ART NOVEMBER 23, 2011
Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980
An Initiative of The Getty Foundation
The bohemian luxe of a big white room full of Beatrice Wood’s ceramics, with dozens of fantastically shaped bowls, teapots, and chalices clothed in shimmering metallic glazes, is one of the capital impressions from “Pacific Standard Time,” an extravaganza involving exhibitions at more than sixty southern Californian cultural institutions. Spearheaded and in significant part funded by the Getty Foundation to foster the exploration of developments in the arts in the Los Angeles region in the mid-twentieth century, the events will stretch well into 2012, extend from San Diego up to Santa Barbara, and involve major institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), as well as smaller operations, including the Santa Monica Museum of Art, which mounted the Wood retrospective. The organizers of “Pacific Standard Time” have seen to it that their sleek logo—a sunburst that doubles as a 1950s-style clock face without numerals or hands—is nearly ubiquitous around Los Angeles. People are visiting not only the shows at the big museums, but also many more modest exhibitions, where unexpected treasures and significant surprises are frequently to be found. The more of “Pacific Standard Time” you see, the more powerful it becomes. If you can penetrate the marketing blizzard, you will find yourself face to face with some fabulous L.A. stories.
“Pacific Standard Time,” which aims to chronicle the rise of the Los Angeles art scene and its growing significance on the national and international stage, is sharpest in its smaller exhibitions, which often focus on singular figures or relatively contained themes or groups of artists. Where the project tends to blur is in its biggest and most unabashedly ambitious manifestations. The kingpin events—at the Getty, MOCA, and LACMA—push hard to achieve a magisterial, encyclopedic impact. The curators are obviously under considerable pressure to identify some attitude or impulse that is especially characteristic of Southern California. And these shows crack under the pressure, so that a museumgoer is left with too much heterogeneity, a grab-bag of impressions, difficult to navigate and impossible to hold in the mind’s eye.
There is one exception among the larger shows, at the Hammer Museum, where “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” presents artists in depth, so that we begin to feel what is ardent and perfervid in Melvin Edwards’s view of welded metal sculpture or in Betye Saar’s interpretation of the assemblage tradition. It is in the smaller shows, where L.A. art is put under the microscope, that individuals and even individual works really come through: the punk-noir Pre-Raphaelitism of a film by Wallace Berman at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena; the silken craftsmanship in Sam Maloof’s wood furniture at the Huntington Library; the exacting, searching imagination of the pioneering architectural historian Esther McCoy at the Schindler House. The more modest scale of some of these events also has the effect of getting us back to the sense of people who were marching to their own drummers—and that is key to the diverse, idiosyncratic, even eccentric temper of Southern California culture in those mid-century years.
The self-promotional spirit of “Pacific Standard Time” may suggest some over-compensation on the part of Angelenos for what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as a bum rap that they have heretofore received from the cultural powers that be. Dave Hickey, although a fan of some of the art that came out of Los Angeles at the time, has dismissed “Pacific Standard Time” as “corny,” and said that “it is ‘50s boosterish, and I would argue largely unnecessary.” His point, if I understand it correctly, is that the anxiety about inferiority is superfluous, that Los Angeles has already arrived. But even if that is so, I think we ought to welcome the deep, intricate, and integrated historical and artistic understanding that the Getty initiative means to provoke.
Of course the confounding thing about studying art in a particular time and place is that the deeper one digs into the relationship between art and social (and even geographical) factors, the less clear the connections become. Nobody needs a curator or a critic to explain why David Hockney’s paintings of swimming pools—one of which is included in the Getty show—are pure Los Angeles product. The more difficult question is whether there is anything in the structure or the style of Hockney’s work, as opposed to its subject, that marks the work as an expression of Southern California. I’m not so sure. Los Angeles artists are often said to have had in the 1960s a “finish fetish” that reflected a culture besotted with the shimmering surfaces of sports cars, motorcycles, and surfboards. Maybe so—but what are we to make of the fact that back east, at more or less the same time, Donald Judd was enjoying his own finish fetish, incorporating sleek enamel or lacquer surfaces and Plexiglas panels?
