I’m not sure if it’s because I was born in 1986 and grew up with the idea that LA was the other major city in the US (along with NYC), but it absolutely shocked the hell out of me when I read that the Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980 was the first time anyone had ever taken a good hard look at the post-war art of Southern California. Not only that, I couldn’t believe that it was the first attempt to distinguish it from East Coast art and its art historical vernacular. In my less informed days, I would not have seen a problem with So Cal art being forcibly adhered to an East Coast standard (because it’s all American art, after all). However, now that I am wiser and more well-read, I can easily see that there are a lot of problems with lumping all post-war American art under one avant-garde flag.
PST was a massive decade-long undertaking that began as an archiving project at the Getty Research Institute. The history of Southern Californian art made in the post-war years was in danger of being lost, so the GRI set out to get everything they could documented. This project turned into an unprecedented series of exhibitions in 60+ museums and cultural institutions throughout the area between Fall 2011 to Spring 2012. Before this study, the LA art scene was believed to have developed as a center after 1980 while the East Coast dominated the post-war years. However, because PST regards Southern California as a center for post-war art that was largely independent of the East Coast, it more or less re-writes the history of Modern art in LA, and of American art in general. It was referenced multiple times in my In Wonderland catalog, as well as in the Westword review for West of Center, but I did not think to read it until my minor advisor suggested I look it up to inform my studies on regionalism and minor history. And am I glad I did, because not only was I able to make correlations with Colorado art history in the ’40s and ’50s, but it gave me a fascinating insight into the different histories of American art.
While West Coast art was informed by what was going on in Europe and the East Coast, it began developing a different aesthetic that was informed by Surrealism, Dadaism, and German Expressionism, as well as indigenous Modernism (minor history, anyone?). The East Coast, on the other hand, was all about Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism. Surrealist photographer Man Ray lived in LA for 11 years in light of the Second World War and produced more work then than he had in his entire career previously. NYC was a major hub for many artists during WWII and had museums to display its Modern art, but most of LA’s was hidden in the homes of the wealthy due to the heavily conservative political climate. Not only were the artworks more or less hidden, which made them somewhat “untrustworthy” because of their relative backroom nature, but artists themselves who worked in a “leftist” manner were forced to keep their work underground lest they risk being labeled Communists. Work by non-local (European) artists risked being seen as un-American.
This anti-modernism pervaded into the 1960’s, but LA art was still developing despite this and blatant regionalism was largely avoided. The 1940’s saw three main circles: Abstract Expressionism, hard-edge painters, and ceramicists. These groups were very male-dominated, and sexism in the art world persisted until the 70’s (for example, Lorser Feitelson, who helped develop Post-Surrealism with his wife, Helen Lundeberg, was part of the hard-edge painters, and though Lundeberg created similar work, she was almost entirely excluded). The 1950’s saw an increase in diversity, and galleries and informal spaces alike experimented with alternative methods of production, display, and dissemination of art. A strong interest in found materials and assemblage demonstrated the continuing interest in Surrealism, jazz, and folk traditions. There was an increased awareness of the expanding art world and art’s place in a changing society during the 1960’s, and concerns of the counterculture and methods/materials of assemblage are reflective of this anxiety. Art became more political, and a core group of artists– LA’s “Cool School,” as the catalog called it– saw sales and shows explode. LACMA was formed to exhibit the work of local artists, and Pop became very popular. However, it is not the East Coast Pop one ordinarily thinks of (and which Ed Ruscha and others were lumped into): artists drew from the “vernacular landscape of Los Angeles for inspiration” and from the material and technical processes of the region.
In the late 60’s and 70’s, the art scene was not so much unified, but a diverse network of artistic communities. The art schools were re-organized, which resulted in highly experimental educations, while other artists challenged traditional media to produce hybrid works such as Light and Space art. The political volatility stemming from the Vietnam War allowed artists to (finally) be more open with their personal and political concerns. And the 70’s were full of questions related to art practice, moving the art community further from the idea of a unified whole. Art became more about sites of investigation, and concerns with art world exclusion became apparent through the exploration of issues such as gender and race.
Even though East and West Coasts shared certain movements such as Pop and Abstract Expressionism, the art of the NYC avant-garde is fundamentally different from that of Southern California. One of the biggest issues in all of art history is that it is largely understood from a Euroamerican perspective. When I say “Euroamerican,” I mean from the art historical tenants put in place by Western Europe and from East Coast-American scholarship. As has been previously discussed, Western Europe (particularly France and Germany, the latter of which is considered the birthplace of the study of art history) was the end-all-be-all for advancements in art for ages. New York City did not really come into its own artistically until the 1950’s, and it is now considered a major center for art production. Because of this Euroamerican standard for art history, a lot of issues are encountered when it comes to understanding non-Western art, which includes Native American, Asian, Latin American art– pretty much any art created outside of Western Europe and the East Coast, really. But PST has demonstrated that a different vernacular is needed even for art created within America, because not all art is “created equal.”
I have to say, after my rant about David Hickey’s asinine comment about West of Center being a lame attempt to mimic PST, I’ve been thinking a lot about the historic similarities between Colorado and LA in the 1940’s and 50’s. LA was just as conservative as Denver during this time, which really stunted the growth of Modernism in the West (at least in comparison to the East Coast). However, both Denver and LA developed their own Modernist vocabularies, yet LA was able to develop further than Denver because, well, it’s Los Angeles, California. Denver’s best artist for comparison is Vance Kirkland. He kept tabs on Surrealism during the late 30’s and experimented with the aesthetic, as well as that of Abstraction in the 40’s and 50’s before developing his signature dot paintings. And he was not the only artist to have an awareness of what was going on in the art world outside of the West– why else would the Colorado Fifteen have formed?
The biggest differences between LA and Denver, at least in my view, are money and population. LA was well-poised to become an artistic center because of the sheer number of people and because of how much money the entertainment industry has raked in for decades. It was attractive to local and non-local artists alike, such as Man Ray, because of a large base of wealthy potential patrons. What are some of the other reasons for why Denver did not become such a center– not just for art, but in general? There could be any number of things outside of money and population, I suppose. Perhaps it’s because for the last century, Colorado has only been seen as a ski resort and cowboy ranch. Though our (Modern) history is almost as long as LA’s– and to an extent quite similar until the last 40 years– we just didn’t develop as much as they did. Simon O’Sullivan said in Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari that sometimes the minor does not become major simply because it was passed over. Georgia O’Keeffe is an interesting case because made Santa Fe a center for the West when she transplanted herself from New York, and her art put New Mexico on the art historical map. But is it because she was from New York or because she was talented that she became major? Vance Kirkland, while awesome, did not start gaining national and international recognition until the 1990’s, after he had died, and he is still largely unknown outside of Colorado (at least in comparison to O’Keeffe).
The question then is this: can Denver one day become an artistic center? I think we have a lot of potential, and judging by the fact that we attract many wealthy collectors who build their summer homes in Vail and Aspen, some of whom have been incredibly generous to the local art museums (kind of like the LA art scene in the early post-war years), we could be on our way. Perhaps Colorado artists simply are not getting recognition because of the lack of big names– collectors and outside artists– permeating the area. Or maybe we’re too regionalist. Interestingly, I learned that James Byrnes, the first Modern and Contemporary curator of the LA County Museum of History, Science, and Art, was so “radical” in his views regarding European Modernism (i.e. he liked the work while everyone else hated it) that he ended up resigning and became the first director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which was well known for its offering of residencies and teaching positions to many leading visual artists. So seriously– why was Colorado passed over as an important place for art??