Pushing through Gridlock: Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970

by Anne Bruder* 

In a 1972 ArtForum feature, Peter Plagens wrote, “L.A. is an elusive place: all flesh and no soul, all buildings and no architecture, all property and no land, all electricity and no light, all billboards and nothing to say, all ideas and no principles…you wouldn’t expect L.A. to have much culture and it doesn’t… The ‘fine art’ end of things is dominated by gargantuan nouveau-riche tastes for pretentiousness (compare the L.A. County and Pasadena art museums to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, or the Whitney) and a red-carpet ‘scene.’”[1] Plagens’ staunch criticism of Los Angeles is representative of a larger discourse that has led art historians and critics to exclude Los Angeles from the Modernist narrative and for decades kept all eyes focused on New York. Ten years ago, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles decided to fight back. In order to overcome this deeply-rooted bias the museum began to expand beyond the parameters of gallery space to a much larger scale – that of the city. By the fall of 2011 the Getty achieved the unprecedented curatorial feat of uniting approximately 70 art institutions throughout sprawling Southern California under one cohesive initiative—Pacific Standard Time (PST). Getty curators Andrew Perchuk, Rani Singh, Glenn Phillips, and Catherine Taft, set the tone of PST with their generative exhibition Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970. As expressed in the title, their specific intent was to reveal and reestablish the importance of Southern California within art historical discourse. Following this example, from October 2011 to March 2012, all Southern California highways led to exhibitions that were revelatory of multiple voices, narratives, venues, themes, artists, and curatorial methods.

For images from the exhibition visit:  http://www.getty.edu/pacificstandardtime/exhibitions-and-events/crosscurrents/#Images

Santa Monica Beach, Los Angeles 2012.

In order to critically situate Crosscurrents one must examine the exhibition through two lenses –both through its particularities and its larger role within PST. Mining the curatorial specificities of Crosscurrents, this essay exposes how the show wrestles with the Modernist canon of painting and sculpture; its relationship to other PST exhibitions; and its curators’ implementation of a “regionalist” curatorial strategy that simultaneously puts pressure on the global hierarchies of the art world. Further, this essay locates how the Getty and the curators of Crosscurrents transformed L.A. into a discursively organized network. Crosscurrents and PST navigate between issues of globalism and regionalism; between employing the power of the institution and “new institutionalism”; and between the promotion of canonical and non-canonical narratives. 

Crosscurrents 76 paintings and sculptures are formally organized into categories ranging from ceramics and Hard-Edged Painting and Assemblage to California Minimalism and Light and Space works. The exhibition addresses the impact and influence of L.A.’s surf culture; Hollywood, the automobile and aerospace industries, and California landscape as well as the emergence of the city’s gallery scene. Presented in a chronological format, Crosscurrents opens with a juxtaposition of 1950’s abstract ceramic sculptors, including Ken Price and John Mason; and Hard-Edged painters, such as John McLaughlin and Lorser Feitelson; and continues with assemblage works by figures such as Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz. The exhibition moves on to examine 1960s Pop artists like Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode; Finish Fetish works by John McCracken, Billy Al Bengston, and Judy Chicago; and Conceptual work by John Baldessari, to name a few. Crosscurrents’ extremely dense catalogue buttresses the social and cultural implications of the work and reaches beyond the art in the exhibition. The curators’ pedagogical depth, research, writing, and organization remain unparalleled. However, the curators’ selection of artists in Crosscurrents follows the exhibition’s historical precedents such as The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Fifty California Artists (1962), Los Angeles Country Museum of Art’s Art in Los Angeles: Seventeen Artists in the Sixties (1981), and Centre Georges Pompidou’s Los Angeles 1955-1985 (2006). Like these earlier exhibitions, Crosscurrents prominently features white male artists such as John McLaughlin, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha and Wallace Berman. While Crosscurrents includes artists outside of this established canon, such as female Judy Chicago, African American female Betty Saar, and Japanese American Ron Miyashiro, the works comprise very little of the exhibition. Further, Crosscurrents follows the lead of previous exhibitions placing the formal characteristics at the fore.

The response to the exhibition’s formal, ‘canonical’ focus ranges from reviews that laud the show as the heart of PST to others that view the exhibition as unsuccessful in its mere reiteration of the canon. On one side of the spectrum, Roberta Smith describes the exhibition as “weirdly canonical” and a display of “the well-known (read: too white and too male) ‘60s narrative.”[2] In the same vein Michael Duncan points out that “the show says nothing new. It has been up to less-funded, scrappier institutions to enter fresh figures into the mix.”[3] On the other side, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp argues that regardless of all other exhibitions he visits, his mind continually returns to Crosscurrents. Whether criticized or praised, Crosscurrents functions on many different levels and deserves a much more nuanced and complex interpretation.

