11/04/2011 11:13 am ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

PST: Best Kept Secret

Back in 1969, when I first visited the University of California, Irvine campus, it looked like some futurist outpost set in isolated architectural splendor among the largely barren hills of the Irvine Ranch. Impressed, I even toyed with the notion of setting a novel there, a kind of not-t00-distant sci-fi story in which the aggressively philistine nouveaux riches inhabitants of a nearby walled city--they were just beginning to dot the distant hillsides--would be pitted against a last, ragged remnant of hippie poets and artists... a kind of "Mad Max" Orange County style.

Didn't happen, of course. What did happen, with alarming speed, was that what once was a vast area of remote wilderness was overtaken by suburban sprawl. Today, the UCI campus is crowded in on all sides by sun-bleached housing developments and shopping malls, condominiums and student dormitory blocks, wide, straight highways and heavily traveled freeways and toll roads. Our civilization has grabbed yet another swath of lovely planet Earth and turned it into what passes for habitable community space.

When I visited in 1969 it was at the invitation of a friend, a colleague from my graduate student days at the University of Iowa, who had been recently hired to teach in the UCI Comparative Literature department. Through him, I knew of a program in Creative Writing that was beginning to thrive. What I did not know at the time, because I was as yet quite unfamiliar with the work of contemporary artists in America--let alone Southern California--was that the UCI art department was already a hotbed of activity, with a faculty and students who would later be recognized as having an important place at the core of a whole resurgence of new art on the West Coast.

It was not much later, in the early 1970s, that I began to hear about these progressive, rule-breaking young artists and to write about their work. My next visit to the campus was to see a show curated by the then art gallery director, Melinda Wortz, successor to the renowned John Coplans, who arrived at UCI in 1964 and started the ball rolling. Melinda's show featured three women artists whose work riffed on traditionally male occupations: one of them was the body-builder, Lisa Lyon, who showed up for an interview in the gallery memorably stark naked, her body gleaming with oil. Those were the days... My piece was published in Artforum magazine.

This preamble of personal memories is prompted by the recently-opened exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum in the Pacific Standard Time series of events. Titled Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971, it results from an inspired idea to take a look back at those early days in the Irvine Art Department and exhibit the work of both the eclectic group of artists Coplans first brought in to teach, and the exceptional bunch of students attracted by them to this "best kept secret." Art schools--and art departments--typically enjoy their cyclical moments of greatness, and this was undoubtedly UC Irvine's. "Best Kept Secret" is a testament to that moment.

Aside from providing some interesting views of the early campus, described above, the museum's website for the exhibition includes a video with some fascinating, brief interview clips and still photographs of some of the principals involved. Both faculty and students seem to agree that the magic occurred because the faculty had the good sense to get on with their own work and eschew the kind of "teaching" that risks producing a tradition of clones instead of individual artists. It was, as I hear it in these interviews, more a matter of modeling what it means to be an artist than teaching skills and theories of art. The faculty were artists first, and teachers only incidentally. They included luminaries like Tony Delap...
"A Spatial Occurrence," 1971 (All images courtesy Laguna Art Museum)
... Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, John Mason, Ed Bereal, Craig Kauffman...
(Untitled, 1968)
.... and Vija Celmins. Among their students were Barbara T. Smith, Michael Asher, Nancy Buchanan...
(Twin Corners, 1975)
... Robert Walker, Marsha Red Adams...
("Woman Bound, Woman Withdrawn," 1971)
Alexis Smith...
("Flatlands", 1972)
... Chris Burden, Marcia Hafif, Ned Evans and many others whose names are now familiar to anyone who has followed the history of art in this part of the world.
(Installation shots by Frank McGrath)
Hardly surprising, then, that last Saturday's opening was a grand reunion of old friends and colleagues--nor that the exhibition included some outstanding art works from the period, along with re-creations and documentary material. The festive air of celebration at the opening event was no more than a social manifestation of the exhibition itself--a celebration of talent, freedom, the inspiration of role models and friends, the receptivity to new and sometimes wild ideas that all together fostered this great creative surge. It was a delight to reconnect with so many artists, now a tad older and grayer than they were as students forty years ago, but still working in their studios with the same passion and the same dedication to their work. And a special treat to meet, for the first time, one of the great pioneers of ceramic sculpture, John Mason, who had re-created his monumental 1973 "Arch Brick" installation for the occasion.
All in all, a warmly satisfying exhibition, not untinged with nostalgia, but no less rewarding for that. And a healthy reminder of what works best in the education of young artists. Call it freedom. Inspiration. Today's art schools too often promote their own theoretical and philosophical agenda, promulgated in the "artist's statements" they require of their graduating students. I'm old enough to be content if the statement is the work. Harrrumph.