Los Angeles

View of “Llyn Foulkes,” 2013. From left: O’Pablo, 1983; Big Sur, 1984; Ghost Hill, 1984; Saddle Peak, 1984. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

View of “Llyn Foulkes,” 2013. From left: O’Pablo, 1983; Big Sur, 1984; Ghost Hill, 1984; Saddle Peak, 1984. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Llyn Foulkes

View of “Llyn Foulkes,” 2013. From left: O’Pablo, 1983; Big Sur, 1984; Ghost Hill, 1984; Saddle Peak, 1984. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

WE CAN’T ALL BE GOOD LOOKING: This ugly truth is written in the margin of a drawing, inked around 1949, by a teenage Llyn Foulkes. Fourteen or fifteen years old, the aspiring cartoonist sketches six goon-like men whose jowls droop, nostrils flare, tongues wag, and foreheads bulge, and whose necks are festooned with neat little ties. He signs the work “Spike Foulkes,” a nod to the bandleader and satirist Spike Jones, one of Foulkes’s great populist heroes. A tragicomic caricature of adult disposition filtered through an adolescent imagination, the piece already hints at subjects that would define Foulkes’s mature output: the disfigured faces, the shit-happens attitude, the sad-sack masculinity, the alter ego, the depraved American condition.

The untitled drawing is included among the 150 works spanning sixty-two years that make up this retrospective of the artist’s driven, generative career. Curated by Ali Subotnick, the selection of drawing, painting, photographs, collage, and assemblage includes pieces from the artist’s early series (photorealistic renderings of pigs and cows, rock paintings, and postcard paintings) as well as a wide range of later works, from angry political allegories to self-reflective tableaux. Despite his vocal distrust of the art world and aversion to careerist ambition—leaving the notable Ferus Gallery when he no longer jibed with the techno-phenomenological cool of its stable, changing his subject matter when it became too commercially popular, pulling paintings from shows when he felt they were unfinished—Foulkes has exhibited steadily since the early 1960s. Most recently, he was included in last summer’s Documenta 13, where he presented paintings and performed twice daily for three weeks on his Machine, a sculptural instrument outfitted with drums, antique car horns, bells, pipes, and other percussive ornaments. (Though the Machine itself was not displayed in the galleries here, Foulkes will have performed with it twice during the exhibition’s run.)

Having assembled the artist’s most important works, the survey also presents a surprisingly honest biography of a man, a product of the artist’s narrative-driven approach to picturing the slow burn of personal history alongside the relics of cultural memory. One of his earliest major assemblages, the heavy and haunting In Memory of St. Vincent School, 1960, is an elegy to the postwar destruction Foulkes witnessed while stationed in Germany as a serviceman. The lingering impression of war’s aftermath would return frequently throughout his career, often suffusing other elements of his autobiography. Lucky Adam, 1985, for example, is a melancholy portrait of his second father-in-law, who was an air force colonel. Part of the well-known series “Bloody Heads,” 1971–, this work is uncharacteristically marked by piercing blue eyes, a facial feature that Foulkes typically obscured with collaged photos and printed matter or washes of red oil paint.

Perhaps more than any of his earlier series, the “Bloody Heads” sharply define Foulkes’s individualistic vision. They are unmatched in their eerie ability to swing between pathos and dark humor while they alternately indict and honor a host of patriarchs: ex-presidents, priests, movie starts, Jesus, Salvador Dalí, colonels, and moneymen. Even the artist himself becomes a subject of these compositions. The earliest of the series, Who’s on Third?, 1971–73, was inspired by a trip the artist took to a mortuary, where a friend showed him a corpse with its skin pulled away from the skull. Reminding Foulkes of Moe from the Three Stooges, the sight of the autopsied head prompted him to deface an existing self-portrait, adding smears of red and a bony mass in place of the countenance. To Foulkes, this piece humorously recalls slapstick, Abbott and Costello, Buster Keaton, and a pie in the face. Yet the blunt-force immediacy of its details—the splotchy void in the image, the rivulets of red dribbling down a starched white collar—leaves abject horror in place of a punch line.

That these works should have levity at all stems largely from Foulkes’s treatment of pictorial space. Flouting the rules of how a painting should behave, he composed figures whose arms or neckties dangle goofily out of frames, and frames that show off their unfinished backsides instead of their fronts. MAKE ALL DELIVERIES IN REAR reads a sign screwed onto The Doctor, 1976. These sight gags are compounded by Foulkes’s bizarre conflation of two- and three-dimensional space, a technique that reached its acme in his later “dimensional paintings,” which make use of real-world objects, foreshortened surfaces, trompe l’oeil renderings, and carefully staged display conditions to produce complex and disorienting tableaux. The artist’s masterpieces in this vein, Pop, 1985–90, and The Lost Frontier, 1997–2005, are the grand finales of this retrospective, exhibited individually in separate black boxes and spotlighted, with an ideal viewing distance marked by stanchions. Pop is even accompanied by a cartoonish sound track played on Foulkes’s Machine. Like a kind of sideshow or oversize diorama, The Lost Frontier offers a lurid glimpse of manifest destiny: The picture plane simultaneously thrusts forward and recedes into an illusionistic depth, while strange signifiers—the camouflaged body of an American Indian figure, a mummified cat, a Mickey Mouse–headed pioneer woman with a machine gun—punctuate the surface.

Polemical narratives such as the death of the American landscape and Disneyfied corporate takeover are an extension of the artist’s outspoken politics. Closer to home, when Foulkes paints his own image into these worlds—as he has in a number of works since 1990—his meditations on disappointment, loss, fear, and resilience become even more immediate and empathetic. Taking his place among the impotent critic, the fallen cowboy, and the failed superhero, Foulkes admits his own anxieties, rendering a subject that never fit into the slick surfaces of mainstream Pop or even Finish Fetish but whose awkward, unsightly mien was there all along.

Travels to the New Museum, New York, June 12–Sept. 1; Museum Kurhaus Kleve, Germany, Nov. 6, 2013–Mar. 2, 2014.

Catherine Taft is an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.