So there’s my name, on Page 1 of “Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945-1980,” the Getty’s massive overview catalog for its monumental effort to get Southern California modern art into the heretofore New York-centric history of American modernism.
The mention isn’t so much about me as about my 1974 book, “Sunshine Muse: Contemporary Art on the West Coast” (which was reissued by the University of California Press as “Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970" in 2000). Though the Pacific Standard Time catalog gives me “enormous credit for producing the first and, until this publication, only” — more about that below — “book-length survey of advanced art in Los Angeles,” the catalog writer takes me to severe task for “tend[ing] to internalize the prevalent art-world power dynamics.”
That means I swallowed the New York idea that what propelled modern art was the New York Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman’s advice to artists to “get out there and elbow” in order to change the course of art history. L.A. supposedly cared less about art history and more about each artist just doing his or her own thing. Sure, in the early 1970s, I thought what was important in L.A. art was that Chris Burden’s harrowing performances were elbowing aside Conceptual Art, which had halfway bumped off Post-Minimalism or “Process Art,” which had semi-obsolesced Minimalism, which had scolded Pop Art, which had embarrassed Abstract Expressionism ... and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang of the Armory Show in New York in 1913.
Viewing art history through this New York-ish prism obviously has opened up over the decades, if not almost disappeared in the carnivalism of today’s art world. And what I called L.A.'s “seasonal garden of odd little plants” has even more obviously become a very major force in the art world.
But the book has kept popping up over the years, in inconvenient places in curators’ heads. It is overrated in a way; “Sunshine Muse” was never meant to be what it became: the (or even a) definitive book on L.A. art. We could start with a term from its subtitle, “West Coast,” which means from the Canadian to the Mexican borders, and not just “advanced art in Los Angeles.” And it was certainly never meant to stand alone for 37 years as the lone overview of modern art in Southern California.
Here’s how “Sunshine Muse” came into being. I started writing reviews for Artforum in 1965, when the magazine was located in L.A., with its office on Gallery Row on La Cienega Boulevard. Even when I took a teaching job in Texas for three years (with a few trips home), I kept contributing to the magazine that had succeeded ArtNews as the authenticator of cutting-edge art. So when an editor from art-book publisher Praeger asked the magazine’s managing editor John Coplans who might write a book for them about West Coast contemporary art, he pointed them to me.
Praeger wanted a short book — 30,000 words, half the length of your average mystery novel — and they wanted it fairly quickly. The quantity of words wasn’t a problem; I’d written a book-review-gone-apoplectic-screed about Reyner Banham’s paean to L.A. architecture, “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” that was almost that long and took up half an issue of Artforum.
But the first draft was a disaster. The writing was cautious and listy, and the solution I concocted to the problem of all the pretty good artists who’d inevitably be left out of the running text was a list at the end of every chapter, with the artists’ names in agate type. Like PST, I wanted to shoehorn in everybody I could. That idea was rejected. And it was a bad one: Artists would rather be left out of a book than be openly identified as third-tier.
On the second try, I just let ‘er rip: selective, judgmental and to the degree that such a book could be, colloquial — like I am. “Sunshine Muse” included the lyrical installation artist Connie Zehr but not the lyrical installation artist Lita Albuquerque; it said outright that Mark Tobey and Morris Graves “have possessed Pacific Northwest art to the point of suffocation”; and it described Ed Ruscha’s late-'60s paintings of the illusions of words made of poured liquids “as when the bespectacled boy-genius drops his secret fluid and it poofs into a genii.”
The prose may not be John Updike or even Robert Hughes (Time magazine’s famous art critic and Hertz to my Avis during my 15 years at Newsweek), but Alfred Frankenstein said in his San Francisco Chronicle review of “Sunshine Muse,” “The writing as a whole is brilliant.” And he didn’t like the book. He thought I, as an Angeleno, had underrated Bay Area art in favor of L.A.'s.
Henry J. Seldis, the L.A. Times’ senior art critic at the time, didn’t like it either. He thought that as a writer for Artforum — which had decamped for New York in 1967 — I had underrated L.A. art in favor of New York’s. What saved the book (it eventually sold out its modest run) was Hilton Kramer on the front page of the New York Times’ culture section, saying “Fair as Mr. Plagens tries to be to the whole West Coast art scene, however, it is in his account of Los Angeles and its cultural environs that ‘Sunshine Muse’ is most valuable and alive.” Translation: My declining to write a puff piece about the contemporary art on the Left Coast made the book a pretty good read.
“Sunshine Muse” has major flaws. I was a critic, not an art historian, writing art history, so the book has too much criticism in it and not enough history, particularly concerning Latino, African American and “Women’s Movement” (as it was called back then) artists. The introduction to the 2000 reissue confesses this. But I chose not to rewrite the entire book a quarter-century after its first appearance, opting instead to let it be a bit of history — the period piece (“internalizing” all those circa 1970 “art-world power dynamics” ) it was.
Of course, the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time catalog is a period piece too, with its roster of about 20 authors and very magaziney “sidebars” about stuff that’s difficult to fit into the main narrative. But the Getty catalog is bigger, longer, more lavish, more complete and, if you’re trying to place a postwar L.A. artist up to 1980 exactly on the art-historical map, a more practical guide than “Sunshine Muse.”
I certainly don’t resent the Getty’s criticism of my old book. In fact, it’s a considerable relief that something has finally come along to supplant “Sunshine Muse” as the reach-for-first account of Southern California art, and I can get out from under it. But why — when the L.A. art scene is, and has been, as important as it is — did it take 37 years?
If I hold any grudge, it’s against nameless modernist PhDs from local art history departments who should have written books that succeeded “Sunshine Muse” but didn’t. I’m going to be nasty here: Like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War, they must have had “other priorities.”
Plagens is a painter and writer living in New York. His book on artist Bruce Nauman will be published by Phaidon in 2012.