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When Art Had Heart

L.A. Raw—Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980  –

As part of the massive near year long Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions exploring the post-World War II Los Angeles art scene, curator Michael Duncan’s survey L.A. Raw – Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, from Rico Lebrun to Paul McCartney at the Pasadena Museum of California Art stands out as the most memorable and powerful—and least publicized—of all the PST offerings. An in-depth investigation of notable and less familiar artists of that period who were driven by “introspection and angst” to make “socially relevant art ,“ the exhibition raises as many questions about the current state of art in the face of equally compelling issues.

In his comprehensively researched book/catalogue (with an afterword by critic/art historian Peter Selz) Duncan traces the more recent figurative work of Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibone and Jim Shaw, even such exhibitions as the darkly illuminating 1992 “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990’s” to its roots in a “largely neglected, localized postwar legacy stemming from the figurative expressionists who dominated the art world after World War II.” At a time when American art was dominated by the highly dogmatic and exclusionary New York School of Abstract Expressionism and later Minimalism and Conceptualism, the figurative art as practiced by the forty one California artists highlighted here emphasized “a dark, reductive vision of humanity, a kind of ‘abject expressionism’ .” The prominence of the defense industry on the West Coast, the looming threat of atomic annihilation with nearby nuclear testing grounds in the deserts, Cold War paranoia, McCarthyism, and the aftermath of Nazi atrocities and U.S. Japanese internment camps, produced in Southern California an artistic climate of introspection and angst that provoked intense, emotive examinations of human psychology, culture and society.

Although subliminally manifest in the film noir of the 40’s and 50’s with their Los Angeles backdrops or in the occasional “On the Beach”, battle and monster movies, those moods and sentiments were more often eclipsed by Hollywood’s sunny musicals and TV fare promoting wholesome conformist “American values”. For serious engaged artists, however, Duncan tells us …”the oppressive political atmosphere fostered a sense of mistrust, social disconnection and a basic questioning of humanistic values.” Local murals in Southern California by Orozco, Siquieros, and Rivera were crucial, Duncan explains, as sources of inspiration for the L.A. artists of the postwar period. Further, owing to the pre-war presence of European intellectuals like Aldous Huxley or Bertolt Brecht who had fled the Nazis, a small group of émigré’ dealers who exhibited banned German Expressionism, and the exposure to the Arensberg Collection of stellar European figurative modernists like Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, a small group of artists in what constituted the art scene, embraced expressionism and the human figure. Although all gifted in Old Masters style draftsmanship, Duncan describes charismatic artists like Rico LeBrun and Howard Warshaw as less interested in realistic rendering than in passionately and viscerally responding to “the grim nature” of their times. “Abject” as attached to expressionism then seems to refer to human misery, wretchedness and degradation, whether depictions of extermination camps, eschatological scenarios, (then) shocking sexual acts, or states of powerlessless. Thus we see here LeBrun’s cubistic closeup of a stack of decaying, emaciated limbs in his 1956 Buchenwald Cart or his The Magdalene (1950) surely echoing the contorted pain of Picasso’s victims in Guernica which LeBrun most likely viewed in its 1939 Los Angeles visit. Later ink wash on paper studies like The Oppressor (after deSade) (1962) reduce the female nude to a rear viewed, high heeled gaping orifice, a foreshadowing of the feminist art of the late 60’s and 70’s. The closely allied Warshaw is represented among other works, by the terrifying End of the World (1947), a highly theatrical, post apocalyptic scene featuring alien-like levitating figures posed in a death dance above a gloomy gas shrouded landscape. Evidence of his antagonism to Abstract Expressionism in which the lack of subject matter signified “cultural amnesia” and a degraded postwar society and culture, Warshaw steadfastly professed his “faith in human values and the transcendent possibilities of art.” A similar embrace of the humanistic and existential potentials of art permeated Jack Zajac’s sculptures from the late 50’s based on Renaissance scenes of the deposition of Christ’s body. Critic Henry Seldis writing at the time claimed artists such as Zajac displayed a “pride in the tradition of their art [that] is coupled with a true humility.” Zajac’s 90 degree angled fiberglass figure, one hand touching the ground, head turned upward is one of the most profoundly spiritual works of the era, embodying the doubts and dilemmas of world caught between momentous life and death decisions – a “where do we go from here?” Yet still others of the period like Arnold Mesches, Wallace Berman, Connor Everts, Cameron, John Altoon and Edward Kienholz pursued shocking, provocative, unabashedly erotic, anguished or subversive political narratives in response to the repressive, oppressive Eisenhower era climate. They endured accusations of public obscenity (Everts, Cameron and Berman), pornography (Kienholz), were subjected to detailed FBI dossiers (Mesches), and even had their studios ransacked and the contents destroyed (Everts). Work after work in the exhibition, though often seeming overwrought, brutal, wrenching, or tortuous, such as Everts’ highly sexualized but beautifully rendered 1965 charcoal drawings, was instrumental in setting the stage for the counterculture and the ensuing artistic preoccupations with body politics, sexual identity, and protest of the next 30 years.

