Saturday, October 1, 2011


How Los Angeles made its reputation as the art world’s outsider city
By Andrew Berardini From issue 228, October 2011
Published online 30 Sep 11 (Features)

Los Angeles, one could say, is defined by its weather: clear sunshine streaming over palm trees gently swaying in balmy breezes. Or we could maybe wax poetic about the attractive beaches and the sandy girls, or perhaps even the picture industry and its glamorous denizens with their chilly artifice and febrile scandals. But we would not be the first. If Los Angeles were just these things it would be little more than superficial advertorial, empty truisms and false-ish cliches you could glean from a cheap postcard or two, a glossy developer’s brochure. It’s not so easy actually. Los Angeles is defined ultimately by what all cities are defined by, its people and the accumulated efforts of those individuals over time. Its art is no different.

Angelenos have been doing an awful lot of navel-gazing recently, prompted by a $10m grant from the Getty to do so on a grand institutional scale. “Pacific Standard Time: Art in Los Angeles, 1945-1980”, the initiative that absorbed the funds, includes over 60 exhibitions, a performance festival, a parade, the unveiling of all the information gleaned from collected archives, countless interviews, researchers gathering every show card and poster, letter and loan agreement that ever passed a significant or would-be significant hand. And of course, it’s not just questioning where we Angelenos have been, but where we are now and, maybe, where we are going.

The place to be

Los Angeles has always been a good place to be an artist. There is, of course, the oft-mentioned climate (Ed Moses paints outside and because of this couldn’t live in New York), but also studio space here has long been abundant and cheap. And one of the few benefits of proximity to the entertainment industry is fabrication: prop makers, their materials and methods have long helped more than a few artists, both with jobs and services. Rent has gone up dramatically in the past 15 years or so, but you can still find a room in a punk house in Echo Park or Boyle Heights for $400 to $500 a month if you hang around long enough, though quite a few artists live out of their studios. There are more galleries here than any other city in the US outside of New York, but the pressure of the market is much less. And, as a great asset, there is solitude, imposed often by cars, as Charles Bukowski wrote in the introduction to Anthology of Los Angeles Poetry in 1972: “I think that it is important to know that a man or woman, writer or not, can find more isolation in Los Angeles than in Boise, Idaho. Or, all things being fair, he can with a telephone (if he has a telephone) have 19 people over drinking and talking with him in an hour and half.” Or put more simply, in LA, artists have a community when they need it and isolation to work when they don’t.
It was even freer (if harder financially) when there was almost nothing: few galleries, few collectors, few artists. Los Angeles came into its own as a city about the time “contemporary” began replacing “modern” as the choice term for new art. Often demarcated by the second world war, the idea of “contemporary” follows more or less the growth of Los Angeles from a piecemeal boomtown on the edge of the west to one of the biggest, most sprawling cities in the world. It wasn’t until 1990 that Los Angeles finally passed Chicago as the United States’ second city in population, but it got there and surges still. Like all things that grow a little too quickly, LA grew up messy and free, rebellious and experimental, forged by poets and scoundrels, developers and boosters, visionaries both dark and light who could see things that were not yet there.

A few of these turned out to be artists, a few more sold their works, others advocated and exported, and a few, like Eli Broad, used visual art (among other things) to write their names across the city. Broad, who built a good portion of the ugliest of the sprawling suburbs of LA, has been successful in this last endeavour, with university buildings (The Broad Art Center at UCLA, the Broad Studios at CalArts), a couple of major museums (The Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) and the soon-to-open Broad Collection on Grand Ave), and more than a few plaques and atria bearing his and his wife Edythe’s name, from the Disney Concert Hall to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA). His philanthropic predecessors were Armand Hammer and Norton Simon who, with large amounts of money, had varying degrees of success in getting some serious buildings to bear their names. None of the current crop of patrons have quite the same presence as Broad, but none of them are dropping the kind of money he is either. In terms of the actual art made in the city, however, Broad has less impact and it is the collectors who buy young and buy often who have the most influence. For the past 15 years or so the most notable has been TV executive Dean Valentine, but there are others more quietly effecting the ebb and flow of art with their patronage: lawyers Christopher Yin and John Yoon, writer Geoff Tuck and architect David Richards, Linda (real estate agent) and Jerry (lawyer) Janger, to name just a few active today.

Ferus and beyond

But collectors are only one piece of an auto¬nomous scene that grew and changed as the city and the century grew and changed. Artists and their fellow travellers, from critics and curators, to collectors and dealers, all witnessed the growth of Los Angeles around them. Art schools have fundamentally shaped Los Angeles’ art history, but until CalArts started to makes things wonderfully weird in 1970, they were mostly applied art schools, churning out costumiers, designers, and illustrators. The “fine” artists that graduated from CalArts’ predecessor, then known as Chouinard, seemed more incidental than intentional. It’s no mistake that until the mid-1950s most of the art here wasn’t very interesting, exempting the occasional hide-out of some east coast wealthy patrons or European expatriates who would bring their sensibilities with their suitcases. Visual art always had to be imported.

