Los Angeles

Southern California Attitudes, 1972 and Four Women

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

HASKELL: I’d like you to give a real big Pasadena welcome to a genuinely witty guy whom we haven’t seen for a while, but who always has a surprise or two for us ladies and gentlemen, a real pro, John Baldessari.

JOHN: Thank you Barbara, real happy to be here.

HASKELL: Always a pleasure. I understand you’ve got something a little new for us this time.

JOHN: That’s right, Barbara. I thought it would be a good idea, since I knew everybody else would be doing deadly serious stuff—you know, “Art”—to just, well, sorta stand up there and tell it like it is. I call it “Ten Fables.”

HASKELL: Sounds marvelous. Ladies and gentlemen, John Baldessari and his “Ten Fables.” (John performs piece.)

HASKELL: Great, just great. A fine, original piece of material. (Turns to audience) But, moving right along, I’d like you to meet a newcomer to the Pasadena scene.

In an apocryphal joke, a Cockney woman says, apropos an upcoming election, “I never votes; it only encourages ’em.” But encourage we must, and so these civic duty surveys of young/underexposed local artists drone on in spite of an obviously dry hole of talent (there are few enough good artists, fewer good local artists, fewer still younger, good, local artists; and there are practically none of these the tiny audience who cares about them doesn’t already know about; and when you slice that in half by gender, as LACMA does, you’ve got just about nothin’). We operate, however, under two art world premises hopefully giving the lie to such pessimism: 1) the whole scene has been revolutionized via structure-of-perception, i.e., “there’re so many young artists doing such interesting things”; and 2) it’s the museum’s duty to document them. Underlying the first is a supposition at least a hundred years old: avant-garde “serious” artists labor thanklessly away in their garrets, true only to their own reckless visions, until a curator or dealer comes around and happens to find all this “important” work going on. (More orthodox painters and sculptors have long stood accused of fashioning their wares with Leo Castelli or MoMA in the backs of their heads—one more indication, so the suspicion went, of bourgeois decadence; but it’s now halfway evident that most of “Attitudes, ’72” and “Four Women” has been veritably hothoused by hopes hung out on the graduate-school-to-museum grapevine.) The work is a species of demi-intellectual interior decoration, with the elected artists called in to “do a piece” in a given space, i.e., spiffy it up, light on the hardware, heavy on the phenomenology. It is unintentionally reminiscent of an S. J. Perelman playlet in which a young woman likewise contracts to have her quarters daringly redone (e.g., “Paint a gaily fringed rug on a wooden floor partition a room with fishnet on a ceiling track paste golden notary seals in an allover design on your white window shades have a favorite drawing photo stated up as big as they’ll make it get yards of fake leopard skin to throw over your studio couch ”):

FUSSFELD (dubiously): I’m not so sure it’s advisable, dusting spangles over the gas stove like that.

APRIL: Now, Mr. Feldpot, don’t be an old fuss—I mean stop worrying, will you? It’s gay, it’s chintzy. It’s a whiff of Mardi Gras and the storied Vieux Carre of New Orleans.

FUSSFELD (with a shrug): Listen, if you want to run down a fire escape in your nightgown, that’s your privilege. (looking around) Well, does the job suit you O.K.?

APRIL: Mad about it, my dear—simply transported Golly, I can’t wait to have my housewarming. Can you imagine when the people step off the dumbwaiter and see this room by candlelight?

FUSSFELD (faintly): You—er—you’re hoisting them up here?

APRIL: How else? We’ll be using the stairs outside to eat on.

FUSSFELD: M-m-m. I’m trying to visualize it.

APRIL: I thought of Basque place mats, two on each stair, and sweet little favors made of putty. Don’t you think that would be amusing?

FUSSFELD: Oh, great, great (Produces a statement) I got everything itemized here except what you owe the paperhanger. When he gets out of Blooming-dale’s, he’ll send you a separate bill.

APRIL (frowning): $1,693.00. Frankly, it’s a bit more than I expected.

FUSSFELD: Well, after all, you can’t pick up this kind of stuff for a song. Those notary seals, for instance. We used nine dozen at 50¢ apiece. The guy at the stationery store had to witness each one.