The exhibition appropriates the curatorial rubric of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in its formal divisions, its emphasis on painting and sculpture, and its installation design. As previously discussed, Crosscurrents presents non-culturally inflected and “universal” works from within its region. This focus emulates a strategy that art historians and critics view as MoMA’s primary and most important curatorial task.[4] Further, Crosscurrents exhibition designers Emily Morishita and Irmia Ramirez desired a “modern, white-walled space…a minimal look,” following the style and design origins from MoMA.[5]  However, these appropriations do not take away from Crosscurrents critical force, but in fact are necessary devices. In order for the Getty to strongly align itself with MoMA and insert new vocabulary into the Modernist canon, it must speak MoMA’s language. It might not be such a coincidence that only a year before PST, MoMA’s curators decided to install Abstract Expressionist New York, an exhibition that asserts New York as the center of 1950’s avant-garde. In both exhibitions, the East Coast/West Coast tension is palpable. As Crosscurrents emulates MoMA’s curatorial style, it creates its own “canon”—that of L.A.

Unlike MoMA, which contains its own art history within its walls, the Getty’s story expands far beyond its gallery spaces and creates room for multiple voices. Although Crosscurrents dedicates the majority of its space to L.A.’s canon, the exhibition’s catalogue acknowledges that it does not function alone, but within the greater network of PST: “Documenting the tremendous diversity of Los Angeles’s postwar art history is a daunting and exhilarating task—one that requires nothing less than a region-wide initiative, several dozen exhibitions with related publications, and six months of public programming. Pacific Standard Time is many things; perhaps most importantly, it is an unprecedented collective rethinking of a region’s art history.”[6] The contextual basis of Crosscurrents does not arise from within its own exhibition and catalogue, but rather from surrounding shows initiated by the Getty. The Getty utilized its influential reach and financial capabilities to support smaller operations and expose art and discourse that might otherwise remain undiscovered. Such widely-lauded exhibitions include Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 curated by Kellie Jones at the Hammer Museum; Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design; and Rubén Ortiz-Torres’ MEX/L.A.: ‘Mexican’ Modernism(s) in Los Angeles 1930-1985 at the Museum of Latin American Art; to name a few. Although Crosscurrents itself may appear as a blockbuster exhibition serving a larger institutional agenda, it obliquely upholds a greater purpose.

Venice Beach, Sunset over Abbot Kinney, March 2012.

PST exemplifies “new institutionalism,” a curatorial practice that champions the institution as vital to art while enacting strategies to change organizations from within. Specifically, the exhibition exemplifies what curator Nina Möntmann defines as the latest approach to “new institutionalism.” [7] As Möntmann argues, the former critical approach toward the establishment did not survive “the ‘corporate turn’ of the institutional landscape,” and thus needs to change, particularly in order to “widen its scope, consider cross-genre collaborations with established as well as alternative organizations, and initiate multi-disciplinary activities. This conceivable institution could, for example, take on the form of an internationally operating “organized network”, which strengthens various smaller, independent institutions and activities – be they alternative, artist-run, or research-based – and could also set up temporary platforms within bigger institutions.”[8] As described by Möntmann, PST transforms Southern California into a discursively connected network that includes a multiplicity of spaces ranging from universities and galleries to museums large and small in which the initiative implements “multi-disciplinary activities” from film screenings and performances, to artist talks, panels, and lectures all throughout the region. Moreover, PST extends its reach to a broader geographic network through online interactive workshops, videos, databases, and archives. The employment of digital technologies and communication tools give this form of “new institutionalism” the ability to break down “dominant forms of institutional politics” and expand beyond the local to create a global information hub.[9] PST displays Möntmann’s emphasis that “new institutionalism” serves as an  “internationalization as well as a democratization of the art institution and its research facilities” functioning on both a local and global scale. While the location of L.A. does serve as PST’s overarching organizing principle, its art cannot be categorized and defined through the simplistic lens of “regionalism.”

In an ArtForum roundtable discussion editor-in-chief Michelle Kuo asks, how one discusses L.A. art “without reducing it to the same clichés about regional or even outsider” and avoid “lapsing into old categories of ‘importance’ or ‘center/periphery’?”[10] The panel responds with the consensus that L.A.’s disparate geographical conditions and diverse communities make it impossible to interpret Crosscurrents and PST through a “regionalist” lens. As Thomas Crow asserts,

New York art hasn’t been subjected to this reductive treatment as a localized phenomenon…What L.A. provides as a laboratory is a chance to build a new, fuller model of historical understanding around a lot of art that is intuitively fresh and strong…not encrusted in critical vocabularies. It would be difficult to duplicate those conditions elsewhere, a fact that for me obviates worries about regionalism, center/periphery, or any other obsolete comparative perspective.[11]

To expand upon the panel’s responses, it is productive to employ Kenneth Frampton’s notion of “Critical Regionalism,”[12] which Hal Foster succinctly explains as “a critical mediation of the forms of modern civilization and of local culture, a mutual deconstruction of universal techniques and regional vernaculars.”[13] Crosscurrents and PST attempt to dismantle the universal characteristics of Modernism and the global hierarchies of art history as well as expose L.A.’s diverse art practices.

View from the J. Paul Getty Museum Tram, March 2012.

