Review: 'Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970'
A moment arrives in the life of important art when, for better and for worse, it becomes fully institutionalized. To paraphrase -- and slightly modify -- Cézanne, what was once new, confusing and dynamic switches gears, becoming "something solid and enduring, like the art of the museums." The process occurs over time, not suddenly or with a bang.
It's bittersweet too. Change is always discomfiting.
For art made in Los Angeles in the first generation following World War II, that moment arrives on Saturday. "Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970" opens at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
It's not the first such major museum survey. Denmark's admired Louisiana Museum of Modern Art took the first stab more than a decade ago, with 1998's adventurous "Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997." Next, "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity 1900-2000," the statewide show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebrating the new millennium, included a sizable component. The prestigious Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris followed suit in 2007, focusing more closely on the same years as the Getty with "Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital."
But "Crosscurrents" feels different, and not because it's better or worse than the shows that came before. (Aspects of it are both.) What's different is that it was organized by the Getty.
Without a Modern art department, curatorial duties were performed by the Getty Research Institute's Andrew Perchuk, Rani Singh, Glenn Phillips and Catherine Taft. (They worked in association with Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau, an exhibition hall where the show travels in the spring -- an ideal pairing, since today Berlin and L.A. are the two most vibrant cities for new art.) Since the curators have slight exhibition experience, the installation of objects in the galleries sometimes goes awry. With 79 works by 47 artists in galleries of relatively modest size, things often seem crowded.
Two-thirds of the works date from the 1960s. Just two pieces -- a sleek Lorser Feitelson abstract painting and an altar-like Wallace Berman assemblage sculpture -- were made in the 1940s. The chronological organization is straightforward, even a bit old-fashioned, framed according to artistic movements that are in fact mostly handy sobriquets.
The first room smartly juxtaposes crisp, abstract, hard-edge paintings with aggressively tactile ceramic sculptures. They're sharply different, which makes a strong point. The postwar stirring of important American art is usually pegged to the expansive gestural mark-making of Abstract Expressionist painting -- a view that automatically discredits L.A. Here, the period's best paintings showed no interest in Ab Ex at all, while expressionist rigor was channeled into the wholly unexpected craft of ceramics.
The next room gathers assemblage sculpture and collage, also prominent in the '50s. Expressionist urges -- spiritual and political -- took form in L.A. by cobbling together objects scavenged from the cast-off stuff of a newly booming consumer culture. Gordon Wagner's and George Herms' amalgamations operate on Surrealist poetics, while assemblage's Cubist roots animate Melvin Edwards' welded iron wall reliefs, suggesting industrial-strength African masks.
The 1960s shifts to the so-called L.A. Look, sleek and sexy. It encompasses a chartreuse lacquered plank by John McCracken, leaning nonchalantly against the wall; Vija Celmins' silvery freeway, a novelty painted as seen from an automobile's passenger seat; a bright orange Billy Al Bengston chevron painting, illuminated from within by its own internal spotlight, and more.
Yet, an Edward Kienholz assemblage sculpture lording over the center of the room wittily implies something else. The sculpture, painted over a salvaged commercial sign for motor oil, is a portrait of the entrepreneurial art dealer and curator Walter Hopps. He slips open his suit jacket like a street-corner fence selling stolen watches. The L.A. Look emerges as a marketing motif within an art scene that hadn't had much of a market before.
The fourth of the show's five packed galleries is key to identifying its institutionalizing sensibility. Dubbed "advanced modes of painting," its 10 large-scale masterpieces were made with diverse techniques. Ron Davis's pigments flow across geometric polyester resin. Larry Bell mysteriously coated sheets of glass. Lee Mullican painted spectral congeries with a knife-edge. Richard Diebenkorn masterfully excavated and continuously rebuilt abstractions.
Yet, what impresses most is the room's format -- a princely display that recalls nothing so much as a conventional "grand gallery" for Old Masters in a traditional European museum. Rather than a parade of monumental paintings by Rubens, Poussin and Goya, marvelous classics by Sam Francis, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha take the stage. A virtual crescendo, it sets up the brink of the 1970s encountered in the final room.
There, a cast and painted but finally inscrutable fiberglass object by Bruce Nauman incongruously bridges the floor and the wall. Nearby, a text-painting commissioned from a commercial sign painter by John Baldessari describes the supposed elements of a perfect painting -- which this one may or may not embody, depending on criteria astutely left to a viewer. Both works react against the glamorous, highly polished flash of industrially pretty Minimalist paintings and sculptures by Judy Chicago, De Wain Valentine and others.
The room also raises some questions. One concerns specific objects.
Craig Kauffman's draped, lacquered 1969 sheet of suspended plexiglass is lovely. But his vacuum-formed 1968 "bubbles," not on view, are his finest work.
Back in the assemblage room, Noah Purifoy, who was instrumental in redefining black consciousness in art, is represented by a modest piece framing a street-fragment salvaged from the 1965 Watts rebellion. Yet, his more imposing assemblage, "Watts Riot," which isn't here, would have made a stronger impression for an under-acknowledged artist who gave poignant visual form to "the fire next time," the haunted lyric of an old slave song.
Most startling, though, is the absence of anything by Robert Irwin, easily among the most significant artists L.A. has produced. True, the exhibition coincides with a Getty commission for a new Irwin sculpture -- eight slabs (and 20 tons) of polished black granite slicing through the downstairs lobby on a rising vector, which viscerally connects the built and natural environments. Irwin also abandoned painting for remarkable perceptual installations like this one, which are his greatest achievement. Still, it's frankly shocking not to encounter one of his 1962 line paintings in the show, since they launched his rigorous process.
As the art of L.A.'s first postwar generation becomes fully institutionalized, the focus will continue to sharpen. Indeed, just three artists could powerfully represent the 1950s -- the brilliant perceptual geometries of painter John McLaughlin, which anticipate Light and Space art; the muscular clay sculptures of Peter Voulkos, which complicate artistic ideas of function and craft; and Berman's Beat Generation assemblage aesthetic, which under-girds many later artists' counterculture actions. Their precedents are everywhere in art made ever since.
Here's the irony: For many -- and maybe most -- of the show's best artists, Los Angeles was an ideal place to make art in the '50s and '60s precisely because it was a burgeoning city with almost no institutional artistic infrastructure in place. That explains the bittersweet aura up at the Getty's travertine citadel overlooking the pellucid megalopolis. In Pacific Standard Time, those palmy days are definitively over.
-- Christopher Knight
Photos: Ed Ruscha, "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas," 1963, oil on canvas; Peter Voulkos, "Little Big Horn," 1959, polychromed stoneware; David Hockney, "A Bigger Splash," 1967, acrylic on canvas; Wallace Berman, "Untitled (Faceless Faces with Kabala)," 1963-1970, Verifax collage with transfer lettering. Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum