Los Angeles and San Francisco Letter:
The Current Moment in Art
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES & SAN FRANCISCO LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
The East Coast came to meet the West Coast in San Francisco during the month of April. The occasion was a symposium, "The Current Moment in Art", sponsored by the San Francisco Art Institute, which also provided for an important confrontation of Northern and Southern Californian representatives from various phases of the fine arts. So strong was the contingent from the Los Angeles area in fact, that the real attention of the art world was caused to shift from South to North for the first time this year. Unfortunately, however, many of the people who should have attended the symposium, and especially West Coast artists and students, both local to the San Francisco Bay region and from Los Angeles, were forestalled by the inexplicably high registration fee; surely some arrangements should have been made to enable the many practicing artists from both areas to benefit from the symposium that few could afford. Failing in these efforts, the symposium will perhaps unjustly be stigmatized with the all-too-typical San Francisco attitude that makes anything to do with the arts take on the nature of a socialite's outing.
In connection with the three-day symposium, the San Francisco Museum of Art joined the Art Institute in sponsoring related exhibitions of work by the twelve artists invited to participate in the series of panel discussions, separate and simultaneous interviews or "conversations", and the other events. Six artists from the East Coast were shown at the Museum: Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Raymond Parker, Larry Poons, Larry Rivers, and Frank Stella; and six artists from the West Coast were shown at the Institute: Joe Goode, Charles Mattox, David Simpson, Hassel Smith, Wayne Thiebaud, and Peter Voulkos. The exhibition was unduly modest in that only two works each by Poons and Stella were included (although these were first-rate paintings); and quite inexcusably, not one work by the important American sculptor Peter Voulkos was actually on display. A large photo of a Voulkos piece now at the Los Angeles County Museum was hung, despite the somewhat embarrassing fact that the sculptor's studio is just across the Bay from the Institute, closer than that of any other participating artist.
Of the six East Coast artists, two (Parker and Rivers) were apparently chosen for their stylistic conservatism and close relationship to the tradition of Abstract Expressionism. This gesture may have been in deference to the critic Harold Rosenberg, who presented the principal address, "Values and Audiences". The general position of Contemporary Conservatism, heavily committed to the neo-academic defense of the Abstract Expressionist Modern Masters, was if anything over-represented at the symposium. Of intriguing significance, however, was one certain lesson of the symposium: the relative swiftness and totality with which the artistic revolutionaries of yesteryear have become the True-Believers and reactionaries of today. The painting of Parker and Rivers seemed to be the thinnest and the least relevant work shown at the Museum, in spite of the net contribution made by Rivers to the symposium with his eloquent humor and entertaining stage presence.
The two paintings each by Poons and Stella were probably chosen to represent what has been loosely referred to, by Clement Greenberg, as " Post-painterly Abstraction". In contrast to Rivers, the inarticulateness of Poons (perhaps deliberate ?) nevertheless fails to detract from the exquisite intelligence of his painting. The fact that an artist may be able to talk intelligently about his work is always superfluous as a factor of aesthetics, however welcome and important it may be for critics and historians. An artist's essential function is to make art, not to talk about it, nor to interpret it (although he may indeed be encouraged to do so), nor even to grasp its fullest set of meanings and implications—even when the work is his own. But sometimes we are fortunate in having first-rate artists who are also articulate, like Frank Stella, and the two other East Coast artists representing Pop, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg.
The whole idea of the "masterpiece" has become radically transformed in the process of the twentieth century since Duchamp's Le Grand Verre (1915-23). Still, there have been brilliant and overwhelming works (or series in contrast to single works, wherein lies a crucial distinction) ; and Lichtenstein's Brushstroke paintings, one of which is included in the San Francisco exhibition, must be counted among the most impressive series to have been created in recent years. In this series he presents a statement—at once biting and humorous, critically apt, intellectually and historically convincing—about the whole movement of Abstract Expressionism. As Edward Fort Fry has pointed out, it is Lichtenstein's means which are of major interest—here both deliberately impersonal and yet so much a part of Lichtenstein's own personal style, providing a visual critique of the subject matter, its stylistic antithesis, in terms of painting itself. Lichtenstein's three other paintings shown, going back to 1961, provide evidence for a skeletal reconstruction of his stylistic development: in the handling of imagery, and in techniques derived, ultimately, from comic strips. They also demonstrate just how high Lichtenstein has raised this source material, and how little really his paintings have to do with comics. In view of his recent extraordinary sculpture and ceramics, it is clear that Lichtenstein is one of the great artists working in America today.
