While the exhibition doesn’t make this case, nearly everything in it can be traced back to the momentous split between Cubism, which re-visioned not only how we imagine we see physical reality but how that re-visioning could be represented in marginally abstract, shuffled planes, and the kind of Conceptualism Duchamp initiated when he said that if an artist calls something he or she has found “art” — a urinal, a bicycle wheel, whatever — then art it is. When Larry Bell in 1966 makes a transparent cube of vacuum-coated glass, or a year later when John McCracken in Don’t Tell Me When to Stop crafts a tall candy-apple red rectangular slab and leans it against the wall as a sort of sculpture-yoga, they’re still dealing with issues stirred up by Cubism. When Outterbridge builds a model of his father’s truck, he’s extending, as so many artists everywhere are still trying to extend, the consequences of Duchamp’s readymades. The art that slips these traces is the pure painting of So-Cal artists who are essentially landscape painters, except that they’re painting L.A.’s sometimes toxic sunrises and sunsets. Norman Zammitt learned a lot by studying how light filters through Pacific sunsets, and of his eye-piercing picture of concave ribbons of color rising from bottommost rubied maroons to ethereal cotton-wool blues, he said, “I wanted to make light with paint.”
It would be too easy — and another kind of sandbagging — to criticize So-Cal for being, like the city it represents, smug with self-regard and obsessed with appearances. All art obviously is concerned with appearances. L.A.’s spin is an art that has a see-here, slightly boastful air about it. Then again, every center — L.A., New York, San Francisco, wherever — is provincial in its own (sometimes unaware) way. I wish So-Cal were bigger, more eclectic, and inclusive of other practices. I’m not in the oracle business so won’t comment on what seems likely to last, what not. The most memorable things in the show, for sure, are Kienholz’s plug uglies. He wasn’t interested in problem solving, he was preoccupied with crafting a nearly completed reality in everything he made, with uncomfortable moral consequences squirming in every tattered end and darkened nook.
SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 1970s from LACMA’s Collection Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles Through Sunday, March 30. For additional information, call 323-857-6000; 323-857-0098 (TDD). Or visit http://www.lacma.org