PST, A to Z: ’46 N. Los Robles’ at Pacific Asia, ‘Proof’ at Norton Simon
Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
At least one writer has characterized Pacific Standard Time as “overcompensation” for L.A.’s perceived art historical inferiority complex. But the story of the region’s ascent is more nuanced than this assessment suggests. “46 N. Los Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum,” at the Pacific Asia Museum, and “Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California” at the Norton Simon Museum both capture that pivotal moment when Southern California seized its own artistic reputation by the horns, simultaneously reaching for and turning away from New York and Europe.
“46 N. Los Robles” is a small show with a big, somewhat convoluted story. In 1943, a community-run arts association in Pasadena merged with the better funded Pasadena Art Institute and moved into the Chinoiserie-style home and studios of Grace Nicholson at 46 N. Los Robles Ave. (now the home of the Pacific Asia Museum). Renamed the Pasadena Art Museum, it organized some of the most adventurous and cutting edge shows of contemporary art in the region, if not the country—notably, an early Pop art show in 1962, and a Marcel Duchamp retrospective in 1963. Riding on these successes, it relocated to a new building (the current site of the Norton Simon Museum) in 1969. But five years later, the cost of the building had put the organization in financial straits, forcing it to hand the museum over to Simon, who re-opened it as a more traditional institution.
Before that transition (which was something of an art world scandal), PAM was the place to be. In a video documentary at the end of “46 N. Los Robles,” artist Larry Bell recalls being surprised that all the “conservative” people in Pasadena were so much fun. The video also includes interviews with trustees and a former director, who describe PAM as the kind of place where board members often filled in as guards or tended bar at openings.
Despite its DIY ethos, PAM’s avant-garde pedigree was well established. In 1953 it accepted a gift from German art impresario Galka Scheyer that included works by a prominent group of artists known as the “Blue Four”: Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky. The museum also supported the work of local contemporary artists such as Helen Lundeberg, John McLaughlin, and Sam Francis. And in 1962, curator Walter Hopps arrived from the Ferus gallery, organizing the Pop art and Duchamp exhibitions, as well as solo shows of the work of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell. In bringing the work of established European and East Coast artists to Pasadena, Hopps gave the museum a truly international reputation.
Works by all of these artists and many more are included in “46 N. Los Robles,” arrayed across two modest rooms. Like many PST shows, it’s a broad mix of works and ephemera, ranging from the poster Duchamp designed for his retrospective—a wanted poster with the artist as criminal—to Ed Ruscha’s “Hotel,” a signature word painting from 1961, and a rare instance of physical texture in the artist’s work: the word “HOTEL” is outlined in uncharacteristically thick, gray brushstrokes.
The emphasis on the physicality of paint, which reigned supreme in the 1940s and 50s, had relegated printmaking to second-class status in 1960, when artist June Wayne founded Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. “Proof” is largely the story of Tamarind, although it also includes works printed at other prominent shops, Gemini G.E.L. and Cirrus Editions. Gemini in particular was known for working with famous East Coast artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Frank Stella.
Wayne’s achievement was not so much in attracting artists from the East Coast or Europe—although they certainly came—but in establishing an environment in which artists could make high-quality, experimental works, and where the art of printmaking could be sustained and shared. She established a renowned training program and made sure that prints from each edition were donated to local museums. PAM/NSM was one of the recipients of this largesse, and the works in the show are largely from the museum’s collection.
“Proof” opens with a small selection of works that give a sense of what printmaking was like in L.A. before Tamarind. Lovely, small-scale landscapes and still lifes, largely in soft gradations of black and white dominated. Among them are some intricate early works by Wayne from 1951-52: a trio of fractured cubist figures embedded in a prismatic network of diamond patterns.
With the emergence of the L.A. art presses, printmaking lost some of its preciousness, engaging larger artistic trends like Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual art. Paul Brach’s “Oracle,” from 1964 looks like a monochrome rectangle until slowly, the subtlest circle emerges from the blue-green field. John Altoon's grotesque yet whimsical figures blend abstraction and cartoon style. And the central seal-like imagery of Billy Al Bengston’s “Mecca Dracula,” from 1968 is, I dare say, more successful and mysterious than many of his paintings.
Because of its technical requirements, printmaking is usually a collaborative enterprise, a characteristic that suited the collective ethos of the 1960s. However, the relationship between artist and master printer was not always harmonious. One wall text in "Proof's" companion exhibition, "The Original Print," recounts a conflict that arose between a Tamarind printer and the artist Bruce Conner. As his final work, Conner wanted to print a plate that had previously been rejected and discarded, a decision that went against Tamarind procedures designed to protect the integrity of an edition. He also refused to sign his prints—another Tamarind requirement. Wayne intervened, allowing Conner to use the rejected plate—the final print has a large black “X” through it—and to sign his work with only his thumbprint. For Conner, the process of making the print became the work of art itself, exploring the tension between the democratic act of making multiple copies and the notion of the “limited edition” designed to create value through scarcity and authenticity.
This experimental attitude eventually led artists in Southern California to create works that were not traditional prints at all. John Cage created an edition of sculptures consisting of word fragments printed on layers of Plexiglas. In response to police brutality at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Claes Oldenburg made a edition of melted, plastic fire plugs. And Ed Kienholz printed an image of his installation, “Five Car Stud” (now on view at LACMA), onto the windows of 55 identical car doors.
By the late 1960s, it seems not really to have mattered whether an artist was from L.A. or not, or even whether they were using a press. But printmaking’s resurgence as a contemporary art medium definitely started here. The SoCal art scene may have needed big names from the East to put it on the map initially, but it quickly turned the tide of influence, sending proof out to the wider world that it was the art center of the future.
Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 449-6840, through Apr. 2. Closed Tuesdays. www.nortonsimon.org
Ken Price, "Figurine Cup III," 1970, Offset litho and screenprint. Courtesy of Gemini G.E.L. "Figurine Cup III" © Ken Price and Gemini G.E.L.
John Altoon, "Untitled," 1965, Lithograph. Printed by Ken Tyler, Published by the Tamarind Lithography Workshop. © 2011 Estate of John Altoon, Braunstein/Quay Gallery