For the virtually unending richness of his imagery, and for the depth of visual, intellectual, psychological, sociological, and historical implications in his work, Oldenburg is another one of the few contemporary greats, along with Andy Warhol, who was not included in the exhibition. Somewhat earlier in his career, despite his activity in "happenings" and despite also many fine individual works, one might have wondered just how far Oldenburg could go before exhausting the possibilities of his unique artistic vision. But his genius and creative fecundity are solidly documented, if there were any still needing to be convinced, by his April exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. Rather than using up a given stock of potential subjects, every new piece provides multiple new insights, and sometimes—as with the soft vinyl bathtub—opens up whole new areas of perception. Maybe ten artists like Oldenburg could go on forever, as the world continues to produce most apt material far faster than they could possibly keep up with.
The panel discussions involving these New York-centered artists, however, fared far worse than their painting and sculpture, even when moderated by men as astute and urbane as Henry Geldzahler of the Metropolitan Museum. Perhaps the trouble is with panel discussions themselves, as they militate against following any consistent line of thought, and almost automatically obviate discussing any issue at least as complex and fraught with subtleties as art. The light and the fast always comes off best, and thus no one ever seems to be saying what he really believes without appearing pompous and grim, unless the statements are platitudes well-prepared for public consumption.
The West Coast contingent of artists included four painters and two sculptors. Peter Voulkos, as one could, not gather from his unforgivably shoddy treatment by the symposium, has for several years been one of the major figures in a very healthy and promising tradition of West Coast sculpture. Also, as one of the few artists representing the Bay Area (Voulkos teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, together with David Simpson), particularly those out-of-town members of the symposium deserved something more than a photo of his imposing and tough work. If this is any indication of how San Francisco treats its own artists, there is little reason to wonder why, more and more, they are moving down to the Los Angeles area. Charles Mattox, the other California sculptor in the show, is such a case in point. A superbly inventive kinetic sculptor and a magnificent craftsman, Mattox last year established his studio in Venice, California: just down the street from the painters Robert Irwin and Billy AI Bengston, and next door to the composer Harry Partch, in the beach section of Los Angeles that is a counterpart of Chelsea, the Left Bank, or Greenwich Village. Mattox was the only symposium artist also represented in the exhibition organized by Peter Selz, "Directions in Kinetic Sculpture", which ran through April at the University Art Gallery, Berkeley, and which will be seen at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from June through the middle of July. In some of Mattox's pieces like Red Triangle, an exploration of constant-diameter form, there are the playful surprises of hidden noises, in this case superballs inside the lacquered fiberglass construction. His Act of Love shown at Berkeley from the Edwin Janss collection in Los Angeles, combines other Duchampian elements of wit and sex in the form of an unsettlingly humanoid machine.
The four painters chosen to represent the West Coast are apparently supposed to "cover the ground" both geographically and stylistically, rather than be of consistently high quality and contemporary significance. Joe Goode from Los Angeles, perhaps the most interesting of the group, presented two graphic works together with two paintings. These superb quality lithographs were executed at the Gemini Press, which with Tamarind Workshop (both in Los Angeles) is becoming a leading center for original graphics. Goode has worked around several iconic, common-object (but not quite Pop) subjects, including milk bottles, the clouds and sash windows seen here, and the stairway sculpture of his recent one-man show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery. The combination cloud and window paintings are the most unremittingly mean works, fronted with glass and framed in a calculatedly nasty varnished pine wood. Iconographically, the blue sky and fluffy clouds recall Rene Magritte's The Childhood of Icarus (1960), in which can be seen a representation of just such a painting, and also Magritte's earlier work, The Empty Mask (1928) that already contains the idea. Goode's clouds are disarmingly simple and pure although retaining Surrealist associations; but the window image, which has been explored in a full series of paintings, appears to be far more original a conception, and yet achieves an even more convincingly Surrealist effect, whether this is a part of the conscious intent or not.
