Anselm Kiefer’s Deutschlands Geisteshelden (Germany’s Spiritual Heroes), 1973, another of the Broads’ works by the artist, is painted on burlap mounted on canvas
Eli Broad with a piece from his collection—Maginot, 1977–93, by Anselm Kiefer, an acrylic and emulsion woodcut mounted on canvas.
The Broads’ collection also includes Anselm Kiefer’s Laßt 1000 Blumen Blühen (Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom), 1998, which uses mixed media on canvas
Much like the collection of paintings he has so carefully amassed, Eli Broad’s passion for contemporary art and the city of Los Angeles has certainly not lost its luster. Talking with the larger-than-life, self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist is like being at a one-man TED conference titled, “The history of art since the 1970s, and why LA is the best.” The collector has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern and contemporary art history and is a fascinating storyteller, recounting not only the inside dish on which artist almost went bankrupt (revealed only off the record) but also how Downtown’s Grand Avenue continues to transform the cultural landscape of the entire West Coast.
Although Broad could be seen as just another wealthy trophy hunter, spend a little time with him and it’s immediately clear his obsession is much more about culture than commerce. He has famously rescued local institutions LACMA and MOCA from the brink of financial ruin and is currently in the midst of building his own museum, The Broad (on—you guessed it—Grand Avenue). As the fall art season of annual events heats up, we sat down and talked to Broad about losing his innocence with MOCA, why Los Angeles is currently white-hot, and the excitement surrounding the highly anticipated 10th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) next month.
You and your wife, Edythe, made your first major art acquisition of an 1888 van Gogh at Sotheby’s in 1972. Was this the catalyst for everything that was to come?
There was no catalyst—it was sort of a progression. If one looks at art and looks at various periods, you move from one period to the next for various reasons. [After the van Gogh], we also bought a 1933 Miró—a very large Miró that had belonged to Nelson Rockefeller—that we still have. So it was a great progression. In 1979 my innocence ended as a collector. Why? Because I became the founding chairman of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA).
Why do you say your innocence ended then?
[Former New York Governor] Nelson Rockefeller once said, “I learned my politics at the Museum of Modern Art.” When you’re dealing with a diverse group of trustees from all kinds of backgrounds— some are very nice ladies who have never been engaged in an organization and never attended the meeting of a board—you try to keep everyone happy, and I find it to be quite a chore.
You, Maria Bell, and Jeffrey Deitch have done unbelievable things at MOCA. It’s the darling of the art world right now.
If you go back and look, MOCA had lost its way. We weren’t showing a permanent collection and so on. So three years ago, the attendance got down to 148,616. This year it will exceed 400,000—triple what it was. We’ve had balanced budgets in 2009 and 2010, with no debt. We’ve added about 25 new and returning trustees since December 2003 and raised some money. David Galligan was at the Walker Art Center for 17 years, and he is now here as executive vice president and COO, allowing Jeffrey to do all the things he’s good at, which is being an impresario for visiting artists and collectors, doing what he does down at Art Basel Miami Beach, and all that stuff.
Can you expand more on the progression of your personal collecting?
After several years—this is going back now 27 years—our walls were filled at home. And we became art addicts and wanted to keep collecting. So I said, “You know what? We are going to create a foundation. And it’s going to be a lending library for museums and universities throughout the world.” And as you may know, we’ve made more than 8,000 loans to nearly 500 institutes worldwide.
And you’re building the new museum now to house your collection, correct?
Yes. For years we said we’d rather find a place where we can have most of the storage and archives together in climate-controlled conditions. The building is 120,000 square feet with 50,000 square feet of galleries, which is more than the Whitney. And we had an architectural competition for it.
So why were Diller Scofidio + Renfro chosen to design the museum? I mean, why not, say, Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA or Sir Norman Foster?
What was the challenge? We’re right next to Walt Disney Concert Hall. How do you do something that doesn’t clash but isn’t anonymous? [Diller Scofidio + Renfro] came up with a fascinating idea, this veil type of building. It’s an interesting answer—a complex answer.
Is starting your own museum rather than giving the collection to another art institution about having as many people see the collection as possible?
Absolutely. In fact, I talked to Glenn [Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art] and I said, “Glenn, if I gave you our collection what would you do?” He said, “Don’t give it to me. I’d only show 20 or 30 things—the rest we’d put in storage.” The same thing would be true at any other major museum. I’ve been involved in Downtown for a long time—MOCA since 1979, then Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. I got involved after many people thought it was dead and would never happen.
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The Broads’ collection also includes Nürnberg (Nuremberg), 1982, in which Anselm Kiefer introduces straw to add visual complexity to his piece
Eli Broad in front of another of Anselm Kiefer’s works, Alarichs Grab (Alaric’s Grave), 1969–89
The Broads’ collection of Anselm Kiefer pieces includes Das Balder-Lied (The Balder Song), 1977–88, a photograph superimposed with mistletoe and mounted on treated lead
You are referring to the Grand Avenue Project?
Grand Avenue, yes. I created the Grand Avenue Committee together with people from the city and the county and others saying, “We need to have a master plan for all of this or else they’ll screw it up, piece by piece.” I finally got the city and county, who do not like one another, to form a joint-powers authority.
You wanted your museum to be Downtown because of critical mass?
I believe every city in world history or today needs a vibrant center for the same reason people from the other boroughs come to Manhattan from Connecticut or Westchester or New Jersey or wherever. It’s because there is only one place where you have sports, entertainment, culture, etc. And by the way, Los Angeles has the performing arts—no one has a better symphony or symphony hall than we do. We have more theatrical productions than New York or London. So Grand Avenue is the place. And on Grand Avenue within three blocks, there are going to be works by [architects] Wolf Prix, Frank Gehry, Arata Isozaki, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and a couple blocks away, Thom Mayne. I can think of no city in the world with that.
It is amazing. And what is the date for the opening of your space?
[It should open in] 2013.
You say you only attend three art fairs—Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, and Frieze Art Fair. For someone as passionate about art as you, why do you attend only those three fairs? Every city in every country seems to have some kind of art show now—what does ABMB specifically have that attracts you?
The difference is quality. There are so many fairs nowadays that you could travel for an entire year just going from fair to fair, but they’re not all created equal. It’s important to focus. The Art Basel fairs and Frieze Art Fair have strong material and sophisticated participants.
And you started going to ABMB from the beginning, 10 years ago?
From the beginning.
What is it that you love about ABMB? How do you think it has differentiated itself from all the other fairs?
There is a lot going on. It’s a party town, and I love going to see Martin Margulies (The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse) and other collectors when I’m there, and everyone has dinners, and so on. It’s a way to get reacquainted and have fun. It’s a big social event.
Do you attend the parties?
We go to some of the parties. The beach concerts held at The Raleigh are the most consistently impressive. This year MOCA LA will present a performance at The Raleigh by 2manydjs and their band, Soulwax. Jeffrey Deitch is a great impresario, and he can always be counted on to put on a spectacular event.
Is The Margulies Collection your favorite of the private collections?
Yes, the Rubell Family Collection also. They’re the two—oh, and also Norman Braman’s collection.
Have you ever purchased a piece at the show by an emerging artist you weren’t previously acquainted with?
Not that we weren’t totally acquainted with. We bought a Roxy Paine from James Cohan’s gallery. We just loved the work.
Do you have a favorite program, like the artist conversation series? Or do you go to the satellite fairs?
Some, if we have enough time. I haven’t spoken at the artist conversation series in a few years. I was on a panel with David Rockefeller a number of years ago selling Los Angeles as the new contemporary art capital.
I think you were the perfect person to do it!
That was fun.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT Paul Schimmel and Hauser & Wirth pick downtown spot for arts complex
This early 19th century old flour mill building on east Third Street will be renovated to become the new Hauser, Wirth and Schimmel Arts Center in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
By Deborah Vankin contact the reporter
Paul Schimmel, formerly of MOCA, joins with Hauser & Wirth to plan an arts complex for DTLA
Art, events, food, coffee; an immersive experience. That’s what’s planned at a seven-building compound in DTLA
Former Museum of Contemporary Art chief curator Paul Schimmel and international gallery powerhouse Hauser & Wirth will officially announce on Friday the location for their ambitious, multidisciplinary arts center: a former flour mill complex in the downtown Los Angeles arts district.
The 100,000-square-foot, seven-building compound at 901 E. 3rd St. — which includes a Neoclassical bank building, a five-story mill structure and a 20,000-square-foot interior courtyard — will open as Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in January with a two-month pop-up group show before closing for renovations. It’s scheduled to reopen permanently in early 2016, offering “a new paradigm for the 21st century art gallery,” organizers said in a statement.
Hauser & Wirth, which shows contemporary and modern art and has exhibition spaces in London, Zurich and New York, has long been planning a Los Angeles outpost. Last spring it signed Schimmel as a partner and set about scouting for a location.
The arts center will be a for-profit business with intimate rooms as well as wide-open warehouse spaces for what organizers said will be “museum-caliber” exhibitions, at which art will not be for sale, as well as commercial art shows, project spaces for art-making and public events. A restaurant and bar will be on site.
The center foresees three to five exhibitions on view at any one time, turning over multiple times a year, by artists from around the world and not necessarily affiliated with Hauser & Wirth — though the gallery will also show its own artists, including a heavy L.A. contingency.
“More of our artists live in L.A. than in any other city. They’re a diverse, multigenerational group whose work informs our international program and shapes contemporary dialogue,” said the gallery’s president and owner, Iwan Wirth. “It seems particularly fitting to launch our third decade by creating Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and pioneering a new gallery model in the city known around the world as a place for imagination, reinvention and new forms of cultural expression.”
Schimmel, who will run the L.A. arts complex, spoke about his vision and programming plans for the space, which he calls “a magical place that time has not touched.”
Why did you choose this particular neighborhood for Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, and did you look elsewhere?
The neighborhood, I have to say, was the center of where we were looking. It’s remarkable the changes that’ve been going on there, a real groundswell of people moving into these live-work spaces and the creation of this sort of Lower Manhattan. It’s transformed, almost overnight, into this serious urban center. It’s also a couple of blocks from the Gold Line. But we looked all over, on both sides of the river, in West Hollywood, the Wilshire Corridor.
First on my mind was to find a unique space where we could show different kinds of work, simultaneously. Here there are seven different buildings, built over a period of 40 years and built around a courtyard. That meant a great deal to me. Artists love the idea of sitting outside and having coffee and looking at something. It was really the unique assembly of buildings — and there were simply more of them in this area.
You envision the arts center as a sort of exhibition-gallery-event space hybrid with free admission. What would you compare it to, physically and programming-wise, in Los Angeles right now?
I’d compare it to the Geffen, in terms of scale and that it’s downtown. It’s a little like Mass MOCA [in Boston], one of the children of MOCA, in that it’s in an industrial area in different buildings. It’s of that lineage.
Hauser & Wirth is a major international gallery with a very strong representation of L.A. artists, so that’s one kind of programming. The commitment is to do both historical exhibitions, like you’d see in museums, that really explore things thematically, generationally, conceptually. It will also be a space that will invite artists with whom Hauser & Wirth has no affiliation, or maybe have never even shown in L.A., to come and make projects, so it’s a project space too. It’s a facility that’s really a destination — a strong educational component, with exhibitions, events, a restaurant and bar, and places for people to linger and experience art in a more casual manner.
Will it be anything like Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the arts complex set to open in southwest England next month?
There are similarities. But Hauser & Wirth Somerset is very bucolic, two hours from London. It is the romantic 19th century version of this, which is, in some ways, coming out of the early 20th century industrialization.
Tell us about the debut show planned for January, prior to renovations. Will it include Hauser & Wirth artists such as Mark Bradford, Paul McCarthy and Sterling Ruby?
It’s a group show, artists who have emerged in the last 15 years. There may be some lesser-known names and quite a few well-known names. There will be five or six artists, and each will have their own building. So five or six gallery-sized, one-person exhibitions, with people from the gallery and people who have never shown with Hauser & Wirth previously. But all with a connection to L.A. I wanted to start with work made by artists working here and now. I wanted it to be relative to the 21st century, rather than, say, the 1980s.
I remember when PS1 opened years ago in New York. It was quite special that they invited artists to come in and make works that would go on display in a building that was untouched, a raw space. [In January] we will have made none of the improvements to the space yet. It will have 100 years of history in it. We’ll put up lights and it’ll have security and the art will be safe from the elements, but other than that, it will be untouched, the way it looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
What’s the commitment, financially?
It’s a very substantial commitment in terms of the capital improvements to the facility. And it’s a very serious, long-term commitment overall. We have a 10-year lease with two five-year options after that. So it’s something that will evolve, organically, over many years.
You’ve described the courtyard as one of the largest in downtown L.A. What do you plan to use it for — and will you commission new art for the space?
It will start with Day One. There will be sculptural works there, some amazingly large-scale works. The first one is new; I’d describe it as a small temple, but I can’t say who it’s by. I suspect you’ll see a beautiful, Louise Bourgeois spider there and possibly a Paul McCarthy monumental bronze work.
I think the courtyard will be both part of our exhibition program and sometimes it will stand alone. It’s surrounded on all four sides by buildings and it’s quite large, like a courtyard in a monastery, so it has a kind of wonderful, isolated meditative quality. Who knows — maybe one day we’ll have a sound piece with nothing to look at, just art to listen to.
ART REVIEW LONDON
LA’s Art Wave
Upgraded spaces, secondary spaces and new galleries, Jonathan Griffin reports on Los Angeles’s growing contemporary art scene
By Jonathan Griffin
Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Rebel Dabble Babble (detail), 2012. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the artists and the Box, Los Angeles
Mike Kelley, Switching Marys, 2004–5. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles
MOCA board cochairs Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, MOCA curator Bennett Simpson and MOCA director Philippe Vergne (left to right). Photo: Rachel Murray/WireImage
Henry Codax at Michael Thibault, Los Angeles, 2014, curated by Shoot the Lobster. Photo: Laura Schawelka. Courtesy Michael Thibault, Los Angeles
Things move fast in Los Angeles. Enterprises bloom, seemingly overnight, and then wither without warning. Careers too. The city is in a perpetual state of emergence and disintegration; a young settlement that is already older than people imagined it would ever be when they perched their stilted wooden homes on dusty hillsides in the early decades of the twentieth century. Someone recently told me that the hundreds of towering Washingtonia palm trees that were planted to prettify the city for the 1932 Olympics are now at the end of their natural lifespans, and will start keeling over any minute. A compelling image; also totally untrue, it turns out. LA was built on imaginative fictions, and they continue to be the city’s major export.Los Angeles’s art community is eyeing the eastern horizon with a mixture of anticipation and scepticism. We are witnessing an influx of commercial galleries and midcareer artists, many arriving from New York. Two significant new institutional hires – Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, and Philippe Vergne, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art – relocated from the East Coast. (Butler has ties to the city, having served as curator at MOCA from 1996 to 2006.) The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.
The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.
Plenty is happening from within, too. Three of LA’s prominent galleries – David Kordansky Gallery, Michael Kohn and Various Small Fires – have chosen 2014 as the year to upgrade to bigger – and/or better-placed – buildings, adding to the gallery district that has emerged in Mid-City around Highland and La Brea Avenues. Across Grand Avenue from MOCA, in Downtown, the distinctive latticed ‘veil’ designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro for philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad’s museum is now mostly in place; the porous structure will provide a foil to its brash and shiny neighbour, the Frank Gehry-designed 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall, when the Broad opens in 2015. Fans of the city’s irreverent new art fair, Paramount Ranch, organised by newbie gallerists Alex Freedman and Robbie Fitzpatrick with artists Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen, are waiting to see whether it will become a regular fixture in the art calendar.
To equate Los Angeles’s short-term, mercurial dynamic with the abundance of chutzpah among its creative and entrepreneurial classes would be to see only half the picture. Rarely has a city developed with such scant regard for its own future. The institutions that flourish here – and I include certain successful commercial galleries alongside art schools and major museums such as LACMA and the Hammer – do so because of their farsighted commitment to the ongoing cultural life of their community. It was not always thus. LACMA’s atrocious Art of the Americas building was completed in 1986 in a half-baked attempt to augment its existing galleries; it is already in a state of dilapidation. The museum recently unveiled a proposal by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to bulldoze most of its campus and replace it with an elevated black building whose liquiform footprint rhymes with the site’s prehistoric tar pits.
Drivers are still confused by signs around Downtown pointing to the Temporary Contemporary – the huge warehouse space adopted by MOCA in 1983 and renamed the Geffen Contemporary in 1996, after it proved too popular among artists and visitors to relinquish. Hopes are high – though cautious – that Vergne will shore up the museum’s financial and scholarly foundations after they eroded under previous directors Jeremy Strick and Jeffrey Deitch. Both discovered, to their grave cost, that LA’s philanthropic class is not easy to mobilise in the service of high culture. At the lowest point of Deitch’s leadership, commentators looked on in anguish as even the museum’s own board hesitated to part with the necessary funds to save the institution. Following desperate discussions about the possibility of subsuming MOCA within another, more solvent institution, the endowment soared, passing $100 million in January this year.
Noncollecting, kunsthalle-style nonprofits have traditionally been LA’s weakness. In January of this year, attempting to redress this deficit, curator Cesar Garcia opened the Mistake Room, an exhibition space in a warehouse south of Downtown that pledges to focus on underexposed artists working outside the United States. Hearts sank when Oscar Murillo was announced as the first artist to get a show. Such slavish adherence to current market trends has been the failure of other nonprofits, such as LAXART (where Garcia used to work). The Santa Monica Museum of Art, the region’s foremost kunsthalle, will move into a new and expanded building when a light-rail station, connecting the east and west sides of the city, opens at the redeveloping Bergamot Station Arts Center in 2016.
Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city
Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city, many of them secondary spaces for galleries established elsewhere. Sprüth Magers, of Berlin and London, will open an LA gallery helmed by Sarah Watson – formerly director of the defunct L&M gallery that opened in Venice, California, in 2010 – towards the end of this year. Alongside local hero John Baldessari, who is unrepresented in his hometown, the gallery already boasts a range of West Coast artists, including Thomas Demand, who recently relocated here from Berlin. This spring, Martos Gallery will complement their current New York programme by opening a gallery on LA’s Washington Boulevard, next to Michael Thibault Gallery – where Jose Martos’s project Shoot the Lobster presented monochromes by the fictional artist Henry Codax in January.
Gavlak Gallery, which has operated from Palm Beach, Florida, since 2005, will move in June to a building on Highland Avenue, directly between Regen Projects, Redling Fine Art and Hannah Hoffman Gallery. Founder Sarah Gavlak will return to her Palm Beach space during the busy Florida winters, but will benefit, for the rest of the year, from being nearer to the numerous Angeleno artists on her roster, Lisa Anne Auerbach and Mungo Thomson among them.
Construction is already under way on Michele Maccarone’s LA outpost, a large warehouse next to 356 S. Mission Rd, the gallery opened by Gavin Brown specially for Laura Owens’s blockbuster solo show in January 2013, now operated jointly by Brown and Owens. (Maccarone’s choice of location echoes her decision, in 2007, to move next door to Brown in the West Village.) She is following two of her artists, Oscar Tuazon and Alex Hubbard, who recently moved to California, and aims to open in spring 2015. Team, also from New York, plans to open an LA space in September 2015 with shows by Cory Arcangel, Ryan McGinley and Gert & Uwe Tobias.
The really big news, of course, is that the widely respected Paul Schimmel – chief curator at MOCA until he was unceremoniously ousted by Deitch and Broad in 2012 – will himself be partnering with Zürich-based gallery Hauser & Wirth in 2015. Although details have yet to be announced, Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel is expected to set up shop in the district of Downtown close to the Box, the gallery owned by Paul McCarthy and run by his daughter, Mara. McCarthy is thought to be a major reason for Hauser & Wirth’s expansion westwards, alongside other locally unrepresented gallery artists Thomas Houseago, Rachel Khedoori and Sterling Ruby (the last of whom also happens to be affiliated with Sprüth Magers).
Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise
Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise. One could even cast as far back as 1948, when artist William Copley and his brother-in-law opened a gallery in Beverly Hills showing surrealist art by Man Ray, Max Ernst and René Magritte. Due to the indifference of the local customer base, it closed the following year, as did the nearby Modern Institute of Art – an underresourced, proto-MOCA that lasted only two years and makes the latter-day museum look like a financial triumph. During the late 1980s, Luhring Augustine had a short-lived foothold in Los Angeles, in partnership with Max Hetzler. Between 2005 and 2007, New York dealer Zach Feuer ran an LA outpost, partnered with local gallerist Niels Kantor. Last summer, L&M closed its Venice space after just three years in the city. Most recently Perry Rubenstein, who moved his entire New York gallery to a large, handsomely renovated space on Highland Avenue in 2011, filed for bankruptcy in March this year. These enterprises all failed for subtly different reasons, but the moral remains: LA’s promise of boundless opportunity may simply be another one of those fictions that it is so successful at exporting.
None of the gallerists I spoke to claimed to be moving for commercial reasons; although there are serious collectors in California, there are not enough to support even a fraction of the businesses located here. Galleries sell their wares far and wide in order to maintain bricks-and-mortar programmes under the SoCal sunshine. Meanwhile, their clients also travel far and wide in order to build international-quality collections. There is nothing chic about provincialism.
Rather, galleries want to be close to their artists. Inexpensive real estate, skilled fabricators and a low-key (though intellectually serious) social scene provide near-perfect conditions for artistic production. Not to mention the magnificent landscape and great food. Those artists who move here – whether to study or teach, to step into the limelight or out of it – rarely seem to leave. Made in LA 2014, the second of the Hammer’s biennial exhibitions, this time curated by Michael Ned Holte and Connie Butler, will open in June. It promises to reveal what Dave Hickey, reflecting on the California Minimalism of the 1960s and 70s, describes as ‘a flowing stream of interests, passions, proclivities, and occasions – a fluid micro-chronicle of the artist-as-citizen, coping with paradise [… with] a sequence of tactile, visual solutions to specific visible occasions that take place at the blurred interface of the artist and the world.’ That flowing stream, today, seems more like a river delta.
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.
On a crisp evening on Wilshire Boulevard, pop star Christina Aguilera is leading the parade down the red carpet. Tom Hanks and his wife follow, along with actor James Franco, reality TV fixtures Nicole Richie and Kim Kardashian, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger and Hollywood power broker David Geffen.They aren’t here for a film premiere. The crowd is celebrating the opening of a new building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, named after the Fiji Water and POM Wonderful billionaires who donated $45 million to Lacma in 2008.
The $54 million structure, designed by Renzo Piano, the go-to architect for major museum commissions, is the latest symbol of Los Angeles’s art boom.
It’s an art world with its own unique structure and rules. Billionaires don’t just donate to museums, they build their own. Hollywood agents, media personalities and studio executives pack museum boards, alongside traditional philanthropists. And contemporary art—a market that’s fluctuated wildly in recent years—is the only art that really matters to many top collectors and museums.
New art buildings are springing up around the city. Lacma has added about 100,000 square feet of gallery space since 2007 and increased attendance by 50% to 905,000. Nearly 7 miles away is the site of a new museum that art collector Eli Broad is creating to display pieces from his collection of 2,000 artworks. Art dealer Larry Gagosian has doubled the size of his Beverly Hills art gallery and recently bought a midcentury-modern glass house once owned by Gary Cooper for $15.5 million in nearby Holmby Hills, where he will host an art party to coincide with next year’s Academy Awards.
The Los Angeles Power List
“L.A. is more than catching up to New York—in some ways, it’s moving past it,” says Agnes Gund, a prominent New York-based art collector who used to run the board of trustees at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and served on the board of Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Trust for 12 years until 2006.
In June, Jeffrey Deitch, one of New York’s most powerful gallery owners, relocated to Los Angeles to become the director of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a rare move from the private art-dealing sphere to the museum world. The owners of the Armory Show, New York’s largest art fair, are putting together a major art fair to debut in downtown L.A. next fall.
“The art world is a very fluid place, but there is no question that L.A. is very hot at the moment,” says Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
To be sure, L.A.’s transformation into a world-class contemporary art city is an overnight sensation several decades in the making. It has long been bolstered by rich cultural institutions like the museums of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and by its leading art schools. The city still doesn’t possess the extensive collections of older art found in New York, Paris and London, but it does boast a cadre of notable contemporary artists and powerful collectors.
One of the most active figures in the art scene is Mr. Broad, the 77-year-old billionaire who revived MOCA in 2008 with a $30 million infusion after it teetered on the edge of a financial crisis. In August, Mr. Broad announced that he would build a museum in downtown Los Angeles to display works from his art collection, which includes a 22-foot-tall Richard Serra torqued ellipse and a nearly 12-foot-high Jeff Koons balloon sculpture. Designed by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the museum, called the Broad Collection, will boast 36,000 square feet of gallery space—more than the entire Whitney Museum in New York. A spokeswoman for Mr. Broad said that the new museum will help make his works accessible to the largest possible audience.
Building a museum of one’s own is also in keeping with local tradition. In the past few decades, private collectors like industrialist Norton Simon and petroleum magnate Armand Hammer have opened some of the area’s most prominent museums—long after families like Whitney, Frick and Morgan launched a golden museum era in New York.
The directors of L.A.’s museums have been moving aggressively to tap into the wealth of collectors in the entertainment and tech industries. These days their boards look quite different from those of their New York counterparts, which are largely composed of traditional philanthropists and established financiers.
Since Michael Govan moved from New York’s Dia Art Foundation in 2006 to take over Lacma, he has added 30 trustees to the now-49-voting-member board, transforming its makeup with new additions like Dasha Zhukova, the girlfriend of Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich; fashion designer and restaurateur Eva Chow, and David Bohnett, the Internet entrepreneur who created GeoCities.com. He has also added Willow Bay, the newscaster wife of Mr. Iger, and Terry Semel, former head of Warner Bros. and Yahoo.
