New book 'Out of Sight' gives L.A.'s '60s art scene the respect its due

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
William Hackman's 'Out of Sight' pointedly reflects the out-of-sight, out-of-mind history of L.A. art

For most of the 60 years that Los Angeles artists have been making aesthetically powerful, conceptually acute work, book publishers have generally looked the other way.

Not surprisingly, it wasn't especially difficult during that time to find monographs on second- and even third-tier New York School artists or histories of parochial developments in Manhattan, center of both the art market and the publishing industry.

But a book on the brilliantly hybrid paintings of John McLaughlin, who in the 1950s crossed the European geometries of Mondrian and Malevich with ma, the spatial intervals distinctive to much Japanese art since the 15th century? Forget about it.

Even the assemblage art movement, topped by the incisive counterculture commitments of a transformational Beat Generation figure like Wallace Berman, could simply be overlooked. Berman might find a comfortable place among the celebrated throng on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the classic 1967 Beatles album. (He's directly above John Lennon, two rows up, next to Tony Curtis.) But good luck trying to find him in the art section at your local bookstore.

That's changing now. If the dearth has not become a flood, for reasons that surely include the economic tempests that have tossed the entire publishing industry, at least it has become a regular flow. Books about Los Angeles art and artists after World War II are no longer a rarity, like Honus Wagner baseball cards or a first-edition Spider-Man.

Chalk it up to two primary developments.

One is the now universally accepted understanding that L.A. is among a handful of global centers for the production of significant new art. Desire to learn its back stories has likewise flourished.

The other is 2011's "Pacific Standard Time," the marvelous citywide array of exhibitions on postwar Southern California art history. The Getty Trust's sponsorship of the project, which included its own slew of noteworthy exhibition catalogs, redounded as establishment imprimatur.

"Out of Sight: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the Sixties" joins the widening bookshelf, its title pointedly reflecting the out-of-sight, out-of-mind history. Author William Hackman is a former longtime managing editor in the public relations office at the Getty, although the book is an independent project.

He began research on it in 1990, then set the work aside for many years. Notably, 1990 coincides with the art market's cataclysmic crash. It also comes in the immediate aftermath of the 1980s resurgence of L.A. art, which cemented the promise of the 1960s on which Hackman's book mostly focuses.

I say "mostly focuses" because, despite the title, perhaps half the text pre- and post-dates the heady 1960s. Life does not unfold in neat decades. Where that art eruption came from and where it went are part of the book's terrain.

Hackman opens with quick sketches of L.A.'s cultural condition before the pivotal 1957 opening of Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. In fact, he goes all the way back to the 1920s and the updated, chamber of commerce-style marketing of the city's myth as a modern El Dorado.

The Ferus Gallery story is by now well-known — and maybe even over-known. It has been told in helpful detail in various magazine articles and exhibition catalogs, as well as in Kristine McKenna's 2009 book, "The Ferus Gallery: A Place to Begin," Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's 2011 "Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s" and elsewhere.

But Hackman has worthwhile things to add. Much of it comes in the form of granular detail, which takes the storied tale down off the trapeze and into the sawdust. It has the texture of life as it is actually lived.

Ferus, we learn, was literally a byproduct of the All-City Art Festival, an annual, amateurs-only civic event in Barnsdall Park. Gallery founders Ed Kienholz, the socially and politically minded assemblage artist, and entrepreneurial art maven Walter Hopps were strapped for cash to launch their new venture. So, hired to run the festival, they surreptitiously lifted the construction materials the city used to build the exhibition booths and hauled them over to La Cienega to build out Ferus.

No wonder assemblage art, created from the castoff debris of industrial American culture, occupied such a prominent place in the original Ferus ethos. The place was constructed of leftovers, the same way the art was made.

"We keep our own books in our own ways," Hackman quotes Kienholz slyly telling Hopps, whose administrative skills were, shall we say, overshadowed by his sharp aesthetic sensitivities. The cheeky whiff of larceny is apt.

One of the book's chief pleasures is Hackman's careful and extensive use of the voluminous oral histories that have been recorded over decades by artists, dealers, critics, collectors, curators and more, and which are archived at UCLA, the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art and elsewhere. The author also has a personal trove of interviews he conducted, some more than 25 years ago. Sundry distinct voices are stitched together to shape the unfolding narrative.

Hackman, however, also repeats two established ideas that I believe to be outdated. One mistakenly traces L.A.'s artistic maturity to the mid- and late1950s, when assemblage art blossomed. The other misses a key critical roadblock that impeded taking postwar L.A. art seriously.

McLaughlin's singular geometric abstractions, first shown at the Felix Landau Gallery in 1952, predate assemblage art (and Ferus). It's true that assemblage had many adherents (and Ferus quickly became a social and cultural epicenter). Assemblage is worthy of the attention it gets in Hackman's story.

But McLaughlin's solitary adventure likewise deserves full consideration, not the mere three sentences he gets in passing. His paintings are the back story to 1960s Light and Space art.

Hackman is also good in considering entrenched cultural biases against Los Angeles. He charts such hoary chestnuts as the city not having a traditional urban core and being artistically shadowed by the glare of Hollywood.

In reality, though, America built its primacy in postwar art on something more specific than urbanism or reactions against business-minded studio moguls. Acceptance of a powerful critical doctrine put Los Angeles beyond the pale.

Clement Greenberg wrote "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," a founding critical document for the interpretation of Modern American art, in 1939, and he republished a slightly revised version in 1961 as the lead chapter to "Art and Culture," his enormously influential book. Greenberg wrote of a supposedly fierce battle for cultural dominance underway between high art and mass art. He did it in terms of the gravity of French aesthetics (the avant-garde) versus the shallow depravity of German ones (kitsch).

In hindsight, it is hard to miss the actual battle lines Greenberg was drawing. As Europe braced for a cataclysmic war, the French-German divide took on special meaning.

By 1961, the start of the decade Hackman surveys, World War II was long over. A flourishing New York School had fully replaced the shattered School of Paris as champion of avant-garde principles.

But that left Los Angeles, America's mass-culture powerhouse, to occupy the opposite pole. New York was avant-garde, L.A. was kitsch — critically discredited, culturally vanquished, doomed to second-class status.

The city was a boomtown, but its art didn't stand a chance. Until that critical doctrine was overthrown a generation later, the L.A. art scene was simply out of sight.

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