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Right Here, Right Now

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

Something’s changed for art made in Los Angeles. Difficult to describe, the change is not a movement, not a style shift, not a trend. Rather, it’s a change in public perception, the kind that settles quietly and irreversibly into place before you even notice it at all.

Here are some recent events in the international art world that give an inkling of the difference:

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 25, 1997 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 25, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 79 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Cover photo--This is how Ruben Ortiz-Torres’ photograph “Santo Nino Holy Kid, Guanajuato, Mexico” should have been reproduced last Sunday.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 1, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 85 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Art exhibition--"Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997" will be presented at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum in 1998 with only one or two changes from the show organized by Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, rather than in a more abridged version, as stated in a May 18 article.

* On Friday, the revered Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark opened the first large survey exhibition of postwar art made in Los Angeles ever organized by a major museum. After it closes in September, “Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997" will embark on a prominent tour, with stops in Germany, England and Italy. In abridged form (due to space limitations), it will conclude its travels at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum in September 1998.

* In April, at a black-tie gala at New York’s Plaza Hotel, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture presented its prestigious awards for 1997. The medal for distinction in painting went to Vija Celmins, whose mesmerizing grisaille images of the perceptually ambiguous surfaces of the desert and the ocean, made in L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s, established the distinctive direction of her work for the next 20 years. The medal for sculpture was awarded to L.A.'s Chris Burden, whose infamous endurance-test performance art in the 1970s segued into dazzlingly aggressive, sometimes even threatening large-scale sculpture in the 1980s and 1990s (only Burden would try to make a steam roller fly). And the medal for mixed media was presented to Mike Kelley, the L.A.-based artist whose poignant, funny, sometimes scatological assemblages made from thrift-store stuffed animals established him among the handful of major American artists of the past decade.

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* In recent months, both Artforum, the prestigious art magazine based in New York, and Art+Text, a journal published in Australia, have added L.A. editors to their mastheads. The urge to appear up to date and the potential for increased advertising revenue are two reasons to establish an out-of-town editorial presence. (Even after the painful winnowing caused by the early-1990s recession, more than 60 noteworthy galleries operate in L.A., keeping the gallery scene second only to New York’s in size.) Also instrumental, no doubt, is the critical success of locally published Art issues., which together with London’s snazzy-looking Frieze is making the older art magazines seem increasingly dull and incidental.

* In March, a curator of the always closely watched Biennial Exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art told The Times that because the seven L.A. artists included in the 1995 Biennial produced that show’s strongest work overall, the increase to 15 for the current Biennial (through June 1) was intended to underscore how the city is now of equal importance to New York as a center for new art. In fact, she added, a credible Biennial could have been composed of California artists alone.

More examples could be listed, but you get the idea. Art made in Los Angeles now garners national and international attention that far surpasses that of any moment in its past. The city has come to occupy a distinctive position in the newly globalizing life of culture.

A short history goes like this: The 1980s created a huge expansion in the city’s existing infrastructure--museums, art schools, the talent pool, the market--while the cold shower of the early 1990s, with its mix of economic woe and furious culture wars, made for an acid test of the scene’s staying power. L.A., whose gifted artists were once a rather well-kept secret, has now consolidated its place among a handful of internationally respected centers for the production of new art.

This newly won distinction can be applied to the creative life of no other city I know. (That includes London, currently in the midst of the kind of enthusiastic upswing in activity that characterized L.A. a dozen years ago, and which might eventually undergo a similar consolidation.) Whatever the deficiencies, which are inevitable in any art scene, it’s remarkable but true: There has never been a better time than now to be an artist working in Los Angeles.

*

Fundamental to the change is today’s complicated generational density. Try this thoroughly unscientific test (science being of little use in matters of interpretive opinion): List all the current artists based in L.A. whose work you believe to be noteworthy.

Include figures of inarguable stature, such as the Pop-era painters Edward Ruscha and David Hockney or the avatar of Conceptual art, John Baldessari. Add the sizable generation of mid-career artists with established national or international reputations, from sculptors like Nancy Rubins, Robert Therrien and Paul McCarthy to mixed-media artists like Alexis Smith, Stephen Prina and Bill Viola; then mix in newly emergent ones, like Jorge Pardo, Michelle Fierro, Jason Rhoades and Diana Thater.

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Young artists of obvious promise should also be added--artists like Jennifer Bornstein, whose witty self-portrait photographs, in which she pictures herself as nearly indistinguishable from scruffy neighborhood kids, gleefully demolish standard views on identity politics; or Dave Muller, whose beautiful drawings of art show invitations, posters, magazine ads and newspaper listings chronicle the journey art makes as it gets threaded through the industrial apparatus of mass distribution; or Ruben Ortiz-Torres, whose densely layered, Pop-heavy videotapes and photographs embody a truly radical understanding of modern multiculturalism.

