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.