From this bricolage, the popular culture of postwar Los Angeles was rising, part corporate product and part do-it-yourself assembly in which all the arts — high and low — were mashed up and extruded as more objects of middle-class consumption. Los Angeles had impulsively disposed of its own past and long ago made self-invention its only tradition. The new popular culture and Los Angeles were made for each other. It was an egalitarian, ahistorical and optimistic fabrication of what the city thought its future should be, with all of the excess and aspiration that implied.
The rest of the country wondered if anything more might be expected, if Los Angeles had anything to say other than its advertised dreams. Seen from New York's Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles looked like a mess of its clichés: happy, sun-besotted, trivial and too immersed in spectacle to make serious contemporary art. In Los Angeles, no one seemed to care, even though the shallowness was at least partly true.
In New York in the mid-1950s, you looked to history and theory to explain how the fears and longings of the age were expressed in its art. In Los Angeles, you only had to look to desire. Los Angeles — a bipolar city of bright surfaces sharply bounded by shadows — tended to eroticize everything, to give even the banal a Dionysian spin into play, physical perfection, violence, altered states of consciousness and a thirst for the infinite.
The infinite had been a part of the sales pitch for Los Angeles for a long time: in its light, its deserts, its emptiness and its place at the end of roads leading west. Ecstatic religion, New Age thought and UFO cults had satisfied ordinary folk who wanted transcendence. In a rapidly changing Los Angeles, dabbling in LSD and Zen satisfied some of those who looked for a personal cosmic doorway.
Los Angeles itself was one of those doorways for guys who liked to draw, who liked to gamble, who dropped in and out of art school and who didn't fit in well. Guys like Ed Kienholz, one of the founders with Walter Hopps of the Ferus Gallery in 1957, where Kienholz later showed "Roxy's," the first of his life-size environments assembled from the city's junk. And guys like Billy Al Bengston, who experimented with industrial pigments and spray lacquer to render luminous hearts, irises and sergeant's stripes. And Kenneth Price, who put the same gloss on ceramic pieces, joining traditional craft work to functionless abstraction. And Craig Kauffman, who began painting in a West Cost expressionist style but who is best known for perfectly finished panels of vacuum-formed Plexiglas. And John McCracken, who brought the same perfection to resin-coated planks, casually propped against a gallery wall. And Robert Irwin, an intensely focused minimalist in painting and later a fabricator of sight-altering installations made solely of light.
If Los Angeles was fundamentally insubstantial, then its art could be weightless and limitless light and space — what the critic Rosalind Krauss would later call "the California Sublime." And if the city was a less-than-innocent joyride of suburban desires, then Los Angeles artists would cram all of popular culture in the back seat.
Throughout the 1950s, the great museums of New York laid out a didactic history of art that ultimately led to a room where contemporary paintings were hung. Those paintings were intended to point out the logical direction art would take.
In Los Angeles, no arrow pointed the way. In Los Angeles, there was no art history exam to be passed. You were on your own. Successful New York artists fitted their work into a system of reputation merchandizing that involved certain galleries, art critics and publications. None of that was true of Los Angeles before the 1960s. To drum up patronage for their struggling galleries, some artist-entrepreneurs set up courses on contemporary art in Westside living rooms — Tupperware parties for the aesthetically curious. New art was risky, and it didn't pay in Los Angeles. But the surfing was good, almost everything was cheap, and anything was possible.
An unruly hybridization of the ordinary and the visionary gave a specifically Los Angeles context to the sunny abundance of Andy Warhol's soup cans (first shown at the Ferus Gallery in 1962), the moral outrage of the Peace Tower (a Vietnam War protest coordinated by Mark di Suvero in 1966) and the ethnic manifestos of Chicano art (itself an extension of farm labor organizing). Superficially, the arts here seemed to be the less introspective products of a transcontinental counterculture centered in New York and San Francisco. But Los Angeles had a recklessness, a hunger for memory and an identification with the everyday that led its arts to different ends. They could be vulgar and excessive or precious or intensely private, just like Los Angeles.
Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, L.A. artists assembled from light, space, color, adolescence, joy and the debris of the city a body of work that investigated and delineated what Los Angeles meant when it was on the verge. Some observers saw the birth of a new capitol of art in that. Some saw only the sheen on perfect surfaces.
Hardly anyone saw the fire that would burn the heart out of these daydreams. Hardly anyone saw that Watts and the rest of Los Angeles was on the verge of 1965.
Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.