The conventional narrative of Los Angeles art held that nothing much happened until the late 1950s. It was then that Ferus Gallery christened abstract artists like Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, and Ed Moses as the West Coast "Cool School" and Los Angeles Times critic Jules Langsner coined the term "hard-edge painting" to refer to abstract artists Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin. One reason that the cool Ferus artists, and their hard-edge colleagues, dominated historical perceptions was that their work fit comfortably into the New York-generated account of Modernism. Constructed by influential art historians like Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art, this singular account chronicled the emergence of avant-garde abstraction.
Barr presented a male-dominated formalist lineage that began with Post Impressionism and split into Geometrical Abstract Art (De Stijl, the Bauhaus, etc.) and Non-Geometrical Abstract Art (Abstract Surrealism). Predicated on his view of art history as "a detached event with its own internal development rather than as a phenomenon subject to social, political, and personal pressures," Barr's approach shaped the understanding of Modern Art in the United States well into the second half of the century. Critics continued his focus on formalist abstraction, seeing the New York School as a pinnacle achievement in Modernism. (According to Arthur C. Danto, the New York-based obsession with abstraction was a "nearly religious orthodoxy.") University studio classes strongly privileged the abstract. And art history textbooks and university slide libraries repeated the formalist dictums, pictorializing abstract Modernism in didactic timelines. Long horizontal charts of stylistic progression, these timelines floated free of any pesky concern with alternative perspectives: They were single-lane historical highways without offramps or detours.
Exhibitions like "LA RAW" at the Pasadena Museum of California Art make us increasingly aware of the limitations of Barr's formalist lineage. Both elitist and exclusionary, Barr's historical construct ignored the contributions of women and people of color, was geographically restricted, and overlooked the plethora of figurative art in the mid-1900s. In contrast, "LA RAW" curator Michael Duncan assembled a diverse group of artists; presented figurative art that engaged the abject, that quintessentially postmodern conceptual quagmire; and positioned the West Coast as an innovative cultural center on par with New York.
The full title of Duncan's exhibition is "LA RAW--Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy." The contrasting reputations of the two named artists tell us a lot about the nature of the exhibition. McCarthy currently enjoys international renown, while Lebrun--who was hugely influential as a teacher and mentor--is relatively unknown today. Many of the other artists have similarly faded from prominence.
Russian-born Eugene Berman lived in Paris in the 1920s, where he befriended the artists of the Neo-Romantic arm of Surrealism. Berman brought that fantastical figurative approach to the United States when he immigrated in 1935. Arriving in Los Angeles with the (unrealized) hope of being a set designer for Hollywood, he began to paint mythological imagery using as his model his actress-lover, Ona Munson (who played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind.) Berman's Medusa's Corner from 1943 is a canny parallel to several paintings created in that decade by Spanish Surrealist Remedios Varo: Both artists placed female figures in disturbing interiors with walls that open and peal back like torn lips or severed labia.
Howard Warshaw's Untitled (woman) from 1944 is similarly disconcerting. A pale-skinned woman stands in front of a cracked and stained wall. Her clothes seem to echo--or perhaps become absorbed by--the distressed and claustrophobic environment. Although highly acclaimed here in California in the immediate post-war years, Warshaw was virtually lost to history until Duncan and other Pacific Standard Time curators reinstated him.
A third artist who fell through the historical cracks was Joyce Treiman. Born in Chicago in 1922, Treiman studied with Philip Guston, participated in the Works Progress Administration, and moved to Los Angeles in 1960. Finding it difficult to connect with the male-dominated, abstraction-focused LA art world, she painted in relative reclusion, creating strong figurative work with expressive intensity. In many of her canvases, people occupy frenzied painterly whirlpools reminiscent of Oscar Kokoschka's.
Yet another artist who enjoyed prominence in postwar Los Angeles, but was eclipsed by the rise of cool/hard-edge abstraction, was sculptor Robert Cremean. His figurative work was inspired by time spent in Italy, studying what he called the "utterly real" work of Michelangelo. But Cremean's fragmentary figures have nothing of Renaissance heroism. Instead, they are troubling, crippled, incomplete.
Many of the other artists in the "LA RAW" exhibition, while achieving and maintaining various degrees of distinction--no one can say that Hans Burkhardt or Charles White is unknown--were nonetheless considered peripheral to the formalist abstract modality that has had such a stranglehold on the dominant understanding of Modernism. When considered, their work was often seen as isolated or eccentric phenomena.