Marcel Duchamp called Los Angeles “a white spot in a gloomy world.” He knew the city from visits with his patron, Walter Arensberg. And in 1963 it was the Pasadena Art Museum—now the Norton Simon—that mounted the Duchamp retrospective that signaled a sea change in his reputation, from artist’s artist and idiosyncratic outsider to twentieth-century titan. There is some truth in the old Frenchman’s enigmatic summary of the L.A. spirit. On a gorgeous sunny afternoon in Los Angeles the rest of the world can seem gloomy indeed. We certainly are attracted to that “white spot” that is L.A. We want to see deep into it. But as Duchamp, that diabolical critic of retinal experience knew all too well, when you fix your gaze on a “white spot” you may find it difficult to see.
LET US CLEAR AWAY some misconceptions. There is a perfectly understandable desire on the part of some of the organizers of “Pacific Standard Time” and its diverse events to view Los Angeles as the anti-New York. This leads to some fairly drastic distortions, not only of the nature of art in mid-century Manhattan but also of the nature of modern art in general. There is a tendency to present a story line in which New York is the mythical kingdom where orthodox modernism rules and the Angelenos are the insurgents, the revolutionaries dedicated to a free-spirited postmodernism. In the big book published by the Getty Center, Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980, we are informed that “the inability to adequately describe work by L.A. artists is often the result of an almost unconscious internalization of the values of New York modernism.” And in the catalogue of the exhibition at MOCA, Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981, we are told that the show “addresses the dynamic period in American art when modernism, characterized by a master narrative of progress and succession, reached a dead end.” Paul Schimmel, the show’s curator, argues that “what cohered as postmodernism during the 1980s in New York effectively codified ideas and concepts evolving from art made in California between 1974 and 1981.”
Modernism, at least in the tale of two cities that “Pacific Standard Time” sometimes encourages, is an intellectual bummer, a philosophical rat maze designed by Clement Greenberg, in which painters and sculptors are forced to run around in circles as they produce art the only function of which is to “call attention to art,” as Greenberg put it in 1960. Perhaps intellectual authoritarianism has always had a particular appeal in New York. Then again, the West Coast has no corner on irreverence, and the case can be made that New York artists are, or once were, the most irreverent of all. In any event, I cannot see that the proliferation of a variety of apparently unrelated styles is any more characteristic of art in Los Angeles than in New York. The argument that what might be called the messy modernism of collage and assemblage—as seen in the L.A. work of George Herms, Wallace Berman, Gordon Wagner, Edward Kienholz, and Betye Saar—is somehow an indigenous or uniquely L.A. phenomenon does not bear examination, if one knows anything about the tradition of collage and assemblage in New York, from Joseph Cornell to Robert Rauschenberg (in many cases probably precipitating the West Coast work). As for the urge that some artists felt in the early 1960s to move away from traditional definitions of painting and sculpture, this is very much a New York story, ranging from the Happenings pioneered by Allan Kaprow to the idiosyncratic forms that Donald Judd dubbed “specific objects,” which included his own elegantly carpentered boxes, and Claes Oldenburg’s oversized soft versions of ordinary objects, and the disquieting, armored orifices that Lee Bontecou concocted of canvas and wire.
Identity politics is given a new twist at “Pacific Standard Time,” with identity now said to be shaped by the city where one happens to live, with its freeway sprawl, far-flung neighborhoods, pop culture industry, and diverse ethnic and social strands. While there is some truth to this view, there is also the risk that identity will trump individualism. The problem with the two kingpin exhibitions at the Getty and MOCA, which are together designed to tell the story of the city’s artists from 1950 to 1981, is that the curators depend so much on the idea of an L.A. identity that the individual artists seem trapped—not in a modernist rat maze, but in a postmodern identity maze. Going through the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture: 1950-1970,” which was curated by Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, all I could do was pity museumgoers as they lurched from Billy Al Bengston’s trippy logo done in polyurethane and lacquer to Edward Kienholz’s nightmare Victoriana with rubber doll parts to the misted-over geometries of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. That these things are in the same show makes no sense at all. Over at the MOCA exhibition—mounted amid the rough-trade elegance of the reclaimed industrial space that is the Geffen Contemporary—visitors to “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981” had every right once again to feel confounded. If you are wondering why the show, organized by Paul Schimmel, goes from 1974 to 1981, the answer is political: it seeks to span the years from Nixon’s resignation to Reagan’s inauguration, with still and filmed images of the events of those six years playing on screens strategically placed in the show. While it is true that Nixon and Reagan came from Southern California, I cannot see how American politics in those years had a more urgent impact on Los Angeles artists than on artists in New York or Chicago.
