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  • David Richard Contemporary

Southern California Painting, 1970s: Painting Per Se

Southern California Painting, 1970s: Painting Per Se


The decade of the 1970s saw an explosion of art across America – everywhere, of every kind, by everyone. Nowhere did this explosion have more resonance than in Los Angeles; during the decade the city flooded with artists, newly graduated from Southern California’s many art schools and departments or attracted by the city’s growing cultural sophistication and complexity. And nowhere more than Los Angeles did the anomalies of 1970s artistic discourse make themselves powerfully felt.

In the wake of minimalism, conceptual art, and the proliferation of “media arts,” many proclaimed the death of painting. But painting flourished – and, in response to the moment’s heady sense of experiment, the discipline mutated, fused with other practices, and generally metamorphosed as if emerging from a chrysalis. In LA, in fact, painting seemed to emerge from a mad scientist’s laboratory, a de-domesticated creature able to adopt many guises and absorb many substances. Many pictures were all but invisible. Many “paintings” lacked paint. Things hung on the wall as if on a coat rack or shelf – or they didn’t hang at all. Paintings, paint-things, non-paintings, and un-paintings could be produced as readily in a tool shed or car repair shop as in a studio.

Such willingness to stretch the definitions of painting almost to the breaking point could be found all over America, but this disregard for painterly tradition was particularly acute in Los Angeles. Unlike New York, say, or San Francisco, LA had never been much of a painting town. Its major creative industry favored image over object and tended to regard the act of painting as a backlot-workplace job rather than a sacred ritual. The end product was the goal, and if the end product bespoke the process of its making, that process was one of material fabrication rather than personal expression.

Still, it’s hard to generalize about painting in 1970s LA, if only because, once the stylistic floodgates opened, everyone seemed to try everything – including personal expression. Several trends in painting can be traced through the so-called “amazing decade,” and some seem surprising in their traditionalism. Others, however, are equally surprising in the unprecedented, and unanticipated, conception and production invested into them.

“Southern California Painting in the 70s” will trace several of the most prominent developments during this era. The first show, “Painting per se,” looks at the adherence of major and younger artists alike to standard painting formats and materials. “Painting per se” is a survey less of a movement than of an attitude, an attitude toward a given practice that defied and undermined the presumptions of that practice. The second show, “Hard-edge and light and space,” presents one of Southern California’s principal avant garde modes as manifested in its painting. The transition from “abstract classicism” to “finish/fetish” had completed by the 1970s, but in painting practices, at least, the range of geometric and minimalist possibilities was still available.

“Figuration” comprises the third show, which charts the range of approaches to representational subject matter. Surprisingly, the 1970s saw the emergence of various kinds of naturalism even as an awkward, surrealism-inflected painterly representation persisted and variations on Pop, including hyper-realism, continued to multiply. The fourth show, “Material Abstraction,” charts a phenomenon particular to California, especially in the Los Angeles area, one that embodied a reaction to “finish/fetish” and light-and-space art. “Material abstraction” embodied a fascination with substance and process, holding to painterly formats even while ranging far afield from traditional painterly practice.

Peter Frank

Los Angeles, June, 2011


Peter Frank

If the 1970s was the “Pluralist Decade,” what was “plural” about it was not just style, but gender, ethnicity, geography, social and economic circumstance, and attitude. Anything went. But the artist (and/or dealer, curator, critic, and teacher) had to make it go. Nothing “went” by itself. If techniques and traditions were to be updated or discarded, someone had to update them or put something in their place – or both.

Having reigned supreme for hundreds of years as the medium that embodied both artistic tradition and artistic experiment, painting came under furious attack in the 1970s as an outmoded format, an ossified discipline the very weight of whose history was an impediment to aesthetic evolution (not to mention revolution). No proclamation or rallying cry reverberated more deafeningly throughout the decade than “Painting is dead!”

