San Diego Art Museum (photo credit: Cynthia Kukla)

Our Debt to the West Coast:

Pacific Standard Time: 1945-1980

“An unprecedented collaboration of more than 60 cultural institutions across Southern California coming together to celebrate the birth of the L.A. art scene.”1

Visiting L.A. is like a review of your whole life. Driving around greater L.A. in traffic much less crazy than my hometown Chicago, mind-surfing images of hotrods and humming Beach Boys tunes, seeing the exit signs for Disneyworld brings iconic childhood movies flooding into my mind: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Lady and the Tramp.” The lure of Hollywood is present with each glimpse of luscious palm trees hugging sleek, contemporary architecture. The music scene at Venice Beach from the 60’s just about rises from the pavement as we pass hippie holdout stores, houses and shacks. I can still hear The Doors playing. In Venice Beach, we pass the street named Ocean Park as we drive to LA Louver to see the Ed Kienholz Retrospective. Immediately, the iconic paintings of Richard Diebenkorn flash through the museum in my mind.  As a young painter, I studied and analyzed Diebenkorn and his Ocean Park paintings are his most celebrated of series.

Starting with the Disney factor: a fact perhaps not widely known, Disney was instrumental in the creation of Cal Arts in Valencia, California.  John Baldessari, certainly one of the fathers of Postmodernism, was put at the helm there. The roster of prominent artists graduating from the Cal Arts radical art program is lengthy, and California, for a host of reasons, is key to the development of contemporary art. This is exactly what the Getty underscores with “Pacific Standard Time,” the culmination of a long-term Getty Research Institute initiative focusing on postwar art in Los Angeles. Though its research purpose is greater than this article can discuss, I will focus on the major exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum which presented a survey “Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970,” on the Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) and on Ed Kienholz Before LACMA at LA Louver Gallery.

“Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970” begins with the‘Fifties’ -abstract, hard-edge paintings that set LA painters apart from New York painters and the rough, ambitiously scaled ceramic sculptures that set LA artists working in clay apart from just about everyone. Painters like Karl Benjamin explored optics, color and a special emphasis, fixation even, on surface. The Getty’s chosen curators brilliantly teamed the slick, color-charged hard-edge paintings with visceral West Coast ceramics. Ken Price insouciently used acrylic and lacquer on his sculptures while Peter Voulkos seemed to irreverently throw huge rough slabs of clay together to make sculptural vases denying vase-ness and affirming muscle abstraction.

Next in “Crosscurrents” is ‘Fifties’ assemblage sculpture and collage by prominent L.A. artists like Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy and Melvin Edwards. The art did not strike me as being as different as the West Coast’s ceramics are, but there did seem to be a hermetic spirituality in play that was less present in East Coast assemblage artists like Louise Nevelson or Robert Rauschenberg. Yet, I find it nearly impossible to easily characterize various groups – as the whole realm of assemblage, starting with Braque and Picasso’s delicate cardboard and plaster works, to Joseph Cornell’s tender boxes, Chicago’s John Chamberlain’s vivid crushed auto parts and H. C. Westerman’s quirky carved tableaux, and especially Rauschenberg, surely one of the most generous and prolific of contemporary artists – continues to richly influence us artists no matter what mediums we may use.

L.A. painters increasingly looked to the automotive and aerospace industries for new materials and methods.  Judy Chicago worked in an auto body shop trading oils and brushes for industrial strength spray guns and auto lacquer.  This is the land of candy apple red and psychedelic lustres. Let’s also not forget the influence from legendary surfboard designers Hobie Alter and Gordon “Grubby” Clark, the innovative surf board makers who trafficked heavily in polyester resin, forever leaving a mark on West Coast artists of the 1960s and 70s who took this new technology back to their studios.

Especially in the 1960s, the sleek and sexy aesthetic we associate with L.A. really takes hold.  I saw a lacquered plank by John McCracken at the Venice Biennale several season ago and it looked as fresh as it must have fifty years ago. Taking so much from the nearby auto and aerospace industries, artists used chemical and processes that took painting and sculpture to a new place of shared space: witness a bright orange Billy Al Bengston chevron painting, illuminated from within by its own internal spotlight.

“Advanced modes of painting,” in the large, fourth gallery of the exhibition is the centerpiece of the Getty exhibition and I focus on three iconic paintings: Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park 67 (1973), David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) and Ed Ruscha’s  Standard Oil Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963.)  Looking away from the Pacific Ocean, Diebenkorn turned his attention to the geometry of Ocean Park Street where he had a studio, as it rose sharply away from the water. Any of his Ocean park paintings were worked on for weeks or months and he carefully scraped away areas and added delicate, linear, geometric buttresses and color patches that are poetic and visually alluring. But the unabashed winners are David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash for its relaxed, pastel palette of colors and its economy of brushwork to convey the L.A. lifestyle and Ed Ruscha’s Standard Oil Station where Ruscha developed his signature hard-edge and ironic imagery. Both artists, younger than Diebenkorn, gave up the poetry and fussing with brushstrokes so characteristic of the prior generation of paintings’ giants, and they give us instead straightforward painting. Paint is laid down and there it stays. Ruscha’s Standard Oil Station breaks classical rules of composition, slicing the canvas in half diagonally with a stark black sky bisected by a crisp red and white gas station and golden spotlights.  All stark red, yellow, black and white, not Matisse, simply 100% American.

