PRINT September 1973

Before What Flowering? Thoughts on West Coast Art

THE HISTORY OF RECENT ART, more than, say political history, exists in the present because most of its products—paintings and sculptures—are still around in the same physical shape as when they came off the easels or onto the pedestals. As objects, they run headlong into the great American frontier philistine pragmatism: if it doesn’t help clear the land, defend against the ripped-off natives, or make an instant buck, it isn’t worth the bother. What art can do now, however, is mitigate urban ugliness. Our greatest art center, New York, has been the ugliest longest; Los Angeles’ most important art (1962–68) appeared only when the city had suffused itself in smog and trash architecture. By contrast, the Bay Area with its spectacular scenery remains a dicey ground for occasional good stuff, and the Pacific Northwest, because of its cool, lush surroundings, has produced no substantive modern art beside Mark Tobey’s.

If you believe in modern art history and its imperative riders (that good art deals with dialectically derived “issues,” that good art bends the short-run course of future modern art history), it follows that the best nook to beget good art is where competing ideas, esthetics, and artists are thickest and where regional niceties are thinnest. New York. Whatever climatological, geophysical, or even demographical charms with which that city was once blessed have been buried for at least 25 years in a Sargasso Sea of money, crowding, and state-capitalist architecture; New York has as much regional character as a big Air Force base—but also as much hardware and action. The “regions” (provinces, outposts, boondocks, heartlands, middle America, etc.) on the other hand, are comparatively short on white-hot overpopulation, edifice complexes, and career fights-to-the-death. Thus the art they produce is either initially schizophrenic, or is so rendered if it hits the big time: should it be gauged against the “mainstream” (deliberately art-historical art produced where it counts, New York) or should it be sized up for exactly the opposite (quaintness, funkiness, antihistoricality, in short, “regional” character)? Serious artists living in the regions must choose: am I playing the “mainstream” game, and if I am, am I chicken or foolish for not moving to New York? Critics, historians, collectors, dealers, and others once removed from art-making must decide if Ed Ruscha is only “just as good as” Warhol/Oldenburg in his knife-edge banality, or whether he’s a lighthearted Hollywood gadfly, whose value lies in an art that doesn’t give a damn about “expanding the boundaries of art” but only those of comfort and leisure. Is Tobey merely a less than heroic Abstract Expressionist or a more than formalist sage because Pacific Northwest tranquility let him regard painting as something other than a contact sport? Is assemblage (c. Beatnik San Francisco/Los Angeles) a cutie-pie exploitation of esthetic license which Rauschenberg, johns, and then post-Minimalism pursued with Duchampian rigor, or is it a vehicle of dark poetry available only to those who’ve given up the nonsense of art-historical leapfrog? Is the “L.A. Look” of the ’60s merely “drop-out types in Venice making baubles for the rich”1 (from resin, chrome, lacquer, and glass) or is it the dawn of a new perception, akin to both alpha waves and Buddhism, set free from the dialectical harangues of New York? To decide anything about West Coast regional art, you have to take a look at the regions.

The Pacific Northwest is isolated from the three major cultural webs of the country: the East, meaning New York and its spillover; the Midwest, centered by Chicago; and the California coast whose foci are San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its terrain, even without the severe winters of the Plains, is laced with mountains and wild rivers; its population is small (Seattle and Portland are under three-quarter million); and one of its principal crops is xenophobia, regarding Californians with their bulbous automobiles and vulgar manners as a pestilence, even as tourists. But the Pacific Northwest wallows in natural beauty—mountains, forests, jewels of fresh water, cool, rainy weather, and a rolling topography. Such a natural environment, the argument goes, resembles Honshu more than any other American coast, and is therefore the inspiration for a pervasive Oriental ism (tertiary rather than bright colors; intimate, contemplative rather than big-scale, public art).2 Tobey thought it an unfortunately unexpanded virtue:

I have often thought that if the West Coast had been as open to esthetic influence from Asia as the East Coast was to Europe, what a rich nation this would be.3

Mild Orientalism, however, dilutes the paintings of lesser artists like Louis Bunce, Carl Morris, and Kenneth Callahan into gentle, albeit sincere, odalisques of Abstract Expressionism. Morris Graves, Tobey’s protégé, gets caught going the other way: storybook parables of blind birds and pine trees. Likewise “regions” usually coddle what indigenous ethnic art hasn’t been bulldozed; in Oregon and Washington you can see collections of Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and Nootka Indian art, and, more important, you can feel it in the countryside. But a modern American artist cannot manage significant art with a latter-day, sentimental appreciation of dolls, beads, and ceremonial masks; when a “primitive” art is synthesized, it must be within an already vigorous modern movement (e.g. Black African art in Cubism) or within the talent of a great anomaly (e.g. Gauguin in Tahiti).

