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Postcard from LA: Pacific Standard Time

by Jonathan Griffin

Vija Celmins, Freeway (1966). From the exhibition 'Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950 –1970' at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Was there ever such a magnificently hubristic project as Pacific Standard Time? I can’t think of one. To chronicle an entire region’s visual arts scene over a 35-year period – from the end of World War II to the start of the 1980s – would seem to many sensible people a folly of gargantuan proportions. And anyway, to what end? Where would one even start?

The Getty Foundation is probably one of the few organizations in the world with the resources and scope of ambition to attempt it. And Southern California, the region in question, is a uniquely appropriate subject for such examination. Containing the international art nexus of Los Angeles, it also has maintained its distinct character – localism or provincialism depending on your perspective – that marks it out from other areas of concentrated art production. As well as L.A., Pacific Standard Time includes artists and institutions in the cities of Santa Barbara (the region’s northern border) and San Diego (at its south), and stretches east through Pasadena, Claremont and Riverside as far as Palm Springs. But, perhaps inevitably in light of its population density, Angeleno artists remain the focus for most exhibitions. As has been pointed out by some observers, one can hardly imagine an equivalent project being launched in New York, London, Beijing or Berlin.

The project’s objectives emerged from an archival impulse. Pacific Standard Time began when the Getty Research Institute became concerned that whole chapters of recent cultural history were in danger of being lost, but that also many first hand sources were still around to contribute to its retelling. Those artists most in danger of being permanently omitted from the historical record were those marginalised by the market and by the city’s museums, and the project developed the determination to redress the imbalances of an art scene that was weighted unfairly towards certain internationally known artists.

In order to facilitate the close and careful inspection of all strands of Southern Californian artistic practice, the Getty enlisted the help of over 60 institutions across the region, and made available a budget of 10 million dollars. Over an approximate six-month period beginning in October, more than 125 exhibitions and countless further events, publications, research initiatives, and associated projects will take place.

For Pacific Standard Time, all roads lead to – or from – the Getty. Their exhibition, Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950 –1970 , is intended as a blockbuster lynchpin to the project. It parses the history of L.A.’s main art movements, from Hard Edge abstraction, through Ab-Ex, Funk, Assemblage, Ferus Pop to Light and Space. Some of the city’s least marginalized works are here, including Ed Ruscha’s LA County Museum on Fire (1968), hanging a few feet from David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967). But there are also less familiar works, by artists whose association with the West Coast is less widely known, such as a wonderfully goofy abstract sculpture by Bruce Nauman (Untitled , 1965), a folded grey-stained canvas by Allan McCollum (Pam Beale, 1975) and Vija Celmins’ Freeway (1966).

Oddly for such a beautiful building, the Getty Center’s temporary exhibition spaces are somewhat ungainly, and the diversity of its audience requires the curators to make their interpretive material more intrusive than is ideal. One gets the impression that the Getty Center (distinct from the Research Institute and the Foundation) is a little bit afraid of art made after 1945. Despite this, and the cramped quarters for such a broad selection of (often very large) work, ‘Crosscurrents’ makes an important point: that artistic conversations happen urgently and untidily, across not just space but also time.

Also at the Getty Center, Dewain Valentine’s Gray Column (1975–6) is on display for the first time (previously shown in unsatisfactory circumstances in the entrance lobby of a pharmaceutical company). The barrage of information about the piece’s manufacture and conservation is a reminder that the Getty’s priorities sometimes lean more towards study and conservation than the elegant presentation of modern art. Nauman’s significant Four Corner Piece (1970) and Robert Irwin’s beautiful granite sculpture Black on White (2011) are installed elsewhere in the museum with zero fanfare and next to no signage. The research institute’s own Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1945–1980 is a small but justifiably packed display of fascinating ephemera from the archives.

Ed Ruscha, The Back of Hollywood (1977). From the exhibition ‘Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974_1981’ at LA MoCA

At the opposite end of town – and of the ideological and intellectual spectrum – was MOCA’s masterful Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981. Apparently the result of years of scholarship by curator Paul Schimmel, the show is vast, but takes just seven years of California’s history as its focus: the period between Richard Nixon’s resignation (the original draft of his resignation speech opens the exhibition) and Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Schimmel identifies the era as the end of the Californian dream; the work presented is frequently angry, cynical, bleak and disturbing. The show is, as they used to say back then, a heavy downer.

But it does what Pacific Standard Time was surely meant to do: it demolishes a clichéd image of sunny, carefree Southern California, and replaces it with a picture of about 150 artists whose work is serious, nuanced, and, in many cases, very little known. Text, film and photography predominate. Beside Ed Ruscha’s iconic The Back of Hollywood (1977), which precisely nails the show’s mood, there are standout contributions from artists such as Alexis Smith, Bill Owens, Suzanne Lacy, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, Jim Goldberg, Fred Lonidier, Robert Heinecken, Chauncey Hare, John Divola and Robert Cumming. They all deserve much wider recognition than they currently are given.

