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Paris does L.A. proud

Times Staff Writer

BEYOND the art world, say the words “L.A. art” and most people will give you one of two responses.

A blank stare, which conveys the conventional wisdom lurking inside Woody Allen’s stale joke about California culture being mostly found in yogurt. Or, a puzzled look, which telegraphs a common tendency to shrink Los Angeles into Hollywood, followed by a snotty refusal even to consider movies and TV as products of artists’ sensibilities.

L.A. art? Yeah, right.

Now those popular responses are being tested by an ambitious, exciting historical survey of paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, films, videos, artists’ books and performance artifacts, made between 1955 and 1985 by 87 L.A. artists, living and deceased. It opened here last week at the Pompidou Center, France’s renowned national museum and home to Europe’s finest collection of Modern painting and sculpture.

Of the major world cities instrumental in shaping 20th century art -- including Paris, Berlin, Moscow and New York -- Los Angeles is the one least studied. A good chunk of this show’s work was borrowed from public collections, including L.A.'s own art museums, but usually they are hidden away in storage. Now that L.A. artists are regulars on the international scene, this show asks: Where did they come from?

“Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital” has shortcomings, but it offers far more than a credible outline. Taken whole it would make a superb permanent collection, worthy of a major museum. Dense, wide-ranging and conceptually rich, it comes with an indispensable, information-packed catalog.

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Curator Catherine Grenier and her team have done a remarkable job. Not only do they test the standard responses, they yank the rug out from under them.

That’s because, in one of the savviest bits of curatorial showmanship I’ve seen in years, the show opens with the artistic equivalent of a blank stare and a puzzled look. Just three works occupy the modest entrance gallery to the otherwise enormous show. (Another 323 examples are on view.) But they create a clever, insightful frame of reference for the disparate works that follow.

Straight ahead, calling out to passersby like an ad on the Sunset Strip is Edward Ruscha’s iconic 1962 canvas “Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights.” Visually, it shouts the logo of 20th Century Fox studios.

Ruscha did not paint this billboard-like rendition in slavish imitation of the bulky architectural monument that served as the movie studio’s actual trademark since the Great Depression. Instead his stylized interpretation is New-and-Improved -- a celebration of artistic progress crafted in flat, smooth, uninflected shapes.

The studio’s name is thrust forward in a sharp linear perspective, mimicking the way a movie is projected toward a screen on beams of light. Ruscha doesn’t hide the orthogonal pencil lines disappearing into a vanishing point down in the lower right-hand corner. Instead he exposes them, while also leaving an unpainted strip of raw canvas. This witty truth-to-materials trashes familiar Renaissance techniques of illusionism. They get traded in for cinematic glamour and frank commercial practice. It’s all surface all the time.

The picture’s palette is red, white and blue. A heavenly spray of golden light-beams in the upper left sanctifies the patriotic color-scheme, as if it were a Baroque altarpiece raised up to praise the American movie god. Ruscha, raised a Midwestern Catholic and trained in L.A. as a graphic artist, translates into snappy commercial design motifs every time-tested trick of visual rhetoric in the church’s ample play book.

Why? His drop-dead painting makes sly -- dare I say foxy -- jokes about the nutty demands then being made by New York’s pompous critical establishment for an American-style Modern art. The painting ratifies Modernism’s achievements, criticizes its limitations, makes a travesty of its pretensions and demolishes the status quo. You asked for it, Ruscha’s explicit trademark says, you got it -- even though the “it” looks nothing like the Modernist abstraction then being hailed in Manhattan as the next triumph of American painting.

Opposite this iconoclastic masterpiece is an actual movie, projected onto the exhibition’s entry wall. Jack Goldstein’s 2-minute, 1975 film loop “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” ups Ruscha’s ante.

Goldstein’s 16-millimeter film focuses on the famous MGM logo. Leo the Lion, a descendant of the Nemean cat slain in Hercules’ first labor, roars from within a Roman-style medallion. The beast is ringed with flourishes of modern film stock, rather than laurel leaves, and the logo is stamped with the legend Ars Gratia Artis -- a Latin version of “art for art’s sake.” MGM’s appropriated modern slogan was coined by 19th century bohemians opposed to Victorian demands for a didactic, moralizing art.

Goldstein stripped everything else from the MGM original. Then, he isolated his mean-and-lean version within a vast red field. Made in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation and at the brink of Saigon’s fall, that blood-red field is both imperial and Maoist. The impotent Nemean lion roars and roars, his noble ferocity neutered by a combination of commercial isolation, aestheticized amusement and a sardonic Cold War outlook.

Goldstein’s MGM and Ruscha’s Fox embody the show’s puzzled look. The blank stare is provided by John McCracken’s pristine red rectangle -- a wood panel nearly 2 feet tall and almost 8 feet wide -- lacquered to within an inch of its exquisitely fabricated life in glossy, light-reflective, uninflected resin. The crimson panel forgoes narrative subject matter in favor of pure abstraction.

McCracken’s visceral slab fuses color, form and image into one indivisible entity. Distinctive properties of painting and sculpture merge -- as do ephemeral light and immovable mass, surface dazzle and soulful pleasure, rigorous logic and sheer irrationality. Think of it as a unitary embodiment of America’s secular spirit.