Maria Bell, the head writer of the daytime soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” became co-chair of MOCA’s board of trustees last summer and immediately began working with Mr. Broad to recruit new members. MOCA has added 19 new trustees since December 2008, including London diamond dealer and art collector Laurence Graff and newsprint mogul Peter Brant, who lives in Greenwich, Conn. Last year, MOCA raised more than $4 million from a gala where Lady Gaga performed. Next month, it will host another gala, curated—down to the food—by video artist Doug Aitken with contributions from musicians Beck, Caetano Veloso and Devendra Banhart.
Eli Broad at home in L.A. (Johns) “Flag,” 1967 copyright Jasper Johns/VAGA, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection
Ann Philbin, who moved to the city a little over a decade ago to run UCLA’s Hammer Museum, took in just over $100,000 at the museum’s 2002 fund-raiser. Now, the event raises more than $1 million each year. Her board of overseers numbers five executives from major talent agencies, including Bob Gersh of the Gersh Agency and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment’s George Freeman, who represents Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe.
In the auction world, Christie’s says consignments from the Los Angeles region have tripled in the past year. Next month, Christie’s plans to auction three major L.A. estates, including those of actor Dennis Hopper and art dealer Robert Shapazian, a collector of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol who helped Mr. Gagosian build the L.A. outpost of his gallery. This past spring, the auction house sold the estate of “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton for $93.3 million, including a flag painting by Jasper Johns that sold for more than $28 million. Some in L.A.’s art world have complained that collectors here are more likely to have their estates auctioned off than to bequeath them to museums.
Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, says he used to travel L.A. three or four times a year to pay visits to clients. In the past year, he flew here twice as often. “After Manhattan, L.A. is my top priority,” Mr. Porter says.
Lacma’s Resnick Pavilion Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal
Still, Los Angeles has yet to develop its own auction scene. After opening a salesroom in Beverly Hills in 1997, Christie’s closed the outpost two years ago, finding that its auctions there weren’t generating significant revenue. Now, it focuses on consigning works from L.A. collectors to sell at its other salesrooms.
“Rather than putting together a $5 million sale twice a year, it made more business sense to nurture collectors and go after $50 million worth of art to sell elsewhere in the world,” says Andrea Fiuczynski, president of Christie’s, Los Angeles.
Los Angeles collectors overwhelmingly focus on contemporary art, and the city’s art scene owes much of its rapid ascent to the upswing of prices for the genre, which soared during the art market’s boom years. In 2000, Sotheby’s sold $157.8 million worth of contemporary art world-wide. That figure rose to $1.48 billion by 2008 before falling to $442.8 million in 2009, after the art market crashed. Prices are now stabilizing, although industry experts say that they likely won’t return to astronomical precrash levels.
The volatility of the contemporary art market—as well as the overall economy—shook up some institutions in L.A., in particular MOCA. MOCA’s 2008 federal tax returns showed that the museum had drained about $24 million of its reserves to cover operating expenses after a spate of overspending. It was saved by Mr. Broad’s donation.
A Nancy Rubins sculpture outside MOCA Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal
Still, as prices for contemporary art rose, so did the value of art created by many of the elder statesmen of L.A.’s art scene. Pop artist Ed Ruscha, a MOCA trustee known for his deadpan images of parking lots, gas stations and L.A. architecture, now sells pieces for $3 million to $6 million at auction; he didn’t come close to crossing the $1 million barrier before 2002. Works by John Baldessari, a conceptual artist and former UCLA instructor whose signature style includes overlaying historical images with opaque colored dots, now fetch more than $1 million.
The city also boasts an ascendant community of younger artists, many of whom came to Los Angeles for the city’s art schools. Michigan-born Mike Kelley moved to L.A. to attend the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with Mr. Baldessari, and decided to stay on. Now his pieces, from comic-book-style drawings to sculptures that incorporate found objects like plush toys, are shown in museums like MoMA and the Whitney in New York.
“You cannot talk about contemporary art today without taking into account what is happening in L.A.,” says MoMA’s Mr. Lowry.
L&M Arts, a blue-chip Manhattan gallery that sells work by artists from Picasso and Matisse to Warhol and Rothko, opened its first Los Angeles space last month on Venice Boulevard, a central thoroughfare in L.A.’s beach neighborhood. It was a big shift for a gallery that in New York resides in a classic-looking townhouse on the Upper East Side.
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and artist Doug Aitken at Mr. Aitken’s Venice Beach studio. Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal
“In New York, we largely did prestigious historical shows, but we wanted to be more involved with living artists,” says Robert Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker who co-owns L&M. So far, the gamble has paid off: Within a week, all the Paul McCarthy sculptures on view at its inaugural exhibition were snapped up. The sculptures cost between $2 million and $5 million apiece.
Matthew Marks, another New York dealer, plans to follow suit. Mr. Marks, who last year purchased a house in the Hollywood Hills to accompany his new gallery space, says many artists on his roster—which includes Ellsworth Kelly, Peter Fischli and David Weiss—rarely showed their work in L.A. in the past and now seek more exposure there.
Veteran L.A. dealers Timothy Blum and Jeff Poe say they have also profited from the explosion of demand. The duo opened their 500-square-foot gallery, Blum & Poe, in 1994. “Back then, there was no market here to speak of,” says Mr. Blum. “The change has been tectonic.” Blum & Poe currently occupies a 22,000-square-foot building in Culver City.
While contemporary art is booming, other sectors still lag behind. That is why Lacma’s Mr. Govan, after a spate of building projects and contemporary acquisitions, has branched out to areas like costumes, Oceanic arts and tribal art.
“We’re done growing,” Mr. Govan says. “We’ve done the quantity. Now it’s about quality.”
12/11/2014 at 11:19 AM
Maurizio Cattelan’s L.A. Art Tour, With a Stop at Jim Carrey’s Painting Studio
Maurizio Cattelan with Jim Carrey at the actor’s art studio in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.
Fueled by kombucha, sprouted raw almonds, Whole Foods sushi, and chocolate-covered espresso beans with a very special ingredient, we traveled all over Los Angeles visiting nine artists and 14 galleries in four-and-a-half days while the majority of the art, fashion, and PR worlds flocked to the other side of the country for the annual mayhem that is Art Basel Miami Beach. After dodging the initial inquiries — Are you going to Miami? So, you’re not in Miami? Why aren’t you in Miami? — we began our quest in earnest to see what happens in L.A. when “everyone” is in Miami. (Our expedition was from November 30 to December 4.) The answer: artists inspired by Hollywood, anarchy, pop culture, the body, animals, vegetables, minerals, and a recurring theme of Surrealism, which reinforces the notion that anything goes in L.A., a city where artists feel free to take risks, fail, and experiment without the dark cloud of the market hanging over them.
Our first stop (directly from LAX) was New York artist and gallerist (47 Canal) Margaret Lee’s exhibition at Team (bungalow) in Venice. The second exhibition at the gallery’s new West Coast outpost featured one chrome banana and one rose atop a chrome plinth set on softer-than-soft alpaca. It was raining, an extremely rare, newsworthy event, and it continued to pour for most of the week. During a brief respite from the weather, we popped in on Venice locals Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen at their home/studio compound. They showed us around their gallery space, Paradise Garage, and Nathalie Jones’s installation in the window on the back alley. Craft gave us a sneak peek of her new, life-size marionette-like ladies that she’ll be showing at the hip, new gallery Jenny’s in Silver Lake next year and her giant bronze teepee with eyes in the yard. During the visit, Mexican artist and Venice local Gabriel Kuri stopped by with his kids for a play date and some pizza. Craft and Monkkonen are both sculptors who met while studying at UCLA (she was his TA and their teacher Charles Ray played matchmaker) and are key figures in the L.A. art scene as artists, gallerists, and co-founders of the coolest art fair ever, Paramount Ranch, which runs from January 31 through February 1 of next year and takes place on an old Western movie set in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Margaret Lee, “Do You See What I See (Banana and Rose)” 2014. Steel, chrome, plastic, platinum rose, alpaca fur; 2 pedestals, each: 16 x 16 x 57 inches. Photo: jwpictures.com. Courtesy of the artist and Team (bungalow).
The next evening we popped in to see painter Alex Becerra at his Venice studio where he had been laying down some tracks with a friend. Becerra recently had his first solo exhibition of his so-bad-it’s-good, gooey, and irreverent paintings at L.A. gallery LTD and there were several finished or nearly complete paintings in the studio including one of a naked lady playing the tuba, an office chair on a studio floor, and the tour de force Rex-Goliath (2014) depicting a naked black man lounging in a pose reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia, his orange-and-yellow robe splayed open, an empty bottle of Rex Goliath wine on one side. The figure lies on a white ground built up with thick gobs of paint over two years. Becerra also showed us his handmade tattoos that he applies himself (except for hard-to-reach areas) and that cover his legs, arms, chest, and elsewhere. Becerra compared them to prison tattoos — very DIY — and told us how he started out as a self-taught tattoo artist and referred to the crude style as “bad lines, good intentions.” He also showed us a giant book of his sketches — scanned, copied, and bound at Kinkos; thick as a phone book — that featured every good, bad, weird, and funny drawing he’s made in the past few years — a taste of his process and source imagery for the paintings.
Jim Carrey in his art studio, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.
Next stop was Jim Carrey’s studio. Yes, that Jim Carrey. He’s been drawing and painting since he was a kid. And for several years now, Carrey has been making art that is as expressive and emotive as his work as a talented funnyman. One technique he has devised involves applying wet paint on top of a layer of dry paint and then scraping it off — it creates the look of a silkscreen from the lifting of the bottom layer of paint and remnants of the top layer. His imagery ranges from portraits of women to self-portraits, as well as pop icons like James Dean as a child, a baby gorilla, a mad elephant, and more. He often incorporates text and occasionally disrupts the paintings with slashes that he later stitches back together. His energy is boundless, and he’s clearly having fun testing the boundaries of painting and sculpture. Carrey is also gradually inserting his art practice into his Hollywood persona — if you didn’t catch it, he debuted a new piece, a Jeff Daniels puppet, on Jimmy Fallon, and it’s a must-see moment.
Jim Carrey with his puppet of Jeff Daniels. Courtesy of Jim Carrey.
After visiting Jim, we stopped by LACMA to see the sublime Pierre Huyghe show, a mind-blowing exhibition, filled with evocative beauty and wonder. The show is also quite groundbreaking for its open floor plan and meandering installation, which left us a little starry-eyed (L.A. will be its only American venue). And we caught Larry Sultan’s inspiring show, which reveals a master lensman’s ability to capture lives that exist behind closed doors.
Day 3 Despite the heavy rain, we started off with a visit to L.A. native Aaron Sandnes, who showed works in progress incorporating bullets, gleaming auto-paint paintings, bullet-wound drawings, and even a custom motorcycle. Very relevant. The studio is a boy’s dream come true — it’s filled with toys and weapons. Sandnes was bursting with ideas for ambitious works like a spinning-neon-hands sign. Definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Next up was a visit to Jonas Wood’s exhibition of large paintings of ceramic pots and plants at the new home of David Kordansky Gallery in mid-city. We almost didn’t get inside because of the rain (leaking was a prominent theme of the trip — keep reading). In typical L.A. fashion, we drove across the street to what is arguably the city’s most beautiful gallery, Kayne Griffin Corcoran, to see Mark Handforth’s sublime exhibition of new sculptures, including an old-school telephone-receiver light sculpture, a turquoise star and giant coat hanger in the courtyard, among other works. Gallery partner Maggie Kayne set us up in the James Turrell perceptual cell for a little dose of Zen and then took us on a tour of the gallery’s back room where we saw new resin works by Romanian artist Daniel Knorr.
Next, we ventured to the new downtown gallery scene (actually more like east of downtown, not an easily named district). First stop, Night Gallery to see the new show, “Paris de Noche,” featuring new Michael Jackson–face wall reliefs and truck paintings by Monkkonen (the exhibition’s curator), Amy Yao ladders, and Andrei Koschmieder’s corrugated fence paintings. A few buckets that could have passed for art revealed yet another leaky roof. Across the parking lot (this time we walked), we visited Francois Ghebaly Gallery (more leaking) to see the partially de-installed exhibition by L.A.-based artist Sayre Gomez with works in the back by another local, Joel Kyack. One highlight — his truck-nuts chair, which we tried on for size. We continued our journey through the rainy streets of industrial warehouses to see Christina Forrer’s brightly colored, hand-woven tapestries at the new gallery Grice Bench (co-founded by artist Jon Pylypchuk). Here the leak came from under the front door, so buckets were useless. Forrer’s weavings featured varying textures demonstrating her unique take on the traditional craft with startling imagery of dark fairy-tale-like imagery of girls and boys behaving badly and a portrait of a gypsy woman, among others.
Maurizio Cattelan with Frances Stark (left) and Ali Subotnick (right) at Stark’s studio. Courtesy of Frances Stark.
Then a visit to Frances Stark’s Chinatown studio; we met up with Stark and her muse/protégé Bobby Jesus. After an adventurous and drenched trip to Little Tokyo for lunch, which culminated in two flat tires, Stark showed us works around the studio and we watched her recent video of photos from her Instagram feed (What Goes on @threalstarkiller, 2014) as well as parts of her revealing video Osservate, legette con me (2012), which features Skype conversations between Stark and online paramours, set to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. And before calling it a day, we stopped by to see the “Support/Surface” exhibition at 356 Mission Rd. (more buckets) and got a preview of Jay Chung and Q. Takeki Maeda’s show of new photos in the basement gallery. The space, which pioneered the new downtown scene and is run by Laura Owens with Ethan Swan and others, is one of the most active, dynamic, and exciting venues in town, featuring exhibitions and programs that rival the local museums. Legendary book- and art-wares shop Ooga Booga set up an outpost in the front of the space so we couldn’t help but browse the merchandise. We also met up with Joel Kyack, who, because his studio in the building next door had been flooded, gave us a run-through of his work via a slideshow on his laptop that he made for a recent talk at Pomona College. He showed images and recounted his outlandish performances, several fountain pieces, videos, and multimedia paintings. The works are multilayered, humorous, boyish, and complicated, mixing survivalism and Surrealism in unconventional ways.
Kaari Upson holding the mattress she is going to cast for Cattelan, which will be a hanging sculpture made entirely of silicone. Courtesy of Kaari Upson.
After a visit to the Hammer Museum to see shows of Robert Heinecken, Jim Hodges, Frances Upritchard, Yuri Ancarani, N. Dash, and Mario Garcia Torres, we made a drive-by visit to Marilyn Monroe’s burial site across the street, Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, where Farrah Fawcett, Don Rickles, Truman Capote, John Cassavetes, and Heather O’Rourke (of Poltergeist fame) were also laid to rest. Heading east, we stopped at Matthew Marks Gallery to check out a couple of flower drawings and two new sculptures by artist and UCLA professor Charles Ray (stainless-steel sculptures of a mime on a cot and a compacted car). We touched the art. Then we headed to the Koreatown studio of Kaari Upson, whose stellar show is currently on view at Lower East Side gallery Ramiken Crucible. Upson made us green tea and pumpkin pie and showed us her molds for her recent work. With her large-scale installations, esoteric videos, layered narratives, soft sculptures, and intuitive drawings, Upson could be the bastard child of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, with a strong feminist bent. As the rain became lighter, we headed to Silver Lake to see Max Hooper Schneider’s new show at newish gallery Jenny’s. Inside we found a popcorn trolley turned aquarium filled with live snails, a retrofitted ’80s treadmill with snakeskin printed on leather, and intricate drawings of amoebalike shapes in bright colors, sandwiched in Plexiglas and suspended from the ceiling. The show is entitled “The Pound” and is a precocious, strange, and compelling work.
Max Hooper Schneider, “Aral Spring Trolley,” 2014. Modified popcorn trolley, live freshwater ecosystem, genus Pomacea snails, submersible filter. Photo: Michael Underwood/underwoodpix.com. Courtesy of Jenny’s.
Moving on, we headed across town to the Culver City gallery district (no buckets there). We started at Susanne Vielmetter to see Dasha Shishkin’s new large-scale, strange, and colorful drawings of people from another world and time, reminiscent of the turn of the last century (you can almost taste the absinthe) as well as new abstract paintings by Angel Otero. We drove (rain clouds hovering) to L.A. powerhouse and Culver City pioneer Blum & Poe, to look at new photographs by Florian Maier-Aichen — more fantastical imagery with impossible landscapes and digital drawings. We then walked (!) to Cherry and Martin to see new video/paintings by Brian Bress (Surrealist inspiration with a mix of Hollywood, humor, and art history) and discovered, whilst strolling down La Cienega, Jeff Colson’s tromp l’eoil overfilled storage unit, Roll Up, at Maloney Fine Art. New York–based UCLA grad Sanya Kantarovsky’s new video Happy Soul (2014) at nonprofit LAXART brightened things up with its infectious soundtrack and inventive animation projected over a wall with a painting, which plays an essential role in the video. Next, we saw an eclectic group show about collage, “Saying Yes to Everything,” organized by former Hammer curator Corrina Peipon at Honor Fraser Gallery, and we finished the tour at China Art Objects Gallery, where new paintings of semi-biblical semi-mythological scenes, ethereal landscapes, and abstracts by JP Munro (husband of Christina Forrer) were on view. Whew!
Day 5 Our journey culminated in a visit with Dan Finsel. His studio walls were filled from floor to ceiling with large drawings of two-by-fours, photo stands, and an organic, exotic image of something like a pear with a butt and a vagina. Finsel showed us some video clips and detailed his plans for his upcoming show at Richard Telles Fine Art. The work stood out for its weirdness, originality, and intensity.
A view of Dan Finsel’s studio. Courtesy of Dan Finsel.
What did we learn on this expedition? The rain was gone, the sun was out, and the bright-blue sky returned the city to its normal state of endless summer. L.A. is teeming with inventive, creative minds exploring universal issues, telling stories — fictional and not — and sharing their trippy worldviews with the rest of us. Who needs an art fair?
Dan Finsel and Maurizio Cattelan. Courtesy of Dan Finsel.
When Phil Lord — co-director of The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — isn’t busy creating box-office hits, he finds time to serve as co-vice chairman on the board of LAXART, one of Los Angeles’ most innovative art spaces (7000 Santa Monica Blvd.). Now he’s among a high-powered group of supporters who have donated to launch a new chapter for the exhibition hall, founded in 2005 by director Lauri Firstenberg. “LAXART fills the gaps between larger art institutions and the for-profit gallery scene, presenting new and original work that often wouldn’t be supported otherwise,” says Lord.
On Jan. 10, LAXART, known for commissioning pieces by on-the-rise contemporary artists, will open in a former Hollywood recording studio, Radio Recorders, where Billie Holiday and Elvis Presley sang. The quirky space — built during the late 1920s and housing a warren of rooms perfect for staging multiple shows — is more than double the size of LAXART’s former home in Culver City.
Oysters by Lily Stockman; her Gavlak show opens Jan. 10.
The nonprofit’s arrival in Hollywood adds a player to L.A.’s latest hot arts district, clustered within a few blocks of the intersection of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Long populated by film production offices, the area now is home to 20,000-square-foot gallery Regen Projects, which moved from West Hollywood in 2012, Various Small Fires, Hannah Hoffman, Redling Fine Art, Gavlak and Kohn Gallery, which opened in the spring with a blockbuster Mark Ryden show. The neighborhood lacks a proper hipster coffee shop but boasts a landmark artwork: a colorful abstract mural by Sarah Cain alongside the headquarters of public-art nonprofit LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division). Nearby restaurants include Trois Mec, Mud Hen Tavern, the Mozzas and Ammo. “Regen Projects is amazing — it’s like a small museum,” says Brillstein Entertainment Partners manager JoAnne Colonna, an avid collector. “And I like this artist, Amir Nikravan, that Various Small Fires recently showed. The area is going to be a real destination.”
Regen Projects is exhibiting the works of British artist Gillian Wearing through Jan. 24.
LAXART — whose shows have included a buzzy interactive Walead Beshtyinstallation in which visitors walked over safety glass, creating a cracked reflective landscape — will reopen with a suite of exhibits, including one that will look back at the influential L.A. art collective Deep River. Says LAXART board member Mara Brock Akil, creator of BET’s Being Mary Jane: “LAXART is a place where new voices can be discovered and validated. It’s also a safe place for established artists to try something new, that allows them out of the box that commerce sometimes forces them into.”
January 8, 2015 Art of The Possible: A Reappraisal Of The Eugenia Butler Gallery
For a few years at the end of the 1960’s, Eugenia Butler exhibited some of the most exciting and important artists of the period. Between 1969-1971 her eponymous gallery on N. La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles was a cradle of non-object oriented and conceptual art, showing pioneers like John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth, Allen Ruppersberg, and Richard Jackson among others. Despite her brief but cutting-edge career, her name is seldom mentioned when discussing this period. If it is, it is often with a mythical reverence based more on her larger-than-life persona than on real knowledge of her actual contributions. Her influence and continuing legacy on the L.A. and international art scene is revealed through interviews with artists and others who knew her, as well as archival research.
Born in Bakersfield, CA in 1922, Eugenia Louise Jefferson grew up in Los Angeles. During WWII she became a nurse sergeant in the Marines, where she met her future husband James G. Butler who was a fighter pilot. After the war, James went to law school on the GI Bill and became a prominent lawyer, handling many high profile class action suits, including cases involving thalidomide and airline crashes. The two were committed to civil rights. “They were considered extremely left wing at the time,” remembers their daughter Cecilia Dan, and Jim helped found an NAACP chapter in Compton where they lived when they were first married. As Jim became more successful, they moved into a stately house on South Rimpau street and had eight children. Although they appeared on the surface to be the picture of the post-war American Dream, the Butlers were interested in pushing boundaries — social, cultural, and artistic — and shared a passion for challenging art. Eugenia Butler’s future business partner Riko Mizuno recalled the important role that art played for the couple when they were courting, before Jim became successful. “She told me they used to date, but didn’t have much money, so they’re going to museums, galleries,” Mizuno said. “That’s how she loved art, so that’s kind of beautiful.”
The L.A. art scene of the 1960’s was much smaller and more intimate than it is today. Curator Hal Glicksman noted in 2011 that “there was so little audience, outside of the artists and a few collectors, and so little money and so little support, that the artists formed a self-supporting community. It wasn’t all done with an eye on the market, or on the critics either for that matter…things here were just what artists and their friends wanted to do, support each other.” New York City was the center of the art world then, which gave artists in L.A. a certain amount of freedom. “One of the nice things about that period was that L.A. was so intimate. The lines between dealers and collectors and artists were permeable because everyone was making it up as they went along and they didn’t have a bunch of established predecessors…like in New York,” notes writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. The community of serious collectors was just beginning to form, so sales were not expected. “It was fun in the sense that money was not an issue, and the joke used to be that if anybody sold anything you must be doing something wrong,” remembered artist John Baldessari in 2011.
There were only a handful of galleries of L.A. at the time, but the one that is perhaps best known is the Ferus Gallery, which was active from 1957 – 1966 on N. La Cienega Blvd. Founded by Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz (who would soon be replaced by the suave salesman Irving Blum), Ferus brought to L.A. the kind of serious art that was being shown in New York and Europe, including Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns, as well as kick-starting the careers of a number of L.A. artists. These ranged from assemblage artists like Kienholz and Wallace Berman, to So Cal light and space artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell. The Ferus scene was glamorous, cool, and macho. They expanded the boundaries of what was being shown in L.A. at the time. But in a lot of ways, they were still adhering to a conventional model of showing and selling painting and sculpture. By the mid-1960s, a few forward thinking artists and dealers were showing work that was not confined to physical objects. One of these was Eugenia Butler.
Galleria del Deposito, Genoa, Italy
Beginnings: Galleria del Deposito, Riko Mizuno and Gallery 669
Although her gallery was only active for a brief period, Butler had been involved with contemporary art for a number of years. In the mid-1960s, she served on LACMA’s Contemporary Art Council and New Talent Award Committee, through which she met many young artists, and began collecting art. Her interest in the cutting edge drove her to look beyond the confines of the small L.A. art scene at the time. “The special thing about Eugenia and her husband Jim is that they were avid collectors, but both extremely intelligent, extremely articulate, and they wanted more from art than what was being given to them here in L.A. at that time,” recalls gallerist Rosamund Felsen. “So they went to Europe a lot and intellectually and conceptually the Europeans were further ahead that what was going on in L.A.”
On her European trips, she was introduced to the Genoa-based artist collective Galleria del Deposito (1963-1968) whose members included Lucio Fontana, Victor Vasarely, and Eugenio Carmi among others. In their opening newsletter from 1963, they proclaimed their intentions: “These people have got together in a kind of co-operative society; by forming an association of this type they mean to stress the fact that the gallery is not to be run on a profit-making basis. The common purpose is to bring the public’s attitude to the modern visual arts up to date.” According to LAND director Shamim Momin, this sort of un-orthodox model proved attractive to Butler: “Deposito is interesting because it was kind of like an artists-run collaborative so to speak, making art more accessible to the public, and they were in an old ice factory or warehouse of some kind, and really predicated a lot of artist practices, and she of course with similar kind of prescience, just kind of understood that this was a great vein in which to move.” In 1966, she became an L.A. representative of sorts for Deposito. Later that year, she briefly worked for trailblazing gallerist Virginia Dwan.
Butler then partnered with gallerist Riko Mizuno, who had been running Gallery 669, located at 669 N. La Cienega Blvd., for about a year. As Mizuno recalls, it was people associated with LACMA, specifically then-curator Maurice Tuchman, who suggested the two would make a good team. Both women were interested in work that wasn’t then being shown in Los Angeles. Butler’s boundless energy would prove to be a foil for Mizuno’s reserved nature. “Riko Mizuno was an unusual dealer,” recalled the late artist Jack Goldstein in the 2003 book “Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia” by Richard Herz. “She never did anything; she sat in the back and drank coffee. She had an interesting persona, somewhat inscrutable with her broken English, and was very laid back.”
