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Legacies and loss

With his 'Ten Unknowns' set to open at the Taper, Jon Robin Baitz reflects on the struggle against the inevitable in life and in art.

March 23, 2003|Jon Robin Baitz | Special to The Times

The "art of losing," wrote poet Elizabeth Bishop, "isn't hard to master." I agree, and I think that all art is in some broad way deeply tied into what's lost and how. To be human, by definition, is to wage a losing battle for survival. For many artists, the waxing and waning of their creative powers -- seemingly capricious -- is merely an extension of the futile battle to live on past the allotted time.

I remember the moment I started thinking that one day I might be compelled to write about art, its movements and the short, unhappy life span of so many artists. Some 20 years ago, I saw something happen that made me think about artists and their place in the economy of late 20th century America, with its marketing, blockbusters and high-octane political boredom.

I am with a friend, an elderly gentleman, a painter, and we are walking through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had on exhibition a staggering array of German Expressionist art.

My friend stops in front of a print and stares at it. It is a George Grosz, tiny, nasty and perfect. He shakes his head, turns to me and declares simply, "I used to own this. But I had to sell it to live, after my own work stopped selling."

It was a note in my diary, just a note. Could have been sheer fantasy on his part; I'll never know. But it endlessly gnawed at me. And the way the zeitgeist works is funny.

Lawrence Weschler, a chronicler of arts and culture, wrote a piece for the New Yorker titled "Shapinsky's Karma," which dealt with the manners and moods of art and fame in the 1980s. It revolves around an obscure Abstract Expressionist painter, Harold Shapinsky, who, like a fairy-tale character, is discovered and championed with some success, due to a witches' brew of market excitement, bombast and romance. He's not the hero of Weschler's story; the unhinged academic who discovered him is. Shapinsky fades into the night to take his place in a more painful obscurity; that of a cultural curiosity, a parlor trick, an amusing story. And useful in what was coming together in my head for what was less a diary entry than a first act.

The '80s arts scene

I'm in my 20s, and culturally speaking, this is a heady time for Los Angeles, and therefore, by extension, for me. By 1984, the Olympic Arts Festival is flooding this sneaky and coercive town with a serotonin rush of art; the smart and bratty L.A. Weekly has been causing trouble for five years. There's so much happening. Giorgio Strehler's "Tempest," Peter Brook's "Mahabharata," the nascent Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo. A generation of L.A. artists coming or just having come into their own (Lari Pittman, Gary Panter, Roger Herman, Mike Kelly, Raymond Pettibon). Add to that the exhilarating experimental theater scene of the Padua Playwrights Festival, L.A. Theatre Works (remember Steven Berkoff's "Greeks," John Steppling's "The Shaper"?), Reza Abdoh's delicate and piercing performance pieces, the hope- and promise-filled opening of the late lamented Los Angeles Theatre Center and Taper Too at the Ford Theatre.

And downtown life? There's late-night exhilaration at Al's Bar on Traction Avenue, followed by the soothing Russian Constructivist cafe Gorky's, or the equally late lamented Vickman's Restaurant and Bakery, where old Mr. Vickman would feed young artists in exchange for a sketch! (Fair trade for bacon and eggs at 4 in the morning.) The Chili Peppers, Pee-wee, surf punks; it never ends.... The galleries -- Ace, L.A. Louver, Rosamund Felsen -- are also a hotbed of invention, seldom dull places to be.

L.A. is filled with hyperkinetic energy and exuberant countercultural challenges to its old stock role as "glamour capital of the Western world." For me, this, after a decade in decaying colonial white South Africa, is quite simply Isherwood's Berlin. L.A. of the 1980s was spectacularly interesting.

But not for everyone. A few miles away from LACMA lives the painter who started this for me: gentle-spirited, soft-spoken, bemused and blocked, irreversibly stuck in a style that he never mastered, a man for whom time effectively stopped in the late 1950s.

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