Los Angeles

“Six Painters and the Object” and “Six More”

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

These concurrent shows attempt to focus on those recent directions in painting in which the common object, sign, or the imagery of mass communications become the prime subject matter, in other words Pop Art. The former exhibi­tion is the touring version of the show organized earlier this year by Lawrence Alloway for the Guggenheim Museum and limited to painters working in and around New York, most of whom, unfor­tunately, are inadequately represented. Six More, also selected by Alloway, fo­cuses on work by California artists. To avoid the provincialism inherent in the selection methods of both shows, it seems better from this point to consider them as one very selective survey, and to forget that three thousand miles and a great many painters separate the two sources.

Upon first viewing the exhibition one becomes quickly aware that the gener­alizations made about “Pop Art” have very little to do with the work exhibited. The criticism re non-transformed ba­nality aimed usually at the pictures of Lichtenstein, Warhol, Thiebaud and Ra­mos, has little to do with them and ab­solutely nothing to do with the other painters. The idea that this work at­tempts to glorify and give stature to the banal imagery of comic books, advertis­ing art, etc., proves as untrue as the re­verse concept that these painters avoid any commitment, either for or against their subject matter.

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschen­berg, usually credited with, or accused of, starting the whole thing, show work that involves common signs and mass media reproductions but seems con­cerned with far more formal and para­doxical ideas. Their mutual concern seems to have been with developing methods of incorporating recognizable subject matter without affecting the in­tegrity of the picture plane. Johns goes further by developing significant and rather ambiguous statements regarding the metaphysics of painting-as-object, while Rauschenberg has carried his work toward the idea of a reduced esthetic and intellectual distance for abstract painting, in terms that become a logical progression out of the trap of de Koon­ing.

Andy Warhol, on the other hand, comes closer to the widely publicized concept of Pop Art. His repetitions of Campbell’s Soup Cans, Troy Donahues or, by refer­ence, ideal American noses effect a kind of Kafkaesque grandeur that require no more obvious statements on the part of the artist. He squeezes out, in effect, the bizarre drama inherent in the end­less anonymity of mass production, rather than presenting it untransformed.

Bill Bengston’s work seems uniquely out of place in this exhibition since his “object,” although readily recognizable, is not particularly common. His sergeant stripes become abstract emblems from which his highly formal optical paint­ings project. In this respect he is more closely allied to Albers than to Warhol, and his chevron motif works simply as a focal point composed of straight lines and curves, and as an ambiguous ele­ment of concentration that allows his optical effects to work on the viewer’s retina. Because this chevron is particu­larly recognizable, as is the heart motif in his earlier painting, “Big Hollywood,” the work is not purely abstract. His ti­tles, referring to the names of male movie stars and his technique, evolved out of the tradition of hot rod striping and lacquering do place him vaguely in the tradition of Pop, but this attitude seems so dominated by the formal as­pects of his work that to label him in this area would be grossly unfair.

Joe Goode, to a lesser extent than Bengston, presents this same dilemma. He presents a paradoxical situation of milk-bottle-in-front-of-wall as opposed to color-shape-related-to-color-field as op­posed to the complex physical and psy­chological tensions located between the picture space and the room in which it sits. In other words, in Goode’s paintings the formal also dominates the object aspects.

Roy Lichtenstein, too, is involved with ideas of formal painting, but in his best work the weight allocated to subject is balanced evenly with that of his abstract problems. This delicate balance allows the apparent naivete of his images to assume a hallucinatory quality which, when analyzed, can be seen to be a function of cropping, color repetition, and tensions between formal, abstract shapes. His dominant comic book image becomes both a screen behind which hides a formal abstract painting and a commentary on the nature of art.

The large single-word messages of Ed Ruscha relate theoretically to Lichten­stein but move in an entirely different direction. The communicative process of his message units such as “HONK,” “BOSS,” and “ANNIE” is altered by its art context and by its lack of rational context. Beyond this, the pictures work in two different ways; some, first seen as single words in a solid color setting are later recognized as a group of sep­arate related abstract paintings in the shapes of successive letters, while oth­ers are painted carefully with no visible brush strokes allowing first the word and then the group of individual letters to work with the ground in the manner of hard-edge abstraction. Attention to the spatial continuity of the entire pic­ture space is called by various devices, including the stenciling of repetitions of the word around the edges of the canvas and by fool-the-eye objects such as the pencil in “Talk About Space.” What arises out of these pictures is a disturbing word where simple, rational meanings are found to be constantly in need of redefinition.

Wayne Thiebaud and Melvin Ramos, apart from the other painters in the show, are involved in portraiture. Ramos paints comic book heroes and heroines while Thiebaud paints mass produced and displayed food. Both seem domi­nantly involved in the iconography of mass culture—Thiebaud almost from the standpoint of nineteen thirties’ so­cial painting, and Ramos from nostalgia. Their formal considerations seem to go only as far as the technical virtuosity needed to reproduce their subjects. Ra­mos’ paintings seemed more effective primarily because they were more amus­ing.

On the level of amusement, Phillip Hefferton showed pictures that were, in effect, the opposite of Lichtenstein’s. That is, his large cartoons involving the imagery of American currency looked as though they were painted for a humor magazine rather than having arisen out of the mass media or money factories. Unfortunately, his more serious earlier works involving painterly variations on currency were not included.

James Rosenquist, again on a differ­ent level, uses a contemporary urban kind of imagery blown up to billboard scale and then fragmented, rearranged and juxtaposed to create intense com­plex surreal images. From a distance these paintings seem fascinating not only for their psychological effective­ness, but for their structure that holds varying illusionistic and perspective de­vices at the picture plane. Unfortunate­ly, these pictures which require a pre­cise painting technique, are seen on closer inspection to be less than per­fect. Small drips and fudged lines tend to detract from the efficacy of the im­ages.

Finally, James Dine’s paintings, possi­bly as a fault of inadequate representa­tion, look for the most part like rather weak rehashes of Jasper Johns’ important work of the mid to late fifties. His free, pointedly clumsy brush work in “Red Bandana” and “Tattoo” appears to say that art need be nothing more than a felt human gesture. The only problem with this thesis, as expressed in these paintings, is that it doesn’t come off. The two earlier paintings, “The Plant Becomes a Fan” and “A 1935 Palette” seem better pictorially since both ap­pear to be dealing in a combination of art and social criticism, although the grey palette and metamorphosis of na­tural to mechanical form seems need­lessly satiric today.

To sum up, this exhibition presents a refreshing look at some new attitudes toward painting and the use of subject matter. It also serves a great purpose in presenting a strong visual denial of the criticisms flung at Pop Art in general and replaces it with a picture of younger artists exploring the subtleties of com­municative process.

Don Factor