Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 2009
Sarah Schrank Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 256 pp.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780812241174)

Writing in the aftermath of the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight remarked that, “America’s favorite pastime (after baseball) is to periodically flirt with the strangling embrace of the loyalty oath” (Last Chance for Eden, Los Angeles: Art Issues. Press, 1995). In Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles, historian Sara Schrank documents the role of visual art in provoking such reactionary political forces throughout the history of twentieth-century Los Angeles. She locates moments when artists and progressive arts professionals challenged the image of Los Angeles that had been carefully crafted by civic boosters as a city free of the troubling complexities of race, class, and politics ever-present in the “old” cities of the East Coast.

Schrank’s account of the efforts of various civic groups and municipal factions to control the visual representation of the city is ultimately about the local reception of modernism. She nicely highlights the role of arts promoters such as heiress Aline Barnsdall, art school founder Nelbert Chouinard, film director Dudley Murphy, city arts official Kenneth Ross, as well as artists David Alfaro Siqueiros, Ed Kienholz, Noah Purifoy, and Judson Powell in helping to build the foundation for the art capital that Los Angeles has now become. But in her focus on the public discourse about a variety of artworks, exhibitions, galleries, and institutions, Schrank at times marginalizes the art objects at the center of these developments and often does not address the art-historical scholarship surrounding the artists and movements that shape her history. For an art-historical readership, the book provides the local historical context for some of the most pivotal moments of Los Angeles’s cultural history and addresses their legacy, such as Siqueiros’s mural projects, the red-baiting of artists during the Cold War, and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. But curiously Schrank leaves aside closer analysis of her visual material, perhaps explained by her caveat in the introduction that “the art itself was secondary to the struggle to exhibit it” (8). This becomes more problematic as she addresses the latter half of the twentieth century, the period of Los Angeles’s history that has drawn the most attention of art historians.

Schrank begins by looking back to the founding myths of Los Angeles to explain the significance of the establishment of the Municipal Art Commission in 1903, one of the first city organizations in the United States to be concerned with creating a unified urban aesthetic and promoting a visual culture that would serve the ends of business and real estate development. Allied with the Chamber of Commerce, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sunkist marketing cooperative, the Municipal Art Commission encouraged landscape painting inspired by the natural beauty of the area and the Spanish colonial architecture that drew upon the popularity of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona. A sentimental but politically progressive love story, the novel’s popularity had much to do with Jackson’s vivid characterizations of the decaying mission buildings, the vanishing history of Spanish colonialism, and the natural splendor of the California climate. Ramona provided the blueprint for the architectural design and visual culture of the region in its first period of rapid growth. Combined with the canals and arcades of Abbot Kinney’s Venice Beach and the creation of Olvera Street near the train station as a Mexican-themed outdoor market, this imagery proved a powerful engine for tourism and development. It was against this backdrop that modern art was initially received in Los Angeles during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Schrank defines modernism broadly in order to encompass the way urban development and social change in Los Angeles were associated with shifts in the nature of visual art. She describes the local resonances of the term as signifying any number of new aspects of life in the city such as “reference[s] to Russian expressionism, American abstract expressionism, pop art, jazz, freeways, Jews, African Americans, sexuality, urban renewal, or a public housing project” (7). Given the contested nature of space and culture in Los Angeles, this approach is productive as a tool of contextualization, and Schrank uses it to great advantage in charting the relationships between urban policy and cultural opportunity through such sources as the newspaper that served Los Angeles’s African American community during the 1940s and 1950s, the California Eagle: “The paper not only rallied ethnic Angelenos to participate visibly to prevent exclusion from civic life but also targeted civic culture as a racialized site where discriminatory urban policy might be overturned or, at the very least, publicized and renegotiated. Alongside the promotional announcements for cultural activities ran column after column describing racial discrimination in real estate and property sales” (74).

Schrank’s more specific argument about modernism in the visual arts loses some force, however, because she does not address more precisely how the artists and artworks in her study borrow from, or challenge, established styles or relate to wider national and international discourse. In discussing the impact of modernist painters working in Los Angeles in the 1920s, such as Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Mabel Alvarez, for example, Schrank gives two of the few full-page reproductions in the book to their paintings, Macdonald-Wright’s Synchromy in Purple (1918–19) and Alvarez’s Dream of Youth (1925), but does not discuss these images in any detail. She seems to rely on the reader’s recognition of abstraction as a hallmark of modernism, but given that this feature of her argument occurs in the first chapter, it would seem a prime opportunity to discuss further how modernist ideals shape the choices artists make in their work.

Schrank’s discussion in chapter 2, “Modernism in Public Spaces,” concerning Mexican muralist Siqueiros’s 1932 projects in Los Angeles is better at linking up form and context. Here, she expertly describes how Siqueiros declared his radicalism in the siting of the anti-imperialist and agit-prop América Tropical mural on a wall above the contrived symbol of Los Angeles’s Mexican past, the Olvera Street tourist area; he painted another, entitled Workers’ Meeting, in the private courtyard of a popular new art school, the Chouinard Art Institute. Both murals were whitewashed a year after their completion, and the surrounding debate about the role of public art in progressive-era Los Angeles nicely sets up Schrank’s discussion of the roots of the notorious episodes of red-baiting and cultural censorship in the postwar period.

