PST, A to Z: ‘The Radicalization of a ‘50s Housewife,’ ‘Best Kept Secret’


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Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

When the University Art Galleries at UC Irvine decided to call their Pacific Standard Time contribution “The Radicalization of a ‘50s Housewife,” they weren’t kidding. In 1951, when she was just 20, Barbara T. Smith became not just a housewife, but an archetype of conventional American femininity. She had graced the society pages as a young woman, and she and her family seemed to live a charmed life in a Greene & Greene house in Pasadena prominent enough to be featured in the Independent Star News in 1964. (See Holly Myers’ feature story.)


The exhibition’s cache of such newspaper and magazine clippings, featuring a smiling, perfectly coiffed young Smith, are jarring in relation to the rest of the show. There are some early works, but most of the space is devoted to documentation from “Birthdaze,” a performance Smith gave at Tortue Gallery in 1981, on the occasion of her 50th birthday. Organized in three parts, it dramatized her rejection of the conventional gender roles she had modeled so perfectly, and her exploration of a new paradigm for relationships between the sexes.

In the first part, which took place outdoors on the gallery’s patio, Smith, wearing a wig, high heels, and a typical 1950s dress, fled the advances of two crass young men (played by Kim Jones and a pants-less Paul McCarthy). In the second, “liberated” part, she donned men’s clothing and returned riding a motorcycle, but was still torn between two different male figures (former lover, the macho Dick Kilgroe, and friend and something of a father figure, Allan Kaprow). The show consists largely of a series of black-and-white photos of the event, furniture and clothing used in the performance, and a re-creation of the room in which, in the final section, Smith and Victor Henderson engaged in a Tantric sex ritual inside the gallery. A video of a similar ritual, which also ran during the performance, plays on a monitor, giving us some sense of the goings-on, which were, to say the least, real.

In some ways, you really just had to be there. But “Radicalization” is an important commemoration of a major work that until now had not found its way into the art historical canon, feminist or otherwise. As Juli Carson notes in her brochure essay, perhaps Smith was too much of a “free radical”—for her, liberation meant breaking down the male/female dichotomy altogether—to be fully embraced by mainstream feminism. If Smith’s dramatic turn from classic housewife to free-thinking artist doesn’t fit comfortably into standard feminist narratives, it does make sense in relation to the work of her peers at UCI, where she enrolled in the MFA program in 1969, shortly after her divorce. “Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971” at the Laguna Art Museum, attempts to define a scene around the students and teachers at the school, including works by James Turrell, Chris Burden, Nancy Buchanan (photographed by fellow student Marcia Hafif at right), Vija Celmins, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and others.

A new university founded in 1965 in the then wide-open spaces of Orange County, UCI fostered an atmosphere of possibility, unburdened by the weight of tradition. The art school in particular had very little structure: Graduate students were expected to find their own studio spaces and behave like working artists; teacher Ed Moses once spent an entire class simply naming artists that came to mind, and Bell encouraged students to study the composition of cigarette butts on the sidewalk.

‘Best Kept Secret’ features the work of teachers and students, but the student work is the most adventurous, often taking the form of performances, site-specific installations, or inventive engagements with nature. Donald Karwelis’ “Earthquake Chair,” originally installed near a fault line in Desert Hot Springs in 1972, looks a bit like an electric chair as it vibrates somewhat sinisterly in a corner. Jay McCafferty used a magnifying glass to burn holes through several layers of vellum, creating a scarred, not-quite-regular network of textured dots. And Gary Beydler created beautiful, mesmerizing films in the mid-1970s by holding a mirror up to a sky or mountain landscape and using time-lapse photography to condense the shifting light and colors of an entire day into a few minutes.

This desire to engage with the environment, to fuse art-making with real life, as Smith did in “Birthdaze,” runs through “Best Kept Secret.” Indicative of the experimental zeitgeist of the time, UCI can take its rightful place in the historical vanguard of Southern California art. Yet, this prominence may be bittersweet for some. As Burden says in a video on the museum’s web site: “Once a secret’s out, it’s no good anymore.”


--Sharon Mizota

UC Irvine University Art Galleries, 712 Arts Plaza, Irvine, (949) 824-9854, through Dec. 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971, through Jan. 22. Open 7 days a week.

Photos, from top: Barbara T. Smith, ‘Birthdaze,’ 1981, Performance documentation, Photographer: Daniel Joseph Martinez. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and The Box, LA

Marcia Hafif, ‘Nancy Buchanan, UCI Graduate Student, 1969–1971’ Credit: Courtesy of the artist Photo © Marcia Hafif

Marcia Hafif, ‘Donald Karwelis, UCI Graduate Student, 1969– 1971’ Credit: Courtesy of the artist Photo © Marcia Hafif