Los Angeles

“Art In Los Angeles”

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Like most of the city’s cultural institutions, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebrated Los Angeles’ bicentennial for most of last year. For its finale, the museum mounted two concurrent blockbusters: “The Museum as Site” displaced the European and American moderns and also spread over the museum’s grounds, hanging in trees and from the sides of the building; and “Seventeen Artists in the Sixties” was shoehorned into the special exhibitions area, the usual site for big shows. Together, these shows were given one blanket title: “Art in Los Angeles.”

“The Museum as Site” was intended to be seen as a contemporary overview, but when cornered it appeared as no more than a collection of subjective choices marked by an absence of rigor in selection. Despite curator Stephanie Barron’s catalogue statement that the two focuses of the exhibition were site-related art and installation art, the show’s title demanded some kind of site-specificity; a large proportion of the work shown fell into the categories of installation and public sculpture, and it was unclear why the context of “museum” was any more appropriate to these pieces than that of “gallery” or “public space.” Some artists not usually associated with site-specific work did try to meet the demands of the title, and suffered in the attempt. Painter Karen Carson was represented by tall banners which hung on an outside wall; Carson attempted a pictogram of her painting, its ring components separated part by part on a white ground, but without the frame to generate or offset them the allusions to landscape seemed too obvious. Jay McCafferty’s three banners, on the other hand, with their loose grids of scimitar shapes on orange-and-gold grounds, recalled patined ceramic in their color and patterning—an architectural reference which helped them fit their situation and enabled them to fare somewhat better.

Two artists included in the “Seventeen Artists in the Sixties” show, Robert Irwin and Ed Kienholz, can be seen as the fathers of two distinct Los Angeles schools—the dematerialized, reduced-to-essentials school (Irwin) and the assembled, rich-in-detail school (Kienholz). Irwin was the only figure present in both shows; his piece for “The Museum as Site,” An Exercise in Placement and Relation in Five Parts, was five arrangements of three steel elements—a slab (13 feet, 6 inches by 2 feet by 1 inch), a bar (4 feet by 6 inches by 6 inches), and a stainless-steel rod (13 feet, 6 inches by 11/4 inches by 11/4 inches). The arrangements, in five locations around the museum, are site-specific—the one before Auguste Rodin’s Balzac, for example, mimics the statue and its setting, the slab flat in the foreground, the bar standing vertically behind it, and the rod lying flat as a sort of background. Irwin’s five parts are an overview of contemporary sculptural practice in which each arrangement is a generic sample—school of Richard Nonas, school of Anthony Caro, school of Richard Serra, the “spiritualism of materials” school (the components indoors, standing upright and softly lit), and the “Zen garden” school (the components both upright and flat, spaced according to the concrete grid of the entrance courtyard).

Michael Asher and Michael Brewster are both “school of Irwin” in the reductive quality of their work. Asher’s Sign in the Park is a lesson in semiotics in three parts: the sign of the title of the piece (a dog-leash ordinance sign in a nearby park); a publicity still and poster for the film The Kentuckian, with Burt Lancaster, displayed in a signboard at the museum entrance; and the painting The Kentuckian, by Thomas Hart Benton, which was commissioned for the movie and is now in the museum’s collection. The movie images and the painting both feature a dog, leashed in the former and unleashed in the latter. Brewster’s equally vanguardist Attack and Decay is, or is made by, a sound machine hanging in a tree in the sculpture garden. The sound generated (the title describes it) is a more organic and evocative work than most of Brewster’s recent output.

John Baldessari was the fourth artist to offer a reductive definition of art—a definition his piece both summarized and parodied. Alignment Series: Two Palms and Two Columns (for Newman) consists of two photographs (one black and white, one color) of palm trees, placed floor-to-ceiling on the wall behind two of the columns that support the museum balcony. If one stands by the title card—across the court on the facing balcony—all that can be seen are the edges of the photographs, a blank wall, and the framing columns. Only by moving sideways can one see the palms. Like a good Irwin, it works when it disappears and disappears when it works.

Moving to the assemblage school, the walls of Alexis Smith’s meditation on China, Cathay, are festooned with lanterns, china plates, and other chinoiserie, along with large paintings of a tiger’s head, an exploding firecracker, and a blackboard. Texts, typed on lace, silk, photographs, sheet music, and such, include lines. from Charlie Chan books, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, Shanghai Express, Red Guard pamphlets, and so on—sources chosen for their atmosphere and ambiguity—and they too are affixed to the walls; the floors are scattered with firecrackers and cookieless fortunes. Chris Burden’s A Tale of Two Cities is a toy-scale wartime landscape provided with men and machinery ranging from the foreign (tall, impressive Shogun warriors) to the pragmatic (tanks, missiles, planes) to the archaic (foot soldiers and cavalry.) The piece continues Burden’s fascination with strategy, technology, and war, a fascination which, in its obsessiveness and its use of toys, suggests boyhood or male adolescence; Burden is thus freed from the necessity for message or moral, though there may be an element of forecast. Jonathan Borofsky’s I Dreamed A Dog Was Walking a Tightrope at 2,715,346 reprises some of his already-familiar images; the large wood-whorl is there, as is the videotape that illustrates the title, and the red-eyed, dog-eared devil man, which runs along the floor, fills the end wall, and continues onto the ceiling. The drawings spread across the walls and congregate in deeply chiaroscuroed bunches. Like Burden’s toys, Borofsky’s images and his theatrical willfulness have their roots in adolescence; these dream-images stem from surrealism, too, but this is a teenage surrealism, without the conceits of ideology or irony.

