ART : Opening a New Window on L.A.’s Art : Peter Goulds’ L.A. Louver gallery moves to bigger quarters but takes with it years of support for West Coast artists.
When Peter Goulds arrived in Los Angeles from his native England in 1972, Pop had crested, Conceptualism and Minimalism were gathering steam, and Nicholas Wilder was L.A.’s ranking dealer.
The glory days of the slick Finish Fetish style associated with Southern California had passed, Bruce Nauman and his cronies were cooking up a hot little scene out in Pasadena, Chris Burden was doing performance pieces that were to become legendary, and New York was still dissing L.A. as Nowheresville.
Just out of the Manchester School of Art where he’d earned an MFA, Goulds came here, age 24, at the invitation of UCLA for a 10-month stint teaching a video workshop. In his off time he planned to make a series of films on Structuralism in 20th-Century art that would begin with cinematic portraits of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. The films never happened, however, because Goulds became an art dealer instead.
The fruits of Goulds’ 19 years of labor running L.A. Louver Gallery, along with his co-director of 10 years, Kimberly Davis, can be seen this week with the opening of a grand new space in Venice. Designed by Frederick Fisher Architects, the 8,000-square-foot, three-story gallery was built in partnership with textile manufacturer Werner Scharffe and his wife Simone, longtime friends of Goulds’ who were the landlords at the small storefront on Venice Boulevard where L.A. Louver first opened for business in 1976.
With two exhibition galleries on the first floor, a sky-lighted exhibition space on the second, an open air room for site-specific commissions, a private viewing room, offices and a library, this new building appears to be a dramatic expansion. However, Goulds sees it as a consolidation; before this, L.A. Louver operated out of two small galleries, a private viewing space, two apartments used as offices, and a storage facility. Surprisingly enough, this gorgeous new building will be cheaper to run on a daily basis.
That the inaugural exhibition of the new space is a show of sculpture by British artist Richard Deacon says a lot about L.A. Louver; from the start, it’s been Goulds’ intention that his gallery be international.
“To show art in a context that’s exclusively regional creates a vacuum, and I’ve always thought it important to have an international roster of artists--art must transcend the time and place where it’s made,” says Goulds, who’ll follow the Deacon show with exhibitions of work by Jonathan Lasker and David Hockney.
The Deacon exhibition marks a crossroads on a road that began for Goulds when he decided he wanted to be a theater designer at age 16, and enrolled at the Walthamstow School of Art the next year. Stints at three more art schools followed, where he tried his hand at various art forms, ultimately deciding that his greatest gift was in communications design. His work in that field led to the invitation from UCLA that brought him here.
“I didn’t know much about L.A. art when I arrived here and I certainly didn’t anticipate working in the gallery business,” Goulds remembers. “So when I went to galleries and museums I was a visitor like any other and wasn’t approaching it systematically. I was just looking, but I was immediately struck by the fact that other than the Pasadena Museum--which was to become the Norton Simon Museum--and a few things at LACMA, there weren’t many pictures for people to look at in terms of art history. I think the absence of that history has allowed L.A. to be a totally independent, slightly anarchic environment, and I sensed that independence from the moment I arrived.
“I came here planning to make educational films,” he continues, “but realized that researching the films was more compelling to me than the prospect of actually making one. So, what to do? I decided I didn’t want to be a graphics or communications designer, which was something I’d done in England. I could have continued teaching at UCLA but didn’t want to become involved with the politics of academia, which are unavoidable if that’s where you make your career. I considered museum work, but knew I wasn’t good at dealing with committee structures.
“Business appealed to me because I like the independence of it, and a gallery seemed like the ideal vehicle for the things that were important to me,” he says. “It represented full-time engagement with my subject of interest--the subject being 20th-Century art with an emphasis on contemporary work of the post-war years. Friends used to ask me how I could move from communication design to running a gallery and I told them it’s not a great shift, and that the gallery was essentially the biggest design project I’d ever taken on.”
Deciding to tackle a gallery, Goulds and his wife, Elizabeth Goulds, spent the next eight months researching the L.A. art world.
“We studied the museums, who the artists, critics, and curators were, and found the local art community to be very helpful,” he recalls. “At the time LAICA (a non-profit space that operated in L.A. from 1975--88) was active, and it’s a great loss to this city that we no longer have an organization like that. They had a great library and artists’ directory, and I learned a lot about the artists working here who’d never even exhibited. In fact, I met the first artist I showed, Lili Lakich, through LAICA.
“L.A. was welcoming, but at the same time, the artists had the attitude of ‘who is this guy and why should we show with him?,’ ” says Goulds, who moved into his original space on Venice Boulevard in October, 1975. “I approached many artists who declined to show with me--and why would they? I had nothing to offer other than my interest, and didn’t go into business with a wallet of money to throw at them.