David Simpson, like Voulkos, lives on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay; and similarly also shows his work in Los Angeles, having opened a one-man exhibition at the David Stuart Gallery just before the symposium. The presence of Hassel Smith's work also attempts to bridge a gap between Northern and Southern California. Originally a Bay Area artist, Smith is currently teaching in the art department at UCLA. He has a place in the development of West Coast art, particularly with his early Abstract Expressionist work done while teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, which was among the earliest indigenous examples. Some paintings from the early 1950s are probably the best; but by chosing instead to show his much less effective but more recent oils, the Institute seems to have done him an excruciating disservice. The fourth West Coast painter, Wayne Thiebaud, is presumably offered as the local answer to Pop Art, with Abstract Expressionism, hard-edge, and common object painting or inadvertent neo-Surrealism already accounted for. There is a persistent and charmingly naive provincial attitude that must account for the rise and development of each of these styles in terms of the art of local heroes. Thus Smith's work is justified by a partisan historicism; some of the values of Simpson's painting tend to be lost by comparison with Kenneth Noland or Gene Davis; and a great deal of Goode's unique qualities, as observed by Philip Leider, can be lost by seeking to make him into a Pop or Surrealist champion—rather than by seeing his work within a common object tradition, presenting "an exact symbol of a certain quality of life in America" (Artforum, March, 1966). Similarly perhaps Thiebaud's work has suffered from being stretched into directions inimical to its nature, and can probably be best understood not as protoPop, but in the tradition of figure painting that includes Mel Ramos, Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, all of whom have taught in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Except for Thiebaud, each of the participating artists was scheduled for a "conversation" with some other non-artist professional in the fine arts, before smaller separated audiences. From scattered reports, most of these sessions were mismatches, with the artists as often as not coming out on top, or just plain bores. Exceptions were Frank Stella's conversation with Philip Leider, and—for very different reasons—Claes Oldenburg's eloquent and intelligent monologue in the face of an exasperatingly inane and misinformed conversationalist.
Perhaps the most successful panel discussion of the symposium was devoted to the Art Establishment, moderated by Alfred Frankenstein, who was joined by the museum directors Peter Selz and Walter Hopps, and the collectors Ben Heller and Donald Factor. As so often happens in panel discussions, however, the fundamental issue concerning the Establishment in the world of art was hinted at and touched tangentally, but never clearly and explicitly formulated. Eventually it must be asked how the Establishment either encourages or discourages, stimulates or represses, helps or hinders the creation of new works of art.
Frankenstein introduced some eight aspects of the Establishment, which may at least be outlined here, since they have been so largely neglected by writers. The institution of the museum heads the list in prestige, with the greatest power to create or to modify taste, to affect the art market, and hence, inevitably, to influence artists and art itself. Some of the grave problems facing museums on the West Coast at the present time were only faintly alluded to during the discussion. San Francisco has had its problems for a long time, with only a small group of active museum supporters who have maintained considerable effective control over the institution —control which, in happier situations, is usually regarded as being securely within the director's realm of professional competence. The museum controversy at Los Angeles goes back well before the opening of the Edward Kienholz retrospective in late March, and the ensuing sensationalistic and widely circulated publicity that attended the aesthetic condemnations of the sculpture by local politicians seeking press exposure. While the irrelevant charges of obscenity certainly boosted attendance by both the prurient and the self-righteous, l'affaire Kienholz probably darkened the general future of the Los Angeles County Museum, for artists can no longer look toward it with the same hope of support and informed understanding they might once have maintained. Nevertheless, it seems clear that enough momentum has been gathered around the Los Angeles area to sustain and foster most of the bright new activity in the arts, despite the museum's dubious promise. As Henry Geldzahler pointed out, such an institution can provide a focal point for the development of the arts—and New York, in contrast to Los Angeles, has at least four major museums concerned in some way with contemporary art, so that even if one of them does occasionally falter in the quality or relevance of an exhibition, there are others to take up the slack. But even in the context of sophisticated New York provinciality, and self-satisfaction, it must be admitted that all of the museums of Manhattan are tending to become the safe and solid homes of a new Contemporary Conservatism in the arts, with a correspondingly diminished interest in supporting work that points toward really new directions. It is precisely here that a younger, less fully committed and more vital scene, such as that in Los Angeles, has a great opportunity to assume a position of major national and international significance. Contributing to this optimistic outlook are some individually talented and dedicated members of staff still working at the Los Angeles County Museum; but a brighter total prospect is offered by Pasadena, where an ambitious building project for the museum, directed by Walter Hopps, is now under way.
