Los Angeles Letter:
The Interpenetration of Art and Life
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
Over three hundred artists have just taken part in creating a major collective work of art in Los Angeles. Yet within weeks the full flower of their labor may be trampled, or surely transplanted. Painters—not just from the West Coast, but from all over the country—contributed a panel two feet square, each of which was, for practical purposes, necessarily regarded as expendable. The artists were all warned that despite the often considerable aesthetic as well as commercial value of the works, any or all of them could be the object of willful damage and destruction. Threats of vandalism and violence were present since the project began several months ago: a lofty steel tower surrounded by works of art exhibited as protests against the war in Viet Nam, situated on Hollywood's (in)famous Sunset Strip where it is met by La Cienega, a few blocks uphill from art gallery row.
Admittedly any mass of officially-indoctrinated citizens are fundamentally frightened by dissent itself, however genteel, yet the Peace Tower draws upon itself that further disapprobation traditionally reserved by society for lavishing upon its artists. That is, whenever artists stop their safe production (as it is seen) of beguiling bagatelles or amusing anodynes, whenever artists have the audacity to participate in the "real" world, whenever artists step up to the great shooting gallery in the carnival of life, they are likely to discover the bull's eye painted on their own backs. And when art is removed from the irrelevant sanctity of the gilt frame, the anaesthetic atmosphere of the academy, or the marble museum's hallowed halls of death, and is set down in the middle of life, it is inevitably more vulnerable to destruction than are all the visual atrocities found so tolerable by the vulgar: from billboard advertising to the tired catastrophes of governmental beautification projects. Thus an element of martyrdom was added to the Peace Tower, underscoring the paradox of violence-threatened, seemingly integral with all non-violent protests.
As one of our finest poets, Robinson Jeffers, wrote prophetically in "Shine, Perishing Republic",
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass,
pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades
to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
But finally, perhaps, the anti-authoritarian, anti-militarist, anti-war people, both citizens and artists, are discovering that their position does not necessitate sardonic passivity or utter cynicism. With the motto "Create, not destroy", inscribed in the concrete base anchoring one foot of the tower, the sculptor Mark di Suvero guided the complex assemblage of this ambitious and impressive statement. Several other sculptors, from both the East and the West Coasts, including Eric Orr, Ed Burrell, Melvin Edwards, Judy Gerowitz, and Lloyd Hamrol assisted with the welding and rigging needed to raise the structure—which is reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller's principles of "tensegrity" developed during the last twenty years. Di Suvero believes that the project has truly become a group effort in a deeper sense than is represented by the individual panels from different artists, displayed on large screens surrounding the tower's base. This sentiment is substantiated, for example, by the participation of Mr. Anthony Safiello. A modern primitive sculptor-artist-engineer, Safiello, who one day while stolling down "The Strip" as was his custom, whimsically perhaps decided to join the activity, soon came to be, virtually, di Suvero's chief assistant; he could be seen daily perched atop one of the beams, identified by a large red clot on his sweatshirt. A painter, Irving Petlin, headed the committee responsible for organizing and publicizing the project. [Read a 2006 interview with Irving Petlin about the Peace Tower]
Some pieces of sculpture were donated along with the paintings, and all will remain together as long as the tower stands. The eventual disposition of the work, however, is very much a matter of speculation at this point. The property owner who offered the artists a three-month lease felt called upon to publicly disclaim any association with the anti-war protest—although no mention has yet been made of the two billboards flanking the tower project, that advertise, curiously, a whiskey and a mortuary. Still there is some hope that civic groups will be encouraged to provide some more permanent place for the tower's installation, according to Petlin, whose exhibition of paintings at the Rolf Nelson Gallery opened concurrently with the tower and wittily provides it with competition.
The art historical significance of the project resides in the fact that it is the first time quite such a thing has happened here, or perhaps anywhere. It represents the attempt of artists to reach their audience on vital levels not restricted to matters of aesthetic concern while yet—at least in part—capitalizing upon this concern and employing it as a means. Artists have long participated in war and politics, of course, whether like Leonardo designing weapons, and Michelangelo designing fortifications, or like Rubens serving as an ambassador. But be it born of commitment or despair, this new collective effort seems to distinguish itself from past instances—even from the group-oriented social protests and explicitly anti-war sentiments of the German Expressionists, or later, of Dada. Precisely because this project represents no aesthetically coherent movement, or even disposition, it may be all the more significant and effective as a voice of social conscience.
