Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2012
Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980
October 2011–March 2012
College Art Association, 2012.
Thumbnail
Large
Pacific Standard Time—Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950–1970. Installation view. J. Paul Getty Museum. Photo: © 2011 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Plagued by migraines and seemingly allergic to the sun-dappled environs in which she spent so many of her years, Joan Didion nonetheless wrote into being a host of characters that participated in a dissolute Golden State fantasy. Her stories from the 1960s evoke the siren cupidity of a nostalgic, decidedly prelapsarian California, even as they admit an illusion fraying at the seams. That her essays from the other side of the long decade comprise such topics as Malibu fires, Jerry Brown, and Sharon Tate might not surprise. Still, her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From (New York: Vintage), tenders a corrective accounting: In Didion’s telling, California is less the bounty bequeathed by Manifest Destiny than an emblem of its inherent rakishness. In parts, her critique—of our failing penal system and the political corruption that finances it, for example, or even her antipathy for the affectations of the idle rich—easily swells to indict the whole of the country for its involvement in the mass delusion that was the American Dream; but its native target persists.

Didion militates against any impulse toward collective amnesia, putting the matter as follows: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California, we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it” (71). If California wipes away its history—by earthquake or mudslide, narcotics or psychosis—what does it mean to insist upon retrieving it? This is Didion’s primary consideration in Where I Was From. Posed in less—or differently—sensational terms, it is also the site-specific mandate for Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980 (http://www.pacificstandardtime.org/), a necessarily unprecedented initiative to register the arts (art, architecture, and design all figure prominently) in Southern California over these momentous years.

Radiating out of Los Angeles—itself too long denigrated as the “Second City” to cosmopolitan art-capital New York in long-stale narratives—the project sprawled from San Diego to Santa Barbara, Santa Monica to Palm Springs. Spearheaded by the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute, Pacific Standard Time represents an undertaking on a scale vaster than might have been imagined possible, or deemed practically advisable by any metric. Indeed, a Pacific Standard Time press release details the enterprise by the numbers, listing 82 museum, curatorial, and programming partners; 68 major museum exhibitions; more than 70 art galleries featuring more than 125 exhibitions; and more than 1,300 artists. The first shows commenced in October 2011—alongside Art Platform–Los Angeles, a modern and contemporary art fair, and its satellite happenings—and ran in various iterations over the course of six months, punctuated by such signal projects as the LAXART co-organized Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival, held in late January. Curiously, much of the last round of Pacific Standard Time closed just shy of the College Art Association’s annual conference, held in Los Angeles in February of 2012, a missed opportunity. Although it is not officially part of Pacific Standard Time, the Los Angeles biennial, Made in L.A. 2012, organized by the Hammer Museum in collaboration with LAXART and opened in July of 2012, continued the Angeleno momentum apace.

As might be expected in the case of a logistical behemoth, Pacific Standard Time was a long time coming. Deborah Marrow explains in the flagship publication attending the Getty’s own eponymous survey: “The seeds of the initiative were planted a decade ago by the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute when we first started to realize that Los Angeles was in danger of losing the historical record of its art. We began with the fairly modest ambition of identifying and preserving the archives that document the milestones of contemporary art in the postwar period in our region. We wound up with the most comprehensive and public collaboration by cultural organizations in Southern California, or perhaps anywhere, and one that is now itself a creative landmark” (Deborah Marrow, Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945–1980, Rebecca Peabody, Andrew Perchuk, Glenn Phillips, and Rani Singh, eds., Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute and J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011, xvii). To be sure, much of the rhetoric attending the monumental effort, whether in the exhibitions or the related publications, events, and web resources, is decidedly and unselfconsciously boosterish, whether about the content of the specific item (commonly: the recovery of x!) or the larger, “creative” project framing it.

This despite the work done in the years since, and even before, the Getty got underway, the successes and criticisms of which no doubt proved instructional. To cite just one case, Sunshine & Noir: Art in L.A. 1960–1997 premiered at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art before making its way to the Hammer in 1998; en route, it was panned for its exclusion of artists of color and women artists and its downplaying of the Light & Space movement—charges anathema to Pacific Standard Time. There are many other noteworthy precedents besides, with 2000’s sesquicentennial blockbuster Made in California at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art remaining markedly significant in its polyglot assemblages of high and low cultural artifacts. Yet so, too, in various ways: The Los Angeles School at Otis College of Art and Design in 2004; Los Angeles 1955–1985: Birth of an Art Capital at the Pompidou Center in 2006; SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s at the Los Angeles County Museum in 2007; Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury at the Orange County Museum in 2007; and Time & Place: Los Angeles 1958–1968 at the Moderna Museet in 2008. Though maybe the relative invisibility of all of this goes straight to the Getty’s point.

