For the second year in a row, David Richard Contemporary is acting like a big-city gallery or art museum by presenting a curated exhibition of the multifaceted and dynamic innovations of contemporary art after World War II. “Southern California Painting, 1970s: Painting Per Se” follows last year’s “1960s Revisited” show of paintings from both East and West coasts. But this year is 2011, and it is the year for Southern California art. Unless you have just emerged from five or so years completely unplugged from the art world, you are sure to have heard about the upcoming Getty funded initiative that includes over 40 concurrent exhibitions under the rubric “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.”
Most major institutions are coordinating their programs to open Oct. 1. The work of many influential artists of the era, including many who have made their homes in New Mexico, will be featured in multiple exhibitions. Among these are Larry Bell, Judy Chicago, John McCracken, Bruce Nauman, and Ken Price.
The purpose of all these exhibitions, as well as the very eclectic and provocative exhibition at David Richard, is thoroughly revisionist. They intend to document the emergence of Los Angeles as an international nexus of contemporary art after the war and to rewrite a history that for decades has claimed New York as its center. With Getty taking the lead and providing support, scholars and institutions are fleshing out previously unexplored histories, and showcasing an overwhelming cascade of art that has not seen the light of day in the decades since it was made. Shows have been organized around such diverse themes as activist art collectives, black artists, Chicano artists, Chinese- American architects, crafts movements, Japanese- American artists and designers, photographers, video pioneers, and women artists.
The 1970s was known as the “Pluralist Decade,” and the show at David Richard is an enticing advance sampling of the wide-open nature of painting in L.A. then. Co-curator Peter Frank contends in his essay that since L.A. was not a “painting town” –– unlike New York, London, Berlin, and even San Francisco –– and, that with its abundance of art schools and art departments, L.A. was a place for exploration. He argues that there was an unusual degree of tolerance and “no blanket condemnation of any particular practice on the basis of any aesthetic ideology. ... More than most places, Los Angeles fostered an artistic community whose artists produced for one another rather than for cadres of collectors, curators, critics, or dealers.”
This seems right as far as it goes, but in a more fundamental way it was the ambiance of Los Angeles and New York that made for the most visibly evident differences. Popular television police shows are perfect examples of these hidden-in-plainsight essential differences. For example, New York cop shops are close-knit third generation insiders in a city where people live on top of one another, and L.A. cop shops are multiracial teams that cover a 350-square-mile mosaic of distinct geographies and communities.
Just look at two large-scale Judy Chicago pastel grid pieces from 1971 made by spraying acrylic on acrylic. They are unabashedly about the beautiful soft light in a place she nostalgically remembers as a warm and welcoming paradise, where an artist could live at the beach for $60 per month. Another real treat is also an exercise in beauty titled “Lavender Twins” from 1977 by Merion Estes, constructed of large, woozy, softly colored spheres painted on multiple sheets of clear vinyl draped in front of the wall. With a knowing nod to Jackson Pollock’s famous “Lavender Mist” action painting, the action in Estes’ painting is not about the process of flinging the paint but is the action of light and the phenomenology of perceiving the properties of this entirely new material object. Like Judy Chicago, Estes was among the first generation of artists who energized the feminist movement in this country and in L.A.’s Woman’s Building in particular. Also on view are elegant works by artist Helen Lundberg from an earlier generation, along with the always unexpected, consciously altered sensibilities of Karen Carson and Margaret Nielsen.
The mural-sized squeegee painting in saturated sunset colors by Jerry Burchman titled “Spectrum,” was also a reaction to Jackson Pollock’s canvasses that were painted on the floor. It marks Burchman’s turn away from the legacies of easel painting to shopping at the hardware store for his tools.
Among the noteworthy paintings in the exhibition are the high-contrast, truncated circles of artistturned- art-critic Peter Plagens, the suave twists and turns in Tony DeLap’s black-and-white “The Whim of Tituba,” the incendiary fierceness of Scott Grieger’s “Match Man” and “Past History” canvasses, and, the oddly airless watercolor still lifes that verge on the surreal by Max Hendler, who for the last 25 years has made luminous monochromatic squares. During a panel of the artists talking last Saturday, Hendler tentatively ventured that while making these early painstaking still lifes, he was confined to working while sitting down in a small trailer, but when he got a studio and could move back and forth while standing, he began painting monochromes, a transition he characterized as “painting himself out of the canvas.”
There is a bit of overdue boosterism in the assertion that in the face of the silly 1960s declaration of painting’s demise that painting was not as restricted in L.A. as in other art centers. In fact, not only are most of the works in this exhibition fairly standard flat works made in ways common to other centers across the U.S. and Europe, but what painting’s expansion and the experimentation with new materials had in common was the rupture of culture in the wake of the great social and political upheaval of the late 1960s. What is indisputable is that Los Angeles artists did live in very different conditions of light and space, and it shows.
Northern New Mexico could also benefit greatly from an initiative that investigates the history of artists, fills in the blanks, and fleshes out the diversity while documenting the give and take nationally and internationally. What foundation can lead the way and initiate such a major endeavor? It’s about time. It’s about place.