The as yet largely unstudied historical problem of the interpenetration of Art and Life (in the contexts of art theory, art history, and aesthetics, as well as art criticism) is essential to any comprehension of twentieth-century art. With Oscar Wilde's "The Critic as Artist", or The Picture of Dorian Gray as a guide, we can identify most of the problems contained in Marcel Duchamp's Green Box, even if some escape our efforts to frame them with logic alone. But when Posterity, like Pandora, became curious, there flew forth a whole new host of problems. Some of these became sorted out and systematized, and thus incorporated into the structure (indeed, if not into the very definition) of various art movements. Surely among these movements Surrealism has most consistently and explicitly grappled with the Art:Life issue—something we are beginning to realize at- least partly because of the several recent publications devoted to Surrealism, and the correlated growth of interest in exhibiting Surrealist art. A current manifestation of this interest is Surrealism: A State of Mind, 1924-1965, an exhibition initiated and presented by the Art Gallery of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in conjunction with a complementary exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art covering Surrealism in the period before 1924.
As Michael Canney, Acting Director of the university's art gallery, writes in the foreword to the catalogue, "No significant exhibition devoted to Surrealist art alone has been held in any public gallery on the West Coast for over twenty years." All too true, Mr. Canney; unfortunately, still all too true. But the partial failure at Santa Barbara is also a partial success. This consists in presenting some of the continuing issues connected with Surrealism, or if not in clearly articulating them, at least in reminding us that there are some issues still there.
With major Surrealist artists, such as Rene Magritte beginning to receive the sort of attention that results in a major retrospective exhibition (now being presented by the Museum of Modern Art in New York), it may be some time before the movement proper, with its major monuments, enjoys a comprehensive exhibition with an incisive and intelligent reassessment of its historical import. What the university exhibition does suggest, however, is the fruitful if confusing band of inheritors following the original Surrealist generation. Directly related to contemporary activity, then, are many issues not really cited by the catalogue nor illustrated by the show. For example, to what degree are the cpigoni consistently Surrealists—or, putting it another way, precisely how has Surrealism been expanded in definition or transformed in character by its latter day (and today's) practitioners ? This is a fundamental issue and not mere semantic cavil, because of all twentieth-century movements, Surrealism was the most exclusivist and doctrinaire concerning its self-definition.
Surrealism may be, as a 1932 quotation from Max Ernst asserts in the catalogue, "helping, with a smile on its lips, to hasten the general crisis of consciousness due in our time". And it may have been just that smile on Ernst's lips, the sense of humor that pervades the genius of his art, that constituted his heresy, causing the Surrealists to expel him in 1955. Surrealism usually takes itself so seriously indeed, that one is tempted to use humor as a touchstone in testing for "impurities", say Dada elements, in the works of those artists associated with both movements, such as Ernst, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. Works like Duchamp's well-known Boite-en-valise, an example of which was included here, demonstrates a very un-Surrealist wit in questioning the concepts of uniqueness and originality.
Both the artist Andre Breton and the writer Julien Levy (who is responsible for the catalogue's introduction) are as concerned as Early Christians with defining those innumerable "risks of straying into error", i.e. the risk "that a work of art will move out of the Surrealist orbit". But a more realistic and profitable line of thought might seek to identify and characterize the elements of Surrealism when and where they appear, rather than seeking to insure the survival and development of Surrealism as a movement. The whole notion of schools and movements daily tends to recede further and further into the past; and it is his position on the problem of commercialization of art that stamps Mr. Levy as clinging to a romantic, essentially nineteenth-century concept of the artist which pretends to discover some positive moral value in his supposed bad business sense (and which is another way of expressing our disdain for the artist while psychologically excusing ourselves from any obligation to offer him succor, comfort or support). The evidence of art history suggests that commercial acumen is related positively, if at all, to creativity, rather than it being a case of the one necessarily ruling out the other. But Rembrandt was not worse as an artist because he failed financially any more than Monet's shrewdness with buyers, dealers, and friends accounts for his aesthetic success. Despite Levy's sentiments, Salvador Dali's awareness of his own great talents for showmanship, and his acceptance of its market implications are actually quite lucid gestures (rare enough in a life so obviously and utterly mad). And as such they are logical antecedents of, say, Andy Warhol's straightforward rejection of the commercially coy pose an artist is traditionally expected to assume. Who could honestly recommend as sound business advice to a young artist today that he proceed like Dali toward the "certainty" of fame and riches ?
