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View from Keswick, in the Lake District

My time in the UK was split between the timelessly serene Lake District (and former haunt of Wordsworth and Coleridge) and the frenetic expanse that is London. It is the perpetual longing for the both/and that I have come to know as elemental, similar to the paradox captured so poetically in that famous line from D. W. Winnicott: It is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.

Lots of plays, lots of art, lots of time with friends. I’ll offer up a few highlights over the next few days. When it comes to special exhibitions currently on view in London, this is a singular moment in time in that the three biggest shows with the longest lines are all by artists in their final years: Lucian Freud was 88 when he passed away last year, Yayoi Kusama is 82, and David Hockney is 74. All of them are almost dizzingly prolific and tirelessly exploratory. No laurel resting, no slowing down. Very inspiring.

I’ll start at the top. My favorite of the three was Kusama’s show at the Tate Modern. I’ll talk about the other two in future posts.

Kusama has a memorable back story. From a review in the Guardian by Tim Adams:

All art is attention-seeking, but few artists have ever taken their demands to be noticed to the extremes of Yayoi Kusama. Now 82, and resident by choice for the past 35 years in a psychiatric care home in her native Tokyo, Kusama is currently seeing all her wishes come true. Not only has she been granted this obsessive-compulsive 14-room retrospective by the Tate, one of her career-defining Infinity Net paintings sold for $5.1m in 2008, a record for a living female artist.

Success did not come easily. Born in patriarchal and deeply conservative Japan of the late 1920s, even the idea of becoming an artist, as a woman, must have taken a supreme effort of will. To become an artist quite as liberated from convention as Kusama must have felt a lot like the insanity she has always feared – and to some extent nurtured – in herself…

She seems to have been drawn to surrealism, but given it a less playful, more psychologically unbalanced field, an edge perhaps explained by the fact that at the same age as she was seeing her visions, she was forced by her mother to spy on her father in bed with his string of mistresses and geishas. She developed a loathing of phallic images, and an overwhelming fascination with voyeurism.

Her response to these disturbing, formative forces seems twofold: she sought a kind of self-obliteration, covering herself and everything around her with her trademark polka dots – there is, among many other spotted surfaces, a fabulously spacey suburban living room here in which the edges of objects, sofas and tables are blurred by primary-coloured circular stickers, picked out in a psychedelic light. Elsewhere, mirrored “infinity rooms” take these points of colour into more dimensions than the eye can easily cope with. Almost nothing has been immune from Kusama’s dottiness: horses and cats, buses and houses, trees and fields and rivers, she has camouflaged them all. Damien Hirst’s outsourced efforts look decidedly spotty by comparison.

The range in this body of work is extraordinary. One room is full of her early paintings—obsessionally patterned and subtle in the absence of saturated color—and are reminiscent of early aboriginal paintings that use dots to reference the mystical landscape of central Australia. She moves from paintings of minimal tonality to obsessive phallic sculptures, also understated chromatically, to color used in an almost fetishist manner. Colored dotting soon becomes her signatory style but it does not come across as cheesy or inauthentic. Kusama’s work feels like it came from “complete necessity” (to quote my favorite line from Roberta Smith*). I loved every moment of the show.

Not without irony, Damien Hirst‘s Tate Modern show opens soon. A master of marketing and self promotion, his work almost never passes the coming from necessity test. Sure, that’s not the only measure for engaging and compelling art. But it has come to be an issue of increasing importance to me.


A room full of exquisitely subtle Kusama early paintings


A closer view of the painting surface


Phallicizing every object


Wild phallic landscapes as well


Infinity Mirrored Room. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

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* Roberta Smith’s plea for what she longs to see and feel in contemporary art exhibitions is outlined here.


From the deCordova Biennial, a work by Cambridge-based Joe Zane (Photo: Carroll and Sons Gallery)*

OK. I haven’t seen the show yet. But Sebastian Smee‘s Boston Globe review of the newly-opened deCordova Biennial rang true of so many shows that I have seen lately:

I thought we had outgrown smarty-pants biennials, filled with arcane and self-obsessed art by artists hypnotized by the riddle of their status in the world, and audibly gnashing their teeth over what purposes they might legitimately serve…Actually, most good artists do outgrow this stuff and get on with making art. The trouble is, curators—for whom art-making often remains impenetrably mysterious—still love it. Or think they should love it. And so we have biennials and triennials that overflow with self-consciousness, with worn-out conceptual japes, and with lazy gestures of political consciousness that have all the committed warmth of a dictator waving his gloved hand behind tinted windows.