Mizuno remembers Butler’s enthusiasm: “She’s very active, alive. I used to tease her, ‘you look like vitamin’… I never met a person like that, so much energy. I’m sleeping behind the gallery, I have a kind of apartment, so she knocked on door from early in the morning ‘Get up, get up!'” In 2011, John Baldessari summed up a sentiment repeated in a number of interviews: “Incredible energy, incredible enthusiasm, I can’t remember her ever sitting still.”
The pair presented a number of important exhibitions, showing L.A. mainstay Ed Kienholz, as well as then unknown painter Richard Jackson (who would later become Butler’s first gallery assistant). The gallery was best known for Joseph Kosuth’s groundbreaking 1968 exhibition “Nothing,” the pioneering conceptual artist’s first solo show in the U.S. Before the year was out however, tensions between the two women led to the dissolution of the gallery. “I think if you knew the two of them, you would know it would not work. They’re just too independent,” recalls Felsen. Mizuno even broke out with a bad case of hives that she attributes to their conflict. Mizuno kept the space, renamed the Riko Mizuno Gallery, and Butler opened her own gallery just up the street at 615 N. La Cienega. According to Mizuno, the two never entered each other’s galleries after that.
Installation view of “Joseph Kosuth: Nothing,” at Gallery 669, October 1968. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
The Eugenia Butler Gallery
Right from the start, Butler was dedicated to showing work that explored new directions, that was in opposition to trends of the time, work that she felt passionately about regardless of its financial viability. “She was brilliant, she had energy, she was fearless,” said Felsen, “and this is what she thought should be done, and she went ahead and did it and it was challenging, and it was challenging for her, challenging for the viewer.” Butler was not interested in the more established painters and sculptors of the Ferus scene. Instead, she was attracted to a number of artists whose work would come to be labeled conceptual art. Curator Anne Ayres offers an excellent description of conceptual art in an essay from “Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible,” a 2003 Otis College of Art and Design catalog to an exhibition of work of Butler’s daughter, also named Eugenia Butler, who often worked in this vein: “In fact, pioneering conceptual art was the very definition of exhilaration — passionately argued, greatly contested, and thus never monolithic, as the following partial list indicates: language propositions; detailed record keeping of personal activities; serial and other pedestrian formats; all sorts of documentation, graphs, and photographs; erasure of individual touch, the pretense of artist anonymity, and the elevation of the viewer as part of an expanding environment; social and political deconstructions; concern with space, time, duration, absence, removal, and invisibility; a search for new materials (words, electricity, gasses, steam, light, odors, mental operations, and so forth) – while erasing (dematerializing) the (visual) art object (perhaps better to say the devisualization of the art object) as a locus of aesthetic delectation.” Butler was not limited to exclusively showing conceptual art, but her focus on dematerialized and non-object oriented work prefigured much of what was to come, both in L.A. and worldwide.
“When you look at work that comes out of L.A. in the early 70’s…it’s intellectually oriented, it’s conceptually oriented, it’s photographs, it’s text, it’s the antithesis of what happened in the 60’s,” remarks Drohojowska-Philp. “It’s all about non-retinal art, art that’s about ideas, art that’s about experiences.”
Absence, the void, performance, interaction, the invisible, the temporary — often with a dash of irreverent humor: these were the hallmarks of the Eugenia Butler Gallery. She opened the gallery by giving Allen Rupperberg his first solo show for which he presented “Location Piece” (1969). “There was nothing in the gallery except the address of an old office building on Sunset Boulevard where I’d installed a big theatrical sculpture,” the artist told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
Later that year James Lee Byars — an enigmatic artist who was a favorite of Butler’s — built a wall around her office, separating it from the rest of the gallery. The work was called “Shutting up Genie.” According to the press release: “Her name comes down from the front of the building, and ‘Shutting up Genie’ is lettered in red on the wall directly behind the Gallery window, visible from the street. Eugenia Butler is forbidden by the artist to enter the Gallery exhibition space during this five-day period.” For his piece “Wall Shadow,” Eric Orr built a cinder block wall in front of the gallery, painted its shadow on the ground and removed the wall, leaving only a trace of the light it blocked. For a 1970 exhibition Robert Barry simply locked the gallery doors and put a sign up that read “From March 10 through 21, the Gallery will be Closed.”
Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Butler was also one of the first gallerists to show the work of then-unknown conceptual art godfather John Baldessari. She held his second gallery exhibition ever in 1970 after he left his previous dealer Molly Barnes. Their relationship was also significant for the fact that Butler was the first person to sell one of Baldessari’s photographs. It is typical of her vision that she ignored the traditional distinction between high art and photography, then considered a lesser artform.
“At that moment, photography and art were pretty much ghettoized. I mean photographs were shown in photography galleries but not shown in art galleries. They were literally two different worlds, and very distinct art histories for both,” recalled Baldessari in 2011. “So I had some documentation of a work, called the “Ghetto Boundary Project.” I remember her calling me, she said, ‘You won’t believe what I’m going to tell you, I sold the photographs.’ You don’t get it now, but you didn’t sell photographs at art galleries. That was my first breaching of boundaries I guess.”
One of the most notorious exhibitions at the gallery was Ed Kienholz’ 1969 “Watercolors” show, commonly referred to as “The Barter Show.” Each hand-printed work stated on the face what Kienholz wanted in exchange for it. These ranged from various monetary amounts, to a Rudi Gernreich dress, a Timex watch, an artwork by Baldessari, and so on. They were otherwise identical, the same size, each framed the same, and authorized with Keinholz’ thumbprint. It was “an early acknowledgement on the cult of celebrity and the commodification of art” reads the exhibition text from the 2012 LAND exhibition, “Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler.” The work directly addressed the very notion of art as investment — and confronted collectors with this idea — in a way that meshed with Butler’s love of controversy.
Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
“She wanted art that would make people mad, and it was a perfect fit with the Kienholz watercolors. He knew that they would make everybody angry… yeah they should have, that’s what they were for,” recalled Glicksman in 2011. “They weren’t for Dwan or for Ferus or for any other regular gallery, that he had to have someone who was really up for strange ideas…well because it’s under this heading of institutional critique. People weren’t used to that, of having their face rubbed in the idea that they were collecting art because it would become worth money.” According to rumor, the city tried to shut the show down, arguing that the barter system evaded sales tax.
Even more groundbreaking than Kienholz’ barter show was Swiss/Icelandic artist Dieter Roth’s 1970 exhibition “Staple Cheese (A Race).” Although Roth had been exhibiting in Europe since the early 1950’s, this was his first U.S. gallery exhibition. Roth filled the gallery with 37 suitcases full of cheese, leaving them to rot in the L.A. summer heat. As the show progressed, the smell filled the gallery, wafting out into the street. Maggots and flies filled the gallery.
Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
“Everyone talked about it, it was probably one of the more talked about exhibitions in town. People were a combination of outraged and intrigued by it. My reaction to it was wow,” recalled artist Ed Moses in 2011. “It was very powerful and as I said as you walked along this alley into the gallery, you could smell it from La Cienega and it was a good hundred yards back to the gallery.”
The health department tried to shut the show down, but Butler’s husband, the class action litigator, successfully argued to keep the gallery open on the grounds of the work’s artistic merit. Although the L.A. art community was small at the time, it would prove to be an influential show to all who saw it.
“The Dieter Roth show was just important to see, period, and to see one of the European artists that you admired, to see a work here, and have it be such a memorable and important work,” remembered Ruppersberg in 2011. “I think it’s one of the main works that was ever shown here in L.A., period, and certainly is in all the memories of the artists who were there at the time.”
In addition to exhibitions at the gallery, Butler organized important shows off-site, such as 18’6″ x 6’9″ x 11’2-1/2″ x 47″ x 11-3/16″ x 19’8-1/2″ x 31’9-3/16″ held at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969. The group exhibition included many of the seminal practitioners of conceptual and non-retinal art: Michael Asher, Robert Barry, James Lee Byars, Eugenia Butler, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner among others. The work featured in the exhibition was consistent with Butler’s gallery program in its radical break with previous forms of art-making. Often this involved gallery staff creating the works based on instructions from the artists, as described in a printed supplement to the exhibition. Byars played a tape loop on speakers outside the gallery on a certain day. Exhibition texts note that Stephen Kaltenbach “submitted a series of proposals. The one chosen by the gallery staff was carrying out of Mr. Kaltenbach’s proposal to paint the south wall of the gallery gray…The wall was painted gray.” Jim Rudnick blocked out the skylights and gave out flashlights for visitors to use. Barry Le Va drew a line from the gallery office door to the SE corner of the space. The area to the west of the line was sprinkled with flour. Eugenia Butler (the younger) simply “requested that the plate reading ‘Congruent Reality’ be placed at the entrance to the empty gallery on two alternative Wednesdays.”
“Congruent Reality,” 1969, Time-based Perceptual/Conceptual Event, (Conscious Presence within the Continuum of Time), text on aluminum plate, | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Eric Orr, “Wall Shadow,” 1968, brick wall, light shadow. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Eugenia Butler as Art Dealer and Count Giuseppe Panza
More than simply championing and exhibiting challenging, conceptual art, as a dealer Butler created a market for artwork that was often represented in the physical world by nothing more than a certificate. The idea that you could sell air, or an experience, or an energy field was radical. She counted among her clients the L.A. haberdasher and collector Monte Factor, and influential Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza, one of the first Europeans to seriously collect postwar American art. Panza’s impressive collection covered abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism, and conceptual art. He was an early supporter of art in L.A., visiting the city twice a year to find new artists and new work. He remarked to the Los Angeles Times in 1985 that “history will regard Los Angeles as a great center of the art of this century.”
A letter dated January 22, 1970 reveals that Butler sent Panza information, prices and visuals of work by a number of artists she showed including Douglas Huebler, Baldessari, Stephen Kaltenbach, Kosuth, Robert Barry, Paul Cotton, Eugenia Butler, and James Lee Byars. From this selection, Panza ended up purchasing four works of Huebler’s composed of photographic documentation of actions and signed descriptions of the works. The description of” Duration Piece #12″ (1969) reads:
In March, 1969 a small quantity of sand was removed from the ocean beach at Venice, California and taken to the ocean beach at Plum Island, Massachusetts.
There it was placed where it would be carried into the Atlantic Ocean by the outgoing tide. A similar quantity of sand was, at that time, removed from the Plum Island location and taken (May 1969) to Venice where it, in turn, was carried into the Pacific Ocean.
Another exchange will mark the same sites in 1979 and so on: once every ten years until a total of eleven markings have been made at which time (2069) the piece will be complete. (It will be the responsibility of the owner to arrange for the next ten such exchanges).
One photograph of each site and this statement constitute the form of this piece.
Huebler’s original action, while certainly poetic, was distinct and finite. By holding the purchaser responsible for the fulfillment of the work, he stretches this singular act well beyond the lifetimes of artist and collector, and at the same time calls into question traditional roles of creator and consumer. This is typical of the kind of challenging work that Butler promoted. It is significant that she not only exhibited work like this, but was able to place some of it into one of the most important collections of the 20th century.
“Congruent Reality,” 1969, Time-based Perceptual/Conceptual Event, (Conscious Presence within the Continuum of Time), text on aluminum plate, | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Art, Life and Performance
For Butler, art was not just something to be looked at and collected, but a force that permeated every aspect of life. To the intimate L.A. art community of the time, the Butler family house on South Rimpau provided a sense of community and support. It was as significant a gathering place for artists and art lovers as the gallery itself. It became one of a handful of important social spaces for artists, along with the homes of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein (who had founded legendary printmaking workshop Gemini G.E.L.) and noted collector and dealer Betty Asher. “Eugenia and James’ house, that was a social hub, that and the Grinstein’s house,” remembered Baldessari in 2011. “I even think sometimes they competed with each other [to see] who could throw the biggest party.”
The line between party and performance was often blurred. One such occasion was a fashion show Butler hosted featuring works by designer Rudi Gernreich, whose clothes she wore almost exclusively. Gernreich was perhaps most famous for the topless monokini he designed, often seen on his muse Peggy Moffitt. “I remember one party she had for a fashion designer, Rudi Gernreich, where these people came down the staircase nude and that was quite a radical thing in the fashion world,” recalled Moses in 2011.
“She was wearing these Rudi Gernreich clothes that were outrageous,” remembered the late Stanley Grinstein in 2011. “It’s like good art, sometimes you say, ‘what the hell is that?’ and you gotta get used to it. She was that far ahead.”
The dissolution of the barrier between art and life that Butler’s gallery embodied was also celebrated in the work of Paul Cotton, who would often dress up in outlandish outfits for performances, including a bunny costume with the crotch cut out. He was arrested at the opening of the LACMA’s Art & Technology show in May 1971, at which he arrived with Butler. He had planned to present museum visitors with marijuana joints on a platter as part of a performance, but was denied entry. “There were real joints on the tray and I intended to go into the show and just be there as a sculpture for people to take joints if they wanted to and experience it as a living sculpture,” he recalled in 2011. Much of Cotton’s work dealt with relationships between people, not simply the visual experience of looking at a static piece of art. “I think that the whole civilization is a dysfunctional family. Part of my impulses is to heal that dysfunction. One of the dysfunctions I see is seeing people as objects, and seeing art as objects to be bought and sold. The two things go hand in hand, is to only see things of value in terms of their commodity,” he said in 2011. Cotton had one of the last exhibitions at the gallery.
After the Gallery
The Eugenia Butler Gallery closed in mid-1971. As artist Barbara T. Smith recalled in 2011, the rent had been raised on the space. Compounding this, the Butlers’ marriage was unraveling and James Butler had withdrawn his financial support of the gallery, according to their daughter, Cecilia Dan. Larger economic forces were also at play. Although the avant-garde conceptual art that Butler exhibited would continue to be a vibrant part of the L.A. art scene for years to come, there was a growing fiscal conservatism in the city that extended to the art world. In a 1971 Los Angeles Times article, critic William Wilson attributed this to national economic woes, and described a new attitude “not now attuned to the exhilaration of risk.”
Butler continued to be involved with art, however. Instead of promoting the art of others she passionately believed in, she worked to turn her life into a kind of performance. It was around this time that she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She staged a “living wake” at her house, and invited all of her friends to participate in a performative funeral. “We lent her a limo here for her wake-up her funeral, when she got the cancer originally, so she did a whole thing at her house of a funeral, and she called it the wake-up,” recalled Grinstein in 2011. “We lent her the limo, we had a black caddy limo with big fins.”
She began an affair with Cotton and moved with him to the Bay Area, leaving her family behind. In 1972, she arrived at Documenta, the influential art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, riding a white horse, in the nude. It was there that she impersonated her daughter Eugenia, and tried to pass the younger Butler’s work off as her own. Periods of mental instability and familial turmoil would characterize her life for the next thirty years. Although she never had another gallery, what she accomplished in a few short years would have an outsized impact on the L.A. art world and beyond. As Drohojowska-Philp notes, “L.A. really was a hotbed for the development of conceptual and non-object oriented, dematerialized art throughout the 70’s, the validation for that in part could be said to be in part with Eugenia Butler who endorsed it.”
Installation view of “Ed Kienholz: Watercolors,” at Eugenia Butler Gallery, March – April, 1969. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Reframing Everything: The Legacy of the Eugenia Butler Gallery
Despite the seminal role Butler and he gallery played, her influence is under-recognized today. “Once you start to make the connection you realize ‘all the shows I cared about, that I learned about, were at her gallery, but I don’t know her name.’ Isn’t that so incredibly strange,” says LAND’s Momin. “Looking back, turns out that she was probably one of the most important galleries, certainly up there with Ferus who we keep talking about, but it turns out she should have had equal billing,” noted Baldessari in 2011. The conventional narrative of 1960’s art in LA is dominated by the Ferus Gallery and their roster of hyper-masculine painters and sculptors. One reason for this is that Irving Blum, the suave New York transplant who ran Ferus with Walter Hopps, was a consummate salesman and promoter. The glamorous “cool school” image he promoted for himself and his artists was a tidier, more digestible story than Butler’s complicated and problematic narrative. “It’s a very complex personality and that doesn’t always parse so well for historical telling,” notes Momin, “especially for women.” In a 2012 LA Weekly article, writer Catherine Wagley cautions against letting the drama of Butler’s life divert attention from her contributions to art: “Focusing on the Butler mythos threatens to pigeonhole her, to turn her legacy into the short-lived, haphazard achievements of an eccentric.” Further complicating her history is the absence of her archives, which were destroyed by James Butler, and later by herself, after they divorced.
To correct this historical omission, Butler’s granddaughter Corazon del Sol and LAND’s Momin put together a 2012 exhibition, “Perceptual Conceptual,” as part of the Getty’s massive Pacific Standard Time initiative. The show began with one box of archival material that del Sol came across, (“It’s just like a cardboard box and it says like ‘archives’ on it. It had two boxes of slides, a few super 8 films, a few small artworks,” she notes), and grew as they conducted extensive interviews with artists of the period. They also utilized the archives at the Getty Research Institute to piece together the timeline and events surrounding the gallery. It was an important step in restoring Butler’s legacy. “I felt so happy that I put my grandmother back in the world because she’d been written out of history…because she was crazy or she was a woman,” said del Sol, “when in truth her story kind of reframed everything.”
The work that Butler championed was about finding the exceptional in the everyday, finding meaning in space, in words, in actions. “It’s all art of the possible. It changes you,” says del Sol in Wagley’s 2012 article. Counter to the notion of conceptual art as being heady and opaque, “these projects are really silly and sincere and about trying to figure out how to communicate things…this was conceptualism that was very human,” says Wagley. Barbara T. Smith recalled in 2011 a scene from an Easter party at the Rimpau house after the Butlers had divorced. Eugenia had returned from Documenta and was planning a performance at the party. “A fat woman with pink teased-back combed hair wearing a tight baby blue double knit suit complained that her life was utterly empty. With great focused intensity, Eugenia turned and said, ‘You have to look for it. It’s there all the time.’ Pink hair then said, ‘I’ve been searching.’ Then Genie said ‘I don’t mean search, I mean see. You put your own clouds over your eyes.'”
Dieter Roth, “Staple Cheese, A Race,” 1970, Cheese stuffed into 37 suitcases. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Tokyo, Japan, March 1970. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate.
Installation view of “Perceptual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler,” at LAND, January 25 – April 21, 2012.
Paul Cotton and Eugenia Butler, Berkeley, CA 1971. | Image courtesy of the Eugenia P Butler Estate
Ayres, Anne. Eugenia Butler – Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible. Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design, 2003. Exhibition catalog.
Baldessari, John (artist). Interview with Corazon de Sol, March 25, 2011.
Barry, Robert (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, July 27, 2011.
Cotton, Paul (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, April 13, 2011.
Dan, Cecilia (daughter of Eugenia Butler / art dealer). Interview with the author, Malibu, CA, May 29, 2014.
del Sol, Corazon (granddaughter of Eugenia Butler). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 6, 2014.
Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter (writer / art critic). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 22, 2014.
Edge, Doug (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, May 18, 2011.
Felsen, Rosamund (gallerist). Interview with the author, Santa Monica, CA, April 19, 2014.
Galleria del Deposito. Mostra N. 1 – Sedici Quadri Blu, November 23, 1963.
Glicksman, Hal (curator / preparator). Interview with Corazon del Sol, September 14, 2011.
Goldstein, Jack. “Chouinard and the Los Angeles Art Scene in the Late Sixties,” in Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, by Richard Hertz, 18-28. Ojai, CA: Minneola Press, 2003.
Grinstein, Stanley (founder, Gemini G.E.L. Graphic Editions Limited). Interview with Corazon del Sol, April 5, 2011.
Kavanaugh, Gere (designer). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, March 1, 2014.
Kienholz, Lyn (art organizer / ex-wife of Ed Kienholz). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, February 17, 2014.
LAND. Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler. Los Angeles: LAND, 2012. Exhibition text.
McKenna, Kristine. “ART : ‘Stuff’ Is His Middle Name : Conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg surrounds himself with odd books, strange posters and other knickknacks. So how does all this ‘stuff’ help him make sense of the world around him and then become art? It just does,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1993. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-11-21/entertainment/ca-59231_1_conceptual-art
Mizuno, Riko (gallerist / former partner). Interview with the author, West Hollywood, CA, April 21, 2014.
Momin, Shamim (curator / LAND director). Interview with the author, Los Angeles, CA, March 18, 2014.
Moses, Ed (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, August 16, 2011.
Newhouse, Kristina. She accepts the proposition: Women Gallerists and the redefinition of art in Los Angeles, 1967-1978. Los Angeles: Sam Francis Gallery, 2011. Exhibition text.
Ruppersberg, Allen (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, May 19, 2011.
Smith, Barbara T. (artist). Interview with Corazon del Sol, June 1, 2011.
There is a belief that art is universal—a belief, more often than not, perpetuated by New Yorkers who just happen to live in the city where universality comes to roost. But like the popular axiom about politics, art happens on a local level. Sure, the final product might eventually hang just as nicely in any white-walled space from Moscow to Abu Dhabi (that’s the point of white walls), but all art originates in a specific place with its own social obsessions and regional leanings. Some of the most provocative, potent art being created in the United States today isn’t coming out of New York City but clear across the continent in Los Angeles—and what’s more, those artists aren’t simply raising up their canvases like sun reflectors for NYC approval. It used to be that Ed Ruscha was the lone dignitary forced to represent the entire Southern California scene—his backward Hollywood signs and epic fires raging on vacant landscapes almost suggesting what little cultural value the environment held. But today, thanks to L.A.’s own community-building efforts, artists have moved far out of Ruscha’s shadow. Emerging talents mix with art history’s radical pioneers. Hollywood and consumer culture are consistent references, but so is the terrain of the city
itself, where the sprawling geography and jutting horizontals allow for productions that would be physically or psychologically impossible in the compartmentalized verticality of Manhattan. Experimental galleries and non-profits have exploded. Innovative collectors willing to take risks—and with more wall space than their East Coast counterparts—have risen the stakes. Contemporary art in Los Angeles is not new. But there is no question that in the last few years, a new sense of manifest destiny has electrified the city’s art scene. If art is in essence a conversation, Los Angeles, at the very least, is an opportunity for a new way of talking. It sounds completely different than anywhere else. It sounds very much like the future.
Night Gallery, Nocturnal Art Space
When you think of Los Angeles, you mostly think of the sun. But a lot in L.A. goes down at night. In honor of those late creative hours—or perhaps simply to find an excuse to get together in them—29-year-old artist and Canadian transplant Davida Nemeroff opened Night Gallery last February in a space in a run-down Lincoln Heights strip mall surrounded by taco stalls. L.A. has always been a bastion of unorthodox spaces, from the notorious Ferus Gallery of the 1960s to a recent one, unrelated to the iconic artist Dan Graham, called the Dan Graham gallery. Night Gallery is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from the hours of 10 P.M. to 2 A.M. and is located in a three-room black-walled space that used to be a party-supply store. It may still be something of a party-supply store for Nemeroff and her friends, who can be found hanging out during gallery hours. “It’s about smoking, drinking, and art,” explains Nemeroff, who makes her own art by day and took a number of odd jobs to afford the $850 a month rent to keep the gallery operating. “My own rent money went into this place,” she says. “So I stayed with friends. But I didn’t ever want to live here, because I needed it to operate as a legitimate space.” Just because lots of alcohol and smoke gets consumed doesn’t mean Night Gallery’s program, which usually changes monthly, is any less serious. One recent work by artist Justin Beal consists of a black-garbage-bagwrapped sculptural barricade bisecting the main room, which makes moving through the space at night that much more complicated. “We’ve had some pretty sketchy people visit,” Nemeroff admits. “One night a man came in thinking it was some kind of brothel.” Whether risky or risqué, Night Gallery is definitely about community building.
Jeffrey Deitch, Museum Director
When it was announced earlier this year that gallerist Jeffrey Deitch was going to take the reigns as director of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, many in the West Coast community feared a New York mutiny of their stake in contemporary art. But fans of Deitch’s SoHo gallery could have immediately set Californian minds at ease. Deitch is no invader. He’s a gracious, thoughtful improviser. His biggest asset is his ability to build a community—one, in the 15 years of Deitch Projects, that gave a home to some of the most exciting grass-roots urban art projects ever seen in downtown New York.
One city’s loss is another’s gain, and now the 57-year-old ex-gallerist and current museum head is firmly rooted in Los Angeles: in the hills of Los Feliz to be exact, where Deitch has taken abode in a Spanish-style mansion once owned by Cary Grant (the recent addition of a Richard Woods wall-to-wall installation of cartoonish blue wood paneling with a Vegas-esque light piece by Tim Noble and Sue Webster in the room off the pool certifies that the new resident is more art lover than Hollywood legend—for now). “I’m still just finding my way around,” Deitch says modestly while sitting in a chair by the pool. “I’m immersing myself.” He’s a quick learner. Having tapped artist Doug Aitken to create a happening for the famous moca gala in November, Deitch has already put together a show called “The Artist’s Museum” which frames an institutional dialogue between artists and the museum in its 31-year history. Staying true to his long-held interest in graffiti, Deitch is planning his first monumental exhibition to be this spring’s “Art in the Streets,” an extensive multimedia show devoted to the history of graffiti art. “After Pop art, graffiti is probably the biggest art movement in recent history to have such an impact on culture,” he explains. Deitch’s own impact on Los Angeles culture is starting off with a democratic gesture: art from the ground up.