Nevertheless, Dali is represented by some of the finest works in the Santa Barbara exhibition. His Spectre du Soir (1930) is illuminating in its relation to the well-known and slightly later painting, The Persistence of Memory, with inflated doughnut forms in contrast to the deflated watches. The university art gallery itself has contributed an exquisite drawing, Beach Scene (1936). Rene Magritte is represented also by superb works, two paintings unfortunately not included in the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective: La Folie de la Grandeur (1948) from the Hirshhorn collection, and L'Etat de Grdce (1959), with its iconic mounting of a bicycle on a cigar. There is a fascinating untitled oil from 1926 by Yves Tanguy, with string sewn into the canvas, so unlike his later and more typical work, an example of which is also included.
Worthy of special mention, and also serving as a good instance of the way so many of the other works hint at significant issues of historical interpretation, is a collage by Roland Penrose, Camera Obscura (1937). Penrose cleverly presents post-Cubist multiple images cut from postcards, which Paul Eluard already recognized as "treasures of nothingness". And in the same year as this work, there was an edition of Surrealist Postcards published by Georges Hugnet, although a study of the postcard and art, from the German Expressionists to the present; has yet to appear.
It was, of course, an impossible task for Santa Barbara to document the rich and complicated development of Surrealism since 1924 within such a limited scope: at best two or three works by the major artists. And the inclusion of single works by artists who worked on the periphery of Surrealism inevitably created a catch-ascatch-can impression, however handy it may have seemed for providing students with the dubious crutches of stylistic stereotypes.
No real point is suggested, let alone developed, by the smattering of sculpture, although five out of seven pieces are very fine indeed. Again one of the major stylistic implications of Surrealism, for the twentieth century has been completely overlooked; but then, no one else so far seems to have examined Surrealism's impact upon architecture either.
The Vienna School of Fantastic Realism shown at the Felix Landau Gallery offers an excellent case study of the continuing tradition of painting which owes a more or less direct debt to Surrealism. Rudolf Hausner's work (above) is very close in sensibility, if not iconographically, to that of Magritte; some of Ernst Fuchs' composite images go back even to the sixteenth-century visions of Giuseppe Arcimboldo; and The Magician by Wolfgang Hutter recalls the flower-headed woman who, on the occasion of the London 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, paraded in Trafalgar Square.
Centered around an earlier Vienna is the display of Jugendstil Posters at the Pasadena Art Museum. There are many period classics to delight those tastes reawakened by "camp" or interior decorators; but the best works are, not coincidentally, by the greatest artists, like Wassily Kandinsky's 1901 color woodcut poster for the first exhibition of his Phalanx group of Munich artists.
Richard Pettibone's recent exhibition of miniature paintings (examples above) at the Ferus Gallery offers a highly complex and sophisticated commentary upon the general theme of Reality and Illusion, or Art and Life, so essential a concern not only for Surrealism, but also for Dada, neoDada, and Pop. Pettibone investigates the ambiguity of multiple levels of being, or removals from Reality; his paintings can perhaps best be described as portraits of paintings. When the "original" painting happens to be Andy Warhol's Mona Lisa, for example, some very intricate logical and analytical distinctions are introduced. In Pettibone's portrait of the Hopper collection's Warholda Vinci—actually five portraits—he doubles the image four times and quadruples it once; or perhaps this is but one portrait in a curious five-part format (with each part separately stretched and framed) with twelve images of the original: twelve are better than one. And is Warhol's the original, or is it, in itself, a commentary upon Duchamp's Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q.), i.e., that example in which Duchamp erased the moustache once painted on her upper lip ? And where are we with respect to Leonardo when we look at a reproduction made from a photograph taken at Pettibone's exhibition? A little more obvious—at least in visual terms—are Pettibone's variations on a Campbell's Soup theme by Warhol, or his portraits of Roy Lichtenstein's paintings of comic strips. And what could be wittier than miniature paintings of details from paintings by Frank Stella ? And yet we may not be correct in regarding each of these little paintings as individual works of art at all, since hung together they form a portrait of a collection of paintings, with all of the works "illustrated" belonging to one of the six Los Angeles collectors under whose names they were hung.