The best artists available from such circumstances (beside Tobey, a separate matter) could be typified by C.S. Price, the Oregon cowboy painter. An illustrator, his “Armory Show” was the art at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, which turned him to painting. There is, in Price’s landscapes, an intense, awkward directness reminiscent (but not eclectically so) of Ryder, Dove, or Morandi that is a bit hard to take: Price remained relatively poor although an esthetic/ethical influence on a generation of Oregon painters and the object of a retrospective as early as 1942.

ON THE OCCASION OF hauling down the Mexican flag on June 14, 1846 and establishing the California Republic, William B. Idea invited:

all peaceable and good citizens of California to repair to my camp at Sonoma, without delay, to assist us in establishing and perpetuating a Republican government, which shall secure to all civil and religious liberty, which shall leave unshackled by fetters, agriculture, commerce and manufactures.4

All California, except for the sparsely inhabited mountains and deserts, is unfettered by weather: San Francisco has the same wet-dry (slightly wetter) cycle as Los Angeles. Perhaps it was the kindly climate as well as the gold and 2,000-mile moat between it and civilization which fostered the outlaw-vigilante politics of California’s first 50 or 60 years. Its first real artists, San Francisco’s writers, rose from journalists in the trenches: Ambrose Bierce’s sarcastic, Swiftian exposé/overstatements; Frank Norris’ novels of social evil like The Octopus (railroads); Bret Harte working as a watchman in the U.S. mint while trying to get The Luck of Roaring Camp, in pieces (a kind of assemblage) into print; Jack London, then a back bay waterfront drunk writing action stories. The intellectual roughhousing continues through William Saroyan’s maudlin valley dwellers, John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row, Jack Kerouac’s “road” novels, and the Beat poets. Unfortunately, painting and sculpture didn’t share literature’s muscle (inherently since, with the French exception, 19th-century visual arts labored under an aura of politeness) and, for whatever pyrotechnics transpiring since (Still, Rothko, the California School of Fine Arts, and the vintage years 1946–50 constitute a further, separate section), San Francisco’s historic under interest in contemporary art owes itself to a combination of wondrous natural scenery (the most beautiful setting of any city in the world), and a taste for adjunct gingerbread architecture, antiques, salon paintings, and bric-a-brac. Bierstadt came out and painted his Yosemite, Thomas Hill established a derivative California school of romantic mountain landscape painting, William Keith painted his famous Burning City after the 1906 earthquake, and that was about it—except for the founding of the spine of Bay Area modern art, the San Francisco Art Association.

Twenty-three local artists, dissatisfied with flogging about separately for commissions, founded the SFAA in 1871 and opened a loft gallery over a butcher shop; three years later they commenced a school, and moved it to a Nob Hill castle (a conglomerate of architectural and decorative styles—clues to assemblage abound!) in 1893. Under the patronage of Mark Hopkins (briefly as the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art), the enterprise shifted to Russian Hill in 1926 (where the final offspring, the San Francisco Art Institute, still is), the early traditional grounds of the artistic/literary set. People like Arnold Blanch, Maurice Stern, and Andre Lhote taught Cézanne-ism, which by the ’30s was manifested in San Francisco through Social Realism, and in the back bay (Berkeley, Oakland) as late, late Cubism with overlays of Byzantine (gold leaf) decoration. Modernism laboring under a Gully Jimson/Jack Bilbo/Savage Messiah complex without benefit of a real movement of its own, or a structural comprehension of Cubism, the automatic-writing wing of Surreal ism, or Dutch/Russian abstraction, laboring far removed from the scene, produces phenomena like Benjamino Bufano and Anton Refregier. Bufano, a pint-sized, pugnacious stonecarver, spent his years on (realized) a giant figure of St. Francis hacked from a 30-ton block which moldered, neglected, for 28 years in a Paris warehouse before it was finally stationed at St. Francis of Assisi in San Francisco, or (unrealized) a monumental US/USSR aviator atop a 1 00-foot shaft. Refregier painted the social-utilitarian Rincon Post Office mural in that common, chisel-figured, elongated, romantic surface semi-Cubism with such perniciously “leftist” nuggets as a Russian flag in the bouquet aimed at fascism in the War and Peace panel. Both artists, as have brethren before and following, squandered half their time battling bifocaled fossils from the V.F.W. or petty bureaucrats charged with approving/storing government sponsored art, but San Francisco, eventually the first union-shop city in America and a hotbed of liberalism, failed to match the vehemence and silliness (the movie purges and art squabbles, 1947–52) of that ofttimes Berchtesgaden of the United States, Southern California, and its capital city, Los Angeles.

