PRINT October 2004


“Helter Skelter”

Mike Kelley, Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry, 1991. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1992.

Pop artists took a professional interest in products and packaging in the ’60s: Commercial design offered not only new source material—Campbell’s Soup labels or Brillo boxes—but the model for a whole new way of doing business. Across the decade, modern museums learned their design lessons as well as the artists did, perhaps even better. “Art has entered into the media system,” wrote Harold Rosenberg in 1968, arguing that the “archetypal creation of the media is the package, whether it contains cornflakes, a 240-horsepower motor or a retrospective exhibition of the paintings of Jackson Pollock.”(1) Rosenberg’s system is now business as usual, and the packages put together by curators and museum public-relations offices seldom raise eyebrows. It’s to curator Paul Schimmel’s credit, then, that his 1992 “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” elicited the reaction that it did. A group exhibition of sixteen Southern California artists, “Helter Skelter” aimed to destroy the old stereotypes of LA art and artists and to challenge New York’s hegemony; it was also, and not coincidentally, designed to stamp Schimmel’s name on that revision: “Helter Skelter” was his first show as LA MoCA’s chief curator, a “go-for-broke debut,” as the Los Angeles Times put it (Jan. 28, 1992), mounted less than two years after his high-profile hire. The exhibition introduced Raymond Pettibon and a younger generation of LA artists to museum audiences and highlighted new directions in the work of Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray. But it was the package (beginning with its name—“Helter Skelter” was, of course, Charles Manson’s blood-scrawled calling card) that made the show the “succès de scandale” (as Art News obligingly acknowledged [Apr. 1992]) it was intended to be.

Almost every newspaper and magazine critic commented at the time on the deliberate provocation of the exhibition’s title, and several also noted the scale and sensationalism of the museum’s publicity campaign, as well as the crowd of eight thousand plus who showed up for the opening. “Teen delinquency and antisocial behavior take center stage,” read a museum brochure, while in the catalogue, Schimmel spun the exhibition as though he were competing with Sally Jessy Raphael (a comparison offered by the LA Weekly). “The artists’ use of debased signs and symbols, and their embrace of raw subjects from everyday life,” he wrote, “shock and disorient the viewer into another state of mind.” According to Artweek critic Lance Carlson (Mar. 19, 1992), the advance press materials promised “artists professedly concerned with ‘alienation, dispossession, perversity, sex, and violence.’ . . . No wonder opening night attendees waited in lines that wound around the block.” The opening had its own rewards: lasers, smoke machines, and postpunk and industrial bands like Ethyl Meatplow. “The whole insane atmosphere reminded me of the New York art events of the early ’80s,” actress and performance artist Ann Magnuson told Art News. “All that was missing was Andy Warhol.”

Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s, catalogue of an exhibition curated by Paul Schimmel, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1992.

Warhol didn’t show up in Schimmel’s catalogue introduction, either; his only appearance was a cameo in critic Lane Relyea’s contribution, which knit the work in “Helter Skelter” to New York in the ’80s, specifically to post-“Pictures” work that wedded Pop’s media images to Minimalism’s psychologized temporality. “Pop’s influence continues to be strongly felt, [but] its vibrancy is fading,” wrote Relyea. “In recent neo-Pop artworks—say, by Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Cady Noland—Pop’s original optimism is gone, its youthful energy spent.” Relyea’s direct appeal to Pop and the recent history of New York art stood at odds with the thrust of the museum’s overall package. The rest of the catalogue worked hard to situate the suburban-gothic sensibility of “Helter Skelter” firmly in Southern California, separating it not only from New York but also, and more insistently, from the art that had characterized LA since the ’60s, from the polish of “finish fetish” and the ethereality of “light and space.” “‘Helter Skelter’ addresses the darker, angst-ridden side of contemporary life,” wrote Schimmel, “and has little in common with the stereotypes of LA as a cultural wasteland or a sunny dreamland of fun.” Posing a theatrical darkness against the LA light, he noted, in a curiously literal example, that Llyn Foulkes, the oldest artist in the show, lives in Topanga Canyon in a house with “wonderful light, but chooses to paint in a dark environment . . . with the light from an entire wall of windows completely blocked out. In fact, many of the artists in ‘Helter Skelter’ needed roofs on their rooms to block out the natural light of the Temporary Contemporary.” In addition to Relyea’s and Schimmel’s contributions, the catalogue included a discussion by critic and novelist Norman Klein of the literary tradition of LA noir from Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust to John Rechy’s City of Night, as well as a selection of stories and poems by heirs to that tradition, including Michelle T. Clinton, Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, and Benjamin Weissman, writers closely tied to the LA art world. Intended to represent that shared dialogue and, more important, to demonstrate a common vision of unrelieved darkness, most of these were stories set in the suburban wastelands; each was cold and detached in its prose and harrowingly violent in its subject matter.

