Archive for September 2011
A recent article in L.A. Weekly caught my eye. The title “Peter Voulkos, Can I Have Your Autograph?” was provocative enough. In the text, young painter Rebecca Morris recalled the early influence on her work, and sums it up with “His aesthetic is rough, never perfect.” I agree. But the story made me recall our opening night for a show in November of 1999, when fans of Peter Voulkos lined up and waited over 45 minutes to get his autograph. He sat at the gallery’s front desk. Peter was generous with each person, and his presence was bigger than any I have ever seen. He not only signed autographs, he made drawings for each person.
Last weekend, the best thing I read was Peter Plagens’ response to the use of his book Sunshine Muse. Plagens wrote the first edition way back in 1974, and added a preface for the 1999 second edition, when he refused to revise what he called a “period piece”. In Sunday’s “Perspective” piece for the Los Angeles Times, Plagens offers the fascinating story of his deal with editors from Praeger, as well as a substantial bit of self-criticism: “Sunshine Muse has major flaws. I was a critic, not an art historian, writing art history, so the book has too much criticism in it and not enough history, particularly concerning Latino, African Amercian and “Women’s Movement” (as it was called back then) artists.”
I’ve used his book for quotes in essays, referenced it several times in press releases, and even posted a choice quote on the wall for our current show—concerning the work in Craig Kauffman’s 1958 show of abstract paintings. So I read Plagens’ response to the authors of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time volume with great interest, and I highly recommend reading both. I am hoping there are many more exchanges, viewpoints and publications that address the history and the influences of West Coast art. Bring ’em on!
There’s a lot of noise about car culture being the source for Los Angeles artists. Forget that noise, what about music? Some of the sparkplugs of the L.A. scene have pretty big backgrounds with music—from jazz to folk, and from Spanish flamenco guitar to Ry Cooder’s Tex-Mex blend.
In my last post, I wrote about Craig Kauffman’s early interest in jazz—something that was integrated with the beginnings of contemporary art exhibits in L.A., and the Concert Hall Workshop he started with Walter Hopps and Jim Newman. Ken Allen wrote a great biographical piece which notes that trio’s jazz programs, and stated, “Hopps’ transition from college science major to arts impresario in the mid-1950s is marked by his interest in jazz and his earliest attempts to bring a wider audience to contemporary art in Los Angeles”.
But there is so much more about music. Peter Voulkos studied flamenco when he lived in L.A., at the same time he was making major sculptural works that would redefine ceramics. Sure, he and his friends drove around the city and looked at art exhibits, new buildings, and stayed up all night—that’s all part of the legend. But don’t forget that some major works, pieces like Sevillanas, Black Bulerias, and Tientos, are named after songs and dances in the art of flamenco. And the link is totally summed up when Voulkos makes the statement: “The minute you touch a piece of clay it responds, it’s like music—you have to know all the structure of music and how to make it, before you can come up with anything.”
Or, consider Ken Price. The myth is that Price and others in L.A. are “part of a tight-knit band of surfer artists.” (in the New York Times !) Ridiculous repeated stereotypes obscure a better understanding of the artists. What about Price’s history with music, which spans a lifetime? Ken Price studied jazz with none other than the great American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Later, for his friend Ry Cooder’s album Chicken Skin Music, Price’s wonderfully colorful and witty painting was the cover image. The fusion of color and form on an abstract sculpture is not far from the abstract world of music.
Some journalists seem bent on portraying the artists’ new use of materials as some kind of hot-rod fueled finish fetish. But, truth be told, key artist Larry Bell was very involved in the late-50s folk music movement, and never drove a hot car. Don’t forget that Larry Bell worked, for a while, at a folk club called the Unicorn. This, after introducing so many of his fellow artists to the folk music of the late 1950s, including the sounds of Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Bell still plays guitar—often choosing one of the 12 string guitars in his huge collection. Larry Bell may keep a studio within a block of the Venice boardwalk. But he doesn’t surf, and drives a well-worn Chevy Suburban, hardly a hot-rod.
When referring to West Coast art, there’s been enough writing about sun, surf and cars. All those repeated stereotypes about L.A. art have so very little to do with the interests of Craig Kauffman—and the origins of his work. Like Tyler Green wrote in a superb post last year, the main thing that painters in Los Angeles were doing was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, especially the works that were seen in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Bengston has stated about the Bay Area painters, “They all just kind of got stuck…in the mud.” Kauffman really made it clear: “…I was sort of reacting against what was going on there. I had gone to the San Francisco annual that year, and I really said ‘Oh, I’m just tired of all that mud stuff.” He didn’t like the heavy, thick painting and wanted to make clean paintings with very fine black lines and just a few color areas.
Ever since his high school days with friend Walter Hopps, Kauffman had also been interested in jazz, driving up as far as the Burma Lounge in Oakland to hear live concerts. Hopps and Kauffman, along with their friend Jim Newman had organized jazz concerts professionally—those gave rise for a plan to even build a concert hall. Kauffman drew the design, which owed a lot to his knowledge of architecture. Kauffman also designed the programs for the jazz performances. Concerts were in various locations in Los Angeles, including the Ebell Theater on Wilshire Blvd., and one in downtown. Kauffman, Hopps and Newman had gotten to know some of the jazz musicians, including Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan.