Elad Lassry, Photographer, Filmmaker
Deceptively simple, aggressively frank, and yet incessantly jarring, the photographic work of Tel Aviv–born artist Elad Lassry has managed to strike such deep nerves in the art world that he has already been claimed as a conceptualist, a realist, a neo-Pictures
Generation artist, a pop recycler, and just about every other genre that has anything to do with objects and their consumption. All of this means, of course, that the 32-year-old artist’s output is as poetic as it is rooted in our cultural climate, toying simultaneously with formal structures and pop-culture signifiers. Lassry, who works out of his East Hollywood studio where he often brings his two black standard-size poodles, has a predilection for shooting still lifes of vegetables and fruits, cosmetics and animals, figurines, and even friends, usually set against bright colored backdrops, occasionally arranged on pedestals, often manipulated so multiple exposures allow for doubling, ghosted images, or a blur. Other times he appropriates from vintage photography, turning stock shots into menacing collages.The audience is left to deal with a series of subjects that should be easy to digest but instead become disarming psychograms. “I’m interested in the status of the picture in the 21st century,” Lassry says. “What happens to the picture outside its many institutions.” If Lassry has freed the image from its usual constraints, he has also freed it from our own expectations. Hollywood, or at least filmmaking, is another institution that he has been tackling in a number of recent film works. He has made films with ballet dancers, actress Radha Mitchell, and, most recently, one that starred a California king snake and the actress Rose Byrne. Many of Lassry’s photographs are even devoted to Hollywood legend Anthony Perkins, in whom the artist first became interested while watching Psycho as a child. It somehow seems fitting that the actor who played a man who played his mother who killed women whom her son had crushes on who then had to clean up all the evidence and make it seem like nothing happened should hold Lassry’s attention. There is a parallel here to the artist’s pictures, where everything seems normal but everything has happened.
Piero Golia, Mixed-media Artist, Professor, Businessman
It’s hard to keep track of the various highly conceptual, devoutly serious, and sometimes utterly hilarious art projects that 36-year-old Piero Golia has going, but it’s easy to know if he’s in town. Earlier this year, the Naples-born artist erected a large white bulb on the roof of the West Hollywood Standard Hotel that is lit when Golia is in L.A. and darkened when he’s not. That may seem a rather pompous gesture, but Golia is no quiet, solitary creator. Not only does he run his own graduate art school (the Mountain School of Art, which operates out of a bar in Chinatown that he started five years ago with artist Eric Wesley), but he has started his own corporate business (called New Atlantis Enterprises, with its office in the Pacific Design Center). “I’m a radical,” he says ingenuously. And he’s right. Golia formed New Atlantis Enterprises because he realized that if art is going to have a large impact in society, then the current operating budget and scale for it is too small. “It will take $24 million to build a wall separating Los Angeles from Orange County,” he says. “In the business world that is nothing. In art, forget it.” When asked why he wants to build this wall, he says, “I think we need it. Walls keep people happy.” Golia may be best known for compacting a 35-foot bus into an art booth in 2008, but he doesn’t always work in three dimensions. At his office, he is currently displaying a piece that consists of ten years of his life in posters—a series of wall hangings from 2003 to 2010 (purposely not ten years) that document everything from grants he didn’t win—“Boycott California Community Foundation”—to a recent snapshot of a taxi which ran into the front of his Hollywood Hills home. Another piece is a photographic diptych of two stacks of cash, each totaling one million dollars. “Thanks to a collector, I borrowed one million from a bank, got it delivered, took the picture, and returned it. Do you know it cost $3,800 to take the money out that long?” By doubling the image, Golia made two million out of one. “People always think I’m joking,” he says. “But I am a serious man.”
George Herms Mixed-Media Artist, Bohemian Pioneer
The closest thing to a West-Coast art shaman, 75-year-old sculptor, painter, assemblage master, and jazz lover George Herms has roots so deep in the Los Angeles creative community that his vertiginous three-dimensional collages could be described as odes to timelessness and decay while unquestionably running on a Pacific Standard clock. Herms, a Californian by birth, who originally studied engineering at Berkeley, decided to pursue a life as an artist when a drifter in a Sacramento bus depot sat down next to him and said, “There’s the makers, the takers, and the fakers. Which will you be?” Around that time, Herms met Wallace Berman, the epic Beat artist, in Topanga Canyon, and even helped him hang his first show in 1957 at the equally epic Ferus Gallery, “when it was behind Streeter Blair’s antique store. You went down a little passage and there was the gallery and John Reed slept under a work bench, courtesy of Ed Kienholz, whose shop it was.” Herms went on to become associated with the influential assemblage Southern-Cal art group Semina, creating found-object poems that range from sculptural balancing acts of detritus to ripped and semantically re-anchored textual wall collages. Herms has a home in Irvine, but he keeps a basement laboratory in a friend’s house in Topanga Canyon, stuffed full of scraps, cuttings, boxes, and rusted metal that look like finished works waiting for the right venue (actually, the studio is the right venue—only the mass audience the works deserve would disrupt the tranquility of the place). “The feeling I get when leaving a jazz club is how I want people to feel when they leave an exhibition of mine,” Herms says. Right now, he is working on the stage setting for an avant-garde opera to be performed at REDCAT, CalArts’ experimental art venue, in 2011—a visual piece that may or may not include spiral staircases, paper plates stamped with Herms’s own mysterious music notes, an abstract sculpture suggesting a giant clarinet, and even the inclusion of a cardiogram screen. The project fuses his deep love of music with his eye for visual pyrotechnics. “This whole town is an opera,” he says.
Chris Burden, Mixed-media Artist, Sculptor, Performance-art Icon
The violent, provoking, groundbreaking performance and duration works by Chris Burden in the 1970s didn’t simply redefine the direction of art (although it did just that by questioning the role of the artist, where art was held, how dangerous it could get, and if viewers were really innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire). Burden’s loaded performances arguably predicted cultural issues— and the viewer response to them—that ranged from escalating gun violence (Burden famously had a bullet shot into his arm in a performance in 1971) to consumer car worship (he also crucified himself on a Volkswagen). Today, residing with his wife, artist Nancy Rubins, in Topanga Canyon, Burden seems less interested in his role as an L.A. art icon to a young generation increasingly returning to performance art than he is in the raw, hyper-masculine, large-scale sculptures that have been consuming his practice for the past two decades. Currently, his warehouse studio, which sits on eight acres of rugged land, is overtaken by his latest ode to car culture: Called Metropolis No. II, the piece is a bigger, faster, and more epically labyrinthine version of a sculpture he created in 2004. This second rendition is a fully motorized boy fantasyland where roughly 1,200 specially produced Matchbox-style cars circulate around undulating tracks every 40 seconds: That means about 100,000 cars an hour fly through this Burden maze at such a velocity that it is impossible to follow a single car. “It’s like freeway noise in miniature,” Burden explains. “The sound adds another level of anxiety. And there are also trains for additional motion, although those are slower than the cars.” The result is like a roaring mechanical waterfall for commuters in a J.G. Ballard dystopia. Burden, whose wilderness of vintage streetlamps permanently adorns the plaza of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hasn’t stopped working on his other architectural monuments: two stainless-steel Erector set towers stand guard in front of his studio. He’s also currently devising the engineering details for the construction of a miniature zeppelin air balloon.
Kaari Upson, Multimedia, Installation, Video, And Performance Artist, Portraitist
The ongoing project that has consumed multimedia artist Kaari Upson for most of the last decade could possibly only come about in Los Angeles—California is home to some of the strictest anti-stalking laws in the United States. And certainly obsession is a big part of the 38-year-old artist’s oeuvre. But it would be reductive to write off the mesmeric, messy, and psychologically molten productions Upson has staged over the years as a simple case of fixation. Her work delves into anonymity far more than fame, and the results are intense self-portraits even while they focus on somebody else. It all started in 2003, when Upson returned to her childhood neighborhood in San Bernardino, California, to check on her parents’ house as wildfires were raging through the area. She ended up going into the semi-abandoned McMansion across the street. Inside she photographed nearly every corner of the house and discovered a number of boxes of personal items left behind by the owner (soon to be given the name “Larry”). Upson confiscated three boxes containing photographs of the man from the late ’70s and early ’80s (often with young, pretty women in the vein of a Playboy lifestyle), journals that documented his troubled businesses, and forays into demode psychological therapies. These documents—which revealed so many details about a man Upson had never met—became the backbone of a project where identities were created, swapped, interfused, and finally exorcised. “When I was trying to kind of hijack his life and put it together, I was researching how you could assess who somebody is,” Upson says. “For example, I had a graphology [handwriting analysis] report done.” In uncovering the man who is Larry, Upson created a doll, interfused her portrait with his, built a Playboy-type grotto with video-art coves of sexual pleasure and frustration, and even assembled her own doll twin, which was molded and cast in charcoal. Now in her Koreatown studio, she is working on the final stage of her “Larry” project, which involves an inverted version of the staircase of that old McMansion made from a cast molded into the earth. “It’s been like a relationship with myself. But I think it’s time for it to go,” she says about her last tribute to a man she never really knew—or maybe knew better than he ever knew himself.
Rosette Delug, Collector, Trustee, Epic Hostess
The Lawrence Weiner text piece—which reads “Stretched As Tightly As Is Possible (Satin) (Petroleum Jelly)” across the floor of Rosette Delug’s pool—used to be red. A few weeks before she was to host a party for Weiner’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008, a pool man came and accidentally washed the red to a lavender. “I sent Lawrence pictures, and he said he actually liked it that way,” she remembers. “I’m not one to go against the artist’s wishes.” The Turkish-born 60-year-old, who moved to California in 1972, has become one of the biggest personalities in the Los Angeles art world in the last decade, opening her home for parties and serving on the board of overseers for the Hammer Museum (she used to be a MOCA trustee before Eli Broad’s intensified involvement in the museum caused her resignation in 2008). But the clever, outgoing, outrageously funny Delug is also one of the most adventurous collectors in terms of taking a risk on newcomers and more marginalized talents. Sure, the walls of her minimalist Trousdale home feature works by certified stars like Chris Ofili, John Baldessari, Matthew Barney, and Ed Ruscha, but Delug has proven a champion of emerging talents like Scott Campbell, Tomory Dodge, and Mark Manders in a city far less known for chance-taking buyers. “I focused on things I liked,” Delug explains of her collecting instinct. “I really didn’t know better. I hadn’t studied. When I believed in something, I bought it in the first place immediately.” Ironically it was her emotional intuition that first led her into the art world. In 2001, when her marriage was breaking up, Delug flew to New York to spend time with one of her children. By chance, she ran into some friends who were headed to the Armory Show. “I didn’t even know what an Armory Show was,” she says. “But I went and got so excited I ended up buying a few pieces—Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans. When I got home and hung them around my bedroom, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t so alone.” Now Delug has plenty of company.
For an artist whose hyperprolific output jumps from inchoate stalagmite sculptures covered in a urethane coat akin to a nail-polish lacquer to a refurbished bus that once transported California prison inmates; from neon-dappled semi-abstract graffiti paintings to one recent video work of masturbating male porn stars, the studio compound of Sterling Ruby is surprisingly organized. Located southeast of Los Angeles in the industrial stretches of Vernon, California (Pennzoil motor oil is produced directly across the street), the artist’s headquarters, staffed by 10 assistants, is divided into five separate workshops for drawing and collage, ceramics, paintings, urethane, and woodwork. Ruby, who was born in Germany but grew up on the East Coast and attended college in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles for graduate school, is probably one of the most accomplished material-jumping art stars of the last decade. He’s known for producing bright, pop-colored works that belie more sorrowful, failed underpinnings—as if the 38-year-old’s sculptures can’t seem to organize themselves into a form and the canvases can’t cohere to produce a single order. This, of course, can be read as a structural breakdown or the beginning of new possibilities. “I’ve found a pretty happy route in using a lot of different mediums,” he explains. “Even video. I feel very capable of picking it up without preconceived rules and regulations to make it work.” Currently, Ruby has two different bodies of work taking up most of the activity of his studio. One is a series of Mexican scrap-metal sculptures, many of which seem to be shaped like guns, which was inspired by a recent stay at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, near the Mexican border. The second is a number of large ceramic basins glazed in vibrating colors and filled with broken shards that reflects Ruby’s “basin theology” (his belief that in placing past work in these containers, he might reclaim his futile gestures). In a sense, these pieces may be the receptacles of Ruby’s past mistakes, but they are also small monuments celebrating their own subsistence.
Eugenio Lopez, Collector, Trustee, Future Museum Head
In his native Mexico City, Eugenio Lopez is known as the dashing heir to the Jumex fruit-juice–company fortune and the radical art patron who is responsible for Mexico’s most prized collection of contemporary works. In fact, the 43-year-old Lopez is currently planning the construction of a monumental museum to house the collection in downtown Mexico City (for now the collection exists in the northern outskirts of the city inside the Jumex factory compound). No matter how much cultural weight Lopez has brought to his homeland, Los Angeles is where the collector feels most at home—and it is where he first became obsessed with contemporary art. He moved to the city in 1994 and started his own art gallery. “I opened it on Roberston Boulevard representing Latin American artists because I needed an excuse to live outside of Mexico City,” he remembers. “I could convince my father that it was a business.” Although the gallery is long gone, his interest in art has only grown. Lopez’s influence on the L.A. art scene is now seismic. Not only is he on the board of trustees at the MOCA, his massive collection travels all over the country and abroad, gaining pieces at every turn and often promoting Latin American stars. “We have over 2,400 pieces in the collection, and I change it around, even in my home, all the time,” he says. Lopez’s own sleek international-style house, tucked in the hills of Trousdale, is studded with contemporary masters: Richard Prince joke paintings, a Damien Hirst formaldehyde cow head, a Tracey Emin neon sign, a yellow aluminum Jeff Koons elephant sculpture in the back garden—even a Cy Twombly scribble painting in the bedroom that covers the television set. If there is a sense of the playboy in the scion’s collecting attitude, there is also a clear message that he is building a legacy.
Artist Curated Projects, A Radical Artist-for-and-by Artist Collective
Artist Curated Projects cannot be accused of false advertising. The grassroots, pro-artistic-freedom endeavor was the brainchild of artists Eve Fowler (a highly prolific photographer) and Lucas Michael (a multimedia artist). “I remember we were on a hike together in 2008, talking about art,” 46-year-old Fowler says about the project’s genesis. “We were saying how we knew so many friends who made great work that no one knew about. It occurred to us to ask artists to curate a show for us.” ACP was born in the summer of 2008 out of Folwer’s apartment in Hollywood—in a building memorable to anyone passing down its hidden alley for a frieze of writer Jack London on its façade (the site was originally an art school founded by sculptor Finn Haakon Frolich, and London used to stay here when he visited L.A.). “We’re a no budget operation,” explains Michael. “And our projects tend to have a queer bend. The evolution has been really organic, and now about 135 artists are involved.” Early projects saw sculptures, ceramics, and video work installed across Fowler’s room floors (as well as up walls, on top of the dining room table, and hanging from the ceiling). Participants included K8 Hardy, Tony Payne, and Amanda Ross-Ho, and while there is an ad-hoc feel about the setting, the result is emotionally and intellectually invested. It wasn’t long before ACP spilled out of Fowler’s home and found provisional satellites around the city. Other artist’s houses, non-profit art spaces, online, and even, for a recent series of artist-led tea ceremonies, at the iconic Schindler House. Fowler and Michael are supplying a platform to build a creative cross-pollinating community outside of the usual commercial or museum setting. Community is so essential that our photograph of ACP needs to include one editor note: Fowler and Michael went to great lengths not to be the center of this photograph. And we apologize if they appear any more significant here than the equally invaluable artists who encircle them.
Matt Chambers, Painter
Very few artists admit to painting with their glasses off, but very few artists paint so prolifically and—more to the point—so arbitrarily as 28-year-old Matt Chambers. Originally from Boise, Idaho, Chambers initially came to L.A. for film school but dropped out, opened a short-lived closet-sized gallery space in Chinatown, and eventually began making his own art. Today he produces drawings, books, and paintings in an industrial studio space he shares with artist Brendan Fowler in Atwater Village. Chambers’s large rectangular canvases, often thick with layers of oil paint, have the energy and giddy imprecision that suggest a deeper interest in getting the image down than making it right. The subject matter comes from an onslaught of “classical” sources—junk mail, advertising fliers, magazines, and basically whatever else lands near the artist’s feet to grab his attention (he tends to shy away from Internet searches). In effect, Chambers seems to be taking an anti-conceptualist stance with his work, refusing to play philosopher, spiritual guide, and translator for his audience. “I never have to deal with the repercussions of how people are going to read my paintings,” he says. Here, process is more important than product. “It’s never about finishing a picture,” he swears. “That’s why I’ll work on 40 canvases at a time.” When a canvas becomes too loaded, he will rip it into strips and create sculptural paintings by weaving the strips together. For a recent show at the UNTITLED gallery in New York, Chambers swore he sent the nearly 40 canvases without giving direction on what the gallery should do with them in terms of their exhibition. “That ends up reading to me like, ‘artist as tastemaker’ and ‘artist as arranger,’ ” he muses. Certainly, even a refusal to play the game of the art institution is playing the game, but Chambers fresh, free-flying tactic of swallowing and spitting out is about as alive as painting can get these days.
Zackary Drucker Performance Artist, Filmmaker
The most memorable work to date by 27-year-old performance artist Zackary Drucker may well be a piece entitled The Inability To Be Looked At and the Horror of Nothing to See, staged four times in 2009, where Drucker lays on a table wearing only underwear and a blond wig with a steel ball in her mouth. A prerecorded tape of Drucker’s voice instructs audience members to pluck out body hairs with provided sets of tweezers. The artist’s tone is reminiscent of guided spiritual meditations while she consoles her listeners for their sadistic hair-pulling act with pronouncements like, “Don’t be afraid, the bitch can take it.” This piece has come to represent the duality of Drucker’s work: a direct, unapologetic confrontation between the audience and her body, gender, and voice. “I wrote that piece in the summer of 2008, when I was participating in a performance-art boot camp in the Mojave Desert run by Ron Athey and Julie Tolentino,” says the upstate New York native, who moved to Los Angeles in 2005 to attend school at CalArts. Drucker seems to have learned a lot from such performance-art masters—and in fact, she lives and works in a Silverlake apartment that Athey leases, where a few scenes of Bruce LaBruce’s queer L.A. cult film Hustler White (1996) was filmed. Drucker, a transgender artist whose work often celebrates and amplifies the viewer’s inability to affix easy norms and codes, is one of the leading participants in a new generation that is rediscovering performance as a space for revolt, expression, and creative bedlam. Drucker has also been incorporating film and video into her practices—often collaborating with other queer and transgender performers in overt, uncompromising, sexually vocal works. In You Will Never, Ever Be a Woman . . . Drucker and Van Barnes, who Drucker describes as a close friend and sort of sister, demean and embrace each other in a domestic setting, demanding privacy while playing up for the camera. “I’ve always been interested in mixing signals,” Drucker says. “I don’t think any of us are easily defined. Trans people have a tendency to adhere to normative culture, but I think all the rules and truths are being redefined.”
Brendan Fowler, Multimedia Artist, Occasional Rock Star
Previously known for his rock act/performance piece/performance piece-disguised-as-a-rock act, BARR (for an example of this theoretical knot, please listen to BARR’s track “The Song Is The Single”), 32-year-old Brendan Fowler has recently emerged as one of the most intrepid artists coming out of Los Angeles. As with his music, Fowler’s visual productions operate in a series of aggressive negations and reassertions—often one image literally crashing through or canceling out another, but only to have the second image further the narrative of the first. Sound confusing? It really isn’t. “For years I performed as a deconstructive pop band,” he says in the Atwater Village studio—which used to be the warehouse for Beastie Boys–approved clothing line, X-Large—that he shares with artist Matt Chambers. “So the music dealt with narrative and formal arrangements, but I was also appropriating from improvised music and free-jazz compositional structures.” Take for example a series of posters of a 2008 musical tour Fowler was supposed to go on with the band Deerhunter. He was not the headliner nor was the tour cancelled—only BARR’s appearance—but Fowler spelled out “Cancelled” over screen prints of the poster which had already been cancelled out by his application of white paint over the information; he then cancelled out the cancellation by printing letters over those letters, which reinstates the act of cancellation. This may sound like a lot of rhetorical gamesmanship, but many of his sculptural paintings, where multiple frames are stacked on top of each other or smashed together, are quite biographical. In his various flower studies—a subject, according to Fowler, that announces itself as a high aesthetic but in doing so already proves itself to be an exhausted motif—one of the image layers is a shot of a computer screen, recording the exact time and file name of the flower image it is bisecting. Many recent works contain white Masonite sheets, another piece of memoir. “I almost got killed by it,” Fowler recalls. “Thirty sheets fell on me when I was in the studio alone and I was pinned there until my friends finally showed up to save me.”
Land: Los Angeles Nomadic Division, Multi-platform, All-terrain, Non-profit Art Organization
When former Whitney curator Shamim Momin moved from New York to Los Angeles in early 2009, many of her peers thought she was leaving the epicenter of art activity for the wild west. But the truth was the 37-year-old curator had been coming out to Los Angeles for years on the hunt for fresh, untapped talent. “Historically, the L.A. art community has always been interesting, but it really feels like it’s gathering a critical mass over the last few years in an exciting way,” she says. Momin linked up with another former New York curator, Christine Y. Kim, who is now associate curator of contemporary art at the Los Angles County Museum of Art to form the ambitious non-profit art organization Los Angeles Nomadic Division (a.k.a. LAND), which basically turns the entire city landscape into potential art exhibition sites. “At this point I can’t look at anything without thinking about it as a venue,” she says. LAND’s various projects tackle long-term multi-platform productions such as the year-long “VIA” which brings significant Mexican artists to public sites around L.A., like Yoshua Okon, whose video of 15 pit bulls was shown on the walls of a hot dog stand by the pier in Santa Monica last September. But they also organize more roving one-night fetes for emerging talents. Last October LAND hosted a video and lecture by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe in the historic Schindler Buck House. Momin, Kim, and her team of associates (Taylor Livingston and William Parks, among others) don’t just see the Pacific Ocean as their horizon lines. While based in L.A., LAND is aiming to stretch its creative opportunities all over the globe. They are already planning an exhibition in Marfa, Texas, in fall 2011, but first LAND is taking over an island—at least for a night—in Miami during Miami Art Basel.
Kori Newkirk, Multimedia Artist
Most mornings Kori Newkirk takes the bus to his studio in downtown L.A., making him one of the few established artists not reliant on a car. “I haven’t had a car in a year,” he says. “With so much of the art world imploding lately and funding changing, I figured that when my car died I really didn’t need it.” There is something of this scrap-the-past-and-start-over mentality about the 40-year-old artist’s own career, which has already experienced several distinct progressions in the last decade: from this former New Yorker’s rising-star status as a “post-black” artist making decorative paintings to his more complicated media-driven installations in recent years. Now Newkirk seems to be undergoing another creative metamorphosis. “I’m trying to figure out again what it means to be an artist,” he says. “It’s a re-investigation. I’m playing around in my studio.” Most artists of Newkirk’s generation have been boxed into specific mediums or motifs, but Newkirk has always resisted easy classifications. At a recent solo show at the Schindler House, he added black circular magnets with jagged edges to windows, which had the sense of sunspots. “I’m really into science fiction these days,” he explains. “But I also realized that if I lived in a house like that one, it would be all shot up, and the windows would be riddled with bullets.” Another piece in that show was a circular pattern of T-shirts arranged on the floor, covered in sweat and dirt. One day at the studio he realized that his own shirt stains looked almost like tie-dye. Tie dye is traditionally a hippie symbol, but Newkirk says, “that sculpture had to do with labor. My parents might have wanted to enjoy the Summer of Love but they couldn’t. They were working. ‘I’d love to be outside with you but I have to be in here scrubbing floors.’ ” Let’s hope Newkirk never gets stuck in classifications.
LOS ANGELES — For the next six months, Southern California will be awash in celebrations of Southern California art: close to 170 separate exhibitions at 130 museums and galleries stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Pacific Standard Time, as this festival is known, is an exhaustive accounting of the birth of the Los Angeles-area art scene, but it is also a statement of self-affirmation by a region that, at times, appears to feel underappreciated as a serious culture center.
This multi-museum event, in all of its Los Angeles-like sprawl, suggests a bit of overcompensation from a city that has long been overshadowed by the New York art establishment, a place that — arguably unfairly — still suffers from a reputation of being more about tinsel than about serious art, and where interest in culture starts and ends with movie grosses and who is on the cover of Vanity Fair.
“It’s corny,” said Dave Hickey, an art critic and a professor in the art and art history department at the University of New Mexico. “It’s the sort of thing that Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time. It is ’50s boosterish, and I would argue largely unnecessary.”
Still, for many Los Angeles artists and critics, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, is a long-needed accounting of the emergence of the region as an art capital in the same league as New York, Berlin and London. Indeed, Los Angeles these days has more than its share of ambitious museums, adventurous art galleries, wealthy collectors, top-notch art schools and — perhaps most important — young artists drawn here by relatively cheap rents, abundant light and an atmosphere that encourages experimentation.
“Since 1980 the art world has become global — New York is not the epicenter,” said Peter Plagens, a painter and essayist who has worked extensively in Southern California and who was here for some of the openings. “So L.A. is kind of doing this joust: ‘We want our art history to be in the books.’ ”
The shows cover the postwar outpouring of art from the Southern California region. The festival will run for half a year, and just as well: art enthusiasts intent on seeing all the exhibitions are approaching this as the art world equivalent of an Ironman Triathlon.
“I am going to treat it like a graduate course in art history,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
For less determined mortals, highlights can be seen at the Getty, which features works by Los Angeles sculptors and artists like Ed Ruscha and George Herms, from 1950 to 1970; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with an exhibition of California-inspired modern furniture design and a retrospective of work by the Chicano performance and Conceptual art group Asco; the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, with a light and space exhibition; the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, with a display of prints; and the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, with work by local African-American artists.
In many ways, this multi-museum extravaganza goes against type, or at least stereotype. “It’s a coming of age for a city that sometimes doesn’t think of itself as having an art history,” said Michael Govan, the executive director of the county museum.
That novelty alone seems likely to feed curiosity about what is taking place here. “Los Angeles just presents itself as a fresh and new story — people will be interested in hearing some different narrative they haven’t heard before,” said Thomas E. Crow, an art historian. “And because so much of the art is really, really good, that will sustain the interest in these new narratives.”
No one is suggesting that Los Angeles is about to supplant New York as an art capital; it is not lost on people here that the executive directors of three of the four biggest museums in Los Angeles came here from New York. James Cuno, the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which is financing the event, noted the abundance of galleries, auction houses and money in New York.
