California Dreamin’

Linda Yablonsky at the opening of “Pacific Standard Time”

Left: LACMA director Michael Govan with Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin. Right: Dealer Shaun Caley Regen with MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

THE LOS ANGELES ART WORLD could never rival New York’s, or get along without it, but that hasn’t stopped it from trying. Last week, it rolled out “Pacific Standard Time,” a six-month-long collaboration among sixty cultural institutions that amounted to the city’s most ambitious gambit yet.

Funded by $10 million in research grants from the Getty Foundation, PST, as it is known, encompasses a series of exhibitions extolling art made in Southern California between 1945 and 1980, the formative years of a divided art scene. A good portion of the shows opened over six consecutive days, and for this New Yorker, it was a week of discoveries, not just at participating galleries and museums but also at Art Platform-Los Angeles, a fledgling art fair that capitalized on this moment of reckoning by opening at the same time.

Tuesday night belonged to L.A.C.E. (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) on Hollywood Boulevard, where Lily Tomlin melted into the chattering crowd of artists and friends arriving for “Los Angeles Goes Live,” a PST show containing artifacts and documents of performance art as it was practiced in Southern California from 1970 to 1983.

Left: Artist Heather Cassils. Right: MoCA curator Paul Schimmel with artists Nina Sobell and Tony Berlant.

Yet the work drawing the most interest was made this year by Heather Cassils, a Canadian-born, LA-based former member of the Toxic Titties who is also a gender-bending body-builder. Part of her show consisted of photographs by Robin Black displaying the “ripped masculine physique” that Cassils attained after twenty-three weeks of grueling training—her entry into durational performance art. A cynic would have sighed, “Only in LA.” But a slo-mo video of Cassils’s transformation into what she calls “Ladyface//ManBody” was as fascinating, and confusing, as her deftly androgynous appearance in person. “Most people don’t know what they’re looking at when they see these images,” she said. “Narcissism,” someone whispered, apparently unaware that the works were an homage to vintage 1970s Eleanor Antin and Lynda Benglis.

History made a haunting reappearance the next day at the LA County Museum of Art, where I stole into Ed Keinholz’s Five-Car Stud: 1969–1972, Revisited during a press preview for another PST show, “California Design, 1930–1965.” Never before exhibited in this country, the Kienholz is a gulp-worthy tableau of the Civil Rights era, in which four cast-from-life white male figures, illuminated by the headlights of four cars, are about to castrate an agonized black man while his horrified white girlfriend looks on from a truck.

Racial violence and art-world segregation provide a subtext for several PST entries, including LACMA’s “Asco: Elite of the Obscure.” The show, which was already open to the public, is devoted to an activist Chicano collective of Conceptualists who worked in a universe parallel to the nascent LA art scene of the 1970s. But the Asco story was just the tip of an iceberg so enormous it couldn’t even fit into the cavernous Geffen Contemporary at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. That's where the dystopian “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981” previewed on Thursday night, with a number of the 130 participating artists and lenders in attendance.

Left: Artist Mike Kelley. Right: Artists James Welling and Suzanne Lacy with filmmaker Jane Weinstock.

“I am the perfect audience for this show,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the former New York dealer who became MoCA’s director last year. “It’s my first year in LA, and this is my education.” “We’re all goin’ to school,” seconded LACMA director Michael Govan, another former New Yorker who seemed to be everywhere all week. MoCA curator Paul Schimmel was guiding around Nina Sobell, the only artist present who is not in his show, and greeting Ed Moses, Tony Berlant, Judith Barry, Charles Gaines, and dozens of trustees and dealers, all agog at the hang of the helter-skelter artworks, some known mostly to the artists who made them.

“This is some weird flashback,” said Mike Kelley, as he walked through one long gallery, seeing his own history pass before his eyes. “There was a lot of art being made at a really dreary time,” he said. “There were no galleries. You had to be on the road to make a living, doing talks at colleges. But I think LA in the ’70s was the preeminent art city. Look at this,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “Street posters by Robert Garcia next to some crazy Kim Jones assemblage that came out of nowhere.”

Dinner was a buffet outside on the plaza, where trustee Maria Bell thanked everyone for everything. Strangely missing in action was her board cochair Eli Broad, the billionaire collector who is a presenting sponsor of PST and has spent the last ten years promoting LA as the capital of contemporary art. Yet he had chosen this moment to take what I learned was a long-planned trip around the world, leaving the artists and institutions he supports to shine on their own. “We don’t have history sitting on our faces,” Barbara Kruger noted, to laughs from Govan and Barry. “I haven’t vinylized that one yet,” she added, a mischievous glint in her eye.

Left: Dealer Susanne Vielmetter with collectors Don and Mera Rubell. Right: Curator Kellie Jones.

Art Platform-LA opened its doors the next day with a champagne-soaked preview at the LA Mart, an unprepossessing building in a dismal downtown neighborhood where, it seems safe to say, 90 percent of those who came to check it out had never before set foot. Expectations for the modest, seventy-five-exhibitor fair, an offshoot of the company that owns the Armory Show, were decidedly low. So it was a pleasant surprise to find real gems amid the merchandise, and the small booths jammed with collectors like Manny Simchowitz, Robert Shimshak, Mo Ostin, MoCA trustee Gary Cypres, and others, whom PST had brought down from Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and even Miami. “LA’s always great,” said Mera Rubell as she stopped into Susanne Vielmetter’s stand.