One reason for their isolation and lack of enduring fame--as Duncan makes clear in his smart catalogue essay--is that their "dark, quirky art" was perceived as "bearing little relation to works by the best-known Southern California artists." I want to address both parts of Duncan's assertion in this essay. Duncan labels the "dark, quirky" aspect of the art "abject," using the term as discussed by Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva (who adopted the word from Surrealist Georges Bataille.) The abject represents the human reaction (horror, vomit, disgust) to those elements--especially bodily elements--that threaten our sense of purity and propriety. For Kristeva, the abject resides primarily in corpses because they show her what she must "permanently thrust aside in order to live."
There are many corpses in "LA RAW." I have already mentioned that Robert Cremean depicted what appear to be injured and partial bodies in his sculptures. The same is true of John Outterbridge's stuffed and wounded Captive Image works. In his 1956 Buchenwald Cart, Rico Lebrun portrays corpses--corpses that recall those in murals by Mexican revolutionary muralist Jose Clemente Orozco. (Lebrun had been deeply impressed by Orozco's 1930 mural Prometheus at Pomona College.) Judy Baca shows us a gang member who had been shot in Dead Homeboy Killed by a Placa (1974). And Burkhardt includes almost a dozen actual human skulls in his powerful My Lai from 1968. (The artist had retrieved the skulls when they were disinterred and discarded outside cemeteries in Mexico. Human bones as refuse became the perfect metaphor for his protest of the young lives lost during the Vietnam War.)
But death and dying are not the only aspects of the abject that the "LA RAW" artists address. It is well known that Paul McCarthy performances often have dealt with vomit, defecation, shame-riddled sexual practices, and other bodily functions we are "supposed" to do in private. Less well known is the fact that many early feminist performance artists--including especially Nancy Buchanan, Judy Chicago, and Barbara T. Smith--did so as well. Chicago's Cunt and Cock Play, first staged at Womanhouse in 1972, ended with an immense phallus beating the feminine figure to death. A similarly graphic rendering of the violent extremes of gender abuse is seen in her Love Story (1971) in the exhibition. In performances like Pucker Painting (1977), Barbara T. Smith used her own body to depict the way women are objectified by romantic fantasy.
Also less well-known than McCarthy's are Kim Jones's abject performances, in which he appeared as a Mudman character and, at one point, lit three live rats on fire. Although Jones protested that the performance was done in response to his horrific experiences during the Vietnam War, the artist was convicted of animal cruelty and largely ostracized. Jones created his rat-burning performance in 1976, at a time when masochism and self-abuse were frequently part of performance art, especially in Europe. (Think of the Vienna Actionists, etc.) As such, Jones's work--like the work of many of the artists in "LA RAW"--was very much in tandem with what was happening on the global stage. The question is: Why is this aspect of Los Angeles art not better known?
LA's OTHER HISTORIES
The second part of Duncan's statement may provide an answer: These artists were seen as having little to do with the "best-known Southern California artists," that is, the Ferus Gallery artists and the hard-edge abstractionists. In point of fact, the perception that abstraction was the only route to prominence in Los Angeles does not bear scrutiny: One of the founders of Ferus Gallery was, after all, Edward Kienholz, a notorious master of the figurative abject. His works, alongside the others in "LA RAW," substantiate Duncan's assertion that "abject expressionist" artists (yes, the term is a deliberate play on the New York-based Abstract Expressionist movement) were part of an important figurative tradition that continued through the 20th century and into the current one. This figurative tradition was not ancillary to modernist abstraction; it was a significant parallel path, a full lane of modernist progress on par with Barr's abstraction highway.
Sharing multiple early 20th century sources--especially German Expressionism, Surrealism, and Mexican muralism--Abject Expressionists (note that I am now capitalizing it as a bona fide art movement name) responded to the horrific wars that ripped through the century, to poverty, loss, and suffering. While the formalist abstract artists paved the way for masters from Donald Judd to Anish Kapoor, the Abject Expressionists here in California laid the aesthetic cobblestones on which Postmodernists from Cindy Sherman to Joel-Peter Witkin continue to march. Using the body as their primary subject, the Abject Expressionists addressed the 20th century's changing views of self and identity. As such, they established an important through-line to Postmodernism, with its ongoing focus on precisely those topics.
"LA RAW"--like the best exhibitions offered this winter under the umbrella of Pacific Standard Time--makes clear that we need to reconsider any singular rendering of 20th century art history. There was no Master Narrative. Instead, there were several roads travelled through the decades. Michael Duncan's exhibition proves that Abject Expressionism, as practiced here in California, was a significant one.
This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine