In the eyes of the art world, Los Angeles is a city of the future. Forever re-creating its art scene with new galleries, updated museums, unconventional outposts and the latest crop of graduates from Southern California schools, L.A. seems to be a place where the only way to look at the arts is forward.
But change is in the wind. More and more writers, curators, filmmakers and historians are digging into the origins and evolution of the cultural landscape. Whether focusing on small slices of Southern California or looking at L.A. in a statewide context, they are turning local art history into a hot topic. "There's an explosion of interest," says Susan Ehrlich, an art historian, independent curator and former West Coast regional collector for the Archives of American Art. "The art schools and artists here are getting a lot of attention, and that leads eyes back to history."
The phenomenon will become abundantly clear in October 2011, when -- in a coordinated effort -- four major institutions will open ambitious exhibitions on chapters of the region's artistic past.
Andrew Perchuk, head of contemporary programs and research at the Getty Research Institute, is planning a survey of Southern California painting and sculpture from the late 1940s to the early '70s, to be presented at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Building a case for an alternative to the New York-centric view of contemporary art history, he will focus on Southern California's distinctive approach to Modernism, Minimalism, Conceptualism and feminist art.
"I'm a pretty good example of how views of Los Angeles' art history have changed," Perchuk says. "I grew up and spent my first 30 years in New York at the height of New York's parochialism, when it really was believed that if it didn't happen there, you didn't have to know about it. I came to Los Angeles in the late '80s and was just amazed by how remarkable the work being done was."
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, decorative arts curator Wendy Kaplan is organizing "California Design, 1930-65: 'Living in a Modern Way,' " a 300-piece traveling show of furniture, fashion, functional objects and graphic arts. Downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, chief curator Paul Schimmel is working on "California Culture," an eclectic compendium of inventive visual arts that flourished in the 1970s. And the Hammer Museum has engaged Kellie Jones, an art historian at Columbia University, to assemble a show about African American artists who worked in L. A. in the 1960s and '70s.
All four exhibitions are funded in large part by the Getty Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the Getty Trust, under the umbrella of "On the Record: Art in L.A., 1945-1980." A joint initiative of the foundation and the research institute, it was launched in 2002 "to document the history of advanced art in Los Angeles in the second half of the 20th century." The institute's principal role is to conduct oral histories and public panels that help tell the post-World War II story. The foundation provides support to museums, libraries and universities to preserve records of artists, collectors, museums, curators and dealers and make them available to scholars.
The Getty money -- several million dollars of it -- has jump-started a lot of behind-the-scenes research and closet-cleaning, much of it still in process. All this activity seems to have emerged from a confluence of forces: a coming of age, globalization and the Getty's increasing engagement with L.A.'s postwar art. Interest in the art history of a place sometimes thought to have no history has been growing for years -- at home and abroad -- as lots of independent projects attest.
One of the fall attractions at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm is "Time & Place: Los Angeles, 1958-1968," organized by Lars Nittve, the Swedish-born curator and museum director whose earlier creation, "Sunshine & Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997," traveled from Denmark to Germany, Italy and the U.S. from 1997 to 1999. Catherine Grenier, a curator at the Pompidou Center in Paris, made a big splash there in 2006 with "Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital." Her primary motivator, she said when the show opened, was young French artists' infatuation with L.A.
Although critics complain that such exhibits feature the same prominent figures and reinforce cliches, a fuller picture is likely to emerge with new exhibitions and publications.
In Southern California, the Norton Simon Museum has revived memories of Marcel Duchamp's 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum in a small show that runs through Dec. 8. Artists affiliated with L.A.'s Ferus Gallery in the mid-1950s and '60s are the subject of Morgan Neville's 2008 documentary film, "The Cool School," co-written by Kristine McKenna. Cecile Whiting's book, "Pop LA: Art and the City in the 1960s," appeared in 2006, and many other publications are in progress.