Los Angeles Letter: Artists as Victims of Their Own Success
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
Like type-cast Hollywood stars, artists can also be victims of their own success. And this principle is perhaps most ruthlessly applied to the so-called avant-garde participants in the arts. The first thing that happens to a new wine is that someone tries to stuff it back into the same old used bottles. For all those who Understand Media, such methodology clearly suggests the activity of a linear, sequential, fragmented, type-conditioned brain pan. This pre-McLuhan approach to the arts presents outrageous but often unconscious assumptions of causal relationships (within sequential structure) for art history, as in the machine-inspired pastime of following an artist's line of development based upon a set of clearly-defined "influences", tracing the "evolution" of a style, or chronicling the "succession" of historical styles. This affords an easy attitude toward new statements in the arts—a cocksure rationalization for ignoring what's happening until it gets in line.
Two cases exemplifying some of the subtler aspects of this problem are presented by work produced during the last decade by Robert Rauschenberg and Allan Kaprow. Rauschenberg is still quartered in the conventional categories of the fine arts despite the incontrovertible intermedial implications of his "Combines" in the mid-1950's. Kaprow finds himself in similar academic categories precisely because of his different direction toward definitions of these intermedia—as though Kaprow's art wants to be conventional very badly indeed, while Rauschenberg's refuses to be thus constrained, no matter what.
One of the major points of reference for art activity in Los Angeles during the season was the recent exhibition, American Sculpture of the Sixties, reviewed in a previous letter (Art International, Vol. XI, No. 6, Summer 1967). Rauschenberg was in: represented by the " Image Wheels", or " Revolvers", although (1) they are very frontal in conception and graphic in effect, (2) they are intimately and importantly related to the series of "Booster" graphics, and (3) there are other more emphatically sculptural statements by Rauschenberg that would have seemed more apt for inclusion in such an exhibition. Kaprow was out: quite possibly because his art cannot be chopped up by the conceptual cleavers of cause and effect, to be nailed into narrow nasty boxes of nationalism and isolated on little intellectual atolls of irrelevance, or merely shoved away into the mental bureau drawers of medium, movement and pre-masticated "meaning". Or maybe the real ironic implications of this omission derive from Kaprow's success in helping to establish "environments" and "happenings" as more or less separate and acknowledged media. This is enough to keep Kaprow from being considered a sculptor, both by the usual lot of linear-minded museum mentalities and by most university art history faculties, for whom the party line from the Pyramids to Picasso is a way of life.
Kaprow is, of course, not alone outside the self-contained Eden of academic media; but he is a major figure in settling new, indeterminate lands—along with creative mentalities such as Dick Higgins, Robert Whitman, Red Grooms, Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Byrd, Jim Dine, and many others—including the historical and continuing contributions of Robert Rauschenberg. If there is to be a government and a set of laws in Happening Country, they will assume a more republican than monarchical form—even otherwise, it is doubtful that Kaprow would be king. But this is not to demean in any way the considerable and justified significance accorded to his art. Moreover, Kaprow has performed a gracious service for other artists in helping to shatter the calcified categories of critics—and it is hardly his fault if some of them have craftily constructed new and larger pigeon-holes.
Instead of directing his creative efforts toward the founding of new coherent (though related) media, Rauschenberg tends to break down the internal walls. The artistic coherence of his work does not depend upon a sense of separateness, as it does perhaps with Kaprow, but rather upon a sense of interpenetration. In contrast, Kaprow's style seems to have been conditioned by the "progression" of his mode of work, or by his "development" of a medium: from collage (1955) to assemblage (1956), through more space-defining assemblage (1957-1959), to environments and happenings (from 1958-59 to the present). This is the artist in search of a medium, in which process, questions of media or intermedia are of apparently greater concern than those of style (trusting this makes some sense without offering a lot of caveats about "style" and the semantics of "form", "content", etc.). But for Rauschenberg, the coherence of his personal style permeates the work, no matter within or between which media it is manifest; and questions of medium are clearly subservient to those of expression and style. Not that Rauschenberg hasn't launched important explorations into the realms of Intermedia—but however deliberate and intelligent, they always seem to be without the desperate commitment of Kaprow.