Schrank is at her best in describing the roles played by civic-minded figures such as Barnsdall in the 1930s, whose Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House and Olive Hill property would eventually become an art park after much resistance from the city, and the liberal municipal official Ross, who battled ignorance and conservatism during the 1950s. Her account of Ross’s struggles to defend artistic freedoms during a set of contentious public hearings ostensibly meant to address subversive works on view at an outdoor exhibition held at public parks around the city brings much-needed depth to a notorious and often glossed-over episode in the city’s history. As head of the Municipal Arts Department during the 1950s, Ross challenged the control of exhibition venues by the city’s conservative private art clubs, organized more inclusive civic art exhibitions, and promoted the democratic ideals of a publicly funded arts program for all citizens of Los Angeles. As Schrank insightfully notes, Ross wanted his agency to serve the needs of an increasingly decentralized and ethnically diverse city and did not attempt to impose “a singular elite vision of civic grandeur” upon Los Angeles (77). This epic dream of art and culture finally providing a center to a city without one dies hard in Los Angeles, as recently demonstrated by developer Eli Broad’s various proposals to remake Grand Avenue into a kind of a Champs-Élysées of the Southland.

In Schrank’s account, Ross’s vision of an art by the people and for the people comes up against the rise of a commercially oriented art scene catering to an elite taste for a facile Pop art that functioned similarly to the civic booster imagery of the early decades of the century. In chapter 4, entitled “Bohemia in Vogue,” Schrank considers the controversy surrounding the freewheeling lifestyle of the beatniks of Venice Beach and addresses the media interest that accompanied the rise of the Los Angeles art scene of the 1960s, particularly the artists associated with the Ferus Gallery. Here lies the genesis of much of Schrank’s project as she frames the overall themes of the book in her introduction by challenging the assumption that Los Angeles’s remarkable rise in status as an art center in the 1960s was due to its character as a “pop-culture-savvy metropolis”; she instead suggests that this shift is the result of the fact that “modern art ceased to function politically in the way it had in the city for decades” (8).

Comparing the work of Pop artists Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha, particularly their paintings of motorcycles and gas stations, to the socially critical art of Wallace Berman and Kienholz, Schrank claims that “the three-dimensional depth of Kienholz and Berman was obscured by pop’s caprices” in the mid-1960s (126). Such claims about the nature of the work of these artists would be strengthened by a more direct engagement with specific pieces and a demonstration that she had taken into account the scholarship on such major Los Angeles figures as Kienholz and Ruscha. Considering that there was much discussion of the Ferus artists in art periodicals of the period, it is surprising that she does not utilize contemporary criticism of their work. Given Schrank’s significant use of newspaper accounts in other sections of the book, it is especially surprising that she overlooks the County Board of Supervisors’ attempt to close Kienholz’s 1966 Los Angeles County Museum exhibition and the way that it played as front page news for weeks and lead to a bumper sticker campaign against one of the most conservative officials.

While Schrank does address publicity and media accounts of the gallery scene on La Cienega Boulevard in the 1960s, one way to better contextualize the shift in the role of art in Los Angeles in this period would be to analyze the development of a new public for the kind of work on view in the La Cienega galleries. An informed reception of this mode of artistic modernism in Los Angeles was cultivated by the increasingly important periodical Artforum and encouraged by the educational efforts of Ferus Gallery founder Walter Hopps and his wife at the time, art historian Shirley Nielsen, who went into the homes of wealthy philanthropists to give slide shows about modern art to the city’s uninitiated collecting class.

Art and the City does a great service, however, by situating the prominence of visual art in the current cultural landscape of Los Angeles within the long history of its centrality to the city’s civic identity. Schrank’s final chapter, on Rodia and his Watts Towers, is a perfect example of the way her approach situates the art produced in Los Angeles within the complex net of the social meanings of space, community, and politics. In 1921, when the Italian-born Rodia began constructing his fanciful towers of steel and concrete embedded with decorative pottery and glass, they may have represented his immigrant desire to make a mark on his adopted community, but through the 1960s and into the 1990s, they have stood as beacons for contentious debate about what it means to imagine community in the city of Los Angeles. Ultimately, Schrank’s focus on the cultural significance of art objects, artists, patrons, and art institutions within the historically specific and localized debates over real estate development, public housing, and racial and class identities is the book’s greatest advantage for an art-historical readership. My disciplinary criticisms aside, Art and the City provides a much-needed synthesis of the meaning of art and place in Los Angeles and serves as a reminder that civic identity is forged in the conflict between the rhetoric of power, the desire to belong, and the difficult realities of community-building.

Ken D. Allan
Associate Professor of Art History, Seattle University