One of the best things about Pacific Standard Time is that it invites visitors to get off the beaten track of official, greatest-hits surveys of art made in Southern California from 1945 to 1980 and, instead, to see how messy, complex, and multi-layered history is (and art scenes almost always are), particularly ones that come and go over several decades.
The Getty-funded initiative consists of exhibitions at more than 60 museums, university galleries, and public institutions—and at least that many shows at commercial venues. In a sense, the celebratory extravaganza flies in the face of celebrity culture by making it easy for observers to see that, while the well-known works by such luminaries as Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari are knockouts, they did not fall from the sky. One of the biggest pleasures of PST is to see the pieces these and other famous artists made before they were famous, when they were struggling and stumbling to discover just what it was that they were up to and had not yet landed upon their signature styles or artistic trademarks.
These eye-opening shows have typically taken place away from the biggest institutions, which have generally featured masterpieces by the usual suspects. Except for a couple of exceptions, most notably Pomona College Museum of Art’s three-installment It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973, the exhibitions that showcase artists’ early works have not been found in university galleries, which have tended to display the most high profile works even loosely associated with the schools, as if to raise their own profiles. In contrast to such market-inspired tactics, some schools and other non-profit venues have sold their opposition to salesmanship by turning away from art, instead presenting exhibitions dominated by notebooks, documents, ephemera, and other tokens of the moral highroad. Long on management, short on talent, these shows embodied a dreary—and weird—sort of institutional narcissism.
Nearly all of the exhibitions that focused on the heady moments when LA’s most renowned artists became who they are today have taken place in commercial galleries, which have not been funded by the Getty initiative but have been invited to piggy-back on PST’s institutional core—allowed to use its graphics on their advertisements, along with the proper phrasing.
A few provided greater breadth by including artists otherwise overlooked by the multi-venue initiative. Of these, the two best were Charles Arnoldi: Art Works from the ’70s (at Rosamund Felsen Gallery) and Terry O’Shea: Actual Size (at Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art). It’s flat-out mind-boggling that Arnoldi’s spare, structural sculptures from the early 1970s are not included in any of PST’s core exhibitions. Smart and spot-on in their articulation of the ways artifice and nature sometimes commingle with graceful strangeness, Arnoldi’s wood and rope pieces play two-dimensional planes and three-dimensional spaces against each other with the casual formality that has been integral to much of the best art to come out of Southern California for the last 40 years.
O’Shea’s diabolically beautiful slabs of resin and multilayered capsules from the 1960s and early ’70s bring the dark side of drugs into the picture. They make viewers pointedly aware of our puny place in the unfathomable vastness of geological time, not to mention the cosmos. In contrast to the hedonistic delights of highly polished Finish Fetish objects and the mind-expanding sensuality of Light and Space installations, O’Shea’s synthetic confections give gorgeous form to the side of the sublime that is often filtered out of the works by his renowned contemporaries. The dirty fleshiness and illicit street feel of his pocket-sized sculptures may explain their invisibility from conventional histories. O’Shea (1941-2002) seems to have embraced this condition from the beginning. Back in 1965, when he won LACMA’s New Talent Award and was required to provide a piece for the permanent collection, he made a triangular sculpture and tossed it over a fence outside the museum, where it sank into the tar pits, its documentation functioning more like a gravestone than an emblem of genius.
Other exhibitions provided greater depth by zeroing in on the years, even months, when individual artists homed in on the definitive features of their art. Among the most memorable of these were Larry Bell: Early Work; Craig Kauffman: Sensual/Mechanical; and Peter Voulkos in LA: Time Capsule (all at Frank Lloyd Gallery); Tony Berlant: Works from 1962-1964 and Keinholz Before LACMA (at LA Louver); Karl Benjamin and the Evolution of Abstraction, 1950-1980 and Roger Kuntz: Signs of LA (at Louis Stern Fine Arts).
A surprising concentration of early, pre-signature works occurred in Artistic Evolution: Southern California Artists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1945-1963. This sleeper of an exhibition provided PST’s biggest who knew? moment by taking visitors back to the time before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art existed and the beloved Museum of Natural History was called the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art. Installed on the second-floor walkway in the recently refurbished rotunda, the no-nonsense exhibition was organized by guest curator Charlotte Eyerman. Its 27 domestically scaled paintings on canvas and paper by 22 artists include stunners by Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, and Betye Saar, as well as a wild little gem of a painting by John Baldessari, a dazzler by Fred Hammersley, a kicker by Karl Benjamin, an uncharacteristically weighty abstraction by John McLaughlin, a crackling Lee Mullican, a couple of punchy Billy Al Bengstons, and a sci-fi superhero, juicily painted by Mel Ramos. Every painting in the taut exhibition counted; and the whole, which told the story of LA art’s emergence from the ruins of Cubism and the residue of Expressionism, was far greater than the sum of its parts.
David Pagel is an art critic who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. He is also an associate professor of art theory and history at Claremont Graduate University and an adjunct curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, NY.
also by David Pagel
- "Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective" at LACMA - October 18th, 2012
- Letter from LA: “Roland Reiss, Personal Politics: Sculpture from the 1970s and 1980s” - January 12th, 2012