“It’s understandable that artists and collectors would find their way there,” he said. “In the art world, the world tilts to New York. New York has been dominant and held our imagination since the late 1950s. That has cast everyone else in the shadows.”
There are certainly obstacles here to the establishment of a thriving art scene. The sheer sprawl of the city means that it is hard to have the kind of concentrated art district that has characterized New York over the last 50 years, though there has long been an influential colony of artists out in Venice. And there are obstacles that come with living in this part of the country: Curators talk about the difficulty of encouraging people to walk indoors for anything but a movie in a city that has glorious weather so many months of the year.
But increasingly over the decades, there has been an abundance of art produced here and no shortage of people who want to see it, even if it is not necessarily the old masters exhibition your parents might have taken you to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A show devoted to graffiti at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown set a record for the institution by drawing 201,352 visitors before it closed in August. A Tim Burton show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has also brought overflow crowds.
The draws for young artists are particularly compelling now, including renowned art schools, among them California Institute of the Arts; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. And the sheer size of the city means that there are plenty of large spaces to rent for relatively little money.
“I drove around Echo Park, Silver Lake, Highland Park, and a lot of this reminds me of New York in the 1970s, where artists lived in real interesting neighborhoods near each other, and the rents aren’t really that high,” said Mr. Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Compared to New York City, compared to London, the rents here are affordable. A studio space that in Brooklyn would be $6,000 a month you can get here for $1,000.”
“There is now enough critical mass of galleries, of places where artists meet, blogs, magazines,” he added. “There is enough of a strong community in places for artists to see each other’s work that it now makes sense to be here. L.A. is increasingly central to the art dialogue.”
Mr. Cuno said his perception was that people in Los Angeles did not really spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of them. “I don’t feel or hear any ‘second city’ mentality here,” said Mr. Cuno, who came from Chicago, where that kind of talk is common. “People in Los Angeles are pretty happy with their position in the world and needn’t get the confirmation from elsewhere.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 14, 2011
Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about the Pacific Standard Time art festival, at 130 museums and galleries in Southern California, misstated at one point the name of the Los Angeles museum where Jeffrey Deitch is the director. As the article correctly noted elsewhere, it is the Museum of Contemporary Art, not the “Los Angeles Modern.” (There is no museum by that name.
“Success always leaves footprints” is a statement famously attributed to Booker T. Washington. In 1967, two years after the Watts uprising in Los Angeles, artists and educators Alonzo and Dale Davis realized this dictum when they opened the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood affectionately referred to by residents as “the village.” The Brockman Gallery was founded during the heyday of the so-called Black Arts movement. Though numerous galleries opened in Los Angeles and across the country in the 1960s and 1970s with the aim of advancing the notion of a black art form, the Brockman Gallery — a commercial gallery in the midst of community focused ventures — was unique for the time period. Through their gallery Alonzo and Dale Davis provided early exposure to a number of artists who today are widely acclaimed, including Betye Saar, David Hammons, and John Outterbridge.These artists, along with other Southern California artists of the era, were included in the notable 1989 exhibition “19 Sixties: A Cultural Awakening Re-evaluated,1965-1975.” Recently, a renewed interest in black Los Angeles artists active from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s has spawned their inclusion in a variety of noteworthy exhibitions.Growing Up in the ‘Old South’Alonzo and Dale Davis grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, a small southern community of self-made residents not necessarily tethered to the more traditional jobs held by blacks in larger northern or western cities. The history of entrepreneurship among African Americans is inextricably intertwined with the history of segregation and Jim Crow laws, which limited black people’s mobility and restricted their access to services. As children, the Davis brothers were greatly influenced by the pervasive attitude of self-reliance that was commonplace in the tight-knit college community where they lived. Higher education and self-sufficiency were highly valued at Tuskegee Institute, a place where one could witness numerous manifestations of black achievement. Founded by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee Institute was a model institution held up by the U.S. government, as well as major corporations, to illustrate that blacks could excel in American life if given the opportunity — even under segregation. Despite a dark smudge on its history — the notorious syphilis experiment executed in the 1930s by the US government 1 — the institute became world-renowned as the training ground for the Tuskegee Airmen, another government-sponsored experiment, and served as a bastion of higher education and an example for the many dignitaries from different parts of the world, especially those from African and Caribbean nations, who made frequent trips to the campus.Alonzo Davis was born in Tuskegee in 1942, just one year after the famed Tuskegee Airmen took to the air. 2 Dale was born in 1946. The Davis brothers grew up on Bibb Street in a community of educators who worked at the institute. Their father taught psychology, and their mother was a librarian at the college library. During the final years of the war, the boys left Tuskegee for St. Paul, Minnesota, where their father completed his Ph.D at the University of Minnesota. When they returned to Tuskegee, their father was made dean of the Education Department. Alonzo remembers a childhood of privilege, summers spent lying in the shade of a stretching magnolia tree in the mid-1940s in front of his house, participating in campus-sponsored activities such as swimming and tennis, and lounging on the flat clay soil at Dead Man’s Peak, a popular meeting place for the community children. Renowned entertainers and other luminaries frequently visited the campus. The institute was an insular community, aware of but situated away from the demeaning Jim Crow laws in the town of Tuskegee.
Interior view of the library reading room at the Tuskegee Institute ca. 1902 | Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress
When asked about the influences that contributed to his artistic and entrepreneurial sensibilities, Alonzo recalls that his first job was collecting and selling pop bottles back to the Flakes Store and coat hangers to Reid’s Cleaners. On Saturday mornings Dale worked at sweeping out Le Petite Bazaar, the small women’s clothing shop owned by Mrs. Dawson, the wife of William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), the celebrated composer, choral conductor, and professor. Dale also liked fishing and befriended local fishermen, selling them worms and crickets so that they would take him out with them. Away from his friends, Alonzo grew zinnias because he liked their bright colors. His friends teased him when they found out, so he began tending his zinnias on his way to play baseball — a move that quelled some of the teasing. Working with zinnias made Alonzo more interested in color and inspired him to take art classes from Elain e Freeman (Thomas), who later became chair of the Art Department at the institute. Freeman’s father, who was paralyzed, painted with his toes. Alonzo and Dale often visited Freeman’s family home to look at his work and watch him paint. Alonzo remembers his most rewarding art experience taking place at the institute’s Chambliss Children’s House School, an elementary school where practice teachers taught classes on everything from drawing to gardening to the children of the institute’s employees as well as the townspeople’s children. Winning an award there for a landscape painting encouraged Alonzo to pursue art.
For Alonzo, artistic endeavors were just another part of an active childhood, mixed in with the 4-H Club, the Boy Scouts, and Saturday-morning visits to the ROTC shooting range to fire a .22-caliber rifle. His schedule of varied activities was typical of most institute boys in this academic yet rural environment, often described by the college staff as “a ship in a rural sea.” Alonzo and Dale also had many experiences unheard of for other black youth.
By the time Alonzo was ten years old, the Tuskegee Airmen had made a name for themselves, and he was taken for a ride in a Piper airplane flown by Charles “Chief” Anderson, famous as the first instructor of the Airmen and for taking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for a plane ride in 1941 (Alonzo boasts that since then, he’s never feared flying).
Because their father held such an esteemed position at the institute, Alonzo and Dale had ample opportunities to meet dignitaries and be exposed to people from the African and black diasporas. Visits from these international figures often resulted in invitations for students from their home countries to study at Tuskegee, so the Davis brothers were accustomed to mingling with foreign students from a young age.
In addition to their exposure to people from the African and black diasporas, the Davis brothers met members of Tuskegee’s Jewish faculty, many of whom had fled the Nazis before settling in the United States. Historically black colleges and universities worked with various organizations to place recently emigrated Jews in colleges and universities around the nation, regularly opening their doors to the displaced scholars. This was especially evident in the art departments on these campuses. Artist and art historian Samella Lewis has discussed the important role played by Viktor Lowenfield in the art department at Hampton University in Virginia, and artist Mary Lovelace O’Neal has likewise stated her respect for Ronald O. Schnell, who was recruited from Stuttgart, Germany, in 1959 to the art department at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.
At Tuskegee Institute, a diverse group of writers, musicians, and other creative people visited and worked on the campus, including Dawson, who Alonzo insists made him “listen to another voice,” the creative voice in his head. Alonzo came to view Dawson as a kindred spirit, someone who understood “creative spirits — those of us who were into other things besides baseball and football.” He continues, “I wasn’t academic in the way my dad was, and Dawson picked up on that right away.”
Like one of his friends, the painter Aaron Douglas, Dawson was interested in the development of African American musical forms. His Negro Folk Symphony had its world premiere under the direction of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, the same year that Douglas painted his Aspects of Negro Life murals at the New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch in Harlem. Both composer and artist explored parallel themes in these works. Dawson’s symphony was composed of three symphonic movements (“The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O Let Me Shine”), while Douglas’s mural consisted of four oil-on-canvas panels (“Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting,” “An Idyll of the Deep South,” “From Slavery through Reconstruction,” and “Song of the Towers”).
Portrait of William Levi Dawson ca. 1926. | Photo: Courtesy of Emory University
Influenced by the nationalistic views of Anton Dvořák, Dawson traveled to West Africa in 1952. His exposure to African music inspired him to revise his symphony to include African rhythms. 3 Dawson’s interest in African culture was proudly displayed in his home, just a few houses down from the Davis home on Bibb Street. There the Davis brothers enjoyed Dawson’s personal collection of African and African American art, including works by Douglas, August Savage, and Hale Woodruff. Beyond their neighborhood the Davis boys had several other opportunities to view artwork, from the George Washington Carver Museum (named for the famous scientist and artist who was an important presence on the Tuskegee campus) to Lifting the Veil of Ignorance, Charles Keck’s monumental public sculpture of Booker T. Washington with a kneeling former slave. “One of my most memorable experiences was spending time in the George Washington Carver Museum looking at the brightly colored vials containing samples of his experiments and displays of his work,” Dale remembers. 4 A local gallery specializing in ceramics — a medium that would become an early focus for Dale’s art practice — also fueled the brothers’ desire to pursue art.In 1956 Alonzo and Dale’s parents separated, and the boys took the Super Chief passenger train from Chicago to Los Angeles with their mother. In 1948 restrictive real estate covenants had been lifted in Los Angeles, allowing black people to buy property west of Western Avenue. The Davis family did so, though moving into the new neighborhood was a cultural shock for the brothers. In Tuskegee the Davis brothers had lived in a closed community of black educators. The area where their family settled in Los Angeles was much more diverse. Alonzo remembers the student population at the new school: “It was comprised of black kids whose fathers worked at the U.S. Rubber Company, white kids [whose] parents worked at USC and wanted them to ‘toughen up’ in public school, and Japanese kids [who] had been in internment camps.” 5 In Los Angeles the Davis boys were exposed to a more racially diverse group of children than they had experienced in the predominantly black and insular Tuskegee.
Both of the Davis brothers entered and graduated from colleges in Los Angeles. Alonzo remembers that while in college they never learned anything about Africa or African Americans. For them, the seeds of their African heritage — a heritage that would later inform the naming of their gallery — had been firmly planted during their youth in Tuskegee. “We had spent our formative years in what people now refer to as ‘the Old South’ — Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta, and Durham, North Carolina. These were places we visited with our family, and even though young, we were very aware of the issues of segregation confronting the South,” says Dale. 6 By the time they began giving serious thought to opening a gallery, Alonzo had graduated from Pepperdine University, and Dale was an art student at the University of Southern California.
In 1966 they embarked on a cross-country road trip along I-20 in a Volkswagen Beetle, stopping off to visit with local artists along the way. Reconnecting with their southern roots, they visited colleges and universities, found vibrant art programs, and talked to students and faculty. In Washington, D.C., they met Topper Carew, who opened the New Thing Art and Architecture Center in the late 1960s. Carew inspired the brothers’ vision of a gallery as a place to at once enliven the black community and generate revenue. Before leaving the East Coast, they drove to Philadelphia and met with Romare Bearden in New York City, circled back to upstate New York, and continued into Canada, returning to the United States through Detroit. They returned to Los Angeles in 1966 after participating in the Meredith March, billed as “a march against fear,” which Alonzo says “test[ed] [our] resolve and commitment to be a part of a national response to the racism issues of the time.” 7 Within nine months of returning to Los Angeles, Alonzo and Dale found a building in Leimert Park Village. After talking with family members, who discouraged the brothers from doing it, they spoke with a lawyer and leased the building. While the brothers both taught art in high school, their main focus was on opening their gallery. Alonzo was twenty-four and Dale was twenty.
The corner of Degnan and 43rd in 1968, 1 year after Alonzo and Dale Davis opened Brockman Gallery. In the background the art deco Leimert Theatre, now the Vision, originially designed by the architectural firm Morgan, Walls & Clements | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Opening in a location on Degnan Boulevard, the main commercial strip in Leimert Park Village, the Davis brothers felt that they had secured a commercially viable space in a growing black community. Leimert Park is a village at the foot of the “Hills” — including View Park, Baldwin Hills, and Windsor Hills — which offered sweeping views of the Los Angeles basin and the Hollywood Hills to the east and the north, as well as Marina del Rey, Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu as they stretched to the Pacific Ocean on the west. Leimert Village, with its small triangular park at 43rd Place, is one and a half miles square, bordered by Crenshaw Boulevard, Leimert Boulevard, 43rd Street, and 43rd Place. The village was developed by Walter H. Leimert in 1928 and designed by Olmsted and Olmsted, brothers and sons of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), one of the two designers of Central Park in New York. They designed two-story Mediterranean-style buildings — a favored style for many communities in Los Angeles — for the commercial strip running through the center of the block.
Leimert envisioned his village as a self-sufficient community for upper-middle-class families with comfortable accessibility to schools and churches. The tree-lined streets and hidden utility lines created an oasis — an ideal atmosphere for families. It was no secret that a legal provision forbade selling property in this ideal family enclave to black families. In 1947 the neighborhood made headlines when the bisected and mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, the victim of the notorious Black Dahlia murder mystery, was found in a vacant lot in the 3800 block of South Norton Avenue. The area was in the news again one year later in 1948, this time for the lifting of the racially restrictive covenants that had prevented blacks from moving to the neighborhood. Free to move farther west, black middle-class families began settling between Western Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, soon to be a core area of black business achievement of the sort that was previously found near Central Avenue. Wealthy black Angelenos gravitated to Leimert Park and to the Hills. Leimert Park Village became one of the first communities in Los Angeles to have a homeowners association. To maintain an integrated community, blacks and Asians — with a few whites — founded the Crenshaw Neighbors Association in 1964. The Davis brothers believed that this community of black wealth was ripe with patrons for their gallery. As more black families moved into the area, whites moved farther west.
In 1965, a few years before the Brockman Gallery opened and in the midst of increased white flight, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) separated from the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art (founded in 1913) on Exposition Park and moved to the Miracle Mile neighborhood on Wilshire Boulevard. This left many blacks with few options to see and experience fine art from other parts of the world. LACMA’s move to Wilshire Boulevard meant that most of the communities of color that encircled Exposition Park had to travel farther to see artwork. Residents of communities in the Hills, many of whom were already patronizing shops on the far west side of Los Angeles, generally embraced the move.
A Spanish style apartment house in Leimert Park. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
The homes in this tree-lined neighborhood — typically furnished with Provençal furniture and grand pianos — created a comfortable environment for wealthier blacks, in stark contrast to life in the sprawling black communities farther east and south in Los Angeles. Before the Davis brothers embarked on their cross-country journey, in 1965 the Watts uprising erupted, and the National Guard set up a no-cross line on Crenshaw Boulevard at the foot of the hill communities. The residents of Leimert Park, situated on the east side of Crenshaw Boulevard, must have felt a pronounced sense of vulnerability. Alonzo was in Europe, sitting in a Paris café, when he heard about Watts. He recalls people he met in Paris asking him: “You’re from Los Angeles. What are you going to do about this?” 8
In retrospect, Davis observes that it was for the best that he wasn’t there at the time, since he was “hotheaded” and likely would have found himself in trouble. Of course, he knew many artists who actually lived the experience, watching Watts and South Los Angeles burn as fires continued to spread, with no end in sight. Many artists were livid about the destruction, the police brutality, and the poverty that sparked the uprising, and in the aftermath of the rebellion their frustrations manifested in their work. The Davis brothers met a number of these artists before the uprising — including Noah Purifoy, Judson Powell, and John Riddle — when their work was exhibited at the Watts Recreational Center, the site of the Watts Summer Arts Festival.
Alonzo met artist Dan Concholar in a park where he often went to read. With so many contacts in the arts scene, a lack of local venues in which to experience art (resulting from LACMA’s move), and the artists’ passionate desire to do something in the aftermath of the Watts uprising, the Davis brothers had all the motivation and resources they needed to open the Brockman Gallery. Alonzo notes: “After the Watts riot, there were a lot of artists doing works that were politically significant. They were making statements that were social. We filled a gap and a void there. We just opened a window that had never been available, especially on the West Coast.” 9
The Brockman Gallery opened in 1967 at 4334 Degnan Boulevard in the center of the Leimert Park Village shopping district. The gallery was named after the brothers’ grandmother Della Brockman, whose maiden name was also Dale’s middle name. Della Brockman’s father was from Charleston, South Carolina, and was of mixed race, the child of a white slave master and a black female slave. He was indentured, and when he left the plantation, he married a Cherokee woman in the Charleston region. The family has never been sure why, but it is known that he eventually returned to the plantation. In the late 1960s, as blacks and African American organizations actively adopted African names, the Davis brothers decided to use the name Brockman in honor of their great-grandfather, the mixed-race slave who married the Cherokee woman. By celebrating their southern roots rather than their more distant African ones, they hoped to display that they were comfortable with their family’s history and felt no need to deny their slave and racial heritage. Such an outright embrace of a slave name ran counter to the position of some black nationalist groups. “When we adopted Brockman as our name, we took heat [for the] slave name because it was a time of Black Nationalism in Los Angeles. We were respected [for our efforts] but we had a slave name,” recalls Alonzo.
Starting the gallery in 1967 was not easy. Alonzo was teaching art at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles on Figueroa Boulevard, less than fifteen blocks from where Dale was completing his undergraduate degree in art at the University of Southern California. Recognizing a need in their community and driven by a longing to go into business for themselves, they established the gallery as a private enterprise rather than a nonprofit entity. Even though they were community-minded, they viewed this opportunity as a career path and from the beginning focused on selling art as a commercial venture. They joined the Art Dealers Association of Southern California and received help and ideas from the professional organization. A number of people in the art business at that time were members of the Jewish community, and they wanted to see Brockman Gallery succeed. One such person was Benjamin Horowitz, who founded the Heritage Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles and was well known to the Davis brothers because of his early promotion of works by Charles White, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. In 1965 Horowitz authored Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, a text that helped make Charles White wildly popular. 10
Alonzo Davis with printmaker Ruth Waddy | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive
Another of Alonzo and Dale’s allies was Joan Ankrum, founder of the Ankrum Gallery, established in 1960 (to 1990), also on La Cienega. She showed the work of Bernie Casey
for many years. Both Horowitz and Ankrum sensed that while the Davis brothers lacked a working understanding of the art business, they possessed a strong desire to fill a void in their community. Alonzo and Dale also credit William “Bill” Pajaud, artist and curator of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Art Collection, as an “active participant in the growth of our experience as gallerists — he was very focused on our contributions [to the black arts community] and challenged us to maintain a very professional business model — Bill was [a] dynamic and forceful challenger,” according to Dale. Alonzo remembers, “[We] learned by the seat of our pants — bookkeeping, consignment, and setting up a business account, sales and recordkeeping — [we] had no formal education.” Both brothers contributed to the daily management of the gallery, including conceptualizing and implementing the diverse programming that became a signature of the Brockman Gallery.
Alonzo and Dale found themselves caught between the model of community involvement embodied by Topper Carew and the strictly business model informed by lessons they were learning from other art dealers. Shortly after the Brockman Gallery opened, Suzanne Jackson opened Gallery 32 on North Lafayette Park Place near MacArthur Park and the Otis and Chouinard Art Institutes, not far from downtown Los Angeles. Jackson’s approach to running a gallery differed from the approach favored by Alonzo and Dale Davis. Her gallery, much like Carew’s space, was a vehicle for community activism and change, a place where artists gathered to discuss politics and society. As young entrepreneurs running a for-profit business, the Davis brothers made difficult business decisions that some community-minded artists did not favor. Frequent comparisons were made between the commercial example of the Brockman Gallery and the nonprofit example of Gallery 32; the former was often derided for pursuing a business model, while the latter was celebrated as a site where social change could be effected. Despite such criticisms, the Brockman Gallery hosted the Black Artists Association (BAC), offering a forum for dialogues on the work of black artists. Nevertheless, the Davis brothers experienced some backlash from artists represented by the Brockman Gallery who felt that Alonzo and Dale were taking advantage of them.
Interior of Brockman Gallery, unnamed John Riddle sculpture and Portrait of Paul Robeson, by John Scott | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive
Some artists believed that the brothers should share more of their profits. Artists who thought that they should receive more than the standard percentages that other art dealers were awarding began to sell their work independently of the Brockman Gallery, although the Davis brothers continued to promote the artists’ works. Some artists, however, were endowed with a keener understanding of the art world and the challenges faced by the Brockman Gallery; in any case, the Davis brothers had no shortage of talent to represent. John Outterbridge recalls many of the artists who came through the Brockman’s doors, including Timothy Washington, Ruth Waddy, and Samella Lewis. Lewis and fellow artist Bernie Casey also founded Contemporary Crafts Gallery in 1970, and Lewis opened the first African American-owned art book publishing house, Contemporary Crafts Publishers, Inc., in the gallery.
As a result of the Watts rebellion, more attention was focused on LACMA’s need to service a broader community with its programs. In 1968 the BAC, founded by its black employees, advocated for and organized a black cultural festival in conjunction with the exhibition “The Sculpture of Black Africa: The Paul Tishman Collection.” In 1972 Robert Wilson became their first black board member, and in 1976 LACMA became one of the first museums in the country to organize an exhibition of the work of African American artists: “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by artist and art historian David Driskell. Also in 1976 Samella Lewis founded the Museum of African American Art in the May Company Department Store building on Crenshaw Boulevard, just blocks from the Brockman Gallery, and the California African American Museum, chartered by the state in 1977, opened its doors in its new forty-four-thousand-square-foot building designed by black architects Jack Haywood and Vince Proby during the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Exposition Park, the same park where LACMA once operated.
List of artists who exhibited at the Brockman Gallery or participated in Brockman Production programs | Courtesy Brockman Gallery Archive
These new institutions signaled the promise of a healthy black cultural scene for Los Angeles. After opening the Brockman Gallery, Alonzo left his high school teaching job to enter graduate school at Otis Art Institute. Though it had been difficult to sustain the business, the Davis brothers calculated that by 1970 the gallery could survive on its own. But the challenges from the black arts community continued to swell, ultimately obstructing the brothers’ desire and ability to fully implement the business model they had developed. Finally, they decided to form a nonprofit. As a nonprofit, the Brockman Gallery could receive grants from the city, state, and federal government for programming and educational projects. While the Brockman Gallery focused on exhibiting artwork for sale, Brockman Productions was established to address the social and artistic needs of the community. Brockman Productions received funding for film festivals notable for a number of important screenings, including “Child Resistance” by UCLA film student Haile Gerima, and one of the earliest screenings of Larry Clark’s film “As Above, So Below.”
In the 1970s Brockman Productions screened the films of UCLA film student Ben Caldwell. Caldwell and fellow film student Charles Burnett, director of “To Sleep with Anger,” joined forces to focus their cinematic attentions on L.A.’s black communities, setting up shop in Leimert Park Village. With other creative professionals moving into the area, the neighborhood soon became a black cultural Mecca. The Brockman Productions mural program included muralists such as Richard Wyatt, Judy Baca, Kent Twitchell, and Frank Romero. The Brockman music component introduced the music of instrumental group Hiroshima and offered frequent music happenings with Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra at free concerts. When the Brockman Productions programming became successful, the Brockman Gallery began to attract emerging artists from other parts of the state and beyond: Mildred Howard, Carrie May Weems, Joe Sam, Maren Hassinger, and Martin Payton, among others. Many established black artists also exhibited there, including Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden. Dale attributes Brockman’s success as a nonprofit to a cultural shift that offered new, broader opportunities to cultural centers in the area. The Davis brothers’ exposure to art and culture as young children impacted their view of the art world, their sense of aesthetics, and their investigations beyond image-based art. In the gallery, they offered high school and college students internships to help them learn the business of art and become familiar with some of the issues associated with community-based and for-profit galleries.
Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra | Photo: Courtesy of Brockman Gallery Archive
Initially, events put on by Brockman Productions were not actively promoted; the Davis brothers mistakenly thought that they were in a financially stable neighborhood and assumed that if they developed events, the population in the Hills and beyond would support them. However, the wealthier Hills residents were looking westward, and that is where their income went.
Though some collectors purchased from the Brockman Gallery and attended Brockman events, their support was limited. Realizing that they could not rely solely on the black community to sustain themselves, Alonzo and Dale expanded their support base, reaching out to Hollywood and Jewish communities that in turn brought in another group of clients and made residents in the Hills community more responsive. Like Gallery 32, the Brockman Gallery featured black artists — though not exclusively. To expand their support base, the Davis brothers also featured Hispanic, Anglo, and Japanese artists who had grown up in the area and had gone to school there and were still part of the surrounding community. While Alonzo was at Otis, he convinced his artist colleagues to exhibit at the Brockman Gallery, which was viewed as an alternative exhibition space. Because of the diverse roster of artists promoted by the Davis brothers, a community joke circulated that the Brockman Gallery showed non-black artists more than the white galleries showed black artists.
