Sunday, March 6, 2011

Charles Garabedian Retrospective

By Charles Kessler
Installation view, Charles Garabedian Retrospective, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Photo: Brian Forrest
I came away from the Charles Garabedian retrospective in Santa Barbara California with the conviction that Garabedian, at the age of 87, is probably the best living artist in the world — definitely the most vital. There, I said it! Comment all you want -- Garabedian is the best! His work has the range of Bruce Nauman, the inventiveness of Richard Tuttle, the pure beauty of Helen Frankenthaler (when he wants to), and the power of Anthony Caro — and let’s face it, Lichtenstein, Stella, Kelly, even Johns, are dull compared to Garabedian.  (Let's not get into a comparison with Garabedian's LA compatriot architect Frank Gehry, although that might be an interesting topic for another post.)

So who is this guy? He shows with major galleries (Betty Cuningham in New York where you can see one of his paintings until April 2nd, and L. A. Louver in Los Angeles, whose site has many Garabedian photos).  And he receives raves from art critics -- Christopher Knight in the LA Times just wrote that Garabedian is  "among the best painters Los Angeles has produced." More important, every artist I ever met who's aware of him has the utmost respect for Garabedian and his work. But he is inexplicably unrecognized by the Los Angeles museum establishment — they don't even put him in most of their historic survey shows let alone give him a major solo show; and a San Francisco curator I talked to recently never even heard of him. New York museums have given him somewhat more attention. He’s shown in several Whitney Biennials and had a solo show in 1976 at the Whitney; and he was included in the infamous 1978 “Bad Painting” show at the New Museum.

Kudos to Julie Joyce, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, for not only bucking the trend and organizing a retrospective (the first major museum survey in 28 years —  that is, since my fellow blogger Carl Belz’s show at the Rose Art Museum), but also for organizing a really major exhibition (60 paintings — several of them huge) and publishing a lavish hardcover catalog (212 pages and 95 color illustrations).

I knew Chaz well in the 1970s when I lived in LA (I'm going to refer to him as "Chaz" because he's a friend and it would feel weird not to). I curated his first retrospective in 1974 (California State University at Northridge) and wrote about his work for Art in America and Arts Magazine (sorry, no links). We are friends, but that's not why I think he's the greatest — it's the other way around actually. We became friends because people were telling me what a great artist he was and I wanted to get to know him. (In LA at the time this kind of thing was easy -- see my post on The Good Old Days.)

Spending time with Chaz was always both bewildering and eye-opening. He was one of the few people I ever met who could always keep me completely off balance. I could never predict what he was going to say, and it was usually something clever, deep and so many levels above anything I, a beginning artist still in my twenties, could conceive of. We'd have these sophomoric arguments like over whether or not Chinese art was elegant, but they always got me thinking. In addition, maybe related, he was one of the quickest wits I ever met (still is, as you'll see). I remember once seeing a drawing hanging in his studio that his daughter Sophia did of a guy sitting on a toilet with the word "poop" scrawled on it. I asked him what it's like having a seven-year old that's better at drawing than he is. He shot back that it's okay, "I'm getting better, and she's getting worse." (Sophia ultimately got good again — she's now an artist.) Or "acrylic paint is like a whore, it just lays there and you have to do things to it." (I’ll be quoting him a lot because his words are so apt and entertaining.)

The exhibition emphasizes work made from the eighties on, work done after I left LA, and there's just a smattering of his earlier work. I suppose that's proper -- Garabedian evolved into his mature figurative style then, and the focus of the retrospective rightly belongs there. But I'd like to say a word about the work I know best, my first love — work that was just so tough, eccentric, inventive, and downright nasty at times, especially in the context of the slick art popular then (LA Cool School, Minimalism and Pop Art), it blew my mind.

Among my favorite works of that era is The Meeting of Greece and China, 1970, which, to my disappointment, isn't included in the Santa Barbara show, so I'll spend some time on it. First of all you need to realize the painting has a very aggressive presence: it’s more than 8 feet tall and made of slats of wood like a butcher block (you can best see this at the top). It’s inlayed with colored resin and crosshatched with scrawls, smears and drips of paint. The composition is crazy and disjointed and throws you back and forth in space; and the raw paint handling and bright, flat, white surface are quite off-putting. There’s no spot you can rest your eyes or allow them to flow gracefully over the surface. Instead your eyes bop from one image to another. The painting feels like an attack.

