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Right Here, Right Now

A record number of Los Angeles artists have attained global status in recent years, and more are on the rise. What makes this the best moment ever to be an artist in L.A.?

May 18, 1997|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Something's changed for art made in Los Angeles. Difficult to describe, the change is not a movement, not a style shift, not a trend. Rather, it's a change in public perception, the kind that settles quietly and irreversibly into place before you even notice it at all.

Here are some recent events in the international art world that give an inkling of the difference:

* On Friday, the revered Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark opened the first large survey exhibition of postwar art made in Los Angeles ever organized by a major museum. After it closes in September, "Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997" will embark on a prominent tour, with stops in Germany, England and Italy. In abridged form (due to space limitations), it will conclude its travels at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum in September 1998.

* In April, at a black-tie gala at New York's Plaza Hotel, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture presented its prestigious awards for 1997. The medal for distinction in painting went to Vija Celmins, whose mesmerizing grisaille images of the perceptually ambiguous surfaces of the desert and the ocean, made in L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s, established the distinctive direction of her work for the next 20 years. The medal for sculpture was awarded to L.A.'s Chris Burden, whose infamous endurance-test performance art in the 1970s segued into dazzlingly aggressive, sometimes even threatening large-scale sculpture in the 1980s and 1990s (only Burden would try to make a steam roller fly). And the medal for mixed media was presented to Mike Kelley, the L.A.-based artist whose poignant, funny, sometimes scatological assemblages made from thrift-store stuffed animals established him among the handful of major American artists of the past decade.

Los Angeles Times Sunday May 25, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 79 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Cover photo--This is how Ruben Ortiz-Torres' photograph "Santo Nino Holy Kid, Guanajuato, Mexico" should have been reproduced last Sunday.
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 1, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 85 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Art exhibition--"Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997" will be presented at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum in 1998 with only one or two changes from the show organized by Denmark's Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, rather than in a more abridged version, as stated in a May 18 article.

* In recent months, both Artforum, the prestigious art magazine based in New York, and Art+Text, a journal published in Australia, have added L.A. editors to their mastheads. The urge to appear up to date and the potential for increased advertising revenue are two reasons to establish an out-of-town editorial presence. (Even after the painful winnowing caused by the early-1990s recession, more than 60 noteworthy galleries operate in L.A., keeping the gallery scene second only to New York's in size.) Also instrumental, no doubt, is the critical success of locally published Art issues., which together with London's snazzy-looking Frieze is making the older art magazines seem increasingly dull and incidental.

* In March, a curator of the always closely watched Biennial Exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art told The Times that because the seven L.A. artists included in the 1995 Biennial produced that show's strongest work overall, the increase to 15 for the current Biennial (through June 1) was intended to underscore how the city is now of equal importance to New York as a center for new art. In fact, she added, a credible Biennial could have been composed of California artists alone.

More examples could be listed, but you get the idea. Art made in Los Angeles now garners national and international attention that far surpasses that of any moment in its past. The city has come to occupy a distinctive position in the newly globalizing life of culture.

A short history goes like this: The 1980s created a huge expansion in the city's existing infrastructure--museums, art schools, the talent pool, the market--while the cold shower of the early 1990s, with its mix of economic woe and furious culture wars, made for an acid test of the scene's staying power. L.A., whose gifted artists were once a rather well-kept secret, has now consolidated its place among a handful of internationally respected centers for the production of new art.

This newly won distinction can be applied to the creative life of no other city I know. (That includes London, currently in the midst of the kind of enthusiastic upswing in activity that characterized L.A. a dozen years ago, and which might eventually undergo a similar consolidation.) Whatever the deficiencies, which are inevitable in any art scene, it's remarkable but true: There has never been a better time than now to be an artist working in Los Angeles.


Fundamental to the change is today's complicated generational density. Try this thoroughly unscientific test (science being of little use in matters of interpretive opinion): List all the current artists based in L.A. whose work you believe to be noteworthy.

Include figures of inarguable stature, such as the Pop-era painters Edward Ruscha and David Hockney or the avatar of Conceptual art, John Baldessari. Add the sizable generation of mid-career artists with established national or international reputations, from sculptors like Nancy Rubins, Robert Therrien and Paul McCarthy to mixed-media artists like Alexis Smith, Stephen Prina and Bill Viola; then mix in newly emergent ones, like Jorge Pardo, Michelle Fierro, Jason Rhoades and Diana Thater.

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