In the 1950s and 1960s, several Bay Area painters — David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and others — were working to revivify traditional figurative painting while juggling formal issues raised by Abstract Expressionism about surface and illusionist depth. They painted portraits, bathers, domestic scenes, and still lifes, pushing the limits of representation. (Each at some point also painted abstractly.) At the same time, a different scene was taking shape in Los Angeles, where artists were taking, so to speak, indigenous materials — L.A.’s chemically treated sunsets, surfing and car culture, found junk — to explore other possibilities that, even at their most crystalline and nonrepresentational, usually came directly out of their experience.
In the late 1960s, for instance, the artist and ardent surfer Peter Alexander, while using resin to repair a board, noticed that the hardened substance refracted light but looked like liquid standing still, so he experimented with it as a sculptural medium, molding resins into standing wedges hazed through and through with mystical hues of faint purples and glassy aquamarines. His contemporary Billy Al Bengston raced cars and motorcycles and in his art imitated their hard, lacquered, candy-color looks. From customizing shops he got the idea of using metal as a support and manipulating color for sculptural effects; and he happily admitted that his art came directly out of Southern California freeway culture. Why not? Art imitates life in unexpected ways.
What Alexander and Bengston produced came to be called “finish fetish” art, because of their obsession with dazzling surfaces and their use of fiberglass or aluminum supports instead of more traditional canvas or linen. (They and a few of their cohorts were tagged the Venice Boys, because they lived near Venice Beach.) Finish fetish art and other practices that buzzed around Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s (when a second generation of Bay Area figurative painters were building on the achievements of their predecessors) are on view at a condensed survey exhibition, SoCal, running at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show, which draws exclusively on LACMA’s collection, scoops up everything from Ed Kienholz’s junk art (including his most famous construction, Back Seat Dodge, ’38, which I’ll get to in a minute) to Lyn Foulkes’s muscular stereoscopic blue and rose landscapes, in which she scratches the canvas to create wild grasses and floats gestural squiggles above hilltops; and from shrine art that showcases L.A.’s mongrel mix of ethnicities to Kenneth Price’s architectural ceramic sculptures with glazes so color saturated and enameled that you want to knock on them. One Price piece is composed of a green upper story cantilevered over a “floor level” box with red, yellow, and orange facets. “They’re building a complex behind my house,” I overheard one visitor say, “that looks just like that.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary social issues scraped back and forth across formal problems. Some L.A. artists were intent on making trouble, so trouble they made, no one more than Ed Kienholz. His Back Seat Dodge, ’38, a cutaway view of a couple coupling in the snub-nosed jalopy of the title, its ambient space lit only by headlights, big-band music tinkling faintly from the radio, is so grungy and audacious — the dummy-woman’s legs spread wide for the chicken-wire man pushing into her — that when it was first exhibited in 1966, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors deemed it pornographic and threatened to shut the museum, but they and the museum reached a compromise: the assemblage could be shown if the car door were closed. (Gallery attendants opened the door to adults on request, but not if children were present.) Back Seat Dodge, ’38 is whoopie as noir-ish, shabby furtiveness, vintage 1930s, with mysterious effluvia fogging the car windows, discarded panties and empty beer bottles tossed here and there. Kienholz knew how to get our attention so that he could then criticize our attention: his art doesn’t sandbag us in any vulgar way, but it does celebrate vulgarity while slicing and dicing hypocrisies about America’s sexual mores. Kienholz, who died in 1994, was a realist of disgust, of gutter clutter, but also a wicked satirist. The ratty seat cushion of the abortionist’s chair in The Illegal Operation is actually a crushed female torso with stuffing, like a rag doll’s inners, oozing from her vagina. Cigarette butts and grimy nasty instruments lie scattered around her. The Illegal Operation dates to 1962 and still shocks — Kienholz’s raspy sadness, grim outrage, and diabolical in-your-face humor is hard to shake.
Looking at stuff in this exhibition made me think that texture counted more as an essence for Southern California painters than it did for other regional styles, even when, or especially when, the work has obvious subjective meanings. Eric Orr’s 1979 Gold to Lead Strip uses gold leaf on wood as Gothic artists did hundreds of years ago, though the subject matter is autobiographical, since the carved surface grill contains his father’s portrait. In it and another of Orr’s works, Silence and Ion Wind, where sweet little rooms (or monastic cells) are drawn onto sandpaper with pencil and gold pen then mounted on lead panel, the artist achieves fresh effects using ancient methods. The junk art equivalent of this would be, I think, personal narrative that’s literally constructed from crafted or found materials. When John Outterbridge was growing up during the Depression, his father supported the family by operating a small hauling business with a rattletrap pickup, exchanging his work for yams and watermelons. The son’s recent (1993) construction, John Ivery’s Truck: Hauling Away the Traps and Saving the Yams, obviously owes much to Ed Kienholz’s breakthrough autobiographical and socially acute work. A toy truck with a business phone number painted crookedly on the door gives up none of its pathos to the fond humor that also defines it. It also reminds us of the identity politics that took hold of some Southland art in the 1990s, when another provocateur-enchanter, Betye Saar, constructed Gris Gris Guardian. Saar is of mixed ethnic descent, and her work is a retablo or shrine to her past, with candles, voodoo dolls, bones, feathers, corn husks, and bottles of occult potions you’d find in a Santeria shop.
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