No one’s calling it a major retrospective, but the Luckman Gallery at Cal State Los Angeles is hosting the largest show by artist Walter Askin that has been seen locally in a very long time. Known primarily for his prints, Askin is also showing about 50 sculptures, paintings large and small, and translucent light boxes.
The dry humor that runs through Askin’s output surfaces in conversation: “My shows have been very efficacious in curing halitosis and dandruff,” he offers, stifling a laugh.
Askin, a Pasadena native, is somewhat coy about the scope of the show. “It covers a period of time,” he says from his home, “but it’s not new work.”
To add to the mystery, guests to the Luckman will notice that there are no dates given to any of the work. “Basically what I want is for people to look at the work,” he says.
Catalogs of retrospectives are usually a collection of essays by art history scholars. Askin himself wrote the accompanying catalog, “Mainstreaming the Muse,” and considers it part of the show: “It’s how I channel and develop ideas.”
The 86-year-old Askin praises the public school art education he received in Pasadena as “quite fine. There were always materials available but they always let you alone.”
In his last years of high school, he saw a group of returning GIs get into art teaching. “They were looking for an income,” he states, “and went after commercial art.” That contrasted with an older, more traditional group of artists. “We young sprouts were thrown into the middle. Because of the challenge of values, we had to define ourselves.”
He studied at UC Berkeley from 1949 to 1954 and describes it as “a castle of abstract expressionism — just what I wanted.” He loved the process: “I loved the fact that you didn’t start with an image or predetermined idea, that you found the idea in the act of creating the work. Berkeley opened up a lot of things for me. I had my first one-man show there.”
Though he worked in abstraction, Askin’s work never precluded imagery. “You could still find traces of subject matter,” he points out. “I’ve never been interested in denying myself the ability to do that.”
His picture planes are populated with assortments of odd characters, and if we look hard enough, we realize we’ve usually seen them somewhere before. Don’t look for crazy angles or chaotic compositions; Askin’s work often uses a theatrical format. “Things can happen on a stage,” he says. “When I looked at the work of Titan, Tintoretto and Giotto — they all presented scenes as though they were on a stage.”
A sense of pageantry and procession is also present. “Well,” Askin coyly notes, “my studio is two blocks away from where every January 1st they do a lot of marching and floats down Colorado Boulevard.”
His influence on later artists continues to be felt. When asked to identify his most important teachers on Cal State L.A., muralist Kent Twitchell cites Askin: “Walter had magic in being able to bring out the best in his students — and he didn’t even have to try. He came up with assignments that made students reach for new things. They were equal parts form and content.”
Askin transferred his imagery to light boxes, a few of which are in the show. “I got tired of things resurfacing in the same way,” he points out, “so I used them on polyvinyl decals that went onto tinted Plexiglas.”
Asked about methodology and consistent themes, Askin says he only has one rule: “Follow your weirds. Most of my work is about joy and delight. I don’t deal with direct reality.”
What: “Walter Askin: Mainstreaming the Muse”
Where: Luckman Gallery, Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Dr., Los Angeles.
When: Through Oct. 24. Open Monday to Thursday and Saturday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
More info: (323) 343-6604, luckmanarts.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.
FOR THE RECORD
Oct. 13, 2015, 11:58 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the gallery's hours of operation.