Jazz was a lifelong pursuit, and Kauffman’s interest is especially shown in his early abstract paintings. Take a look at the loose, lyrical and repeated line in the drawings and paintings from 1959—it’s all about improvisation within rhythm. And take a look at the bold use of color, soaring over that rhythm like a saxophone solo. Pulling the primary colors across with a palette knife, Kauffman shows the touch and skill of a jazz musician. I thought about it all this morning while listening to a cut Ruby, My Dear from an album recorded in 1957 with Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane.
There have been some truly pivotal moments in L.A. art history. Some of the groundbreaking achievements were in ceramics, it’s often noted. The biggest move, to my mind, was when John Mason and Peter Voulkos rented a studio on the corner of Glendale Blvd. and Baxter Street in 1957. The first things they made were large-scale sculpture. They adapted industrial technology, and had a huge kiln built that could match their ambitions: “I could stand upright in [the kiln] and a number of friends could stand upright in it also,” Mason has recalled.
Mason’s first sculptures, made in that Glendale Blvd. studio, were vertical, closed forms, with a shape that resembled a spear. Then, over the next few years, he made several huge steps forward, moving into uncharted territory with the medium of fired clay. Mason began to make massive rough-hewn walls; he soon broke into a kind of totemic verticality. Eventually, he built huge cross forms and solid, mysterious geometric shapes.
He did this by developing innovative ways of working, including pushing clay onto a huge easel to make wall reliefs, and compacting the material around a wooden armature to make the vertical sculptures. By 1959 he would use just the weight, gravity and plasticity of the raw clay to build a major work, which will be shown in the main exhibit at the Getty, “Crosscurrents”: the Blue Wall.
“It wasn’t until I started to work on the floor that I began to just cut and slam clay down on the floor and then take pieces or parts of slabs and add them to make a more linear organic form. One of the first was the Blue Wall, which was over twenty feet long and eight or nine feet across,” Mason has recalled.
I’ve been thinking about doing a series of posts about Los Angeles collections. Does everyone know who the supporters of the L.A. art world were in the early days? It’s a huge part of the Pacific Standard Time history, and is addressed in the first chapter of the Getty’s publication (just issued). Local support is chronicled by authors Rebecca Pebody, Andrew Perchuk, Glenn Phillips, and Rani Singh. They rightfully cite the efforts of Galka Scheyer, who championed the Blue Four (Lyonel Feininger, Alexi Jawlensky, Wassily Kandinsky, and–my favorite since childhood–Paul Klee). Moving forward, the authors also recount the great, devoted collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg (they had as a friend and advisor none other than Marcel Duchamp). It’s just the start of a long story of serious collecting in Los Angeles.
But my thought was to chronicle the many collectors of the burgeoning L.A. scene in the 1960s and beyond. Contrary to the erroneous mythology, there were many, especially those cultivated by Henry T. Hopkins and Walter Hopps in their private classes. One of those was, of course, the Weisman collection. Now known as the Weisman Art Foundation, it’s a treasure trove of great modern and contemporary art, and the Foundation does shows each year throughout the world, often lending to major museums. Take, for instance, the loan of DeKooning’s Pink Angels to the current (and highly praised) retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Fortunately for me, William Poundstone has already done a superb job of writing a post about the Weisman Foundation on his blog, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire. There you’ll see photos of the interior of the house and collection. I’ve often taken museum and collector groups to the Weisman Foundation. Though it does require some logistics, it’s well worth it. An easy way to see a selection of works (this one just by California artists) is to head out to the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, on the campus of Pepperdine University. There’s a great exhibition of works on view until December 4th. As you might imagine, one of the star pieces in the show is Craig Kauffman’s Yellow-Blue, from 1965, a superb example of Kauffman’s work.
Last fall, the gallery presented a show of works from the Estate of Craig Kauffman. The same is true this year. As our opening show for the season, we are really proud to have Sensual/Mechanical, an historic survey that traces the development of Craig Kauffman’s paintings, from 1958 to 1964. We are a participating gallery in the Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions, an initiative of the Getty. We organized our Kauffman show to complement the efforts of the museums, and to provide a backstory, kind of like a “prequel” to the upcoming museum shows. Six of those museum shows include Kauffman’s works. Come to see our show first! Here’s why:
- Come see our show because it will reveal the background for the works you will see in other Pacific Standard Time exhibits.
- See this show because it will help you understand the origins of the imagery and forms in Kauffman’s paintings.
- Our show includes some works that haven’t been seen since 1958, some paintings that haven’t been seen since 1963, and several drawings which have never been exhibited.
- The two 1958 paintings were included in a Ferus gallery show that marks a turning point. “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.”
- Come see a show that is hot, sexy and playful (maybe this should be #1?).
- Several art historians, curators and critics have already seen this show and given it “two thumbs up”.
- Learn that Kauffman was influenced by French things: Duchamp, a street in Paris named Git le Couer, and lingerie.
- Overcome the stereotypes and mythology about Los Angeles art, which was far more sophisticated than you may know.
- See how much Kauffman made use of drawing—in each phase of his work.
- We worked our butts off to make this show available, and it’s free!