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One Saturday: Art/L.A.

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It's a hectic time for the art enthusiast in Los Angeles. Last weekend, on our return from our travels, we managed to make a jet-lagged visit to Art Platform, only one of the art fairs opening that weekend -- and one of the best such events in memory: a fine, international representation of galleries, almost all of whom had brought with them excellent work. Art fairs are usually, in my experience, rather dreary commercial affairs. This one was refreshingly stimulating and of consistently high quality. We're hoping it will make a return visit next year. The opening of Pulse was regrettably the same evening, and we simply lacked the energy for both. I did hear good things about the latter, too.

In addition to the fairs, of course, there's significant activity in the galleries, many of them piggy-backing on the much-anticipated Pacific Standard Time, an initiative involving "over sixty cultural institutions... coming together to celebrate the birth of the L.A. art scene." Right. I'll be planning to report on many of these events and exhibitions in the coming months. They cover pretty much the art activity in this part of the world since 1945. I myself arrived in Southern California after the the first two great waves -- the hard-edge abstract painters and the "young Turks" of the early sixties, whose flagship was the landmark Ferus Gallery -- but felt almost a part of the latter through my association with my wife, Ellie Blankfort and her family: Ellie's parents had been much involved from the late 1950s as art mavens and collectors of those who were, at that time, still the young and the unknown -- artists like Ed Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Wallace Berman and George Herms. Ellie herself opened up a gallery showing the even younger and still more unknown in the early 1970s, and acquired a fine reputation for her eye and the quality of the artists she chose to represent. And it was around that time that I started writing about the art I saw around me in the galleries, and even edited a couple of issues of the LAICA Journal -- the publication of the most serious of the alternative spaces that sprang up around L.A. So I feel a strong personal connection with what is now being celebrated.

So many different aspects to be explored, then, some relatively modest but no less interesting than the big museum shows. One such opened up last week at our friends Amy Inouye and Stuart Rapeport's Future Studio in Highland Park -- a great little pocket of art activity just north of downtown Los Angeles off the Pasadena Freeway. They were too late in their planning to hop aboard the PST bandwagon, but their show, "Gang of Carp: Ephemera," is a trove of fascinating historical material from the archives of Carp, an alternative arts program run by Marilyn Nix and Barbara Burden in Venice, CA, in the 1970s -- photos, postcards, letters and other material from the work of such then young artists as Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Kim Jones, Alexis Smith and others, who were just emerging on the art scene. They were still installing when we visited, and we were unable to make it to the show's opening, but we did see enough to get a good flavor of the time.

With obviously far more extensive resources, the Getty has also put together an exhibition of ephemera under the title Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1950-1980 at the Research Center. The Getty...

This is a Charles Ray sculpture on the grand entry steps.

... spearheaded the Pacific Standard Time initiative, and will be providing important leadership in the overall exhibition programs in the course of the coming months. We started out in the "Greetings" exhibit on our visit, Saturday, and were happy to have done so. The show digs into the museum's extensive archives, documenting not only the artists and their efforts to develop a new public for their work, but also the significant contribution of dealers and curators, critics and collectors. The Women's movement and the Vietnam War both left their mark and these, too, are included in the exhibition. Having known many of the people -- and indeed collaborated with not a few of them -- it was a pleasure to get reacquainted and be reminded of the role they played.

From "Greetings," we scooted across the Getty campus to the main exhibition area, where Cross Currents in L. A. Painting & Sculpture, 1950-197o, the first in a planned series of shows covering the blossoming of L.A.-based art in the post-WWII period. No photography in the museum, but there's access to plenty of images at the website, above. I've heard that there are a number of artists who feel they should have been included, but in general it's a carefully selected and well-defined collection, starting with a wonderful gallery covering the work of the major hard-edge abstractionists: John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Karl Benjamin and others. There was a good long period when these artists were widely and too glibly discredited or, worse, ignored. But the glow and poise of these works is a veritable pleasure for the eye. Beautiful, yes. And why not?

The next room brings together artifacts by assemblage artists, a number of them associated with the Semina circle inspired by the late Wallace Berman -- including Bruce Conners, George Herms, Ed Bereal, Melvin Edwards, Kienholz and Betye Saar. Moving through the next galleries, it's also a pleasure to meet old friends like David Hockney's "A Bigger Splash" and Ed Ruscha's "Standard Station"--an icons of the 1960s Pop Art ; and to revisit some fine works by Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Ken Price, DeWain Valentine, Peter Alexander, Judy Chicago and others loosely identified with the so-called "Finish Fetish" and "Light & Space" schools -- certainly not schools at all, but the terms are comfortable and familiar enough to set the scene. And more painterly works by Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Moses, Joe Goode and others. All in all a satisfying and eminently pleasurable show, small enough to enjoy without exhaustion and yet surprisingly exhaustive.