Frankenstein's second level of the art Establishment is represented by the dealers and commercial galleries, the real significance of which has been too often overlooked by twentieth-century art history. The dealer has been unduly villainized by men of art for being a man of commerce, and by men of commerce for being a gentleman dealing with ineffables. The dealers were, in fact, well represented in the audience, although it was a sadly missed opportunity in that none was invited to participate on the panel.
The collectors, Don Factor from Los Angeles and Ben Heller from New York, both added valuable and perceptive observations as spokesmen for a third level of the Establishment. Among the most challenging and stimulating ideas to appear was Heller's notion of a marked decline in "the sense of history" during the last decade or so. Anything, he argued, might be permitted in art today because everyone feared the errors of narrowness exemplified by the nineteenth-century response to art, when someone of Van Gogh's stature could be almost completely overlooked. No one wants to risk missing another Van Gogh. This critical permissiveness, in Heller's estimation, creates a serious problem for the arts, in that artists may thus be seduced into dissipating their energies toward what, presumably, are non-artistic directions. Yet, it remains to be convincingly established that this lack of historical consciousness has in fact resulted in any diminished creation of first-rate works of art—however much Heller, and others similarly devoted to Abstract Expressionism, might sincerely believe this to have happened. Factor, also an astute author of art criticism, offered a more positive alternative to this Contemporary Conservative disposition, seeing in the " Everything is possible" more of a promise than a problem. Indeed, this willingness to regard all sorts of experiences as (at least potentially) of aesthetic consequence may be the best insurance possible that we do not squander our neo-Van Goghs. A great deal that is not "Art" may be produced in its name; but this only necessitates a sharpening of critical faculties—which in turn will be constantly challenged and revitalized by ever newer "quasi-art". There may be unsettling problems in abundance, to be certain; but in contrast to the problems of stultification and creative inbreeding that result from too static a prescription of what art can or cannot be, the new problems of selection and interpretation indicate a profound condition of health. This attitude is also reflected in the growing concern with art being manifested by the mass media: not only by the daily press, but also by the non-art magazines ranging from Time to Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, in addition to national radio and television.
Some of the recurrent comparisons between the East and the West Coasts are also triggered by the questions surrounding collectors and collections. It is clear that most of the great collections of contemporary art are located on the East Coast. But the impact of this fact is being modified by the changing conception of the work of art: it is becoming less of a thing (something that can be framed or mounted, collected, and then finally embalmed in a museum) and more of an event, in the sense that Heidegger has suggested in " Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes", Holzwege (1950). Not only is this transformation of considerable importance for art theory and aesthetics; it is also leading artists themselves to investigate new media, or new combinations of media. The idea itself is not unique to our times, and even the modern history of the Gesamtkunstwerk goes back a good century and a half. Yet the search for alternate modes of expression, outside the more or less fixed-medium conceptions of painting or sculpture or graphics, has led artists to explore particularly the realms of music, theater, and dance. Larry Rivers is an example of the artist who is also a jazz musician (saxophone); but it may be an indication of a new trend that sees artists like the Los Angeles painter Llyn Foulkes taking up music (drums) and turning toward rock and roll and the blues. Similarly, Andy Warhol claims to have retired from painting and sculpture in order to concentrate more energy on his rock and roll group (with dancers, lights, and simultaneous multi-movie projections) called The Velvet Underground. Performances by this entourage in Greenwich Village are said to be the most exciting thing in New York this season. Again perhaps indicative of the increasing prestige of Los Angeles, when Warhol's exhibition opened at the Ferus Gallery in May (following its presentation at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York the previous month), the Velvet Underground came west with the artist to play an engagement at The Trip, a rock and roll nightclub on Sunset Strip.
