It’s Craig Kauffman!
Craig Kauffman is in the news again. Last Friday’s New York Times included a Roberta Smith piece on the Museum of Modern Art’s re-installation of its permanent galleries. Her lengthy review notes the changing curatorial vision, and the fourth floor is singled out: “An especially bold-looking gallery juxtaposes the Minimalist efforts of the New Yorkers Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Jo Baer and the Angelenos Craig Kaufmann (sic), John McCracken and DeWain Valentine…”
Kauffman’s work was acquired way back in 1969 by MOMA curator Kynaston McShine, and was recently included in the 2009 exhibit at PS 1, simply titled, 1969. It’s great to know that Kauffman’s work is on view again, and in the company of his friends Judd, Flavin, McCracken and Valentine. It’s also a good opportunity for the audience to know more about Kauffman’s beginnings. On Saturday we are opening an amazing, highly researched show.
This exhibit traces the development of Craig Kauffman’s paintings from 1958 to 1964. A turning point in modern Los Angeles art, the paintings were sparse, clean, sensuous, yet intelligent. Kauffman absorbed influences from European painting as well as American abstraction. Even as a teenager, Kauffman had read Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s book The New Vision. By 1958, he had clearly begun to work in opposition to the dominant Abstract Expressionist mode. Kauffman has stated that his lean, lyrical look was a personal reaction to the heavy and thick abstract painting of the time.
Kauffman’s 1958 solo exhibit at the Ferus Gallery included Untitled, 1958, Still Life with Electric Fan and Respirator, 1958, and Tell Tale Heart, 1958, along with ten other works. The paintings show open areas free of markings and brushwork, loose linear qualities, and the use of primary color. In a catalogue essay for the show, critic Jules Langsner wrote that Kauffman’s paintings were mature, sinuous, fresh, lyrical and “bursting with joie de vivre.” According to Kauffman, his sources included Dada, Duchamp, Mondrian, Abstract Expressionism and a “sexual biomorphic mixture with mechanical things.”
The 1958 exhibit had significance because it influenced other L.A. painters. “The ‘clean’ Abstract Expressionist work by Craig Kauffman,” critic Peter Plagens has written, “could be the point at which Los Angeles art decided to live on its own life-terms, instead of those handed down from Paris, New York, or even San Francisco.” This new sense of professionalism was echoed by fellow painter Billy Al Bengston, who later wrote, “Kauffman was the first Southern California artist to ever paint an original painting. His paintings of ’57 and ’58 proved that we had to wash our hands, throw away our dirty pants and become artists.”
In the early 1960s, after living in Europe with his wife Vivian, Kauffman returned to L.A. and began a series of work that took forms from the earlier paintings. He realized that he had to “catch up really quickly”; his painter friends had taken the next step with the clean, clear “L.A. Look.” In many drawings and small paintings on advertisements for shoes and lingerie, the artist explored sensual abstract forms and acknowledged a continued influence of Dada. His earlier biomorphic forms were developed through drawings, and then eroticized by placing them on top of advertisements for Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie or high heel shoes.
Kauffman repeatedly used drawing as a direct source of images as well as a method of abstraction. The drawing of a female figure dressed in lingerie becomes the source for several shapes in subsequent drawings and paintings, and the long pendulant male form is developed more fully. It is interesting to note that the large painting on paper is titled Git le Couer, No. 3, a title that makes reference to a street in Paris where Kauffman and his wife Vivian lived. This large painting on paper also marks the artist’s first known use of metallic paint.
Kauffman’s work is often portrayed as being derived from the automobile culture of Southern California, or mischaracterized as being influenced by surfboard shapes and technology. However, these drawings, paintings and the artist’s statements contradict this popular misunderstanding. Instead, the evidence reveals a highly intuitive process, arriving at abstracted imagery of male and female sexual parts. The forms are ovoid, phallic, mammary and vaginal. As the art historian Barbara Rose wrote, Kauffman’s biomorphism had an “explicitly sexual character.”
Transferring these images to paintings on flat plastic in 1963, Kauffman integrated bold line and intense color with playfully suggestive forms. The final room of the exhibition includes works that were shown at Kauffman’s exhibit at Ferus Gallery, including No. 1, No. 7 and No. 8, all dated 1963. Painted on the reverse of acrylic plastic and employing flat shapes with rounded contours, the bold and animated paintings demonstrate Kauffman’s skills as a draftsman, his willingness to engage the viewer in erotic content, as well as his bold use of color. At this point, the imagery is suspended on clear flat plastic, in a similar way to Duchamp’s suspension of imagery on glass in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.
As stated by art historian Susan Larsen, “They had the sleek good looks of a well-made machine, animated by strong sexual overtones. As such, they are late twentieth-century counterparts to the mechanic-erotic visions of Duchamp and Picabia.” Kauffman had attended the 1963 opening of the first retrospective of the work of Marcel Duchamp, organized by his childhood friend Walter Hopps, at the Pasadena Art Museum. A signed poster from the Duchamp exhibit was kept in Kauffman’s personal collection.
The flat plastic works predict the artist’s later vacuum formed pieces, which began in 1964. Two examples of paintings on formed plastic from 1964, both Untitled, are included in this exhibit. The use of molds and the discovery of the process of vacuum forming acrylic plastic would propel Kauffman’s work for the next several years, from 1964 to 1972. These works would bring Kauffman international recognition, and are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, LACMA, and MOCA.