After Dale married in 1980, he became less involved at the gallery. Though he continued to marginally participate in gallery activities, he became much more active in the nonprofit side of the business, Brockman Productions. Later Alonzo left the for-profit side of the gallery in 1987 to become the interim director of the public art program for the city and county of Sacramento:
Part of leaving Los Angeles and relocating to Sacramento was trying to find my identity as an artist and move from other artists pulling at me, wanting more of my time and resources for community-oriented programs — [as an artist] I wanted to do my own thing. The community was so hard and expectations were so great and you were only seen in one direction and not as a multi-directional person — it just wasn’t working.
Debbie Byars, a former student of Dale’s, became acting director while Alonzo was away. As an artist and administrator, Alonzo continued to pursue his personal interests. After his stint in Sacramento, he was awarded a six-month fellowship at the East/West Center in Hawaii. On his return, Alonzo realized that the gallery was failing and that his and Dale’s interests lay elsewhere. In 1990 they decided to close the gallery. They turned over their lease to Mary and Jacqueline Kimbrough, who opened Zambezi Bazaar. Mary and Jacqueline come from a politically active family and, along with their brother Alden, collect books, ephemera, and recorded music, as well as many other objects that help tell the story of blacks in America. At the time, the Brockman Gallery consisted of four storefronts: for twenty years the Davis brothers had worked to build an artistic village, and they had several artist-in-residence spaces. Dale remembers their creation as an icon of cultural pride, entrepreneurship, and the power of vision, common purpose, and determination.
A close up view of Alonzo Davis and Brockman Gallery as part of the historical tableau (alongside Horace Tapscott and Richard Fulton of 5th St. Dicks) on the mural behind the Vision Theater | Photo: Alvaro Parra
In the 1990s, just after the Brockman Gallery closed, “the village” experienced a cultural rebirth, with new businesses popping up in Leimert Park. Along with the Kimbroughs’ Zambezi Bazaar, the new crop of businesses included Brian Breye’s Museum in Black (specializing in the exhibition and sale of African art and artifacts and of black memorabilia), Marla Gibbs’s Vision Theatre Complex (formerly the Leimert Theater, built in 1930 as a joint venture between Walter H. Leimert and Howard Hughes), Gibbs’s Crossroads Art Academy (a provider of arts programs for youth), Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn (a club that relocated from Central Avenue to the Village), Kaos Network and Project Blowed (which offered creative adults and young people a meeting place and focused on new media technology; it was created by Ben Caldwell, who had worked at the Brockman Gallery in the 1970s), and Kamau Daaood’s World Stage (a venue for spoken word readings, jam sessions, workshops, and performances, founded in 1989 by drummer Billy Higgins). The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, established in 1961, continued to be an active cultural presence in the village.
Although homeownership in Leimert Park remains high, many businesses in the village, a
prime piece of Los Angeles real estate, are leased. Village rents steadily rose, and many businesses lost their leases between 2000 and 2010. New cultural footprints have begun to take hold in the area. Artist Mark Bradford has opened a street-level storefront studio in Leimert Park on the site of his mother’s hair salon (where he was a stylist before going to art school at the age of thirty). In 2010 Eileen Harris Norton founded the Leimert Project, a promising new space, next to the Zambezi Bazaar in one of the same storefronts occupied by the Brockman Gallery during its years on the block. 11
Today Los Angeles is experiencing a resurgence of interest in its art scene, and artists every-where — including black artists — increasingly participate in a transnational art dialogue. Decades ago Alonzo and Dale Davis planted an entrepreneurial cultural seed that continues to manifest in Leimert Park Village. That seed germinated many miles away in a small, predominantly black college community founded on Booker T. Washington’s affirmation of the virtue of self-reliance, a notion that was reinforced by the boundaries of racial segregation. Though society has come a long way since the days of Jim Crow, the story of the Davis brothers reminds us that it is more important than ever to acknowledge how viable community examples and business models can nurture desired outcomes and affect the way a community thinks about itself. Author’s Note
Although Alonzo continued his art practice, it has suffered due to the time he has devoted to running a private gallery. After closing the gallery, he reestablished himself as a visual artist without, as he says, “having the chain of the gallery holding me down.” He was an artist-in- residence at Lawrence University and then became a visiting artist at San Antonio Art Institute in Texas before taking a position from 1993 to 2002 as academic dean at the Memphis School of Art in Tennessee. He had gained a great deal of business and nonprofit work experience with the Brockman Gallery, so arts administration was an easy transition, and he was at ease in a creative environment where fresh and innovative ideas could flourish without the restrictions of racial expectations. He has also been a fellow several times at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and now serves as one of its advisers. After leaving Memphis he continued his entrepreneurial activities, opening his own artist residency, AIR, in the artist community of Paducah, Kentucky. Most of the year he spends his time in his studio at Montpelier Art Center in Laurel, Maryland, and he exhibits widely. Dale still resides in Los Angeles, not far from Leimert Park Village and the site of the former Brockman Gallery. Dale taught art at nearby Susan B. Dorsey High School in Leimert Park until he retired from teaching in 2002. His mixed-media art practice has continued without interruption, and he is exhibiting more due to the renewed interest in LA artists. He also continues to be involved with Brockman Productions as a board member.
1 In 1932 the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute
enrolled four hundred poor black men in a project to study untreated syphilis, known in the local community as “bad blood.” The men actually had syphilis.
2 According to the Tuskegee Airmen website, “The black airmen who became single-engine or multi-engine pilots were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Tuskegee, Alabama.”
3 See Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: Norton, 1983), 419. Dawson knew Douglas, and when I visited Dawson in the early 1980s, he had examples of Douglas’s art in his home. Southern states, “According to the composer, a link was taken out of a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent into slavery.”
4 Dale Davis, pers. comm., February 28, 2011. Additionally, George Washington Carver, the scientist and artist, is known for his cultivation of amaryllis bulbs, which he shared with the institute community. He also developed printers ink from surplus
peanuts. The ink was of particular interest to the campus print shop.
5 Alonzo Davis, interview by author, March 27, 2011.
6 Dale Davis, “Brockman Gallery,” photocopy, February 2011.
7 The Meredith March was named after James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi after federal courts ruled that blacks could not be denied entry based on their race. Meredith continued his graduate studies at Columbia University, and on June 5, 1966, he and a few companions began a “march against fear” walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to register black voters. On June 6 he was wounded by a shotgun blast.
8 Alonzo Davis, interview by author, March 27, 2011.
9 See Jeannette Lindsay, dir., Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles, 2006.
Special Thanks to Duke University Press. You can find the article in its original form here:
Lizetta LeFalle-Collins, “Planting A Seed: The Brockman Gallery and the Village,” in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Volume 3, no. , pp. 4-15. Copyright, 2012, Nka Publications. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyrightholder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press.
LATIMES Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice to bring art, social services to Leimert
Carolina A. Miranda
ntemporary art gallery, opened its doors on the same block.
The eastern side of Degnan Boulevard and West 43rd Place in Leimert Park at first glance seems like just another crestfallen Los Angeles block. Doors are closed. Gates are shut. Plywood obscures the windows on an ornate Art Deco-era structure topped by a stupa-like tower.
But walk closer and you’ll hear a hive of activity in storefronts along the block as workers sand, paint and debate where the light switches will go. A singular art and social services collaboration is being constructed.
Art + Practice, as this unusual project is called, will showcase museum-grade contemporary art exhibitions, while also offering services for youth in the city’s foster care system.
Art and Practice: Eileen Harris Norton and Allan DiCastro
Spearheaded by artist Mark Bradford, Art + Practice will bring a unique combination of contemporary art, as well as social services for foster youth, to Leimert Park. A+P co-founders Eileen Harris Norton, left, and Allan DiCastro check in on construction of a gallery space. (Christina House / For The Times)
“This is the bookstore,” says Allan DiCastro, the organization’s interim director, as he walks through an empty Degnan Boulevard storefront being lined with wood panels. “We’re adding a second floor right there — that’s where the lectures will be. And we’re adding oak shelves. It will have a nice, warm feel.”
Behind him follows noted art collector and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, one of A+P’s founders, who on this brisk Friday afternoon stops to admire the day’s work. “It’s going to be an incredible space,” she says, as she takes it all in.
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When it opens in February, A+P won’t be a typical community arts center. The Hammer Museum is providing curatorial muscle to stage exhibitions. The RightWay Foundation, which moved its headquarters in August to A+P, provides job training and mental health services to foster youth. And the bookstore is the venerable Eso Won Books, which will leave its Degnan Boulevard space for a storefront in the A+P complex.
Providing inspiration and guidance throughout is co-founder Mark Bradford, whose work has been shown at the Hammer, New York’s Whitney Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Bradford is also a 2009 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
“No one in L.A. County has a program like this,” says RightWay founder and director Franco Vega. “In fact, I don’t think anyone in the country has a program like this. There’s a program in Boston that mixes sports and mental health services, but not art.”
A+P is a result of the concerted efforts of Bradford, DiCastro and Norton, a close-knit, easygoing crew. DiCastro and Bradford have been a couple since the late 1990s. And Norton met Bradford in the early 2000s, just before the artist’s the historic 2001 exhibition “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Art + Practice Street View
On South Leimert Blvd., A+P is teaming up with the RightWay Foundation to offer job training and mental health services to L.A. foster youth. (Christina House / For The Times)
“I was the first to buy from him,” she says. “He was a struggling artist. He’d finished CalArts but was still working at [his mother’s] hair salon. I had my hair done by him — back when I still had hair.”
A+P is a long-held dream for Bradford and DiCastro.
“For years, Mark and I have been talking about how we can do something that crosses volunteerism and art,” says DiCastro, who has a banking background and for nearly a decade helped run the Mid-City Neighborhood Council. “So much of what happens has to do with kids not having enough to do. So how can you change that?”
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When the Art Deco building at Degnan and West 43rd Place went on the market a couple of years back. DiCastro says they found their place: Leimert Park, around the corner from where Bradford’s mother once operated her hair salon and where Bradford long maintained the studio where he began to produce the expressive, abstracted works for which he’d become known — works that, in their early days, contained the paper end wraps used in perms.
Once complete, the A+P campus will consist of half a dozen buildings housing not just the art gallery, bookstore and RightWay offices, but space for artist studios.
Bradford and DiCastro supplied a majority of the seed money to launch A+P, which has allowed the organization, a privately operated 501(c)3 foundation, to purchase some of the real estate it is occupying — including the graceful building at Degnan and West 43rd Place that will serve as the art gallery.
The project is also covered, in part, by a $600,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, as part of a Hammer initiative to create programming and increase arts access to residents of African American communities in South Los Angeles.
No one in L.A. County has a program like this. In fact, I don’t think anyone in the country has a program like this. – Franco Vega, founder and director, RightWay Foundation
“Almost every department in our museum is engaged in the process,” says Hammer director Annie Philbin of her institution’s relationship with A+P. “Whether it’s administrative helping with a budget or public relations supporting them on marketing and publicity. The expectation is that we will support and guide them in not-for-profit practices, but it also brings the museum out beyond our four walls.”
Bradford, unavailable to join DiCastro and Norton on this day’s tour, adds in a short statement, “Annie has been a supporter of Art + Practice since the inception.” He also notes that it’s a natural collaboration with an institution that has shown his work for almost 15 years. (The museum also honored him at its annual gala in October.)
DiCastro and Norton took me on a tour of the in-progress spaces. The gallery that will be housed in the Art Deco building is still raw and un-primed, with wires and pipes poking out dangerously from an uneven cement floor. (They are awaiting permits from the city to begin construction.) But the social services offices — a couple of well-appointed storefronts on South Leimert Boulevard — are not only complete, they are already in use, boasting a tidy computer lab and a training center.
For DiCastro, one of the most crucial aspects of the project was getting the social service component just right. He and Bradford conducted extensive research on what sorts of services the neighborhood might need.
“In doing our research, we realized that in this ZIP Code, there is an epidemic of kids in foster care,” he says. “So it became important to us to focus our efforts there.”
In fact, L.A. County has the largest foster youth population in the nation (almost 30,000 kids), says RightWay’s Vega. A lot of that population resides in South Los Angeles. Dorsey High School and Crenshaw High School, both less than two miles from A+P, have the city’s highest concentrations of foster youth.
Vega, a former foster child himself, says that when he was approached by A+P, he was intrigued by the model — which not only has the potential to expose foster youth to art but the art world to the challenges faced by Los Angeles’ foster youth.
“I remember, [Mark] called me about a meeting,” he says with a chuckle, “and I was like, ‘Who is Mark Bradford?’ But we had the most relaxed conversation ever. He was asking me, ‘What do you want do do?’ ”
Mark Bradford at Hammer Gala
For years, artist Mark Bradford maintained a studio in Leimert Park, where he is now involved in establishing A+P. He is seen here in October at the Hammer Museum gala in his honor. (David McNew / AFP/Getty Images)
The next day Bradford approached him about meeting with the A+P board. Vega says the session went so well he not only decided to participate, he moved the RightWay Foundation’s headquarters to A+P’s Leimert Park campus. Since late summer, the organization has been providing life-preparedness classes for foster youth at its A+P location, which has a new computer lab. RightWay’s service include clinical counseling, resume building and job training. (The organization regularly places foster youth in jobs at places such as the Staples Center and USC’s Galen Center.)
“Everything they have promised us has come through,” Vega says. “And you couldn’t pick a better location. When the Metro is finished in 2019, you won’t be able to make it easier for youth than this.”
The bonus: RightWay gets two years’ free rent as part of the deal.
The Hammer’s Philbin says that the time and care that A+P has put into finding strong partners has been important to the museum, too.
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“Mark and Allan are very serious and thoughtful,” she says. “They’ve done a lot of research on foster care issues and their approach is not springing out of nowhere.”
Equally important to all of this is Leimert’s Park history as a center of African American culture.
The neighborhood, home to Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and other important African American figures, is where brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis ran the Brockman Gallery, L.A.’s first African American-owned commercial gallery. It was part of the community from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. And for a time, Norton ran a space on Degnan Boulevard called Leimert Project. Last February, Papillion, a contemporary art gallery, opened its doors on the same block.
Eso Won Books space
Longtime Leimert Park culture outpost Eso Won Books will have a new store within the A+P space. Eso Won owners James Fulgate, center, and Thomas Hamilton, right, visit the under-construction shop on Degnan Boulevard with members of A+P. (Christina House / For The Times)
“I have a foundation, and the issues I’ve been concerned with are families in underserved communities,” says Norton. “But the art component is very important to me, too. This area has so much history. Brockman helped bring them all in. This helps keep the arts here.”
As part of its mission, A+P will provide studios to three artists in residence, terms that already began in August. Among the first artists to participate: Dale Brockman Davis, founder of the famed Brockman Gallery, who is using the space to work on his archive.
The public lecture space will be programmed in collaboration with the owners of Eso Won Books, James Fulgate and Thomas Hamilton. Since the 1980s, their bookshop has been a gathering place for African American authors and the community. (In 1995, the shop played host to a little-known activist by the name of Barack Obama, who was promoting his book “Dreams From My Father.”)
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And, of course, there’s the exhibition program, which will include a wide range of shows managed by Hammer Museum curators. The first exhibition, opening Feb. 28 in A+P’s remodeled, two-room gallery space on South Leimert Boulevard, will showcase new work by L.A.-based conceptual artist Charles Gaines. This show will be in conjunction with a Hammer survey of early works, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989,” which goes on view at the Westwood museum on Feb. 7.
“It all fell right into place,” says Norton. “He’s local and he’s having a big show at the Hammer and he was very enthusiastic. It was an opportunity to show some new works.”
Among the new pieces at Gaines’ A+P show will be a 12-part series that combines a 1911 Manuel de Falla opera with a 1964 speech by Black Panthers activist Stokely Carmichael. Gaines will combine music and text to draw attention to class and race issues.
In the A+P computer lab
A+P co-founders Norton, left, and DiCastro, stand inside the computer lab operated by the RightWay Foundation at A+P. The lab allows underserved youth to check email, apply for jobs and do research. (Christina House / For The Times)
Subsequent A+P exhibitions will feature L.A. assemblagist John Outterbridge and mixed-media artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
Michelle Papillion, who operates Papillion gallery, couldn’t be more thrilled by A+P’s imminent debut.
“People want culture,” she says. “They want things that they can participate in and go to in their own neighborhood. And then go home with that information and continue to sort it out in conversation in their own circles.”
DiCastro’s hope is that A+P can honor the history of Leimert Park, while offering its residents fresh moments of discovery.
“The idea is to enhance what is already here,” he says. “Mark has spent so much time here. This is his way of giving back.”
Mark Grotjahn’s New Work Stars With Castoff Cardboard
By JORI FINKELMAY 7, 2014
LOS ANGELES — It started out as a lark. After long days in the studio making his labor-intensive “Butterfly” paintings about a decade ago, Mark Grotjahn would unwind by taking empty supply boxes or beer cartons and gluing on toilet-paper tubes as noses. Then he would paint crude eyes and mouths.
The cardboard sculptures offered him a chance to “get dirty and messy, to be expressive in a different way,” he said, unlike the densely layered “Butterfly” canvases, which have been compared to Barnett Newman’s “zips” for their focus on a single abstract motif.
He did not intend to exhibit what he called his masks and gave several away as gifts. The bathroom humor was obvious.
But intentions can change; the art world has a soft spot for a certain amount of nose-thumbing irreverence; and these days, even Mr. Grotjahn’s clownish sculptures — now cast in bronze before being painted — are getting serious play.
Early works from the series, introduced at Gagosian Gallery in New York two years ago, were bought by the Guggenheim and Broad museums, among others. Newer and larger examples are now heading to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas for Mr. Grotjahn’s first museum exhibition of sculptural works, opening May 31.
“I think the masks are fascinating objects and also important as painting surfaces that allow for tremendous freedom and experimentation,” said Jeremy Strick, director at the Nasher. “You could see it as a way for Mark to give himself license to do things he wouldn’t ordinarily do, to paint in different ways.”
On May 1, Blum & Poe, his longtime gallery in Los Angeles, opened a space on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a survey of the “Butterfly” paintings, through June 21.
The May shows represent two extremes of this artist’s work that are not always easy to reconcile. What is a rigorous abstract painter doing making funny faces out of leftover Heineken cases, works that he himself compares to grade-school art projects? Has he lost his way as a painter, or discovered an important second act as a sculptor?
What becomes clear from a recent visit to his sculpture studio is that Mr. Grotjahn has found a second act in his personal life, having stopped drinking about a year ago. And he has begun giving back to the art world, donating money to the Mike Kelley exhibition now at the Museum of Contemporary Art and joining the board there as its youngest artist-trustee, at 46. The move surprised many who didn’t see him as much of a joiner, and Mr. Grotjahn, who is married to the painter Jennifer Guidi and is the father of two young girls, called it a personal first.
Sitting in his studio, a large space that used to be an embroidery factory, he looked fit and relaxed, with his graying beard neatly trimmed and his pale blue eyes clear. “I was a binge drinker; I drank when I traveled,” he said with a bit of a surfer-dude drawl and some expletives for emphasis. “From what people say, I look a lot better and a lot younger than I did. It’s a completely different way of living your life.”
Mr. Strick, director of the Nasher, said what strikes him about Mr. Grotjahn right now is “his amazing productivity,” as he works on several new paintings and sculptures spread out over two studios.
One room of the sculpture studio is filled with a small army of the boxy, rough-and-tumble figures heading for the Nasher. Many look as if they were attacked with pencils or knives, poked and ripped, before being cast in bronze and painted.
Most are finger paintings, though done with gloved hands for protection.
Of the sculptures’ primitive look, Mr. Grotjahn said: “I think my masks reference artists who reference primitivism. They’re not directly connected to tribal arts. I think they look more like third-grade art projects.”
“There’s obviously a lot of phallic humor and toilet humor,” he added, looking at a tall, skinny bronze mask smeared with red and yellow paint. “But it also comes out of some of the art I was thinking about when I first moved to L.A.: artists interested in the pathetic,” he added, mentioning Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.
“And just because the masks started out casually or were fun personally doesn’t mean they’re any less serious,” he said.
The masks have been growing more complex, featuring double noses or incorporating some tools used in lost-wax casting into the structures. They are also becoming more painterly, with one mask in a loose, Impressionistic style that makes Mr. Grotjahn think of Monet’s water lilies, he said. He sees echoes of Cy Twombly and Julian Schnabel in the dense looping scrawls on another. Others recall Jackson Pollock.
Today, Mr. Grotjahn’s paintings often surpass the million-dollar mark at auction (with a record $6.5 million for a work bid up by Mr. Gagosian at a charity auction). And selling one “Butterfly” painting from his own stock enabled him to make a down payment on a house in Los Angeles.
But he was hardly an overnight success. Born in 1968 in Pasadena, Calif., he grew up in Mill Valley, a suburb of San Francisco “that was all hippies back then,” he said. “We were dirty kids on dirt bikes.”
After getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art, he settled in Los Angeles in 1996. For a year or so, he ran an art gallery in Hollywood with a friend from the University of California, Berkeley.
He also pursued his own art projects. For one series, he replicated the signs of small businesses in the area and then gave business owners his painted signs in exchange for their real ones. For another, he began drawing or painting perspective lines converging in a way that made the surface itself seem to bulge and recede.
He had his first solo shows with Blum & Poe, then a promising small gallery in Santa Monica, in 1998 and 2000. He remembers selling only one artwork from the second show, pocketing $1,750.
“Selling only one piece for a year and a half of work was a bit of a whipping,” he said, noting wryly that Jeff Poe, one of the gallery’s owners, called the show “a critical and financial disappointment.” Mr. Grotjahn turned to poker for income, spending the next 10 months playing Texas Hold ’Em in a casino in the nearby city of Commerce. “I played like an addict, maybe 13 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said, picking at a snack of vegetables on a tray. “I wasn’t playing to win but to lose myself.”
During this period, he began the “Butterfly” paintings, so named because of the way their lines radiate from a central, vertical axis. The first one started as a colorful perspectival painting in which nested V’s radiate from the horizon line, like a sunset and streetscape.
But he wasn’t happy until he flipped the canvas 90 degrees: “I found that rotating it took all the landscape out, so it became a nonobjective painting.“
Douglas Fogle, an independent curator who organized the “Butterfly” exhibition for Blum & Poe, calls this series Mr. Grotjahn’s breakthrough work. He notes that the artist’s off-kilter, hand-painted geometry — unlike the hard-edge look created by applying and peeling off tape — places him in “a tradition that goes back to early abstract painting by Mondrian and Malevich,” adding, “I see his ties with Constructivist painting.”
Mr. Grotjahn stopped painting the “Butterfly” works in 2008, after tearing his rotator cuff and breaking a shoulder bone in a ski accident. He found he couldn’t paint for more than two hours at a time. Since then, he has discovered physical therapy and looser, less intensive ways of painting. One resulting series, the “Face” paintings, feature almond-shaped, Picasso-like eyes peering out from wild skeins of color. When reviewing the work in 2011, New York magazine’s art critic, Jerry Saltz, responded to the images’ untamed or “shamanic” power, calling it “the best show by a midcareer painter that I’ve seen in a long time.”
Mr. Grotjahn has since turned his attention to the so-called “Circus” paintings, which are close in spirit to the “Faces,” though the ropes of paint look even more tangled — almost braided — and the almond eyes have morphed into larger leaflike structures. These new paintings will be shown starting May 16 at the Kunstverein Freiburg, a swimming pool turned exhibition hall in Germany.
He painted both the “Face” and “Circus” series on cardboard mounted on linen, a clear link to his cardboard sculptures. “It’s all connected,” he said. “When I started the masks, I left them in my studio where I painted. I looked at them all the time. And now, I’m watching them become more like traditional paintings. I think you’ll see them influencing my painting in the future. I’m sure of it.”
Correction: May 18, 2014
A picture caption last Sunday with an article about the visual artist Mark Grotjahn referred incorrectly to the titles of three of his works. The painting in his “Circus” series is “Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18)”; the painting in his “Butterfly” series is “Untitled (Orange Butterfly Blue MG03) #1”; and the bronze sculpture is called “Untitled (African, Gated Front and Back Mask M34.b).” These works were not untitled.
The sculptor Thomas Houseago was practically bouncing off the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art late last month as he toured some of the treasures on the first floor. He unleashed a torrent of praise — “insane,” “unbelievable, “crazy,” “weird,” “wicked” — as he pinballed from an ancient Greek grave stele to a striking series of squatting Aztec and Maya figures.
The British-born Mr. Houseago lives in Los Angeles but knows the Met’s collection well, and some of the Central American pieces directly inspired one of his best-known works, “Baby,” a huge crouching figure in plaster, wood and iron that was shown in the Whitney Biennial in 2010.
He stopped in front of a 19th-century wood house post figure from the Indonesian Sentani people with a wide, carved grin. “He’s smiling at death,” said Mr. Houseago, whose bright blue eyes were blazing beneath his fiery red hair. “Sculpture beats death.”
Coming from him, it made sense: the high-energy Mr. Houseago (pronounced HOWZ-a-go), 42, sculpts as if his life depended on it.
And according to him, it does. “My practice sustains me,” he said. “If I don’t work, I get socially bizarre and agitated. I need my practice to kind of keep me good with the world.”
His intensity has propelled him on an unusual path, from a modern version of a Dickensian childhood in Leeds, England, and then 15 years of struggle — from bankruptcy to boozy binges and a car accident that had him “hanging off the edge of a cliff,” in his words — to art world success.
As late as 2006, he was working in construction to make ends meet in Los Angeles; now, he is represented by two of the most powerful galleries, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth. And he tore through a succession of other top dealers to get there. This week, Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea debuts a single large installation, “Moun Room,” which Mr. Houseago calls his “first truly American piece” — he holds dual citizenship — and his “first proper New York show.”
Mr. Houseago made his name with towering, hulking figures and masks that draw on ancient art as well as the tradition of Picasso, Rodin and Brancusi. The plaster pieces have rough-hewed surfaces, with the iron rebar that holds them together exposed in places, giving his work a sense of vulnerability at odds with their size. Wood and other materials are also incorporated, and he often draws on the sculptures.
