New York

California Color

Promising scholars and philosophers, the story goes, move to California and then just play tennis and swim for years. There is that whole shallow, indulgent, Republic-of-Trivia aspect to it which reminds us here in New York that not since the invention of bronze casting has anything of consequence happened in that kind of climate. Stories of easy love and the vision of Reagan combine to remind us that sexual freedom is often a substitute for political freedom. In short, the whole California Weltanschauung bristles us up and makes New Yorkers feel for a moment extraordinarily responsible and even puritanical. From here the California scene looks weak and epicurean.

Also, the prospect of hip young drop-out types hanging out in Venice, Calif., making fancy baubles for the rich amuses us. Easy materials, easy designs; why shouldn’t we notice that their attitude toward color is just as facile? It is apparently as easy to rack up in Los Angeles as an artist as it is to be a stringer of beads or an importer of herbals. What we have here is a group show of the work of 13 Californians in which luxuriously flaccid color is the common theme. Two of the pieces transcend the others in achievement, both by accepting the taste in question, and then dealing with it, shaping it, sculpting it almost, and putting it back with more art in it than it had before. The first is Larry Bell, represented by one of his Chanel cubes (1968), but also by Bevel Strip Piece (1969), a more ambitious and interesting affair. Bevel Strip Piece consists of a shelf of glass, five inches wide and a hundred inches long, treated with a metal coating so as to refract the light in zappy, opalescent hues. It does refract the light in zappy, opalescent hues, provided, of course, you hang it on a white wall. It also casts not only a simple shadow (should you insist on applying Eastern profundities about the actuality of the object), but throws in a rainbow of reflected light on top. Isn’t it odd that the raunchiest New York artist would at least avoid the obviousness of such vulgar titillation? In California the ideal of luxe, calme, et volupté is simplified into prettiness and expensive-lookingness, which contaminates the real beauty of even such a piece as Bell’s.

Fred Eversley’s big, thick untitled disc, 17 1/2 inches in diameter, of multi-tinted polyester resin (1970) succeeds by embracing this attitude for what it is worth. Consequently, all it really is is an enormous costume jewel, but at least it submits whole-heartedly to loveliness. Besides, in a room full of easy effects, this one looks achieved with greater than ordinary effort, which does command genuine esthetic admiration. (Unlike the others, Eversley was born in New York.) In contrast, DeWain Valentine’s solid-color vertical polyester disc (1970) and Peter Alexander’s eight-foot high polyester toothpick (1969) fail to rise above the level of office lobby decoration.

A disappointment for me was John McCracken’s untitled painted plank (1970). I had thought that in McCracken’s case the “finish fetish” was a serious thing, like whoever it was at the Bauhaus who tried to paint panels without evidencing brushstrokes as an exercise in perfection of technique; the anthropomorphic lean of these planks against the wall I have also found massively and gravitationally vivid. But seeing this one here has let me down, and by its size, shape, and proportions, and the keen grin of its surface, it unavoidably calls the image of a surfboard to mind.

Ed Ruscha’s Rooster (1967) is here too, and I like it, if not as much as his gas stations. At least it has wit: it seems like it wants to say “cock” instead, but we know that its absurdity would not be put at rest even if it did. Billy Al Bengston’s Godzilla’s Saddle (1962) manages, all the liberty of Venice notwithstanding, to be coloristically drab: it is improved by being reproduced in black and white.

Everything I have mentioned so far is, however, at least art. A twenty-four year old named Charles Arnoldi makes sleazy, infantilistic wall hangings out of polyethylene bagging and dry pigment. They relate to the early Rauschenberg, but to exceed them in triviality it would be necessary to look to Italy or Latin America. They are not—and this is saying something about seaside art—even pretty.

Joseph Masheck