Increasingly, loosely associated group shows such as this one seem to split into two camps. While it is difficult to characterize the one that includes Borofsky and Burden, these two artists share a willfulness and a lack of clear ideology that could form a working definition of Post-Modernism—a revival of the esthetics of indifference. While they are in the tradition of Kienholz and California assemblage, Borofsky and Burden lack the moralism of the older artists. The other camp is more easily defined; its works are marked by a conscience, a well-meaning liberalism. Into this camp falls Michael C. McMillen. His Central Meridian is a homage to Kienholz; its centerpiece, a 1964 Dodge Dart with a glowing electric fire in its back seat, recalls both the title and the activity in Kienholz’s The Back Seat Dodge ’38. McMillen’s Dodge sits on a pedestal in an exacting replica of an old and over-full garage. It is dark and musty and filled with junk: car parts, license plates, a lawn mower or two, radios, a “halo lite” television, books, calendars, cans, bottles, and signboards. From the midst of his reified memories, McMillen successfully suggests an owner from the owned. Roland Reiss’s hydrostone pseudo-artifacts, like McMillen’s collectibles, are labels or synecdoches. His five New World Stoneworks—small figures rollerskating or walking the dog, revolving doors, dumpsters—are housed in display cases scattered through the museum; all are captioned with anthropological misreadings. Reiss is one of the few artists here to address the museum as institution. He indicts both our own rituals and our reading of the rituals of the past; the drawback is the obviousness of the message of these fake archaeological remnants.

The remaining work fell into the set of pieces that could have been commissioned as public sculpture, or in one case painting. Set on a square, raised dais, Eric Orr’s Prime Matter, a 20-foot-high outdoor column putting forth flame and a thick fog, has spiritual qualities which ameliorate its suggestions of commercialism and spectacle. Robert Graham’s Retrospective Column is definitely commissionable: a 15-foot-tall four-sided wax pillar embedded with Graham’s characteristic figures, whole, paired, and in parts, it is in fact a proposal for one of two bronze columns which will adorn an outdoor walkway at the museum. Like Orr, Graham attempts an archetype and ends up with a pictorial and nostalgic religiosity; of the two, he falls a good deal shorter.

While Graham has enshrined his previous work, Richard Jackson has simply repeated his, building still another sculpture from paintings. While on the scale of public sculpture, this piece is probably too fragile for outside display: The Big Idea 2 is a 16-foot sphere built from almost 3,000 stretched canvases. In comparison, Lloyd Hamrol’s and Terry Schoonhoven’s modesty is to their credit. Hamrol’s architectural sculpture, an open-ceilinged house of Douglas fir erected in the plaza, is site-specific; its doorways align with the museum’s, but they stagger sideways to make entering a more thought-provoking action. Schoonhoven’s mural is yet more generic—a trompe l’oeil covered walkway painted on an outside wall.

While the selection in “The Museum as Site” seemed random and vague, the other half of “Art in Los Angeles” seemed positively Machiavellian in its attempt to provide a historical overview of the city’s cultural development. “Seventeen Artists . . .” opened to protests that it was both historically inaccurate and politically corrupt; that its organizers had ignored women, minorities, and most of the artists actually working in Los Angeles. But the exhibition’s focus and roster were defensible and deserving. As the catalogue said, the ’60s “permanently defined the community’s cultural stance” and marked its emergence “as a major center of contemporary art.” The artists chosen by curator Maurice Tuchman were Wallace Berman, Peter Voulkos, John McLaughlin, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Edward Kienholz, Ed Moses, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, David Hockney, Ronald Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, and Bruce Nauman. These artists have been representing Los Angeles internationally since the mid-’60s, and their work is the filter through which the city’s art continues to be seen.

The clarity of Tuchman’s version of history, however, its march from the eccentric Beat poetry and garage assemblage of Berman to the high formalism of Davis, Diebenkorn, and Francis, should have caused even more controversy than the exhibition’s racial or sexual makeup. To prove Tuchman’s claim for the international status of Los Angeles art, this retrospective described the decade here as having been narrowly in step with mainstream art. It wound from famous Los Angeles artists to famous artists who live in Los Angeles with its inclusion of David Hockney, among others; and if this was the most obvious bid for international caliber, the exclusion of John Altoon, the only Ferus Gallery artist whose mature style was Abstract Expressionism, was equally indicative of the curator’s motives. Without Altoon it appears that we have overthrown our indebtedness to New York; his absence rights the city’s course on the mainstream.

Paradoxically, the catalogue essays by Christopher Knight, Michele De Angelus, Susan Larsen, and Anne Bartlett Ayres attempt to anchor the art in Los Angeles, and thereby give it a regional uniqueness at odds with Tuchman’s claim for its internationalism. These are two horns of a tricorn dilemma that faces Southern California art: the insistence on a sense of place, and the claim of world status. The third horn is the resentment and defensive insularity that the choice between the first two fosters. If the decade of the ’60s has, in fact, “permanently defined the community’s cultural stance,” the overriding contemporary issue raised by “Seventeen Artists . . .” remains the question that faced the work when it first appeared—that of provincialism.

Howard Singerman