Los Angeles

Painting in New York, 1944–69 and West Coast, 1945–69

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

The two opening exhibitions at the new quarters of the Pasadena Art Museum have fostered a static, the intensity of which has not been heard in this town since the censoring of Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge at the County Museum of Art. Most of the flak comes from local artists included in the show who felt that West Coast art had been rudely relegated to a secondary position in installation and, through poor selection, in quality as well. “West Coast, 1945–69” is a bomb. A survey should demonstrate either catholicity or uniformity; “West Coast” has neither. The show, which has an unshakable look of paucity, yea starvation, about it, is too closely chosen (percentage of Los Angeles artists) for breadth and too democratically selected (figure painting, splashy abstract painting, plastic objects, etc.) for depth. It has middle-of-the-road written all over it (a killer in politics, fence-straddling is the birth control of art). The location of the objects reflects this indecisiveness: Robert Irwin’s disc hangs sensibly in a cul-de-sac, but it’s monstrously “pressed” by two “clean” paintings; Craig Kauffman’s plastic piece, strung out in a demi-corner, becomes just another toy; and John McCracken’s chartreuse plank leaning on a curved wall, needs a right angle in the worst way. Works by Tony DeLap and John McLaughlin (both decent artists, the latter an unsung heavyweight) are rendered unbelievably inconsequential. Only Larry Bell’s large box, in its Gandhian passive resistance, and Sam Francis’s painting, in its savoir-faire, really come through unmarked. The installation is brutally truncated by a plopping of random home-owned treasures (a display of gifts to the Museum, including some of the mysterious exclusions: Llyn Foulkes, Peter Alexander, DeWain Valentine) and some Oriental sculpture from Avery Brundage’s collection.

“Painting in New York, 1944–69,” organized by Alan Solomon, is better but the quality of art (New York heroic) is better to begin with. It’s better suited to the building (big paintings are articulated walls), and it is historically richer. It is studded with individually important pictures: Jasper Johns’ Flag and Diver; Arshile Gorky’s Agony and The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon and Axle and Willem de Kooning’s Woman I and Lily Pond.

But the show displays bummers and biases. The two grandiose Lichtensteins are bona fide white elephants; the early Olitski is a bad, cute painting; and Warhol’s silk-screened sunflowers (in that scale) is an epicene, mechanical disaster. Worse are the exclusions: Hans Hofmann (Hans Hofmann!!!!), Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Bradley Walker Tomlin, etc., etc. An exhibition with an attempted historical facade of pure travertine cannot, on judgment, leave out an influential giant like Hofmann, or, on taste, cast aside the delicious, tutti-frutti elegance of Miss Frankenthaler. The fault lies in Solomon’s working method: backwards. He starts with Olitski, Stella, Poons, etc., and looks into the fifties to find those pictures which, if posed smartly, make a nice, smooth chronology out of “Painting in New York”, one feels that de Kooning and Pollock, and, on the other end, Warhol and Lichtenstein, are included only because Solomon knows he can’t get away with leaving them out. The exhibition is supposed to show how the old, round-screen Zenith consoles nailed together in a New Jersey shed by Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman have led to the crisp, luminous-dial, Panasonic entertainment systems manufactured in suburban Vermont by Noland and Company. The trouble with that is 1) the old guys are misunderstood, 2) the younger guys are misunderstood, and 3) painting in New York is misunderstood.

Lastly, the installation stinks. (Oh, it’s a great looking show, but with that personnel, you’d have to turn them face to the wall to make it ugly.) It’s another compromise between a walk through recent history and a sensual grab bag. The fan-jet lighting mechanisms are abominable (one literally cannot see the big Poons) and one of these days someone is going to trip over a tiny metal fence along the floor and make a Magritte out of a Barnett Newman.

Peter Plagens