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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.

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Eva Hesse, No Title, Oil on canvas. 20 x 20 inches. Verso on upper stretcher ‘August 1960 eva hesse Top.’ On lower stretcher ‘eva hesse 1960.’ Private collection, New York. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

I need to take one more thinking lap with the paintings by Eva Hesse on exhibit at the Hammer Museum. (I wrote briefly about this show in an earlier post.) Thanks to the Hammer’s regular vetting of blogs and online reviews (they do a better job of tracking the penumbra of responses to their exhibits that than just about any arts institution I follow), I found my way to a thoughtful and insightful response to the Hesse show by Michelle Plochere on Nancy Cantwell’s excellent blog, The Times Quotidian.

From Plochere’s post:

These are paintings, as suggested by the exhibition title, that are literally haunted by process. The brushwork is free and expressionistic; the forms and faces are stripped to their essentials: wraith-like figures with round hips, bellies and breasts, and skull-shaped heads with globular eyes and insistent slashes for mouths. Given that she had been in psychoanalysis for 3 years prior, it is tempting to read the works purely in terms of investigative self-portraiture, with multiple selves and emotional states represented, and the didactic panels in this show take full advantage of this opportunity. But the paintings feel more like excisions, a shedding or ridding of representation in their subject/ object play. They are vital in their “undoing-ness,” their “painting out,” and this vitality in the un-knowing, un-painting, un-making of what in her sculpture she called “nothings, ” remained a through line in her work to the end. In her 1970 catalog notes for her final piece, tellingly entitled “Contingent, ” she writes:

“I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort. From a total other reference point, is it possible? …. How to achieve by not achieving? How to make by not making? It’s all in that. It’s not the new. It is what is yet not known, thought, seen, touched but really what is not. And that is.”

This struggle is one most artists know about, but articulating that longing and search in language is hard to do. When couched as it is here, I couldn’t help but recall that perfect piece of poetic genius, The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

California is, for me, a complex brew. I grew up in the Bay Area so visits to that childhood domain are laden with the peculiar confluence of emotions that most of us carry, consciously and unconsciously, from our early life and family of origin. But California is also a harbinger of the future tense, offering glimpses into a number of versions of where attitudes and lifestyles might be headed. There are lots of possibilities, and the essential tension between the past and the future is visceral, poignant and personal. Overlaid on top of all of that deep tissue vibratory sensation is my ongoing search for aesthetic resonance, wherever that might be found. And there were some fine high points for me. Here are a few.

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Untitled, by Eva Hesse. Ursula Hauser Collection courtesy of Hammer Museum

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Annie Philbin, director of the Hammer, is on my all time greats list for conceiving of the utterly brilliant and perfectly timed Charles Burchfield show. Curated by artist Bob Gober, this show unveiled the brilliance at the core of an artist I had, out of ignorance, moved to the stadium seats. Never again. Burchfield was a visionary and a nature mystic, and his paintings have to be seen in the flesh to fully comprehend the scope of what he was doing. (I wrote about the Burchfield show at the Whitney Museum here.)

Currently on view at the Hammer are two shows worth seeing: Paintings by Eva Hesse (I was surprised by their existence too) and Mark Manders’ conceptually provocative installations. While Hesse’s paintings do not convey the brilliance that played out in her later sculptural works, seeing this body of work enriched my understanding of what she was struggling through when caught in the tangle of irreconcilable differences between her two professors at Yale, Rico Lebrun and Josef Albers. In her journal she wrote, ” “To hell with them all. Paint yourself out, through and through, it will come by you alone. You must come to terms with your own work not with any other being.”

But the highlight of my visit to the Hammer was seeing two paintings from the collection that were on view: A wall sized work by Mark Bradford, and an equally commandingly sized painting/collage by Elliott Hundley. Bradford’s piece is the most lyrical and exquisite rendering of his signature style of surface distress and sociological implication. I can’t stop thinking about its swirl of energy and passion. Hundley’s piece, a sea of pinned on images over a highly layered surface, is playful and engaging.

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Resnick Pavilion, LACMA
Renzo Piano’s massive addition is reminiscent of the Robert Irwin-renovated (with OpenOffice) arena that was once a Nabisco factory and is now Dia: Beacon. The natural light, intoxicatingly lush, was a wonderful way to see the Olmec collection on view. (Two other shows, in more traditional controlled light galleries were of less interest to me.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen Olmec objects in daylight, and I have been searching and studying this Pre-Columbian culture for 40 years.