If the Los Angeles County Museum was derelict in its duty in not including Kaprow as one of the significant sculptors of the sixties, the Pasadena Art Museum overcompensated. They presented him as a painter, too, which he is not. Nor, do I hope, does Allan Kaprow have any desire to be known as a painter, although the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition would be a trifle misleading in this respect. It is quite as uninteresting to see Kaprow oils on canvas of the middle 1950's as to see the efforts of other (later significant) artists produced at the same time, e.g. the Abstract Expressionist oils of Roy Lichtenstein or the commercial designs of Andy Warhol. By and large, the collages are just as historically irrelevant, although they do document the beginnings of Kaprow's interest in the breakdown of the picture surface, which " leads to the action collages of 1956 and 1957" (Catalogue, p. 21). In the main exhibition room, it is only the last numbered catalogue entry, Rearrangeable Panels (1957-59), that emerges as an important work; unfortunately it is displayed as flat panels against a museum wall, rather than in the more engrossing kiosk form.
The more stimulating sections of the Kaprow exhibition are three rooms, each of which is devoted to a recreation of an earlier environment. The largest space is given over to a tired recollection of the Martha Jackson Gallery's backyard of May–June, 1961. Lounging around in the company of Firestone, Goodyear, Goodrich and General dirty rubber, Museum visitors seem to take a tip from the Fisk little boy in bunny-sleepers with a candlestick, "Time to retire". The obscurantist wrapped structures in amongst the 4-plys (where not even the Art angels feared to tread) didn't Christolize in the interior space, betraying less of the ambivalence generated by the out-of-doors original environment than the self-consciousness of fine art, a la recherche de Man Ray's Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920). The environment "Words" originally of 1962, although it encouraged participation through additions, deletions and reorganization, contained elements far too polite to be mistaken for grafitti. One suspects then, that the attitude with which these words were treated reflected the attitude of fine art primarily, in that a popular sort of vitality was absent. Since Kaprow's initial presentation of this environment, Peter Berg has extended the concept to include elements of theater; he might also have added a popular room to the public and private ones—where people could confront the words everyone really wants.
Some of the considerable aesthetic problems encountered by attempts to recreate environments seem to have been dealt with by the third room, Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann and His Students (1963). The setting is a supposedly middle-class living room, in which one is invited to rearrange any or all objects in the room, to make additions or subtractions, etc. So a week after the opening, and apparently without the knowledge of some staff members at the museum, Kaprow had made arrangements with a group of young people to descend upon the room. But in a failure that makes a stronger statement than success, the group (numbering about fifteen, and appealingly enough with more mini-skirted girls than hippie-costumed, freaky-looking characters) did not make it past the desk and the guard at the Museum's entrance. Kaprow had thoughtfully chosen Mike Agnello to lead the group; and he was able to sustain the instant-theater scene outside the exhibition for about forty minutes, before buckling under to the benevolent (they claim) but firm (and also armed) bureaucratic barriers imposed by the ticket-taker and supporting echelons. Fittingly for Kaprow's sensibility, the moral is as painfully clear as the elements are common, or the situation recurrent.
The key to Kaprow's position is presented in a foreword to the Pasadena catalogue, in which he states, " I am put off by museums in general; they reek of a holy death which offends my sense of reality. Moreover . . . most advanced art of the last half-dozen years is, in my view, inappropriate for museum display. It is an art of the world : enormous scale, environmental scope, mixed media, spectator participation, technology, themes drawn from the daily milieu, and so forth. Museums do more than isolate such work from life, they subtly sanctify it and thus kill it" (Catalogue, p.3).
Agnello and Kaprow have been informal collaborators before. As one of the founders of LA Provo, Agnello credits Kaprow with providing (together with the activities of the Amsterdam organization) a considerable part of the original impetus for the group. Kaprow's idea of a happening in Los Angeles and other cities in the summer of 1966, called "Self-service", although eliciting some predictable middle-class enthusiasms at a planning meeting, met with little actual support. In response to the challenge of this apathetic situation, Agnello organized a "happening army", which later assumed the name of Provo, and with it a good deal of the Dutch organization's malevolent attitude toward the middle-class, its values, its institutions, and its uncomfortable bent toward forms of authoritarian and totalitarian government. This development points up the differences between Kaprow and other artists who have been associated with environments and happenings. While some of these individuals have produced spectacular works, they have in most cases moved on to greater extensions —out into the "real" world, or to more complex combinations of media, or subtler investigations of intermedia. But Kaprow has remained more faithful to his earlier ideas, preferring to develop possibilities within the limitations of environments and happenings, eventually forcing us to regard them as every bit as valid (and sometimes as academic) disciplines as drawing the figure from life.
In addition to a piece of sculpture included in American Sculpture of the Sixties and made of superimposed colored images screened onto plastic discs that are made to revolve by electric motors set in metal frames, Robert Rauschenberg's impact on the Los Angeles scene this year will be through a series of lithographs entitled Booster, and issued by Gemini G. E. L. There are seven studies and one large print, which is the longest and very nearly the largest fine art lithograph ever produced. In a reverse of the usual process, it was the lithographic series that influenced, even inspired, Rauschenberg's sculpture series of "revolvers".
