Devastation and decay never looked so good. (John-Divola’s Zuma Beach 1977–’78)
  • Devastation and decay never looked so good. (John-Divola’s Zuma Beach 1977–’78)
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I know people who say they’re from the ’60s as some people say they’re from Paris or New York. It’s not descriptive, it’s declarative, proudly (or smugly) so, and vaguely definitive of their politics. I don’t know anybody who says they’re from the ’70s. Even if they are, it’s not a city they want to be associated with. In the 1970s, in the nation, and especially in its sunny, sick patient, California, enough was too much already. Jim Jones takes his followers to Jonestown, the Hillside Strangler kills, Elvis dies, Prop. 13 passes, Dan White murders Willie Moscone and Harvey Milk, Patty Hearst becomes Tania, Nixon becomes a crook, Carter lectures on narcissistic malaise, then Reagan rules. While all that was happening, artists were courting their own extremities. Artistic practice, especially in California, blew itself out in more ways than anyone could then account for. Under the Big Black Sun, currently at the Geffen in Los Angeles, offers such an accounting.

Artists had long violated the borderlands between art’s orders and life’s disarray, between artisanal crafting and acting out. Dada made art of anti-art, new sense of nonsense. The Futurists and Surrealists staged events that proselytized new states of consciousness. By the 1960s, performance and installation, even if not quite accepted as fine arts, were thriving. The political dimensions of those years, the tsunami-force demonstrations and Dionysian outdoor rock concerts, were coordinate to a bigger, baggier public space for art. By the 1970s, art wasn’t confined to studio spaces, and its medium and material could be anything, including the body of the artist, including nothing at all.

Some of the freshest, most Californian art was old style. Ed Ruscha was before anything else a landscape artist. His arid, mild-mannered, smoldering ochres and oranges created a representation of Southland light as expansive and heroic as Albert Bierstadt’s 19th-century representations of Western wilderness. And his love of signage reaches at least as far back as Stuart Davis. Ruscha could see the Hollywood sign from his studio and made a now-iconic painting of it, as well as heraldic pictures of Standard Oil stations. He brought a certain cool to the enterprise, and being cool, even while acting manic or outrageous, became virtually a rule of 1970s art-behavior.

Chris Burden’s Trans-fixed, a 1974 performance-art piece featuring him being nailed to a Volkswagen in Venice, CA

Art didn’t require fashioning an object, though. It could be an action, or inaction. The famous CalArts professor John Baldessari modeled education on the assumption that every arriving student was already an artist. Skill was a moveable feast. You could make photography, paintings, or video, but you could also just exercise the skill of making yourself present in certain ways, or by disappearing. Chris Burden did both. For Five Day Locker Piece, Burden shut himself inside a student storage cubicle at the University of California, Irvine, for five consecutive days. (He’d stopped eating several days before: the locker above contained five gallons of water, the one below, a five-gallon empty bottle.) The purpose — and 1970s art was fat with purpose — was to express invisibility. Burden also crucified himself on the engine compartment of a revving VW Beetle and rolled naked over glass scattered in the street.

Art wasn’t only representation or decoration, it was also a way of being in the world, a way that could be staged as intentional performance or incidental occurrence. Immediacy was everything, so presenting this kind of art in an exhibition, in extant snapshots or video recordings warped or washed out by the passage of time, is a historical wish and prayer. You really did have to be there. This sort of art didn’t just mark the passing of the old eternality as a determining concept in art-making, it ignored eternality and treated the instant with a mirthful or tweaking look-at-me (or don’t-look-at-me) stare.

The show includes many photos of conceptual performance pieces, such as Barbara T. Smith’s invitation to women to come sit on a park bench in an art gallery for a day (provisions included). The images are spooky: the art act is long over, and the visual archive we possess requires tedious, detailed explanations of what happened. Without context or narrative, we’re lost, and the antsy spontaneity of the art drains away.

The studio used to be (still is for many artists) a laboratory space. In the 1970s, the studio could be an artist’s body, or a performance or installation site — garage, airplane hangar, street, school locker. Ironic subjectivity ruled. Artists used appropriated sources to sly, disorienting effect. Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel looted photographic archives of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, United Technologies of Sunnyvale, the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco, and other California entities, then made a book of them, Evidence, without providing captions or context. The images — a vintage T-Bird in flames; technicians in hard hats wading through foam; a horse-hoof pressed on a fallen picture frame — are visual evidence of a completed reality that’s unknowable; they question the secretiveness and authenticity of any representation.

The Eternal Frame, made in 1975 by the collective “T.R. Uthko,” is a different beast, an intentionally cheesy video reenactment of JFK’s assassination, with follow-up interviews of the actors, who note that during filming bystanders whooped when Kennedy got shot. Americans don’t hold copyright on grotesquely obscene behavior, and in any case, Frame makes its point: art criticizes everything, especially the way art itself frames reality. “Frame” plays on “Flame.” Every representation, even the most revered, is by some measure a falsification, and sacralized political events need to be desacralized. I’m not a humorless man, until I become humorless. Call me totalitarian, but seeing the faux send-up reenactment right after the Zapruder footage made me want to pull the plug. I felt I was in the room with people who — how to say? — make everything about them. Relative to assassination, clever stunts and culture criticism shrivel in importance. But I also believe that the mockery, satire, and impudence in 1970s art are an exasperated expression of sadness that can’t quite be managed.

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