The basic pueblo de Los Angeles was proclaimed in 1781, from a framework of early missionary settlements. For 100 years or so the town was a riotous, raw, hooligan-patrolled arena of swindles (by gringos against the Mexicans holding the early land grants), brutal subjugation (against the Indians by the Catholic missionaries), racial persecution (against the Chinese), and land-boom intrigues. Southern California, except for tropical fruits, was not a benign agricultural environment; it did not possess a natural harbor (the greatest rip-off, a battle between the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads, arrived when one was dug 30 miles to the south in San Pedro) and so did not accommodate the kind of European cultural baggage so easily floated through the Golden Gate to the Bay Area. To San Francisco (for the first 50 years of the 20th century the cultural “capital” of the state with its opera, ballet, theater, and poetry) Los Angeles has always been “that flat city down south” populated with rude barbarians, suffused in a mindless hedonism (an opinion only exacerbated lately by surpluses of freeways, smog, horizontal stucco architecture, and hot rods, foreign and domestic). Los Angeles was settled by Midwesterners and Dust Bowlers whose Great Plains utilitarianism precluded much attention to the “frills” of culture. But after World War I, the embryonic movie moguls of the East, hounded by bad weather and patent attorneys, made haste to Southern California; when sound obtained during 1927–30 the writers followed, providing dialogue for the shining gray faces on the silver screen; the likes of William Faulkner, Ben Hecht, and F. Scott Fitzgerald turned themselves into (highly) salaried employees, punching clocks, drinking, and tailoring their words to esthetic gorillas like Harry Cohen, Louis B. Mayer, and the brothers Warner. (As the inhuman Irish school system produced William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and James Joyce, the psychic brutality of the dialogue mill produced Los Angeles’ great books—Nathaneal West’s Day of the Locust and Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.) When you connect that with the esthetic hostility and human indifference kindling Abstract Expressionism in New York in the ’40s, and with a hundred other examples of great art born like pearls as irritants in the social oyster, you confront what I call the (unanswered) Harold Rosenberg Question: are the artists who Did-It-When-It-Was-Tough the only legitimate great artists? Rosenberg, it seems to me, has been carping for years that artists like Frank Stella and Larry Bell have been, without the required catharses, playing out the pat, passionless hands dealt them by a benevolent “art establishment”—sympathetic schoolmasters and dealers who turn a nice profit on the whole business. Clement Greenberg and followers would hold, it seems to me, that art derives from art, not from fistfighting, and that the (cold?) fact of the visual object is all to be considered. In a reasonably just society, which we’ve not got by a long shot, I’d throw in with the latter. (But we must move on.)

Los Angeles did not experience its first real modern art show until Stanton Macdonald-Wright, veteran of Paris of the Impressionists and Fauves, and originator, with Morgan Russell, of an abstract Cubism spin-off called Synchromism, put together an exhibition of the stables of the Daniel and Stieglitz galleries in New York at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1922, six years after he came to Los Angeles. The show included paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Dasburg, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, Marsden Hartley, Man Ray, Morgan Russell, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, and a sculpture by William Zorach. Previously, academic eastern artists sojourning west packed painting satchels loaded with “Still, Inness, and Millet in landscape, and in figures, Sargent, Hals, and the New York Art Students League.”5 The exceptions, beside Macdonald-Wright, were in large part European emigrés who came to Southern California in the ’20s and, with the rise of the fascist dictatorships, the ’30s. Boris Deutsch arrived from Lithuania in 1920, Knud Merrild—whose poured “flux” paintings coincided with Hofmann’s and predated Pollock’s—from Denmark in 1923, and Oscar Fischinger—who made remarkably early abstract films. And there were others: Ben Berlin, Ejnar Hansen, Fred Hocks, and Peter Krasnow. All of them mixed their European modernism with perceptions of, as the architect Raymond Schindler put it in an unpublished essay, “Color,” the “subtle transparent shades created by the light on the grayish backgrounds” of rock and leaf compared to the “solid, opaque positive colors of the northern and eastern green country.”6