The project was first conceived as a single large print. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles and beginning work on what was to be test stone #1, Rauschenberg had a complete set of X-rays taken in the nude, with the exception of a pair of hobnailed boots which he left on. Contact prints were then made of the X-rays, which the artist then began to work with in collage combination with newspaper photos, although the X-rays do not appear until test stone #3. The first two test stones were given the identifying names " Marilyn Monroe" and "Lindbergh" respectively, based on pictorial elements that appear in them. Publishers of the "Los Angeles Times", the Times-Mirror corporation, supplied the Gemini Press with about 80 zinc cuts from the current day's morgue. Thus art historians may someday find it significant that Rauschenberg began the project during the first week of February, as documented by a photo of the great snowstorm that hit Chicago then. Other pictorial elements came from some of the largest-scale facilities of commercial presses in Los Angeles, such as the wheel from a Honda motorcycle borrowed from an advertising image. Some of the large halftone dots, perhaps because of associations with the work of Lichtenstein, did not appear in the final compositions, but they are typical of some poster and billboard fragments with which Rauschenberg developed his ultimate pictorial concepts.
As the imagery became more complex, more of Rauschenberg's own hand appears. In test stone #2, for instance, he incorporates a frottage technique, refined earlier by Max Ernst but of which Rauschenberg is likewise a master. This is also referred to as "rubbing" technique, and can perhaps best be seen in the delicately transferred double image of the motorcycle wheel in test stone #7. An X-ray image of the top of the artist's head becomes the first autobiographical figural element, which appears on test stone #3. Here also color is first used, eventually building up to five colors in the final large print.
Certain technical difficulties were encountered as the vision of the artist expanded, literally, beyond the edges of the paper. While an English paper, Barcham Green, was chosen for #3, the larger size of #4 (from 23 "x 31" to 24"x 34 ") necessitated a return to the French Rives BFK paper used earlier for #1 and #2 (and later for #5). But as the image continued to grow, Rauschenberg and Ken Tyler, master printer and head of Gemini, began experimenting with a specially produced US paper. This marked perhaps the first time an American paper manufacturer became involved in high-quality, fine art paper production on a commercial scale. For test stone #6, the Curtis Co., through Andrew Nelson Whitehead, made a sheet 35 " x 47 " which was the largest single sheet (to that date) made for fine lithography—and of course, the largest print Rauschenberg had made to that time. Meanwhile, in the progress of Booster details, the richness of subjects had been constantly growing, too. Rauschenberg's feet, with the X-ray boots, appeared in test stone #4, together with transfers from newspaper photos : a steamship in the blizzard, a freeway section and a pole vaulter in California. Not all of the source material was contemporary, however, as Rauschenberg also made transfers from old lithographic stones, such as the hand-engraved plum (from a Salinas Valley packing house label, dating 1932) which the artist first restored, then drew back into the image. With the fifth test stone, there were included drawings of reciprocal drills—taken from a technical manual, then made into a silkscreen before being transferred directly to the stone. The chair in the upper left-hand corner of the final print also appeared for the first time in #5. It was lifted from a 3 " x 5 " snapshot taken during a dance performance created by Steve Paxton. The images of an automobile tire, other athletes and a panty girdle from an advertisement were first introduced in this stone. Similarly, new elements appear in test stone #6, such as the photo of a vise (from a technical manual, like the drills), the picture of an astronaut's funeral, and a second X-ray image showing a pair of feet and hobnail boots. Not all of the visual material is derived, however; Rauschenberg executed a line drawing of a missile launching pad, which was then made into a line cut, and used both for test stone #6 and in the upper right-hand section of the final Booster.
Added to this complex source of imagery were certain technical innovations by Ken Tyler and his Gemini staff during the course of work. Portions of the blue printing, for example, had to be done after the black—but the only way to retain brilliance of color was to first print the same image in white over the black below, and then cover this point for point with the blue. Even more demanding, perhaps, were the requirements of subtlety, which the artist began to concentrate on in test stone #7. The blue-black printing also served to conduct tests for the density of printing possible with the new paper—and to see what range of subtle drawing effects could be attained within the lithographic process. At this late stage, Mayor Lindsay of New York makes an appearance, together with other parts of Rauschenberg's body in X-ray images. Most of the composition problems—selecting and rearranging X-ray negatives, then drawing back into the stone—occupy the artist at this stage, rather than the quest for visual subject matter.
