Long Read: Make New Art, But Keep the Old
by Catherine Wagley
“New art is so much better than old,” wrote commenter “George” in September, responding online to public radio critic Edward Goldman, who had devoted an on-air episode to Pacific Standard Time (PST) exhibitions in and around Santa Monica. Since PST, that Getty-funded, region-wide celebration of SoCal art from 1945 to 1980, focuses on history, all these shows featured older work by older L.A. artists. George found it “disappointing” that Goldman hadn’t mentioned a particular exhibition at the Rosamund Felson gallery of carnivalesque, recent text paintings by Karen Carson and closed his comment with a dig—“I usually enjoy your notes.”
Though it did include all-new work, the Karen Carson show, which ended in October, still fell under the PST umbrella. Or at least the PST logo appeared on the gallery’s press release and image list. When I visited, I asked the gallery director if this was an official PST show. “I don’t really know what that means,” he answered. “We never signed any paper work. But we’re showing an old school L.A. artist”—Carson’s been exhibiting in L.A. since ’69—“and putting the logo on our literature.”
It’s different for non-profit institutions that received Getty money for their PST exhibitions. They did, at some point, sign paperwork to earn a right to the logo, an abstract sun with twelve rays and a dot dead center so that, given hands, the sun could double as a clock (for telling Pacific Standard Time). The logo is everywhere right now: on gallery windows, streetlight banners, posters, billboards, museum websites and cups from The Coffee Bean. On the last Sunday of September, at the official opening of the Getty’s PST exhibition, Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970, it was projected all over in moving white lights, overwhelming the museum’s granite campus with what resembled especially unruly fireworks. Earlier the same night, at a small reception in an upstairs Getty dining room, Robert Irwin and Judy Chicago, both in their 80s had stood near the podium at the room’s far end, joking under their breath. Or, from where I stood, it looked like they were joking while official after official, including Mayor Villaraigosa, took to the microphone to extol the virtues of SoCal’s art history.
Irwin, never a team player, has no historic art in the Getty’s centerpiece exhibition, even though he’s the artist often credited with establishing the Light and Space movement. Instead, he has a newly commissioned, 40,000-pound black granite column extending from the museum atrium into the main courtyard. “I can tell you the long story about L.A.—how it has no history and no culture,” Irwin told W Magazine a year ago. “That’s exactly the reason I stayed here.” Until recently. “We’re about to be invaded,” he continued, referring to L.A.’s newfound “legitimacy” that has inspired a handful of New York galleries to move West. “We artists are about to become beside the point. Which is why I have moved to San Diego.”
Pacific Standard Time focuses on an era in which art’s infrastructure was growing up around the artists, who were then the whole point. You opened a gallery or started collecting new local work because you had faith in those artists, not in the non-existent market. That’s partly changed, but because of Pacific Standard Time purposes to “finally” bring the region’s postwar art “milestones” to the attention of national and international audiences, aiming mostly toward legacy lionizing, its various shows and catalogues do a minimal job of framing history in terms of right now. If we really compared then and now, I’m not convinced we’d find artists who have become “beside the point.” Nor would we necessarily find that, for the almost-still-kids who move here looking to study, live and find niches as artists, the day-to-day situation is so different from when Irwin began his career.
There’s a second-story space on Jefferson, near West Adams, called Latned Atsär, where Nathan Danilowicz and Alexandra Wetzel currently live, work and host exhibitions. When a previous group of early-career artists lived and showed there, it was called Rasta Dental, because, at one point, the same space had been a dental office and, at another point, a Rastafarian center. After Danilowicz moved in, he decided that he would use the space, with its long corridor and rooms perfect for film screening, to host exhibitions too. “I wanted the art world to come to me,” he said. It does. Faculty at SoCal schools, curators, gallerists and museum programmers have all put in appearances alongside the many artists.
When Robert Irwin taught at Chouinard Art Institute in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he and fellow instructors frequented the space students Joe Goode and Ed Ruscha shared with three other artists. “There was one other place where Larry Bell lived with a group of artists too,” said Goode in 1999, “[W]e had the kind of unique places where people . . . congregated.” At the urging of faculty, Goode brought a portfolio of his drawings to Henry Hopkins, the just out-of-school curator who named his gallery after writer J.K. Huysmans, who wanted to be a risk-taker and had opened a gallery on La Cienega, kiddie-corner from Ferus Gallery, where SoCal pop got its first whiff of legitimacy.
For his debut show, Hopkins brought together, at Goode’s suggestion, Goode, Larry Bell, Ron Miyashiro—Donald Judd’s former assistant—and Ed Bereal. “We did this poster that had an American flag on the table and all of us were kind of mocking the idea of freedom and racism in this country,” recalled Goode. African-American Bereal ate a watermelon, Jewish Larry Bell ate a bagel, Japanese-American Miyashiro had a bowl of rice and the Catholic Goode ate fish. The show, called War Babies, lasted only six weeks and the gallery lasted under a year, since Hopkins’ shows were not what his backers had in mind. Goode then began exhibiting with Rolf Nelson Gallery, also on La Cienega.
Manny Silverman, who started his career at yet another La Cienega gallery, Ernst Raboff, knew Goode, Rolf Nelson, and most of the other gallerists and artists working in L.A. at the time. In 1965, he co-founded Art Services with partner Jerry Solomon to help artists pack, frame and transport work. “We would have to finish our work by noon,” Silverman told me. After that, artists would start stopping in and only talking and smoking would get done. “We didn’t read much,” said Silverman. “If you wanted to know something [about contemporary art], you went right to the source.”
Genevieve Pepin and John Ryan Moore read. The two opened Pepin Moore on Chung King Road a year and a half ago, and the last book I saw on their counter was Photography after Conceptual Art. They go to the source too, though. “We started with five [studio visits] a week before the gallery opened,” they wrote via email. “It’s such a great experience to be at the site of production, to be where the real decisions are made, or unmade. Our favorites are the ones that last for hours, when you really get to sift through things.” And like Silverman did fifty years ago, they know what’s up at the other galleries. “If you love art in this city, there's no excuse for not getting out and seeing what people are making happen.”
In the years just after grad school, with few exceptions, you could tell who was going to make a life in art in L.A. based on who you saw out. The classmates of mine who made it to exhibitions, openings, museums, alternate spaces even just once a month or so were the ones whose work I eventually expected to see hanging on the walls of those spaces. It might be exponentially bigger than it was in 1960, but L.A.’s art world is small, and as long as there are new spaces starting and new artists fighting their way in, thinking or hoping, they have something to say. It will feel like it’s all just starting. “It’s a really exciting time for art and artists in LA, as it has been for some time,” wrote Pepin and Moore. The same could have been said, and was said, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
What’s frustrating about PST is that most of its biggest exhibitions don’t seem to be saying, “Look where we were and then look at where we are.” Instead, like a history book written by a diplomat, they say, “Look at how important we should be because of what happened then,” as if having milestones in your past makes your posterity competitive with the posterity of the rest of the world.
In Jack Goldstein and the Cal Arts Mafia by Richard Hertz, photographer and filmmaker Jack Goldstein, included in the Getty’s Crosscurrents exhibition, recalls running into a former Cal Arts classmate, artist Matt Mullican, in 2001. Mullican’s father had just died. Goldstein asked him what it was like to lose someone so close to him. “I’m a dad now,” Mullican replied. He could only view that old relationship in light of his current one. I’d prefer to look at the art in PST the same way, in terms of continuities and discontinuities with the past, not because new art is better than the old, but because old art is so much more interesting in light of the new.