By the mid 60’s, however, the first wave of postwar California artists was being displaced by a younger, hipper “Cool School” with artists like Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha who celebrated what critic and painter Peter Plagens called the “Sunshine Muse” in one of the first books to define West Coast artmaking. 50’s figurative art and all that went with it was considered passe’, the “Lebrun pall” according to Walter Hopps. Robert Cremean, a sensitive sculptor whose finely finished carved wooden forms reflect a synthesis of masculine and feminine that addressed a “distinctly homosexual” orientation responded to being forgotten by presciently commenting that “art and mass culture are synonymous…where the synonym for Art is entertainment..Art for Fun and profit.” The obscurity of Cremean in contrast to Ed Ruscha’s million-dollar-plus recent auction prices is also indicative of the continuing preferences for the less explicit, more ambiguous content of that rising younger generation.

While the Cool School followed the sun and mon, figurative artists such as African Americans Rico Lebrun, David Hammons, Betty Saar, John Outterbridge, and Mexican American Judy Baca, and Japanese American Ben Sakoguchi alternatively turned their attention to challenging social issues like racial discrimination and gender equality. Baca gathered gang members to paint murals and initiated city wide projects, the most notable being the epic The Great Wall of Los Angeles which commemorated the contributions to California made by nearly every ethnicity and culture from Native Americans to African Americans. It was so vast in scale as to be virtually un-ignorable. Using images from pop culture and mass media, Sakoguchi revealed the political turmoil and media explosion of the 60’s. Never losing his sense of social commentary, he created a huge installation dedicated to victims of the AIDS crisis in 1992. Charles White’s monumental and confrontational portrayal of African American womanhood J’accuse (1966), a towering icon of dignity and immovability speaks as powerfully to the enduring racism of today as it did to Civil Rights era prejudices. Photographers like Robert Heineken and Wallace Berman– perhaps following the lead of the highly experimental Edmund Teske whose dreamy multiple exposures and composite printing techniques also embraced a homo eroticism—made use of revolutionary approaches to transcend and expand the boundaries of photography. As seen here in Wallace Berman’s image transfers and Robert Heineken’s re-formatting and collaging of mass media imagery, they addressed sexual politics, current events, and in Berman’s case, espoused mysticism. For Berman, Duncan writes it “had nothing to do with Duchampian gamesmanship or Naumanesque anomie” that were propelling the conceptual practices of the time.

In the early 1970’s, feminist Judy Chicago had established the Feminist Art Program at Cal Arts and works such as Gunsmoke (1971) a photo depicting Chicago fellating a pistol, or Red Flag (1972) depicting a bloody tampon doubling as a penis being pulled from a woman’s body, are hands down, among the most memorable icons in the struggle against sexism. Performance art such as practiced at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building was flourishing and designed to encourage participation and interaction with the audiences. Artists such as Barbara Smith, shown with her nude body covered with lipstick smooches (1977) and Nancy Buchanan with Tar Baby (1977) attacked patriarchal, mainstream media and advertising female stereotypes. Of all the performance artists of the time Chris Burden achieved the most notoriety by confining himself to extreme situations or most spectacularly, having himself shot or crucified on the roof of a VW Beetle. Multi-layered meditations on life and death, violence, spirituality, the nature of contemporary art itself, Burden’s “body as testing ground” or “physical expressionism” virtually defined performance art for several decades. Likewise, Paul McCarthy whom we see in numerous early videos staged body process and food heavy performances to explode “conventional social and cultural norms ….and to probe the human condition at its most abject state.” Even now, as Duncan states, his recent performances seem compelled to invert much of what America values—from Disneyland to kitsch. Kim Jones’ ritualistic, twelve hour walking, anti-war performances as Mudman (1973) re-enacted the pain he suffered in Vietnam and “questioned social and political events, revealing inner complexities and contradictions.” While the appearances of this work were often quite disturbing and grotesque, these artists were intent on liberation from bourgeois conventionality and limitations and often employed dark humor. As such, they shifted the despair of the postwar period to a sense that art, by becoming more visible, even sensational, could have an impact in redefining cultural attitudes and in empowering the marginalized and disenfranchised. The artists’ imposing, collaborative Peace Tower (1966) erected on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles was highly symbolic of this idealism and the desire for connecting to a wider viewership that helped shape their visions.