There are some overlaps between the Getty and the MOCA shows, which was to be expected. How could either exhibition have done without Ed Ruscha? This man with the easy good looks of a supporting actor almost single-handedly invented the image of the L.A. artist as Mr. Cool. In Artforum in 1967—the magazine originated in San Francisco—he ran an advertisement with the words “Ed Rushca Says Goodbye to College Joy” floating over a photograph of Ed himself asleep in a big comfy bed, sandwiched between two equally good-looking gals. His photo books—such as Every Building on the Sunset Strip, which is exactly that—are belligerently laconic. And his poker-faced paintings—of the Hollywood sign seen backward against a kitschy sunset or of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with smoke and flames emerging from one of its banal 1960s buildings—suggest the analytical chill of architectural renderings or models, only with an absurdist edge. I wish I could embrace Ruscha’s sneaky conceits, but I am uneasy about the hipster pride that he brings to his virtuoso nihilism.
There is often a hardness about Southern California hedonism. I can think of only one instance in the “Pacific Standard Time” shows where that hardness is poetically convincing: Vija Celmins’s To Fix the Image in Memory, at MOCA. The twenty-two elements in this work consist of eleven small rocks, the sort one picks up while traipsing on the beach or in the desert and puts in one’s pocket, and eleven bronze replicas of those rocks, each meticulously painted so as to perfectly mimic the real thing. On the face of it this is little more than a Dadaist trick, but the elegance of the execution gives Celmins’s conundrums a slow-motion metaphysical power. Amid the jangling relevancies of the MOCA survey, I found myself returning time and again to Celmins’s intricate, eloquent irrelevancies.
THE PEOPLE INVOLVED with “Pacific Standard Time” sometimes seem more interested in telling stories about the lives of artists and their friends than in the experience of art itself. In part this reflects the orientation of the Getty Foundation, which may imagine that its celebration of the hurly-burly of artistic life in mid-century L.A. will appeal to a hometown audience with a limited appetite for the Getty’s embrace of the European high art traditions. There is also a complex synergy between the interests of scholars, who by their very nature value the documentation of artists’ lives, and the evolving character of creative activity in mid-century L.A., where the ephemeral or at least unconventional nature of some of the new work meant that documentation became paramount. In “Pacific Standard Time” and its myriad publications, there is a fascination—sometimes a fixation—with posters, invitations, photographs, and ephemera of all kinds. I am an admirer of much of this material, and regret having left Los Angeles too early to see “Announce,” an exhibition at the Thomas Solomon Gallery that consists entirely of ephemera gleaned from the collections of Angelenos, including the artists John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha. I also begin to worry when such ephemeral treasures are embraced not only as souvenirs of the artistic life, but also as artworks in and of themselves. It was the Dadaists, in the years during and after World War I, who first saw the need to buttress their insistently elusive art with a beguiling documentation. Nearly a century later, in “Pacific Standard Time,” the flotsam and jetsam of artistic life sometimes floats in the foreground, leaving the art to be discerned vaguely, somewhere in the distance.
“Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics: 1950-1980,” at the Getty Research Institute, includes wonderfully informal printed announcements by George Herms. He was inviting friends to what he called his Tap City Circus Raffles, events held at his Topanga Canyon house in the 1960s when he had run out of money. Herms’s rattletrap typography exudes its own kind of downmarket charm. And if you prefer slicker production values, nearly every book and catalogue about Los Angeles in the 1960s has photographs and ephemera related to the Ferus Gallery, now one of the legendary landmarks of Swingin’ L.A., where the announcements had a sleek yet jocular look and everybody was young and pretty and very definitely high. Ferus was founded in 1957 by the young mover-and-shaker Walter Hopps and the artist Edward Kienholz, whose gritty tableaux of down-and-out life are admired for their deracinated kick. Hopps went on to the Pasadena Art Museum, where he organized the first retrospectives of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, and Joseph Cornell. In later years he was involved with Dominique de Menil in developing the grandly idiosyncratic Houston museum where he was the first director. Hopps was one of a number of curators who in the 1960s were challenging the authority of what they regarded as a fossilizing—if not already fossilized—Museum of Modern Art.
