Unleash the Revolution
By Stacy Davies
Last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pasadena Art Center College of Design graduate Alex Shaefer was questioned by police both on the sidewalk where he paints and in his home because his latest en plein air oil was of a Chase bank going up in flames. In 1962, Pop Art painter Robert Dowd was also questioned in his Los Angeles home by policemen about his paintings of U.S. currency and was warned that they constituted counterfeiting—even though they were roughly 30×40 inches large—and six years later Dowd was in hot water again when he painted the U.S. Treasury building on fire. History repeating itself? In a way. But it’s also something more.
One of the ideas artists and art lovers have to believe in is the mantra that during times of economic and civil unrest (like in the late ’60s, 1970s and today) art will revolutionize and revitalize, and no matter how hard maniacal business people, politicians and religious zealots try to kill it, it will always survive.
So, policemen knocking on two different painters’ doors in two different decades because they both set artistic fire to a symbol of financial power might be “just one of those things,” or it might be an indication of momentous changes to come. Surely, the recent Getty Center “Pacific Standard Time” arts initiative is an astonishing development at a time when the population at large feels art classes for K-12 are more useless than another trip to the moon. The art-minded business folks at the Getty clearly disagree, and have pumped $10 million dollars into programs and exhibits in over 60 cultural institutions throughout Southern California to remind us specifically of why Los Angeles became an art Mecca from 1945-1980, and, more broadly, that art is not dead and is not going to be murdered any time soon.
Your first stop as you venture out to various institutions to see this bold initiative at work should be Pomona College Museum of Art’s extensive three-part conceptual exhibit, “It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973,” a masterful look back at emerging artists from a turbulent time who dared to push the boundaries of art and inadvertently created an entirely new movement. The series is the brainchild of senior curator Rebecca McGrew, who found a stalwart ally in the Getty when they launched their arts endeavor, and the first segment of the show (on display until November) covers the major artists brought into the gallery space by curator Hal Glicksman. McGrew, along with a prestigious curatorial and research team assembled the most powerful pieces that appeared in and around the space during Glicksman’s reign; I say “around” because while Glicksman was a visionary curator who was one of the first to create an artist residency space within the museum—meaning artists created directly in the space itself—some live performance pieces like Judy Chicago’s Snow Atmosphere occurred up at Mt. Baldy and can only be experienced through photo and film images. The 1970 work, performed in one of the mountain range’s chasms using flares that filled the canyon with white smoke to “feminize” the landscape, is documented in the exhibit by 15 large digital prints, and, through a stroke of luck, in an 8mm-to-DVD transferred film that the museum was loaned after Chicago’s former husband stumbled across it in a storage box; it’s the first time this fascinating performance has been viewed in 30 years.
Not every piece of art gets so lucky, of course, and many of the works in the show have been recreated—sometimes because they were so experimental the artist didn’t consider the longevity of the materials used, and other times because of the natural wear and tear on a piece over the course of 30 years. Ron Cooper’s performance piece Ball Drop from 1969 is a hybrid example and like Chicago’s it was captured on film. Originally, Cooper had wanted to rent a wrecking crane and drop a boulder onto a sheet of metal that would be laid across a circle of other boulders. No construction company would lend him the machine at the time due to safety concerns, however, and so Cooper instead rented a magnetic crane and dropped a metal ball onto safety glass. He filmed the experience in slow motion, the smashing and spider webbing of cracks in the glass, the shimmering shards spitting into the air reflecting light and spinning into the shadows. On the wall next to the projection are two shattered windshield sculptures that are actually recreations of the originals since they have long since deteriorated; Cooper did use the same model of shield and tried to replicate the originals as closely as possible.
Lewis Baltz’s nine gelatin silver prints are also on display, a tour de force in minimalist photography that does not directly echo the industrial content usually mandated by such a genre. Allowing his view of loading docks, sides of tract homes and other constructions to be human-tinged makes him one of the first artists to “transform the high language of Minimal aesthetics into the vernacular,” according to Whitney museum director Adam Weinberg.
There are also three Light and Space pieces in the show that are specifically interactive. Robert Irwin’s untitled 54-inch disk is a soft-play with the senses, a translucent vision of something that may or may not be present that uniquely depends on proper lighting to be a success (and kudos to the museum for doing so). Likewise, Tom Eatherton’s Rise, a blue incandescent light hallway immediately trips on the eyes, creating perceptions of movement and color change, neither of which actually occurs. Lloyd Hamrol’s warm fuzzy pleasantry, Situational Construction for Pomona College from ’69 is also resurrected: through a small cutout window we view a room glowing in sunset pinks, a ceiling layered in balloons with a few straight dark wires extended to the ground and a floor filled with water that creates an upside down reflection of the delicate, floating orb sky.
In addition, Chris Burden’s untitled black and yellow sculpture he created while an undergrad at Pomona has been rebuilt by the artist and sits atop a grassy knoll in the quad directly in front of the museum doors. Before stepping out to see it, however, travel through the exit hallway inside the museum that has been converted into an extensive timeline of events that occurred both at the college and in the nation during the original exhibition years. A fascinating array of photographs, newspapers, flyers and announcements enhance the understanding of the momentous things that occurred here and puts them all into context. And don’t forget the final piece, one that could not be rebuilt due to the expansion of the museum but could be re-imagined. In 1970, Michael Asher’s room constructions changed the actual shape of the then smaller and fewer gallery spaces, restricting light and sound; he also removed the museum front doors and anyone day or night could walk into the constructions. In a nod to that concept, the gallery will be open 24 hours a day 7 days a week for the entire ten-week run of the Glicksman exhibit, an utterly revolutionary idea and one that means you have absolutely no excuse to miss out on this show. So go now, or tonight—but get there. And stay tuned for part two coming in December.
“It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973,” Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Wy., Claremont, (909) 621-8283; www.pomona.edu/museum. Open Mon-Sun, 24 hours a day. Thru Nov 6. Free.