Llyn Foulkes, Pop, 1985–90, mixed media with sound track, 7' x 10' 3“ x 3”.

Despite the bluntness with which Schimmel attacked the LA look and what critic Peter Plagens once dubbed the “aroma of Los Angeles in the sixties—newness, postcard sunset color, and intimations of aerospace profundity,”(2) one could argue that “Helter Skelter” starts the way so many other stories of LA art in the ’60s do: at the Chouinard Art Institute and the Ferus Gallery. Chouinard was the alma mater of LA Pop; among its graduates were not only Joe Goode, Kenny Price, and Ed Ruscha but also Foulkes, who attended in the late ’50s, and Robert Williams, another of a small group of older artists in “Helter Skelter,” who was there in the mid-’60s. Foulkes went on to show at Ferus in the summer of 1961 (Warhol would have his first commercial show there a year later) and at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962, where his solo show ran concurrently with Walter Hopps’s early Pop survey, “The New Painting of Common Objects” (which included Goode, Ruscha, Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Wayne Thiebaud). As his presence in “Helter Skelter” suggests, Foulkes’s story comes out differently. His brand of Pop never quite fit the LA Look in the ’60s—it was always too indebted to assemblage and too content driven—but in 1992 he was one of the critics’ favorites. In Newsweek (Mar. 2, 1992), Peter Plagens called Foulkes’s paintings the show’s “lone adult soliloquy,” while Peter Kosenko, in a review for In These Times (Apr. 1, 1992), nominated his 1985–90 bas-relief painting installation Pop as the exhibition’s “theme piece.” But it is a phrase of Robert Hughes’s in Time magazine (Apr. 20, 1992), part of his overall dismissal of the show rather than a direct shot at Foulkes, that now seems the most evocative description of his work: “the stale recycled leavings of Pop.” The title of Foulkes’s Pop refers both to the movement and to the dad he pictures, sitting zoned out in front of the television, clutching a soda, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. A Superman outfit peeks from underneath his shirt, a castoff from the fresh Pop of Warhol or Mel Ramos, and an image of optimism and youth gone stale. This is Pop via Edward Hopper, isolated and defeated. What Foulkes’s art lacked in the ’60s was the flat, hard-edge brightness of high Pop, and his work in “Helter Skelter” remains marked by a gloomy chiaroscuro, by what Ralph Rugoff in the LA Weekly (Jan. 31–Feb. 6, 1992) called “pop noir.”

Jim Shaw, Creepy, 1990, gouache on board, 17 x 14".

Less angst ridden and far more heterosexually gleeful, Williams’s paintings in “Helter Skelter” were much more conventionally Pop than Foulkes’s—at least Pop in the manner of Ramos or Tom Wesselmann. But his reception was quite different: He was roundly dismissed, even despised, like the stuff of Pop itself. (“What characterizes pop is mainly its use of what is despised,” as Roland Barthes once quoted Lichtenstein. Its raw materials are “regarded as vulgar, unworthy of an aesthetic consecration.”[3]) For the critics of “Helter Skelter” it was Williams himself who was vulgar; a cofounder of Zap Comix in San Francisco in the late ’60s, he began showing as a painter in the contemporary-art world only in the early ’80s. “Helter Skelter” was his first museum exhibition, and there his work appeared indefensible in terms of seriousness or quality and even harder to assimilate into a critical discourse that was in the early ’90s driven by identity politics (however willing it was to admit a degree of irony). “The paintings of Robert Williams . . . add a particularly malodorous flavor to the show, depicting as they do inequitable messages regarding women, gays and minorities,” wrote Lance Carlson. “If this show aspired to ‘badness’ . . . , it has surely been broached in this work.” Plagens, writing in Newsweek, concurred, though his terms for dismissal were more aesthetic than political: “His intricate bimbo-monster fantasies should have stayed comic-book panels. Instead they’re fattened with acrylic into bad paintings and then installed with all the sensitivity of a Van Nuys garage sale.” Despite the presence of Jim Shaw and Benjamin Weissman’s multicanvas comic-book story of a real-estate agent turned serial killer and Paul McCarthy’s life-size tree-fucking animatrons—despite the fact that, as Brigitte Werneburg observed in Art in America (Nov. 1992), “the theme of the male whose identity revolves entirely around his sexual equipment appeared in a number of variations”—it was Williams in particular who was singled out to exemplify “badness,” perhaps because he hadn’t stayed where he belonged.