In staging and choreography, Jim Dine's interpretation of A Midsummernight's Dream in San Francisco with the Actor's Workshop was reportedly one of the most extraordinary theatrical conceptions of the year, although it closed there after a short run for want of interest and support. In contrast, Los Angeles provided a warm and strong reception for a series of three dance concerts which presented works by five choreographers: Trisha Brown, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and the artist Robert Rauschenberg. These productions, sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum, were "related to light-sculpture and Space-Theater", and utilized "amplified sound, film, dance, sculpture, speech, and a variety of special devices to create a total performance environment uniquely designed for the individual performance settings". In this, there is a parallel with Warhol's Velvet Underground (or, as the entire ensemble is known, the Plastic Inevitable), where despite full acceptance of the possibilities for improvisation, there is a pervasive concern with the creation of a unique and total work of art. Even within the idiom of rock and roll, the Velvet Underground presents an important innovation in their conscious and largely successful attempts to create a new music—one that because of the high level of artistic seriousness behind it suggests close analogues with the attitudes of classical composers, as well as with the achievements of the established greats of rock and roll or rhythm and blues.
Incorporating similarly contemporary elements, Joseph Byrd of the UCLA Music Department has staged three separate concerts in greater Los Angeles within the last year, the most recent of which was sponsored by the Pasadena Art Museum in May. Under such disarming titles as "International Steamed Spring Vegetable Pie", Byrd (who is a serious scholar of contemporary music) has managed to develop intelligently some of the possibilities suggested by the " happenings" of the last couple of years by Oldenburg, Kaprow, Dine, Cage, Rauschenberg and others. The "event" of travelling to Pasadena on the freeways from anywhere else in Los Angeles is of a sort so thoroughly incorporated into the strange, blatant fabric of Southern California existence, that it indicates the rich source of raw material for this direction available to artists here. This kind of experience not only preconditions the viewer to a more sympathetic acceptance of the terms of the new aesthetic; its scale and immediacy in life also tend to keep that art developing in its proximity from the self-conscious preciousness that always jeapordizes its vitality.
Another major factor that will undoubtedly influence the artistic activity in Southern California in coming years is the presence of the Hollywood movie industry. The cinema medium in its full potential—not just backyard or loft productions in black and white, but big professional productions with color and wide-screen, with full accompanying sound—has just begun to be explored as a possibility by some artists outside the industry itself. There is a critical as well as a creative aspect of this new incorporation of media into the vocabulary of contemporary artistic expression. Walter Hopps suggested a further extension in citing the world of sports as well as the entertainment industry as instructive models for the art historian, in his efforts to come to grips with the new evolving structure of the "fine" arts.
The universities are where one might have expected a forward-looking acceptance of the experimental spirit in the arts, in keeping with the supposed tradition of free enquiry and open discussion. Instead, the highly-institutionalized academic world has tended to become a bastion of the orthodox and parasitical with respect to art —an approach that is modernized only by the substitution of Abstract Expressionism (in so many respects the logical extension of the nineteenth-century romantic conception of art) in place of plaster casts. In some functional ways then the universities are connected with the group of conservative artists themselves, the group of people who were the primary constituents of what was formerly regarded as "the Establishment" by avant-garde artists. The effective influence of committed anti-modernist and academic artists has drastically diminished; still, their potential for calculated mischief, particularly through conservative politicians in America, could be dangerously underestimated—as was shown by the virulent repressive activity during the McCarthy period and immediately following. Thus, there are connections here also with the last of Frankenstein's levels of the Establishment, the government as such.
Conservative artists still control most of the official commissions for everything from architectural sculpture to postage stamps. Even with recent proposals for wider and more enlightened support of art and artists, governmental attitudes of the past do not provide much basis for optimism, as they have systematically repressed or ignored almost all radical (truly inventive and challenging) activity in the arts. Nevertheless, this support should probably be continued and encouraged, even if the larger part of the art thus supported is dull and irrelevant, an argument based on the statistical probability that some artists of value will benefit along with the rest of the herd. To this same end, perhaps all human beings should be supported, with at least a guarantee of minimal subsistence, in order that artists may emerge from among their number. Eventually the problem at the root of the relationship of the Establishment to art may well necessarily involve far wider social issues. This offers an engaging parallel of relations between art and life and their mutual influences: a theoretical and programatic counterpart to speculation on the future stylistic influence of twenty-first century Los Angeles life on contemporary art.
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the September, 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.