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Getty Gardens
They never tire for me. Every season is a revelation. Robert Irwin, once again.

And the views of Los Angeles from the Getty Center at sunset are spectacular. You just can’t not celebrate the light.

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Tivoli Gardens, by Judy Pfaff, Braunstein Quay Gallery, San Francisco
More breathtakingly engaging work by the one and only Judy Pfaff. (I wrote about her recent New York show here.) I will spend more time on Judy and the Tivoli Gardens show in my next post. Fecund, fantastical and ferociously fun.


Charles Burchfield, Gateway to September


Tanglewood in Winter


Autumnal Fantasy (This painting was not included in the original Hammer exhibit but was available for inclusion in the Whitney show)

How easy it is to think you know an artist’s work. I’ve seen Charles Burchfield paintings all of my life, but now I know that really isn’t the case. I didn’t see or understand his work until I visited the show currently at the Whitney Museum.

Now I can’t stop thinking about Burchfield. I am sending everyone to see the exhibit so we can do the exclamatories in unison. And to think that just a few days ago I had him squirreled away—as have so many others who have crafted a cursory narrative of American art—in the Regionalist catch all art drawer.

Burchfield (1893-1967) is actually category immune. He had no interest in being part of any school and said so. (Peter Schjeldahl at the New Yorker calls him a “one-man movement,” and Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo refers to him as an “American Modernist.”) He is definitely not a Regionalist, that embarrassingly dismissive term that dustbinned his work for years. In many ways he shares an independence that is also evident in several of his contemporaries like Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1886). But unlike those art superstars, Burchfield has remained below the art alert radar for most of us.

What I discovered is that the quiet and unassuming Charles Burchfield, denizen of small towns in Ohio and of Buffalo New York, father of five and a life long partner to his one and only wife Bertha, was a visionary. While his life’s work moves through a number of styles over time, what holds his oeuvre together is his fierce struggle to represent both his perceptions of the outer world as well as those of his private inner terrain. Using watercolors as his preferred medium, Burchfield’s ethereal and “almost abstract but not quite” landscapes feel as if they have been launched from another dimension, one that is multi-sensory, layered and complex.

This exhibit was the idea of Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. When Philbin saw newly purchased drawings by Burchfield at the home of sculptor Robert Gober, Philbin suggested Gober curate a show of Burchfield’s work. Fresh from his successful adventures in curating at the Menil Collection in Houston, Gober turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant candidate. The choices Gober made in this exhibit allow the Burchfieldian vision to unfold slowly and powerfully. (To hear Gober talk about his curatorial experience, here he is as part of the Hammer’s Watch + Listen series.)

Burchfield is the green man in the lagoon who sees things the rest of us miss. He said that he liked to think of himself “in a nondescript swamp, alone, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone’s opinion.” He also said that “an artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.” Another journal entry gives this advice: “Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds.”

His work is an exemplary example of the kind of art that Roberta Smith doesn’t see enough of these days: “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” (For more about the Smith Art Taste Test, go here.)

The most moving pieces in the show for me date from two distinct periods in Burchfield’s life. The first is the year that is referred to as his “golden year”, 1917. The work flowed out of him effortlessly, without constraint. The second period is near the end of his life when Burchfield went through a creative crisis. He returned to that earlier period of time and expanded the vision of those powerful works. His later paintings become increasingly illuminating and illuminated. As Gober writes in the show catalog, “The works from this period of Burchfield’s life are immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature and are often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities. In these large, late watercolors, Burchfield was able to execute with grace and beauty many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man…And in so doing, he transformed himself and his practice, producing one of the rarest events in the life of any artist: great art in old age.”

Making great art until the end of life—that’s another extraordinary quality that Burchfield exemplifies. This passage is from his journal (which he wrote in assiduously most of his life): “How slowly the ‘secrets’ of my art come to me—it seems to me I have been searching all my life for this motif…; when I said this to Bertha, she said, ‘Aren’t you thankful that at 71 new secrets are being revealed to you?’ And I certainly am.”

I love when this happens, when a mad passion comes from something that was right there all along.


Insect Chorus, from his “golden year” of 1917


Landscape with Gray Clouds, one of my favorites of the later works (Photo: DC Moore Gallery)