A critique at the level of promotion, my objection to the congratulatory as leveraged on a foundation of absolute primacy is hardly a damning contestation; given a decade’s worth of research, and at the level of excellence evidenced here across so many curatorial mandates and books, how could those involved so intimately not convey their enthusiasm for the under-recognized production of the artists whose labors their own was intended to exhume? (Of course, there also were plenty of stalwarts in evidence, whether Charles and Ray Eames or Ed Ruscha, and due attention was paid to star architects [Sam Maloof], gallerists [Helene Winer], and collections [Frederick R. Weisman].) The strongest argument for Pacific Standard Time rests in the art that occasioned it anyhow, meaning that if Pacific Standard Time succeeds, it will have naturalized the consequence of its offerings and obviated its primary justifications for them. Then this language, alongside all else, will provide fodder for the inevitable groundswell of subsequent scholarship, the tenor of which might well hinge on a before-and-after “PST” chronology. Lest this read as too historicist, and bearing in mind the above caveat, Pacific Standard Time betokens a very real consideration of what work will be done in its stead: what subjects will become dissertations, which artists the recipients of other venues—matters for another time.

Immediately at stake in Pacific Standard Time is the representation of art in Los Angeles across the years the initiative spans, or, more faithfully, the delirious lack of coherence thereof. Heterogeneity ruled, and with it, the cognitive dissonance achieved via the productive slippage between simultaneous styles, mediums, and references. “One era. A million points of impact,” the Pacific Standard Time slogan reads, as though admitting that the quasi-infinity of the platform is far from exhausted by the commendable range of present contributions. Some shows hewed to a monographic model, while many more traced diachronic themes or attempted to wrest from their materials a coherent sketch of a synchronic field. In so doing, individual efforts responded to the Getty’s charge in wildly unlike ways. Some notable figures were marooned: Where was gallery doyenne Virginia Dwan, or Nick Wilder, or even Ferus? (And what about Los Angeles native John Cage, absent apart from a brief presentation at the Welcome Inn Time Machine?) Others were left to be reconciled amid the divergent curatorial sympathies and other exigencies garnered by their presence in multiple locales (e.g., John Outterbridge received monographic format at LAXART and visible placement in Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 at the Hammer, while Asco was, after so many years of institutional neglect, ubiquitous).

Any review of Pacific Standard Time is thus stuck between the proverbial forest and the trees. (One game Los Angeles Times reviewer, Sharon Mizota, set out to see if not chronicle all exhibitions in a segment, “PST, A-Z” [archived at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/pst-scene/].) Here, I take heed to the broad schedule, leaving the discussion of individual shows to others. All the same, there are notable trends: the prominence of Chicano activism (Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation at the Autry National Center; Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Icons of the Invisible: Oscar Castillo and Mapping Another L.A.: The Chicano Art Movement at UCLA’s Fowler Museum); the import of feminism (She Accepts the Proposition: Women Gallerists and the Redefinition of Art in Los Angeles, 1967–1978 at the Crossroads School; The Radicalization of a ‘50s Housewife: A Solo Project by Barbara T. Smith at the University of California, Irvine; and Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building at Otis College of Art and Design); the preponderance of ceramics (Beatrice Wood: Career Woman—Drawings, Paintings, Vessels, and Objects at the Santa Monica Museum of Art; Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945–1975 at the American Museum of Ceramic Art; and Golden State of Craft: California 1960–1985 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum); the role of architecture and design (California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; San Diego’s Craft Revolution—From Post-War Modern to California Design at the Mingei International Museum; and Eames Designs: The Guest-Host Relationship at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum); the dominance of oft-political conceptual or anti-iconic work (State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 at the Orange County Museum of Art; Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler at Los Angeles Nomadic Division; and Everyman’s Infinite Art at Chapman University); and the centrality of pedagogy (the multi-part It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles at Pomona College Museum of Art; The Experimental Impulse at California Institute of the Arts/REDCAT; and Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964–1971 at the Laguna Art Museum).

Which is also to raise the issue of whether Pacific Standard Time, in aggregate, tells a story of place—Los Angeles, Southern California, California—or the people who live there, or a story at all. (By contrast, Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, a gorgeously executed swan song for the sublime that filled the three Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego buildings in La Jolla and downtown San Diego forewent the embedded temporality registered by a sequence of events for the dilating timelessness of perceptual experience.) The city elsewhere emerges as protagonist and studio and other formulations beside—none of which are equivalent, nor pretend to be. Even the directive “to tell the story of the rise of the Los Angeles art scene and how it became a new force in the art world,” to cite the Pacific Standard Time-generated press once more, was less focal animation than boilerplate, there, at best, to be implicitly validated by the quality of the art. Forthright in its pluralism, both articulated ambition and pragmatic upshot of so many participants, Pacific Standard Time in so many ways undercuts its own camera ready drive-to-plot.

