Art cities: Why Los Angeles has ‘the right kind of decadence’
For half a century Los Angeles inspired countless films and novels, but little in the way of great painting. But now, as Jessica Lack reports, the city that inspired the cool minimalism of Ed Ruscha et al has become a serious rival to New York
In the 1950s modern painters abandoned Chicago and New York for Southern California, guessing that Los Angeles’ amorphous sprawl contained the key to America’s future. Like the filmmakers and writers before them, they recognised that in the easy-access highways, limitless parking lots and architecture built for speed and rapid communication, this was a city that was fit for the alienated and footloose.
‘It’s got the right kind of decadence and lack of charm it takes to make an artist,’ said Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), who rode shotgun into the city in 1956, like a turpentine-stained Jack Kerouac in a customised Ford.
Today many of those pioneering artists who were drawn into the orbit of the fabled Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood have become household names — Ruscha, Judy Chicago (b. 1939), Ed Kienholz (1927-1994) and Larry Bell (1939) — and the city that inspired their cool minimalism and thrift-store aesthetic has become a serious rival to New York with its DIY art district spreading out around E 3rd Street.
In February, the art fair wunderkinds Frieze launched the inaugural Frieze Los Angeles at Paramount Studios, attracting record numbers of visitors and exceeding commercial expectations. At least four works sold for $1 million or more, with the most expensive being Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets (B-A-Y), which was acquired for $1.6 million. It’s not surprising, then, that The New York Times recently described LA’s art scene as ‘booming’.
So where does Los Angeles stand in the art world? Sonya Roth, Christie’s Managing Director, Western Region and Los Angeles, believes that over the past 10 years the city has grown to become ‘a centre of activity and cutting-edge innovation in the art community’. Roth and her colleague Morgan Schoonhoven put this down to a ‘radical combination of social and cultural philanthropy’.
Venerable institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) are seeking to be more accessible. LACMA has been organising exhibitions in less wealthy neighbourhoods, while MOCA, which turns 40 this year, has just announced that it will be free to enter for the next five years. In a city that has witnessed a dramatic rise in population (7.5 to 10 million in the four decades since the museum opened), institutions are aware that more needs to be done to attract visitors from black and Hispanic backgrounds.
For leading Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Bradford (b. 1961) this has meant setting up the non-profit organisation Art + Practice. Situated in Leimert Park in South Los Angeles, Bradford’s inititative supports foster children and the surrounding community.
‘Often culture gets stuck in static, traditional narratives,’ explains the artist. ‘Contemporary ideas give culture elasticity, which is always a breath of fresh air, but these ideas shouldn’t only be for people who can afford to go to a museum or a symposium in the “better part of town”… there is nothing wrong with having a contemporary art space next door to a chicken shack or the place where you get your weave done.’
Blue-chip art collections
Roth points out there is a long tradition of philanthropy in the city, one that started with the billionaire oil baron J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) in the 1950s. Getty was perhaps the first to recognise that Los Angeles would define the character of the United States for the next half century. His mantra was, ‘I buy when other people are selling’, and he was certainly a most prescient investor when it came to Los Angeles’ real estate.
Today, the Getty is based across two sites — the Getty Villa in Malibu, which is devoted to Greek and Roman antiquities, and the Getty Centre in the mountains overlooking Los Angeles.
Other industrialists followed suit, notably Norton Simon, who established his world-renowned blue-chip collection in Pasadena; and Occidental Petroleum CEO Armand Hammer (1898-1990), who built his eponymous museum in Westwood. The Hammer Museum has ambitious plans to expand next year.
More recent additions to have been established along similar philanthropic lines are The Broad and the Marciano Art Foundation, both created to expand the reach of the city’s art collections.
The Broad was established by billionaire property developers Eli and Edythe Broad in 2015. Situated on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, the $140 million building was created by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and described by one architecture critic as ‘a dazzling, white temple reminiscent of a Bond villain’s lair’.
The collection dates from 1950 to the present day and recently staged the critically acclaimed touring exhibition Soul of a Nation, which focused on African-American artists of the 1960s and ’70s.
Then two years ago Guess? Jeans founders Maurice and Paul Marciano opened the Marciano Art Foundation in an old Masonic Lodge in the Windsor Square neighbourhood. ‘They made the decision to predominantly collect contemporary art from 1990 onwards,’ explains Schoonhoven, ‘which has meant that younger artists have been given a vital platform in the city.’
