Collecting guide: West Coast art

From Hockney to Baldessari, Ruscha to Thiebaud — how the countercultural figures who flocked to California in the Sixties became art establishment names. Illustrated with works offered in our First Open | Post-War & Contemporary Art and Contemporary Editions auctions


Aerial view of Los Angeles at night from the Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California, circa 1962. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

What are the roots of the West Coast art scene?

Broadly speaking, the term refers to art made in California in the Sixties and early Seventies. It’s misleading to speak of a coherent ‘scene’, however; the artists were never unified in a movement, or by a manifesto, and worked in different locations — from San Diego to San Francisco, via Los Angeles. What we can safely say is that, thanks to them, California became an important centre of visual arts.

What was the historical context to all this?

Following the Second World War, New York became the art capital of the world. California culture was dominated by film, as it had been since movie moguls moved west in the early 20th century and established themselves in and around Hollywood. The state was growing fast, with workers from across America and beyond looking to take advantage of its economic prosperity. Los Angeles became the third-largest American city after New York and Chicago, its population doubling from 9 to 18 million between 1945 and 1965. It also benefitted from a sprawling new freeway system.

Was there much in the way of art, though?

Not too much, apart from a school of Abstract Expressionism that appeared in San Francisco after the war. There were few significant art museums — the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), for instance, didn’t open until 1965.

The game-changing moment came in 1957, with the opening of Ferus Gallery on Los Angeles’s La Cienega Boulevard. The gallery exhibited work by a host of up-and-coming local artists, and presented Andy Warhol’s first solo show in 1962.

Was there a unified West Coast style?

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Suckers State II, 1968. Image: 8½ x 14 in (216 x 356 mm); sheet: 16 x 21⅞ in (406 x 556 mm). This lot was offered in Contemporary Editions, 11-19 July 2017 Online, and sold for $9,375

Perhaps the most accurate description is that West Coast art was highly varied. As Peter Plagens put it in his book, Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast 1945-70, ‘the absence of an artistic tradition… gave artists an open field, without the obstacles of history or heroes.’ In other words, there was a real sense of tabula rasa. The painter Billy Al Bengston has suggested that the lack of an established collector base also played its part. ‘Initially, there was nobody buying,’ he said. ‘You could do anything you wanted.’

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), Busted Piece of Glass, 2007. Acrylic and dry pigment on museum board. Image: 10½ x 7¾ in (26.7 x 19.7 cm); sheet: 12¼ x 9⅜ in (31.1 x 23.8 cm). This lot was offered in First Open | Post-War & Contemporary Art, 11-20 July 2017, Online

Who were the key artists?

Certain figures, such as Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud, embraced Pop. Ruscha’s Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights  reinterpreted the 20th Century Fox logo; Thiebaud’s Two Jackpots  depicted casino slot machines.

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), Let's Keep in Touch, 1978. Image: 14 x 45⅜ in (356 x 1153 mm); sheet: 19 x 50⅛ in (483 x 1273 mm). This lot was offered in Contemporary Editions, 11-19 July 2017 Online, and sold for $13,750

John Baldessari, meanwhile, was a leading Conceptualist. In one famous piece, Cremation Project (1970), he ceremoniously burned the art of his younger years.

No discussion of West Coast art should pass without a mention of abstract painter Richard Diebenkorn — although he wasn’t actually part of the best-known group of West Coast abstractionists, the Hard-Edge painters. These included artists John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson and Karl Benjamin, who created imagery featuring areas of flat colour with sharp, geometric borders.

Perhaps the most inventive work was produced by the so-called Light and Space group, whose members, including James Turrell, John McCracken, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin, embraced unconventional materials such as plastic and fluorescent lights. The sleek, smooth-surfaced forms and installations they created are often considered California’s version of minimalism.

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Larry Bell (b. 1939), ELIN 57, 1982. Aluminium and silicon monoxide on paper. 52 x 35⅞ in (132.1 x 91.1 cm). This lot was offered in First Open | Post-War & Contemporary Art, 11-20 July 2017, Online

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Larry Bell (b. 1939), EL 34, 1981. Aluminium and silicon monoxide on paper, 52 x 35⅞ in (132.1 x 91.1 cm). This lot was offered in First Open | Post-War & Contemporary Art, 11-20 July 2017, Online

Were all the artists from California?

Not all of them. Many were attracted to the Golden State by its climate and burgeoning art scene, Ruscha (from Oklahoma) and David Hockney (from Yorkshire, in the north of England) being two prominent examples.

David Hockney (b. 1937), Dark Mist, 1973. Image: 28⅞ x 24⅞ in (733 x 632 mm.); sheet: 35 x 28½ in (889 x 724 mm). This lot was offered in Contemporary Editions, 11-19 July 2017, Online

What about printmaking?

A number of highly-regarded print workshops appeared in California at this time, such as Tamarind, in 1960, and Gemini, founded by Kenneth Tyler, in 1965. ‘Gemini G.E.L. soon developed a reputation, together with Ken Tyler master printer, as an important collaborative space to make editions,’ says Lindsay Griffith, Head of Sale at Christie’s Prints & Multiples department in New York. ‘A number of artists based on the East Coast flocked west to work with the studio in the late 1960s — figures such as Josef Albers, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the late 1960s. A work that exemplifies the creative spirit from the studio at the time is Rauschenberg’s Booster (1967), a new hybrid type of print that combined the processes of lithography and screenprinting.

‘These West Coast-based workshops developed a real reputation for innovation,’ adds Griffith. ‘Most of the major West Coast artists made prints there, and continue to make works there. This is an area of the market where quality combines with a great price point for today’s collector.’

What happened after the 1970s?

Many other artists — Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley among them — arrived in the wake of the scene's pioneers. Never again would California be an artistic wilderness.

A number of exhibitions in recent years have focused on the West Coast artists, such as Sunshine & Noir  at the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark, and Los Angeles 1955-1985  at the Pompidou, in Paris. Christie’s First Open auction of post-war and contemporary art, from July 11-20, features a number of West Coast works, too.

How has the market for West Coast art developed?

There is both a national and international market for West Coast works, says Rachael White, Head of First Open sales at Christie’s. The last 10 to 15 years have seen ‘a fast-growing appreciation’ of the fact that ‘there was more to mid-20th century American art than what was produced in New York,’ she explains. ‘Today there is a sense that these countercultural figures from the Sixties have become establishment names.’ 

A Baldessari retrospective, for instance, has toured to both Tate Modern in London (in 2009) and the Metropolitan Museum in New York (in 2010). There have been countless Ruscha retrospectives worldwide; Ruscha will also be the subject of a show at London’s National Gallery in 2018.

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