Los Angeles

“Nine Senior Southern California Painters”

Sure, the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) has a few strikes against it: a) a regional self-help project thrust into the breach where the patronage is historically thin and everybody knows how those things turn out, b) another attempt at art-world democracy and everybody knows how those things turn out (“Say, how ’bout a show of 63 ‘new’ L.A. artists?”), and c) its name (why not just “Mel’s Nonprofit Gallery and Magazine?”). But it’s working, against the odds, not the least of which is endemic misunderstanding. Example: Alan Moore, in his avuncular survey, “New Voices,”in last December’s Artforum, wonders how LAICA’s Journal can manifest any grit while directly under an institute committee. Simple: the elected committee exists only to keep the paper clips sorted for guest editors who get carte blanche for x issues. Likewise the programs (exhibitions) committee services the curators it chooses to mount shows. That Fidel Danieli edited the first three Journals and also gathered the opening exhibition is not surprising: available talents in L.A. are put on double-time.

Danieli’s proposal was only one of three initially accepted (also a vague “Current Concerns” show curated by Walter Hopps and a roundup of assemblage ramrodded by Hal Glicksman), but got the nod for blast-off because it was both immediately feasible and apolitically expedient. Although every cocked-and-loaded psyche in tinsel-town’s Bohemia waits to pounce on LAICA’s first intimation of choice (’60s Venice heros over the new glitterbugs, or far-out bandwagon masochism over solid, PG-rated “quality”) so it might have been wise to defer obvious feud-makers until the rent’s paid. But any decision is a political one, even Danieli’s “at least they can’t accuse of factionalism.” Oh yes: they say LAICA is the faction afraid to confront factionalism. Never mind; other than a-politics, the premise of “Nine Senior Southern California Painters” is twofold: nudging L.A.’s art amnesia and celebrating the quality/ perseverance of artists who span the sextagenarian-octagenarian generation gap: NICK BRIGANTE, FLORENCE ARNOLD, EMERSON WOELFFER, JOHN McLAUGHLIN, LORSER FEITELSON, PETER KRASNOW, HANS BURKHARDT, HELEN LUNDEBERG, and ANNITA DELANO. It’s an odd group—four hard-core hard-edgers, two unreconstructed Abstract Expressionists, one cosmo-tician, a Slavic folk abstractionist, and a loose figure painter, with the only common denominator current painterly activity. The quality is grossly uneven. To be blunt, McLaughlin is the only giant (No. 10—a black-and-white low-level bar on a strangely chromatic gray field—whooses right in and crosschecks your solar plexus). Woelffer, Feitelson, and Lundeberg are very good, and the rest range from mere venerated competence to L.A. Art Association stuff. The roomful they constitute isn’t particularly stunning even allowing understandable affection for moderately sized easel pictures—except for the back wall where the crispest hard-edge (McLaughlin’s supreme once-over authority with pinholes and pencil lines showing, and Feitelson’s blinding aqua clef) meets Woelffer’s bright, splashy phalluses. If it were, you could sup the show on its visual merits and overlook that the paintings are no older than the early ’60s, and most of them products of the last three or four years (in one case, 1961, 1963, and 1973—“not many good ones recently, but, here, let me rummage through the stacks . . .”). Where, you wonder, are the early pictures, the painting our amnesia has obviated? Surely they survive: a ’50s Woelffer c. Day Is Orange, a late ’40s McLaughlin demonstrating the man’s absolute integrity, a first Magical Space Form by Feitelson, a Burkhardt still life, or one of Lundeberg’s melancholic Surrealist portraits. The “disarmingly simple premise” of honoring “the senior Southern California painters who have created quality works with a contemporary attitude for the longest period of time” gets pretty fuzzy; while relative longevity might go unquestioned, I doubt Nick Brigante’s attitude is any more “contemporary” than Jirayr Zorthian’s, or Annita Delano’s more than Edgar Ewing’s. Moreover, why exclude the mightiest of them all—Stanton MacDonald-Wright—because he died so recently?

In his catalogue essay in the Journal Danieli asks,

What of the art scene of the 1940s and 1950s? The events of these decades are already slipping away beyond recall. . . . Can we in Southern California take comfort in having invented disposable and self-destructing art and, therefore, art history? How long does the myth of a Lotus Land of no memories continue?

“Nine Painters” won’t snip it, not only because there aren’t any ’40s or ’50s paintings on view at LAICA, but because our looking back in history (and so defensively, as if to pretend Stuart Davis, the Artist’s Union, “Subjects of the Artists,” and Peggy Guggenheim weren’t so much heavier, earlier, elsewhere) is going to become part of the next history. It’s always good to see McLaughlin, Woelffer, Feitelson, and Lundeberg again, but LAICA has paid its dues.

Peter Plagens