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ART FOR ARTIST'S SAKE : Walter Took His Painting Seriously, Which Is Why Success Caught Him by Surprise

July 17, 1994|Jonathan Gold

Ten years ago, Walter was the best young artist any of us knew, a painter of heroic canvases, the in-house guru to a group that used to hang out at a grimy former industrial complex deep Downtown that had become something of a cool, zillion-artist commune.

They were all young then, young enough to write manifestoes, naive enough to think they might rescue art from the commercial decadence into which they believed it had fallen, ambitious enough to organize sizable art exhibitions in unconventional spots. His friends would stay up until dawn sometimes, drinking plain-wrap tequila, arguing about Baudrillard or Chris Burden on a rooftop overlooking the L.A. River, occasionally stumbling into the sort of aesthetic fistfights that are not believed to happen in Los Angeles. A surprising number of people painted more or less the way Walter told them they should paint.

Everybody made big art then, but Walter made the biggest--giant, multi-part things tinted with more than a hint of social realism, and it always felt like a privilege to be invited to see his latest work-in-progress. Though you sometimes got the feeling that the paintings functioned best as an illustration of the aesthetic theory Walter was flirting with at the moment, the paintings were often astonishingly good. He refused to play the art game--send out packages of slides, schmooze, invite influential people to his loft. He was sometimes prouder of who hadn't seen his work--almost everybody outside the Downtown art scene, actually--than of who had.

As years passed, others in his circle became successful, often working in the styles they had developed on Walter's roof, but Walter did not. He changed his ideas about art every few months, and his works-in-progress were often abandoned. (Many of them were wonderful paintings too, like the super-scale picture of a businessman at a shabby bus station that had something of the formal complexity of Velasquez.) Sometimes he'd overpaint the works to conform to his new theories, often until they were hopelessly muddled. He'd actually destroy paintings when they didn't meet his impossible standards.

But no matter how good a painter someone might be, the burning of one's work is generally incompatible with making a living. For a while, Walter had the ultimate Postmodern gig, as something of an art forger for the movies. Art directors called him up when they needed, say, a roomful of O'Keefes, and Walter would do them, not copies of existing paintings but new O'Keefes--flowers, skulls and ocher adobe landscapes that sometimes looked better than the real ones.

Forgery was sort of the same aesthetic strategy that artists like Mark Kostabi were making a mint pursuing at the time, but when Walter finished his ersatz Paul Klees, he'd start right in on paintings of arrival, or departure, or whatever he'd declared was the only possible art for the times. Meanwhile, the Downtown art scene all but vanished, galleries closed by the score, and half a dozen artistic movements passed him by. Walter, who everybody suspected still believed in the romantic myth that the greatest artists were always ignored until it was too late, was a purist in a fairly impure time.

I lost track of Walter a few years ago, though I'd occasionally hear of another six-foot canvas he'd destroyed, a disbanded trio he'd played drums in. The group of artists clustered around him had scattered, mostly to suburbia and New York. Walter stayed put. He still lives near the Los Angeles River, if a couple of miles south, and he is still searching for the magic brushstroke, the style that will put him up there with Courbet. He is as obscure as ever, and as pure. When I ran into him at a French dip place Downtown a while ago, I was surprised to hear that he'd had a show of his work in Canada, and was due to have another in a couple of weeks. He was excited that a suite of his pictures was actually good enough to display. I suppose sometimes it's nice to have somebody actually see your art, even if it is Canadians.

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