Los Angeles Letter: America's Number Two Art City
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
The number one art issues in America today more and more seem to be involving America's number two art city. Usually unaware or contemptuous of anything that happens beyond the shores of Manhattan Island, New Yorkers are becoming fascinated by the recent West Coast activity centered in Los Angeles. This evolving East Coast-West Coast pattern, in several important ways, reflects the development of art on a much wider scale and especially during the last twenty years.
The general nature and structure of this phenomenon can be summed up as a leveling process, in which the formerly gross distinctions are replaced by ones progressively finer or more subtle. Further, as a pattern of development, this general process would seem to apply not only to the stylistic characteristics of individual works, to the development of individual artists, and to their respective critical interpretations and historical groupings, but as well to the gradual dissolution of traditional distinctions between artistic media on the one hand, and to the wide-spread leveling of differences between Art and Life on the other. For example, the characteristic of internationalism in the history of twentieth-century art is one element that becomes more pronounced with each succeeding style or movement. Art Nouveau spread throughout Europe and America at the turn of the century, as did subsequently the message of Cubism; Surrealism, as a style, spread perhaps even more swiftly. But Abstract Expressionism, after the end of the Second World War, became international almost immediately, even though the core of the movement remained centered in New York City, and was pretty well limited there to particular personalities. AE was thus perhaps of the traditional movements pointing toward the nineteenth century, in the sense that its artists and even its critics all knew each other, lived near each other, shared ideas, and met every Friday night at the Cedar Bar.
The aesthetics of impersonality, no doubt at least partly a conscious reaction to the romantic involvement of the typical AE painter, became clearly manifest in Pop art around 1960, following the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg from the mid-1950s on. Nevertheless, with its use of conventional imagery, Pop permitted the growth of an iconography, which in turn provides one basis on which to continue personal, regional, or national stylistic distinctions. The new impersonal aesthetic stance is more directly connected with Op art; consequently, with its rise appear stronger reasons than ever for challenging traditional critical categories or groupings of style. And "Post Painterly Abstraction", which in some ways overlaps Op art, further confounds the ease and confidence with which such gross interpretive distinctions could formerly be made. Most significantly, PPA is not a movement in the essentially nineteenth-or early twentieth-century sense that Impressionism, Cubism, or Abstract Expressionism was: a set of more or less consistent art theories involving certain limited materials and techniques, or even particular attitudes toward painting, all of which are pretty clearly specified with respect to time, geographical location, and personnel. Something of a catch-all bag, PPA is not even a movement to the same degree as Pop or Op. In this it points toward the twenty-first century, contributing to the major and dramatic historical shift of the last twenty years in which, progressively, the stylistic identity of the individual work of art, and the particularity of the artist himself, of larger stylistic groupings or artistic movements, and finally of art itself (or Art as seen in contrast to Life) all gradually begin to disappear.
With the historical perspective of half a century, or by the year 2000 perhaps, we shall be able to distinguish between even the hardest and least romantically individualistic of the "hard edge" paintings, and to formulate really meaningful distinctions between the related contemporary styles of East Coast and West Coast painting in America of the 1960s. But without this cavalier point of view, contemporary critical efforts seldom achieve articulate and convincing success. Part of the reason for these difficulties must relate to the changing character and disposition of the art scene in the United States. New York City is no longer the unchallenged art capital of America as it was with Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s or early 1950s. The city still occupies a commanding position in the international art market, and in the exhibition and publicity structures of the art world. Los Angeles, America's number two city, may still be a long way behind, but the gap is closing much faster than anyone even a year ago could have guessed. Some of West Coast art activity as reported by the national news media is embarrassingly boorish and provincial, yet this is always accompanied by a real, indeed undeniable sense of vitality. Meanwhile there are straws of senescence in the East Coast wind—signs of a flagging and fattening Babylon. There is great art to be seen in New York: almost too much, so that the net jaded effect is to inspire preciousness. Symptomatically, New York's Metropolitan Opera company hardly tries any more, while Los Angeles tries much too hard—granting, of course, that the art form itself is moribund: if alive today, the talent of a Verdi would surely gravitate toward TV scripts or pop tunes. Broadway is always beaten at its own game by Hollywood. Or again, on the so-called legitimate stage, the key elements of New York's Lincoln Center, just recently imported from the West Coast's erstwhile Actor's Workshop, seem to have left their ideas and their talent, as well as their hearts in San Francisco.
Artists no longer have to live in New York City (as they largely did have to ten years ago) in order to exhibit and sell paintings there. The relatively contained social scene surrounding and so much a part of AE is now dispersed—rising new artists may now live and work in nearby New Brunswick, New Jersey, like John Goodyear, or in rather unlikely places such as Amherst, Massachusetts, like John Townsend, and still have pieces in the same (Amel) gallery in New York. Also, West Coast artists are beginning to show in New York galleries with increasing frequency, including recently Ed Kienholz, Mel Ramos, Tony DeLap and John McCracken. In return several East Coast artists are now sending some of their best work for exhibition in West Coast galleries, as for example Ellsworth Kelly, Alan D'Arcangelo, or Robert Morris. Another aspect of the developing pattern involves artists who not only show in both Los Angeles and in New York, but who also travel from coast to coast in order to work. For practical reasons this is a particularly happy solution for sculptors, who can thus avoid prohibitive shipping expenses; in addition to other advantages, considerations of space and climate have drawn sculptors like Mark Di Suvero, Anthony Magar, and Robert Grosvenor to execute work in California. Thus it seems only natural that New York galleries and those in Los Angeles are beginning to formalize relationships with one another, with some operating branches in both cities.