Finally, include two large groups: those artists of unusual gifts who have produced work that is just as compelling as any of these others but, life being notoriously unfair, are less widely celebrated than they ought to be; and those whose work you don’t even like but who have gained credible champions elsewhere.

With these multiple layers in mind, the sheer absurdity of making such a list quickly reveals itself. The numbers are just too big.

In any other American city save New York, you could do it. As recently as 1980, when I began writing in earnest about art in Los Angeles, the task would have been a snap here too. Now, it’s virtually impossible.

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Critical evidence of this dramatic change is that, for aspiring American artists, L.A. has become a destination. It used to be that young, ambitious artists emerging from art school anywhere in the United States had to make a fateful career decision: Do I move to New York--or try to work somewhere else?

Today the options are three: Do I move to New York or L.A.--or try to work somewhere else?

The speed with which this change has come about is remarkable. The last 10 or 15 years have witnessed a transformation comparable to the one that occurred in New York around World War II, when a rapid, highly concentrated infusion of European avant-garde painters and sculptors--Mondrian, Ernst, Albers and dozens more--into Manhattan’s cultural life suddenly made important art seem not just possible to make there, but inevitable. The just-closed exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler,” showed how nothing like it had ever happened before in American history.

Nothing like it has happened since, either. Yet, even though the precise conditions are incomparable, the change in L.A. in the last dozen years or so has been just as decisive.

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Until recently, the very conjunction of the word “art” with “Los Angeles” was commonly seen to be inappropriate, if not a virtual oxymoron. A cherished part of American folklore is the storehouse of jokes about L.A.'s culture being found only in yogurt, or its main contribution to global architecture being the car wash, or that its primary gift to the world of visual ideas is the right turn on red.

If the jokes are stale now, it’s because humor must be lodged in truth and the truth today is vastly different. Once, the commonly felt sense of discord between “L.A.” and “art” was simply inescapable, and it didn’t matter how many stunning artists--Sam Francis, John McLaughlin, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Irwin--diligently worked here. For postwar America had formulated a particular idea of significance in contemporary art, and that idea stood implacably in L.A.'s way.

The terms of engagement were laid out in 1939 by young critic Clement Greenberg, who became the dominant voice in American art in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Greenberg’s seminal essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” told the tale.

Modern culture, he wrote, had two parts. They were as separate, distinct and irreconcilable as they could be.

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On one side was the avant-garde. Modern art could be characterized by its rejection of easy bourgeois values, like storytelling and illustration, and by its elevation of inventive, surprising, authentic modern experience--which in his terms mostly meant it was abstract.

On the other side was its mass-produced alternative, kitsch. From the Tin Pan Alley song to the Hollywood movie, kitsch was ersatz art, characterized by faked sensations, mechanical formulas and vicarious experience.

Remember, this was 1939. As Greenberg was writing, Europe, home of the established avant-garde of Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky and the rest, was being torn asunder and plunged into darkness. The American critic’s essay explicitly identified kitsch with the Nazi ideology of Adolf Hitler, who had attacked the avant-garde as degenerate and corrupt.

Hitler, in wanting to accelerate his own rise to power, shrewdly promoted the illusion that the masses would rule the Third Reich. So he glorified kitsch, which ordinary people liked, and criminalized the difficult avant-garde.

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Even the chosen terms of Greenberg’s great divide resonated with political significance for the day. Kitsch is a German word, thus inseparable from the rampaging forces of barbarism; avant-garde is French, language of the mortally threatened society in which Modern art was born.

By war’s end, Europe lay in ashes. But the idea of an avant-garde, though gravely imperiled, had not been vanquished.

What it had done was relocate--to New York, cultural capital of the victorious United States. Greenberg championed Abstract Expressionist painters and sculptors like Jackson Pollock and David Smith as heirs to this European avant-garde. He--and they--soon towered over the art scene.

In those same years America also turned its triumphant war machine into a postwar engine of domestic economic prosperity. Soon Chicago was displaced as America’s Second City, and its successor, Los Angeles, began to assert itself in the national consciousness.

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A pleasant backwater mostly known for Tinsel Town became a major city, although one that was clearly unlike any that had come before. By 1958, in a civically engineered effort to raise the city’s stature, it was the new home of the old Brooklyn Dodgers; and independently, it was also the home of Ferus, the seminal gallery for new art that would launch much of L.A.'s first generation of heavy hitters, from Wallace Berman and Kenneth Price to Larry Bell and Edward Ruscha.