Wicked yeah.

For my regulars I am repeating yet again. But reading this review brought to mind the quote from Roberta Smith‘s response to a similar show. Her words, like Smee’s, speak to a gap that exists between curators and art makers:

After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.

What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.

Her advice to curators is right in line with Smee’s response to the deCordova show:

They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.

These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.

Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.

Smee did find a few submissions that offered something to the viewer. His closing line is a keeper: “These promising, good, or interesting things were outnumbered by lightweight gestures of cling film conceptualism—cut off from fresh air, refrigerator-ready, coddled in cleverness.”

I just love this guy. The image is pitch perfect.

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*Here is Smee’s specific response to this work by Joe Zane:

In the main gallery, on the third floor, Joe Zane, a Cambridge-based artist whose work is pretty much the last word in conceptual onanism, has another sign, this one in gold letters affixed to the wall. It reads: “This is not the Biennial I was hoping for.” Reading it, I felt momentarily outflanked, my ungenerous, rube-like thoughts revealed and writ large. But then I registered the bathos of the gesture, and its reliance on that old teenage trope of being forever smarter and more sarcastic than your audience. After which I merely felt tired.

More on Pacific Standard Time

PST encompasses over 60 venues, so my coverage from just a week in Los Angeles is limited. Here is an overview of other PST exhibits worth highlighting (as well as a few others thrown in for good measure):

Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980
Hammer Museum

Breaking down the profile of Southern California art even further, the Hammer has assembled work by African-American artists who in many ways were operating in their own unique swirling thermal during those years. Many of the works in this show are visceral, textured and taut, relying on an arte povera aesethetic which predate the current embrace of outsider art. The physicality of assemblage was not a common form back in the 1960s and 70s. So many of these works speak timelessly to a subsequent generation of artists, in LA and otherwise.


David Hammons, Bag Lady in Flight


John Outterbridge, No Time for Jivin’, from the Containment Series


Betye Saar, Black Girl’s Window


Noah Purifoy, Untitled (Assemblage)


John Riddle, Ghetto Merchant

Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987
LACMA

Yet another glimpse into a subculture within the LA art scene, this show highlights the performance art of a group of Latino artists. Named for the Spanish word for nausea, Asco was primarily “four style-conscious art jesters — three men, one woman — cavorting in outrageous outfits around the streets and empty lots of East L.A., making a scene, actions sprinkled with cutting social commentary, then disappearing. A Dada daydream in Chicanoville, USA” (from LA Weekly.) The sophistication and extent of their oeuvre astounded me.


From Asco documentation, LACMA

Glenn Ligon: AMERICA
LACMA

This show by Glenn Ligon (which was on view earlier at the Whitney Museum) is so far ranging in scope and mastery—it features a hundred works including paintings, prints, photography, drawings, and sculptural installations and neon reliefs—that it is astounding to me that the work was made by one person. There are moments for everyone, from the exquisite coal dust surfaced paintings to his conceptual installations to his take on Robert Mapplethorpe‘s black men portraits. Political and also a visual feast. Extraordinary.


Close up of the coal dust surface on a Ligon piece

Pre-Columbian art at LACMA
Jose Pardo display design

LA artist Jorge Pardo was asked to design LACMA’s new Pre-Columbian art collection. Stunning. The space has been transformed.

From Christopher Knight‘s review in the LA Times:

Conceptually sophisticated and visually smashing, the installation design that artist Jorge Pardo conceived and executed for the impressive Pre-Columbian collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was unveiled to the public Sunday. Unlike anything you’ve seen in an art museum before, it’s built on a deep understanding of the potential power of smart decoration.