The blank plank, characterized by perceptual metaphysics, is also emblematic of the unique L.A. variant of 1960s Minimalism known as Light and Space. That movement grew from the powerful 1950s geometric paintings of John McLaughlin, L.A.'s first major artist. Its exemplars and next-of-kin include a wide variety of painters, sculptors and installation artists.

Inevitably, the Pompidou’s frame of reference for a foreign aesthetic is as much about Paris as Los Angeles. That’s part of the intrigue, and it helps make sense of the curatorial selections.

Surely it’s no accident that the show’s chronology begins in 1955, not earlier. The moment corresponds with the imminent arrival of French New Wave cinema, a major art that filled the postwar vacuum left by the collapse of School of Paris art and its replacement on the world stage by the New York School. Parisians are notoriously mad for movies. For the first time, filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard gave as much serious consideration to 20th Century Fox and MGM as Ruscha and Goldstein would.

In this regard another feature of McCracken’s crimson slab is worth mentioning: Its lender is Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, grandson of Olga Koklova and Pablo Picasso. At the outset the imprimatur of the titan of the Parisian avant-garde is given to L.A. art.

The show begins in earnest in the second room, where gritty assemblage art holds court. The centerpiece is Edward Kienholz’s devastating 1962 indictment of backroom abortion, “The Illegal Operation,” in which a sagging sack of cement oozes its polluted guts onto a rag-covered chair poised over a dirty bedpan, while a levitating lamp offers harsh illumination. Nearby, a room-size Kienholz installation showing a tawdry bedroom evokes the ridiculous, almost alien urgency of sexual coupling. (The Pompidou owns it.)

The Kienholzes are surrounded by variations on the social subject matter inherent in assemblage art, which is put together from scavenged industrial objects. There’s the mystical, lyrical branch represented by George Herms, photographer Edmund Teske and the great Wallace Berman, and the civil rights poetics of African American artists Betye Saar, John Outterbridge and the great David Hammons.

The next 16 rooms lay out a loose 30-year chronology. There’s Light and Space, Pop, lyrical abstraction and 1960s Finish Fetish art, which comprised the so-called L.A. Look. Conceptual art and feminism became major forces in the early 1970s, soon inflected and abetted by performance art and structuralist photography. The heady ferment set the stage for the astounding generation of L.A. artists that began to coalesce around 1980, and who assumed national and international profiles by the time that decade ended.

The last major room features terrific paintings by Lari Pittman, who became America’s most influential painter in the 1990s. Pride of place goes to Mike Kelley, who appears to be the most important American artist since Bruce Nauman (also well represented here), with not one but two large installations of performance-related objects and drawings, including the dyspeptic, dystopian and uproarious “Monkey Island.”

Shows organized by chronology elevate the art that first represents the maturing of an individual sensibility, which makes the selection of specific works crucial. Grenier does a good job juggling the rigorous demands for some seven-dozen artists. I would have chosen a painting rather than drawings for John Altoon, canvases from the 1950s rather than the 1960s for John McLaughlin, at least one airplane painting for Vija Celmins and such. And some works seem selected based on their familiarity in other exhibition catalogs. But these are mostly quibbles.

The show’s most surprising omission is William Wegman, whose early 1970s appropriations of mainstream entertainment techniques for Conceptual art were radical. The biggest error is the inclusion of James Welling, whose Soho-chic brand of Conceptual photography was developed in New York, not L.A. And the most pleasant surprise is Steven Arnold, whose delightful photographs of people dressed up as Modern art movements exude the theatrical, hothouse eccentricity of a post-Pop Cocteau.

Oddly, all three artists work with cameras. In retrospect I’m struck by the almost complete absence of color photographs, in favor of black and white; what could that mean?

The show does have one glaring flaw. A key artistic trajectory concerned with decoration and functionalism, which spans the era, is suppressed.

That path began in the early 1950s with the rough-and-tumble ceramic art of Peter Voulkos. It assumed a playful, powerful social dimension in the mid-1970s Pattern & Decoration paintings of Kim MacConnel. And in Jim Isermann’s breakthrough 1985 installation of “flower” paintings and furniture, it helped establish a genre prominent today among American and European artists, such as Jorge Pardo and Tobias Rehberger. Without Voulkos, MacConnel and Isermann, the sexy ceramic sculptures of Ken Price, the 1970s feminist art movement and Pittman’s politically charged decorative paintings all seem anomalous.

Maybe it’s a French thing, this apparent disregard for function and decorative embellishment as serious, useful artistic strategies. For the decision to lead the show with the socially grim work of Kienholz, rather than Voulkos’ revolutionary ceramics and McLaughlin’s unprecedented perceptual paintings, both of which came earlier, also speaks more of Paris than Los Angeles.

How? In 1970, hot on the heels of the Sorbonne’s galvanizing 1968 student riots, Kienholz, a little-known L.A. assemblage artist, was the subject of a solo show organized in Stockholm. It traveled to four other European museums -- including the Pompidou’s Paris predecessor. The French were smitten.

Suddenly, an American artist brought topical social relevance to Picasso’s radical formal invention of assemblage art. For France, if not for America, L.A. art was born. This show deftly chronicles its youth.


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