Artistically, the great cultural divide so persuasively articulated by Greenberg didn’t disappear. Despite its birth in a shattering European crisis, the struggle of the avant-garde against kitsch became a kind of founding myth for advanced American art. From Modern versus degraded, or France versus Germany, the struggle metamorphosed into the legendary cultural conflict between New York and L.A.

The postwar consolidation of mass industrial culture saw Los Angeles become the great American production center for movies, television, pop music and youth style. Inevitably, the city was identified with kitsch. “L.A. art,” the jokesters’ oxymoron, was born.

Many of the best artists working in L.A. knew full well what was happening. They also knew that in the face of such a powerful founding myth, resistance was futile. Better to engage the beast directly--and yank the rug out from underneath.

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Today, you can see a brilliant encapsulation of this historic conflict at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in the permanent collection galleries at the Geffen Contemporary. Two great paintings do the trick.

One is Pollock’s beautiful 1949 drip painting “No. 1,” a horizontal canvas in which an exquisitely tangled web of dripped enamel and metallic paints--silver, black, green, azure, pink, white and ochre, all shimmering with explosive energy--embodies everything Greenberg wanted art to stand for. From abstract works like this, he elaborated an idea of avant-garde painting in the 1950s and 1960s in which liquid color, poured directly from the paint can onto a field of unadorned canvas, would generate pure works of art.

In a gallery nearby hangs Ruscha’s equally beautiful 1966 painting “Annie Poured From Maple Syrup” (it’s on long-term loan to MOCA from the Norton Simon Museum). In a critically “unacceptable” way, it pictures Greenberg’s ideal for drip painting.

What is drippier, Mr. and Mrs. America, than maple syrup poured at breakfast? On a squarish plane of flat, buttery yellow color, the name Annie is spelled out in glistening brown liquidity, as if poured from a bottle of Log Cabin. Because the painting shows only a word, it is abstract. And the word’s typography is instantly identifiable from the funny papers, naming Little Orphan Annie.

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Ruscha had assembled an avant-garde poured painting solely from the stuff of kitsch. Even its oblique recollection of the famous black circles of Annie’s eyes made a sly joke of Greenberg’s central claim, which was that visual art should appeal exclusively to the viewer’s hungry retinas. Annie had none.

With insolent wit, Pop art collapsed the sharp distinctions on which postwar American art had been built. Annie was a Depression baby, like Ruscha; and like his own ostensibly kitschy work, the spunky orphan was in honorable pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Little Orphan Annie spoke of the great myth that had shaped immigrant America: The plucky individual, cut off from a difficult past, was in search of an uncertain new home. L.A., modern mecca for sky-high dreams of a second chance, was the sun-drenched apotheosis of that myth.

Today, L.A.'s art is an eager orphan no more. Like the city itself, the local network of galleries and museums has grown like kudzu since Ruscha and his colleagues were first starting out. More fundamentally, though, I suppose the change that’s come about could simply be described as a wide measure of new-found respect: No longer is L.A. the Rodney Dangerfield of American culture.

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True, there aren’t enough talented collectors, curators, dealers or critics around; but are there ever, anywhere? Whatever the familiar problems with its institutional infrastructure, the city’s got the artists--and everyone knows it.

What happened to cause so vivid a change in perception? How did Greenberg’s yawning great divide finally get bridged?

In a nutshell, the stupefying 1980s happened. The effects of that unprecedented time are still being sorted out--and with no shortage of knee-jerk naysayers (liberal and conservative alike) ready to condemn the era’s big-money, fashion-conscious art scene and its supposed decline in standards (as if standards were so elevated in the past). Yet, make no mistake: When the ‘80s boom went bust, the great tsunami of cash that had flooded over the international art world turned out, once the tide receded, to have left a more level field.

The rising tide temporarily lifted the visibility of many of L.A.'s most gifted artists, but it also knocked down a long-standing prejudice. For who could any longer believe that, however experimental, unconventional, daring or unfamiliar, art was battling heroically on culture’s front lines, when it was also regularly livening up the business pages? Washed away like leaves in a storm were any lingering doubts that the modern European idea of an avant-garde, vigorously challenged for many years, had gone the way of the dodo.

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With the avant-garde idea irrevocably over, the idle fiction of a momentous struggle between avant-garde and kitsch evaporated, like fog in blazing sunshine. Finally, the sophistication of the cultural product could once again be recognized as what really counts.

Not a few artists and art observers in L.A. (as elsewhere) cling nostalgically to the old story, of course, distrustful of the change. No matter; time will whittle away their number.

Meanwhile, the old, hidebound distinctions between the mass entertainments of popular culture and the more specialized appeals of art culture are happily proceeding to unravel and be rethought. Look around at the abundance of urbane work made by artists here--work that’s being shown and acknowledged all over. Who says the millennium should be filled with dread?


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