the chance to socialize. LA is a series of city-states. There are communities here I haven't been to even now. I was living in the Venice/Santa Monica area, and that's where most of the artists were at the time. You might hear something, but I never met anybody. We all knew about Watts Towers, of course, as a landmark, but even then you were always warned about being careful when going down to see it because you're in South Central and blah-blah-blah. "You're taking your life in your own hands," they would say.
Thomas Crow: Another context that comes to mind is the early history of lace [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions!, which Harry knows deeply. It was one place where the East Side, the Hollywood punk scene, and the CalArts sensibility all interacted--sometimes explosively, as at the Gronk-Jerry Dreva opening party in 1978.
Liz Larner: The punk scene in LA was as male dominated as the Ferus Gallery, and if it weren't for Exene and Poison Ivy, all there was for a girl to do was look cool and watch the mosh pit spin.
Michelle Kuo: From euphoric embrace to strident opposition, how have artists interacted with technological media, materials, and industrial models in LA? For example, can we rethink the tacit association of Finish Fetish or Light and Space with industries in the Sun Belt? Perhaps what calcified into stereotype may in fact be seen as a post-Minimal investigation of materials and perception that was historically and geographically specific. Can we understand the interest in, say, assemblage, radio, film, and digital video in new ways as well?
Andrew Perchuk: One of the interesting things about the region is that once large-scale factory production had moved on, a great deal of specialized light industry took its place. This gave artists access to a great variety of industrial production, and most of it was not directly tied to aerospace or the auto industry. One of the really significant differences between artists on the two coasts is that while Flavin bought his fluorescent tubes at the hardware store, and Andre did the same with his fire bricks, artists like Craig Kauffman, DeWain Valentine, Judy Chicago, and Larry Bell went into the shop or factory and helped develop new materials and techniques. This gave rise to terms like Finish Fetish, the idea that LA artists were seduced by technology and shiny surfaces and there was not a lot of deep thinking behind that. I think this may be the most pernicious stereotype about LA art, and it was never accurate. Instead, Robert Irwin tells the story of first meeting Frank Stella. He points out to Stella that all his paintings of geometric figures have wobbly edges that distort the geometry, and he asks Stella whether the wobbly edges bother him. Stella answers that it doesn't matter, that your mind just cancels out the imperfections. Irwin says that at that moment he realized all New York art was conceptual, while on the West Coast they were concerned with perception. I think that Irwin and other LA artists saw a lot of idealism in New York Minimalism, and that the supposedly perfect surfaces of LA art were necessary if you wanted people to attend to the actual conditions they were experiencing.
Michelle Kuo: Fabrication and perception are two ways to look at highly localized material conditions--horizons of possibility for making and seeing. Andrew, it's interesting to think of the "perfect" surface as courting the imperfection of physical experience. (Judd, though, courts this combination, too.) And to see McCracken's leaning planks, for example, as recognizing instability or gravity in a way that counters any East Coast "idealism." Many of those sites of experimentation also come from printmaking and other new work with multiples in LA in the late '60s and early '70s.
Liz, I wonder what you think about the presence of specific materials and technical processes--perhaps one could call it the material condition--of LA?
Liz Larner: The special-effects side of Hollywood, as well as the aerospace industry and bomb making--for the military, of course--made a number of materials locally available for artists. This situation is shifting, though, as these industries are either moving or have moved out of LA proper, and special effects are hardly physical these days. I was recently approached by the Burbank Green Alliance to help get their new program, the Artist Reuse Collective, going. What is interesting to me is how quickly artists' materials are changing. I don't see this as specifically regional, though.
I've always thought of Donald Judd as a Finish Fetish artist.
John Baldessari: Finish Fetish seemed to be the only way that you were allowed to see a thing. I thought there were a lot of other ways to do art. I could understand the reason for it, because you had hot-rod culture out here and lowriders, and you don't have any bad weather like the East Coast so you can have these pristine cars. And as a case in point, 1 was teaching in a community college south of San Diego and having LA artists come down and lecture. And there was this great hot-rod designer, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. 1 thought, Well, he's not an "artist"-- but in my mind he's an artist and he's a part of the culture, so I invited him to come down. And I remember he created a big spectacle--he drove down in a hearse! And it was standing room only. He had twice the crowd of any artist we'd get. So this is the influence of hot-rod and car culture, and that's where all that Finish Fetish came from.
