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Eve Babitz kicks off L.A. '60s art world tribute

August 4, 2011 |  3:45 pm

Eve Babitz

Eve Babitz, the intrepid author and unofficial muse and midwife to L.A.'s 1960s nascent modern art scene, helped transport a Wednesday night Hammer Museum audience back to the psychedelic era when Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin, David Hockney, Stephen Stills and Jim Morrison were cruising the Sunset Strip and making pop-culture history.

Her interlocutor onstage was Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, a journalist, occasional L.A. Times contributor and author of the just-published "Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s." The Hammer event served as an unofficial launch for Pacific Standard Time, a marathon initiative of art exhibitions, performances, lectures and screenings focused on L.A.'s emergence as a major art-production center in the years between 1945 and 1980.

Funded by the Getty Foundation, Pacific Standard Time will take place this fall and winter at 60 venues across Southern California, including the Getty, the Hammer and LACMA. 

In an interview before the talk at the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater, Drohojowska-Philp said that when she began researching her book she hadn't planned for its publication to coincide with Pacific Standard Time. But her editor and publisher saw the mega-art-happening's potential and pushed for a summer release date.

"After I finished my book on Georgia O'Keeffe I was looking to do another book, and really the only book that came up for me was a book about L.A. and the '60s. And I did an interview with Walter Hopps, and the week after I interviewed him he passed away," Drohojowska-Philp said of the well-known art curator and co-founder of L.A.'s Ferus gallery. "And I thought, well, that's really a sign that we need to tell these stories before these incredible people [disappear]."

Drohojowksa-Philp compared L.A.'s explosive art world in the 1960s with that of Paris in the 1920s and New York in the 1940s and '50s. Those cities' art scenes have been documented exhaustively, she said, "but amazingly there was no book about Los Angeles in the '60s."

At Wednesday's soiree, Babitz played the expert role of a survivor of those turbulent times when rock 'n' roll was blasting, a heady sense of sexual liberation was in the air, and artistic creativity often was fueled by a cocktail of drugs and alcohol.

She was introduced by Claudia Bestor, the Hammer's director of public programming, who cited a remark by one of Babitz's male contemporaries: "In every young man's life there's an Eve Babitz, and usually it's Eve."

Babitz, a longtime West Hollywood resident whose coolly amused prose ("Eve's Hollywood," "Sex & Rage") has been compared with the writings of Joan Didion and Nathaniel West, kept the audience engaged with anecdotes about her former colleagues, friends and lovers, who sometimes were one and the same.

Among these was her revelation about what Marcel Duchamp said when Babitz (described in "Rebels in Paradise" as a "curvaceous nineteen-year-old" at the time) stripped naked to sit down and play chess with him at the Pasadena Art Museum during his retrospective there in 1963. According to Babitz, the Dadaist-Surrealist's one-word response was "Alors!"

Babitz said she initially bet she could trump Duchamp at chess. "I thought I knew it all," she said. Instead, the Frenchman "beat me three times at fool's mate, which I didn't even know what that was," Babitz observed, referring to a four-move chess sequence designed to dupe novice players. "I've been humiliated ever since."

Babitz also showed a copy of the record cover she designed for Buffalo Springfield's second album, inspired by Joseph Cornell and the typeface used in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

As the crowd filtered out of the auditorium, the exit music was Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," with its lines that could serve as the mantra to an epoch and an evening: "There's something happening here / What it is ain't exactly clear."

Or, as Babitz had put it earlier, speaking of L.A.'s wild artistic youth: "Everything was great. You couldn't miss it."


Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

Book review: 'Rebels in Paradise' by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

Book review:  "Black Swans," by Eve Babitz

-- Reed Johnson

 Photo: Eve Babitz in an undated photo. Credit: Paul Ruscha