I like the storyteller’s impulse that drives quite a few of the “Pacific Standard Time” events. I also sometimes fear that my interest in a particular person has not so much enriched as distorted my experience of his or her work. The catalogue of “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles,” the show at the Hammer, organized by Kellie Jones, interweaves reproductions of the work with photographs of the artists and their friends, so that the ultimate effect suggests an elegant scrapbook. The turmoil of Watts in the summer of 1965 forms a ferocious backdrop for a community of artists who were pressing forward, hoping to make something of lasting value. And the homegrown Gothic fantasia of Watts Towers, the sublime creation of Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant determined to leave his mark on the Southern California landscape, looms large. Ralph Ellison was not wrong about the creative imagination that bursts forth unexpectedly in the American democracy, and will be evident to the independent observer Ellison immortalized in the image of the little man behind the stove in Chehaw Station. The silhouette of Rodia’s creation is stamped in somber gray on the shiny silver cover of the book that the Getty has produced as an overarching guide to “Pacific Standard Time.” Rodia’s towers are surely the greatest example anywhere of what would nowadays be called outsider architecture.
The press of events gives the tradition-conscious modernism of the strongest work in “Now Dig This!” an individual weight and force. Melvin Edwards is to some degree a card-carrying modernist, an exponent of the welded-metal sculpture tradition that began with Picasso and Gonzalez and was taken up in this country by David Smith and Richard Stankiewicz. What Edwards emphasizes is the dark force inherent in dense, sharp, heavy metal objects, so that his chain links function not only as openwork designs but also as afterimages of slavery. His wall-hung reliefs, with their impacted forms, are escutcheons or heraldic devices dedicated to oppression and rebellion. The formalism gives the expressionism a focus, a concentrated rage. With the assemblages of Betye Saar, in which surrealist dreams give way to a more streetwise sort of stream of consciousness, I have the feeling that the ivory tower has not so much been rejected as it has been regretfully recognized as no longer open for business. The vehemence of Saar’s compartmentalized memory boxes is remote from the neoclassical poetics of Joseph Cornell. Her sharp edges and clear, emphatic jolts of color suggest the raw, and sometimes rawly poetic, signage and shop windows of a neighborhood where the big chain stores have not yet penetrated. Saar’s work is rescued from political correctness, just in the nick of time, by a sensibility that sees quirky poetry in something like the image of a wiry black man playing a banjo.
Few of the artists of Southern California are quirkier than Wallace Berman, who held my attention at “Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken 1961-1976,” at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. While Heinecken’s photo collages strike me as little more than artsy Playboy stuff, I am drawn to Berman, brilliant and a bit scattershot, boyish with his dark eyes, the West Coast Rimbaud who died at fifty in a car crash. Richard Cándida Smith, in his fine book Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California, cites a poem in which Berman describes himself “stoned in black corduroy” while his “beautiful wife ... talks/Rococo & dances off four walls.” The Getty show contains an early work, Homage to Hermann Hesse (1949-1954), a tabletop surrealist landscape that suggests a close study of Noguchi and Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 A.M. There is a vein of poetic play in Berman’s work that I find sympathetic, although too often he awakens a level of curiosity that he does not satisfy. It is characteristic of Berman that the Hebrew letters emblazoned across his collages turn out to mean next to nothing, coming as they do from a man who was drawn in some vague way to the Kabbalah but did not know enough Hebrew to string letters into words. His strongest work may be an eight-minute film called Aleph, a collage of scratched and grainy footage that has its own gritty lyricism, mixing vintage shots of ballet dancers, skydivers, industrial machinery, a classical statue, Bob Dylan’s face, and domestic scenes with a cat licking its paws and friends smoking joints. Semina, the magazine Berman published, often an album or portfolio of collages and poems, is the sort of thing that adolescents with bohemian yearnings dream of doing. Some postcard collages that Berman sent to two of his San Francisco friends—the poet Robert Duncan and his partner, the painter and collagist Jess—are not exactly works of art, but they are surely animated by the art of friendship, by the art of life.