The West Coast recently got its first good look at the work of Alan D'Arcangelo in the Los Angeles home of the Dwan galleries. Together with Roy Lichtenstein, D'Arcangelo is among the few significant landscape painters in America today. Lichtenstein's brilliant seascapes and sunsets in particular (and who else can dare to paint a sunset ?) are presented in comic strip-derived Ben Day dots, or with metal screening—making them, as Edward Fort Fry has pointed out, as important for their development of artistic means as for their exploration of subject matter. Unfortunately, Lichtenstein has yet to be shown in depth in Los Angeles; in contrast, the Dwan installation of D'Arcangelo's large panels establishes his landscape vision in a more direct relationship to the ubiquitous imagery of America's turnpike-freeway systems. The dashing center markings on concrete snakes criss-crossed over the face of the land are insinuated so deeply within our psychology of perception that they have become almost archetypal, common cultural property. Any traditional landscape image could now be made to look perhaps more natural for Americans by running a four- or six-lane divided highway down its middle. D'Arcangelo concentrates upon these daily-repeated image-experiences, and raises them to the level of iconic general statements. His painting is necessarily about what we are doing to the surface of the planet: how we quite literally level topographical distinctions, so that now one may actually travel from the East to the West Coast (or, for that matter, from one end of Europe to the other) and see very little in "nature" that contradicts D'Arcangelo's general thesis. Interestingly, perhaps, this interpretation of D'Arcangelo could relate him effectively to Socialist Realism; but a more meaningful historical relationship might involve his creation of symbolic constants (black-top roadways and white lane-dividing lines, blue sky of course, and that great, unending strip of green grass down the road shoulder) which communicate as much about man and his works vis-a-vis the spirit and structure of the Cosmos as the canvases of Constable or Van Ruisdael did for their respective times.
Following D'Arcangelo at the Dwan was an exhibition of the controlled and intelligently inventive work of Neil Williams, which suggested different aspects of the general East Coast-West Coast style problem. Almost at the same time as the Williams show hung in California, in New York at the Leo Castelli gallery Frank Stella displayed a new series of major works further investigating formal problems of the shaped canvas within a range of tone and color startlingly similar to that used by Williams. To anyone who saw both installations, the parallels in approach and general sensibility must have appeared unmistakable. But Williams's most successful works are not those closest to Stella; they are rather the elegant and intellectualized paintings such as Baby Baumblatt. Its image is symmetrical on a diagonal axis, with a left to right mirror reversal. In each half of the visually bisected canvas there is a witty play of numbers: two large notches taken out of one side oppose one small notch taken (as we discover only after careful observation) not from the side, but from the corner of the rhomboid. Then the 2 : 1 idea is inverted in each half by the little painted rhomboids; and in turn, their size and configuration is determined by the notches in the shaped edge. This sense of play is also reflected in the contrast of the rounded interior corners with sharp exterior points, and in the general relationship of painted form to plastic shape. The quasi-Baroque realm of bolder shape and lighter, more adventurous color explored by Williams, however, is commanded by Stella with his somewhat more confident and imposing work.
Ellsworth Kelly's exhibition at the Ferus Gallery includes a bright orange exquisite steel sculpture of a few years ago, together with some more recent paintings. Kelly's most challenging statement is presented by four panels of identical size in acrylic monotones, respectively, of green, red, yellow, and blue. The wall with the paintings is not at all the same wall without them; they curiously and completely alter the spatial sense of the entire interior. The precise distances between each panel seem to be so necessarily determined by the proportions of the panels themselves as to be inevitable. Similarly, even the sequence of hanging seems to have been carefully predetermined. The austerity of each canvas is relieved by the very subtle record of brushstrokes, and by faint variations of intensity and hue resulting from overlapping layers of the water-thinned paint. Related to the color fields of Rothko, these superbly refined works offer, as a parallel to contemporary political, psychological and philosophical thought, an eloquent and extreme hypothesis of "being and nothingness".
