Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980

Vija Celmins' work "Freeway," 1966 Latvian Oil on canvas.
(Vija Celmins / J. Paul Getty Trust)

Sometimes we seem to know less about the early years of post-World War II art in Los Angeles than we know about the Pleistocene Age mammals dredged up from the La Brea Tar Pits. In the last 30 years, L.A. pushed to the front ranks of international capitals for new art, a dizzying development widely documented — but what happened in the 30 years before that?

Yes, we know bits and pieces — some better than others. Repeated censorship attempts by public officials — of a shrine-like 1957 Wallace Berman assemblage sculpture that included a sexy drawing, a 1964 Ed Kienholz assemblage sculpture about carrying on in the back seat of a Dodge, etc. — have been chronicled many times. Justifiable superstars, such as Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, are carefully considered. The story of Ferus Gallery has been told ad nauseam, and the 1970s feminist and Chicano art movements are no mystery.

Yet, compared with the magnitude of more recent events, retrospective knowledge is broad but shallow, a surface barely scratched. We don’t even have access to much of the actual art to pique curiosity: No museum anywhere in the world, including Southern California, comes close to featuring it prominently in permanent collection displays.

Temporarily, however, the rich back story to the city’s current prominence will unfold this fall in an unprecedented, six-month series of exhibitions called Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980. The event, initiated almost a decade ago under a $10-million Getty Trust umbrella, will excavate the region’s first generations of postwar contemporary art.

More than 60 shows will be held at museums, university galleries and nonprofit spaces scattered from Santa Barbara to San Diego, Santa Monica to Palm Springs. A few are on view now; but Oct. 1 is the series’ official start date, with a painting and sculpture survey at the Getty Museum as its spine. There hasn’t been anything like this vast exercise in cultural archaeology before — not just for L.A., but anywhere.

Why are L.A.’s early years so poorly considered? Part of the reason is the inappropriate template usually overlaid on the period’s art, which can make it appear inconsequential.

American art of the late 1940s through the 1970s was initially valued for its avant-garde qualities — a forward-looking cultural idea born in 19th century Europe, but one that did not apply in 20th century L.A. A French term originally meaning the advance guard of an army that goes ahead of the rest, an avant-garde implies linear progress. Art’s advancement was reflected by an unfolding sequence of “isms”: Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. — right up to Abstract Expressionism, which put contemporary American art on the international map in the wake of World War II.

L.A., however, never had an avant-garde, either before the war or after. An avant-garde requires, well, a garde — a strong, powerful artistic establishment that dominates the status quo but eventually follows the path forged by advance troops. L.A. had no avant-garde because it had no garde — no mighty, monolithic artistic establishment ruling the city’s cultural life.

Twentieth century art in Southern California varied from conservative to adventurous, the cautious to the inspired, but there was no aesthetic edifice to topple. The city was too young, too new, too much of a vast and indifferent sprawl for one cultural establishment to have a stranglehold. What emerged instead in postwar L.A. was an unorthodox iconoclasm. It recognized the wildness of individual personality and the social messiness of life, and it celebrated the power of heterogeneous hybridity over purity.

Sound familiar? By the 1980s, the concept of avant-garde progress had unraveled everywhere. Suddenly the multivalent L.A. School was an international cultural model for this new norm. With luck, that’s the back-story Pacific Standard Time will clarify.

Here’s a sample of what we might expect to discover: If you want an artistic revolution, forget the avant-garde; try a merry-go-round instead.

When a strange exhibition of abstract paintings opened on May 18, 1955, on the cheery Santa Monica Pier, that anarchic thought was on brash display. An ambitious young art tyro named Walter Hopps, who had just turned 23, forked over $80 to rent the revolving carousel as an exhibition space. Hopps wrapped the pier’s popular amusement with tarpaulin, festooned it with abstract paintings and hung others on the carousel building’s pillars. “Action,” the merry-go-round show was called.

A sly nod to action painting, the word was newly coined in New York for vigorously brushed abstractions. But these nervy paintings were made by mostly younger artists from L.A. and San Francisco, including Craig Kauffman, Jay DeFeo, Sonia Gechtoff, Wally Hedrick and Gordon Wagner — at 40, the senior figure. (Berkeley’s Richard Diebenkorn was listed on the announcement, but his skittish L.A. dealer insisted he withdraw.) The lively surface agitation of the Californians’ abstract paintings stood in sharp contrast to the static carousel, now stilled for the event.