Michelle Kuo: Maurice, the apotheosis of all this '60s interest in materials would seem to have been the "Art and Technology" show you curated at lacma in 1970-71, which paired artists with industrial facilities or corporations. How did you conceive of the relationships between the artists and the engineers?
Maurice Tuchman: I got the idea from visiting the studios. The artists were interested not only in car crafting and making surfboards, but more generally in the way these processes captured light. They were crazy about these new materials, all these resins that turned out to be killer-toxic. They loved it! And they had a tremendous respect for Lockheed Martin and the aerospace industry, the manufacturers of different stripes, as well as think tanks like rand. And that was really what gave rise to the idea of doing an artist-in-residence program, which was what the exhibition ultimately was.
Michelle Kuo: It also begs a political dimension, too, of course, because the involvement with Lockheed et al. raised such fury.
Maurice Tuchman: The killer blow was with Dow. When Dow's pesticides were revealed as being used as weapons against people, that was the end of the whole art-and-technology go-go years. Period. People freaked out, and of course then the artists themselves did too.
THE CULTURE INDUSTRY
Michelle Kuo: How have artists in LA understood the proximity to the centers of institutional cinema and television--and can we think more carefully about the effects in terms of performance, theatricality, and the critique of mass culture, from Conceptual art to now? Adorno, of course, formulated the phrase culture industry in and about LA!
Liz Lamer: Los Angeles artists like Kenneth Anger, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Alexis Smith, William Leavitt, Stephen Prina, Larry Johnson, Diana Thater, Doug Aitken, William E. Jones, and Morgan Fisher, just to name a very few, have been reimagining Hollywood and TV over the years, exploding concepts of narrative (beginning, middle, and end), gender tropes (troupes and troops), eye lines (eyeliner) ...
John Baldessari: LA is a movie town. And there's nowhere to hide.
I thought, working with Hollywood production stills, that these were images that people already have in their head so I could begin to play with those.
The proximity of the movie industry and art is quite close, and as has been pointed out, you have access to people who put together props for Hollywood. So it's very easy to get things produced--phase 2 of Don Judd phoning the order out to the producer. It's no secret--as you mentioned, a lot of the early sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons and even me, we just used the existing services that are here, and I don't think you have so much access to that in New York even today.
Helene Winer: This aspect of LA was of great interest to me when I was organizing exhibitions at Pomona College, which will be revisited in a show this fall. So much art fed off the forms, skills, people, and products specific to film and TV. All the animators, screenwriters, actors, directors, musicians, and background and set painters made for a uniquely intense community that was concentrated in the West LA area, beyond which there was a kind of "bridge and tunnel" relationship to greater LA.
Liz Larner: And sculpture and painting have a specific relationship to filmmaking through materials. In filmmaking there are jobs called "painter" and "sculptor"; these jobs were usually in the production or special-effects departments of films and TV. They still are, but the jobs are rapidly becoming digital. There were surfers who shaped boards and carved waves, some of whom were artists and some of whom worked in the film industry. They all used the same materials and were likely to get them from the same sources--I'm thinking of McCracken and Kauffman now. What Disneyland has to do with this is fiberglass, the bronze of the 1990s--Jennifer Pastor, Paul McCarthy, and Charles Ray come to mind. This has to do with the artist's hand, with facture and surface as mitigated through a material that was used by many in the same region to very different ends. The use of these materials by artists reveals something that is hidden in that monster or mountain we see on the screen.
Michelle Kuo: Liz, this seems to dovetail with the notion of spectacle or fantasy in LA: the way in which a specific material history, a history of facture and substance, can shed light on the relationship between tactile objects and screen projection. This relation between the thing or surface and the projected image is at the heart of so much contemporary art, and it seems to be a problem that has been specifically worked out in LA. Think of Krofft Enterprises' special effects for Oldenburg's Ice Bag , and of course all of the experimentation in plastics.
On another note, Kienholz seems vitally important to discuss in this context--and in the frame of our discussion about assemblage, Berman, etc. The work almost seems melancholic, a retrenchment in visceral materials precisely during the advent of the ephemeral and virtual.