But enough artists were steeped in painterly practice, still enchanted with the mysteries and discoveries of paint, to answer back with a sometimes quavering but always persistent, “Long live painting!” Some of the best – most intriguing, most surprising, most inventive, most moving – painting of the century was realized in the midst of painting’s existential crisis. Some such painting was made with surprisingly conventional methods (especially given what was available otherwise). And some of that painting was made in Los Angeles, which – unlike art capitals such as New York, London, Berlin, and even San Francisco – was not a “painting town,” under the sway of painting’s mystique. Given its growing surfeit of art schools and art departments, however, LA was a place where one could learn, teach, and make good painting – and where one could tinker with painting, expanding its techniques and tweaking its definitions without concern for the disapproval of an entrenched establishment.

“Painting Per Se” looks at the range of painterly practice among LA artists in the 1970s, jumping between often polar stylistic opposites to find a commonality of material and, to some extent, process. Some of Southern California’s most important and most experimental artists in this period were painters – perhaps committed to painting, perhaps simply adept at it, but willing and able to drive home their ideas with painting and, thus, secure (or, if you would, re-secure) for painting an enhanced regard as a viable realm of experiment. Those who made pictures exploited painting with authority equal to those who made objects or visual fields. Those who worked with oil gained no more or less respect from their peers than those who worked with newer pigmented media. Those who applied pigment to paper were not regarded as lesser painters than those who applied it to canvas. Those who manipulated the shape and surface of their supports were as welcome to do so as were those who worked within the rectangular contours of the western tradition.

Individual artists – notably teachers – might challenge other painters to try it their way or to study particular methods and models in greater depth; but there was no blanket condemnation of any particular practice on the basis of any aesthetic ideology. The mocking dismissal coming from “post-studio” artists and theorists then in ascendancy was enough to unite figurative painter with finish/fetish, color-field with photo-realist, in a “rear-guard” defensive action that, in the end, was neither rear-guard nor defensive. Painters held their own – and wound up commanding respect from and dialogue with even the most extreme conceptualists. At a certain point, in fact, it occurred to some conceptualists that the most extreme their practice could get was…. painting.

This should explain the apparently extreme eclecticism of this first show. It is hard to tie the work of any two artists here to a congruent aesthetic ideology, much less marketing strategy. Many of these artists – along with their non-painting peers – were motivated by a desire to transcend the constrictions of style and, certainly, to thwart the manipulations of the art marketplace. That marketplace, however, was in little evidence in LA. Indeed, the relative paucity of galleries served as something of a goad to artists to “do something else,” even when that something else could still clutter up the whole studio rather than just the desk. More than most places, Los Angeles fostered an artistic community whose members produced for one another rather than for cadres of collectors, curators, critics, or dealers.

As a group the twenty-plus artists included in “Painting Per Se” range across sociological as well as aesthetic distinctions, personal backgrounds as well as artistic approaches. Their diversity may not cover all the myriad bases of painterly practice in 1970s Los Angeles, but it still yields a dizzying array of visual experience, ranging from the narrative to the perceptual, sensual experience to conceptual experience. All these artists were working at the top of their game back then, and contributing to a discourse marked less by permissiveness than by tolerance; because their primary – often only – audience was other artists, these artists felt they had to perform at the top of their game, and they could get away with something recondite or nutty but not with something lame. Some were veterans, maintaining clear-cut modernist traditions and painting as a site of exemplary form and image. Many others, members of the emerging or recently emerged generations, were forging new paths, eager not so much to contradict their elders as to build outward in every direction from their postulates. If the older artists had been challenged with “That’s no way to paint!”, then the younger ones heard “That’s not painting!”, but responded to such reaction with precisely the same nervy defiance.

Artists, painters in particular, are not hothouse plants. They may grow in hothouses, but they flourish in the wild. Southern California in the ‘70s was a wilderness in that regard, poor in areas of exposure even while rich in areas of spontaneous growth and cultivation. As a result, painting exploded in and around Los Angeles, its various manifestations madly mutating and cross-breeding. Sometimes it didn’t look or act like painting at all. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it did and didn’t, even when it stuck to the “rules” of painting. It was “painting per se,” but it was still capable of being something no one had ever seen before.

Los Angeles June 2011

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