What strikes me most about these three recent painting exhibitions in Los Angeles and Orange County museums, is the fact and reasons for the unrelentingly fierce independence of the artists involved. The MoCA show is comprised of works made between 1949-and 1962. The works in the show were created by artists who not only were rejecting the main-line thinking of art production of their times, but they were in many instances actually attacking the picture plane itself with everything from fire to spectacular build-outs from the canvas armature. In Llyn Foulkes retrospective I saw him creating both representation works in two dimensions, and even a full on abstract painting early in his career. Yet he never evaded his deepest beliefs and made those beliefs and disappointments the foundational imagery of his art. In Richard Jackson, who I have no idea why I never heard of until seeing his first show at Kordansky a couple years ago, is not on obsessive like Foulkes. Yet he is determined to have his vision realized, without playing games, but finding the means and willpower to build his fantastic painting machines as installations that fling and throw paint, as versus merely make a gorgeous painting. His works are both strange and yet friendly, haunting and yet playful. I guess this can be said of Foulkes works as well. When I see their works it helps me push forward with my own work and my own unique vision. Their works are completely the opposite of mostly sterile or taking a high ground it didn’t earn 1990’s text based Conceptual Art. When I think and look of their works I hear the song “Who Let the Dogs Out!” Which for me is my way of saying Who Let the Narrative Art Out, as 1990’s Conceptual Art was supposed to eradicate Narrative from the face of the earth, and also any form of art production that was based on the body as versus only the mind. For myself, this has meant a return to painting after two decades, but with a complete different way of working, and a much more informed manner of production. Looking forward to the next several waves of astounding shows coming to both Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco in the coming months and years, as California adds several major new art museum buildings by the year 2016. These include the Kramlich Media Collection museum in Napa, SFMoMA’s massive expansion, the Broad Collection in downtown Los Angeles, the new Berkeley Art Museum, and the LACMA campus building additions.
a small selection of my work is at the end of this post
thanks for stopping by.
Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles
MoCA Los Angeles: Destroy the Picture, Painting the Void
Llyn Foulkes retrospective at UCLA Hammer Museum
Richard Jackson’s retrospective Ain’t Painting a Pain at Orange County Museum of Art
Filling History’s Voids: Q+A with Paul Schimmel
“Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962” [through Jan. 14, 2013] is the final exhibition Paul Schimmel organized while curator at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where he revised art history for the past 22 years. The show features 26 international artists, many of them presented in depth, who demonstrate an extraordinary compulsion to demolish the picture plane.
In this survey, Schimmel reexplores the territory between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, integrating movements and forms that include Assemblage, Neo-Dada, art Informel, Tachisme, Nouveau Realisme, early Happenings, Fluxus, Viennese Actionism, Gutai and more. Drawn together in the exhibition, for example, are French artist Jacques Villeglé’s torn poster works (décollages), Austrian artist Otto Muehl’s mangled, hog-tied reliefs and Japanese artist Chiyu Uemae’s paintings with seemingly decaying and festering surfaces.
After World War II, the picture plane came under assault. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists, both those of the Action Painting and Color Field persuasions, can be understood to have responded on canvas to the horrors of the second world war, according to Schimmel, artists on a global scale in the period that followed viewed the flat surface of the canvas itself as a metaphor for the old world order that perpetuated the war’s atrocities.
Among the show’s featured works are a gray relief by Spain’s Antoni Tapies that suggests a graffiti-inscribed city wall riddled with hundreds of bullet holes; British artist John Latham’s paintings covered with charred books that evoke wartime; and Gutai artist Saburo Murakami’s punctured paper piece Iriguchi (Entrance) from 1955, made by a human body hurled through the surface as a reference to the atomic bomb. Artists who directly experienced the war and its aftermath scratched, pierced, ripped, mangled, shot, burned, threw acid on and otherwise violated the canvas (or a surrogate surface) to express moral outrage.
RONI FEINSTEIN “Destroy the Picture” grew out of your exhibition “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979,” which originated at L.A. MOCA in 1998 and is widely considered to be the first major museum survey of performance art. This earlier exhibition consisted largely of photographs, videos and objects related to three decades of performance, while “Destroy the Picture” focuses on a tendency in postwar abstract painting. Could you explain the connection?
SCHIMMEL I wouldn’t have had the revelation of bringing it all together if it hadn’t been presented to me so unequivocally in the “Out of Actions” exhibition. It was a kind of “aha” moment when I saw work by [Lucio] Fontana and the [Shozo] Shimamoto in the same room. We make so much of the notion of art movements being coherent and having a manifesto, but what brings these artists together is much broader and truly of global consequences: World War II itself. As much as you think of wars as things that destroy culture, one can see again and again in the exhibition that out of destruction comes rebirth and what somebody was feeling in Osaka was simultaneously something someone was feeling in Milan.
FEINSTEIN It’s fascinating to me that the blank expanse of canvas—the picture plane—became an overriding symbol of the old order of civilization that needed to be materially, physically violated and overcome.
SCHIMMEL In the case of Fontana, a canvas in the Western European tradition was something you stretched and treated lovingly, a very pure kind of surface, and then you start making holes and it evolved from there. In the case of the Shimamoto, it was an assault on the surface of screens, the Japanese tradition of layering paper upon paper to make that sort of skin, and puncturing it in a way that is even more violent and pronounced than Fontana’s, which is more conceptually driven.
FEINSTEIN We often think of Fontana as elegant and controlled, but one of the pieces in the show [Spatial Concept 52 B 24, 1952] is particularly violent and bloody-looking. Shimamoto’s works of the same period, layered with sheets of newspaper glued together, are a kind of assemblage.