Robert Williams, Mathematics Takes a Holiday, 1991, oil on canvas, 40 x 46".

Williams’s presence at MoCA blurred the line between high and low, or, rather, suggested that such a line no longer ran vertically or separated hierarchically but instead leveled and connected horizontally one obsessive taste and audience after another. For ’60s Pop and much work since, argued Mike Kelley in an essay in these pages in January 1989, the “low-art/high-art distinction remains firm: caricature is an alien element, meant to be tamed and transformed.” In contrast, in some current work—Kelley’s list included “Helter Skelter” artists Charles Ray, Liz Larner, and Lari Pittman, but his definition could be applied to a number of other participants, from Victor Estrada and Manuel Ocampo to McCarthy—“the incorporation of caricature is no longer the strategy, for the work actually becomes caricature.” That is, it does the work of caricature, which in Kelley’s reading of Freud and Ernst Kris is to ridicule, to level or debase. Like classic Pop, the caricatures that fill “Helter Skelter” look to the stuff of popular culture, but they look at it differently; caricature inverts the psychoanalytic scenario of Pop: Where the bright, bounded cartoon heroes of ’60s Pop offered the ego idealized images of its wholeness, caricature works at the ego’s expense—its images are of the ego’s uselessness, its breakdowns and eruptions. At the very least, caricature replaces the high-end heterosexuality Pop found in Playboy with the low-end perversity of Mad or Zap. Thus, while more than half of the sixteen artists in “Helter Skelter” drew from Pop’s cartoon image bank, they chose not DC Comics or the Sunday funnies but the sort of comics that stoke teen fears and fantasies more directly and privately. Worse still, they preferred those Sunday-paper characters defiled and used up, the way they looked in head-shop posters: Donald Duck shooting up, Bugs porking Porky. Most of the art in “Helter Skelter” works lower on the food chain than Pop.

Paul McCarthy, The Garden, 1992, wood, fiberglass, motors, latex, rubber, wigs, clothing, artificial turf, rocks, and trees, 30 x 20 x 22'.

The sources are lowered, not only sexually, from the glossy cleanliness of Playboy to the pulp grossness of Sex to Sexty, but along class lines as well. The jokes Kelley printed on the windows and walls of his installation for “Helter Skelter” are old lines (“What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”) and tired visual gags (the hydrocephalic baby on a chamberpot: “No job is finished until the paperwork is done”) that have been a part of back-office and copy-room culture for decades. In Kelley’s installation they take over a particularly fitting front room. The suite Kelley built for them recalls the primal scene of ’60s Pop—the adman’s office: The initial impetus for Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry, 1991, was a commission (subsequently canceled) for the Los Angeles offices of advertising agency Chiat/Day. When, in 1963, Robert Indiana suggested that Pop art was a return to “representational visual communication,” he was using the language of product design and Madison Avenue. Pop as Indiana described it was an adult movement: serious, professionalizing, and on the side of the agency—“an abrupt return to Father after an abstract 15-year exploration of the Womb.”(4) If the work in “Helter Skelter” does not return to the womb, it marks at least a significant regression, a particular refusal of adulthood and the symbolic. As the show’s critics were keen to point out, in its insistent focus on crude sexuality, in its embrace of subcultural and “subpop” representations, in its overzealous attempts to provoke the crackdown of authority, the predominant sensibility of Schimmel’s project was adolescent. Robert Hughes’s response was a particularly hysterical version of the Father’s “No”—one that the packagers of “Helter Skelter” should take as a compliment: “Adolescence is key here. America invented it; Los Angeles glorifies it; and for the moment, MoCA is its Louvre.”

Howard Singerman is associate professor in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia.


1. Harold Rosenberg, “Art and Its Double,” in Artworks and Packages (1969; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 13, 20.

2. Peter Plagens, Sunshine Muse: Contemporary Art on the West Coast (New York: Praeger, 1974), 120.

3. Roland Barthes, “That Old Thing, Art . . . ,” in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 199.

4. Robert Indiana interviewed by Gene Swenson, “What Is Pop Art? Part 1,” in Pop Art: A Critical History, ed. Steven Henry Madoff, 105 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).