We made our way around the southern end of the museum with its spectacular views, and across the courtyard to the Getty's airy restaurant, with its interior walls disarmingly decorated with food-related art by Alexis Smith, an absorbing, tongue-in-cheek challenge to the whole idea of "decoration" -- and still holding its own in the years since the museum's opening. Once seated, we heard our neighbor at the next table inveighing mercilessly against "Cross Currents," pronouncing it too California for his New York taste; not enough there there, if I understood him right. Pretty much dismissing Southern California art wholesale. Which gave us the opportunity to reflect on the personal nature of aesthetic prejudices and expectations, on how tastes are formed and, once that happens, how hard it is to reach beyond them into an appreciation of art that is different or new. In my old "One Hour/One Painting" series, in which I invited participants to sit with me in front of a single painting for a full hour -- not talking about it, but simply looking, with my guidance -- the first thing I asked of them was to drop all the expectations they brought with them about what art should look like, and everything previously known about what they liked or disliked. To clean, as it were, the eye and freshen up the mind. Those sessions were a great success. I regret that I have not had the opportunity to offer more of them in the past few years.

After lunch, back to work on PST with three single-artist contributions: an entryway installation, "Black on White" by Robert Irwin, a quiet, quasi-anonymous presence greeting museum visitors and guiding them subtly into the main plaza; Bruce Nauman's "Four Corner Piece" -- a solid white block with video cameras placed in such a way that perambulating visitors would catch mere tantalizing glimpses of themselves as they navigate the central square, hugging the high white walls along the way; and "From Start to Finish: DeWain Valentine's Gray Column," a fascinating documentation of the process involved in creating that monumental polyester resin wedge...
... and the challenges faced by conservators in maintaining its surface perfection.

Once done with the exhibitions, we took some time to walk through the Robert Irwin garden, now gorgeously filled out around the central maze of low hedges set in the circular water treatment...

The garden, like the museum, was quite crowded, but seemed quite able to cope comfortably with large numbers of people. What struck me particularly was the number of smiles: everyone seemed genuinely uplifted by the experience of spending their day with art, and artful nature, on a glorious fall day with clear skies and Southern California sunshine. And why not?

We left the Getty on this exquisitely beautiful afternoon, still further westward bound. There was much more we could have done at the museum, including the exhibition Luminous Paper: British Watercolors & Drawings which I would much like to have seen. Another time. But we had already decided to extend our trip -- we do not often get out to this part of town these days -- to see the Leon Kossoff show at LA Louver gallery in Venice. We were not disappointed. The British painter is now in his mid-80s, and there's something about the authority and maturity of age, a certain abandonment of all concerns and demands but those of the painting, an assurance that could care less about any aesthetic correctness that allows the artist perfect freedom to lay it all out on the canvas. Kossoff's palette is now remarkably subdued, but the brushwork is powerful and unhesitant; the familiar, heavily impasto'ed surfaces are in constant agitation, exciting to the eye and requiring the mind to participate in the creation of the image. There are landscapes here...

... and portraits...

and images of Gothic church facades...

Kossoff images courtesy of of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

... that call to mind those paintings Monet made of Rouen Cathedral. Kossoff's work reminds us usefully of the traditional strain of British painters that resisted the grand sweep of American-led abstraction and retained its own values through the turbulent twentieth century. Soending time with Kossoff's work, Wordsworth's words also come to mind: the notion that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquillity." Painting, sometimes, too.

There's something of that same masterful quality in the work of Robert Irwin -- yes, of course, the same Robert Irwin who designed that lovely garden at the Getty -- currently installed at the relatively new and quietly spectacular L & M Arts gallery, also in Venice, a stone's throw from LA Louver. This gallery's current New York show, Dan Flavin, Three Works, featuring that pioneer of art employing colored neon tubes, is complemented here in their California branch by Robert Irwin, Way Out West..

Photo courtesy of L & M Arts, Photography: Philipp Scholz Ritterman.

... in which we find another artist of mature years working with a medium that has held his attention since his earliest years: light.

I found the work quite beautiful, functioning in somewhat the same way as the stained glass windows in those magnificent cathedrals; for lack of a better word, I'd want to talk about a kind of "spiritual" glow that requires some time to seep into the soul. The immediate impact of such upfront technology-dependent work can seem cold and affect-less, particularly coming straight from the hands-on emotionality of a Leon Kossoff painting. I like the Irwin work more in retrospect, oddly, than in their immediate presence. I find that they resonate more warmly in my memory. Perhaps it was quite simply that the eye had already surpassed its reasonable daily quota by the time I reached this last gallery. It's great to see our art so widely and successfully celebrated, but here in Los Angeles there's more to see these days than can possibly meet the eye.