In the incestuous cacophony of chorus-line aspirants scurrying to catch the director/curator’s eye, then, once they’ve got it, Conceptualizing and Processing like Billy Hell to transform their spaces more galvanically than the competition, the curating becomes more decisive than the art, as if in the unstoppable interiorizing (depiction of “nature” to the object itself to Process to Concept) we’ve finally hit the touchstone: the motive for having art ideas in the first place. The gathering of shows like “Attitudes, ’72” and “Four Women” is, I imagine, a mixed bag: a little gossip, a few cold-turkey studio visits, a couple of protege recommendations, etc., but probably none of what it should be: putting the spaces out for public bid (the County Public Works has the forms; PAM could print some up).

Mss. Haskell and Livingston, at LACMA are neither villains nor bad curators; they are merely rendering their services as best they can in the midst of a difficult situation. ’I) The greater L.A. art scene is overpopulated with serious, young, new “interesting” artists—enough to keep at least 25 SoHo-class galleries stocked with ten shows a year apiece. Few galleries, however, are willing (as are Mizuno, Cirrus, Glenn, Mori’s Form, and occasionally Blum or Wilder) to support stables of materially/commercially risky unknown young artists. So it’s become, apparently, the museums’ burden to provide the exposure galleries should give. 2) For whatever mysterious reasons—perhaps the relative luxury of life in L.A. compared to New York—younger L.A. artists lack the moxie to generate something for themselves—coops, loft shows, performances, Art Workers Coalitions—in the way of patronage. (Exceptions like “F Space” in Santa Ana, where Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm as a “piece,” are far between.) The artists seem to subconsciously expect immediate post-graduate patronage to match the new, benevolent, air-conditioned, janitorized circumstances of the U.C. and state college campi—in other words, the museums. 3) Galleries are reluctant to back risky art which doesn’t get press coverage in art magazines like this one. Artforum doesn’t run regular L.A. reviews anymore, and I’ve been told the stuff I do write is harmful to the scene. I can’t do anything about the former, and as for the latter, a) “criticism” is not a synonym for “publicity,” and b) I can either write what I think, or lie.

Perhaps a constructive suggestion is in order. If “Attitudes, ’72” were an established event, held to expose “new talent” regardless of the general quality level of the crop, it could be received in the right spirit. LACMA and Pasadena could split it, one assuming the more traditional “object” art, and the other taking on a few special installations, manifestos, performances, etc. It might only recycle the problems of the Whitney Annuals, but, compared to what we’ve got, Los Angeles needs ’em.

“Collectively,” says the press release from the PAM show, “the artists in the exhibition represent neither a school of art nor a specific point of view. Instead, each artist is confronting the critical issues of art in distinct, personal ways apart from any organized fronts of activity.” That means either nothing much is going on hereabouts (since nobody is worth emulating), or the museum is covering up for the uniform whipped-cream Kaprow flavor of the work and proceeding as if each young tyro were indeed a Savage Messiah. Both interpretations are partially true, but the interesting aspect is what the system—a glut of colleges and art schools making an academic (MFA) necessity of “expanding the boundaries” of the logic and perception of art—has wrought: whole herds of young artists running out to aerospace bohemia as if it were a well-trod profession like dentistry or road-building. We are confronted, as Jake Berthot, a New York painter, remarked, with an academic ritual (numbers of “apprentices,” Salons des jeunes artistes, recent graduates returning to their alma maters to teach, etc.), but no academic substance, no consensus discipline. No art I’ve seen recently begs for the museum context more than the stuff in the PAM and LACMA shows; it needs white walls and uniformed guards like no Noland silkscreen ever did.