To decorate is not just to embellish but to valorize. LACMA’s often exceptional collection of ancient art deserves nothing less — especially the fine ceramic vessels and sculptures from West Mexico, Central America and Colombia. Pardo’s eccentric, unexpected scheme delivers.

It accomplishes two feats. Obscure works of ancient art are elucidated, and so is our contemporary experience of them. This decorative installation design is a meaningful honorific, not an empty flourish.


Installation views of the Pre-Columbian galleries at LACMA, designed by Jorge Pardo

Edward Kienholz: Five Car Stud 1969–1972, Revisited
LACMA

Edward Kienholz was a highly visible and influential artist for me during the 60s and 70s, and his installations used effrontery and truth speaking as a powerful tool. This exhibit is one of his most harsh and disturbing. It is on view for the first time in the US after having been purchased by a Japanese collector who warehoused it for over 40 years. The artist’s widow Nancy Kienholz reassembled this brutal reminder of the brutal castrations of the pre-Civil Rights era. Not for everyone but quintessential Kienholz.


Julius Shulman’s iconic archictectural photographs capture California’s new sense of architecture, space and lifestyle.

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Returning to my coverage of the Pacific Standard Time art exhibit/extravaganza in Los Angeles:

LACMA’s sprawling multi-building expanse is a stop I make every time I am in LA. Their flagship PST show, California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way”, fills the new Resnick Pavilion with artifacts from an extraordinary era—architecture, furniture, ceramics, fashion and textiles, industrial and graphic design and accoutrements of a new style of living.

The scope of the show is broad and the ramifications over time of these designers are very clear in hindsight. California represented something quite different from the cultural epicenter on the east coast. In David Weinstein‘s review of a smaller and less ambitious show, Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury at Philips Andover’s Addison Gallery in 2008, some of that essence is described:

‘Cool’ meant art that, unlike the earth-shaking solos of bebop or the splatters of paint that seemed to burst from Jackson Pollock’s very soul, was rational and restrained, but deeply emotional nonetheless. In “the ethos of cool,” the show’s curator Elizabeth Armstrong says, can be found “a cerebral mix of seeming detachment and effortlessness.”

That streamlined detachment and effortlessness is what I remember from my California childhood in the 1950s. Everything was cool, not heated and overworked. Engaged and yet not. When I moved from California to New York City in the early 1970s, it was like landing in a place with a completely different set of cultural coordinates—intense, cerebral, serious, driven, etched into, worn through. At that time that was just what I needed.

Meanwhile California followed its own trajectory, and that legacy is so evident in this show. Hovering over all of these artifacts is the presence of Ray and Charles Eames, the husband and wife team whose designs became icons in the American mid-century landscape. One of the highlights of the LACMA show is the recreation of the living space from the Eames’ 1949 Pacific Palisades house. Named a National Historic Landmark in 2006, the house is currently in the process of being restored.

A few highlights from the show:


Installation view


Installation view


The Eames House Living Room, Charles and Ray Eames. © 2011 Eames Office, LLC (eamesoffice.com). Courtesy Antonia Mulas


Glen Lukens, Bowl. Photograph © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA


Gertrud Natzler; Otto Natzler, Bowl. Photograph © 2010 Museum Associates/LACMA


Margit Fellegi for Cole of California. Photograph © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA


Dan Johnson, desk. Photograph © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Additional note to readers close to Boston: The last viewing of the film, Eames: The Architect and Painter, is showing at the MFA this coming Wednesday at 3pm.


Ray and Charles Eames at the Aspen Design Conference. © 2011 Eames Office, LLC


June Wayne, founder, at Tamarind in the 1960s, photograph by Helen Miljakovich, courtesy June Wayne

More on the exhilarating Pacific Standard Time art extravaganza in Los Angeles:

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has assembled its PST exhibit around the intriguing story of printmaking in Los Angeles—Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California. At the epicenter of the story and the exhibit is June Wayne, artist and founder of the legendary printamaking facility, Tamarind. Wayne is the reason lithography was brought back into the lexicon of art and printmaking in the US, and her influence on the trajectory of printmaking in this country is incalculable. In many ways Proof is a loving homage to June Wayne who died just before the show opened. She was 93.