Straub & Hensman Buff, Recreation Pavilion, Mirman House, Arcadia, 1958. Photograph by Julius Shulman, 1959. From the exhibition ‘California Design 1930_1965’

If, after a visit to MOCA, one wanted to let a little sunshine back in, one would be well advised to head to LACMA where California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way occupies the new Resnick Pavilion. The exhibition of domestic, graphic and industrial design from the pre- and post-war periods illustrates just how sweet life was for many Americans at this time. A zappy Airstream caravan opens the show, and Eames chairs, lamps by Greta Magnusson Grossman and the original Barbie doll from 1959 paint a picture of a time when the future was as rosy as a Malibu sunset. (At the Pacific Standard Time press conference, Larry Bell confessed that, as a young artist, ‘I liked the beach, my buddies were all funny, there were a lot of pretty girls. […] It never even occurred to me that New York was someplace to go.’) The recreation of the Eames’ living room – transported item by item from their Case Study home a few miles away – seems a little extravagant considering that you can normally visit it in its original location in the Pacific Palisades.

Across Wilshire Boulevard from LACMA, the Craft and Folk Art Museum hosts the exhibition Golden State of Craft: California 1960 – 1985, an enthusiastic gallop through 25 years of ceramics, glass, furniture design and sculpture that includes such local luminaries as Sam Maloof, Peter Shire, Marvin Lipofsky and Adrian Saxe. (Maloof is also the subject of a rather more carefully composed exhibition at The Huntington Library that places his carved wooden furniture alongside objects and paintings by contemporaries such as Karl Benjamin and Millard Sheets.) The Santa Monica Museum of Art pays tribute to artist and ceramicist Beatrice Wood, who died at the age of 105 in 1998. When living in Paris, she was friends with Marcel Duchamp, Edgar Varèse and Isadora Duncan; drawings from 1917 such as Outrageous Remarks in a Salon and (ahem) Marcel’s Bed are particular highlights. What all these exhibitions underscore is that, of course, the so-called fine arts do not exist in isolation from crafts, design or applied arts. Far from it. The distinct ideologies and aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism, Funk, Assemblage, Postmodernism, Finish Fetish and Pop equally apply to ceramics or furniture design as they do to painting and sculpture.

Back at LACMA, single galleries have been given over to Maria Nordman’s Smoke (1969), a film installation – so evocative of the era – of two young people smoking moodily on an armchair lapped by the waves of the ocean, and Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud (1969–72). The latter, a massive installation involving real cars and a truck, man-sized mannequins, a dirt floor and a tree, hasn’t been shown since documenta 5 in 1972, largely due to its inflammatory racial content (the castration of a black man by white men who have discovered him with a white woman). Although LACMA is clearly proud of the historical exhibition, and wary about any potential controversy that may ensue (it hasn’t so far), it all seems like a lot of noise of a work that now seems rather bombastic and out-dated.

ASCO, Instant Mural (1974). From the exhibition ‘ASCO: Elite of the Obscure’ at LACMA

Better is their retrospective of the Chicano artist group ASCO, curated by Rita Gonzalez and C. Ondine Chavoya, which is subtitled ‘Elite of the Obscure’. Although the exhibition consists largely of work never intended to be shown in a museum – print ephemera, props, costumes, and many snapshots of public performances and casually composed happenings – a sense is conveyed of the group’s fierce energy and irreverence. The show complements a broader survey of Chicano art at the Fowler Museum called Mapping Another L.A., which will open in mid-October.

The Waitresses, Easy Three-Step Guide to Food Protection in the Event of a Nuclear Attack (1982-3). From the exhibition ‘Doin’ it in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building’ at Otis College, Ben Maltz Gallery

One problem of ‘Elite of the Obscure’ is shared by an exhibition at Otis College’s Ben Maltz Gallery, Doin’ it in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building: the tendency to get bogged down by the excess of archival material from a period of fervent activity. The Woman’s Building, in L.A.’s Chinatown, was established by artist Judy Chicago, art historian Arlene Raven and designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in 1973; it hosted various feminist collectives during the 1970s and ‘80s including The Waitresses and S.O.S. (Sisters of Survival). One of Los Angeles’ oft-touted benefits is that it has space for all kinds of people to get on and make for themselves the lives they wish to lead; infuriating obscurity, of course, is the flipside of this tolerant but dispersed community.