The sweetest piece in either show is the one of John Baldessari that I chided at the outset, because it goes to the almost-overlooked meat of the matter—what the hell causes all this academically structuralist stuff to get made in the first place—and because it’s poignant. The second point may be unfair, but Baldessari is a spritely but grizzled veteran, a Conceptualist at 40, up against the crunch of the most painful art-world ranking: middleweight. Success (fame, money, groupies) of neglect (self-righteous martyrdom) are easier to take than the netherworld of a little teaching and a show here and there (“Would you like to put in a piece with 20 other . . . ?”). Specifically, Baldessari mounts ten short-short stories about making it as an artist, or the value of art objects, alongside ten photographs, each illustrating one of the “Ten Fables.” There’s one about an integrity-ridden guy who waits and waits for the “right” moment to show, then does, and nobody comes. Moral: “Time flies and artists come and go.” Another, in the spirit of Duchamp’s urinal, tells of a valued master painting which gradually crumbles away, paint chip by paint chip, until all that’s left is the nail it hung on . . . still worth a cool million, of course. The fables, faced with the photos (a 747, a nail), would have made a nifty book, an all too accurate catalogue for the whole show. The piece looks all the better in its stylistic company: John Knight’s austere, deadpan photographs of “art concepts such as a space displacement or figure-ground reversal” (who cares, and how cum it always ends up a self-portrait?), or Alexis Smith’s complicated settings-out of “mixed media books which combine visual and literary elements” and, in my opinion, seem to have something to do with the Women’s Movement (her PAM piece, Hiawatha, is slick, indecipherable, and badly spelled—e.g., “medecine” [sic]—but the LACMA one is rich with memorabilia, vaguely about being raised as a woman). The most pervasive mode is once again a species of Process: at PAM, there’re John Schroeder’s unleashed Cornell boxes, Ellen Van Fleet’s homage to Alan Saret (“a visual diary” concerning a year in which she suffered a bad fall and a home fire, but . . . you hate to be hard on misfortune it’s all pretty jumbled in the interest of being with it; you can’t obscure personal meanings, then plead them, too), Jud Fine’s Nancy Graves pole-vault feathered rulers, Carole Caroompas’ rigorless Dorothea Rockburnes, and Edie Danieli’s “jarring juxtapositions of materials and active surfaces” in vinyl cubes, which I found altogether tepid and designy (when the Bauhaus did a materials show 45 years ago, they just piled the stuff up, but then the Weimar Republic didn’t have “blister-paks,” either). Across the Basin at LACMA, it’s the same story, with Maggie Lowe showing a split-screen Bruce Nauman, wherein she body-crawls up an Op art passageway (shot from head and feet), Alexis Smith’s work, and Barbara Munger’s new room. Barbara Munger’s new room is, incidentally, the greatest one-shot artistic collapse since Norman Mailer followed The Naked and the Dead with Deer Park; I simply can’t fathom it, unless she thought the “string pieces” were repeating themselves and/or that the pressure of the “doing a piece” business caught up with her and she choked. The work in question is an unenterable gallery covered by a few inches of dirt with vertically stacked, symmetrical, and color-coded names of vegetables painted on the wall (e.g., “CORN” in yellow), in a Pop-Conceptual garden. ’Nuff sed. Margaret Wilson almost, but not quite, saves the show with another unenterable (could it be? . . . Naw . . .) room done up with horizontal wires, mirroring, polished steel grating, and a miasma of reflections; unfortunately, it requires an impeccability it doesn’t get (maybe the LACMA custodial staff is on a sick-out).

The slick art at PAM, on the other hand, fares O.K. Tom Eatherton is a solid light artist, and his quiet, glowing arch suffers only from the little curtain you have to pull aside to get to it (Eatherton, like Mike Asher, needs whole premises). Guy Williams’ paintings (big pictures with tiny color bars making big color bars out of vacancies) ring with authority, although paintings (because they inherently require sympathy and contemplation) don’t belong in hippy-dippy surveys; likewise for Joel Bass, whose “toughness” is evolving a bit toward tinsel, and Pat Hogan, whose lintlike pictures need a context saying “expanded painting ”rather than “impoverished Process art.” Three other painters, however, are pretty bad. Gilah Hirsch’s semisurreal foodstuff paintings (“. . . to investigate formal painting issues and as vehicles for allegory”—which is certainly playing both ends against the middle) are ineptly crafted and seemingly tucked in every cranny of the exhibition, as if profundity lurked in the blatantly ordinary. Richard Yokomi is a pro, but I’ve never seen the excitement in his predictable Frankenthaler-Tuttles. The nadir in museum show art, nonetheless, is plumbed by Freeland Tan Hyun; these outsized Aaron Brothers monstrosities, sugary and expedient from their moronically obvious interior decorator colors, to their gelded Pollock paint-flinging, to the gleaming edges of their official, high-class frames, are simply ghastly. And they take up damned near a whole room.

I don’t know what to think of former hard-edger Michael Olodort’s delicate, surreal coat hanger drawings; they could be budding genius and they could be study hall art. But Gary Krueger’s plain ol’ photographs (unless I’m missing a point)—small, tough, and sharp—are good, granite reportage. Baldessari’s “Fables” and Krueger’s no-nonsense photos cut like a hot ripsaw through the cool, marshmallow quality of both exhibitions.

––Peter Plagens