Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 9, 2016
From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, March 21, 2015–October 25, 2015
From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971. Installation view. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Photo © 2015 Museum Associates/LACMA.

Nestled in a small gallery in the Ahmanson Building of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and timed to coincide with the museum’s fiftieth anniversary, From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971 offers viewers new insights into one of the institution’s most legendary curatorial endeavors. Organized by Associate Curator Jennifer King, From the Archives draws from various institutional holdings in order to reflect on how, by linking the visual arts to an expansive nexus of economic and political concern (the aerospace companies, movie studios, and industrial conglomerates that powered the greater Los Angeles region during the postwar period), the museum itself emerged as a similarly formidable cultural resource, an institution whose own board structures, creative visions, and programmatic mandates carried something of what might be best termed a corporate impulse. Containing approximately forty photographs, a handful of prints and artist’s books, and a smattering of typewritten proposals and sketches by twelve artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Channa Horowitz, the exhibition is modest in scale, even purposefully unspectacular. In an era where rain rooms, twenty-four hour movies, and dazzling light environments increasingly drive museum attendance, From the Archives should be praised for its understatement and for its attempts to more accurately historicize what was arguably LACMA’s first blockbuster: A&T, or as it is more formally known, The Art & Technology Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, produced by the museum between 1967 and 1971.

Conceived in 1966 and first proposed to LACMA’s Board of Trustees in November 1967, A&T was the creation of Curator and Director of Modern Art Maurice Tuchman, who envisioned the museum as a kind of bureaucratic matchmaker, pairing leading artists with innovative corporations including IBM, General Electric, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Artists would labor alongside scientists and technicians, benefit from access to otherwise-unavailable materials—Mylar, lasers, or molten steel—and in so doing, produce artworks of unexpected beauty and technical complexity. A&T was announced in October of 1968, with major fanfare and widespread media coverage of significant project buy-in (e.g., Kaiser Steel, Disney, and Hewlett-Packard). However, Tuchman’s vision of corporations benefitting from “exposure to creative personalities,” among them Warhol, Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and Tony Smith, was quickly revised. Corporate management reduced in scope or simply terminated many projects. The open-ended, experimental nature of many of the ideas (“light floating in space,” “invisible art by radio waves,” or vaguely defined “environmental systems” rank among the many rejected proposals) were frequently perceived by these parties as whimsical and unserious, as well as financially or technologically untenable.

Over and above these bureaucratic constraints loomed the unsettlingly direct connections linking some of A&T’s most prominent partners, such as RAND and Lockheed, to the increasingly dire situation in Vietnam. By the time the exhibition opened in May of 1971, only sixteen collaborations had resulted in the production of a tangible work of art; the show’s opening—a clattering spectacle of fog machines, laser shows, and bubbling mud pools—was accompanied by protests over the exclusion of female artists; that October, as A&T came to a close, Artforum published two largely negative reviews of the exhibition by Jack Burnham and Max Kozloff, whose treatments of the show ranged from critical to scathing outrage. (Their respective titles, “Corporate Art” and “The Multimillion Dollar Art Boondoggle,” speak volumes.) In short, the cheery 1960s optimism surrounding technology and its presumed utility for artistic expression had dramatically withered over the course of just a few years.

In a statement accompanying Five Plates, Two Poles (1971)—a large hot-rolled steel sculpture the artist produced in collaboration with the Kaiser Steel Corporation—A&T artist Serra observed, “Technology is a form of tool making. . . . Technology is not art—not invention. It is a simultaneous hope and hoax. It does not concern itself with the undefined, the inexplicable: it deals with the affirmation of its own making. Technology is what we do to the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese under the guise of advancement in a materialistic theology.” Visitors to From the Archives may read Serra’s originally typed statement, displayed alongside several recently uncovered photographs of the artist working in Kaiser’s “Skullcracker” scrapyard with employees who operate a magnetic crane, stacking and balancing hulking pieces of steel. “It was basically a studio situation,” Serra notes in a text reproduced on the gallery wall, “which happened to be in a steelyard.” In the space of just a few feet, one encounters the following: newly uncovered photographic evidence of Serra realizing an early and critically acclaimed sculptural work; the artist’s enthusiasm at working alongside skilled laborers who helped realize the monumental sculpture; his carefully worded statement; a structural document describing the score-like composition of the “Skullcracker” series; and finally, an explicit critique of the ostensible theme of Tuchman’s exhibition, supplemented with a handwritten note at the bottom of the page: “This text should be used in total or NOT AT ALL. It should not be edited or used in part. OR SUMMARIZED.”

The current exhibition succeeds largely because of such dense juxtaposition—a weaving of lush photographic documentation and exacting detail with the narratives of criticism and controversy that have accompanied A&T since its inception. Given that From the Archives is produced by the Director’s Office, and further augmented through a series of public lectures, screenings, and related articles (published in “Unframed,” an online resource supported in part by the museum’s Director’s Circle), the current show is a bit of self-narration. Indeed, the exhibition text featured in From the Archives links the original program to large-scale contemporary artworks installed elsewhere on LACMA’s campus. Rescued from its purported failures, A&T now claims “the complex production and fabrication techniques” of Chris Burden and James Turrell as the true inheritance of its success.