Wayne was an East Coast transplant and primarily a painter when she became interested in lithography. To do the lithographs she envisioned for an artist book of love sonnets by John Donne, she had to travel to Paris to work with master printer Marcel Durassier. There was no one in the United States with the skill set she needed.

Wayne ended up submitting a proposal for funding from the Ford Foundation to cultivate a new “ecology” for lithography in the U.S. McNeil Lowry, head of the Ford Foundation’s Program in Humanities and the Arts at the time, described June and her proposal:

June Wayne is an unusual person. I have never seen…anybody who presented more exhaustively and graphically what she wanted…The Ford grant was a multi million dollar bet on one person alone.

The Tamarind Lithography Workshop—whose evocative and exotic name was simply the street name in Hollywood where Wayne had studio space— opened in 1960 with Wayne as its director. Tamarind quickly became world famous, and artists from all over came to work with Wayne. The list includes Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Conner, Louise Nevelson, Rufino Tamayo. After ten years of hard work, Wayne believed that her goals had been reached. In 1970 she transferred stewardship of Tamarind to the University of New Mexico where it is still in operation today.

Tamarind was the seedbed for a revolution in U.S. art printmaking. A number of Tamarind-trained printers went on to start their own print ateliers, like Ken Tyler of Gemini Ltd and Gemini G.E.L., and Jean Milant of Cirrus. (A fascinating wall-sized chart at the beginning of the exhibit details the relationships and connections of the printmaking world of Southern California during this era. Too complex to capture in its totality, I’m including a small subset here.)


Southern California’s printmaking genealogy

Additional book resources:
Proof, catalog for the show.
Tamarind Touchstones: Fabulous at Fifty.

A few highlights from the exhibit:


Anchovy, by Ed Ruscha (1969)


Untitled, Richard Diebenkorn (1970)


Great Bird, Nathan Oliveira (1957)


Two Figures, William Brice (1966)


Untitled, John Altoon (1965)


Studies in Desperation: Now the Act Is Consummated, Connor Everts (1963)


The Bride, June Wayne (1951)


Civil Tapestries, by Theaster Gates, 2011. Decomissioned fire hoses and wood.

Concomitant with Under the Big Black Sun at Geffen Contemporary (which I wrote about here) is an exhibit by Theaster Gates called An Epitaph for Civil Rights. Tethering this installation to events during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham in 1963 where demonstrators were hazed by police and fire departments, Gates achieves an exquisite tautness with content and the visual. Using simple and unpretentious materials that reference that civil rights confrontation—lengths of fire hose, fragments of urban living, remnants of where lives have been lived—Gates achieves an aesthetic that I have come to term “potent minimalism”: visuals that are elemental, elegant and clean while also offering an evocative and compelling narrative. Walking into An Epitaph for Civil Rights you get it immediately, and the right response seems to just experience the work in reverential silence.

Gates is on the cover of the December issue of Art in America, interviewed by Lilly Wei about his many-faceted approach to his work. I first learned about his Chicago reclamation initiative, The Dorchester Project, at the Whitney Biennial last year. Gates studied urban planning and ceramics as an undergraduate at Iowa State, then earned a masters in fine arts and religious studies at the University of Cape Town. His work touches on all of those interests and feels enriched because of his broad-based background. He is now the Director of Arts Program Development and Faculty Artist in Residence at the University of Chicago.

This raises an old conundrum for me. I used to believe I could pick out the paintings in an exhibit that were done by women artists. It’s a conceit perhaps and one that touches on a highly volatile topic that burned brightly and fiercely a few years ago. Are there gender differences in visual language and expression? As we explore the biology of gender, more questions are emerging rather than fewer so this is still an undetermined issue (and a topic I am not keen to unpack here.) But recently I have expanded my visual sympathies to another subgroup, an ever increasing coterie of young contemporary African American male artists. Some of my favorite viewing experiences recently have been with works by Mark Bradford, Leonardo Drew, Glen Ligon, Sanford Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Theaster Gates. Ready for more, more.


