08 Oct, 2009

California dreamers

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Los Angeles in the 1960s was Nowheresville. Then a bunch of renegade artists made the world sit up. On the eve of two major shows, John Patterson meets the trailblazers

The story of art in southern California in the 1950s and 60s is to a great extent the tale of how an emergent world city, with a massive cultural inferiority complex, nourished its first generation of artists. At the time, Los Angeles was lazily perceived as a cultural backwater at best, a philistine desert at worst. But in that period, a local style with potentially global appeal was first discerned among its painters, sculptors and proto-conceptual art-provocateurs, principally in a group centered around West Hollywood’s now-legendary Ferus Gallery.

Ed Ruscha, perhaps the most renowned, certainly the most handsome of the surviving “Ferus Studs”, as they jokingly dubbed their mostly male gang, recalls: “The 50s and the 60s were a very drowsy time. It wasn’t just a matter of piling paint on a canvas, as much as just living the life out here in LA. The movies were out here, the beach, the freeways, the desert. It had an accelerated pace to it; it was a fast city, but it didn’t have the cultural depth that New York had, and probably still does.”

Los Angeles was and remains an elemental place, alive with unique versions of the four elements: earth (it moves), air (heavy with smog), fire (in the hills every summer), water (surf’s up!) – and the artists of southern California were moved, in different ways and degrees, by all four.

Ruscha and the Ferus boys were children of the Silent Generation of the Eisenhower era, living in a hidebound, still largely segregated city. There was car-freak Ed Kienholz, artist and Ferus co-founder with curator Walter Hopps (a great name for an amphetamine addict); Larry Bell; ceramicist-surfer Kenneth Price; schizophrenic wild man and inspirational figure John Altoon; alongside fellow travellers such as architect Frank Gehry and future feminist groundbreaker Judy Chicago.

The city was in fact far from a cultural desert. Hollywood’s output pulsated through the region’s bloodstream; for good or ill, it affected all their work. Jazz innovators such as Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy were then emerging from LA City College, and Ornette Coleman was practising on his white plastic saxophone between shifts as a department store elevator operator. Arnold Schoenberg, the master of 12 tones, was honing his forehand smash on the tennis courts of upmarket Westwood; Thomas Mann was taking tea with 15-year-old Canoga Park High School student Susan Sontag; and Kenneth Anger and others were pioneering new kinds of radical cinema, almost in private. Out at the beach nightclubs, cool jazz, a profound influence on LA artists, was being confected by Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker, among others. And by the mid-1960s Los Angeles would become the foremost rock’n’roll city in the US (Ruscha cites Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart as seminal influences). David Hockney was developing his bright, happy meld of pop art and California plein air painting, while Philip Guston, the mildest and calmest of the abstract expressionists, trained in LA.

But in the realm of radical art, LA was still nowheresville until Hopps, Kienholz and director Irving Blum hit the scene. Ferus was founded in 1958, preaching a gospel that had tenets in common with pop art and the Fluxus movements in New York, and reacting in its own diverse ways to the long shadow of abstract expressionism. Hopps quit Ferus in 1962 to run the Pasadena Art Museum, where he curated landmark shows by Marcel Duchamp (1963) and Man Ray (1966), both of which profoundly influenced the Ferus group. The gang were relatively instinctive as artists, and to some extent faux-naif and anti-intellectual. Much has been made of LA’s lack of a central arts scene, or even a street of artists’ bars or coffee houses to foment discussion and innovation. But this relative isolation and geographic remoteness – artists mostly gathered in then-tawdry, now-gentrified Venice – actually encouraged local artists to dig into themselves, and into a region that was, to paraphrase Günter Grass on Berlin in the 60s, “the city closest to the realities of the age”.

How so? First, there was the California automobile culture, the emergent freeway-dominated, smog-ridden landscape with its bold street signage. Kienholz responded to the oddities of the automotive dream/nightmare in his infamous Backseat Dodge 38 installation, featuring a couple making out in a wrecked vintage sedan, beer bottles strewn about them, in a vaguely apocalyptic fug of sex and hard metal. Ruscha famously photographed, in his deadpan gaze, Thirty-four Parking Lots, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, and Every Building on the Sunset Strip, published in a 1966 photo-book that offered a movie-like, yet blankly stationary road trip.

Thank you, Walt Disney

Judy Chicago painted an early masterpiece, Car Hood, on the actual hood of a Chevrolet Corvair, the car famously dubbed by Ralph Nader as “unsafe at any speed”. John Baldessari, working in San Diego, was shooting random street scenes from his moving car and adorning them with slogans and fragments of art criticism. In 1970, Ruscha’s friend, the artist Joe Goode, made a calendar featuring a dozen local artists photographed in their cars. None of this would have happened among strap-hanging, taxi-hailing Manhattanites.

Kienholz, the most ferociously political of a largely apolitical bunch, was also profoundly alert to the economic underpinnings of this SoCal paradise, in its white-hegemonic, “endless summer” phase. Southern California’s entire economy in those days was juiced by massive military spending on the Nasa space programme and the Vietnam war, the dream and nightmare aspects of 60s technological optimism. In Kienholz’s hilarious and deeply disturbing Portable War Memorial, the standard features of the California dream are all present: the Coca-Cola machine, the lawn, the poolside furniture and picnic tables – and in the middle of all this, four model soldiers re-enacting the famous Iwo Jima photograph of Marines raising the flag, but this time over a barbecue table. “It wasn’t a movement, necessarily,” recalls Ruscha. “We didn’t all do the same kind of work. Some were doing hard-edge pictures, some were doing emblematic, symmetrical things, some were splashing paint on canvas, Kienholz was doing his thing. They were a bunch of altar boys with black eyes – that’s the way they came off to me.”

Ruscha studied at Chouinard School of the Arts, sponsored by Walt Disney as a feeding school to supply his studio with animators. “To me back then Chouinard was a second choice,” he remembers, “but I’m really glad I ended up there, because it was much freer and more bohemian than [its rivals]. Disney had been connected with Chouinard since the 30s. It had some things in common with a factory, but they were very liberal in their fine arts courses.”

The great year of change was 1970. Altoon died young in late 1969, taking some of the soul and fire out of the Ferus group. Artforum magazine, headquartered upstairs from the Ferus gallery, moved to New York, where it remains. And Chouinard officially became CalArts, moving 30 miles north out of LA to Valencia. The new faculty, featuring, among others, Baldessari and Chicago, eschewed local artists in an attempt to draw new blood to the region. “We purposely didn’t hire anyone out of LA. We wanted to find an alternative aesthetic, and I think we produced quite a few interesting artists,” Baldessari tells me. In 1973, Kienholz moved back home to Idaho.

As always happens, these young men aged and became the art establishment of Los Angeles. Their work, however, remains as fresh, beautiful and disturbing today as it was when it was created, even if the state that powered them now seems in irreversible decline.

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