SAN DIEGO -- Of all the 60 or so exhibitions in Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-sponsored extravaganza that explores Southern California art made in the first two generations after World War II, one of the most anticipated has been "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface." The title riffs on phenomenology, the philosophy of first-person consciousness.
Los Angeles is closely identified with Light and Space art, a distinctive form of perceptual exploration that emerged in artists' studios in and around Venice Beach in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, until now, a broad survey of the genre hasn't taken place.
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego has happily rectified that long-standing lapse by turning over all three of its modestly sized exhibition venues, two downtown and one at its flagship seaside building in nearby La Jolla, to a beautiful and provocative show of 56 works by 13 artists. (Forty fascinating drawings and documentary works are also included.) Yes, there's obvious irony in the fact that it's taking place 130 miles south of Los Angeles. Give or take 20 miles, though, that's roughly the same distance as between Jackson Pollock's studio in Springs, Long Island, where the iconic New York School artist's great drip paintings were made, and the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan. So a visit to San Diego for archetypal L.A. School art is more than called for.
There's also the fact that the museum has steadily built an impressive permanent collection of Light and Space art. Nearly one-third of the exhibition comes from MCASD's own holdings.
What the show and its excellent catalog accomplish is both substantial and memorable. They reassert the stature of the genre's most brilliant practitioner, critically resuscitate a reputation too little known today, provide an expansive context of related work (especially colored sculpture), offer abundant supporting material and, at the end, provide an unexpected but provocative twist. That's a lot for any show to achieve.