Of course, there was art in Los Angeles they could have seen. Wide-shouldered men in post office murals reaped and forged and lifted up symbols of a better America to come. Sabato Rodia's unfinished Watts Towers/Nuestro Pueblo glittered over the Pacific Electric tracks south of downtown. At the doctor's office, in the bank lobby and on sale at Barker Bros., sweetly impressionistic landscapes continued to see Southern California as a timeless garden.
And at the county Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park, curators mounted temporary loan exhibitions among the mastodon skeletons. The Huntington Library displayed a superb collection of 18th century portraits and landscapes. Chouinard Art Institute, the Art Center School and Otis Art Institute offered day and evening lessons to veterans on the GI Bill. (Some would get jobs cartooning for Disney or Warner Bros.) Serious collectors could find Matisse and Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky at Earl Stendahl's gallery on Wilshire Boulevard and Frank Perls' gallery nearby, but Stendahl and Perls were practically alone.
Art — as a faith and a business — was something found mostly in New York that September, not here. Los Angeles didn't even have its own art museum. The city had no center; its moneyed people were too segregated. Downtown and Hollywood were separate Protestant and Jewish worlds. Black and Latino Los Angeles were kept nearly invisible. With a few exceptions — Man Ray was the subject of two retrospectives in the 1940s — little public notice was taken of modern art. Officially, Los Angeles distrusted anything that was radical.
On Olvera Street in 1932, city workers had whitewashed "America Tropical," David Alfaro Siqueiros' blunt allegory of Anglo oppression. In 1939, conservatives on the county museum board had turned down a gift of avant-garde works from the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg. Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson and Fanny Brice founded the Modern Institute of Art in 1947 to keep the Arensberg collection here, but the institute closed when funding ran out.
Indifference was turning into hostility. In 1951, the Los Angeles City Council held two days of noisy hearings to condemn the "offensive and nauseating" abstract works in the All-City Outdoor Arts Festival sponsored by the Municipal Art Department. The hearings tarred modernist painters as "tools of the Kremlin," and the department was nearly dissolved. When the county museum acquired a small Jackson Pollock, curators were ordered not to show it publicly. Councilman Harold Harby in 1953 tried to block a gift to the city of Edmund Kohn's "Bird in the Moon"; Harby's critique of the abstract painting: "If this is a bird, the moon can have it!"
Losses in the local culture war were serious enough, but the conflict was fought in a tiny arena. The real preoccupation of L.A. in the 1950s was the culture being made and consumed in the commonplace and insistent new suburbs.
In the tract house valleys and flatlands of Los Angeles, young guys with a knack for tinkering were turning 20-year-old jalopies into chromed and lacquered hot rods. Surfers were taking jet-age materials and giving their boards sleek contours in polymer and fiberglass. Aerospace workers were learning the skills of vacuum forming, acrylic casting and vapor coating. Quality-control experts looked over their shoulders, evaluating the sheen of the finishes they applied to sheet metal and plastic.
The things the men made were loud, fast and colorful. They jostled competitively with the stuff of suburban life — billboards shouting come-ons, men's magazines lingering over every airbrushed inch of skin, local TV recycling vintage Hollywood — and all of it pouring into suburban Los Angeles in an unfiltered torrent of immediate, disposable content. In a media-saturated city, Spade Cooley, Bill Haley and the Metropolitan Opera all played on the kitchen radio. The latest issue of House Beautiful on the Danish Modern coffee table assailed the Abstract Expressionists but also warned middle-class housewives that their tastes needed to be modern. Their kids furtively passed around copies of Mad magazine and Action Comics, lingering over four-color graphics that rendered the suburban everyday as satire or horror.
From this bricolage, the popular culture of postwar Los Angeles was rising, part corporate product and part do-it-yourself assembly in which all the arts — high and low — were mashed up and extruded as more objects of middle-class consumption. Los Angeles had impulsively disposed of its own past and long ago made self-invention its only tradition. The new popular culture and Los Angeles were made for each other. It was an egalitarian, ahistorical and optimistic fabrication of what the city thought its future should be, with all of the excess and aspiration that implied.