For 10 days the gaudy wooden horses didn’t move, the raucous calliope was silenced. Recorded jazz played instead, aurally echoing the painterly improvisations. But to those who ventured out onto the pier, “Action’s” paintings surely made some noise.

The hubbub has long since quieted down, of course. The eccentric 1955 show has been, if not entirely forgotten, certainly eclipsed by the artistic explosion of the last 30 years. Back in the ‘50s the number of adventurous artists, eager patrons and art venues impatient to show their work could probably be counted on the combined fingers of the Brooklyn Dodgers starting lineup, soon to relocate to Chavez Ravine.

But that was then and this is now. How did so phenomenal a transformation happen?

Expect Pacific Standard Time’s sprawling narrative to bust some myths — first, the one that says L.A. is distinct among metropolitan powerhouses because, until recently, it had scant artistic history worth mentioning.

Hopps’ merry-go-round inspiration no doubt came from the vast Dada and Surrealist art collection that Walter and Louise Arensberg displayed since the 1920s in their Hollywood home, five short blocks from Grauman’s Chinese theater. Both Arensbergs died less than 18 months before the Santa Monica opening. But Hopps got his teenage art education among their trove of nearly a thousand paintings and sculptures — Picasso, Duchamp, De Chirico, Sheeler, Brancusi, Dali and scores more, plus African and Pre-Columbian sculpture.

Duchamp, whose landmark 1963 retrospective in Pasadena Hopps would later organize, was clearly the merry-go-round show’s spiritual godfather, if not its actual one. Not only was he an artist, he was also a rambunctious curator. His infamous 1942 Surrealist exhibition in what is now New York’s Palace Hotel entangled the assembled art in what was claimed to be a mile of twine, crisscrossing the makeshift gallery and obscuring the paintings and sculptures. The Arensbergs, his chief patrons, had helped found the wartime organization American Arts in Action (1943) and the Modern Institute of Art, Beverly Hills (1947-1949), dedicated to moving Modern art from the underground to the public square.

Both organizations failed. Together with UCLA’s 1949 inability to meet the terms of a planned gift of the staggering Arensberg collection, such implosions have contributed to L.A.’s entrenched public profile as an artistic backwater. Yet, the Arensberg collection was also turned down by at least 10 other prestigious institutions, including Washington’s National Gallery, the Chicago Art Institute, Stanford, Mexico City’s National Institute of Fine Arts and Harvard. (It finally landed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) For art, American society is always mostly shallow and reactionary.

The artistic exchange between L.A. and San Francisco that under-girded Hopps’ merry-go-round show also soon eroded. Blame — or credit — goes to the freeways. The state’s two main cities are roughly as far apart as Baltimore is from Boston, while the construction of a freeway network helped the huge Southern California region coalesce as an autonomous creative engine.

Freeways altered perceptual habits. In 1966, when she was 28 and freshly out of UCLA graduate school, Vija Celmins painted a minor masterpiece embodying the change. Her silvery gray “Freeway,” about 17 inches high and 26 inches wide, derives from a photograph taken from the passenger’s seat inside a moving car. The artist would elaborate its formal pictorial qualities during a brilliant career that has now spanned 45 years, but I know of nothing else quite like it.

At the bottom, the dark curve of a dashboard and a wiper resting on the invisible windshield conspire to turn the window into something like a movie screen. Brush strokes are virtually invisible, erasing any sense of physical touch. Deep, one-point perspective looks far down the highway on the right, while the vast space is pulled up short by the sharp contrast of a heavily shaded nearby truck lumbering along in the left lane.

Typical landscape paintings pull you into cohesive illusionistic spaces, but not “Freeway.” Visually the canvas breaks in two, one side near and the other far. You look at and across it, as you do when driving, your eye forced to scan both the painted object and the fleeting image. Lateral perception is common in seeing modern abstract paintings, with their flat shapes, gestural brush strokes or linear color patterns; but it’s virtually unheard of for the precise accounting of figurative realism. Two starkly different perceptual experiences collide — one born from abstract art, one from L.A. life.

Celmins’ small gem of a painting is among 79 works in the Getty Museum’s survey, “Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970,” which gets the Pacific Standard Time ball rolling in October. Go see it — and as much of the rest as you can. With luck, lots of revelations about the postwar L.A. School will unfold in similar ways throughout.