But “Moun Room,” an architectural installation rather than a figure, is something of a departure for him.
He called the work, a 36-by-45-foot environment with 12-foot-high plaster walls and a progression of different spaces, “a visual maze with a spiritual dimension.” In this case, the gallerygoer who enters it provides the human figure, not Mr. Houseago.
The name is meant to blend a reference to the moon — the walls have bas-reliefs and voids in circular shapes — with the name of his girlfriend, Muna El Fituri, a writer and translator. Mr. Houseago is getting a divorce and has two children, and he said that his new relationship had opened a chapter for him. “ ‘Moun Room’ is a piece about light and life,” he said. “The future.”
With its rough, primitive air, “Moun Room” is of a piece with Mr. Houseago’s earlier work. His friend the actor Julian Sands, who is also from the Leeds area, said, “I expected to meet the Minotaur in the center.” Mr. Sands, who went through the piece when it was assembled in Mr. Houseago’s Los Angeles studio, added, “It was like walking through the Labyrinth.”
If the details get sorted out, Mr. Houseago said, he hopes to debut a large, long-planned work at Rockefeller Center next spring: a series of five large masks that the public can walk through, in the same location as Jeff Koons’s recent “Split Rocker.” Few artists work big as Mr. Houseago does. “It might be the reason you like the work, or the reason you hate it,” said Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles who has written about Mr. Houseago. “It could feel like aggrandizement.”
She admires the way “his work at a big scale has the intimacy of drawing.”
When it comes to materials, Mr. Houseago is fairly old school. He usually sculpts in clay and then casts the pieces in plaster or bronze, or both. “I started working with clay because it was cheap, but there’s something about making sculpture from the earth,” he said. “There are so many religious and ceremonial associations.”
Mr. Houseago works with a crew of about 20 people to make the sculptures, which are so large they sometimes fall apart as they are born — which he said he did not mind.
“I believe in these broken sculptures,” he said. “I love that. Sculpture is a constant dance with gravity. In my case, anyway.”
The blustery sincerity in Mr. Houseago’s work and approach makes him an odd man out in today’s irony-rich art world. The South African artist Marlene Dumas, one of Mr. Houseago’s tutors from his time at the Amsterdam art school De Ateliers, wrote in an email that her former student “makes warm work in cold times.”
“Art without a face-lift,” she added.
She contrasted him with Mr. Koons, a comparison other critics have also cited. “Thomas works like a force of nature,” she wrote. “If Koons is (clinical) Culture, Houseago is (disastrous) Nature.”
A childhood surrounded by poverty and violence in Leeds took Mr. Houseago to the edge of disaster many times. “It left me with a fight-or-flight response to the universe,” he said.
But Mr. Houseago declared himself as an artist at an early age, and by the time he attended Jacob Kramer College (now the Leeds College of Art), he was already testing the limits of expression. “I had a Chris Burden-esque phase,” he recalled, referring to the artist who had himself shot. “I went into the forest, set myself on fire and then leapt into water, and photographed it.”
He attended Central St. Martins College of Art in London at the time of the “Young British Artists” phenomenon, though he felt at odds with their polished approach. When he saw a show of late Picasso work at the Tate in 1986, something clicked. “I came away thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Mr. Houseago said. “I saw the cosmic freedom that comes from a life dedicated to art.”
After studying at De Ateliers, he moved to Brussels. It was a hard-partying period he described as “eight years of lost weekends.”
Having had little luck making a career of art in Belgium, Mr. Houseago ended up in Los Angeles, where he eventually found the first dealer with whom he found success, David Kordansky, and his first serious patrons, the Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell. The Rubells, known as tastemakers in the art world, showed up in a studio that Mr. Houseago had borrowed. “The work was incredibly powerful, and we bought the entire contents of the studio,” Mr. Rubell said.
Ms. Rubell said they were taken by his fearlessness. “Thomas takes on all of history, with a vengeance,” she said. “He doesn’t apologize. He says, ‘I’m going to stand up to Picasso, and sit at the table with all the greats.’ And he does.”
The same ambition that fueled what Mr. Houseago acknowledged was a “violently fast” rise also incurred some casualties, like his relationship with Mr. Kordansky.
“He went through a whole bunch of galleries,” said Mr. Kordansky, who is now close to Mr. Houseago again. “That can be perceived as a game of steppingstones. But he wouldn’t even deny that. Only a few galleries can work with monumental sculptures. He wants the best for his art, and that’s something I respect.”
Mr. Houseago said that being represented simultaneously by Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth was “extremely complex,” and that he often self-funds his large pieces. “I have a new power I’m enjoying,” he said. “It’s my work, I paid for it. And it’s the privilege of having a market.”
His “Moon Figure I,” a bronze, sold for $269,000 at Christie’s last year. Hauser & Wirth says that his figurative sculptures sell for up to $1 million. The fact that large pieces rarely make a big profit, since they are particularly time consuming, does not deter Mr. Houseago. “It’s physically difficult to be a sculptor,” he said. “So if you’ve already made that leap, you’re already really comfortable with the absurdity.”
He added: “The tradition I’m coming from is not pleasure. It’s a certain shamanistic excess.”
September 10, 2014 9:00 pm September 10, 2014 9:00 pm
David Kordansky might not be the biggest player in the L.A. gallery scene, but his manic enthusiasm and seemingly genuine determination to draw attention to underappreciated artists make him the most interesting by far.
There is little in the world that David Kordansky enjoys more than talking about art. According to the artists he represents and the collectors to whom he sells, this is his gift. The artist Rashid Johnson, whom Kordansky has represented since 2009, said he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he and Kordansky have spoken about sales. There is no doubt that Kordansky, who is 37, can sell art like few other dealers, but he prefers to leave the closing of the deal to his staff. The venality of the current art business dismays him. Even in the 11 years since he opened his first gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, the market has become bloated beyond recognition, he said, especially in the auction houses of New York and London. “I believe in art much more than I believe in the art world,” he told me last summer in the kitchen of his home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, the artist Mindy Shapero, and their two young children.
As he christens his new space in Los Angeles, he shares his creative touchstones — including several artists he doesn’t represent but admires nonetheless.
In person, Kordansky is almost compulsively candid, by turns hectoring and vulnerable, outspoken and shy. “He wears his heart on his sleeve,” is the phrase I heard over and over again from the people who know him best. Candor can, of course, also be a form of performance. Collectors who enjoy the company of artists appreciate his eccentric, intimate manner, which make them feel like the chosen few.
Beneath his gym-fit, boyish exterior and positive, Californian outlook, his persistence and gritty ambition are evident still. He may disdain aspects of the art market, but the success of his business is obviously a source of pride. “I didn’t come from money. I’ve bootstrapped every step of the way,” he said.
Kordansky’s latest gamble is on a 12,705-square-foot gallery — designed by Kulapat Yantrasast, head of the architecture firm wHY — which recently opened in a nondescript midcity neighborhood halfway between the L.A. art hubs of Highland Avenue and Culver City, where his last two spaces were situated. With its bow-truss ceilings and abundance of light, the former martial arts studio and car dealership now exudes an ambience of cloistered calm. Comprised of two equally sized galleries, a viewing room and on-site art storage, the space also boasts a lounge for artists and their families, and private gardens for staff. Kordansky has always aimed to create “a culture of ownership” among his gallery’s employees. In return, he receives a degree of loyalty rare in the notoriously factious and gossipy gallery world.
Kordansky was born in Biloxi, Miss., to American Jewish parents; his father was a doctor and his mother a family therapist. In the late ’90s he was accepted at the small but esteemed Hartford Art School. In 2000, he moved to the West Coast to study in the graduate art program at the California Institute of the Arts under conceptual artists including Michael Asher, Charles Gaines and Martin Kersels. (Kordansky now represents the painter Thomas Lawson, the dean of the art school.) After college, he continued to make installations, perform and curate exhibitions of friends’ work with his classmate, Jeff Kopp. From the outset he approached running a gallery as a creative project, perhaps more like an artist than a businessman, and soon became known as the primary dealer for what has been called “the post-Mike Kelley generation.”
Washington, D.C.-based artist whose paintings, spanning the 1960s to the present day, had been much neglected prior to Kordansky’s interest. ‘‘Wide Narrow,’’ 1972. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Israeli-born artist who often appropriates or digitally modifies images, transforming them into something more like sculpture. ‘‘Untitled (Boot A),’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
One of the Californian artists whose work helped bring ceramics to museums in the late 1950s. Sculptures from the exhibition ‘‘Crosses, Figures, Spears, Torques,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Known for his colorful, flat interiors, often depicting his own Los Angeles studio, as well as for paintings of boxers and basketball and baseball players. ‘‘Kitchen with Aloe Plant,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Artist who refers to aspects of African-American culture in paintings and sculptures made from materials such as black wax, mirrors, zebra skins and shea butter. ‘‘Un-American Idol,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Painter whose abstract works, made by building up thin washes of paint and attaching strips of neon, are inspired by California’s coastal landscapes. ‘‘Neptune’s Net,’’ 2013. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Australian-born artist who casts his small sculptures, made from cardboard and rope, in painted bronze. ‘‘Magnifying Glass with Rope No. 1,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Los Angeles-based painter whose small-scale, luminous abstract paintings are inspired by traditional still lifes and landscapes. ‘‘Untitled,’’ 2014. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Stories abound from those early days of Kordansky’s limitless, sometimes maniacal enthusiasm for his artists. The collector Mera Rubell remembers meeting him in 2006. Kordansky was determined to show her and her husband, Don, the work of a young artist he was representing, Aaron Curry, while Curry was on vacation. Reached by phone in Hawaii, Curry gave them permission to break into his studio, where Kordansky was soon pulling sculptures out of boxes and expounding on the artist’s ideas. The following morning — at 6 a.m., while shuttling the couple to the airport — Kordansky took them to meet Thomas Houseago, another sculptor he had recently begun to champion, who laid out his work in a studio borrowed for the occasion. Rubell says she was “blown away.” She and her husband later invited the two artists and their dealer to visit their museum in Miami. The trip was an inspiring and formative experience for the three men, who stayed up late into the night, drinking and arguing about Picasso, classicism and figuration in sculpture.
Kordansky’s passionate nature has not always worked in his favor. His professional relationship with Houseago buckled under the weight of its own intensity in 2009, when the artist left David Kordansky Gallery — a loss Rubell described as “a huge wake-up call” for the young dealer. Houseago finally settled with the international powerhouse Hauser & Wirth in 2011. “There was this abundance of youthful energy bouncing off each other that, in the end, was bigger than both of us,” Kordansky said ruefully. (Houseago agreed, but noted, “I can confidently say my career would not be where it is now without him.”)
The majority of his artists have stuck by Kordansky, however. His very first exhibition in Chinatown included Matthew Brannon, Patrick Hill, Will Fowler, Lesley Vance and William E. Jones, all of whom continue to show with the gallery. Brannon told me that Kordansky’s often blunt manner can be an asset, despite artists’ often fragile egos: “My therapist loves Dave. He says, ‘You always know where you stand with this guy; he treats you right, he’s telling you the problem.’ ”
Kordansky now represents over 30 artists and counting, hence the need for space. He is still far from being the biggest fish in the L.A. pond — nor, perhaps, would he want to be. He prefers to avoid competition with his neighbors, who include Regen Projects near Highland Avenue, Blum & Poe in Culver City, Overduin & Co. in Hollywood, Marc Foxx, also a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the power players Gagosian, Matthew Marks and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, the last of which will take over a former flour mill in Downtown in 2015. When asked which galleries he feels a kinship toward, he instead looks across the Atlantic: to Johann König in Berlin, Standard (Oslo) in Norway or Herald Street in London. The art world loves youth, and Kordansky currently occupies the sweet spot between blue-chip establishment and cutting edge.
In contrast to his imposing new gallery space, Kordansky’s home is modest, perfectly scaled to a family of four and designed for living, not for entertaining. Kordansky grows kale, Meyer lemons and Persian cucumbers in the garden. He gave me the tour with the eagerness of a child showing off new toys. Succulents exploded from earthy ceramic planters made by Robert Maxwell and David Cressey on the deck outside the kitchen. In addition to pieces by artists Kordansky represents — Valentin Carron, Larry Johnson, Elad Lassry — the interior was furnished with Brazilian and Mexican Modernist pieces in rosewood and leather, and ceramics were displayed beside rows of art books on floor-to-ceiling shelves. A painted sculpture of a nude trapeze artist by the Japanese Pop artist Keiichi Tanaami sat on a coffee table, and drawings of outlandish figures by the Chicago Imagist Karl Wirsum hung on one wall.
Kordansky appreciates the Californian tendency to disregard hierarchies between creative disciplines; his gallery represents artists such as Ruby Neri and the Geneva-based Mai-Thu Perret, who both work in the tradition of John Mason, one of the Californian artists who, in the late 1950s, first brought ceramics into contemporary art galleries. (Mason, now 87, joined David Kordansky Gallery last year.) About half of his roster is made up of Angelenos, and a Californian sensibility infuses the program — not only in its emphasis on the region’s art-historical legacy, but also, more broadly, in its bias toward esoterica and marginalia, domestic themes and profane materials.
Kordansky likes to talk about “curating one’s life.” Shouldn’t we consider the architecture, the objects we handle, the furniture we sit on and the artwork we look at all as part of a unified aesthetic experience? He showed me a shelf of tiny Doyle Lane vases, each glazed a different color and texture. He would always rather stand in front of an object than look at a screen, and is particularly skeptical about what has recently been labeled “post-Internet” art — work made from Internet memes, online avatars, stock photos, patents and 3D scans. “We don’t even want to talk about the world any more,” he said. “We’re disconnected from core emotionality.”
In other places, talk of lifestyle is always related to an embarrassment about class, but in L.A. it’s an ongoing philosophical discussion. “The exterior of my life kind of runs itself,” Kordansky admitted over a lunch of grilled chicken and kale salad. “Now it’s about the interior, the spiritual. It’s about getting at the core of my existence — which is about my family.” There is little distinction in his mind between his professional and personal lives, or between his tastes in art and his philosophy of being. “It’s about having an open, holistic view rather than a myopic view,” he said. “Here culture is more attached to nature.” The greenery beyond the wide window, the home-grown salad and the stoneware planters seemed to reinforce his point.
Two years ago, Kordansky undertook a pilgrimage to the D.C. studio of Sam Gilliam, an 80-year-old African-American painter of the Washington Color School. Gilliam never achieved the level of recognition that his peers from the 1960s such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis did, in part because the art establishment didn’t know what to make of a black artist who refused to make work about race. Kordansky had been a fan of Gilliam’s radically innovative, unstretched, stained canvases for years, and had shared his enthusiasm with Rashid Johnson when they first met in 2009. (Johnson, who didn’t know many dealers — let alone young white dealers — who were interested in Gilliam’s work, was impressed, and agreed to join Kordansky’s gallery himself.) The pair asked Gilliam to do an exhibition in L.A., which Johnson would curate. They feared they were overreaching, and when they put their proposal to Gilliam in his studio, they thought he was laughing at them. In fact, they realized, he was crying.
As Kordansky told me this story, I saw that he was also close to tears. Since first working with Gilliam, he has placed his paintings in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts. Without Gilliam, he said, the new gallery would probably not have been possible. There is nothing Kordansky is prouder of than having been able to bring him back into the spotlight. “The work has done for other people what it did for us,” he said. “There is no money in the world that can buy an experience like that.”
Correction: September 21, 2014
An article last Sunday about the Los Angeles art dealer David Kordansky, which recounted the key role he played in bringing the paintings of the 80-year-old African-American artist Sam Gilliam back into the spotlight, erroneously included a product among the types of things Gilliam bartered his work for at a lower point in his career. While he exchanged art for services such as dental work, he never traded art for laundry detergent.
Sun-soaked isolation seems just the thing to spark inspiration.
When Thomas Demand and Ryan Trecartin relocated to Los Angeles in 2010, they added momentum to the city’s burgeoning status as an art capital to rival New York, London and Berlin. Of course, its abundant light and space have always drawn a certain kind of artist — members of the Light and Space movement, for instance, like Bruce Nauman and James Turrell. But now, with new gallery neighborhoods in Hollywood and Downtown, the endless expansion of LACMA and the impending arrival of the esteemed FIAC art fair, it seems that everyone, major figures and young guns alike, wants to call L.A. home. In the past two years, David Benjamin Sherry, Sam Falls, Gabriel Kuri, Silke Otto-Knapp, Amalia Ulman and Jordan Wolfson have relocated to the Southland, while others, like Liz Craft and Amy Yao, have returned, choosing its sprawl over more cosmopolitan art meccas.
L.A.’s appeal lies in “the possibility of disappearing,” says Ulman, an Argentine who previously worked in London and Spain. “I’m so autonomous here,” Wolfson adds. “I have my studio, my house and my small life.” Both artists create work that explores isolation: Ulman shoots selfies in airplane bathrooms and five-star hotels; Wolfson’s scantily clad robotic dancer at David Zwirner caused a sensation this spring. “In L.A., artists can test things out without the glare of the spotlight,” says Ali Subotnick, a curator at the Hammer Museum, who moved from New York in 2006. “The proximity to the entertainment industry guarantees that the art world will never be the main industry in this town, so artists are able to work on the sidelines.” Anonymity has become its appeal: Like no other place, L.A. offers artists the ability to be alone, together.
A Primer on L.A.’s New Arrivals
Liz Craft Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery: none Style: Craft’s fantastical, dreamlike sculptures often veer in the direction of nightmares: they include glossy, upended spiders, functionless house-like constructions, goopy unicorns, baby carriages and assorted monsters.
Sam Falls Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery:Hannah Hoffman Gallery Style: Falls creates sculptures and paintings that he exposes to the elements, then takes photos of them to document how they change over weeks, months and sometimes years.
Gabriel Kuri Arrived from: Brussels L.A. gallery:Regen Projects Style: Kuri’s playful sculptures repurpose materials from the manmade and natural worlds, combining them into forms that frequently comment on the role of commodities in society.
Silke Otto-Knapp Arrived from: Vienna L.A. gallery: none (shows with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York) Style: Otto-Knapp applies soft, ethereal layers of gouache and watercolor to produce muted representations of performance and place.
David Benjamin Sherry Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery:OHWOW Style: Sherry photographs grandiose American landscapes and tweaks them with vivid, monochromatic tints.
Amalia Ulman Arrived from: London and Gijon, Spain L.A. gallery:LTD Los Angeles Style: Ulman has riffed on contemporary decorations: Ikea paintings, aphorisms spelled out in romantic scripts and those wavy willows people stuff into vases. Lately, she has also documented cosmetic procedures via social media.
Jordan Wolfson Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery: none (David Zwirner in New York and Sadie Coles HQ in London) Style: Wolfson makes films, videos and installations that merge a cartoonish love for aesthetic variety (and cartoons themselves) with an underlying nihilism. This year, his animatronic stripper wearing a witch mask has become an art-world lightning rod.
Amy Yao Arrived from: New York City L.A. gallery: none (Canal 47 in New York) Style: Yao’s work spans virtually all mediums: painting, sculpture, photography, performance. But it’s her objects — umbrellas adorned in funereal garb or a top hat and sequins; folding fans with attached pearls or cigarettes; brightly colored sticks with equally brightly colored hair extensions — that offer a through-line in their crooked anthropomorphic qualities, suggesting serious jokes about contemporary life.
Correction: September 3, 2014
An earlier version of this post misspelled the surname of a curator at the Hammer Museum. She is Ali Subotnick, not Subotnik.
Los Angeles Times The Mistake Room brings global view to gritty downtown L.A. art scene
The Mistake Room is a new nonprofit art space downtown with big plans
The hard launch of Mistake Room will feature an exhibition by artist Korakrit Arunanondchai
Gallery owners question Mistake Room’s arrangement with collectors
Construction workers hammer away in a warehouse near the southern edge of downtown Los Angeles. A buzz saw hits fever pitch, screeching in the background; the air is thick with dust.
Art entrepreneur and curator Cesar Garcia, who is turning this former garment factory into a nonprofit exhibition space called the Mistake Room, rushes out from the back in a black dress shirt and Italian loafers, giddy if a bit frazzled. He cradles an armload of loose items — a leather binder stuffed with to-do notes, a cellphone, a tape measure, an envelope that needs to be mailed.
“Oh my god, I’m learning so much about sheetrock and construction,” the 28-year-old says, laughing. He shifts the bulk of the objects into the crook of one arm, freeing up the other for a handshake. “Welcome!” Then he turns and leads the way straight into the drywall dust storm. “Lemme show you around.”
This place is a dream, a long time in the making. – Cesar Garcia, art entrepreneur and curator
The Mistake Room is the newest art space in a burgeoning but still gritty art enclave downtown. By night, the dark and deserted area bound by 20th Street, Washington Boulevard, Long Beach Avenue and Santa Fe Avenue is studded with lively pockets of art-going foot traffic. Night Gallery is around the corner, as is Francois Ghebaly Gallery, 2nd Cannons Publications, which puts on art shows, and the nonprofit research and exhibition space Fahrenheit/Flax Foundation.
Garcia, formerly associate director of the Culver City nonprofit LAXART as well as a curator of the Hammer Museum’s inaugural “Made in L.A. 2012” biennial, created the Mistake Room to feature contemporary artists and curators from around the world. The space debuted in January with a pop-up solo exhibition by London-based Colombian artist Oscar Murillo. The 4,500-square-foot warehouse space remained raw and unrenovated at the time, with cracked concrete floors and exposed insulation. The show closed in April, and the space has since undergone a redesign, led by Tijuana-based architect Alfonso Medina. The hard launch Friday features an exhibition by Bangkok-raised, New York-based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, whose first solo museum show is on view at MoMA PS1.
“I’m excited. This is the artist’s biggest commission to date,” Garcia says. “This place is a dream, a long time in the making.”
The Mistake Room fills a niche in the city, Garcia says, joining LAXART, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in Hollywood, REDCAT downtown and the Santa Monica Museum of Art as mid-size, nonprofit, non-collecting exhibition spaces — entities that fall between commercial galleries and larger museums with permanent collections.
Bangkok-raised, New York-based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai works on his exhibition at the Mistake Room. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)
Such art spaces are particularly prevalent in Europe, Garcia says. Many of them — the Renaissance Society in Chicago, White Columns in New York, Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, among them — co-produce shows, and Garcia hopes to tap into that network. He wants to expose local artists, particularly students, to influences they might not otherwise come across as well as educate international curators about L.A. artists.
“We want to connect Los Angeles to other burgeoning regions of the world, art wise,” Garcia says. “We want to be the mid-sized institution that can collaborate with places like the Chisenhale Gallery and the Serpentine in London, Beirut Art Center or Vitamin Creative Space in Hong Kong. We want to be part of that conversation.”
In summer 2010, with funding from a Fowler Museum Latin American research grant he received while pursuing his doctorate at UCLA, Garcia traveled through Chile, Colombia, Peru and Brazil to research his dissertation on alternative art spaces. Two years later, after the Hammer biennial opened in 2012, he used his own savings (and, later, money from the Mistake Room’s nascent board started that fall) to set out for about six months traveling around the world, visiting art spaces and making connections.
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“I wanted to make sense of what was happening in the art world in South America and the Middle East mostly, but I went to Europe too,” he says. “What are these spaces doing? What do the cultural infrastructures look like? What is the support for artists?”
In his travels, he talked with foreign curators about the L.A. art scene. Most were aware of L.A.’s reputation as a prolific visual art center, he says, but many also felt alienated by L.A.’s physical sprawl and car-dependent culture. That had deterred some from exploring the city.
“There are tangible consequences for artists working here — that their international exposure, particularly for young and emerging artists, isn’t as great as in other cities that may be more accessible,” Garcia says.
Cesar Garcia’s Mistake Room
As part of its visiting curators program, Garcia says, the Mistake Room will bring three curators a year to L.A. from other countries for a residency of at least seven days; it will cover travel expenses, lodging, a stipend and a driver with an itinerary of artists’ studios to visit that guest curators may not have found on their own.
Hendrik Folkerts, curator of public programs at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, is the first to participate. He started this week.
The residency “enables me to tap into the rich and extremely lively Los Angeles art scene, through an elaborate program of studio visits and institutional meetings,” Folkerts says. “This kind of exchange is essential for an international curatorial practice.”
The Mistake Room commissions original work for exhibitions; none of the art is for sale and admission is free. When shows close, the work goes back to the artists. If the artist sells that work at a later date, Garcia says he’d request a donation in the amount of exhibition costs.
The Arunanondchai show cost about $50,000 to $60,000 to put up, Garcia says. The Mistake Room’s recent renovation cost about $100,000, and operational costs include three full-time staff: Garcia, deputy director and senior curator Kris Kuramitsu and assistant curator and exhibition manager Grecia Santiesteban.
Launching the Mistake Room wasn’t easy for Garcia, who immigrated with his family from Mexicali when he was 6 and grew up in Pico-Union, an area he calls “the Ellis Island of L.A.” He’s still paying off student loans while finishing his doctorate.
“In terms of my parents’ social circles and individuals I was able to reach out to, I didn’t have access to resources or [wealthy] family friends,” he says.
Money for the Mistake Room comes from fundraising events and gifts, a “closed membership program” and a 14-person board with deep pockets. It includes former Santa Monica Museum of Art board chair Dr. V. Joy Simmons, now the Mistake Room’s board chair, Oprah Winfrey Network executive Tina Perry and CAA agent Thao Nguyen. In keeping with the Mistake Room’s vision, about a third of the board is from another country. Glenn Kaino, a founder of the now-defunct downtown L.A. art space Deep River, is one of four artist trustees. The Mistake Room has gotten 501(c)(3) status, so it can start applying for grants.
The membership program is limited to 40 patrons at a time, each of whom donates $20,000 annually in exchange for benefits: inclusion in international art trips to destinations such as the Venice Biennial, studio visits and participation in an “artists multiple program” in which they receive a piece of original artwork, four times a year, from a different artist. A board member in Guadalajara, Jose Noe Suro, underwrote the artists multiple program, covering the cost of producing the art.