And some of these imports took root. Two of the first really important local patrons for contemporary art were corporate heirs and philanthropists Walter and Louise Arensberg. One of the Arensbergs’ favourite artists, who would often come to visit them in LA, was Marcel Duchamp. It was in the Arensbergs’ living room at 7065 Hillside Avenue in Hollywood that one future curator met Duchamp, and would, in the LA suburb of Pasadena, go on to organise his first retrospective anywhere. The curator’s name was Walter Hopps.

Hopps was one of the founding architects of the art scene in Los Angeles. He started the Ferus Gallery with artist Ed Kienholz and poet Bob Alexander, later becoming curator and then director at the Pasadena Art Museum, where he oversaw the retrospectives of influential Europeans and curious east coasters like Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell, as well as the first museum exhibition anywhere of a new-fangled movement yet to be called pop art. Energetic and visionary, notoriously impractical and, during a good part of his tenure in LA, addicted to amphetamine, Hopps had a meteoric career in Los Angeles that ended when he was fired as director of the Pasadena Art Museum.

These few significant characters of Los Angeles art before 1950 also included someone of less wealth and prestige, the labourer and Italian immigrant Simon Rodia who spent 33 years building, out of ceramic scraps and other found materials, the Watts Towers. The Towers were everything that art could be: funky, fucked up, made not from bronze or marble but out of the stuff of the everyday, junk gleaned from the world. And it was made not for financial gain, but as a gift to the city, an action taken for its pure joy. These curious structures plunked on the side of an old railroad right-of-way in an historically black neighbourhood informed a generation of artists, especially those of colour, who both grew up near the towers or came through the neighbourhood and were inspired by the community that grew around them. Among them were David Hammons, Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, and Noah Purifoy (the last two served as directors of the Watts Towers Art Centre) and, along with George Herms, Ed Kienholz, and Wallace Berman, they formed a movement based on assemblage that persists as a significant mode of art-making in the city. Jerry Saltz once famously called a group of artists that included Los Angeles-based Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy, “Clusterfuck Aesthetics”, an “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality that was born in Los Angeles in the shadow of the Watts Towers.

Rodia and the community of black artists, often excluded from the galleries along La Cienega Boulevard, of which Ferus was the most famous, are part of the navel-gazing of Pacific Standard Time, which is as much about remembering what was left out of the master narrative of Ferus as the sole origin myth of art in LA.

To name all the individuals who shaped the history of art in Los Angeles would turn this article into nothing but a boring laundry list; some names would poke out, some wouldn’t. A list of all the artists alive in Los Angeles that I’d thought about in the past year topped 400 and didn’t even include the gallerists and curators, critics and collectors, print-makers and museum folk from across the spectrum that make an “art world” possible.

But if the Arensbergs and Simon Rodia were strange and important early figures, followed by Walter Hopps, one of the artists at the Ferus Gallery who went on to become one of the important voices of not only art but the city itself is Ed Ruscha. Ruscha captures with deadpan precision and faux-naive grace a city of signs and dingbats, gas stations and street corners. Though he vigorously denies the influence of Los Angeles in his work, it reflects, often without commentary, the strange place that the city occupies in the popular imagination. His landmark book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1963, might not have the same resonance as every building on, say the Champs Elysees, but the power of this reflection on pop culture and the terrain of the city ties itself to the power of this Los Angeles over the world’s imagination and the actual, fantastic growth of the place. By crafting a body of work that so clearly reflects the city, Ruscha became the artist of Los Angeles. Ferus gave him his first three exhibitions to be sure, but the artist’s reputation is the least tied to the group he emerged with, which included Larry Bell, Llyn Foulkes, Billy Al Bengston and Robert Irwin (many of whom grew as fiercely independent in stature as Ruscha, but whose emergence is still closely tied to Ferus). Today Ruscha is seen as the coolest artist in LA. He rarely comes round the openings but, when he does, every art student, recent graduate, or basically anyone under 40, gives him a furtive glance, no one quite brave enough to actually go and talk to him.

Counter culture

About the time Ferus closed (exclusivity, in-fighting, wife-stealing and success straining, as always, the macho camaraderie), a new generation of artists were coming to Los Angeles. One of the most influential figures in this new chapter was John Baldessari who came to Los Angeles to teach and became a pivotal figure at CalArts after it opened in 1970.

The faculty recruited by CalArts president Robert Corrigan and School of Art dean Paul Brach were a collection of weirdos and luminaries who, rather than help it become the professional feeder school to the entertainment industry as some of CalArts founders intended, led it to become the province of the avant-garde. Baldessari, hired to teach painting (which he officially gave up in 1970 by famously cremating as many of his paintings as he could), instead invented what is now one of the most legendary classes in art education, “Post-Studio”. As a teacher, he was always challenging his students to experiment in what art could be, dragging home hard-to-get catalogues from New York and Europe for them to peruse. With Ferus being so dominant a way of doing things in Los Angeles, Baldessari and his peers made sure to get lecturers from elsewhere, so that the students could learn as many different ways to be an artist as possible. One of the first exhibitions at the school was a direct jab at the Ferus artists and their primary materials, dubbed “The Last Plastics Show”.