Charles Garabedian, The Meeting of Greece and China, 1970, wood, acrylic and polyester resin, 97 x 59.5 in.,
Photo: Tom Vinetz, Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

At the same time, due partly to the deliberateness of the construction, the work doesn’t feel random or thoughtless or done by chance. Arbitrary maybe, but deliberate — intended. There's an existential arbitrariness about Chaz’s early work, a willful manipulation of materials, that I find exhilarating. Chaz just went wherever he wanted to go with a work, neither following the abstract logic of someone like Stella nor the naturalistic "rightness" of realistic painting or the pseudo-casual randomness of Action Painting. Of course all artists do what they want, but their work isn't usually experienced as such. I always intensely felt the willful deliberateness of Chaz’s art.

Perhaps Chaz was able to develop this uniquely personal style because he started late, at thirty-two, an age when he wasn’t likely to be over-influenced by other art, and mature enough to know what his priorities should be. And starting late meant he could never be tempted by facility. From last week’s cover article of Calendar, the L A Times Arts Magazine:
In one of my earlier classes," he recounts, "one of the teachers said to me: 'You're starting too late.' He said: 'You're too old to learn technique. What you have to do is go straight for the poetry.' So I said OK, not knowing what the hell he was talking about."   ... When asked whether he believes that what his teacher said was true, he replies, "Absolutely." But when asked whether he managed to find the poetry, he demurs with characteristic modesty. "No," he says. "No, no, no. But I was able to ignore technique, which is just as important, isn't it?"
See what I mean about keeping you off balance? Chaz has mellowed, but he hasn't lost his edge.

In any case, what mattered from the beginning was his persistent and uncompromising exploration. "There are no absolutes. There's nothing you can really count on. And I think it's better that way. When I open that door in the morning, I keep telling myself I hope somebody new is walking through this door. You're looking to change. That's the exciting thing about it: change, who you can be next, who you can be later on." (from the Calendar)
Charles Garabedian, In Anticipation, The Watchers, 1985-88. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 in.
Photo courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.
Charles Garabedian, Herodotus, 1995-96, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 84 in
Photo credit: Brian Forrest, Courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

While the older work was bursting with invention, complex to the point of chaos, and often quite nasty aesthetically, his later work is simpler, looser and often downright beautiful. Walking up to a wall-sized painting like September Song, or The Spring For Which I Longed, both 2001-03, I feel like I could dive in and get lost floating in the waves — just let go and accept whatever happens.
Charles Garabedian, September Song, 2001 - 2003, acrylic on canvas, 156 x 300 in.
Photo courtesy L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.
Detail: bottom right corner, September Song, 2001 - 2003
We might be witnessing an outstanding example of “late style” as described by Kenneth Clark in his definitive essay on the topic:
...a mistrust of reason, a belief in instinct. And in a few rare instances the old-age myth of classical antiquity–the feeling that the crimes and follies of mankind must be accepted with resignation. ... a retreat from realism, an impatience with established technique and a craving for complete unity of treatment, as if the picture were an organism in which every member shared in the life of the whole.
Most of this has always been true of Chaz’s art, but the “unity of treatment” is new, and it’s what might make this phase of his career a classic “late style.” On the other hand, Chaz is still going strong, and you never know what the hell he’ll come up with.

UPDATE: The exhibition has been extended until May 1st.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer based in Jersey City


Kyle Gallup said...

"I keep telling myself I hope somebody new is walking through this door. You're looking to change. That's the exciting thing about it: change, who you can be next, who you can be later on."

I completely believe in CG's statement.

This is an interesting, beautiful and perfectly timed review. It makes me wish I could be on a plane right now heading for LA and ready to see the show this afternoon. I will look for images on LA Louver's site. Thank you Charles.

Carl Belz said...

Your take on Garabedian is much appreciated, especially your comment about the work's "existential arbitrariness" and its resistance to both "abstract logic" and "naturalistic rightness." These strategies add up to an art that, despite being based on images derived from the visible world, is as abstract--as radically unlike nature--as the most non-objective art of our time (Garabedian's work is virtually unique in that regard). It's also as liberating, which is to say exhilarating, and that's saying a lot. But what more could you want?

Unknown said...

Your comments are very well stated. Fortunately I got to see the Santa Barbara show, and I have tried to describe Garabedian's work to people who are not familiar with it. Now I will refer them to your blog along with showing them the catalog. The catalog is well done, but without seeing the work in person and experiencing the scale of the large paintings, one can't get the full impact of their greatness.

Judith S Miller