Currently the museum is home to Yayoi Kusama's dizzying installation With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever, which has been ongoing since 2011.
Recent regeneration has taken place at the Institute of Contemporary Art LA (ICA LA). Founded in 1984 as the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the institution was re-established in 2017 as the ICA LA and moved to Downtown Los Angeles, which is often referred to as the Arts District.
‘As a non-collecting institution, ICA LA is able to focus on artistic experimentation and foster new ideas through bold curation and innovative programming,’ states Schoonhoven. Forthcoming attractions include exhibitions in September of transgender activist and multidisciplinary artist Nayland Blake, and rising star Sadie Barnette.
Blake and Barnette are alumni of CalArts, where many of the city’s leading artists once taught. CalArts opened in 1961 and was the brainchild of Walt Disney (1901-1966), who was an early advocate of interdisciplinary arts. Disney believed that if all the arts could be brought together in one institution, amazingly creative things could happen.
By 1969 CalArts’ unique combination of utopian lawlessness and academia made it a destination for progressive artists keen to experiment. Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and Allan Kaprow helped generations of students, among them David Salle, Catherine Opie and the late Mike Kelley, to articulate a unique post-modern vision of late consumer capitalism.
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Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro founded the Feminist Art Program focusing on identity and the history of women artists. Much of their activity happened at Womanhouse, their off-campus exhibition space in an abandoned Hollywood mansion, which became an ever-evolving installation throughout much of the 1970s.
Today, CalArts continues to drive the city’s cutting-edge art agenda and actively engages with commercial galleries. One supporter is Hauser & Wirth, which recently opened a major exhibition space and restaurant called Manuela in the Arts District downtown. The annual Hauser & Wirth Exchange Residency, launched in 2017, is a collaboration between Hauser & Wirth LA and Hauser & Wirth Somerset in the UK, and is open to post-MFA students at CalArts and the Bath School of Art and Design.
The city’s alternative art spaces, of which there are many, have played a major part in LA’s street art vibe. Artist husband-and-wife team Noah and Karon Davis gave much needed exposure to up-and-coming black artists at their Underground Museum in Mid-City (Noah sadly died in 2015 aged just 32), while gallery space Various Small Fires is establishing cultural links across the Pacific with its recent opening of a satellite in Korea.
All of this activity explains why it was the right time for Christie’s to ‘revamp itself,’ says Roth. ‘The West Coast art-collecting scene has been steadily growing for a number of years,’ she says, ‘so it was good to expand our presence here with a top-quality exhibition space.’ The simple but beautiful gallery space opened in Beverly Hills in 2017 was designed by the interdisciplinary practice wHY, the same team responsible for MAF and ICA LA’s spaces.
A city of idiosyncratic public art
In 1921 the semi-illiterate construction worker and outsider artist Simon Rodia (1879-1965) began making perhaps the most unusual public art work in the world. Watts Towers is a collection of 17 steel, concrete and mosaic towers in South Los Angeles. The project continued until the artist suffered a stroke in 1955.
Since then it has been sporadically preserved by the authorities and is currently undergoing renovation. Rodia’s visionary non-conformity arguably set a trend for unorthodox public art. Today, the city boasts a multitude of sculptures by the likes of Yayoi Kusama — Hymn of Life: Tulips (2007) in Beverly Hills — and Michael Heizer, who is responsible for the gravity-defying Levitated Mass (2012) at Resnick North Lawn at LACMA.
There is much debate about which public artwork personifies the city best. Schoonhoven thinks Urban Light (2008) by Chris Burden on Wilshire Boulevard is a strong contender. ‘It is composed of 202 street lamps which once stood all over the city, so it’s like an urban hymn to LA,’ she says of the Instagram sensation.
For Roth, it’s the old-world glamour of the recently renovated Tropicana Pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, painted by David Hockney in 1988.
Like other forerunners of LA’s burgeoning art scene, the British expat came to the city in search of freedom and possibility, and went on to shine a spotlight on its laid-back, laissez-faire attitude. When asked recently why he had decided to return to the place he had epitomised as the centre of cool in the late 1960s and early 70s, Hockney replied, ‘The light is different here. It’s 10 times brighter than anywhere else’.