Friday, February 13, 2009

It ain't like the good old days

I just returned from a short visit to southern California. I didn’t see any art - it was a family visit - but I was reminded how small, and in some ways provincial, the Los Angeles art scene was when I lived there in the sixties and seventies. And that, for me, was a good thing.

When I first got there I was an enthusiastic, wide-eyed graduate student at UCLA, eager to learn about contemporary art. The University offered little but my fellow students -- some who made major reputations in art history (Serge Guilbaut and Tom Crow among them) were a great resource. We’d argue intensely and interminably about the importance of the framing edge or objecthood or whether there was such a thing as good or bad art. Sophomoric, I know, but I learned a lot.

Nick Wilder, who had the best of only a few galleries at the time, also taught me a lot. He introduced me to Bruce Nauman and Ron Davis (who got me started making art) and even took me to John McLaughlin’s studio in Dana Point. Later I met John Coplans, then editor of Artforum, Walter Hopps, Curator of the Pasadena Museum, the artist and critic Peter Plagens (who got me started writing) and Charles Garabedian (who most influenced my art). Because so few people went to galleries, dealers (including Larry Gargosian who started selling posters in Westwood Village) were eager to talk to anyone. I even got to spend a week with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground when they came out to LA.

As fun as dropping all these names may be, my point is that I, a mere student with no money or ability to advantage anyone, not only had access to these people but they eagerly took me under their wing and taught me about art and the art world. There was a sense of being in it together for the cause of not only promoting the Los Angeles art scene but helping contemporary art in general.

Artists had similar experiences in New York in the fifties when the scene was much smaller, and again, in the seventies and eighties in neighborhoods like Soho or the East Village. When I first came to Jersey City, in 1982, there wasn't much going on so I clung to the few expatriate Los Angeles artists out here and we shared a sense of fellowship and being in on this adventure together. Soon, in the nineties, the Jersey City art scene began to grow. Art galleries were popping up in 111 First Street and all over the Downtown. Openings were parties and usually included local poets, musicians, dancers and performance artists. And again there was a sense of togetherness, camaraderie and a desire to promote Jersey City.

Sadly, with the destruction of 111 First Street, I and many other artists active in Jersey City over the years, feel disheartened. Why should we do anything to promote Jersey City when we were so stabbed in the back? The camaraderie, the sense of togetherness for a cause is gone -- and it's a great loss. I miss it and want to get it back. My hope is with the new young people arriving here every day -- ones who haven't yet grown cynical and defeated. Maybe they'll have the enthusiasm and hopefulness to get something exciting started.


Unknown said...

Mr Charles, Yes I was in LA during those great days and I do want to see you one of these days. SG (Frenchy)

Irene Borngraeber said...

I've never experienced this type of artistic community and can't help but romanticize what I've missed. It is so wonderful to have a mentor, or even a group of friends with whom to explore...I really hope that this will develop in Jersey City so we can reap the benefits!

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about the destruction of 111 First Street. I can imagine it was quite a loss. Maybe such things as blogs will create community on another plane, so to speak. Hope so.

Anonymous said...

When are artists going to learn that they must do things and create opportunities for themselves? It was idealist to put the future of your art careers at the mercy of the landlord and expect that the landlord would sacrifice for the artist. In a capitalist society, money talks. 111 is gone and the artists need to be resilient. There is a lot of art going on in Jersey City, but there seems to be an undercurrent of competition for who is going to be the center of the next scene. That is keeping the art community fractured. There are too few exhibition venues and each seems to have developed there own clique around them. There is too little to see and it is too difficult to see it (when is Gallery 58 open? Not consistently during the hours they have posted.) If the artists want a community, create one. But its going to have to be consistent, visible and worthwhile. And the artists will have to do it for themselves. No waiting for the Jersey City Museum or the Artists Studio Tour to touch you with the wand of fame.