Mainstream contemporary American painting of the mid 1970’s embraced Artforum magazine sanctioned reductivism/Minimalism or “post-painterly abstraction” in which painting was purged of narrative content or anything not intrinsic to the properties of a medium itself. The concurrent emergence of Pop Art signaled a resurgence in a type of figuration more allied with Dada and heavily doused with irony. Warhol’s Factory was in full production mode and suggestions of any cultural critiques—such as his electric chair and dollar sign silkscreens– were often undermined by Warhol’s simultaneous, most often tongue and cheek, infatuation with celebrities and success (“good business is the best art” or describing his fantasy of himself, “There goes the richest person in the world.”) While performance artists were deemed radical and boundary defying, West Coast painters who continued to work in figurative modes to explore social issues at this time did not enjoy the rising popularity and financial rewards of the influential New York scene. Lynn Foulkes, who repudiated Pop art for its “emptied content” and negative influence on contemporary art, instead made highly crafted, often gory portraits and tableaux that attacked corrupt corporate, military and art officials and bureaucrats. His strident work, soon to be the subject of a retrospective at the Hammer Museum, tragic-comically lampoons a soulless, mass marketed America with a fervor unabated since the 1970’s.

Contemporary critical theory in the 1970’s and 80’s was examining terms like “humanism” in light of patriarchy and colonial oppression so that dissent or social critique in art came to be expressed more in light of deconstructive concepts and theories and  with photo imagery and text rather than via the more loaded older terminology and “bourgeois, commodified” medium of painting.  Despite its unfashionable  approach and the lack of any significant national attention, California painters like James Strombotne, Joyce Treiman, John Paul Jones and the Swiss émigré Hans Burkhardt continued to make deeply emotional and affecting art “concerned with the human condition.”The neo-expressionist painting trends in the 1980’s lauded and revived expressionistic figuration and for a brief time artists such as German Anselm Kiefer or American Leon Golub, and a number of feminist painters engaged in disconcerting subject matter with attention to formal and technical investigations. In the L.A. Raw group, Jim Morphesis’s dramatic paint and gold leaf slathered wall constructions derived from Christian iconography are aligned with the more nationally recognized painters in their re-engagement of historical representational modes and subjects with gestural immediacy.

Duncan correctly draws the lineage from the postwar artists to contemporary artists like the late Mike Kelly whose provocative performances and installations dwelt in the underbelly of consumerist America and unmasked our glib hypocrisies. The focus of some of the most acclaimed painters like Laura Owens or Luc Tuymans at the moment, however, seems to be on abjection again. This time around, however, the effect is more of an endgame: the despair feels centered on the impotency and intimidation these self absorbed painters feel when faced with painting’s grand accomplishments and narratives of the past and a perceived inability to innovate or excite themselves or their viewers for painting’s continued relevance. That attitude is manifested in drab, uninvolved—tired—painting gestures and tropes, and an obvious lack of enthusiasm for the potentials of the medium itself—but not for the art market itself where their work briskly sells for six figures. It is worth contrasting the intensely worked canvases, fine draughtsmanship and brushwork, and the high regard for of Modernism’s formal achievements we see in L.A. Raw, with such recent studies in abjection. Moreover, with the explosion in art fairs and contemporary auctions propelling contemporary art values beyond Warhol’s most wishful thinking, the emphasis is on financial speculation and profit. As Peter Schjeldahl in his recent, New Yorker article on art fairs states, “…if there’s an art-fair style, it’s a gift-store spin: cute, colorful, bright, and shiny, with attitude (my italics). It says ‘Buy now!’……social concern [is] almost nowhere in evidence.” Superstar artists like Brit Damien Hirst have “become marketing machines unto themselves.” One has only to compare Hans Burkhardt’s My Lai (1968), titled after the infamous brutal Vietnam massacre of men, women and children, with Hirst’s cynical diamond studded skull that recently sold for millions at auction. A 10 foot thickly encrusted mire of grey earthen paint embedded with 15 actual human skulls and bone fragments, a crucifix and near 3D references to collapsed and burnt structures, My Lai was described by Donald Kuspit as “among the greatest war paintings” showing “the brutality and inhumanity not only of the Vietnam War but also of the twentieth century as a whole.” What the “abject” artists of L.A. Raw (who were anything but abject but rather idealistic and life affirming) demonstrated was an unswerving belief that challenging, even off-putting aesthetics could be enlisted in the cause of perceptual and conceptual transformation. Despite the worsening of global conditions for human rights, the impoverished and the environment, it now seems that, unlike the 41 artists in L.A. Raw, those such as Hirst have capitulated to the darker forces of humanity.

All quotes from L.A. Raw, Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, from Rico LeBrun to Paul McCarthy by Michael Duncan, Published by the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Foggy Notion Books; published with assistance of the Getty Foundation 2012.

This show closes May 20th, but also that evening there is a L.A. RAW Film Night, 5:30pm, Free
Featuring films about Charles Garabedian, Conner Everts and James Strombotne
490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA. 91101 

And from “All is Fairs” by Peter Schjeldahl, published in The New Yorker, May 7, 2012



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