Funksville: The West Coast Scene

Artist Billy Al Bengston polishing a work in the mid-nineteen sixties.

Artist Billy Al Bengston polishing a work in the mid-nineteen sixties.

Funksville happens to be where the action is, the boss swinging scene on the West Coast of the USA. Curious celebrity visitors arrive daily from out of the mystic wastes of Manhattan, along with swarms of those who have come to California to wheel and deal, to dig the scene, and to die. But both the newcomers and the natives seem to be perplexed and fascinated by the new booms and baubles of the world of art.

In America, since the famous Armory Show of 1913, the real center of artistic activity has been New York City. Earlier in the century much of the effort bent toward de­fining a national style took the form of a reaction against European painting and sculpture, such as most artists in America saw for the first time in 1913. The New York-centered, ba­sically East Coast concentrated sense of culture persisted more or less unquestioned until the years following then Second World War. But then came a new awareness of the world with the development of Abstract Expressionism, the first movement of truly international significance which must be regarded historically as an essentially American phenomenon.

The big move Westward already began a century earlier with the great gold rush. It continued in several waves, finally with the gilt rush to Hollywood during the 1920s, with the Depression migrations Steinbeck records in The Grapes of Wrath, and with the giant influx of workers for aircraft factories and shipyards during the 1940s. The last two decades has seen this surge continue and increase, although recently a lighter spirit has come to typify these occidental migrations--even leading to an overflow of Yanks in the Antipodes in search of sun and surf.

Definite signs of the real and permanent cultural shift in America, however, were perhaps first demonstrated unequivocally by the arrival of the Big Leagues on the West Coast. With the former Brooklyn Dodgers in Los Angeles, and the erstwhile New York Giants in San Francisco, the subsequent emergence of these two cities as focal points for the development of a West Coast style in both the "fine" and the popular arts might have been easily forseen. It is not true that art began anew, springing from nothing, in California; but neither is it accurate to regard the West Coast works as merely transplanted products from the art hothouses of New York or London.

Following Abstract Expression on the New York scene came a rich succession of movements, groups, and individual artists. These have all stimulated a new critical terminology which has become part of our contemporary artistic vocabulary: from Twist and Pop, to Frug and Op, to Camp. With the greater publicity and increased popular attention directed toward the fine arts (as well as toward some of those not so fine), none of these terms or styles has, since the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism, persisted as an essentially New York phenomenon. Rather, they have spread across the country--and indeed, internationally--and have often appeared simultaneously elsewhere, so that there have begun to emerge new and subtle stylistic differences between both works of art and centers of artistic activity. Particularly fascinating in America is the distinction between the East and West Coasts.

One crucial aspect of the complex and delicate business of analyzing the differences between art centered in New York, and that emanating from Los Angeles or San Francisco involves the stance of the artist--the attitudes he manifests about the making of the work of art. There seems to be a consistent distinction between, on the one hand, New York artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein (at least in his earlier work), and Claes Oldenburg--and on the other hand, West Coast artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Nil Ramos, Harold Paris, and Peter Voulkos. Admittedly, the self-consciously casual, dégagé attitude so popular on the New York Camp scene during the last few years is reflected elsewhere--particularly by the West Coast Cool School painters such as Billy Al Bengston, and Joe Goode, or the sculptors Larry Bell and Tony de Lap. But even here the artist's stance of disinvolvement seems to be tempered by a typically West Coast hang-up on the work of art, in res, as the object of great and concentrated concern: the "Fetish Finish" syndrome (to quote Nicholas Wilder, the bright young Los Angeles dealer).

Camp, as a concept, first broke into the big-time of cocktail party topicality following the publication of an article written by Susan Sontag (Partisan Review, Fall, 1964). Camp also gained in semantic currency with the emergence of Pop art, although originally it was a term largely restricted to the jargon of the homosexual underground. Perhaps from its origins, the spirit of Camp has retained a sort of aggressive asexuality; and as such, it contributes to both the Great Sexual Revolution and the Great Role Reversal by minimizing distinctions between sexes, and by forcing a more open and frank consideration of all questions concerned generally with sex.

In contrast to Camp, however, the key to West Coast style is Funk--a distinct, if not antithetical, stylistic quality. Funk has yet to achieve the critical vogue of Camp, despite its significance for West Coast artists themselves. The Funk sensibility is still "unofficial," although this may be explained simply as another example of the less verbal approach to art encountered almost anywhere west of the Hudson River. But Funk hangs around, and when it does come through occasionally, everyone who swings seems to see it and to know it.

One of the reasons why neither the term Funk, nor the phenomenon itself, has yet been accredited a real importance is the sheer difficulty of talking or writing clearly about Funk. "Like, if you gotta ask, man, you ain't never gonna find out what it is." Etymologically, Funk--as an aesthetic quality or response--was apparently used first in the Negro Jazz vocabulary; and like most such terms possesses strong sexual connotations, originally evolving from Negro slang. As with Camp, Funk involves anti-taste; but while Camp cultivates "good" bad taste in a way that is often precious and even recherche, Funk is concerned more with the essence than with the pose, and can even be "bad" bad taste if the Funk is mean enough. In terms of aesthetic analysis, one of Funk's principal characteristics is non-formality: the absence of consciously formal or arty concerns. No value is attributed to elegance of refinement as such (although Funky dancing or scuplture, for example, may well be both); Funk implies the raucous and the slightly obscene, the sense of guts and immediacy, the undeniable, the swinging, and the dirty--perhaps both physically and ethically, either by inflection or innuendo: the blackbird farting, or just after.