Thomas Crow: My take on Liz's meaning is that the proximity--via the movie and television studios--of the old means and devices of illusion did not translate into yet more virtual effects as art, but rather in their demystified use in generating experiences that were concrete, even visceral. The scrounging Kienholz definitely showed the way. McCarthy's repurposing an actual sitcom set thrusts its strange reality into the viewer's face. As Andrew noted earlier, the wide distribution of technical skills across the LA population--fostered by the entertainment business, the mass of engineers and ex-military techs, and the cultivation of year-round recreational pursuits like surfing and custom-car design--made the translation of technical expertise into art more a matter of practical object demonstration than of mystifying effects. In its way, it was a workingman's aesthetic. A coterie location like Venice Beach, with back-alley mechanics, board shapers and glassers, Bondo and lacquer virtuosi at every turn, put artists in a kind of competition with these peers in combining maximum utility with maximum elegance. I remember hearing Billy Al Bengston say that his paintings were "built to last." No wonder Irwin couldn't comprehend Stella's baggy canvas corners.
I would nominate as one of the great works of LA sculpture in the 1960s the dragster built by minor sitcom actor Tommy Ivo in 1961. Each wheel had its own engine, a Nailhead Buick V8, so called by hot-rodders for the small size and vertical placement of its valves. Though it was discontinued in 1966, no other engine had the ruggedness and above all the look--narrow cross section and vertical rocker covers--that "TV Tommy" wanted. The quad Showboat, engines and pipes chromed to the hilt, slicks front and back, was actually slower than his very successful two-engine dragster--but what a quintessentially Pop object.
Michelle Kuo: Repurposing and even invention are key to understanding these kinds of objects and instruments. But perhaps the older binaries of illusion and embodiment, the visceral and the virtual, no longer hold.
Can we more closely examine the idea of a move toward concrete, embodied experience in terms of specific sites of making and action? Of repurposing and jerry-rigging? How has the situation changed? I'm reminded of Nancy Holt's caricatured "LA artist" in her and Robert Smithson's East Coast, West Coast video : "I don't care about all this 'systems' stuff. I'm out here doing it."
Ali Subotnick: Llyn Foulkes, for instance, reuses, recycles, and repurposes all the time. He's had a dead cat, a dead possum, and a fetus in his assemblage works. He built his Machine in the late '70s in part so he wouldn't have to rely on a band to make his music: The Machine is a gorgeous red and brass object that includes found horns,drums, a keyboard, and a microphone all in one; Foulkes sits in the middle and plays and blows and sings. He also uses plastic water jugs as instruments. But a lot of that is merely making use of what's around him and not wanting to invest in more waste when there are plenty of discarded objects available to him.
John Baldessari: The Yves Klein all-blue paintings show at Dwan gallery was a case of really seeing the work in person as being important. With Duchamp, I knew the work, so it wasn't so important for me to actually see it when Hopps did the Pasadena retrospective. With Klein, you really had to see the surface and those things, those materials. It just bowled me over. I just looked at those and said, "You can't do that," and then I thought, "Well, you better change your mind about something here."
Richard Meyer: I'm wondering about repurposing, customizing, and jerry-rigging as a creative response to the standardization of commodity culture and the culture industry, Hollywood, and patronage. I can't help but be struck by the fact that Tom's dragster designer was a "minor sitcom star" or that Foulkes says he is turning to music with his Machine now in part as an alternative to "billionaire real estate developers" who are collecting contemporary art. Harry Gamboa Jr.: I've often said that the Hollywood sign is the ugliest example of graffiti on the North American continent.
During the '50s through the '70s, a constant presentation of absurdly intense anti-Mexican/anti-Chicano sentiment via films, TV sitcoms, news programs, commercials, and public-service announcements was officially enforced via public schools and augmented by extreme examples of police oppression. Toward the '80s, direct hatred was replaced by attempts to exclude Chicano social and political concerns from the national discussion.
Having grown up in an environment where tools of mass delusion and urban warfare resulted in many injuries, deaths, and loss of hope, it also proved to be an exhilarating challenge to many of my peers to gather objects, images, and moments in order to create something that might make an existentialist statement while scratching a hole in the jaded eye.
Why look at fading stars when there is an entire universe before you?
Liz Lamer: Harry, your comments bring to mind one of the gaping holes in LA moca's recent exhibition "Art in the Streets," and the upcoming Asco exhibition as rectifying this exclusion to some extent. What do you think about this?
