Opinion: Los Angeles Art on the Other Coast
Purists may sniff at giving up an entire museum show to a single private collector and — in the Parrish Art Museum’s case — putting art on the wall that is from an entirely different region of the country. Yet there is an argument to be made for the “EST-3: Southern California in New York-Los Angeles Art from the Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection” exhibition, and the museum and its curator have made it well.
Ms. DeWoody has been a longtime resident of the Southampton art colony in Shinnecock Hills and has been active in the South Fork arts community during that time, organizing shows for galleries such as Salomon Contemporary and the Fireplace Project. Her visits to art fairs during the summer always attract notice and the giddy excitement of local dealers whose inventory she has examined and in some cases even purchased.
David Pagel, who has served as an adjunct curator for the Parrish for several years and who organized two previous exhibitions for the museum, is based in Southern California and has an impressive curriculum vitae of accomplishments. He is a critic for The Los Angeles Times and received an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in contemporary art criticism in 1990. He is also the chairman of the art department at Claremont Graduate University in Pomona.
The exhibition was conceived as an East Coast contribution to the dialogue started last year in Southern California with the multi-venue juggernaut, “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.” The exhibitions and associated events have been going on since October and continue in some of the 60 places that once participated from Santa Barbara to San Diego and out to Palm Springs.
Too eclectic to be taken as an actual survey, Mr. Pagel has taken the disparate styles, subjects, and mediums of the four decades of art culled from this collection and attempted to make visual sense of them through a loose confederation of categories: “People,” “Places,” and “Things.” It works. There is a liveliness in the installation that would be lacking or watered down if presented more linearly. The way ideas cross-reference one another and multiply across the years produces an apt context for the art, which was unfettered by things like the more rigorous European practices of modernism such as Cubism and more traditional academic concerns in the first place.
Sometimes a familiar construct, such as a regional notion of art history, benefits from being defined by what it is not. This show does that and allows for questions to be raised about why things happened the way they did here and what impact, if any, they had anywhere else, allowing us to see the more familiar styles and predilections from the East Coast anew from their own different and defining influences.
While Los Angeles and its environs are now known as centers for fine art study, much of its growth has happened fairly recently. Art making in Southern California was historically seen as independent from schools or academies. Early abstract artists there also bypassed a lot of influences that gave New York its distinctive style. Instead of aping that, California artists found heir own modes of expression through “hard-edge” abstraction and assemblage sculpture in the 1950s, interpretations of Pop and Minimalism, conceptual, performance art, and feminist art. Post-minimalism and the intermingling of art and science had their own unique interpretations there as well, through artists such as Bruce Nauman and James Turrell.
In fact, two longtime East Hampton artists, Paul Brach, who died in 2007, and his wife, Miriam Shapiro, were instrumental in shaping nascent arts programs at the University of California at San Diego and the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Brach was the head of both programs. Ms. Shapiro established the feminist art program at CalArts with Judy Chicago. The couple moved back east in 1975 and relocated to East Hampton full time in 1998. One of the other first faculty members of CalArts and an early Conceptualist, John Baldessari, is featured in “EST-3” with a series of lithographs and other printed matter.
It is not just the issues that the exhibition raises that make it worthwhile viewing, but the curator and the collector. It would be one thing to have a show of work that was amassed purely through the efforts of insider art world consultants, looking cookie-cutter and accessible enough so that even the most dim-witted collector could relate to it. But Ms. DeWoody is not that collector. She is an insider, serving on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art and always in attendance at any important art world gathering. Yet, her personal interactions with art make her the tastemaker, guiding other collectors and museums, and not the other way around.
During a discussion of the exhibition while it was being installed, Mr. Pagel noted that the show was as much a portrait of the collector as of the time and place during which the art was made. So many contemporary collections have no personality, he said. “As a critic, if I don’t have something to say that doesn’t sound like someone else, I shut up.” He said it should be the same for collecting. “The point of a collection is to realize a vision. If you hire someone to form it for you, it is like hiring someone to eat and drink for you or have sex for you.”
Ms. DeWoody said in a talk with Mr. Pagel at the opening that her eye was shaped by her mother, who moved to California when she was growing up, and by her collection of California art. Ms. DeWoody did some art study of her own and lived in TriBeCa during her first marriage, where she met early settlers such as Richard Prince and Andy Spence. She also came into contact with curators such as David Kiehl, a longtime curator of prints at the Whitney, and through him, Lisa Phillips, Richard Armstrong, and Richard Marshall, who all worked at the museum in the 1980s and early 1990s.
While Mr. Pagel calls himself an anti-intellectual, he has a strong academic background and his installations have always had a free hand guided by an intrinsic understanding of why something talks to something else on a wall. That is why the thematic installation works and creates moments that few are likely to see in any other examination of these artists, this period, or even within Ms. DeWoody’s collection.
The installation begins with “People,” and Don Bachardy’s 30-some portraits of many of the most influential artists of the region serve as an engaging introduction to the specific aesthetics of the region. It is filled out with other figurative work by David Hockney, Robert Colescott, Beatrice Wood, and others.
The “Places” are literal and suggestive, interior and exterior, and can encompass work by Karl Benjamin, Ed Ruscha, or a house-shaped sculpture by Tony Berlandt. Those pieces regarded as “Things” tend to cross over with Places at the rear of the gallery, whether they are Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s “The Block Head,” a cinderblock refitted to resemble a portable television or Mike Kelley’s silk parade banners hung festively from the ceiling in a way that belies their more sinister undertones.
“Things” tend to be completely abstract objects such as a fur-lined box by Vija Celmins (another West Coast-associated artist who found her way to the South Fork), Craig Kauffman’s colorful Plexiglas sculptures, or a number of paintings by Frederick Hammersley.
It all hangs together rather nicely, and walking through it one is likely to forget that it is the collection of one person. There is enough variety and eccentricity to keep viewers engaged and the overall quality is fine, including the multiples.
The exhibition will be on view through June 17.