Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 12, 2006
Cécile Whiting Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 268 pp.; 20 color ills.; 77 b/w ills. Cloth (0520244605)

As Cécile Whiting acknowledges in the introduction to her recent analysis of the relationship between Los Angeles and the art produced there, a copious literature already exists addressing both the city and its art world. That said, Whiting offers a fresh approach to the subject that illuminates how diverse artists helped redefine Los Angeles in the public imagination during the 1960s. Perhaps even more important is Whiting’s methodology, which promises a broad applicability well beyond its obvious relevance for those interested in West Coast Pop and the expanding field of the 1960s.

Whiting foregrounds the city of Los Angeles itself, rather than the careers of specific artists associated with West Coast Pop, a move suggested by the title of her book, Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s, which transposes the familiar phrase “L.A. Pop.” In interrogating a city described as “futuristic” during the period under investigation, Whiting sought models in recent studies of the responses of artists to the development of Paris, London, and New York during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This strategy works well, enabling Whiting to move smoothly between the physical environment of Los Angeles and the symbolic construction of the space by artists working there during a period of rapid change. Unlike the other cities listed above, however, the development of Los Angeles did not reflect a centralized controlling influence. Indeed the very “decenteredness” of Los Angeles piques Whiting’s interest and provides the template for this study. In its sprawling nature, Whiting locates the roots of the “postmodern” city, the very legibility of which is indebted to the interpretation of the Pop artists who worked there. Thus Whiting reverses the relationship typically sketched out between artist and urban environment: L.A. Pop artists do not simply reflect their neighborhoods, buildings, and scenic vistas; rather, they define their significance.

Whiting builds her thesis through a series of interlocking case studies. Their organization follows a geographical model, as she moves, conceptually, from a critique of the broad issue of nature versus culture played out on the outskirts of the city, to an examination of its public thoroughfares and its private homes, and finally to a study of specific artworks created within the city. In each instance, Whiting identifies the work of appropriate Los Angeles-based artists to examine these themes. Her first chapter explores the breakdown of what might be described as a “West Coast sublime” cultivated by photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. In so doing, Whiting argues that during the mid-twentieth century, southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, came to be defined in opposition to the more seemingly “natural” setting of northern California. Whiting uses the painting of Llyn Foulkes, largely based on the appropriation of photographic tropes, to demonstrate the transition of landscape from “an awe-inspiring site” to “a reproducible sign for nature” interchangeable with other signs of culture (30). The work of Vija Celmins is presented as an alternative response to the dilemma of landscape as cliché. Celmins resists easy identification with the sublime as trope by stripping depictions of sea and sky of any recognizable geographic associations, and simultaneously shifts emphasis from image to process.

Whiting’s next case study addresses the rise of a regional Pop style—exemplified by the art of Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Bruce Conner, Judy Chicago, Edward Kienholz, and other Ferus Gallery artists—based on the exploitation of stereotypes of southern California life: girls, surf, and, especially, cars. By focusing on Ruscha, Whiting reexamines the traditional claims and conventions of western landscape painting, describing Ruscha’s moves away from the natural to the man-made environment. Ruscha recasts not only the imagery, but also the presentation of Los Angeles. “His paintings and photographic books . . . define a new urban aesthetic,” Whiting concludes (105).

From the public spaces of Ruscha, Whiting moves to a discussion of the private settings exemplified by David Hockney, who focused particularly on the enclosed, pool-laden backyards of Los Angeles. Yet while clearly conforming his vision to the erotic model found in issues of Physical Culture, a magazine that courted a gay audience, Hockney still claimed that in “Los Angeles I actually began to paint the city round me” (133). By negotiating the interplay between fantasy and reality engaged by the abstraction and vivid color of Hockney’s canvases, Whiting attends to the physical construction of Hockney’s representations of the city. In so doing, she draws out the larger parallel between his attention to the development of artistic surfaces and the visual veneers of the city itself, a concern also reflected in the work of Ruscha, Foulkes, and Celmins.