In its historical use, Funk might be associated with the qualities of early Cannonball Adderly, in pieces such as "This Here" and "Blue Funk,", combining simple, "churchy" chordal structure with a driving straight beat; or in the songs of Mose Allison. Many similar aesthetic responses are elicited by Funky painting and sculpture. Wally Hedrick and William Wiley are painters whose work often displays raw Funky qualities alongside the cool Funk found in Bengston. Funk is found in the work of sculptors Edward Kienholz, Harold Paris, Arlo Acton, Robert Hudson, Jean Linder, and in the ceramics of Peter Voulkos and Charles McKee.

It should be pointed out that Funk is not a style or manner that can be self-consciously assumed, nor does it have anything necessarily to do with artistic merit. Funk is not always a particularly desirable quality for which the artist might willingly take credit; but it does always possess the undeniable sense of power and inevitability which appears in the best work of these artists. The art of Bruce Conner, for example, is pure Funk. Before San Francisco became inhospitable, Conner created Funk masterpieces there from old photographs, soiled lace, and broken, rotting pieces of furniture; but such materials are not handled exquisitely like Kurt Schwitters' Merz ingredients, nor are their individual properties blended into tasteful and witty arrangements like a Cubist collage. Funk is not concerned with the arty transformation of junk, yet it does (and perhaps must) capture more than one particular image. The non-formal concern of Funk is seen in work like the large seals and powerful mixed media sculpture of Mark di Suvero, as well as in Conner's assemblages.

Through Conner's constructions and films, and the work of other counter-pilgrims to the East Coast, such as di'Suvero, the Funk element, in an important way, has begun to pervade the New York scene. It can be seen also in some of Oldenburg's work, and in the recent sculpture by Rauschenberg, again demon­strating that little of cultural significance, no matter how underground, can long remain isolated or regional today before it is stitched into the great crazy quilt of the new American style.

On the West Coast itself, however, there are subtle distinctions to be made in describing the nature and distri­bution of Funk. The San Francisco area (including Berkeley and Oakland, and extending as far as Davis) probably produces more Funky work, wittingly or not, than does Southern California. Yet the combined qualities of the social, the publicity, and the commercial scenes in Los Angeles--audacious, gross, and bizarre --are functionally Funkier than those in the northern part of the state. These differences are also reflected in other attitudes of the artists; and help to account for a real sense of contrast or competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles) which crops up whenever the subject of the West Coast art world is raised.

The northern, San Francisco-oriented artist is a lone wolf, partly by instinct, and partly by circumstance. Most painters and sculptors live there for personal reasons, and not because they can make a living there by selling work, which they cannot. The activity of teaching, whether based on a dedicated or on a meal-ticket approach, does create a sort of social scene that spreads from one studio or institution to another. Nothing like the old Cedar Bar's open and personal environment exists on the West Coast. With the Abstract Expressionists, the scene there constituted not only a social situation, but also a reality directly and integrally related to their art.

The intense and increasing gallery and museum activity in Southern California helps more artists to sell there, and to live by their art alone; consequently, they seem to be more hung-up on implications of the big time publicity struc­ture, and thus also more sensitive to what is happening on the contemporary New York scene. Conversely, artists from the East Coast are beginning to appear more and more in Los Angeles galleries, as the Cool stance also reflects the dégagé attitude so prevalent in New York.

Cool or Funky, however, West Coast artists are seldom communicative or articulate about their work. In Southern California they might ride motorcycles, or all go down to the beach together, and in San Francisco they might even visit each other's studios for Dago red--but no one talks about the art.

Contrasts and comparisons between Los Angeles and San Francisco can be made on most levels of culture (popular or "fine"), and suggest parallels like New York and Boston, or Melbourne and Sydney. In fact, it may well be that a careful analysis of the differences between the style of play exhibited by the Dodgers and the Giants will someday disclose significant truths for the scholar about the art of the respective cities. The Los Angeles image is a crazy mixture of smog with surfers, a city with neither center nor skyline, where "all that glitters is sold as gold." While fast, tough Los Angeles swings, sedate San Francisco swirls in its own temps perdu--and an artist who wants to make it thinks first of the "thirteen suburbs in search of a city," with its big money and concen­tration of cultural power, vitality, and vigor.

The distinctions between San Francisco and Los Angeles are gradually becoming minimized following a general pattern also manifested in other areas of culture. Similarly, the distinctions between East and West Coasts have now become much less indications of completely different regional approaches than clues for new and subtler stylistic observations.

The cultural revolution which has gathered momentum throughout the world in the last twenty years has its recent historical origin and contemporary center in America. This whole revolution is typified by a consistent process of leveling, in which the formerly disparate regional characteristics in various countries have begun to coalesce into more homogeneous national styles. At the same time, and largely influenced by the cultural development in America, a parallel change is apparent in the configuration of both the "fine" and the popular arts on an international scale. The pop tunes, billboard art, and T.V. commercials are all coming in for their share of serious critical study. Camp and Cool art is becoming a favorite concern of magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Funk, however sits there and steams—ready to explode before any Funksville city limits can be staked out in California. And starting out for Funksville from any part of the world, man, you don't need a map to get there.


Kurt von Meier received a BA degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and did graduate work at the University of Madrid, Stanford, and Princeton. Upon completion of his studies, he was Senior Lecturer in the History and Theory of the Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand for two and a half years, and has lectured AA both Sydney and Melbourne. After returning to America and lecturing at Princeton University, he has recently accepted an appointment as Assistant Professor at University of California at Los Angeles, when he is also Assistant Director of the Art Galleries and helps to coach the university's rugby team.

Carl Belz received his BA, MIA and PhD from Princeton University. He then taught Art History for two years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts, and currently holds the position of Assistant Professor and Director of the Art Gallery at Mills College in Oakland, California.

Published in Art and Australia, Vol. 11, No. 8, December, 1965