If there was a dominant, or at least recurring, storyline, it involved the appropriately regional take on coming to consciousness, frequently achieved through identity to political agency or formal apotheosis become success on other grounds. (The open-plan Barbie house in California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” is remarkable in this vein and could well serve as a talisman for the stakes of this “new force in the art world” in addition to the ever-extensible mass culture in which it floats.) Celebration of a kind, it reminds audiences that this strain of commemoration is concerned with influence, reach, or the aforementioned keyword “impact.” And it presumes the positive valences of this would-be mechanism for distribution on the grounds of the rectitude of its exportable product—made in California! good design! right-thinking!—at least in the majority of instances.

Yet, what I saw over the many months seemed to eschew the hackneyed aspirational telos to the good life of shiny cars and Hollywood starlets. To wit: the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles, in which the crime-scene denizen trained his lens on the unseemly cult of fandom. Or Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud 1969–1972, Revisited, on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where it was installed for the first time since 1972, when it was shown at Documenta 5 in Germany for the first and only time). A haunting, life-size tableau of a black man’s castration by a gang of six white men at the center of pickup trucks whose floodlights bring the offense into visibility, it asserts the brutal inhumanity at the core of this period. Most damning of all though was the Herculean effort Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, what with its five hundred art objects bookended by the resignation of Richard M. Nixon (whose speech was entombed in a vitrine, from which the galleries unfurled) and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. It soberly meditated on the dismantling of U.S. civil society as the state’s actual cargo.

As for the overall program, other banal questions linger. Given the magnitude of Pacific Standard Time, it perplexes that so few of the shows are travelling from their initial venues: Orange County’s State of Mind was already at the Berkeley Art Museum, and Now Dig This, from the Hammer, arrives in New York, at PS1, later in 2012, while the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton opportunistically mounted EST–3: Southern California in New York, Los Angeles Art from the Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection this past summer. The argument for Pacific Standard Time as a boon for Los Angeles, the motor for a kind of art-tourism now familiar from Bilbao to Guangzhou, need not preclude attempts to reach other publics.

By that token, one wonders: Who was the audience for Pacific Standard Time? Locals sold on the omnipresent banners and celebrity-heavy media? Cognoscenti? Travelers delivered by circumstance? Insiders there by design? If a sizable fraction of people were coming from the Bay Area, or the East Coast, or Europe, or wherever else, why not keep shows up longer? Can even the most zealous (and solvent) of enthusiasts be expected to make multiple trips in rapid succession? Conversely, what good can come from the speed-dating-like approach of cursorily viewing a dozen things in a weekend, especially when galleries got in on the act, proliferating the number of places worth visiting? (Notable mention should be made for the New York Times’s Roberta Smith, who detailed her jammed schedule in terra incognita over the course of a brief stay.) The archive, the catalogues, the technological applications, and such, are an equally valuable expression of Pacific Standard Time, and this documentation will function in the afterlife to fill in the gaps of memory or negligence or missed opportunity, while begging extra queries. Meantime, other players will do the same; the summer leading up to Pacific Standard Time saw Venice in Venice at the 54th International Venice Biennale, and during the run of Pacific Standard Time, artists including Mary Corse, Doug Wheeler, and Marcia Hafif had gallery shows in New York.

Finally, bracketing out Los Angeles—if such a thing is possible, a reservation, still—Pacific Standard Time emerges as a potentially transferable model of a conceptual and politically freighted critical regionalism. Its insistence on the possibilities born of the intense scrutiny a thing, more precisely a city and its art situation, clarified in the circumscriptions of time and place and encountered at close range should find other viable subjects. Predicated upon one’s locatedness, Pacific Standard Time asks what happens when one takes seriously an engagement with one’s proximate world as the enabling precondition of research and social engagement. It proposes a notion of an art-historical method that takes as its basis not the elsewhere of a far-flung biennial or exhibition, but the specificity of home terrain, even if—or exactly because—in the process of which it becomes one of these sites. Recompense to the sprawling abstraction of the global, Pacific Standard Time offers a timely interrogation of the geographic, institutional, and theoretical claims that animate much recent scholarship, curation, and art production. Broadly conceived, it might just suggest alternative ways of working in the expanded place and time of the contemporary.

Suzanne Hudson
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Southern California

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.