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Notes on a Year: Christopher Knight on art

December 19, 2010|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Vija Celmins (American, born Latvia). "Freeway," 1966. Oil on canvas.
Vija Celmins (American, born Latvia). "Freeway," 1966. Oil… (Vija Celmins / Harold Cook,…)

Art feels oddly like it's in a state of suspended animation right now. Galleries, buffeted by the economy, seem cautious. Museums, which by nature tend to be conservative, have scaled back programs. Diminished alternative spaces hunker down.

That's not to say wonderful exhibitions and powerful individual artworks aren't encountered. They are. The growth of the nation's cultural sector has been nothing short of extraordinary in recent decades, compared to earlier American eras, and sheer volume makes for increased opportunities.

Unexpected benefits have also accrued. For one, during these vitiated times museums have been drawing on the resources of their permanent collections to anchor exhibitions, far more than in recent memory. While not always successful, that provides at least the possibility for deeper understanding of existing artistic resources.

Still, art always tracks with the larger social climate. Now, with the rich getting richer, the ranks of the poor swelling and the faltering middle-class hanging on by its fingernails, American democracy edges toward crisis. There can be no vibrant democratic system without a flourishing middle-class. Art and its institutions cannot help but broadly register the uncertain mood, mostly by expressing widely felt unease or standing pat on sure-things.

The late American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. surmised that political cycles play out at roughly 30-year intervals, however ambiguously, since generational change keeps the cycle going. We seem to be in such a period of bumpy and uneven change right now.

A post- World War II "New Deal" generation in the late 1940s through the mid-1970s saw American art move definitively from the periphery to the center. Then the "Supply Side" Reagan generation of the1980s through the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a fundamental shift: New York lost its dominance as the acknowledged font of compelling new work.

It was joined first by the return of Europe and the rise of Los Angeles, then by artists working in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Eventually, as befits a newly wired culture sprinkled with pixel-dust, the center gave way to multiple centers.

Ironically, this de-centered art world found that it had an unexpected model. Los Angeles, famous as a city without a center -- and thus often decried as not really a city in the traditional sense at all -- emerged as a surprising template for larger shifts.

Nearly 500 square-miles in its administrative limits, and with a population approaching 15-million in a sprawl that cares nothing for such artificial boundaries, metro L.A. keeps absorbing wave upon wave of young, mid-level and even established artists. The region's strained infrastructure experiences very real problems. Yet, sprawl has been an artistic and cultural saving grace. Neighborhood reserves of reasonably priced potential studio space seems inexhaustible, unlike the confined precinct of an island or a fashionably gentrifying urban center.

In this time of -- if not artistic drift, then a collective holding of the culture's breath as a cycle turns, taking stock can only help. 2010 was the Year of Living Precariously, but 2011 will be a long-needed Year of Living Historically. Big chunks of L.A.'s invisible art history will get written in "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 - 1980," as about 40 exhibitions unfold at venues ranging north to Santa Barbara, south to San Diego and east to Palm Springs.

Principal underwriter for this project (nearly $7 million) is the Getty Trust. Slogging like everyone else through the muck of the Bush recession and its aftermath, the Getty still has deeper pockets than any cultural institution in the nation. A year from now we should have a clearer idea than ever of what was really happening back when American art moved from the periphery to the center. That will be a good thing.

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