Anyone following the making of the region-wide, six-month-long 2011 visual arts extravaganza "Pacific Standard Time" knows it as a museum initiative, having grown out of an oral history project by the Getty Research Institute designed to document the birth of the L.A. art scene. And it will culminate with museums, as nearly 50 local institutions are staging exhibitions exploring one big theme: the history of art in Southern California from 1945 to 1980.
Now, some of the city's leading commercial galleries are getting in the spirit, organizing their own shows that shine a light on the early days of the L.A. art scene.
Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, invited a long list of local gallery directors to a meeting at the Getty Center last month, where he briefed them on "Pacific Standard Time." He calls them natural collaborators, considering their "vital role" in developing the art scene here.
"Looking back historically, L.A. had very few museums compared to other cities. At first it was bookstores, and then in the late '40s and early '50s, the galleries became the place people went to see contemporary art," he says. "They were the first advocates for the artists — in many cases the only advocates."
The galleries don't get funding from the Getty, which has distributed $7.3 million to nonprofit institutions since 2008 for the initiative. But they do stand to benefit from the cultural tourism the event is expected to generate, especially during the October museum show openings. (The program runs through March 2012).
At this point few galleries have exact exhibition dates, but many have firmed up their concepts. At least two galleries will show California hard-edge abstraction, which flourished in the 1960s: Louis Stern is featuring work by 85-year-old Claremont-based painter Karl Benjamin in October, while Peter Goulds at L.A. Louver is planning to showcase classic paintings by the late Frederick Hammersley — alongside his lesser-known figurative drawings — in early 2012.
Marc Selwyn says he's working on a big October show of 1950s paintings by the late Lee Mullican, known for grooved abstract paintings with mystical motifs. The 1950s was a prime time for the artist, producing work that Times art critic Christopher Knight called "equal — or even superior — to anything from that period" by Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell, to name a few, and the works are increasingly hard to find.
For this show, Selwyn says he will have to "borrow back pieces I've sold over the years because there's so little left in the estate." He will also borrow the 1951 canvas "Peyote Candle," now at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, from the artist's widow.
Michael Kohn is starting the fall season with Joe Goode's black paintings from 1977-78, canvases that he punctured and slashed. "I don't know if it's because of my age or time marching on, but I have a new appreciation of his work and its context — an offshoot of Light and Space but also part of this whole process art, with a dash of Conceptual art, a dash of Minimalism, and a whole lot of spiritualism characteristic of California." Kohn is also planning Bruce Conner and Wallace Berman shows to follow.
From the early 1970s, but ahead of its time as far as art-as-social-critique goes: Allan Sekula's "Untitled Slide Sequence" shows workers at the General Dynamics plant, humanizing the cogs in the defense industry. Come fall, gallerist Christopher Grimes is exhibiting this series in print format, while the Orange County Museum of Art includes the slides in a larger group show.
Frank Lloyd is developing a major Craig Kauffman show for September and October with works from the mid 1960s, which, inspired by Dada and European abstraction, paved the way for his vacuum-formed plastic pieces celebrated for their surfaces. "There's a myth that L.A. Finish Fetish is about cars, sun, surf and smog — in fact Kauffman's work has many other sources," says Lloyd. He has Larry Bell and Peter Voulkos shows planned for following months.
Lloyd is also contributing to "Pacific Standard Time" by co-curating "Clay's Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, Peter Voulkos" at Scripps College, and by facilitating loans to other museums. "We are a resource, research center and image database for the museums," he says.
Meanwhile, other galleries are offering new work by artists who were instrumental in shaping the L.A. scene. Roberts & Tilton is working with assemblage artist Betye Saar to host a new, site-specific installation by the artist, accompanied by a group show to contextualize her work. It will be her first gallery show here in more than a decade. "I believe Betye is really on par with Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Cornell, and deserves much more attention," says gallery director Lindsay Charlwood.