Considering how much of the work in “Pacific Standard Time” brings to mind the spirit of the Dadaists and the Surrealists, it is no surprise that one of the heroes of the entire enterprise is Beatrice Wood, a survivor from the original Dadaist days. Wood, whose splendid ceramics are at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, had been a friend and perhaps a lover of Duchamp’s in New York in the 1910s. She is said by some to have been the model for Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, the movie based on the autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, with whom Wood was involved at the same time she knew Duchamp. After turning her sights to Southern California in the late 1920s, Wood began doing ceramics in 1933. In 1948 she moved to Ojai, east of Santa Barbara, where for the next fifty years she produced and sold ceramics. She died at the extraordinary age of 105.
Wood’s figurative work—drawings in a rapid-fire stick-figure style and massive clay figurines—leaves me fairly cold. But her bowls, cups, teapots, platters, and chalices are a singular achievement, merging the artisanal urges of the Arts and Crafts movement and the eccentricity of the Dadaists, while somehow foreshadowing the psychedelic fantasy of works done by Ken Price in recent years. Wood’s work suggests a cheerful drunk’s version of pomp and circumstance, with shimmering luster glazes and striking decorative flourishes, including what might be described as paper-doll chains rendered in clay. While Wood produced masterful utilitarian objects, including tea sets and dinner services, she really came into her own with her one-off pieces, which suggest the vessels required for some private ecstatic rite. Gathered together in a large square room in Santa Monica, Wood’s ceramics are the visual equivalent of strong, easy, joyous laughter. Was that her friend Duchamp’s “white spot in a gloomy world” that I was experiencing?
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA has sometimes been seen as a refuge for those who are fleeing from history, or from some particular history. This was surely true for the legendary European artists who arrived as exiles from Nazi Europe, and included Mann, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. For other artists Los Angeles has provided a more ambiguous refuge, a place where there were fewer rules or ingrained assumptions—where modernity, and even modernism, might be re-invented or re-imagined. Cándida Smith, in Utopia and Dissent, quotes Kienholz speaking of Los Angeles when he arrived in 1953 as “virgin,” and he cites Billy Al Bengston remarking that “there was nothing going on ... simply nothing.” The paucity of facts on the ground, while surely in some ways debilitating, could also excite artists, and liberate them to make their own history. For the organizers of “Pacific Standard Time,” the situation may pose something of a conundrum, because they are aiming to make art history out of a period when artists drew strength from their sense that the past, the present, and the future were all a blank slate. Such a paradox, which cannot be avoided by students of painting or sculpture, is also an underlying theme in the only encyclopedic exhibition among the “Pacific Standard Time” offerings that focuses on the decorative arts: LACMA’s “California Design, 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way’.” This exhibition covers a vast range of material, from toys and record covers to home furnishings and an Airstream trailer. Nor is architecture slighted: the entire living room of the home of the designers Charles and Ray Eames has been transported from Pacific Palisades to the museum.
As a museumgoing experience, “California Design” does not work very well. An onslaught of items has been arranged in what amounts to one enormous room, so that a visitor has little opportunity to focus on ceramics or graphic design or anything else without finding dozens of other impressions impinging. You may feel as if you are not in a museum but in a high-end version of a big-box store, and this feeling is underscored because so many of the items on display, if they are not in fact still in production, are the models for the mid-century style craze of our time. It is in the catalogue that one begins to appreciate the subtlety that has gone into this project, organized by Wendy Kaplan, whose exhibitions devoted to the Arts and Crafts movement have been landmarks in the field. Kaplan and her collaborators show how mid-century designers mediated between the handmade and the machine-made, assimilating and transforming various strains of early twentieth-century architecture and design. We begin to discern the heart and soul behind the sleek surfaces of mid-century modern. Kaplan is right to place the home that Charles and Ray Eames built in a eucalyptus grove overlooking the Pacific at the center of her exhibition: these great designers—of everything from toys and furniture to educational films—gave the modernist fascination with barebones structures a playful, even hedonistic L.A. spin.