Theaster Gates

More on the exhilarating Pacific Standard Time show (extravaganza?) in Los Angeles:

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA, has its main location downtown near Disney Hall (and, until they were expelled last weekend, OccupyLA.) The MOCA’s “we could play football in here”-sized spillover exhibit space, the Geffen Contemporary, is in Little Tokyo. A former warehouse redesigned by Frank Gehry, the Geffen is hosting MOCA’s PST exhibit, Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981.

The timeframe focused on in this exhibit is one that is banked between two national political events—Richard Nixon‘s resignation and the subsequent inauguration of Ronald Reagan.

The work included in the show reflects a time that was “out of joint,” fragmented, disrupted. From the Under the Big Black Sun exhibit description:

Celebrating California as a turbulent, often anarchic center for artistic freedom and experimentation during the 1970s, this major survey exhibition examines the rise of pluralistic art practices across the state. The years 1974 and 1981 bracket a tumultuous, transitional span in United States history…and borrows its title from the 1982 album by the Los Angeles–based punk band X to suggest that, during this period, the California Dream and the hippie optimism of the late 1960s had been eclipsed by a sense of disillusionment during the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era.

The dystopian atmosphere of the 1970s created an artistic milieu that seemed to include everything under the sun. Across the state, competing social and political ideologies and clashing cultural perspectives resulted in heterodox approaches to art-making. The spirit of questioning and experimentation occurring in and beyond the studio took precedence over affiliation with any art-historical group or movement, and a rich dialogue developed between artists in Northern and Southern California in the absence of powerful regional art museums and commercial galleries. California artists, particularly young, recent art school graduates, embraced a DIY attitude that resulted in the hybridization of media and the breaking apart of traditional forms and genres, freely experimenting in their works with painting, sculpture, photography, performance, video, installation, sound, books, and printed matter.

The work IS all over the place—political protest, social commentary, politics of identity, shock value, deadpanned, ironic—and less welcoming to my sensibilities than many of the other PST exhibits. But there were some important moments captured in this show. Here are a few that spoke to me:


Ed Rusha, The Back of Hollywood, 1977. (Collection of Musee d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, France, courtesy of the artist)

I like what Ed Ruscha had to say about this image: “The Hollywood sign is actually a landscape in a sense. It’s a real thing and my view of it was really a conservative interpretation of something that exists, so it almost isn’t a word in a way—it’s a structure.” There is the apocryphal story that he also used the Hollywood sign (which he could see from his Venice studio) as a measure of the smog. If he could see the sign, that meant it wasn’t so bad. This brings back memories of a very different Los Angeles from the clear skied, blue beautied light that is more common now.


Zuma #5, from the Zuma Series (1977/2006), by John Divola. Photo courtesy of the artist.

John Divola‘s Zuma Series is visually compelling but is also a strong statement of its time period, between 1974-1977. Divola recorded the breakdown and decomposition of a shack along the shore in a novel way—he participated in its demise as if he were a force of nature as well. Dystopic yes but you can’t not look.


Childhood Rejection Drawing, From the Rejection Quintet, by Judy Chicago. Colored pencil and graphite on paper. Photo courtesy of the artist

Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro intervened in my life in 1972 with the first major feminist art statement in California, Womanhouse*. That installation brought a significant shift in perspective to me and my female artist friends which feels awkward and difficult to explain to younger artists. Seeing a set of these Chicago drawings on display at the Geffen brought back the intensity of that experience.


Three Weeks in May, Suzanne Lacy. Panel, map of Los Angeles, RAPE stamps in red. Collection of the artist. Photograph by Grant Mudford

More on a feminist art theme: In 1977 Suzanne Lacy collaborated with Leslie Labowitz to create the “Three Weeks in May” event that included a performance piece at City Hall, consciousness raising (I know, but that is what it was called back then) and self-defense classes for women. Lacy went on to be an important presence in my life, editing the book, Mapping the terrain: new genre public art, and producing “The Crystal Quilt”, a performance that featured over 400 older women.


Crossroads, by Bruce Conner. Video installation

Crossroads was made in 1976, one year after the fall of Saigon. Bruce Conner, ever resourceful and multifaceted, took archival footage of nuclear weapons testing program in the Bikini Atoll during the summer of 1946. For this video presentation he slows down the footage and puts a soundtrack on it by minimalists Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. The video is poetic and meditative while offering a window into the horrific.