“The time is now to start an art fair in Los Angeles,” said fair director Adam Gross. Could be he was right. London’s Max Wigram found buyers for a few works before the fair even opened, while LA’s Tom Solomon sold three paintings at the jump. Berlin’s Javier Peres sold eight. At her West of Rome stand, Emi Fontana hawked activist T-shirts by artists participating in Trespass, a collaborative project by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Arto Lindsay that would include a downtown parade of T-shirted activists on Sunday. At Kayne Griffin Corcoran, several paintings by Deanna Thompson, a fifty-year-old artist from Joshua Tree, were turning heads. So too were the Andrea Bowers drawings at Andrew Kreps—wrenching letters from pre–Roe v. Wade abortion seekers. “Powerful stuff, isn’t it?” Kreps said.

“It’s all good,” commented Paul Morris, a founder of the Armory Show and now the parent company’s vice president. The next Armory, he said, will have just one hundred exhibitors, less than half the number of fairs past—a curious development in the face of the Frieze fair’s entrance to New York next May.

Left: West of Rome director Emi Fontana. Right: Artists Maren Hassinger, Ulysses Jenkins, Ivan White, and Senga Nengudi.

That night, the Hammer Museum held a dinner for the artists in “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980.” This was the one event I attended that attracted a truly biracial LA crowd, though the first people I saw on entering were all from New York. They included Studio Museum director Thelma Golden but also Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell; Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hoptman; MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey; and the show’s curator, Kellie Jones, a professor at Columbia University. Dealer Helene Winer, a PST figure who began her professional life at the Pomona College Art Gallery, accompanied her Metro Pictures player Sara VanDerBeek, whose latest sculpture from photographs had the museum’s project room.

Mark Leckey, the Hammer’s current artist-in-residence, gamely filled the extra man role at this party, but its heart belonged to the exhibition’s artists, many long neglected by the white art world. Most were at the dinner, though not David Hammons or the late Charles White, whose artist son Ivan represented him. For some, like Maren Hassinger, Melvin Edwards, Samella Lewis, Fred Eversley, and Marie Johnson Calloway, the occasion amounted to a hugging, back-slapping, genuinely joyful reunion, sobering only when one realized that few of their works had ever before appeared in a major museum.

Saturday began with a brunch at Royal/T, a Culver City café gallery owned by collector Sue Hancock. There, Kenny Scharf and Ann Magnuson led a tour of their “East Village/West,” a show culled from their archives of Club 57, the historic live performance venue they ran in New York in the early 1980s. “A lot of what we did was influenced by TV shows made in LA,” Magnuson said. But the art on view, by Scharf, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other notables of the era, really belongs in Manhattan.

Left: Artist Melvin Edwards. Right: MMPI art fair VP Paul Morris with Art Platform Los Angeles director Adam Gross.

Too many hundreds to count showed up for simultaneous public openings at the Hammer and LACMA on Saturday night, but they only foreshadowed the Sunday night blowout at the Getty. More than 1,500 bigwigs, including surprise guest Angela Lansbury, arrived for the PST “reveal”—a slam-bang, art-history son et lumière show for projection on the museum’s travertine walls.

Afterward, everyone helped themselves to funky food laid out on the plaza in period installations marking the PST decades, too occupied with themselves to notice when former USC dean Ruth Weisberg nearly fell into a darkened reflecting pool. Inside, manicured collectors and artists such as John Baldessari, James Welling, Suzanne Lacy, and Marcel Odenbach toured “Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970,” the Getty’s core PST show, and for my money the jewel in the crown of the whole enterprise.

It includes a painting by Mary Corse, an undersung Light and Space artist who revealed she has an opening slot at White Cube’s new Bermondsey Street venue in London, opening next week. But if LA-based art is getting out in the world as never before, the Getty’s afterparty at the Chateau Marmont brought it all back home, when the distinctive aroma of marijuana wafted across the sixth-floor terrace. The source turned out to be Hollywood’s leading pothead, Cheech Marin. “Seeing Angela Lansbury made my night,” said artist Alex Israel, when the tittering died down. Only in LA, I thought. It’s three thousand miles from New York, yet just an air-kiss away.

Left: Artist Alex Israel. Right: Artist Ann Magnuson.

Left: Metropolitan Museum of Art president Emily Rafferty and Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell. Right: Artist Mary Corse.

Left: MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey with Hammer Museum curator Douglas Fogle. Right: Dealer Helene Winer.

Left: J Paul Getty Trust board chair Mark Siegel with his wife. Right: Getty Research Institute deputy director Andrew Perchuk.

Left: Dealer Andrew Kreps. Right: Dealers Connie Rogers Tilton and Jack Tilton with dealers Maggie Kayne and Bill Griffin.

Left: Artists Fred Eversley and Samella Lewis. Right: Artist Judith Barry.