A less involved, but in some ways equally perplexing commentary upon reality is provided by Robert Graham's sculpture landscapes at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery. Enclosed by plastic or wooden boxes are small figures modeled from clay and painted, and sometimes doing curious things. They are most often set in a landscape which is mean and strangely disarming, with artificial green grass, suspended cotton clouds, and plastic water in which can be seen the "reflection" of a blue sky. In some cases Surrealistic elements are also present, such as a pair of false teeth (false, really, what does that mean here ?) from which emanate rays; but these devices seem simply to risk an overstatement of the qualities which Graham, in his best pieces, so convincingly evokes.
Also on the sculpture scene, Judy Gerowitz [aka Judy Chicago] showed her new work in a two-part installation at the Rolf Nelson Gallery. Rainbow Pickett (named after the Rhythm and Blues singer, Wilson Pickett, shown above) is the most effective piece : a sequence of six precisely executed, clean-edged, beveled wooden beams (abutting the floor and one wall), which diminish in size and are painted in deliberately pastel shades.
Jan Stussy's assemblages at the Esther Robles Gallery are part of the prolific results of a long-term research project being undertaken with Gordon Nunes. Combining photo-montage with painting on "real" canvas, and what might be called "appropriate" sculptural projections, Stussy's T. V. Nurse is a carefully made, penetrating statement about contemporary American "ideal " female types. An undertone of paradoxical evil, however, pervades the dirty-hospital atmosphere of the picture, and is made explicit only by the shrunken arms and their deformed appendages. The final state of development for these weird and almost archetypal images of Stussy and Nunes may well be resolved in the medium of the cinema, as they have already begun experimentation with eight millimeter films projected upon other painted images or objects within contained boxes—a direction which, in these intelligent hands, would seem to be full of promise.
Robert Heinecken (shown above) explores the possibilities of juxtaposing photographic images and their combination with sculptural forms in a very different aesthetic mood. His exhibition at California State College contains some traditionally mounted- and sensitive photographs; but by far more exciting are those pieces in which a basic geometrical form (or combination of forms) is covered over with sections of a larger photographic image, most often that of a nude female figure. In the Multiple Solution Puzzles, square photo details have been carefully mounted on masonite so that the major visual forms meet the edge at the corners or exactly halfway between them, thus presenting intriguing possibilities for rearrangement. The same general principles are applied to the larger pieces with movable parts; but perhaps the most bold and aesthetically satisfying works are the Figure Cubes in which the images are fixed, although the cube itself revolves on its base.
One of the most encouraging major events for the Los Angeles art world, and particularly for that part of it devoted to the graphic arts, is the new operation of Gemini, Ltd. Established only in September, 1965, by Kenneth and Kay Tyler, it functions both as a publishing house and as a superior quality lithographic press. Gemini is already responsible for a beautifully made book of lithographs by John Altoon, with poems by Robert Greeley. It is the policy of Gemini to give the artist as free a creative range as possible, in no sense sitting as censors or arbiters of aesthetics, as is sometimes the wont of other presses. Working directly with artists, the Tylers supervised production of over two dozen individual projects before the end of the year 1965, including graphics by Nicholas Krushcnick, Joe Goode, George Rickey, Alberto Giacometti, and others. A trompe-l'oeil pseudo-portrait print by David Hockney was also among these works, all of which were recently exhibited by Gemini at the Westside Jewish Community Center; but this and Krushcnick's Fairfax and Mustard, or Goode's supreme Clouds may find qualitative competition in Geminis newest project, Right to Pull by Alan d'Archangelo.
Finally it is essential to mention the visit to Los Angeles by the contemporary composer Morton Feldman, who presented lecture-concerts at UCLA (where his de Kooning was performed) and at the Pasadena Art Museum, as a part of their series "Encounters, 1966", devoted to twentieth-century music. Feldman's piece The King of Denmark, designed to be played by a percussionist with his fingertips, contains some of the most ethereally monotonous and indescribably beautiful music of our time. Well-attended by artists, if perhaps not, unfortunately, by musicians, his lecture "The Anxiety of Art" is a brilliant seminal statement that deserves immediate publication and the widest possible distribution. For, as his Los Angeles audiences must have realized, what Morton Feldman says about music is, mutatis mutandis, pregnant as well with truth for all the other arts.
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the April, 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.