Big Ideas (1000 of them), by Richard Jackson

What painter couldn’t be moved standing in front of Richard Jackson‘s wall of 1000 canvases, hidden from view and face down, with paint oozing out? It’s an unforgettable image.

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*The Getty has an extensive exhibit up now that documents Womanhouse. That is a topic I will be covering in more detail in a future post.


Untitled, by Douglas Wheeler, 1969. Acrylic on canvas with neon tubing

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More on Pacific Standard Time, currently on view in Los Angeles:

The Southern California artists who congregated together into a loosely defined group called Light and Space in the late 1960s have gone on to be some of my favorites. The list is an extraordinary one that includes Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Bruce Nauman, James Turrell, Doug Wheeler, Dewain Valentine and, less well known but a friend of mine, Susan Kaiser Vogel.

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego features many of these artists in their PST show, Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface. From the Phenomenal site:

Whether by directing the flow of natural light, embedding artificial light within objects or architecture, or by playing with light through the use of transparent, translucent or reflective materials, these artists each made the visitor’s experience of light and other sensory phenomena under specific conditions the focus of their work. Key examples of this approach include immersive environments by Bruce Nauman and Eric Orr, each of which produce different and extreme retinal responses; the disorienting and otherworldly glow of a Doug Wheeler light environment; a richly hued and spatially perplexing light piece from James Turrell’s Wedgework series, and the subtle sculpting of space with natural light by Robert Irwin.

In addition to artworks which literally claim the entire space of the room, Phenomenal also features a number of sculptures and paintings that function as prisms or mirrors to activate the space surrounding them. The properties of glass are explored in Larry Bell’s coated glass cubes and in monochromatic paintings by Mary Corse which are embedded with tiny glass microbeads.

Particularly hard to photograph, these works are extraordinary—deliciously ethereal, timeless, provocative. And for anyone interested in reading more about this movement, I recommend the show catalog as well as the book The Art of Light and Space by Jan Butterfield and Jim McHugh.


Stuck Red and Stuck Blue, by James Turrell, 1970. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego


Untitled, by Craig Kauffman, 1968. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Note: Another piece by Craig Kaufman concomitantly on view at the Getty’s Crosscurrents exhibit can be seen here.


Untitled (Space + Electric Light), by Mary Corse, 1968. Plexiglass, neon, high frequency energy. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Note: Another piece by Mary Corse concomitantly on view at the Getty’s Crosscurrents exhibit can be seen here.


#54 July/August 2nd Level Density, by Ron Cooper, 1968. Polyester resin, Fiberglas, and pigment. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego


Ocean Park No. 67, 1973, Richard Diebenkorn. The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection courtesy of The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn


Ocean Park No. 26, 1970, Richard Diebenkorn. Nerman Family Collection courtesy of The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

Pacific Standard Time, the sprawling art exposition that includes encampments at 60 different venues in the Los Angeles area, has already shifted the narrative for signifiers like California, art, post war, innovation.

The experience as it turns out is even more overwhelming and implication-rich than I imagined. (My pre-visit post is here.) And even though I spent my early life on the West Coast and am very familiar with the work of many of these California artists, the visual impact still has me feeling a bit too dizzied to offer a linear account. As Roberta Smith wrote in the Times, “’Pacific Standard Time’ has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.”

The image that comes to mind is an immense tarp laid out in the desert, an expanse of flatness that seemed inert. Then one day a helium truck showed up. Who knew? The immense and colorful hot air balloon, air borne and levitating over Los Angeles right now, is more spectacular than anyone imagined.

With my sensibility villi all still aflutter from a week of overstimulation I’ll just launch in and share a few highlights. A good beginning is the Getty (the organization that conceived and underwrote this whole thing) and the Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970 show. Just a few words but mostly images.

And no better place to start than the two paintings by Richard Diebenkorn included in the show and pictured above. Very different from each other but both utterly exquisite. My partner Dave sat in front of these and said, “These two are worth the trip.”

And here are some other memorables:

This Mary Corse painting so subtle and reflective it is nearly impossible to capture it in a photograph.


