PRINT Summer 1967

American Sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum

Dusty: How about Pereira?
Doris: What about Pereira?
I don’t care.
Dusty: You don’t care!
Who pays the rent?
Doris: Yes, he pays the rent
Dusty: Well some men don’t and some men do
Some men don’t and you know who

Doris: You can have Pereira
—T. S. Eliot, Sweeney Agonistes

TWO YEARS AGO ARTFORUM based a special issue (“The New York School”) on the first exhibition Maurice Tuchman prepared for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show was impressively large, well-cataloged, nicely installed, slightly erratic both in the choices of artists and individual works. Since then, Tuchman has established himself as the most energetic curator in the country, and the exhibitions schedule of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has gone unmatched. To be sure, certain characteristics of that very first exhibition have tended to become permanent features of most County Museum exhibitions: they tend to be gigantic, they are all well-cataloged, there is a consistent bias in favor of quantity over quality, and all the exhibitions seem to be presented in a wildly indecorous, carnival atmosphere (the current exhibition, American Sculpture of the Sixties, even has buttons) designed, it would appear, to overwhelm Newsweek. Many of these qualities are built into the museum plant forever: William Pereira’s buildings are a circus in stone, a monument to quantity over quality, and every exhibition must first overcome the indignity of the setting, which is often, as in the case of American Sculpture of the Sixties, not possible.

Indeed, the major drama of the exhibition lies in the tension of hatred that is generated between the work and the building, most especially that considerable part of the exhibition that is installed outdoors on the “Norton Simon Sculpture Plaza.” No work escapes the tearing involvement with the kitsch fountains, looney lampposts, plastic-domed walkways, concrete railings, the whole unstructured jumble of senseless frills that make up the design of the museum buildings. The sculpture is an insult to the building, but the building is an insult to the sculpture, too, and finally drags the latter down to its own miserable level, so that the entire installation becomes an offense.

One by one, group by group, the works go down. The poorer sculpture dissolves into the architecture, the better is drained of all presence and substance. The David Smiths dissolve, the great Gabriel Kohn fights and succumbs, two lovely Caros lose their sense in a criss-cross of railings and squares, Zogbaum and LeWitt lose their scale, and collapse. One sees more in a picture book.

In this kind of a setting, only quality holds the circus animal in snarling abeyance; quality in the conception of an exhibition, quality in the choice of artists, quality in the choice of individual works. Anything less becomes Pereira.

Some points from a sketch for a Handbook of Museumsmanship published in these pages some four years ago* become particularly relevant in coming to grips with American Sculpture of the Sixties:

1. If an exhibition has a stated purpose the works in it should attempt to approximate that purpose.

The stated purposes of the exhibition in Maurice Tuchman’s catalog essay are: 1) to present “an anthology of the most ambitious and interesting sculpture that has developed in the present decade,” 2) to be “basically a survey” in which “no theme is specifically declared” and 3) to “throw the sharpest possible emphasis on that fertile body of work which has been concerned with new forms.” That the purposes mildly contradict one another (“new forms” can be a theme, there are differences between an anthology and a survey, etc.) is not as disquieting as the fact that the exhibition itself either fails to fulfill or confuses the stated purposes.

One can either be interested in “an anthology of the most ambitious and interesting sculpture” or in “American Sculpture of the Sixties,” but it is difficult to be both in the same show. (Cutting it finer, one can either be interested in ambitious sculpture or interesting sculpture.) A selection of work by, say, 25 artists would stretch the limits of an exhibition seriously designed to present the most ambitious and interesting sculpture of the times: Mr. Tuchman’s exhibition contains over 160 works by 80 artists, (Primary Structures, which came closer—but not very much closer—to this aim had 42 artists and could have done with less than half of that.) It is flatly impossible to take this purpose seriously where one must pass a monstrous Trova on the way to a magnificent di Suvero. If one considers the work of David Smith, Caro, di Suvero, Judd, Morris, Kelly, Bell, Flavin as ambitious (the only sensible meaning in this context being work created to inflect, to one degree or another, the existing tradition of the art) it is hard to imagine how one can at the same time see Norman Zammitt, Vasa, Robert Howard, Bruce Nauman, Robert Stevenson, George Rickey, etc., etc., in the same terms.

