Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Los Angeles Artists In New York This Summer

By Charles Kessler

By my count there have been six major New York exhibitions of Los Angeles artists this summer: Robert Irwin at the Whitney (until September 1st), Ken Price at the Met (until September 22nd), Llyn Foulkes at the New Museum (until September 1st), James Turrell at the Guggenheim (until September 25th), John Baldessari at Marian Goodman (until August 23rd), and Paul McCarthy at the Park Avenue Armory (until August 4th) and at the mega-Chelsea gallery, Hauser & Wirth (closed July 26th). Plus there is State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 (until September 8th), a large group exhibition at the Bronx Museum which is getting a lot of media attention.

DIATRIBE WARNING: I can't stand Irwin and Turrell (I love Price and Foulkes – more on them another time). Not only Irwin and Turrell, but all Light and Space art (although Irwin's more minimal work, like what he's showing at the Whitney now, I at least respect). I find Light and Space art light (as in lightweight) and cheap. Of course one's going to be awed by a miraculously floating disc. FFO man! 
Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1968-69, acrylic lacquer on formed acrylic plastic, 54 inches in diameter (MoCA, Los Angeles).

Or a gorgeous colored-light environmental installation.
An installation view of James Turrell’s site-specific Aten Reign, Guggenheim Museum (photo credit - James Turrell).
I mean who doesn't like a sunset? (This reminds me of the time I was looking at a spectacular sunset over the Pacific Ocean with an artist/art historian friend of mine, and I jokingly asked him if he could do better. His brilliant comeback was "He's pretty good, but He's uneven.")

Perhaps this new popularity is precipitated by Pacific Standard Time, the series of more than sixty exhibitions about the history of LA art, but I can't help feeling there's an element of New York condescension at work here, a sop to the cliché of sunny California. (BTW Los Angeles isn't sunny; in fact, it's the grayest city I ever lived in. And it's not just the smog – it's always hazy. The native indians called it the valley of smoke. And, to the credit of the Light and Space artists I guess, they usually capture this hazy light.)  

What really annoys me though is how contrived the work is, and how controlling. I already wrote about Doug Wheeler's risible installation at David Zwirner last year, but they're all so damn controlling. Turrell won't even allow anyone but himself to photograph his precious installations. I snuck this one just to show how people have to lay on their backs to view the work.

I don't have this same general condemnation for all Los Angeles conceptual or transgressive art (I love Mike Kelly), but Baldessari and McCarthy are just plain silly, or, to quote Mostafa Heddaya in Hyperallergic on McCarthy, "infantile." And they've gotten worse. The work they did in the seventies was at least refreshingly raw, but now Baldassari's art is slick and arty, and McCartney's has become overproduced and bombastic (I've provided links above so you can see for yourself). 

I find their popularity particularly galling because some of the artists I respect most from that period, like the painters Charles Garabedian and John McLaughlin; the collagist/poet Wallace Berman; and the many great California ceramicists besides Price, Peter Voulkos foremost among them, are hardly ever seen in New York. 
Peter Voulkos in his studio on Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, 1959 (image courtesy of the Voulkos & Co. Catalogue Project via the Getty Center).
It's not like they're unknown here, but they're certainly not getting the play I feel they deserve, especially in comparison to the acclaim a lightweight like Baldessari is getting. 

So now that I got that off my chest, on to an important question: Why do some artists go by their nicknames (Ken Price, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons) and others, who are known personally by their nicknames, go by their full names (Robert (Bob) Irwin, James (Jim) Turrell, Barnett (Barney) Newman)? How is it determined? Does the artist decide? The dealer? The first person to write about them? It's a puzzlement.

1 comment:

Anders Knutsson said...

You made some good points there, IMO. Last winter I spent some time with Turell's work At the Ringling Museum of Art sine I was doing an AIR in the area. It was open at dusk 6 - 7 pm and scarcely attended (for 5 bucks extra). The first time I was awed. The second time I brought a mat + pillow and could concentrate more on the goings on. To me, the computerized LED color display on the walls surrounding the sky-scape actually interfered with my experience. I kept thinking Albers (interaction of colors). The third time I mentally blocked the interaction and just enjoyed the beautiful Florida sky, almost alone.