Los Angeles

Los Angeles

I like Los Angeles art, I really do, and I’ve learned slowly that the silver and light, opalescence and reflection, skinny twigs and white feathers, sanded surfaces and fey performance that are washed in the sea and toasted in the sun (rather than dunked in sludge and compressed in the library) are not lesser, only more oblique. But I am inundated by tales of so-and-so in the ’30s, a grizzled veteran with a wide-brimmed hat, three days’ growth, in need of a shine, haircut, and a bit of compassion from the WPA’s easel painting department. I treasure the 50¢ catalogues from Sidney Janis (Motherwells, Gustons, and aluminum chairs) that measure the leaps of catharsis and a Bykertian fascination with limits––like the Model T, good art is still hand-cranked, and in any color you want so long as it’s matte. So I long for something solid, honed, tough . . . perhaps a tight, modest little Stuart Davis among Robert Venturi’s beloved tacky electrographics, or a LeWitt cube obstructing candyass Melrose Avenue. Sure enough, the big, wide, blue Frankenthaler in the office (I go for the pit, then work back toward the sunlight) sings softly boom boom, an aquatic gong against the anal retentive white walls and chi-chi overstuffed furniture; it’s real, a chewable in the vapors of August in West Hollywood.

But Richard Serra’s drawings are more real––oversized, aggressive, unforgiving, the work of a poetic road crew. How does he do it? How does he know that drawing––like sculpture eight years ago––is diseased, wallowing in the dregs of pseudo-blueprints, poisoned with leroy lettering and felt tip onanism, lacquered with fake torn-from-my-notebook enigma, and that it’s time to ream out its sinuses? How does he know that Paint-Stiks are ripe and ready for celebration through overstatement, like sheet lead? How does he know that, against the languid woosh of La Cienaga Boulevard’s nitric oxides, we need the real cave of the ogre artist?

In the rear room, a discreetly slight parallelogram, perhaps seven feet high, a showoff of chrome and glass framing alone, leans against a wall. The drawing inside is a single deckled sheet of paper floating with a three-inch margin, ruthlessly covered with solid black oil paint from the fat crayons (Paint-Stik). I can see anybody else (no names, please) doing series of “new work: leaning paintings, 1973–74,” or neophyte reductivists wondering why they haven’t figured out the comparative vapidity of the latest academic cliche, graphite fields. With Serra, the thing just works, with visual authority, intellectual presence, and, to be sure, the hovering accomplishment of his sculpture to back it up. And there’s another one, not so new by now, about eight feet wide, of a triangle drawn three times, oscillating in squat, ripping black lines, amidst Serra’s macho pixie dust of fingerprints, smears, dingleberries. Clearly it isn’t an unselfconscious working drawing––a sculptor’s usual virtue––and it isn’t even original––the centennial expressionist’s option (take a simple tool, draw quick, and settle for the rough cut). But it’s loudly spoke, and true.

In the front of the gallery, opposite the incredible drawing, is a wailful of charcoal drawings of side-by-side vague rectangles, done with two or three pulls. They look like Serra’s quick bow to artiness, to guys like Soulages and Hartung, to rounded-off squares and polite Suprematism. They hang, however, en face a behemoth, and might have wandered into the wrong salon. The monster is 20 feet wide, perhaps nine feet high, and composed of two giant pieces of ordinary hard white paper. The first––stapled to the wall and higher––holds a hard-edged but roughly surfaced black rectangle, occupying the whole sheet save for a foot-and-a-half margin. The second sheet, with a straight but ragged top edge, is tacked as a skirt over the former, while the Paint-Stik field slides down (how far?) behind it. Bang-bang, that’s it, excepting the incidental niceties of obsolete staple holes and penciled-cut lines. It’s so simple (like one of Serra’s “measuring” movies) it’s hard to figure out why it’s so good. Suffice to say that it occupies the room fully, redefines formalist drawing, predicts another major sculpture, puts Paint-Stik on the map, and feels like Neo-Synephrin against the smog.