The purpose of the show becomes clearer when seen as a survey, but this is perhaps better discussed under point #3, below.

2. If one artist or work is appropriate to an exhibition, efforts should be made to include that artist or work, and not the first substitute that comes to hand.

Taking curators to task for their choices is a dull and often pointless enterprise: if Maurice Tuchman prefers Stephen von Huene to, say, Ian Baxter, Paul Harris to Jean Linder, William Geis to Tio Giambruni, Duayne Hatchett or De Wain Valentine to Lee Bontecou, Edward Higgins, Manuel Neri, Robert Mallory or Richard Hunt, these decisions affect only a middle range of choices, enhancing the exhibition for some, depressing it for others. But when certain decisions seem, from the point of view of any of the show’s purposes, quite wildly inconsistent, the quality of the exhibition is seriously affected. A decision, for example, evidently, not to include sculpture by artists known primarily as painters quite arbitrarily eliminates some of the best sculpture of the times. Ellsworth Kelly—thank heaven—is excepted, and a work by Robert Rauschenberg is included doubtless because taken as a whole, his work has been as much sculpture as painting. But the show loses the crucial sculpture of Jasper Johns, as well as Barnett Newman, Larry Rivers, Jules Olitski, Roy Lichtenstein, Paul Feeley and Joe Goode. Some of these just happen to have made sculpture not only more ambitious, but certainly more interesting than most of the work in the exhibition.

The limitation to Americans is broken for Anthony Caro on the grounds of “the high quality of the work he made in this country and the influence he exerted on the new American sculpture.” If this is so one is, first, hard put to imagine why a sculptor of this stature is represented by two pieces placed rather laconically away from the center of things in the sculpture plaza while Norman Zammitt’s three pieces hit one in the eye as soon as he enters the main galleries. Second, one looks about in vain for the Caro-influenced sculpture. For the truth is that most of Caro’s influence has been in England, among a promising group of younger English sculptors (at least one of whom, Isaac Witkin, has also produced some good work while living in this country). On the other hand, much work, especially in Northern California, has been considerably influenced by the English sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, but the national exemption has not been extended to him.

A good deal of freshness is lost to the show by the considerable number of “repeats,” especially by the more important artists. Len Lye’s extraordinary Flip and Two Twisters was seen at Santa Barbara and Berkeley within the last year. Several other works (Judd, Doyle, Kelly, Bladen) were out of the Primary Structures show, and still others out of the Whitney Annual. How much more quality the show might have had if Flavin, Judd, Lye, Morris, Oldenburg and Tony Smith, for example, had been commissioned to make works specifically for the exhibition can easily be imagined. The exhibition did commission John McCracken and Carl Andre to do works, with interesting results in both cases. McCracken produced a piece ideal for the sculpture plaza because it draws our eyes up and away—for which relief, much thanks—from the surrounding architecture. Andre produced a set of eight chipboard slabs painted blue. The piece has none of the audacity of Lever, made for the Primary Structures show, and none of the challenge that the installation of his Dwan Gallery (Los Angeles) show had a month or so previous. It is an instructive piece because it tells us something about the limits of the area in which Andre works: when the piece fails, it fails utterly, becoming absolutely nothing.

In all, and discounting such major works as have been seen in the previous exhibitions, there are few enough first-class selections. Both of Robert Morris’s pieces are fine; Kenneth Price’s perfect, small pieces will yet be seen as a voice in the wilderness crying out against the giantism that only seems to solve problems these days; Larry Bell’s pieces make it continually harder to entertain reservations about them; Stephan Von Huene’s Pneumatic Music-Machine, which one would like to dismiss out of hand, remains in the mind as something sinister and evil, like a German movie from the twenties; Kienholz’s State Hospital is his most ferocious since The Wait and The Illegal Operation; Tony Smith’s Cigarette is the single piece that fights the sculpture plaza at least to a draw, mostly by spitting in the eye of the Ahmanson Building behind it. But on only one occasion do we come up short, as in the presence of a masterpiece, the choice of a gifted eye, and its presence only makes us feel the absence of others of like quality more keenly. That is Mark di Suvero’s Elohim Adonai, which marks the first time, to my mind, anyhow, that his work since has attained the majesty and authority of his breathtaking first show at the Green Gallery in 1960. There was indescribable pleasure in seeing him take his place again.

