'Fresh, challenging and gorgeous': LA art on show at the NGA
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'Fresh, challenging and gorgeous': LA art on show at the NGA

Art review | Sasha Grishin

California Cool: Art in Los Angeles 1960s – 1970s, National Gallery of Australia, Orde Poynton Gallery, Level 2. Closes February 2019.

In 1966, American folk-rock group The Mamas & the Papas, from Los Angeles, released their hit single California Dreamin’. It was not a song of great consequence, but it did mark a self-confidence in the American West Coast music scene.

John Baldessari (no title), from 'Throwing three balls in the air to get a straight line (Best of thirty-six attempts)', 1973, (detail), offset lithograph, 24.2 x 32.2 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1981.

John Baldessari (no title), from 'Throwing three balls in the air to get a straight line (Best of thirty-six attempts)', 1973, (detail), offset lithograph, 24.2 x 32.2 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1981.Credit:© John Baldessari

At about the same time, a major reorientation was taking place in the American visual culture, where the hegemony of New York was not only being challenged but, for some, it became apparent that the centre of American art had shifted to Los Angeles. Others have argued that the so-called New York School appeared as something of a transplant from Europe, forced out by Hitler and the Nazis, and that by the end of the 1950s the new host body had run out of steam and Paris and old Europe regained their supremacy.

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The phenomenon of Los Angeles art was different from that in New York and had markedly different roots. The aesthetic that developed in Los Angeles was a peculiarly American one that stemmed out of Tinseltown (Hollywood) and Disneyland and was set in a place where the sun always shone, the car reigned supreme, where sex was liberated, recreational drugs were widely available and wherein the wide expanses all was gleaming and shiny. The underbelly of Southern California was less evident, nor was there a ready realisation that the economy was largely fuelled by massive military spending in support of the war effort in Vietnam and the NASA space program.

California Cool is a new major exhibition at the National Gallery that examines, in considerable detail, the phenomenon of art in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. It is drawn from the exceptionally rich collection of original prints, artists’ books and photographs held at the National Gallery of Australia and, for Australia, this is a significant and pioneering exhibition that is accompanied by a substantial scholarly catalogue.

Christine Godden: 'Betsy's hands, by the pool', 1973, gelatin silver photograph, 15.2 x 22.1cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gift of the artist 1987.

Christine Godden: 'Betsy's hands, by the pool', 1973, gelatin silver photograph, 15.2 x 22.1cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gift of the artist 1987.

The early 1960s in Los Angeles saw the emergence of a strong cohort of artists that included John Altoon, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses, Ken Price and the young Ed Ruscha. An important catalyst for new Los Angeles art was the Ferus Gallery, founded in 1957 by the curator Walter Hopps and the artist Edward Kienholz. Not only did the gallery exhibit many of the leading emerging LA artists, but also showed some of the most important contemporary American art, including the first exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, which was Warhol’s first solo pop art exhibition.

Ed Ruscha, the artist whose work forms the backbone of this exhibition, recalled, “The 50s and the 60s were a very drowsy time. It wasn't just a matter of piling paint on a canvas, as much as just living the life out here in LA. The movies were out here, the beach, the freeways, the desert. It had an accelerated pace to it; it was a fast city, but it didn't have the cultural depth that New York had, and probably still does.”

Some of Ruscha’s most iconic work, which is in this exhibition, includes his photographic surveys, such as Every Building on the Sunset Strip, published in a 1966 photo-book, and Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, works of aesthetic indifference that in retrospect have been variously viewed as the beginnings of the modern artist’s book and as a key moment in conceptual art.

“It wasn't a movement, necessarily,” recalls Ruscha. “We didn't all do the same kind of work. Some were doing hard-edge pictures, some were doing emblematic, symmetrical things, some were splashing paint on canvas, Kienholz was doing his thing. They were a bunch of altar boys with black eyes - that's the way they came off to me.”

Edward Ruscha: 'Twenty-six gasoline stations', 1962, printed 1969, offset lithograph, printed in black ink; sewn and glued, 18 x 14.1cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1981.

Edward Ruscha: 'Twenty-six gasoline stations', 1962, printed 1969, offset lithograph, printed in black ink; sewn and glued, 18 x 14.1cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1981.Credit:© Ed Ruscha

At about the same time, David Hockney was developing his own hybrid form of happy homoerotic pop art with screenprints such as Cleanliness is next to godliness (1964) and the gorgeous lithograph Ten palm trees in the mist (1973). John Baldessari’s lithographs Throwing three balls in the air to get a straight line (Best of thirty-six attempts) (1973) and the spiral bound artist’s book Brutus killed Caesar (1976) became some of the classics of the Los Angeles cool style.

Larry Bell, Jo Ann Callis, Vija Celmins, John Divola, Christine Godden, Joe Goode, Edward Kienholz, Bruce Nauman and Larry Sultan are some of the other highlights of this exhibition. The early work of Judy Chicago is probably the most glaring omission.

The façade of Los Angeles always concealed a darker reality - like the Watts riots of 1965, where more than 30 people died, 4000 people were arrested and $40 million worth of damage was caused. The Tate murders by members of the Manson family in 1969 also suggested that all was not well in the city of angels. The Los Angeles cool did not age gracefully; some, like Altoon, died young, the Ferus Gallery folded, the Artforum magazine, which had been a mouthpiece for the group, shifted to New York and Chouinard where many of the artists trained, officially became CalArts and moved out of the city to Valencia.

However, some of the art that emerged out of Los Angeles from the late 1950s through to the 1970s, in retrospect, looks as fresh, challenging and gorgeous as it did half-a-century ago when it was first created.

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