Just because it’s a nonprofit doesn’t mean it’s pure or that people aren’t making money — as they deserve to. They’re just getting their money in a different way. – Paul Kopeikin, Kopeikin Gallery
It’s this part of the business model, however, that some people call questionable.
“They’re grooming artists to move up the institutional ladder and connecting those artists with collectors — people who’ve paid them a chunk to be members,” Coagula Curatorial gallery owner Mat Gleason says. “It’s insidious because it appears to be pure, since they’re a nonprofit rather than a commercial gallery, but there’s still commerce going on.”
Added Paul Kopeikin of Kopeikin Gallery: “Just because it’s a nonprofit doesn’t mean it’s pure or that people aren’t making money — as they deserve to. They’re just getting their money in a different way.”
Arunanondchai says he’s just grateful for a place like the Mistake Room.
“Art spaces in this kind of scale — if you were in New York and you wanted to do a project like this, you’d have to be with a museum or a big Chelsea gallery,” he says. “I like that it doesn’t feel commercial. It’s a dream project for me.”
Arunanondchai’s solo L.A. debut at the Mistake Room is “Letters to Chantri #1: The lady at the door/The gift that keeps on giving.” The installation of 100 mannequins, a “timed experience” that accommodates about 15 viewers at once, also includes paintings, sculptural elements and two short films Arunanondchai directed featuring performance artist Boy Child. The exhibit speaks to the commodification of Eastern religions as it focuses on a single character, a disillusioned artist, that Arunanondchai hopes to incorporate into a feature film.
The Mistake Room’s fall schedule includes two historical shows of abstract expressionist painters from the ’50s and ’60s, Matsumi Kanemitsu and Ed Clark. In September, Garcia and his team will screen the site-specific films of New York artist Gordon Matta-Clark and invite local artists, writers, choreographers and others to respond to them.
“We’re interested in their relationship to the city and what’s happening downtown,” he says as the Mistake Room’s construction crew shuts down for a break.
As the dust quite literally settles, Garcia looks out across his cavernous exhibition floor.
“Bringing in artists from other places, curators, we’re learning so much about our own city,” Garcia says. “It’s seeing L.A. through their eyes.”
Theater & Dance
Paul McCarthy’s ‘WS’ and ‘James Turrell’: The spectrum of color and off-color on the East Side
James Turrell “Aten Reign,” fills the Guggenheim rotunda with light. (David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)
By Sarah Kaufman Dance critic July 26, 2013
This is a country of mystery, a sweet land of irony. What unites our states but declining incomes and anxiety? We haven’t even got a royal baby of our own to distract us as our cities go bankrupt and children go hungry and so many, and so unbearably much, is simply going down.
The stock market has been going up.
Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post’s dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive
But can there be any such thing as good news anymore?
Paul McCarthy and I are a little skeptical about that. Well, he’s more skeptical than I am. His immense installation “WS,” which fills the Park Avenue Armory with a giant phony forest, assorted phony horrors on display and on video, and a very real sense of sickness — all of it tells us he’s gone well past skepticism. His view is apocalyptic. We’re living in a carnival of chaos, “WS” announces. Ours is a world of villainous trickery and moral impairment.
McCarthy, however, is no self-serious postmodernist, nor is he one of those vacant-eyed Queen of the Undead performance artists. He’s a freewheeling, eccentric Californian with a wicked sense of humor, and he targets such icons of his state as Walt Disney, Hollywood, ranch houses and the porn industry. All of these figure in “WS,” whose kinky retelling of “Snow White” takes place in a suburban tract house inhabited by Dionysian man-dwarves in UCLA hoodies.
Paul McCarthy’s “WS” is an X-rated retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. (Joshua White)
The city’s art scene is having a California moment. A mile and a half away from the Armory, California-born James Turrell has transformed the Guggenheim Museum with an installation that rivals McCarthy’s in importance. This is his first exhibition here in 33 years, and the centerpiece of it, “Aten Reign,” fills the museum’s multi-story rotunda with changing colors of light. You could say that Turrell plays with the sunshine and mystical tendencies of his birthplace the way McCarthy romps with its kitsch, but that’s where any similarity between the two artists ends. Turrell’s work is quiet, orderly, Apollonian, and optimistic. It is also self-absorbed, and reverent to the point of sterility.
There’s nothing sacred or, God forbid, sterile in McCarthy’s work. This is the man who created inflatable poop, to the delight of headline writers attempting to top reports of how McCarthy’s giant “Complex Pile,” on display in Hong Kong, went splat in a storm last spring. There is great comic energy in the gory, X-rated “WS,” which lends it an unmistakable charm.
But it’s how McCarthy takes his battle to the body that gives the show its power.
He explodes the tale of Snow White (the show takes its name from her initials, reversed), with a seven-hour-long, four-channel video of performers playing the lost princess in full Disney costume, along with dwarves and assorted doubles. They’re in the throes of a house-trashing orgy. WS blithely plasters her decolletage with slices of bologna. She applies American cheese over her eyes. American cheese; ho ho! She’s helped in this by an avuncular Walt Paul (an amalgamation of Disney and McCarthy, played by the 67-year-old artist himself, in a bristly mustache and prosthetic nose).
Eventually everyone is naked, pouring Jack Daniel’s down one another’s gullets. Other substances follow, but the most repulsive is also the most benign: McCarthy/Walt Paul drinks tomato soup concentrate straight from the can.
Andy Warhol gave us a cold, distanced view of the Campbell’s can, neat and clean, but McCarthy takes that a few steps further. He shows us what’s inside: the curious terra cotta color, the unnatural sheen, the greasy, wet, synthetic texture. And then he takes all that glop into his body, letting it spill all over him, disgorging it and merrily gurgling it until the sight of it is just about more than you can take.
This is a minor example of what the bodies endure onscreen in “WS,” and it’s one of the few I can describe in a family newspaper. But as with every element of this engrossing installation, the effect is to make you feel, physically, something of the absurdity, inanity and horrors of American life upon which McCarthy seeks to intervene.
Take the monumental plastic forest that occupies much of the Armory’s vast drill hall: It’s set on a raised wooden platform, so as you follow the winding path through it, its painted styrofoam ground is at eye level (or at least it was for me, with my rather economical proportions). You feel dwarfed, diminished — however illogically — by the tangle of fakery above, the snapped-together rhododendrons and waxy daffodils.
In this forest, there is a model of the dwarfs’ house, elevated at a distance; it’s a copy of McCarthy’s childhood home. It looks cute and cozy, but that’s another trick of scale. This version in the forest is a miniature. At one end of the drill hall, there are full-size rooms that we can peek into, offering a startlingly realistic view of American middle-class decor. The beds are unmade, the toilet unflushed, the toothpaste uncapped. The artificial Christmas tree bears a prominent “Made in China” tag. Amid the mess on the floor is a magazine ad for Bally boots. A girl can dream, can’t she?
It all looks normal enough, but normalcy is dead, for here is also the aftermath of the partying taking place on the video screens looming overhead. Naked sculptures, uncannily realistic corpses of Walt Paul and WS, bear signs of unmentionable violence. One has a porcelain figurine of a Disney character stuffed in her mouth. There is evidence of Abu Ghraib-style abuse. You imagine the walls echoing with shrieks and screams. Our icons have been ravaged and left to rot.
The hall fills with moaning. The longer you spend there, the louder it gets. As time passes, the videos grow more excessive, more orgiastic, more revolting, and watching them makes you feel worse. You take a break, leave the Armory and walk around the block, where you find yourself confronted by glutted storefronts: Madison Avenue’s orgy of excess. This makes you feel worse still. This is McCarthy’s point, and it is a fine one.
McCarthy makes you think. But he also wrestles with the body, his own body, and he’s been doing this for decades. Sticking things in his orifices, vomiting, smearing himself with ketchup and feces, taxing viewers’ tolerances and his own. There is a kind of clownish heroism in this very visible battle. He’s not just grappling with paint on canvas, engaging in an intellectual struggle. He’s putting himself in the middle of it. He’s the one gobbling up the grotesque. He’s leading the pants-less conga line; he’s jumping up and down just as enthusiastically as the much-younger dwarves and WS characters.
How much can be tolerated? What are the limits? The answers can be approached only if we put ourselves at risk. And here is where McCarthy stands apart from so many in the performance-art world: He doesn’t set himself above us. There is no do-you-get-it? challenge here. In making the experience of his art so visceral, so gutter-level and cannily extreme, he takes us with him on this physical journey into the heart of horror. We may feel soiled by it, or disgusted, or moved. But whatever we feel, it’s likely to be strong. McCarthy saves us from the morally vacant stance of cool appraisal.
In the Guggenheim rotunda, Turrell’s “Aten Reign” is an effect more than a thing: a cycle of colors filling the space overhead, brought about with layered scrims and LED fixtures.
I walked in during the white section of the cycle and thought, is that it? The jewelry being hawked outside on Fifth Avenue had more visual excitement. But then there was a subtle darkening, like lights going down before a concert, and concentric oval rings of lavender and deep violet appeared. The colors continued to change, all in the richness of dyed silks: shades of magenta, yellows, greens; the blues of every sky you’ve ever seen. The colors hover in space, suspended like Rothko’s rectangles.
Upstairs, smaller galleries of Turrell creations offer more subtleties of light: a slash of brightness in a darkened room, a shadow appearing and disappearing in near-darkness.
These two big shows beg to be compared, though their differences are almost too obvious to list. Where McCarthy’s show is heavy and dark, Turrell’s is airy and transparent. The Armory is sensory overload; the Guggenheim is sensory soothing. It is weightless, nothingness. McCarthy’s show is crazy, comical, nasty and rough, Turrell’s is wondrous and serene. McCarthy gives us hell; with Turrell we peek at heaven.
Where would you rather end up? It’s not an easy question.
Both shows offer a hangout. You can spend hours in the Armory, wandering through the side galleries (more videos, more sex, more fun with food) and sitting on the floor to take in the main video narrative. Similarly, visitors settle into the Guggenheim rotunda for a good long time. They lie on the floor, looking up, or view the colors from inclined benches.
There’s a certain glamour to “Aten Reign,” with its elegant simplicity and magnificent hues. The light feels like sunset on the Riviera, or the grace of God. But the smaller galleries feel precious and overworked.
McCarthy’s show is funnier. There’s a witty nihilism to his dwarfish house-trashing, with the celebrants in children’s party hats as they march around like rebellious toddlers, trousers at their ankles. These big, hairy, bare-bottomed men clutch balloon animals between their legs. When the camera zooms in, between the wigs and false noses and flopping organs, you don’t always know what end you’re looking at.
There is no confusion in Turrell’s world. He has teased out the bit of reality that interests him, picked it up with tweezers and put it under a microscope. He has studied it and manipulated it to an infinite degree. He takes us deeply into one thing — how light can alter perception — and there is something deeply moving about that, in the way that the quest for perfect understanding is always a story of discipline and struggle.
But McCarthy’s show is warmer, and contains emotional truths. In the exhausted people-pileups and relentless energy of his videos, there is a raw, unvarnished drive for physical sensation and connection. Watching that drive, being dragged inside it, viewing it from all angles so that the visuals were no longer simply working on my imagination but were getting under my skin — this is what kept me inside the Armory for many hours on a fine summer’s day that felt much more complicated when I left.
is on view through Aug. 4. at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. Admission is restricted to audiences over 17. http://www.armoryonpark.org.
Of all the disagreeable species of humanlike beings Jonathan Swift invented in “Gulliver’s Travels,” the Yahoos are the worst and most human of all. Island-dwelling bipeds, they are lewd, lying, dirty, territorial and aggressive. They copulate in public, speak in shrieks and moans and kill for valueless baubles. They eat to excrete; when on the attack, they use excrement as a weapon.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Violence, humor, sex, impotence, appetite, degradation: Snow White (a k a WS) cavorts with dwarfs in a video in Paul McCarthy’s vast multimedia installation at the Park Avenue Armory.
A video with the artist as a remade Walt Disney, with Elyse Poppers as WS.
Paul McCarthy’s film-and-sculpture installation, “WS,” which fills the immense drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, is basically a Yahoo epic, its satire framed in the language of Disney, Duchamp, 1950s suburbia, 21st-century greed and Craigslist pornography. The piece is grand and gross, with ambushing flashes of beauty and an X rating.
It’s also the larger of two McCarthy spectacles in town this summer, the other being “Rebel Dabble Babble” at the cavernous Hauser & Wirth space in Chelsea. The ostensible theme of the Chelsea show, the making of the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause,” is specific. But as with “WS,” the real subject is moral dysfunction played out on a cinematic scale.
Mr. McCarthy, who was born into a liberal Mormon family in Salt Lake City in 1945, has lived and worked in and around Los Angeles since 1970. While his reputation has long been high among artists, until a decade or so ago his career was largely a West Coast phenomenon. And even there, museums and galleries didn’t know what to do with him.
Like many other California artists who came of age around 1960, he was attracted to the materially messy, psychologically fraught side of Abstract Expressionism, which he transmuted into performances. Alone or in front of small audiences or on video, he chainsawed furniture, painted with his penis, slathered himself with ketchup and made love to a lump of ground beef.
In the early 1980s he added masks and costumes to his repertory. He cooked up the persona of a demented Santa. He did obscene riffs on children’s book characters, like Heidi and Pinocchio. Using mechanized mannequins, he turned the Wild West, long a staple of America’s televised identity, into a vaudeville of exploitative sex. Long before the abject body became a dominant theme of art in the 1990s, Mr. McCarthy was on the case, presenting the human form as a gaseous, leaky container, and gender as a fluid condition. Just as his anarchic early art had made psychological sense during the Vietnam War years, his later work, with its direct assault on American normality, fit the emotional chaos of the AIDS era. While rarely referring to specific political issues, this was still intensely political art.
It was so intense that no one bought it, so for years he supported his family by doing pickup work in construction and photography that sometimes brought him into Los Angeles film studios. Hollywood and the mechanics of film fantasy are a primary source of his art. This is particularly true of the recent works that tend to be big-budget projects, now that the market has finally discovered him.
The Armory installation, his biggest so far, is a compendium of signature ingredients: violence, humor, sex, impotence, appetite, degradation, art history, politics and pop culture. The piece is based on two intersecting elements: the 1937 Disney animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and the suburban home of Mr. McCarthy’s childhood.
But like the installation’s title — “WS” stands for White Snow — everything is in a disordered version of an original form. On an islandlike platform in the center of the Armory, Mr. McCarthy has constructed a three-quarters-scale facsimile of the facade of his childhood ranch house in Utah and set it, inaccessibly, in a kind of dank rain forest of plastic trees and fake flowers.
The rest of the house is set up outside the forest and is approachable, with cutaway walls and windows. But while its rooms are precise in their period décor, they are strewn with refuse, splattered with dark fluids and unoccupied except for the nude bodies of a man and a woman, apparent victims of torture and murder.
A seven-hour film shot both inside the house and in the forest is projected onto screens on the drill hall walls and elsewhere. It’s a thing of many components, among them the story of Snow White, as told by Disney. The beginning of the McCarthy reimagining adheres fairly closely to the animation, with Snow White wandering out of the forest and into the house of the dwarfs, who discover her napping there.
There are, however, some stark differences. This Snow White (played by the actress Elyse Poppers) sleeps in the buff and, once awake, poses like an odalisque. The dwarfs — nine in this telling — are a mangy, misshapen, sex-starved lot who think nothing of turning up naked for breakfast before being packed off to work by their newfound nymphet-mom.
At that point, the familiar story ends, and another begins. Enter Walt Disney, here named Walt Paul and played by Mr. McCarthy with a prosthetic nose and overbite. Almost instantly, he and his cartoon creation engage in a constantly table-turning Oedipal courtship.
“I own you!” he shouts.
“I want you to crawl!” she shouts back, and the path to excruciatingly prolonged disaster is open.
At the same time, breakaway sections of the film are playing in the Armory’s side galleries. The scenes veer from Food Channel shtick to Pier Paolo Pasolini-style degradation and include at least two startling art historical references.
In the first, the splayed-legged nude woman of Duchamp’s “Étant Donnés” finds multiple male sexual partners. (Mr. McCarthy uses professional porn-film actors for these scenes.) In the second, Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Popper enact the tableau from Massacio’s famous 15th-century fresco of a wailing, disconsolate Adam and Eve leaving paradise.
The Duchamp scene is outrageous, funny and flat, the way pornography can be. The Masaccio tableau is unexpectedly moving, all the more because it is re-enacted several times, with the two nude performers repeatedly assuming a posture of shame and grief.
Meanwhile, the main film continues, its pace and volume building in a raucous orgy of bingeing and purging that eventually ends in the death of Walt Disney/Walt Paul at the hands of his dwarfs and the demise of Snow White/White Snow herself. Their bodies are those we see, in the form of life casts, in the house.
What all this means, I don’t exactly know, although it obviously touches on regret for lost innocence and on a recoil from — and a satirist’s relish of — a homegrown plague of give-us-more-pleasure that has spread to much of the world. What I suspect is that in Mr. McCarthy we have a Swift for our time, or maybe a Hieronymus Bosch, and in “WS” — organized by the Armory’s artistic director, Alex Poots, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in association with Tom Eccles — a scabrous American “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Like the Armory installation, “Rebel Dabble Babble” at Hauser & Wirth is a collaboration between Mr. McCarthy and his son, Damon. It too is conceived as a film-and-film-set unit. It began as a project by the actor James Franco. After bringing in the McCarthys, Mr. Franco dropped out, and they expanded the piece by dovetailing the plot of “Rebel Without a Cause” with the legend of the erotically intertwined lives of its director, Nicholas Ray, and its starring actors, Dean and Natalie Wood.
As in “WS,” Mr. McCarthy, with the same crazy nose, takes the male lead, playing Ray; the father of Dean’s character in the film; and himself. Other actors also have multiple roles, with stand-ins for the pornographic bits. Over all the work feels at once narrow and diffuse. You may have to care a lot about 1950s Hollywood (I don’t) to stick with it.
Still, vintage McCarthy themes surface: the family as self-lacerating unit; masculinity as a state of fury fueled by impotence; nostalgia as a fool’s faith; Yahooism as an American and now global way of life. As ever, what makes it all work is that Mr. McCarthy sees the Yahoo in himself and in us, and lets us see it too. In a world of brute, pandemic excess, self-knowledge is a minute thing, but a grace.
“Paul McCarthy:“WS” runs through Aug. 4 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, at 67th Street; (212) 616-3930, armoryonpark.org. No one under 17 will be admitted. “Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy: Rebel Dabble Babble” runs through July 26 at Hauser & Wirth, 511 West 18th Street, Chelsea; (212) 790-3900, hauserwirth.com .
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 29, 2013
An art review on Friday about “Paul McCarthy: WS,” an art exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory, misstated the surname of the Armory’s artistic director. He is Alex Poots, not Potts.
A version of this review appears in print on June 28, 2013, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: The American Fairy Tale, Fun House Style.
Eugenia Butler: How a Wacky Gallerist Inspires the L.A. Art World Today
On Good Friday in 1974, L.A. gallerist Eugenia Butler Sr. called artist Charles Garabedian to say she was dying. “Will you come to my funeral Sunday?” she asked. Sunday was Easter, and Garabedian arrived to see two burly men rolling Butler into the yard on a gurney. Halfway to the waiting hearse, she threw off her covers, stood up entirely nude and said, “I’m resurrected.”
“She was in love with the idea that art is something really crazy,” says Garabedian, who showed at Eugenia Butler Gallery during its 1968-71 run. “She wanted to behave like an artist in a far-out, spectacular way.”
A new exhibition, “Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler,” revisits, for the first time, the gallery’s short, singular life. Organized by Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) and Butler’s granddaughter, Corazon del Sol, it opened in a half-vacant West Hollywood strip mall a mile from Butler’s original La Cienega location.
It’s a historical exhibition, but it feels somehow ahistorical, even contemporary. Maybe this is because Butler, a woman in the early L.A. art scene, defies gender narratives about that time. Her gallery coincided with the peak of the notoriously masculine Ferus Gallery, where, according to art historian Shirley Nielson, who was married to Ferus dealer Walter Hopps and helped bankroll the venture, “The women serviced the men — it was as simple as that.” It also coincided with the start of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, which more or less invented the term feminist art.
But in Eugenia Butler’s gallery, spectacle, uncertainty and risk proliferated in a way that made conventional gender dynamics seem blurred and peripheral.
“In a strange sort of hodgepodge way, it captures some of the original anarchy,” says Tom Jimmerson, co-owner of Culver City’s Cardwell Jimmerson Gallery, of “Perpetual Conceptual.” Though he visited Butler’s space as a college student, he more clearly remembers opening art magazines and reading about her latest run-in with the law. “Eugenia trafficked in scandal,” he recalls.
There was the Dieter Roth cheese show, where the Icelandic artist planned to open one suitcase of unwrapped cheddar or brie each day for five weeks, then leave its contents exposed. L.A.’s Public Health Department ordered an end to that.
Tax officials investigated Ed Kienholz’s “The Barter Show,” in which the artist spelled out across his watercolor paintings what he wanted in exchange for each (a Timex watch, for instance).
“There was no dream of perfection in Butler’s gallery,” Jimmerson says. Risk interested her far more than the polished professionalism achieved by some of her peers, such as gallerist Virginia Dwan or Butler’s onetime partner, Riko Mizuno.
While offhand, mythic anecdotes about Butler have floated through L.A. art history, the work she showed stayed more or less undocumented. Her records were burned after her marriage to lawyer James Butler ended, and though she lived until 2001, mental illness and other distractions kept her from documenting own story — not that it’s clear she would have cared to do so.
The current exhibition’s genesis was del Sol’s discovery, about two years ago, of a shoebox full of slides of work her grandmother had exhibited. She says, “I was taking [slides] around to everyone, saying, who is this?”
Del Sol’s mother and the gallerist’s daughter, artist Eugenia P. Butler, had, according to some accounts, been the only Eugenia in the family for the first 16 years of her life, before her mother, formerly called Jeannie, decided to go as Eugenia as well. Leila Hamidi, now the project assistant for Pacific Standard Time, was once a studio assistant to the younger Eugenia, and she introduced del Sol to Shamim Momin, director of LAND.
When you enter “Perpetual Conceptual,” you see George Miller’s One Cubic Foot of Water, a foot-high stack of hundreds of foot-wide, weathered images of water drops. Near the desk, a framed, gold pentagon says in red letters, “This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling.” Byars, an itinerant artist who often lived with the Butlers, made this when he hired a woman in a red silk suit to sit in the gallery corner on his 37th birthday and answer written questions others had posed about him.
Next is William T. Wiley’s Movement to Black Ball Violence (1968-69), a ball of black tape Wiley created because he’d been wadding up adhesive tape while listening to news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. He decided to keep “black balling” and invited others to add to what now looks like an amorphous head and wears a golden halo.
In the back of the space hangs People’s Prick, by Paul Cotton (who now calls himself “Adam II, the late Paul Cotton”). If you pull the winged metal penis that hangs from a furry, phallic thing with a vaginal slit down its middle, the song “The Impossible Dream” begins to play.
The art in the show feels like it’s trying to butt up against and rupture what’s most baffling about the real world. Can you summon a spirit with a question, it asks, or blur gender lines with fur and a song? “This work is a lot more human than it’s often presented as,” del Sol says.
“We wanted this show to be less about personal history and more about this extraordinary period at the gallery,” adds LAND director Momin. She and others I’ve spoken with tiptoe around the Eugenia mythology. Craziness doesn’t have much clout these days, especially since the art world has just recovered from an era obsessed with identity politics, where the autobiographies and idiosyncracies of creative people (especially women and others from underrepresented groups) often garnered more attention than their work. Focusing on the Butler mythos threatens to pigeonhole her, to turn her legacy into the short-lived, haphazard achievements of an eccentric.
Still, it’s unlikely Butler will ever not be an enigma. “I never got a sense that I got even remotely close to understanding what Eugenia really wanted to accomplish with her gallery or how it functioned for the artists,” says curator Kristina Newhouse, who featured Butler in her exhibition “She Accepts the Proposition,” which focused on women gallerists in 1960s and ’70s L.A., and closed in November. In fact, Newhouse found all the gallerists she contacted — Claire Copley, Riko Mizuno, Constance Lewallen, Morgan Thomas — resistant to “making any pronouncements about what it all meant.” They saw themselves as enablers, not arbiters.
“Artists appreciate it when their history’s not being told back to them,” del Sol says. This, she thinks, is part of why her grandmother’s sensibility feels important now. In the midst of the Pacific Standard Time–fueled celebration of SoCal art’s past, it suggests there are priorities beyond defining history. “A lot of the artists in Eugenia’s gallery were just happy to push boundaries,” a feeling compelling to a younger generation that’s trying to do the same thing.
“Voices [like Butler’s] are the ones I want to be hearing more of,” says writer Danielle Sommer, who learned of Butler just before the show opened. “She’s not a feminist from the 1960s, who decided to show only women artists. She didn’t embody that zeitgeist. Her project gets away from that very rigid idea of what it means to be a woman practitioner.”
In 1971, Butler, wearing a white cocktail dress, accompanied Cotton, in a bunny suit and declaring himself a living sculpture, to an invitation-only reception at LACMA. Cotton carried a tray of what the L.A. Free Press, too discreet to say marijuana, called “rolled paper tubes containing an illegal vegetable,” which he “planned to distribute … to the elite of the Los Angeles art world.”
Guards ejected him, carrying his stiff body out as if it were a sculpture. The photos look like fantasy; it’s hard to believe it could have happened. “This art,” says del Sol, “it’s all art of the possible. It changes you.”
PERPETUAL CONCEPTUAL: ECHOES OF EUGENIA BUTLER | 8126-8132 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Through April 21
PHOTO BY MALCOLM LUBLINERButler speaking with designer Rudi Gernreich at one of her gallery openings in 1969