3. If no artist or work is appropriate to an exhibition, then perhaps there is a defect in the idea of the exhibition.

Perhaps even until five years ago a museum—especially a regional museum—could see as part of its function the periodic organization of a survey show, in order to show the artists and interested public in its community what has been happening in painting or sculpture, or printmaking or what have you. Considerations of quality would go by the board in the interests of allowing the public to see for itself “what was being done.” It was a matter of providing information, not making distinctions. Recent years have not only obliterated this function but have, in fact, reversed it.

Information is now provided to artists and art public in unprecedented profusion. Works are illustrated in the international art magazines within days after they are created; catalogs pour from galleries and museums around the world; almost no exhibition gathered today fails to visit at least one or two other museums; local galleries show more and more out-of-town art. In one way or another almost every worth-while artist (and, in most cases, work) in American Sculpture of the Sixties, had been seen in Los Angeles before the show. The job of the museum thus becomes, not to pour this tide of information back upon the public in the same disordered state in which it came, but to impose upon it some order of quality, to sift from within it that which is worthy.

Because the art-going public is already in possession of the information the survey show was supposedly providing, it comes to the exhibition with a more structured, sophisticated idea of the exhibition than the museum itself has. And this is why “no artist or work of art is appropriate.” To an audience already possessed of the basic information, it is no presentation at all, only an irritation and an annoyance to be given so unselective a scramble. Here the matter of installation becomes relevant, and gives rise to a fourth maxim:

4. The installation of an exhibition should be designed to present each work with maximum clarity, both in itself and in its relations with the other works in the exhibition. For the most part, if, from a series of normal viewpoints, it is impossible to distinguish the point at which one work of art ends and another begins, there is probably a defect in the installation of the exhibition. In general, better or more important works are installed more prominently than others, and, if the worst works in an exhibition are consistently more prominent than the best works, there is probably a defect in the installation of the exhibition.

Because the survey show’s function of “bringing the news” is obsolete, the serious viewer comes to the exhibition with the survey already in his mind. He comes to the exhibition not to be made aware of work he has no idea exists, but to see particular examples and to see these examples in relation to one another. On the sculpture plaza, as discussed above, this is hopelessly impossible. Within the galleries, the situation is not much better. What is to be gained by coming to see a David Gray or a Charles Mattox when the colors of both, essential to the experience, are blasted by the neons of the Antonakos situated between them? Who can see the Cornells when the large mirror, placed behind them for the minor advantage of reflecting the backs of the boxes, also reflects one’s own image, the images of all passing behind, windows, guards, elevators and everything else in the vicinity?

It is nothing short of maddening to try to take in, for example, the monumental 3-part Bladen when it is involved with reflections from a Chryssa neon-light box nearby, a massive tin house by Tony Berlant in front of it, a piece by Lloyd Hamrol scuttling beneath it, a multi-colored George Sugarman undulating alongside of it, three Robert Hudson polychromed sculptures taking up the rear and a shiny steel George Rickey wriggling away above it.

Kenneth Price’s work occupies a hard-to-find corner completely washed with the light of Dan Flavin’s fluorescent square ridiculously close-by. The room containing a selection of three Larry Bell boxes, a group of John Chamberlain sculptures, Kienholz’s State Hospital and Kelly’s Blue Disc is utterly dominated by a huge platform, smack in the center of the room, containing a grouping of Paul Harris’s cloth dummies. The Morris does not help the Weinrib stationed nearby, nor does the Weinrib help the Morris, and both are made impossible to consider with the huge, fearfully noisy Flip and Two Twisters blasting its unearthly messages in the same room.

Throughout the exhibition, evaluations and measurements already incipient in the viewer’s mind are frustrated by an installation which has given it self over to the survey-show mentality. Instead, therefore, of the balanced presentation he expects, the viewer is given only what he is given every month in the art magazines and in the mass media.

American Sculpture of the Sixties, if its lessons are absorbed, should be the last of the survey exhibitions; they are obsolete, like dinosaurs, non-functional, like college outline books, misleading, like Time Magazine, deficient in quality, like department stores, and expensive, like parades.

Philip Leider



*West Coast Art: Three Images," Artforum, Volume I No. 12, pg. 21. In the version above some of the wording has been slightly altered.