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L.A.'s postwar art scene: Hot rods and hedonism

Los Angeles art came into its own after World War II, when artists such as Ed Kienholz and Billy Al Bengston tapped into popular culture.

September 18, 2011|By D.J. Waldie, For the Los Angeles Times
  • COVERED UP: David Alfaro Siqueiros' mural about Anglo oppression, "American Tropical," is shown partly whitewashed in 1934.
COVERED UP: David Alfaro Siqueiros' mural about Anglo oppression,… (Los Angeles Times )

In September 1945, under a pall of ocher smog and summer heat, Los Angeles entered the postwar world. The city then was bigger, wealthier and more diverse than ever. Its established people — mostly past middle age and conservative, a few who were really rich — still had the narrowness of the Midwest towns from which many of them had come in the 1920s. The city's new people — Okies and Arkies, black Southerners, and white ethnics — had arrived with the war. Few of them had much interest in art.

Of course, there was art in Los Angeles they could have seen. Wide-shouldered men in post office murals reaped and forged and lifted up symbols of a better America to come. Sabato Rodia's unfinished Watts Towers/Nuestro Pueblo glittered over the Pacific Electric tracks south of downtown. At the doctor's office, in the bank lobby and on sale at Barker Bros., sweetly impressionistic landscapes continued to see Southern California as a timeless garden.

And at the county Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, curators mounted temporary loan exhibitions among the mastodon skeletons. The Huntington Library displayed a superb collection of 18th century portraits and landscapes. Chouinard Art Institute, the Art Center School and Otis Art Institute offered day and evening lessons to veterans on the GI Bill. (Some would get jobs cartooning for Disney or Warner Bros.) Serious collectors could find Matisse and Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky at Earl Stendahl's gallery on Wilshire Boulevard and Frank Perls' gallery nearby, but Stendahl and Perls were practically alone.

Art — as a faith and a business — was something found mostly in New York that September, not here. Los Angeles didn't even have its own art museum. The city had no center; its moneyed people were too segregated. Downtown and Hollywood were separate Protestant and Jewish worlds. Black and Latino Los Angeles were kept nearly invisible. With a few exceptions — Man Ray was the subject of two retrospectives in the 1940s — little public notice was taken of modern art. Officially, Los Angeles distrusted anything that was radical.

On Olvera Street in 1932, city workers had whitewashed "America Tropical," David Alfaro Siqueiros' blunt allegory of Anglo oppression. In 1939, conservatives on the county museum board had turned down a gift of avant-garde works from the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg. Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson and Fanny Brice founded the Modern Institute of Art in 1947 to keep the Arensberg collection here, but the institute closed when funding ran out.

Indifference was turning into hostility. In 1951, the Los Angeles City Council held two days of noisy hearings to condemn the "offensive and nauseating" abstract works in the All-City Outdoor Arts Festival sponsored by the Municipal Art Department. The hearings tarred modernist painters as "tools of the Kremlin," and the department was nearly dissolved. When the county museum acquired a small Jackson Pollock, curators were ordered not to show it publicly. Councilman Harold Harby in 1953 tried to block a gift to the city of Edmund Kohn's "Bird in the Moon"; Harby's critique of the abstract painting: "If this is a bird, the moon can have it!"

Losses in the local culture war were serious enough, but the conflict was fought in a tiny arena. The real preoccupation of L.A. in the 1950s was the culture being made and consumed in the commonplace and insistent new suburbs.

In the tract house valleys and flatlands of Los Angeles, young guys with a knack for tinkering were turning 20-year-old jalopies into chromed and lacquered hot rods. Surfers were taking jet-age materials and giving their boards sleek contours in polymer and fiberglass. Aerospace workers were learning the skills of vacuum forming, acrylic casting and vapor coating. Quality-control experts looked over their shoulders, evaluating the sheen of the finishes they applied to sheet metal and plastic.

The things the men made were loud, fast and colorful. They jostled competitively with the stuff of suburban life — billboards shouting come-ons, men's magazines lingering over every airbrushed inch of skin, local TV recycling vintage Hollywood — and all of it pouring into suburban Los Angeles in an unfiltered torrent of immediate, disposable content. In a media-saturated city, Spade Cooley, Bill Haley and the Metropolitan Opera all played on the kitchen radio. The latest issue of House Beautiful on the Danish Modern coffee table assailed the Abstract Expressionists but also warned middle-class housewives that their tastes needed to be modern. Their kids furtively passed around copies of Mad magazine and Action Comics, lingering over four-color graphics that rendered the suburban everyday as satire or horror.

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