Betye Saar, Black Girl’s Window (1969). From the exhibition ‘Now Dig This!’ at the Hammer Museum

Now Dig This!, the Hammer Museum’s exhibition of African American art from L.A. made between 1960 and 1980, takes the opposite approach to ‘Elite of the Obscure’ and ‘Doin’ it in Public’; its handsome galleries frame a pared back selection, much of it Assemblage sculpture and collage. Curator Kellie Jones kicks off with the stunning pairing of Charles White’s drawing Birmingham Totem (1964) with Melvin Edwards’ steel sculpture The Lifted X (1965). There’s also some unexpected Finish Fetish work, from former aerospace engineer Fred Eversley, and work by non-black artists such as Mark di Suvero and John Altoon who collaborated with or were sympathetic to African American artists. The influential John Outterbridge features prominently (and is, incidentally, also the subject of a solo exhibition at LAXART). David Hammons outdoes everyone in the handsomeness stakes, however, with the knockout Bag Lady in Flight (1970s) – made from shopping bags, grease and hair – and ending the show with the deeply touching Bird (1970), a shovel pushed into the mouth of a saxophone.

The California African American Museum offers a much more inclusive view of African American experience in Los Angeles. Places of Validation, Art and Progression is the rather worthy title of its exhibition, which looks not just at the art but also at the spaces in which it was shown and the communities that it engendered and relied upon. Walking distance across Exposition Park is Artistic Evolution: Southern California Artists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1945–1963 (whatever happened to snappy titles?). The show is a reminder that before LACMA moved to its current Wilshire Boulevard location in the mid-‘60s, it occupied what is now the Natural History Museum, and displayed work by John Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin and Craig Kauffman, artists whose frequently surprising early paintings are on show here.

Hirokazu Kosaka, Untitled (1972). From the exhibition ‘It Happened in Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969–1973’ at the Pomona College of Art, Claremont

Back in the car, it’s best to avoid rush hour when heading east to Pomona College of Art, in Claremont. It Happened in Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969–1973 is well worth the journey though. While the college was somewhat overshadowed by other schools closer to L.A., it was blessed with dynamic and ambitious teachers who invited top-flight artists to exhibit in the university museum. ‘It Happened in Pomona’ is split over three periods; the first show is devoted to the projects of curator Hal Glicksman, including breath-taking Light and Space installations by Robert Irwin, Tom Eatherton and Lloyd Hamrol. Why not head out there in the middle of the night? Thanks to an intervention by Michael Asher, the space is open 24 hours a day.

Large installations are easier to recreate than performance, which is the problem that Los Angeles Contemporary Projects (LACE) has had to deal with. LACE was instrumental in providing a space for artists’ performance in the late ‘70s and ‘80s; now Los Angeles Goes Live: Performance Art in Southern California 1970– 1983 asks the difficult rhetorical question: ‘How can one revisit performance art after the fact? Through documentation? Through restaging the work by the original artist? Through a contemporary reinvention by another?’ Curator Ellina Kevorkian has mounted an exhibition that brings together costumes and props but no documentation to evoke important performances from the era. Artefacts include Kim Jones’ Headpiece for Mudman (1980), mannequins by The Kipper Kids, and beautiful cloaks and gongs made for a collaborative performance by Robert Wilhite and Guy de Cointet.

How are your eyes? Tired yet? There is still a long list of commercial galleries who have coordinated their exhibitions with Pacific Standard Time’s theme. Standouts include Cherry and Martin ’s ‘Photography into Sculpture’, James Turrell at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, John Altoon at The Box, Robert Irwin at L&M, Lee Mullican at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, and Joe Goode at Michael Kohn Gallery. Notice how, despite all this historical revisionism, the market still favours work by white males? Impressive exceptions to this rule are Betye Saar’s absorbing show at Roberts & Tilton and Alexis Smith’s fantastic collages at Thomas Solomon Gallery.

And then there are all the exhibitions that I have yet to visit or that haven’t opened yet. Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, focusing on the Light and Space movement, is said to live up to its boastful title. State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970, at the Orange County Museum of Art, will be worth a trip, as will Barbara T. Smith’s solo presentation at the University of California, Irvine. Cruising the Archive, Queer Art and Culture in Los Angeles, 1945–80, over the two locations of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, should offer some treats, as should the ceramics exhibition at Scripps College and Drawing the Line at the Japanese American National Museum. There’s even an exhibition at Crossroads School in Santa Monica honouring, incongruously but brilliantly, the important work of six women L.A. art dealers.

There are many others. Check the website – www.pacificstandardtime.org. And of course, when the dust has finally settled on this month of openings, it will be kicked up again by the Pacific Standard Time Performance Festival in late January 2012.

So what can we take away from all this? What lessons have we learnt? Well firstly it;s clear that Southern California’s art history unfolded quite differently to that of New York, or Western Europe, but that doesn’t mean that to examine that history is inward-looking or provincial. There are plenty of artists whose work may have been overlooked because they weren’t so obviously connected to California’s internationally exported image (see ‘Under the Big Black Sun’), and it is ironic, but a credit to the project, that the local focus of Pacific Standard Time may bring them back out into the light. Finally, and thankfully, nobody seems to be saying that this work could only have been made here – that it’s the product of sun and surf alone. But the fact remains that it was, and we who live here are obligated to respect and care for it. As George Herms said at the PST press conference: ‘Beauty is your duty.’

About the author

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    Jonathan Griffin is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.