Patronage is a perennial quandry for Southern California artists, even more so than for their New York counterparts, because the imperative of welding money to cultural acquisition for respectability’s sake is weak. (Three main Los Angeles modern collections—Walter Arensberg’s Post-Impressionist, Cubist, and Dada works which, in a great snafu, ultimately fled to Philadelphia, Gaylka Scheyer’s “Blue Four” of Klee, Kandinsky, Jawlensky, and Feininger, and the Maitland Mirós—did not involve local art.) General Harrison Grey Otis, patriarch of the powerful Times family, donated the land on which the County founded its (Otis) Art Institute in 1918, and a group of Pasadenans conspired to retain the “Carmelita” site (of the new building) intact for “cultural purposes” in 1922, about the same moment that Neibert Chouinard of the Otis faculty decided to manifest her own school. At the time, the extant institutions were the Southwest Museum (founded 1903), dedicated to the preservation of Indian artifacts, and the catchall, science-art County Museum. Alexander Cowie, with a 1923 inventory of the cowboy painters Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, was the first serious local dealer (hardly avant-garde, but bona fide), and Dalzell Hatfield followed shortly with French Impressionism; the Stanley Rose Bookshop sufficed as a hangout in the ’30s and even survived to show the likes of Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg (Los Angeles’ best woman painter) on Hollywood Boulevard in the ’40s. But the climate in Los Angeles remained indifferent enough so that it was still (second page) news when, in 1947, Sam Kootz flew out to Earl Stendahl with a supply of eight Picasso paintings.

It’s an unfortunate fact that serious modern art in America is a social luxury, propped up by rich people (directly via purchases and commissions, or indirectly through contributions to museums, and corporate support); the history of its rises and falls in large part is the ebb and flow of personal fortunes, with artists like corks on currents of vanity, the stock market, and family feuds. In Los Angeles (and San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest), unlike New York, artists are sequestered from the rich; they don’t hobnob with them at black-tie institutional compressions, and the rich don’t often come down off the hills and out of the canyons to find out from the artists where the hell things are going. There are tiny paranoias on both sides: (visual) artists on the West Coast don’t really regard themselves as “intellectuals” with a stake in cultural history as a whole (for instance, none of them write); they’re (increasingly, now) content with roles as inside-smart decorator-entertainers, making moves on top of moves in a game whose purpose rarely transcends strategy into poetry. The rich figure their part is simply buying the stuff, without confronting the whole of a modernist culture which, by nature, questions their right to live off coupon-clipping or the gravy of savings-and-loans. Surely the dichotomy (poor democratic artists, rich oligarchic patrons) simmers elsewhere, but Europeans wash it down with several centuries of heavy-lidded worldliness, and New Yorkers put it constantly, albeit futilely, on the line. Up in Oregon and Washington they avoid it by returning to “nature”; in San Francisco it’s cherished as urbanity. But in Los Angeles nobody’s ever heard of the problem and it’s a renewable surprise when a good museum director is sacrificed (Richard Brown, 1965), buildings come up croppers (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1965; Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, 1969), schools evaporate (Chouinard, 1971), publications pull up stakes (Artforum, 1967).

Perhaps the model is misguided. The assumptions that patrons and artists should intermingle freely—argue and laugh at each other’s jokes—and that artists should consciously assume roles of intellectuals and cultural custodians, are integral to an art-society philosophy which defines a “healthy” art scene as a crowded, competitive ambience. Lots of shows, lectures, arguments in bars, taking somebody’s art idea one step further, king dethroning, and, of course, gossip by the megaword. The two “flowerings” referred to in the title, San Francisco Abstract Expressionism, 1946–50 plus, and the “L.A. Look,” 1962–68, were to a large degree deliberately (and benevolently) plotted by curators, writers, and scholastics eminently familiar with the “mainstream” model (Paris early in the century, and New York in the middle of it). Douglas McCagy, Walter Hopps, Phil Leider, John Coplans, Jules Langsner, and others, tried (oh, how they tried) to plant the seeds and to water the plants. But the bushes died (or cyclically defoliated) and ever since the West Coast art world has lamented a never-was forest of great oaks, and wondered aloud when one would grow. But Washington, Oregon, and California are not the Eastern seaboard—geographically, socially, or economically—and it’s not likely we’ll ever fully join the dialectical “mainstream.” Perhaps (to continue that strained metaphor) ours will always be a seasonal garden of odd little plants, and perhaps, now is the time to learn to cultivate it.

This article comprises extracts from a book tentatively entitled West Coast Art, to be published by Praeger in 1974.

Peter Plagens



1. Joseph Masheck, “New York Reviews,” Artforum, January, 1971, p. 72.

2. W. Baldinger. “Regional Accent: The Northwest,” Art in America, No. 1, 1965, pp. 34–39.

3. Mark Tobey, “Japanese Traditions and Modern Art,” Art Journal, Fall, 1958, p. 21.

4. Writers’ Project (of the W.P.A.), San Francisco, New York, 1947, p. 112.

5. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, “Art News from Los Angeles: A Brief Discussion of the Development of the Arts in Southern California,” Art News, October, 1955, p. 8.

6. Esther McCoy, Five California Architects, New York, 1960, p. 155.