Los Angeles Post WWII Art: Engaging European Traditions With So Cal’s Unique Expressions

  • Curators and artists collaborated together to create an exhibition where Made in L.A. 2012 could successfully tap into the trend-setting vision of L.A.-based artists/arts administrators who offered the seminal PST exhibition.  Southern California post-WWII artists looked somewhat passively to NYC and European art centers–London, Berlin, Paris–as they wrestled with their distinctive nuances of the time within which they were living.  The Ferus Gang were confident that their generation of American West Coast artists did not need to continue to pay allegiance to apprenticeships either nationally or internationally.  Such thinking to them was both humiliating and condescending to their distinctive aesthetic beliefs.  PST and Made in L.A. 2012  are two exhibitions of note that thoroughly close the book on So Cal or West Coast artists needing to subvert themselves to the constancy of the past.
  • Thomas Gaehtgens of the Getty stated the following in PST:
  • “In Los Angeles, a very distinct engagement with European artistic traditions merged with California art’s unique expression of openness, mobility, modernity, individuality, light, and color to create a new aesthetic, one well suited to an innovative style of West Coast living. During the 1960s and 1970s, political activism and resistance spurred artists to new fields of discovery.”
  • What are your thoughts on a prevailing cultural expectation that American artists were compelled, by the general public, to look to NYC and the Art centers of Western Europe to sustain constancy with the past which So Cal artists rejected with a firm stamp of disapproval?
  • Steven Von Huene, Tap Dance, 1967

PST—What Does It Really Mean For The Arts?

As our gaze now opens up and we look beyond the Ferus Gallery and the Ferus Gang of artists promoted by Walter Hopps and Irving Blum, we begin to recognize that there genuinely was something significant going on in greater Los Angeles during the Post-WWII years as far as the visual arts were concerned.  Under the leadership of the Getty Foundation, visionaries in Southern California arts administration not only recognized the tremendous contributions made by both Hopps and Blum, but their collective effort was in serious danger of being contextually lost with the passage of time and the death of its leaders and artists.  This precarious situation caused the Getty leadership to mobilize and seek to recognize, celebrate and preserve the greater Ferus/LA legacy.  Deborah Marrow, Interim President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, stated the following in the Pacific Standard Time Exhibition Catalog:

“Identifying and preserving the archives that document the milestones of contemporary art in the postwar period of our region…We wound up with the most comprehensive and public collaboration by cultural organizations in Southern California, or perhaps anywhere, and one that is now itself a creative landmark.”

What are your thoughts on an organization like the Getty Trust stepping in and using it’s foundation financial strength to initiate a series of document gathering endeavors and representative exhibitions of the Post-WWII era visual art production in Los Angeles?

Deborah Marrow of the Getty Trust

“…the city as a whole was incredibly conservative”

It seems quite daunting today to picture Los Angeles and Southern California as “incredibly conservative”.  But, as we turn our gaze back to the immediate years following the cessation of hostilities with the end of WWII in 1945, that is exactly the situation for visual artists living in the greater Los Angeles area.  In filmmaker Morgan Neville’s The Cool School, the cinematographer exclaims to Madeleine Brand:  “Before the gallery opened (i.e. The Ferus Gallery), the idea that you would make a living as an artist was really foreign to anybody in Los Angeles…The environment was hostile to art, and despite the movie industry, the city as a whole was incredibly conservative”.

For those gifted and talented artists living in Los Angeles and Southern California (i.e., So Cal), pressure was applied on those who wanted to seek fame and fortune to do so in New York City.  The Ferus Group of artists heard that admonition constantly but felt confident enough to stay in the Southland and produce in their studios.  In The Cool School documentary, Neville points out: “The artists in the scene were glamorous…They were good-looking men, they were surfers and beatniks and hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing artists..And because there was bi established art scene in Los Angeles, they were able to easily push past what elsewhere would be limits”.

What are your thoughts on the Ferus Gallery and the Ferus Group of artists who, for all intents and purposes, established a strong West Coast aesthetic that was both different from NYC yet just as strong and significant?  Can what happened in Los Angeles in the 1950swith The Ferus Gallery and Ferus Group of artists happen in Las Vegas?  Is our desert community ripe for such a development of high end culture?

Ferus Gallery, ca. 1962

Walter Hopps (left) and Ferus Gang at Reunion

“American Society—Always Mostly Shallow And Reactionary”

Pacific Standard Time:  Art in L.A, 1945-1980 (PST)–the “unprecedented, six-month series of exhibitions detailing an era in city art history that has been largely untold” so says Los Angeles Times Art Critic Christopher Knight.  Knight’s statement raises an intriguing question though.  How could a city as large and culturally significant as Los Angeles have a 35-year gap in its rich back-story as an urban art incubator?  The J. Paul Getty Trust stepped forward at the beginning of the 21st century with a 10 million dollar scholarly initiative “to historicize the contributions to contemporary art history of artists, curators, critics, and others based in Los Angeles.”  Through 60 shows/exhibitions/installations housed in museums, university galleries and nonprofit spaces ranging from Santa Barbara to San Diego, from Santa Monica to Palm Springs, the inappropriate and very conservative template forcefully overlaid upon the Southland’s period art was finally removed! Through the Getty Trust’s initiative, Los Angeles’ curious and unorthodox iconoclasm emerged and was finally recognized.  Regarding the importance of PST to Los Angeles’ initial post WWII culture, Christopher Knight, the L A Times art critic stated:  “It recognized the wildness of individual personality and the social messiness of life, and it celebrated the power of heterogeneous hybridity over purity.”

PST stripped away the now tired notion that aesthetic progress is driven only by the concept of an avant-garde and, as a consequence, replaced the existing hole left behind by the vision of a “multivalent L. A. School which was an international cultural model for this new norm.  With luck, that’s the back-story Pacific Standard Time will clarify.”

What are your thoughts on the Getty Initiative to fund such a refreshing look at So Cal post WWII aesthetics for the period 1945-1980?

Alison and Andrew Perchuck, Deptuty Director of the Getty Research Institute at opening of PST, October 2011.