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The most startling things in the exhibition express 1970s California culture with a supercharged beauty grounded in pound-mutt sincerity and the New Subjectivity. The photographer John Divola found an abandoned, vandalized building on Zuma Beach in Malibu that was condemned by city officials who wanted to expand a private beach in an already privileged community. Divola, enchanted by the dilapidated site, decided to interact with it and spray-painted the interior with his own graffiti. Devastation and decay never looked so good. His interiors are lushly riotous with garish, liquid color, but in virtually every image we see through the empty window frame the blue-ice Pacific or a cooked pink sunset. A trashed interior frames the sublime.

Artists’ sense of art-historical time changed. In the 1970s, there was an intensified self-consciousness of the Next Big Thing. Few alternative artists took a long view of tradition; it wasn’t part of the program. Given their of-the-moment, art-in-real-time ambitions, old masters — even not-so-old ones like de Kooning, who was still alive — offered few useful precedents. Some artists, photographers, mostly — David Hammons, Anthony Hernandez, and the subversive Chauncey Hare, whose images of corporate employees depict a homely American melancholy — issue from a recognizable tradition. But if history encodes teleology, a determining purpose that the catalog calls “a master narrative of progress and succession,” many 1970s artists were creating an end of history. The spirit of the times was “Let’s try this, let’s try that!” Why worry details or destiny?

Sometimes, though, the spirit seems suspiciously Romantic. Consider Rimbaud’s injunction to artists to pursue “a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses.” In San Francisco, Tom Marioni, whose Museum of Conceptual Art was the site of legendary performance pieces, documented his “social interactions” with beer bottles he and his friends left behind. The art was the boozing, the art history was those bottles. For From China to Czechoslovakia, he drank a bottle of beer from a different country every day, then lined up the empties on a shelf in a kind of dipsomaniacal panopticon. And it makes a hairy kind of sense: “The work,” he said, “became a world map in beer bottles.” You can stagger about Under the Big Black Sun and be merrily surprised (or bored or miffed) whichever way you turn. The exhibition wants to be as messy, undogmatic, and unstructured as the art it celebrates. And so it is. ■

Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981v is on view at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles until February 13, 250 South Grand Avenue, moca.org.

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