Whiting’s final two chapters break with the first half of the book, as she moves away from Pop art providing pictorial descriptions of Los Angeles to address sculpture, performance, and art installations located in historically marginalized neighborhoods. Through their very presence, these artworks gave new visibility to these frequently overlooked areas. Whiting’s attention to changing perceptions of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers functions as a microcosm for shifting readings of Los Angeles itself. As Whiting recounts, the towers went from being cast as an example of untutored folk art to the epitome (and origin) of assemblage in L.A., thus validating the city’s cultural aspirations.

Whiting’s final case study examines the role of happenings and performance art in Los Angeles during the 1960s. She opens her discussion with Claes Oldenburg’s Autobodies (1963) and Allan Kaprow’s Fluids (1967), and describes how each performance playfully highlighted and orchestrated new patterns of movement and development within the urban environment. Oldenburg emphasized the defining presence of cars, while Kaprow drew attention to new construction in the city with his creation of multiple melting ice structures. However, the chapter’s main thrust is Womanhouse (1972), an installation overseen by Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago. Noting that the initial collaboration on Womanhouse occurred the same year Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies (London: Penguin, 1971) appeared, Whiting asserts that the installation signaled “the opening of a crack in the edifice of urban theory about Los Angeles just as it began to consolidate itself” (192). By situating Womanhouse in an abandoned house in a neglected Los Angeles neighborhood, Schapiro, Chicago, and their students exposed aspects of the city—and society at large—that had not yet been acknowledged, rejecting (patriarchal) stereotypes and dictates about what (and who) should be seen and heard.

Through her case studies, Whiting both addresses how art defined place and considers many aspects of L.A. Pop: appropriation, the exploitation of clichés, queerness, performance, feminism, and even outsider art. However, what reads as an attempt to be comprehensive in its approach has the drawback of making omissions stand out. One surprising gap in Whiting’s study is the lack of sustained attention to art making use of new media. While her discussion of Oldenberg’s Autobodies alludes to the artist’s use of plastics, little is said of this dimension of art in the Los Angeles basin. The work of Robert Irwin and Larry Bell, for example, appears only glancingly in this account of L.A. Pop, though arguably these artists sought to redefine notions of space and frequently made use of “futuristic” materials often associated with the economy and high technology infrastructure of Los Angles.

A seminal text in the development of “postmodern” urban theory, Banham’s Los Angeles: Architecture of the Four Ecologies functions for Whiting much as a Rosetta stone against which evolving interpretations of the “meaning” of Los Angeles are read. Thus for Whiting, who takes seriously Banham’s use of art to describe the urban landscape peculiar to Los Angeles, Hockney, Ruscha, and Rodia become critical players in the redefinition of the city of Los Angeles as a Pop city. A nod to the centrality of Banham’s text for Whiting can even be glimpsed in the book’s cover, which features David Hockney’s California, much as Banham’s book featured Hockney’s Splash.

But if Banham—and Hockney—brought the sensibility of British (i.e., non-native) eyes to their analysis of the city of Los Angeles, Whiting brings the advantage of familiarity. A resident of Los Angeles for twelve years and well versed in the history of Pop art, Whiting is capable of extracting nuance from a place and a body of work she has carefully observed. With Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s, Whiting succeeds in redefining the relationship between art and landscape, successfully arguing that art need not only represent landscape to influence perceptions of its significance, but can also shape it through direct physical intervention. If Banham chose examples of recent work through which to read and synthesize a city that did not fit “modern” models of urban development exemplified by cities such as Paris, London, and New York, Whiting in turn creates an interpretive lens for examining the active role that artists can play in shaping perceptions of the space they occupy. Thus the meaning of “landscape art” is vastly proliferated, and the relationship between architecture and visual arts recast. Whiting’s book creates a new model for rethinking the role of art in urban and suburban environments. It is a welcome contribution to studies of Pop art, landscape art, and urban studies.

Anne Collins Goodyear
Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art