PST, A to Z: ‘Civic Virtue’ at LA Municipal Art Gallery and Watts Towers Arts Center
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.
When Josine Ianco Starrels became the director of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) in 1975, she had a clear vision for the space: “It’s City money. City money comes from L.A. citizens. And I think it should support L.A. artists…where are local artists going to cut their teeth? And who is going to show them?”
Although Pacific Standard Time has told us much about who was indeed showing local artists, Starrels’ point about the city’s money supporting the city’s artists is a key idea behind “Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center.” Split between the two venues, with each institution emphasizing its own history, this sweeping exhibition provides a much-needed vision of art created and presented, not for art’s sake or for profit, but for the public good.
Commercial galleries, no matter how adventurous, are still businesses, and non-profit museums and art spaces, with few exceptions, are beholden to wealthy donors and benefactors. It’s tempting to imagine that government-run institutions, funded by taxpayers, might truly reflect the tastes of the people. The convoluted histories of LAMAG and the Watts Towers Arts Center (WTAC) prove that reality is more complex than that, but “Civic Virtue” still succeeds in reminding us of that original, idealistic impulse: that art should be a central part of civic life.
Of course, ironically, the story begins with a wealthy donor. Oil heiress Aline Barnsdall purchased the property now known as Barnsdall Park (where LAMAG is located) in 1919, with the intention of creating a kind of multi-use acropolis of the theater arts. Frank Lloyd Wright began the project, but then decamped for Japan, prompting a frustrated Barnsdall to give the land to the city in 1923. Much legal wrangling ensued over the terms, but the site eventually fell under the management of the Municipal Arts Department (now the Department of Cultural Affairs).
The LAMAG exhibition includes a great many representative works by L.A. artists who have shown there, from a huge, gruesome, anti-war painting by Hans Burkhardt, to the elegant, hard-edge abstractions of Lorser Feitelson, to the tiny, painstakingly realist still lifes of Maxwell Henderson. Yet the show’s chief appeal is the history it reveals, both of the gallery and of efforts to bring art into the orbit of everyday life.
Did you know that Sears used to sell fine art? In the 1960s actor and art collector Vincent Price made a very strange 10-minute film for Sears Roebuck & Co., touting their collection of original art. Stating that “art belongs to everyone,” he assured viewers that the Sears artworks were, “not done by strange fellows with long hair who live in attics and wear berets.” Price’s well-intentioned but somewhat condescending plea is included in the show because LAMAG has exhibited his collection as well as those of Armand Hammer, and ice skater Sonja Henie, among others. So much for financial independence.
Still, interspersed with these shows, Municipal Arts Department (MAD) director Kenneth Ross attempted to bring art directly to the people, organizing the first major SoCal exhibition of Van Gogh’s work, and initiating shows in recreation centers, schools, and hospitals. In this spirit, he organized the All City Outdoor Art Festival, which ran intermittently from 1950 to 1977. (There’s a great Seymour Rosen photo, taken at a festival in the 1950s, of artist Ed Kienholz, who once provided low-cost construction and installation services for the event.)
However, this democratizing urge did not find favor with the red-baiting L.A. City Council, which took issue with the type of art on view. Lead by Councilman Harold Harby, who declared that abstract art was Communist propaganda, the council attempted to ban it from the city’s collection, to divide MAD’s budget and programs in two—one part devoted to abstraction and the other to “traditional” art—and to dissolve MAD entirely. It’s a testament to Ross’ stewardship that the department survived the 1950s at all. Ironically, many years on in 1972, one of the gallery’s most popular shows was an exhibition of Soviet art.
The Watts Towers and the WTAC have experienced similar reversals in their relationship with the city. The Towers—wondrous, delicate spires of iron, concrete, and found tile and glass—were built single-handedly by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, starting in the 1920s. When he departed abruptly in 1954, he left the property to a neighbor. In 1957, the city declared the Towers unsafe and ordered them demolished. Saved by a coalition led by filmmaker William Cartwright, the Towers became the home of the WTAC in 1964. It provided arts education to the largely African American, working class community for eleven years before the Towers (and the Center), in financial straits, were deeded to the city that had initially wanted to tear them down.
Again, it’s this history that is the chief appeal of the show at the WTAC, although there are some stellar works on view, like a large, 1989 assemblage by the Center’s first director, Noah Purifoy. “Black, Brown and Beige (After Duke Ellington)” is a symphony of shapes and textures fashioned out of old baskets, leather braiding, and of course, wood of all colors and patinas. There’s also a remarkable untitled sculpture by fellow WTAC artist Judson Powell from circa 1966-67 that coats a clear plastic, geometric form with a collage of translucent portraits and poems. It’s a visionary marriage of form and content; Light and Space meets assemblage.
Yet the most affecting part of the show are the photographs—many also by Rosen—from the early days of the WTAC, which held its first kids’ art lessons under a tarp erected next to the Towers. The images depict children and teachers of different races who rallied to save the Towers, and created art and put on theatrical shows in their midst. During the Watts Uprising of 1965, when the center had moved to a nearby house, Purifoy recalls trying to keep the kids focused on art while the rest of the neighborhood burned.
There are also inspiring images of the 1970 Watts Chalk-In, a street transformed by people making chalk drawings all over it, and of “O Speak, Speak,” the monumental tower created by John Outterbridge, Elliott Pinkney, Charles Dickson, Dale Brockman Davis and Nate Fearance near the site of the “Freedom Tree,” the only tree left standing after the uprising on 103rd St. Unfortunately, images are all that remain of the structure; it was burned down only a few months after its installation in 1971.
Such inspirational imagery contrasts sharply with a 1963 film by Andy Warhol that attempts to link the Towers to the primitive fantasies of Hollywood. Titled “Tarzan and Jane Regained,” it features Bacchanalian actors frolicking amidst the Towers, and some discomfiting shots of people wearing blackface masks. It’s especially jolting to compare these fleeting images with Rosen’s photographs of children participating in WTAC workshops, holding their own paper plate masks over their faces. Everything may be a playful masquerade, but it still matters who made the mask and why.
This contrast is at the heart of “Civic Virtue,” reminding us that outside the machinations of the commercial and patronage system, art is first and foremost about how we define, represent, and communicate something of ourselves, both to ourselves, and to others. Whether we like it or not, defending that process is political, and not unlike other forms of political representation. LAMAG and WTAC may be inconstant, imperfect institutions, but a deeper understanding of their complicated relationship to the city affirms art’s fundamental role in both community and communication.
Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 644-6269, through Feb. 12. Closed Monday through Wednesday. www.civicvirtuela.org
Watts Towers Arts Center, 1761-1765 E. 107th St., (213) 847-4646, through Feb. 12. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.civicvirtuela.org
Photos, from top: Procession at Watts Towers, 1957. Photograph from color slide by Corita (Sister Mary Corita Kent). Credit: Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community.
Lorser Feitelson, "Untitled" (February 4), 1967. Oil on canvas. Credit: Louis Stern Fine Arts.
Architect Paul Williams and Anthony Quinn view "L'Arlesienne (Woman of Arles)" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1957. Credit: Herald-Examiner Collection. Los Angeles Public Library.
John W. Outterbridge, "Captive Image #1 (Ethnic Heritage Group)," 1970-1972. Private collection. Credit: Courtesy Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.