Epochal art swaggered onstage here in the '60s. Initially much of it looked like adolescent hustle. Now, three decades down the road, it's all come to remarkable, mature fruition. Spontaneously, an ongoing spate of exhibitions celebrates the generation that jelled in the psychedelic decade.
Currently on view are retrospectives of the work of Richard Diebenkorn at the Museum of Contemporary Art and George Herms at the Municipal Art Gallery. Robert Graham's most stunning statue was recently installed atop the Bunker Hill steps. L.A. Louver hosts the premiere showing of Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz's latest extravaganza and the Newport Harbor Art Museum has a silver-anniversary celebration of the prints and multiples emporium, Gemini G.E.L.
The latest addition to this pop-up lesson in local aesthetic history is the County Museum of Art's 75-work print exhibition "War Babies: Prints of the Sixties From the Collection." Organized by curator Bruce Davis from the permanent collection, it does a superior job of evoking the cheeky feel of the decade and whispering of underlying anxiety.
The show is named after an exhibition that caused an unpleasant stir in 1962. In hindsight it seemed to foretell the present.
Today, Henry Hopkins is a distinguished museum director who chairs UCLA's art department and runs its Wight Gallery. In 1962, he was a UCLA graduate student who'd opened a gallery to show, among other things, emerging local hot dogs.
Called the Huysman Gallery, the place was chugging into its 10th show when Joe Goode had the idea for a show called "War Babies." Artist Jerry McMillen made the poster photograph showing the four artists involved grouped around a table that used an American flag for its cloth. Goode, raised a Catholic, was eating a mackerel. Larry Bell, a Jew, prepared to munch a bagel; Ron Miyashiro, a Japanese-American, held a bowl and chopsticks, while African-American artist Ed Bereal peered out over a slice of watermelon.
Hell was to pay over the poster. The then-influential, right-wing John Birch Society lit into the gallery for desecrating Old Glory. Local liberals pounced on it for trafficking in racial and religious stereotypes. Suddenly the gallery's backers found art less glamorous and pulled out. Within six weeks the Huysman folded.
In a period noted for its humor, nobody wanted to realize that the "War Babies" poster--which is on view at LACMA--was little more than a provocative joke perpetrated by the artists to make fun of themselves at their own expense.
The whole mess seemed to predict recent history--notable for the growth of exquisitely narrow-minded self-righteousness and intolerance.
Although Goode is the only one of the "War Babies" artists included in the LACMA survey, the evocation of the ill-fated show is an apt ploy for calling to mind the underlying tensions that made the decade at once the most bracing and appalling in living memory.
It was a time of liberating iconoclasm that breached the barriers between the mandarin refinement of the Ivory Tower and the egalitarian energy of pop culture. Etchings by Marcel Duchamp are included, reminding us that this most arcane and oracular of 20th-Century artists had his first retrospective ever in 1963 at the old Pasadena Art Museum.
Duchamp was an intellectual's artist. The imprimatur given by his found-object work made it possible for art based in popular culture to be taken seriously, while simultaneously having fun blowing the lid off a sphere grown needlessly inbred. His influence on young California artists of the day was profound and enduring. The mix allowed intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan, Tom Wolfe and Susan Sontag to gain authentic general appreciation. They wrote seriously about everything from television to metal-flake cars and a form of gay-world irony called Camp.
Without such attitudes, prints like Roy Lichtenstein's "The Melody Haunts My Reverie" would have just looked like silly copies of comic-strip panels. Pop made certain kinds of forbidden emotions permissible. One was the kind of mild kink expressed by Allen Jones' paean to the fetishistic appreciation of spiked heels and green hose. Another was the urbane, affectionate nostalgia of Lichtenstein's own art. Anybody who was around at the time will have plenty of chances to sigh for the good old days, encountering works like Larry Rivers' "French Money" or William Crutchfield's whimsical drawings of images like ocean liners with cathedrals aboard.
Egalitarianism was in the air. Two noted print workshops of the epoch, Tamarind and Gemini, suggest a dawning L.A. passion for making art in unconventional materials that was just a part of the "y'all come" ambience.
They could produce sets of prints by classical modernists like Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Philip Guston and William Brice, then turn right around and bring out suites by eccentric, Pop-tinged talents like Ed Ruscha, Ken Price and H.C. Westerman.