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In my studio (Photo by Martine Bisagni)


The difference between being a complainer (who wants that reputation?) and being a precise observer can sometimes be a fine line. I may be grazing close to the edge of grousing by sharing excerpts from two articles by art critic Karen Wright of The Independent. But they are worthy of note, and of discussion.

The first is from Wright’s reivew of the PST mega show in LA last fall (which I wrote about extensively here last November):

The artist John Baldessari is grumpy, or perhaps just tired. He has been dealing with the press, having received massive attention recently as the most included artist (in 11 shows) in the multi-show extravaganza known as Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945-1980…

When I asked his opinion of the show he said it was “BM” – “before money” – and that, in fact, all art in LA in Pacific Standard Time, and particularly at MoCA, could be defined this way. “BM” – that is, before artists had money. I entered the cavernous space with his words ringing in my ears. The last time I was here I saw a Takashi Murakami show, and the contrasts between Murakami’s work and Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 could not be more apparent.

Murakami’s mirror-like surfaces speak of money and of the factory. The shimmering surfaces are carefully polished, to remove any trace of the artist or indeed his many assistants’ hands. Tonight, these have given way to the simple objects and hand-worked surfaces of a group of artists, many of whom were deeply engaged with political or gender themes. We are talking about the height of feminism and race issues and the end of the Vietnam War, after all.

The second is from Wright’s short account of her studio visit with the painter Jock McFadyen:

Jock McFadyen’s East End studio is infused with the heady perfume of paint and turps. Painting, now seemingly the least fashionable of arts, is literally getting up my nose here. When I ask McFadyen if he minds practising the art form seemingly not at the forefront of chic curating, his defence is instantaneous and robust: “The great thing about painting is that it’s not fashionable.”

I ask if he always wanted to be an artist, and his response illuminates the current divide in art. “I don’t want to be an artist. I want to be a painter. The man in the street might think you make art out of dirt and string. It is embarrassing to be an artist.”

I’m with you Jock.

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


Buster, by Billy Al Bengston (Courtesy of the artist)

When I was coming of age as an artist in California in the late 60s and early 70s, the culture of contemporary art was centered unquestionably in New York City. Art Forum, Art in America et al gave small and occasional nods to what was happening in Chicago, Santa Fe or the West Coast. But most of us who were studying art somewhere other than Manhattan took our cues from the art epicenter on the East Coast.

Meanwhile all around us, West Coast artists were churning out work that spoke to other sensibilities and other traditions. We were in proximity to great artists like Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Nathan Olivera, Wayne Thiebaud, Miriam Shapiro, Ray Saunders.

The first major exhibit I have seen that highlighted that uniquely California visual legacy was The Third Mind at the Guggenheim in 2009. That exhibition explored how Asian art, literature, and philosophy influenced American visual art and culture, and many of the artists included were from the West Coast. It described a rich period in our history that was more inclusive and multifaceted than the standard telling has let on.

Little did I know at the time that the Getty had a much more ambitious plan to recast the story of art in post-WWII America. Pacific Standard Time emerged from a Getty Research Institute initiative focused on art in Los Angeles and California. “Through archival acquisitions, oral history interviews, public programming, exhibitions, and publications, the Research Institute is responding to the need to locate, collect, document, and preserve the art historical record of this vibrant period.”

‘Bout time. And Roberta Smith of the New York Times agrees:

“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. Taken together, its shows may be the next best thing to being there the first time around, or maybe even better: they surely reveal more than any single individual living through these times could have seen or known about.

To a great extent this epic of exhibitions reflect our moment’s broader historical attitude, which might be characterized as No Artist Left Behind. Anyone who made art at a given moment is eligible to be part of the history of that moment. It’s expansive and inclusive and also reminds of me of Lewis Carroll’s imaginary full-scale map, which was meant to be as large as the area it charted.

“Pacific Standard Time” is a great argument for museums concentrating first and foremost on local history, for a kind of cosmopolitan regionalism, if you will. It sets an example that other curators in other cities should follow, beginning in my mind with Chicago and San Francisco. If America has more than one art capital, it probably has more than two.

I am headed to Los Angeles for a week and hope to see as much of this sprawling set of shows as possible. And celebrating Thanksgiving with my daughter and her new family makes the adventure a perfect blend of favorite things.

I am back to Slow Muse after November 30.