Baldessari’s work, like Ruscha’s, dealt in language, especially the kind found on signs, with the artist even going to the trouble of hiring a sign painter for the texts on many of his early works. Baldessari, playful and cerebral, offered a different path than many of the Ferus artists, always happy to adulterate high art with a good joke, often pushing what art, or at least “good” art, could mean. This kind of experimentation became an inspiration to his students (including over the years Jack Goldstein, Mike Kelley and Liz Craft), whom he endeavoured to treat as fellow artists rather than student apprentices.

Cool schools

Without any real market in Los Angeles, great artists came and stayed for a time because of the schools. In interviews, Baldessari makes no bones about it: he taught because conceptual art wasn’t paying the bills. The art schools became increasingly important, beginning with CalArts, and around the same time the University of California, Irvine (UCI, with its hiring of John Coplans as director of the University Art Gallery) and much later on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for which Baldessari quit CalArts to teach at in 1986. UCLA recharged the art school mythos of Los Angeles with professors like Paul McCarthy, Charlie Ray and Baldessari, and became the subject of more than a few adulatory articles, the most famous being Dennis Cooper’s “Too Cool for School” from Spin magazine in 1997. But with all its professors leaving (most noisily husband-and-wife Chris Burden and Nancy Rubens), UCLA was soon overshadowed by the University of Southern California (USC) that, under the chairmanship of Charlie White, pumped out more artists getting gallery and museum shows than any other school in the city.

Now, with White having stepped down from his position as chair (although he remains director of the MFA programme), the crackerjack fundraiser dean Ruth Weisberg retired and the loss of Andrea Zittel, it remains to be seen if the school can continue its success, although the signs so far are good. It is (mostly) free and, with its remaining faculty (including Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark and Paul Sietsema) all still in the ascendant, USC looks likely to maintain its position as the most influential school in a city where schools have influence. Funding cuts across the rest of the art schools make it increasingly difficult and unaffordable for artists to attend many of its crosstown rivals, though a smattering of scholarships keep the quality competitive.

Back to the future

Popular teachers, of course, garner loyal students. Paul McCarthy was beloved at UCLA until his retirement, as were Mike Kelley and Steven Prina, both formerly of Pasadena’s Art Center. Zittel built a strong community of former USC students around her ongoing experimental initiative High Desert Test Sites, and Richard Jackson, despite being in his 70s, still volunteers to teach a new crop of students every year at the influential, artist-run Mountain School of Arts in Chinatown.

The schools have long formed the core of the art community, if only because the local market struggled to keep artists fed. But the commercial galleries here are most successful not in selling outsiders in LA, but when they export what there is an abundance of in Los Angeles: artists. Even now, the art world of the city churns and changes. LA finally grew its own blue-chip galleries with Regen Projects, Blum & Poe and David Kordansky. Every year artists are turned out of the schools and more than a few make great work: Karthik Pandian (Art Center), Liz Glynn (CalArts), and Dianna Molzan (USC) are all recent important graduates of local schools, and all quickly went on to museum exhibitions in New York, with Pandian and Molzan both getting solo shows at the Whitney and Liz Glynn a central inclusion in the New Museum’s triennial.

So where does the city go from here? Every ten years or so Los Angeles has opened a major international art museum; in 2013 Eli Broad will open a museum for his collection across the street from MoCA, of which he is also a patron. The non-profit model seems altogether moribund with very little scholarship being produced and consisting mostly of 501(c)3 (tax-exempt) art advisory boards. Artist-run spaces are the most dynamic in the city (see below), with Night Gallery, Public Fiction and Human Resources leading the pack, but these will need to build a board or start selling art in order to survive in the long-term, which will inevitably change their character. For almost everyone, the last few years have been lean, but no museums closed (though it was a white-knuckle ride watching MoCA for a while) and new galleries are starting to open again after a long lull: Nye & Brown at the higher end and Carter & Citizen on the emerging front—both in Culver City—lend promise to a scene that needs to grow to support new artists. There’s a new art fair this season (Art Platform Los Angeles, 1-3 October, see p80), but the market is so small here and LA such a difficult jaunt from Europe, it’s hard to see how it will be serious competition to the international run of fairs from Art Basel on down.

But perhaps the real worry for Los Angeles is how systematised the process is for a young artist to get on to the career treadmill. That making money seems entirely possible makes everyone nervous. The market doesn’t devour its children so quickly as New York, but the pressure is still there. There’s a freedom in knowing you’re going to be broke; Paul McCarthy famously didn’t sell a work of art until he was almost 40 and no major works till he was almost 50 (curiously enough bought by Jeffrey Deitch right out of the museum he now directs, Los Angeles MoCA).

But one good thing about art is that as soon as things start feeling complacent, someone or something comes around and blows it up. Art in Los Angeles is rich enough these days to feel good, even on a bad day.

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