For the 1970s, the final gallery, the opening up (or abandonment of) painting is set in motion by John Baldessari who commissioned a sign painter to letter Baldessari’s description of a perfect painting. There is a wonderful arc in Baldessari’s work, from the rejection of painting in the 70’s to his recent Noses and Ears etc. Bruce Nauman’s  Four Corner Piece abandons painting for video technology and an installation that controls the viewer’s access to and reading of a complete work, continuing his exploration of behavioral codes, a hallmark of his oeuvre. Fortunately, women artists are represented throughout the decades-specific spaces of Crosscurrents. For the 70’s, the Getty included Mary Course’s White Light Grid Series – V, a large white canvas shimmered with reflective glass microspheres. Like Doug Wheeler whose work is seen in the San Diego show, Mary Course will benefit from this recognition as she sits squarely within a most experimental decade of painting.

Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego takes over where the Getty left off, paying homage to the movement whose leaders are Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, Craig Caufman, Jophn McCracken, Bruce Nauman, Eric Orr, Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, De Wain Valentine and Douglas Wheeler. The museum “presents the pioneering artists who focused on visual perception rather than discrete objects, showcasing paintings, drawings, resin and acrylic sculptures as well as site-responsive installations in which the predominant medium is light.”2 I would be wasting time trying to describe in words what these works are like, they are so dependent on the viewer’s direct, visceral and conscious perceptual interaction with the art work.  I flew to L.A. primarily to see this exhibit since no extensive survey of this perceptual movement existed until now.

So instead of descriptors, I can say that, especially with Wheeler’s floor to ceiling radiant, icy-blue wall of light DW 68 VEN MCASDII (1968/2011) and Turrell’s luminous magenta room-space, Wedgework V, you simply drink in what your eyes are seeing and you register viscerally what your body is feeling. Turrell’s magenta work is so peaceful to take in, that my colleague said “If all the art work in the world were like this, there would be world peace.” Imagine wishing to remain in a room the whole day with a work of art: Wedgework is that powerful.

Although Robert Irwin is considered the master of Light and Space and I have greatly admired his work over the decades, I do not feel his painting-cum-disappearing installation topped Wheeler or Turrell. Irwin’s piece begins with a subtle red on red hard-edge painting of brick-red horizontal lines on a brick-red background. Next is a curved canvas filled with tiny dots.  Next is a quintessential Irwin work, an acrylic disk that has on it? behind it? in front of it? a clean dark band. Irwin’s command of clear acrylic and carefully lighted spaces keep the viewer from being certain where a form resides, if it is painted, or it is a sly vision hovering in space. Irwin wraps up his magic with a trapezoidal space covered floor to ceiling by a scrim of translucent fabric.

Not to miss, “Ed Kienholz Before LACMA Works from 1957 – 1964″ at LA Louver, in collaboration with Maurice Tuchman, senior curator emeritus of 20th Century Art, LACMA.  The 1966 Kienholz exhibition at LACMA was the first show devoted to a Los Angeles artist and condemned by the County Board of Supervisors for its supposed pornographic and indecent content, There was intense media coverage and public outcry which kept the exhibition open and led to record-breaking crowds, similar to the situation in Cincinnati in 1990 over the Robert Mapplethorp “Perfect Moment” exhibition. Tuchman gives us meaningful early work that beautifully enriches the understanding of Kennholz.  Moving away from oil painting by the late 50s, Kienholz created The Little Eagle Rock Incident, 1958, his first painted construction using a taxidermied deer head. In 1959, Kienholz made his first free-standing work: Mother Sterling. Comprised of a dressmaker’s dummy, the bottom third was converted into a wire cage that held altered fragments of dolls, covered in resinous drips where resin retains for Kienholz the feel of gestural painting elements. “Before LACMA” is L.A. Louver’s contribution to the Getty Foundation’s “Pacific Standard Time” art initiative. His work is represented in several other PST venues, including “Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture,1950-1970” which after closing at the Getty in February 2012, travels from March 15 to June 10, 2012 to the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany.

1Getty Center press release.

2Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego press release.

Cynthia M. Kukla is an artist and professor of art currently living in Illinois.  She also writes about art.

6 Responses

  1. Professor Kukla has always been a solid talent in the heartland of America, but also a light from nations around the world. Her work is pure, intelligent and insightful. While I live in the western US, I find her insights and work to be beyond the west coast glitche and reflective of both an academic and a creative talent. Bravo!

  2. Great article and recapped for me our art tour–starting from the Getty, with Bill Wheelock, and ranging over LA and southwards to the museum in La Jolla.

  3. What a great source of information! I had no idea Judy Chicago worked with industrial materials, or that John Chamberlain is a Chicago artist. And there are at least ten artists names I am going to research further, especially Mary Course.
    Thank you for opening up the California art scene to me.

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