Untitled (White Light Grid Series-V), 1969, Mary Corse. Glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas. Andrea Nasher Collection. Permission courtesy Ace Gallery and the artist

Ah. Bruce Conner. Finally this artist and his multifarious gifts are on display all over town (as well as at the Rose Museum in Boston). This early piece is a particular gem.


Black Dahlia, 1960, Bruce Conner. Offset photograph, feather, nails, paper collage, tobacco, rubber hose, fabric, sequins, string, and mixed media. Courtesy of the Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ed Moses. In his 80s now with a legacy that is legion. This early collage is compelling as is a piece on resin.


Dalton’s Waffle #1, 1960, Ed Moses. Crushed newspaper, shellac, and wood. Collection of Jim Newman & Jane Ivory. Image courtesy of Ed Moses


Hegemann Wedge, 1971, Ed Moses. Powdered pigment, acrylic, and resin on canvas. Collection of Phyllis & John Kleinberg. Image courtesy of and Ed Moses

Ronald Davis and his gorgeous mastery of olored polyester resins and fiberglass. (Note: There is another stunning Davis painting on view at the Norton Simon museum.)


Vector, 1968, Ronald Davis. Molded polyester resin and fiberglass. Tate: Purchased 1968. Image courtesy of the Tate

John Altoon (who died way too young, in 1969), was doing his own Ocean Park series before Diebenkorn made the Venice neighborhood world famous.


Ocean Park Series, 1962, John Altoon. Oil on canvas. Permission courtesy of the Estate of John Altoon and Braunstein/Quay Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Gene Ogami

Craig Kauffman mastered industrial plastics and his ethereal works seem to float in space.


Untitled, 1969, Craig Kauffman. Acrylic lacquer on plastic. Courtesy the Estate of Craig Kauffman and the Frank Lloyd Gallery.

Often referenced for his teaching at UCLA, Lee Mullican had an interest in spiritual dimensions and was influenced by Native American traditions, Surrealism, Zen Buddhism and jazz.


Untitled (Venice), 1967, Lee Mullican. Oil on canvas. Estate of Lee Mullican, Courtesy of Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

Sam Francis mastered the edges in this piece. (Another exquisitely understated and tonal Francis is hanging in MOCA Los Angeles.)


Untitled (Mako Series), 1967, Sam Francis. Oil on canvas. Collection of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

OK. I’ll stop there for now. More, more, more to come.


The view from the Getty with Robert Irwin’s gardens in the setting sun

I have tried to be rational, objective and evenhanded in thinking about the Clyfford Still Museum that finally opened this week in Denver. But it isn’t easy to stay in that place and here’s why.

The problem with Still is that many of us are holding a split deck on him and his work. On one hand many support his famously incendiary condemnation of hypocrisy in the art world (imagine what his response would be now!) and his unflinching refusal to participate in its shenanigans. He painted away, putting the works in storage. Very few were sold or circulated in his lifetime. The subversiveness of his extreme counterposition has its appeal.

But then there is that damned narcissism behind it all. And just plain bitchy curmudgeonlyness. His will stipulated that his estate would only be bequeathed to an American city that agrees to build a museum that will be a temple to Still and include nothing else. No works can ever be sold. No other artist can ever show a single piece alongside his. All Clyfford Still, all the time.

Are you serious?

There was a time when his massive canvases brought praise. Motherwell‘s response to Still’s first solo show in New York in 1946 was that it was “a bolt out of the blue.” Yes, the Stills are physical, soaring and overwhelming.

But there is something missing in the work for me. And I have been looking at Still seriously for 40 years. My problem is that even after having given his work serious time and attention, it feels static. The vibrancy I still encounter when I look at a Pollock or a Rothko or a Newman from the same era just isn’t there for me with a Still.

Much of the museum pre-publicity has been in answer to the “does he deserve it?” question that everyone has been asking, tacitly and at times overtly. Because Still’s full body of work has never been seen before, some have said the new museum is the first time Still can be fairly evaluated and appraised in the context of his own era.

That may prove to be true. But in the meantime I’m just not feeling a trip to Denver is going to do it for me.