Sharing the same aesthetic concerns with pristine, elemental elegance is the sculpture of Robert Morris. Of the pieces installed at the Dwan Gallery, all but one (that one was plywood) were constructed of fiberglass, with the prevailing light gray pigmentation mixed right into the material itself. Most immediately arresting perhaps was the four-element work composed of fiberglass which was cast in negative plywood molds. The four parts were arranged within a square—at the gallery it was nine feet along the edge; but the disposition of the parts may vary, according to Morris, so that all four come together, or so that they are spread even further apart. While the artist's intent may not have been to create "architectural" sculpture, the effectiveness of this sculpture in transforming the space around it seems to be a major achievement. One work has two semi-circular fiberglass forms almost adjoining, with interior artificial lighting, and translucent plastic covering the ends. Another long block of (again) gray fiberglass rests only upon two edges, curving as it does very slightly, like an almost flattened Japanese bridge (the arc of a seventy-five foot radius circle establishes the curve). But perhaps the most audaciously reduced work is composed of three triangular cross-sectioned pieces, joined end to end. Already almost impossible to photograph, presumably Morris would add even more sections, extending it forever, something like a horizontal variant of Brancusi's Endless Column.
Utilizing more of the flashy potentialities of polychrome, particularly with automotive lacquer, is the sculpture of Vasa recently shown at the Feigen-Palmer Gallery. Formerly a painter, these new works of the artist show a promising new direction, less purist than that suggested by the work of Morris. Vasa's best pieces are those that break free from a rigid rectangularity toward a more dynamic, but still highly controlled form. Their clean-edged articulation calls to mind the work of John McLaughlin, who was a sort of pioneer for the West Coast in this restrained, geometrically-oriented mode. Almost as if it were a hard-edge festival in the galleries up and down La Cienega Boulevard, the Felix Landau Galleries presented McLaughlin's recent oils together with a suite of his closely related lithographs, superbly printed by the Tamarind Workshop. Without the painterly, expressive ruggedness of Barnett Newman's stripes, McLaughlin rather exhibits what may be indeed an LA stylistic characteristic mentioned in an earlier article, the fetish finish phenomenon. In this regard McLaughlin shares the responsibility for influencing a younger generation of West Coast painters with Lorser Feitelson, whose work can be seen occasionally at the Ankrum Gallery. Feitelson, and his wife, Helen Lundeberg, painted their way through a variety of styles—he since the 1913 Amory Show—to the current precisionist paintings that evolved from earlier clean-edged Surrealist studies. Having refined his own clear, linear vocabulary in the early 1960s, Feitelson's recent canvases now approach a lyricism reflecting Ellsworth Kelly. This very coincidence may force the historian to consider whether or not it is always the local painters that necessarily provide the critical stimuli for younger artists; for without diminishing the inherent value and significance of McLaughlin's or Feitelson's painting, it may be that in fact, a direct line of influence or inspiration can be established from early geometrically-oriented artists like Kelly to the younger West Coast artists who seem to be so fruitfully extending these directions today. The yet-to-be written history of twentieth-century hard edge art must of course include the ex-Bauhaus teachers who emigrated from Germany, like Herbert Bayer, Joseph Albers, or Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, as well as the inventive genius of artists like Max Bill and Piet Mondrian. In the context of such an historical study it may be possible to single out enough constants to typify regional and national as well as personal style—such characterizations of style that cannot apply to this austere approach risk basing their conclusions on less essential, more superficial or incidental qualities of the art. But in any case, with the development of the aesthetics of impersonality, it is clearly becoming progressively more difficult to arrive at such characterizations without extraordinarily perceptive critical faculties—and in such a race it is the artist, of course, who always has a tremendous head-start.
New York seldom gets excited about events in the fine arts except when there are immediate commercial implications. For example, the impact of Op art was felt almost instantaneously in the dress business following the opening, almost a year and a half ago, of The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art. The one great exception to this is the response to Andy Warhol's rock and roll group (and scene) called The Velvet Underground—but this merely reaffirms the audacious creative genius of Warhol the artist. How charming and naively provincial then are the controversies in Los Angeles surrounding the cultural scandal of the Los Angeles County Museum. That institution has a fine opportunity to become a focal point for artistic activity for the West Coast; but assuming this role would be to the Museum's benefit and prestige—it will not be essential to the development of the arts. Indeed, unless the entire structure and outlook of the Museum's non-professional directors and controllers change radically, it will become just another house of death-of-the-spirit and archive of pretty things; and in such a case, all of the arts that are truly alive are much better off without it entirely. All totalitarian states have taken great interest in the control of the fine arts, from Louis XIV through Hitler and Mussolini to the present countries in the Communist world—and sadly, the same essentially vulgar and retardataire, or moralistically bourgeois attitudes are reflected by local Los Angeles would-be art demagogues. Of course they must be fought, however depressing must seem the expenditure of energy waging wars that one would have thought were long since won. More the pity then that the casus foederus for this should be the assemblages of Edward Kienholz, instead of the art of say, Warhol, which brilliantly breaks new ground. Under the prevailing conditions, it is quite impossible to criticize Kienholz's work as it should be criticized, without becoming a contributor—however unwilling—to the arsenal of the self-righteous true-believer neo-fascists. Kienholz surely has created some fine, gutsy work, which historically occupies an important position in the development of the West Coast aesthetic of " Funk". Overburdened with quasi-literary gestures and post-Romantic pretensions, however, a large part of his output remains a cliché-caché. Some other critic, at a more favorable time, may sort this out.
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the May, 1966 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-67.