The rest of the country wondered if anything more might be expected, if Los Angeles had anything to say other than its advertised dreams. Seen from New York's Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles looked like a mess of its clichés: happy, sun-besotted, trivial and too immersed in spectacle to make serious contemporary art. In Los Angeles, no one seemed to care, even though the shallowness was at least partly true.
In New York in the mid-1950s, you looked to history and theory to explain how the fears and longings of the age were expressed in its art. In Los Angeles, you only had to look to desire. Los Angeles — a bipolar city of bright surfaces sharply bounded by shadows — tended to eroticize everything, to give even the banal a Dionysian spin into play, physical perfection, violence, altered states of consciousness and a thirst for the infinite.
The infinite had been a part of the sales pitch for Los Angeles for a long time: in its light, its deserts, its emptiness and its place at the end of roads leading west. Ecstatic religion, New Age thought and UFO cults had satisfied ordinary folk who wanted transcendence. In a rapidly changing Los Angeles, dabbling in LSD and Zen satisfied some of those who looked for a personal cosmic doorway.
Los Angeles itself was one of those doorways for guys who liked to draw, who liked to gamble, who dropped in and out of art school and who didn't fit in well. Guys like Ed Kienholz, one of the founders with Walter Hopps of the Ferus Gallery in 1957, where Kienholz later showed "Roxy's," the first of his life-size environments assembled from the city's junk. And guys like Billy Al Bengston, who experimented with industrial pigments and spray lacquer to render luminous hearts, irises and sergeant's stripes. And Kenneth Price, who put the same gloss on ceramic pieces, joining traditional craft work to functionless abstraction. And Craig Kauffman, who began painting in a West Cost expressionist style but who is best known for perfectly finished panels of vacuum-formed Plexiglas. And John McCracken, who brought the same perfection to resin-coated planks, casually propped against a gallery wall. And Robert Irwin, an intensely focused minimalist in painting and later a fabricator of sight-altering installations made solely of light.
If Los Angeles was fundamentally insubstantial, then its art could be weightless and limitless light and space — what the critic Rosalind Krauss would later call "the California Sublime." And if the city was a less-than-innocent joyride of suburban desires, then Los Angeles artists would cram all of popular culture in the back seat.
Throughout the 1950s, the great museums of New York laid out a didactic history of art that ultimately led to a room where contemporary paintings were hung. Those paintings were intended to point out the logical direction art would take.
In Los Angeles, no arrow pointed the way. In Los Angeles, there was no art history exam to be passed. You were on your own. Successful New York artists fitted their work into a system of reputation merchandizing that involved certain galleries, art critics and publications. None of that was true of Los Angeles before the 1960s. To drum up patronage for their struggling galleries, some artist-entrepreneurs set up courses on contemporary art in Westside living rooms — Tupperware parties for the aesthetically curious. New art was risky, and it didn't pay in Los Angeles. But the surfing was good, almost everything was cheap, and anything was possible.
An unruly hybridization of the ordinary and the visionary gave a specifically Los Angeles context to the sunny abundance of Andy Warhol's soup cans (first shown at the Ferus Gallery in 1962), the moral outrage of the Peace Tower (a Vietnam War protest coordinated by Mark di Suvero in 1966) and the ethnic manifestos of Chicano art (itself an extension of farm labor organizing). Superficially, the arts here seemed to be the less introspective products of a transcontinental counterculture centered in New York and San Francisco. But Los Angeles had a recklessness, a hunger for memory and an identification with the everyday that led its arts to different ends. They could be vulgar and excessive or precious or intensely private, just like Los Angeles.
Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, L.A. artists assembled from light, space, color, adolescence, joy and the debris of the city a body of work that investigated and delineated what Los Angeles meant when it was on the verge. Some observers saw the birth of a new capitol of art in that. Some saw only the sheen on perfect surfaces.
Hardly anyone saw the fire that would burn the heart out of these daydreams. Hardly anyone saw that Watts and the rest of Los Angeles was on the verge of 1965.
Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.