Eugene Sturman is the only overlap between Cirrus’ group show (with Gloria Kisch and Ludwig Redl) and the closing four (Part II) of LACMA’s summer half dozen “young” artists, but his work speaks for the situation of all––well designed, crisply thought-out, subtly good-looking a tad fragile, and (to steal from L.A. Times critic William Wilson) caught in the crack between hard-core modern art tradition and Carlos Castaneda and such. Sturman’s pieces in both shows are krunkled, horizontally striated/constructed, curled, patina’d, and lightly festooned (dangling strings) copper panels, that look like weathered versions of George Sanders’ shield after Robert Taylor laid him out in Ivanhoe. They manage, however, several pleasantries: stamping themselves out in romantic, treasure-map silhouettes against the white wall, using natural, muted red/green oppositions to take process nonpainterly color all the way ’round back into Johannes Itten’s fold, and treading a thin line between modules (from which, said a painter friend of mine, “nothing truly offensive is ever made”) and aberrations. They’re good, but not great. (What do you want, why aren’t they “great?”) They’re inventive and deft, but not profound. (What’s to be profound about a nonnarrative wall piece?) I dunno. Okay, very good . . . but by the rules.

The rest of Cirrus’ show is like that (and so is the L.A. County Museum’s). Gloria Kisch cultivates a middle ground between Jackie Winsor (binding) and Jud Fine (poles) and makes bound poles which are surprisingly interesting, given their predictability––stylishly inert (regal verticals, like Giacometti), but knowledgeably clumsy (bulges of sand, wax, and twine). Ludwig Redl makes low-lying sculpture faintly resembling Pawnee sleds and/or earlier Nancy Graves. The best is a tablelike construction in which a rectangle outlined with tree limbs, and traversed by string-cum-feathers, sits lashed onto wildly slanted Y-shaped legs, so that the thing appears to dive away in fear. There are two other pieces, an L, and a diamond bent at right angles, with the corners blunted with cotton wrap.

At the museum, John Abbott’s wall boxes are faced with embellished lattice wood, either bowed in and out, covered with black glitter, or smothered in aluminum foil. Raymond Almeida’s modest paper paintings are, within a lot of scumbling, scratching, and quasi-obsessive surface working, physical extensions (perimeters cut, slanted, or notched) of Diebenkornesque interior divisions. The one who doesn’t fit––and, I think, the best and most perplexing artist in the LACMA exhibition, is Paul Dillon, who, with calculated innocence, laminates hundreds of sequence-altered Blondie comic-strip panels to medium big canvases, then coats ’em and frames ’em. Ten feet away, they give you an eyeball tickle, like Paolozzi prints; from medium range they flicker over the mind’s eye, like structuralist film; and up close they dare you to risk a headache and decode the schema. It’s a good, hard, economical idea with adequate visual return, and carried out with practically no frills. Even the painting hardware is essential. To have mounted the Puckish collage directly on the wall would have called attention to its trendiness––this way it’s all sweetly deadpan.

Perhaps it’s an overabundance of art-that-looks-like-art causing me, in the end, to read things into what is supposedly post-formalist sculpture. After all, why does it have to be welded metal to be taken neutrally, just on its merits as sculpture? But what’s supposed to pass as liberated ode to the jungian unconscious, or to the ecological beauty of “naive” construction, boils down to me as an intentional close pass at practicality. With the exception of Dillon, we’ve got cottage crafts persons here cut loose from village function, a sort of bizarre scout troop pounding and lashing and nailing and cutting things into not quite shields, footbridge fragments, aboriginal lawn furniture, fencing, and tent patterns. All of it finally turns out just physically redundant enough to just hang or sit there, waiting for the modernist tradition that it might have recklessly disowned instead of amending, to call it mercifully back into the fold of art.

––Peter Plagens