Harry Gamboa Jr.: Gaping holes in Los Angeles are often temporarily fixed by filling them with a lump of hot asphalt and smoothing it over, so that everyone can rush past without ever having to look back. Rectifying requires a bit more work that is intrinsically human, involving acceptance, understanding, learning, and apparently forgiveness.
In 1971, at the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Arizona Street in East Los Angeles, LA County Sheriff deputies fired more than a hundred rounds of live ammunition into a group of peaceful Chicano demonstrators who were protesting police violence and the recent police killing of Ruben Salazar, the martyred Los Angeles Times/KMEX-TV news reporter. Many were wounded, and at least one person was killed. Collective fear was imposed by blatant oppression during the next few years, eliminating all public dissent. In 1974, Asco returned to that site and created a dinner parry on a traffic island, First Supper (After a Major Riot), that would dispel the fear and replace it with a celebration of liberation as the Chicano community was attempting to assert its role in the American consciousness. The persistence of images in the larger context can now contribute to a broader understanding of a difficult period that somehow extrapolated unexpected fun out of conflict.
Andrew Perchuk: As Harry and others point out, it's very important not to whitewash Los Angeles's history. It was a segregated city and in many ways a very repressive environment. It has a long history of censorship: Berman was, of course, convicted of obscenity; the Huysman Gallery was closed by the John Birch Society--and the reuse of material often had a political dimension. The controversy over the 1966 Kienholz show is the most obvious example, but one of the most significant instances was what Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell initiated in the aftermath of the Watts rebellion. They and a group of artists--which included Arthur Secunda, one of the major early contributors to Artforum--collected the charred wood and burned metal in the days after the riots and created sixty-six sculptures, which they called 66 Signs of Neon . The resulting exhibition toured the United States for three years, mostly in university and community art spaces. I think reconstructing these artistic networks is crucial and will be one of the major contributions of the show at the Hammer that Ali mentioned.
Maurice Tuchman: I was very close with Mel Edwards at the time, and when Watts erupted, it was a shock to everyone. Kienholz himself had a wry feeling about all this. In his work, the fury and the rage are much clearer than they were in person, where he was really a gentle giant.
The lacma Kienholz show was certainly emblematic of an environment resistant to all forms of contemporary art. When I told the museum's Contemporary Art Council about the show, the opposition that I encountered was astonishing to me. In the case of Betty Freeman, for example, a really distinguished collector with a keen eye--she detested the idea so much that ultimately, when 1 had my way, she wouldn't talk to me for decades. This is the case when you're dealing with a board of trustees headed by what was then known as the Gang of Four, none of whom were sympathetic to twentieth-century art, let alone contemporary art.
So much tumult and so much intensity were going on in what seemed to be a placid Los Angeles. Kienholz had actually been censored a few years earlier at San Fernando Valley State College. But his Back Seat Dodge '38  really touched this nerve, and there were so many other issues going on in America at the time.
Ali Subotnick: It is strange to think that the stakes of both politics and regionalism seem both lessened and heightened today. The Hammer is presenting the first LA Biennial since 1994 in collaboration with LAXART next summer. The whole idea of making a biennial with just local artists is absolutely regional; hopefully, we can make a show that presents LA artists without appearing too provincial. But to do it again in two years ... will the well run dry? There are incredibly interesting artists delving into video, their own TV programs, engaging in role-play and method acting, digging into Hollywood history; but then we also have these schools that are preparing artists to have careers, rather than to take risks. There seems to be less room for experimentation today.
Liz Larner: "Rectifying requires a bit more work that is intrinsically human, involving acceptance, understanding, learning, and apparently forgiveness." Great point, Harry. I am looking forward to an LA Biennial. There arc so many more artists here now, and rent is a lot higher in Venice, Topanga, and West Hollywood than it was in the '60s and '70s. Silver Lake is even referred to as Brentwood East these days. Don't jump too quickly to assume that experimentation is vanishing. The fat of the land has dried up, and everyone is trying to learn how to garden again.
Whenever I showed in New York, the reviews would point out that I was from California, making it clear that I was an outsider. One review mentioned no less than four times that I was from California and that I was a bad boy: "An aging bad boy hippie."