PST functions simultaneously as a site-specific and global discursive practice. Art historian Miwon Kwon expands the idea of “site specificity” beyond its former definition, claiming that while the “locational and institutional circumstances” are still vital, the “operative definition of the site has been transformed from a physical location…to a discursive vector.”[14] Though Kwon introduces a new perspective on site specificity, she also warns of its potential hazards, particularly its ability to create sites that “become genericized into an undifferentiated serialization, one place after another,” and the difficulty of navigating the territory between global and local.[15]  PST avoids this hazard through its large-scale execution, diverse narratives, and the recognition of its many voices and identities within L.A. As such, the initiative also functions in the Henri Lefebvre-ian sense to “explode” space in order to re-organize abstract hierarchical constructions of Modernism and to differentiate the spaces and art historical movements within L.A.[16]  

Challenging the established notions of Modernism, PST introduces a new perspective to New York-centric art historical discourse and contests the notion of L.A. art as “regional” or “outsider.” While the long-term effects of Crosscurrents and PST are yet to be determined, the initiative successfully provoked thought around the art historical canon, and the Getty curators have certainly set a new standard with which to frame art.

Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970 is currently installed at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin (March 15-June 10, 2012).

[1] Peter Plagens, “Los Angeles: The Ecology of Evil,” in ArtForum 11 (December 1972): 67-76. Although Plagens wrote a book about Los Angeles art, Sunshine Muse (1974), his introduction immediately announces New York a superior to L.A. Peter Plagens, Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 9.

[2] Roberta Smith, “A New Pin on the Art Map,” The New York Times, November 10, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/arts/design/pacific-standard-time-art-exhibitions-in-la-review.html [accessed March 1, 2012].

[3] Michael Duncan, “Canon Busting,” Art in America (January 2012): 77. Hunter Drohokowska-Philp, “Pacific Standard Time Crosscurrents at the Getty,” Artnet Magazine, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features drohojowska-philp/crosscurrents-at-the-getty-10-4-11.asp,  [Accessed April 18 2012].

[4] As Hal Foster said, “The MoMA narrative is still dominated by P&S…Perhaps the first task of such a museum is formalist – to highlight the intrinsic properties of each work and the internal development of each art – but that needn’t be the only task.” Hal Foster, “It’s Modern but is it Contemporary?” in London Review of Books vol 26, 24 (16 December 2004), 23-25.

[5] Emily Morishita quoted in Jessica Portner, “Creating a Canvas for Pacific Standard Time: Cross Currents,” The Iris: Views from the Getty [February 2, 2012]. http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/creating-a-canvas-for-pacific-standard-time-crosscurrents/ [accessed March 1, 2012].  Mary Anne Staniszweski elaborates on Alfred Barr’s construction of MoMA’s rubric and language in Mary Anne Staniszweski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

[6]  Rebecca Peabody, Andrew Perchuk, Glenn Phillips, Rani Singh, and Joan Weinstein, “Preface,” Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980 (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011), xxi.

[7] Nina Möntmann, “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future,” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies Webjournal, August 2007, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0407/moentmann/en [accessed 10 April 2012]. Europe maintains a larger contingency of curators that employ and write about “new institutionalism” such as Charles Esche, Lene Crone Jensen, and Jonas Ekeberg.

[8] Möntmann, “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future.” Möntmann quotes Ned Rossiter in her use of “organized networks,” a term that the article expands as “superseding modern institutions that are just ‘rebooted into the digital age’ by ‘reconciling their hierarchical structures of organization with the flexible, partially decentralized and transnational flows of culture, finance, and labor.”” Ned Rossiter, “Can Organized Networks Make Money for Designers,” http://summit.kein.org/node/309 quoted in Möntmann.

[9] Möntmann, “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future.”

[10] Michelle Kuo, “L.A. Stories,” Artforum 50, 2 (October 2011): 240-251. Moderated by Artforum editor, Michelle Kuo, and critic and scholar Richard Meyer, the roundtable discussion includes art historians Andrew Perchuk and Thomas Crow; curators Maurice Tuchman and Ali Subotnick; gallerist Helene Winer; and artists John Baldessari, Harry Gamboa Jr., Liz Larner.

[11] Thomas Crow quoted in Michelle Kuo, “L.A. Stories,” 240- 243.

[12] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance (1983)” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, 1988): 16-30.

[13] Hal Foster, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (New York: The New Press, 1988), xi.

[14] Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October 80 (Spring, 1997), 85-110. In this text Kwon expands the definition of site-specificity, in which she argues that “cultural debates, a theoretical concept, a social issue, a political problem, an institutional framework (not necessarily an art institution), a community or seasonal event, a historical condition, even particular formations of desire, are now deemed to function as sites.” Kwon, 93-95.

[15] Kwon, 110.

[16] See Henri Lefebvre, “Space: Social Product and Use Value,” in Critical Sociology: European Perspectives, ed. J.W. Freidberg, 285-295. New York:  Halsted Press, 1979.

*Anne Bruder is a first year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.