But one could assemble different evidence when arguing for the contested legacy of A&T. The striking disparities between such large artworks and the compact nature of the current reexamination prompt thinking about a very different exhibition, one that instead of reviewing archival materials would gather and restore (at great expense) the original A&T artworks for a truly spectacular affair. Instead of recreating A&T, LACMA looked into its archives in order to look forward, repeatedly drawing parallels between the historical project and its current Art + Technology Lab initiatives—a quasi-reboot of the original program, where the ubiquitous logos of IBM and RAND are replaced by those of Hyundai, Accenture, Google, and SpaceX. In this way, From the Archives functions not only as an examination of the museum’s earliest efforts to facilitate and display works of art that posit a relationship to techne, but also as a potentially instructive lesson for those who continue to explore these questions in the current moment. Squaring these many institutional imperatives with the demands of a meaningful curatorial practice is no easy task, and the curator should be commended for her meticulous research and careful display.

As King describes her process in a related “Unframed” blog post, this “curatorial scavenger hunt” has involved several years of exhaustive research, one prompted in part by her discovery that LACMA’s institutional archives, housed within the museum’s Balch Art Research Library, contain a limited set of documents, photocopies, and unlabeled slides. To compensate for this lack, King spent hours in conversation with Tuchman—whose own papers were recently acquired by the Getty Research Institute—and filled in crucial gaps elsewhere. On this point, her inclusion of Malcolm Lubliner’s contact sheets and photographs of A&T is particularly worthy of praise. If there is one thing to be gleaned from this body of work, it is that Lubliner—who served as the official photographer at the Los Angeles-based Gemini G.E.L. studios from the 1960s and 1970s—has played a central role in mediating how A&T has been retroactively viewed: when presented with few resulting artworks and a relative paucity of archival information, researchers must turn to these images to reconstruct a sense of the exhibition. But the contact sheets and working prints on view suggest that more than simply recording A&T, Lubliner often played a creative role in framing its processes and machinations.

Another unexpected pleasure is a long-forgotten, twenty-six minute 35 mm film made in 1971 by Oldenburg, Possibly a Special on the Bag. Rediscovered and newly restored in 2015 for the current exhibition, it provides unique documentation of the artist’s collaboration with Krofft Enterprises and Gemini G.E.L. to produce Giant Ice Bag, an enormous “salmon-pink” vinyl ice bag powered by a complex internal pneumatic device. (In a brilliant segment, Oldenburg—who appears throughout the film in a stunning monochromatic red jumpsuit, perfectly rhyming with his contraption—engages in yoga-like stretching poses to imitate the undulating action of the pneumatic device, then dons an eerie rubber glove and manipulates a series of objects whose color, form, or other physical properties rhyme with the bag.) Illustrated in a lithographic print hanging elsewhere in the gallery, the colossus was one of the few A&T artworks to be successfully fabricated and presented. Its form also came to stand in as a perfect metaphor for the frustrations and setbacks that accompanied both its production and the broader A&T enterprise—“a monumental headache,” in the words of Pamela Lee (Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960’s, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004, 11).

Serra’s contradictory statements and Oldenburg’s deadpan humor have aged well. Other A&T projects—such as Rockne Krebs’s laser projections and Warhol’s artificial rain machines/lenticular daisy prints—come across as honky-tonk gadgetry, hopelessly outmoded at the time of their creation. In this way, From the Archives accomplishes the admirable task of furthering the museum’s self-historicization, presenting winners and losers from the earlier project, warts and all, which likewise reinforces the museum’s recent release of a free, digitized version of Tuchman’s A Report on the Art & Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967–1971, published by Viking Press in 1971. (Tuchman’s brilliant and exhaustive postmortem on the project has often come to stand in for the exhibition itself, a phenomenon owing in no small part to the underwhelming material results of the actual exhibition; accordingly, a digital copy of the Report is also included in the current exhibition, made available as a browsable document on a screen device.)

Ultimately, From the Archives amounts to a partial reconstitution of an exhibition that, despite its purportedly limited impact and extremely controversial reception, continues to inflect the ways the museum understands its role as a steward of art and technology. Now in its second year of funding and operation, LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab—an initiative “inspired by the spirit” of the original program—supports applicants whose projects “explore artistic applications of emerging technologies.” Contrasting Tuchman’s speculative approach to collaboration, the reboot seems more scripted. Art + Technology Lab has partnered closely with corporate advisors from Accenture, Google, and Nvidia, who now help to select artists who work with digital art, new media, and design, and who discuss their work in relation to interactive networks, data visualization, and EEG-driven software. A&T’s romantic vision—the unexpected creative force of the playful artist, deployed to the sunny, modernist think-tank or sprawling industrial campus—once promised, in Tuchman’s own words, “fresh artistic ideas.” Such phrases curiously anticipate the current moment, when trending terms such as “innovation” and “disruption” are routinely employed in the rhetoric surrounding arts management, education, and the “campuses” where such innovation is understood to happen. But in its former usage, Art & Technology revealed technology to be less a collection of gadgets and materials than a process: a set of operational forces whose administrative logic—an aesthetic unto itself—ultimately displaced the artworks. Hopefully, From the Archives will prompt further reflection on contemporary digital technologies, whose globally networked forces demand close scrutiny, and whose dazzling, innovative logic requires a critical, rigorous, and ever-reflexive aesthetic response.

James Merle Thomas
Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Humanities, Department of Art History, University of Southern California