When I moved to LA from San Francisco in 1970, I stayed in somebody's backyard in the Valley. I remember when I woke up the first morning: The sky was brown and I looked over a chain-link fence down a hill. I could only see about one hundred feet. It was August and the smog was bad, but there was something great about being in the suburbs, in the middle of the smog. I liked Downtown, East LA, Hollywood, and the beach.The sun was always out and the palm trees were always there, and at the same time there was something fucked-up about it. LA just felt freakish. I don't know another term for it. The Manson murders had just happened. The schizophrenic nature of Finish Fetish, McCracken and Bell, side by side with Kienholz and Altoon, pink balloons and death.
In San Francisco, the hipness and the politics were right there. But in LA, you were never clear as to what the situation was. There was no focus, no center, only confusion; the smog blinded your eyes. It was a quagmire, a soup.
I immediately began making pieces that seemed to be about mapping and orientation. I drew a straight line across LA and tried to walk it. I took a photograph every mile down Sunset Boulevard looking out the front windshield of a car. A lot of pieces became about plotting, sequential photographs to plot space, disorientation and being lost. At the time, I don't know whether I connected these pieces to LA. I realized later that often artists who came to the city from someplace else would make pieces about mapping and location.
I was also drawn to LA because of Hollywood. In school in the '60s, I had been exposed to experimental film--Brakhage, Warhol, Conner, VanDerBeek. But I had this idea, idealism, that the future of art film would be connected to Hollywood; that non-narrative film, experimental film, would subvert the whole thing. I thought experimental film would go from 8 mm to 35 mm. I was interested in the underbelly of Hollywood, the dirty grime of B movies.
When I was at school at USC, one of the first pieces I did was to knock a hole in the wall of my studio and declare it a film. I thought it was interesting--that if you're in a dark room and you knock a square hole through the wall, the view through the hole to the outside is similar to viewing a film. The outside becomes a projection into the inside.
I worked with a group called Tie Line, which believed that future media would be decentralized through the use of and access to computers. At one point they had been connected to Stewart Brand, the author of the Whole Earth Catalog. With Tie Line, I worked to acquire public access on cable television, primarily Santa Monica cable. Once we got public access we produced cable programming, including artists' videos.
At the time, around 1973-74, programming cableTV was still difficult and the audience was small. So in 1976 I started a radio program with other artists, John Duncan and Nancy Buchanan, on KPFK. It was a weekly program called Close Radio, and it ran until 1979. We invited artists to make works for the radio. And we never gave an explanation for any of the pieces. We never had interviews. It was a kind of art space. We produced and presented over a hundred programs.
The original program was Wednesday mornings. Eventually we worked into Wednesday evenings and then Thursday or Friday evenings, getting better time slots as our listeners grew in number.
But finally the end came. Supposedly, we had more FCC violations than any program in the history of KPFK. In fact, I don't believe that was true at all. There were incidents, though. We had given four programs in a row to Slash magazine, which was the punk magazine in LA, and they put on a number of live concerts in the studio and damaged the station's piano. John Duncan did a Reichian exercise naked in the hallway of the radio station, live. One of the artists had me pull the plug on the radio station. It was called Dead Air. (Another person we invited to participate was Gene Youngblood. I was interested in his Expanded Cinema book. He gave a talk on media, and the station was OK with that.)
The radio station hated Dead Air. That we had pulled the plug and that there was nothing on the radio for a period of time-that it was just blank--they saw as a total waste of airtime, of course. And then the last program was a live performance by Chris Burden. For an hour, he asked people to consider sending him money and gave his address. It used to be a violation of the FCC to ask for money on a public radio station; the station could ask but an individual couldn't. That was the last straw: We were kicked off the air the next day.
But at the time, we had really high listener ratings. Close had become a popular program on all of the Pacific radio stations. When I questioned the station manager about why we were being kicked off, she simply said: "We're not interested in your audience." Coming from an alternative public radio station, it was pretty funny. It was not her cup of tea.
The tapes belonged to the station, which was another problem. I asked the station manager, "What happens to the tapes?" And she said: "You can take them with you. We don't want them I" So I walked out with them.
"The ceramic sculptors at Otis spent nearly all their waking moments together, setting up a model for art production where what transpires outside the studio is as important as what happens inside." --Andrew Perchuk
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|Title Annotation:||postwar art in Los Angeles, California|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2011|
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