Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Joseph Kosuth, at Gallery 669, in his quest to strip away from his art everything but the idea, has arrived at a series of dictionary definitions of the word NOTHING, executed (not by the artist) photographically, in black 4 by 4 foot panels with white lettering. A few doors away, at the Molly Barnes Gallery, is an exhibition of paintings by John Baldessari, who, in his way, is also interested in a strict elimination of “formal” esthetic encumbrances—as well as (in answer to Kosuth?) the idea: on one of his black-lettered-on-grey canvases is written, Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work. Baldessari quotes freely from composition primers or Kubler’s Shape of Time (This painting owes its existence to prior paintings. By liking this solution, you should not be blocked in your continued acceptance of prior inventions. To attain this position, ideas of former paintings had to be rethought in order to transcend former work. To like this painting, you will have to understand prior work. Ultimately this work will amalgamate with the existing body of knowledge) or Barbara Rose (For Barbara Rose: A work by an artist who is aware not only of the cycles of styles, but of levels of meanings, of influences of movements, and critical judgments); and he sometimes combines his texts with photographs, as in the canvas showing an old Artforum cover (November, 1965) with the caption, This is not to be looked at. There is also a picture of Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practice by Ocvirk, Bone, Stinson and Wigg (2nd edition) with the sentence Place this book in a strong light and this is what you will see. An even worse photograph, of a parking lot, is accompanied by an excerpt from a photography composition manual: An artist is not merely the slavish announcer of a series of facts, which in this case the camera has had to accept and mechanically record. Two works are not paintings but long boxes with word-punched tapes moving over white light. The messages are textbook quotations.

Baldessari is at his best quoting a frame by frame analysis of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Finishes watering it—examines plant to see if it has any signs of growth, finds slight evidence—one part is sagging—she runs finger along it—raises hand over plant to encourage it to grow.

Kosuth’s most moving definition is from the Oxford Dictionary:

NO’ THING (nu-), n. & adv.
1. No thing (with adj. following, as ~ great is easy).

“Did you see the drek in the Gallery?” a faculty member asked, without a trace of irony as he stood flatfooted, surrounded by the gee-gaw concrete unspeakables (more Pereira) passing as architecture on the University of California campus at Irvine. The pejorative aside brings into focus the gallery full of dilemmas encapsuled in each of the thirty-six works in the exhibition organized by Hal Glicksman and entitled Assemblage in California. The show includes works by Edward Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, George Herms, Ben Talbert and Fred Mason.

Perhaps if one were to conceive California as a vast assemblage with a population innocently unselfconscious of its slap-happy configuration, a partial insight would begin to form in the viewer’s mind about the nature of this exhibition. What other state, after all, can boast of a single county whose budget is larger than that of thirty-six states, and at the same time cuts back its mental health budget while welcoming five thousand new residents each month?

California’s Martin Luther isn’t to be found in any Pan-Protestant, neo-ecumenical church organization; he is an artist. Drawing an analogy between Edward Kienholz’s sensibility and that of Martin Luther is not as extreme as it may seem. Consider for a moment the particular nature of Luther’s attacks on the ecclesiastical and social orthodoxies of his time. His anti-canonical tracts against capitalist mercantilism in Germany, against salvation through works, against the devil, who achieved a living identity as an inky excrescence. Kienholz’s attacks on contemporary society are as fundamentalist.

In Kienholz’s piece entitled John Doe, a half-length department store dummy sits armless inside a baby stroller, a gaping hole in his chest revealing a cross, while rivulets of black paint besmirch a vacant face. Beneath the torso a riddle reads: “Why is John Doe like a piano? Answer: Because he is square, upright and grand.—Old Soothe Saying.” Sarcasm, irony, visual and verbal puns indict, vilify and scorn the customs which have become sacrosanct through generations of reiteration.

Wallace Berman, the earliest innovator in the post World War II assemblage movement, is represented in this exhibition by photographs of pieces now destroyed, which were included in a one-man exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in 1957. The radical nature of Berman’s vision had at base what seems now to be a strong desire to re-unite the suppressed erotic or Eros principle with judeaChristian mysticism. The perilous nature of Berman’s assemblages in relation to the society in which he lived caused his exhibition to be closed by the police under the auspices of one of the hundreds of schmutz laws on the books in the United States.

Of each of the artists represented in the exhibition, the most consistently outrageous is Bruce Conner. Consider his sinister and brilliantly conceived uses of black casting wax, nylon stockings, fur, hair, five-and-dime bangles; materials whose very mention brings about an uptight sense of expectancy. His pieces become the horrors they metaphorically illustrate.

To the degree that Edward Kienholz, Wally Berman and Bruce Conner reach the highest level of accomplishment within a context of poetic indictment of society, the assemblages of George Herms, Fred Mason and Ben Talbert concern an artist’s vision and fantasy more sublimated and hence less difficult to assimilate. Herms’ piece, The Librarian, appears as a reification of a librarian’s nightmare—books hideously misused, each attached to the next by a process of decay through moisture and final desiccation by drying. The impermanence of the paper squalor is unrelieved and relentless.

The exhibition was installed with eyes and hands guided by the criteria of the objects and not by an overlaid design scheme. As such the exhibition was a place where things are, which is as it should be.

James Monte