The Eames House consists of two steel-framed boxes, the walls a pattern of rectangular shapes that fulfill Mondrian’s dream of taking Neo-Plastic painting into three dimensions. And into this bold geometry Charles and Ray Eames inserted a gaggle of stuff—folk art, exotic textiles, luxuriant plants—that shook up the geometry, pushing and pulling in ways that were perhaps indirectly inspired by Ray Eames’s studies (she had set out to be a painter) with Hans Hofmann and his ideas about push and pull. Visiting the Eames House—a tour of the grounds is one of the offerings of “Pacific Standard Time”—I thought of Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroeder House in Utrecht, from 1924-1925, with its open layout and playful multicolored forms. And indeed Kaplan begins her introduction to the catalogue of “California Design” by observing that Truus Schroeder, who worked with Rietveld on the design for her house, believed that life “should be transparent and elementary.” Kaplan hastens to add that this same belief would be “commonly shared by California architects and their clients twenty years later and half a world away.” Kaplan points out that the story is even more complicated, because an early modernist house in Los Angeles, the home that the architect R.M. Schindler built for himself on Kings Road in West Hollywood, reflects a similar taste for structural openness and predates the Schroeder House by a couple of years. In the Schindler House, the austere geometries of classical Japanese domestic architecture are embraced without a trace of nostalgia or antiquarianism.
The Schindler House is one of the essential stops on the “Pacific Standard Time” circuit, for it is here that the MAK Center for Art and Architecture has mounted a show dedicated to the life of Esther McCoy, a writer of subtle literary refinement (she published in The New Yorker and Grand Street) who worked as a draftsman for Schindler and was a great pioneer in the serious study of modern architecture in Southern California. McCoy was a leftist and a preservationist, an activist and an aesthete, and the catalogue of the show—which is called “Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design”—gives a taste of her formidable skills as a writer. McCoy’s nonfiction prose has an idiosyncratic exactitude that brings to mind the dance criticism of Edwin Denby and the art criticism of Fairfield Porter. “His deep roads into space,” she writes of Schindler, “led away from the quickly grasped monoplanar certainties. He was out of context with the resolve of the Depression, a time in which the machine and machined objects were a moral imperative.” (A collection of her writing, Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, is forthcoming, the first publication from East of Borneo Books.) McCoy’s vision of architectural history, which was grounded in the immediate circumstances of Southern California without ever being limited by those circumstances, finds a distant echo in the call that the art historian Richard Meyer makes, in a roundtable discussion in the October issue of Artforum dedicated to art in L.A., for a “creative and scholarly site specificity” that rejects the prejudices and preconceptions of “regionalism.”
BUT HOW does one move from “scholarly site specificity” to some larger perspective on art and culture in Los Angeles? And is such a perspective desirable, or even possible? Paul Schimmel, in his introduction to the catalogue of MOCA’s Under the Big Black Sun, could be speaking for a more general refusal to allow art in L.A. to fall into any pattern when he says that “the very messiness of the 1970s should not be cleaned up, codified, or organized the way previous art-historical periods have.” The curators at the Getty make a similar argument that what you finally see is a city moving “even farther away from the idea of a unified art world.” And the art historian Thomas Crow, again in the MOCA catalogue, speculates that “the simultaneous immensity and local intricacy of Los Angeles as a sphere for art provided [some artists] with the best available map for negotiating a vastly larger arena”—by which he means the global art world of today. The decentralized nature of artistic creation and experience in L.A. thus precipitates not only a call for “scholarly site specificity,” but also a model for understanding what is perceived as the increasingly decentralized nature of the global art world. By this logic, what I had experienced as the dissonance and apparent lack of underlying logic in the big surveys at MOCA and the Getty turns out to suggest a new map of experience. It is easy to belittle the old modern orthodoxies, according to which Cézanne begat Picasso who begat Pollock; but one must beware of new orthodoxies.
While there is something immensely appealing about the emphasis that “Pacific Standard Time” places on differences, distinctions, and particulars, I wonder whether the study of art in Los Angeles might be encouraging its own kind of stale critical vocabulary, based on a facile embrace of atomization and eclecticism. At a time when a conviction that the center will not hold, in art as in so many other areas of life, appears to be the only thing on which everybody can agree, the L.A. art scene may look to some like a mirror in which they see reflected their own uneasy mood. There is a dangerously solipsistic vein of thought running through the altogether admirable mission of “Pacific Standard Time.” Its organizers sometimes seem to value apartness, alienation, and anomie more than the artists themselves. If artists in New York have sometimes been described as having a level of historical self-awareness impossible to imagine, artists in Los Angeles are now being described as having a level of historical independence or even alienation that is equally improbable. Having declared art in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles to be the anti-academy, the organizers of “Pacific Standard Time” can hardly be unaware that their extraordinary enterprise runs the risk of producing its own kind of academy.
Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.