“So, developing credibility was an important part of the first 18 months, and we did a few exhibitions that were key in that regard. The first was a group video show that opened in March of 1976, and we followed that with a retrospective of work by Kate Steinitz, who was a close friend of Kurt Scwitters. I met Kate, who was 83 at the time, at UCLA in 1972 and we became good friends--in fact, she recruited me as her chauffeur and I learned a great deal from her in the two years I knew her prior to her death in 1975.
“As part of my research I made a point of looking up Wallace Berman and he lent work to the gallery, with the stipulation that it only be shown in the back room, for our opening on January 16, 1976,” says Goulds of this seminal L.A. artist who was killed in an automobile accident the next month.
“Wallace came to the opening wearing the most extraordinary pink jumpsuit! The gallery was only open for a month before he died, but for years after people would come in and say, ‘I first heard of your gallery through Wallace.’ He was an incredibly generous conduit for ideas and information, and was beneficial to everyone.”
In 1979, L.A. Louver began representing the Berman estate, and in 1993 produced a complete nine-volume facsimile edition of Semina, the magazine Berman produced in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“The Semina project was something I wanted to do from Day One because it’s an astonishing repository of literary history. Semina had its precedence in Dada manuscripts and journals, and represented an iconoclasm and Rabelaisian spirit that I thought needed to be revived. It took us 12 years to realize, and we couldn’t have done it without the production supervision of Wallace’s friend, (artist) George Herms.”
Wrapping up the ‘70s with museum-quality exhibitions that included shows of work by Marcel Duchamp, a collaboration between Samuel Beckett and Jasper Johns, John Cage and a survey of post-war British painting, L.A. Louver tore into the ‘80s with a second gallery on Market Street.
Throughout the art-boom decade, the gallery kept a steadying eye on history, mounting shows of work by Frank Stella; Richard Diebenkorn; a two-part survey of California art that included work by such unsung heroes as Ben Talbert, John Altoon and Jay DeFeo; a show of work by rarely seen British painter David Bomberg; German Expressionist George Baselitz, and an exhibition of Indian miniatures.
The ‘80s also saw the gallery make a major commitment to West Coast assemblage, with exhibitions of work by Herms, Terry Allen, Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Michael C. McMillen and Wallace Berman. Having delivered this valentine to Los Angeles, Goulds promptly opened a gallery in New York.
“I planned to open in New York from the time I opened here, and we finally did it in October of 1989,” says Goulds. “But after four seasons my partnership in New York dissolved and the responsibility of running that gallery became entirely mine, at exactly the point that I was trying to get this new building off the ground. Something had to give, and in the final analysis I enjoy the dialogue I have here more. I like the independence this city offers, and what my history here represents.
“I once heard Charles Eames lecture in England and when asked why he lived in L.A. he said, ‘It’s the only place where you’re left alone to get on with the work.’ The solitude that’s possible here has a lot to do with the fact that it’s 6,000 miles from Europe, Japan and Brazil. It’s still relatively isolated, the geography encourages people to create worlds within the city, and it’s large enough that we’re not looking over each other’s shoulders. I think it’s easier for an artist to have a career in L.A. than in New York now, because New York has become encumbered by the historical legacy L.A. used to be criticized for lacking.
“The kind of individualism that exists in studios here can be found in the collectors here too--we have a lively collecting community here compared with many cities I’m familiar with. In the four years we were in business in New York, for instance, 40% of our business was from Europe, 40% was from the rest of the U.S., and only 20% was from the East Coast. L.A. has a much greater support system within itself.”
Pausing for a minute to reflect on what sort of new direction this new space might represent, Goulds concludes: “I don’t intend to make radical changes, but I do look at this as a new beginning--I’d be a fool not to because it’s an invitation to review our history and restrategize. I started by simply reaching out. I had a credibility gap I had to overcome at the beginning, and had to decide for myself what the function of a dealer is. In order to find answers to those questions I felt I had to reach out as broadly as possible, and over the years we’ve done an amazing number of shows--there was one year when we did 19. In recent years, the gallery’s interests have become much more focused, and I’m pleased about that.
“We’ve been working for 12 years toward the retrospective for Ed and Nancy Kienholz that opens next year at the Whitney, 10 years toward next year’s retrospective for Ed Moses at MOCA, and Peter Shelton’s exhibition this year at LACMA took a great deal of preparation. Seeing these things come to fruition is tremendously gratifying.
“At the same time, this period of reflection has made me aware that issues are changing in the art world, and I want to come to terms with those issues--I’m quite interested, for instance, in younger artists who are challenging attitudes toward painting and sculpture. So there’s much more to be done.”
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