Vija Celmins' work "Freeway," 1966 Latvian Oil on canvas. (Vija Celmins, J. Paul Getty…)
Sometimes we seem to know less about the early years of post-World War II art in Los Angeles than we know about the Pleistocene Age mammals dredged up from the La Brea Tar Pits. In the last 30 years, L.A. pushed to the front ranks of international capitals for new art, a dizzying development widely documented — but what happened in the 30 years before that?
Yes, we know bits and pieces — some better than others. Repeated censorship attempts by public officials — of a shrine-like 1957 Wallace Berman assemblage sculpture that included a sexy drawing, a 1964 Ed Kienholz assemblage sculpture about carrying on in the back seat of a Dodge, etc. — have been chronicled many times. Justifiable superstars, such as Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, are carefully considered. The story of Ferus Gallery has been told ad nauseam, and the 1970s feminist and Chicano art movements are no mystery.
Yet, compared with the magnitude of more recent events, retrospective knowledge is broad but shallow, a surface barely scratched. We don't even have access to much of the actual art to pique curiosity: No museum anywhere in the world, including Southern California, comes close to featuring it prominently in permanent collection displays.
Temporarily, however, the rich back story to the city's current prominence will unfold this fall in an unprecedented, six-month series of exhibitions called Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980. The event, initiated almost a decade ago under a $10-million Getty Trust umbrella, will excavate the region's first generations of postwar contemporary art.
More than 60 shows will be held at museums, university galleries and nonprofit spaces scattered from Santa Barbara to San Diego, Santa Monica to Palm Springs. A few are on view now; but Oct. 1 is the series' official start date, with a painting and sculpture survey at the Getty Museum as its spine. There hasn't been anything like this vast exercise in cultural archaeology before — not just for L.A., but anywhere.
Why are L.A.'s early years so poorly considered? Part of the reason is the inappropriate template usually overlaid on the period's art, which can make it appear inconsequential.
American art of the late 1940s through the 1970s was initially valued for its avant-garde qualities — a forward-looking cultural idea born in 19th century Europe, but one that did not apply in 20th century L.A. A French term originally meaning the advance guard of an army that goes ahead of the rest, an avant-garde implies linear progress. Art's advancement was reflected by an unfolding sequence of "isms": Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. — right up to Abstract Expressionism, which put contemporary American art on the international map in the wake of World War II.
L.A., however, never had an avant-garde, either before the war or after. An avant-garde requires, well, a garde — a strong, powerful artistic establishment that dominates the status quo but eventually follows the path forged by advance troops. L.A. had no avant-garde because it had no garde — no mighty, monolithic artistic establishment ruling the city's cultural life.
Twentieth century art in Southern California varied from conservative to adventurous, the cautious to the inspired, but there was no aesthetic edifice to topple. The city was too young, too new, too much of a vast and indifferent sprawl for one cultural establishment to have a stranglehold. What emerged instead in postwar L.A. was an unorthodox iconoclasm. It recognized the wildness of individual personality and the social messiness of life, and it celebrated the power of heterogeneous hybridity over purity.
Sound familiar? By the 1980s, the concept of avant-garde progress had unraveled everywhere. Suddenly the multivalent L.A. School was an international cultural model for this new norm. With luck, that's the back-story Pacific Standard Time will clarify.
Here's a sample of what we might expect to discover: If you want an artistic revolution, forget the avant-garde; try a merry-go-round instead.
When a strange exhibition of abstract paintings opened on May 18, 1955, on the cheery Santa Monica Pier, that anarchic thought was on brash display. An ambitious young art tyro named Walter Hopps, who had just turned 23, forked over $80 to rent the revolving carousel as an exhibition space. Hopps wrapped the pier's popular amusement with tarpaulin, festooned it with abstract paintings and hung others on the carousel building's pillars. "Action," the merry-go-round show was called.