Although a new and even larger lithographic press is currently being installed at the Gemini workshops, the maximum width possible earlier this year was 36 inches. By the time the problems of the final print were confronted, it was decided to use this full width, and to work with two separate stones in order to achieve a 72-inch total length. The details of imagery developed in the previous seven studies led to a final grand combination, which Rauschenberg worked onto both of the sensitized Booster stones (working on both at once). The various techniques used to achieve specific subtle qualities were repeated: the reciprocal drills were silk screened onto the stone, the halftones and line cuts were added, the artist worked on both stones making crayon and tusche additions for details, and the images containing collage, frottage and freshly drawn statements were transferred. Over all this, Rauschenberg produced an astronomical chart for the year 1967, published by the University of Maryland's Department of Astronomy, and by which it is made possible (among other things) to tell the rising and setting of the sun anywhere in the world throughout the year. This chart was printed first on an acetate sheet, then superimposed over the total print by silk screening. Red enamel ink was used, as lithographic ink would not have held its color if printed over the body of black ink. To the final proof stage, this vast project required over 100 hours of press time with four printers, and necessitated countless small innovations and technological refinements. Rauschenberg himself worked intensely, sometimes for 20-hour days. During the tense finishing stages, a group of friends in high spirits invaded the workshop —but through all the delicate and difficult decisions leading to the finished version, the artist resisted the all-too-welcome diversions. Then the key proofs were pulled, actually in semidarkness; perhaps symptomatically, Rauschenberg was working right through a cheerful screening of films taken at Venice showing him winning the Biennale.
In the galleries, there is a general sense of searching and readjusting to a scene that no longer maintains the bold and confident spirit of even a year ago. With the closing of several leading dealers by the end of last season, there has been a shifting of strength and interest. The Nicholas Wilder Gallery remains the most vital, and began the autumn season with a modest show of drawings by Ron Davis and Joe Goode. The Herbert Palmer Gallery presented a group exhibition of gallery artists, including work by one of the brighter young painters, Rick Herold. He works with acrylic on aluminum panels, thus achieving a deceptively reflective effect with unpainted areas set off against the more matte surface of paint. Herold's subject matter is drawn from the academic repertory of the human nude, but it is handled in crisp and fresh fashion. As a development of the torso idea, for example, he allows the frame of the painting to cut off his figures. In his concept of poses, he also presents ideas apart from strict tradition: most of his nudes are coupled, sometimes in actual sexual embraces, but more often with a clean and forthright acceptance of sexual implications totally devoid of appeal to prurience. In much the same cool approach are the acrylic lacquered metal sculptures of Vasa in the same exhibition. Lika, 1967 is a fine example of restating the relief theme with which Vasa has been working for the last year or so, but now contained within the limitations of a single-panel relief. The solid color silver finish is vaguely reflective, which creates a penetrating quiet vitality. More robust qualities are demonstrated by Peter Voulkos in his exhibition of large-scale work at the David Stuart Gallery. A major piece by the Northern California master of bronze casting was Pirelli, included in the recent American Sculpture of the Sixties. But even more virile and visually extraordinary is the 31-foot long bronze, Hiro II. Voulkos presents a bold and sensitive control of thick, sinuous forms, thoroughly and powerfully extended in rhythmic tension.
The most promising institutional event is the decision by Pasadena Art Museum Curator, John Coplans, to convert one major section of gallery space to a special 'showcase' for younger Los Angeles artists. This provides Pasadena with a space roughly the size of a commercial gallery, which suggests also the function of such a project. There are several not-yet-fully-established artists who now can expect even less chance for commercial support than they might have at any time during the last two or three years. It is thus a unique opportunity for the museums to present this work in an adventurous spirit, without many of the pretensions that usually accompany museum exhibitions, and of course without the often unfortunate pressures occasioned by commerce. Coplans' first choice for this program was a very good one: the challenging images of James Turrell. The gallery space is devoted to three single images designed by Turrell and projected onto the white walls from high intensity light sources mounted near the ceiling. The images are of simple geometric configurations, with crisp edges obtained by aluminum masks inserted at the focal points of the projecting lenses. By slight variations in the position of the mask, apparent color is produced around the borders of the resulting image on the wall. A convincing sense of tangibility from a distance is dissolved upon closer inspection of the wall surface, but this just seems to intensify the effectiveness of Turrell's pictorial concept. One "piece" entitled Afrum is projected into the corner, creating a thoroughly remarkable sense of volume—the illusion of a luminous cube suspended in space, that even turns in space, apparently, as one walks around the room. In this, Turrell has provided a brilliant anticipation of the artistic effects some day to be achieved with laser techniques —here all the more impressive because of the relatively direct and simple means employed.
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the November, 1967 edition of Art International, which discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-67.