SCHIMMEL Assemblage was profound in its impact, and we still think about it in a material sense. But when you start thinking about assemblage in terms of political content or personal content, especially with the introduction of feminist language and performance, you realize it was far more pervasive and influential than it’s described in the master narrative you and I grew up with-Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art to Minimalism. Assemblage, to this day, has not received appreciation for the more conceptual and formal things that it broke down.
FEINSTEIN The chronology you present in the exhibition reveals an extraordinary international exchange of information, particularly through group shows, that is often overlooked.
SCHIMMEL As art historians, as museum people and as critics we have come to really realize that the history written about the 20th century is woefully inadequate. The world became much smaller because of World War II. The fact that the world could destroy itself in one generation, in one moment, with the atomic bomb, was something new and brought the community of creative people together in a way that had never been experienced before. It was a direct result of the war that Documenta was invented, that the São Paulo Biennial became what it did, and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. What was seen as provincial, maybe even within the countries where these activities were taking place, began to have increasingly global consequences. The Gutai [for example] were very important artists, championed by Allan Kaprow and shown at Martha Jackson and in Paris.
FEINSTEIN In the west, Gutai has been known largely for performance, but more recently, as in “Destroy the Picture,” there is an appreciation for the painted work. As you’ve pointed out, Kazuo Shiraga’s painting with his feet owed to Hans Namuth’s photographs of Pollock painting, but this doesn’t prepare you for how at once lyrical and violent the paintings are, the muscular force with which he kicked at the surface.
SCHIMMEL He is, I think, singularly a great master, and the subtitle for this exhibition “Painting the Void,” which one is inclined to think comes from Yves Klein’s 1960 Leap into the Void, is in my own not-so-subtle way of bringing Klein back to a certain kind of debt to Shiraga. When I interviewed Shiraga in the ’90s, he said, “there was a void in Japan.” He explained, “The emperor became just a figurehead. The traditions about who he was were no longer meaningful, and, in that anarchy, I could no longer find a way with my hands, so I had to take all that I had learned and put it behind me.” And I remember thinking, “Now, that’s the void.” While Yves Klein would not have had any contact with the Gutai when he first went to Japan in ’52 [to study judo], by the time he is doing the first of his flesh paintings [paintings with bodies or anthropometries], I am certain that he is keenly aware, having gone back to the country in 1957, of what has been going on.
FEINSTEIN In “Destroy the Picture” you reconsider the work of the French artist Jean Fautrier, several of whose paintings open the exhibition. This work is figurative, rather than abstract, and the artist doesn’t pierce but ravages the textured surfaces.
SCHIMMEL When I started the exhibition, I did not see the place that Fautrier had in the show. It’s the gift of a great collection like L.A. MOCA’s that, because of Giuseppe Panza’s early collecting interest, it has a marvelous group of Fautrier’s works. They were a direct outcome of the artist’s experience during the war-his having worked in the Resistance against Nazi occupiers, having been incarcerated and then spending the remainder of the war [in a sanitarium] listening, as he put it, to people being tortured-that he began the heads of hostages. You see these heads and surrounding them a kind of after-image with a rich and textured surface and you realize a remarkable thing about mankind: at its darkest hour, with destruction being at the core of what it’s trying to represent, it also sees something uplifting and regenerative, with a sense of hope and possibility. Fautrier, who was widely respected in Europe at the time, distressed the surfaces of his paintings, which encouraged a number of artists, like Burri and Fontana, to simultaneously start exploring this new pictorial language.
FEINSTEIN The range of manipulations of surface in the show is incredible. There is the building up and tearing away, as in Fautrier, the affichistes and others, but also the fact that Klein used a flamethrower, Lee Bontecou a blowtorch, Niki de Saint Phalle a rifle, John Latham a spray gun, Gustav Metzger acid and so on.
SCHIMMEL They are scraping, scratching, eroding. They are doing everything in the surface, through the surface, not just on the surface, and really trying to take painting to an extreme that has an equivalency with an experience that they had seen with the war. [Alberto] Burri is so remarkable. He is a field doctor in the Italian army, and he experiences the horrors of war—eviscerated people. He gets captured in ’45 and is incarcerated in West Texas, and in Italy by 1950 starts sewing these broken and tattered burlap bags. You talked about all the different materials and methodologies-this one artist alone used fire, cutting, tearing. He really did understand this notion of destruction and creation being together. And his impact was truly profound, for instance on the young Robert Rauschenberg-you can see it in his Black Paintings.
FEINSTEIN You commented earlier that, although you hadn’t anticipated it when you started organizing the exhibition, for you Burri is, and I quote, “the heart of the exhibition, the reigning star,” in part because of his influence on the Americans Lee Bontecou and Salvatore Scarpitta, both of whom were living in Rome in the ’50s. Although these artists were younger and didn’t experience the war directly, Scarpitta’s bandaged pieces and Bontecou’s works, which in the context of the show look like ominous military machines, are well placed within the exhibition.
SCHIMMEL Like Burri, Bontecou has existed outside of art history, and we’ve never found a vessel big enough and deep enough with a broad enough beam to include her into it-no master narrative-and to see her in context is as big a revelation as seeing her monographically. I was very fortunate when Elizabeth Smith organized here at MOCA [in 1993], a marvelous show of Bontecou’s work from the late ’50s and early ’60s. I knew Scarpitta’s work very well, having shown him in Houston back in the ’70s. I understood quite well that Burri was a central figure to the development of each of these artists, as did Leo Castelli. He started a gallery and was also very well connected with Italy; he couldn’t get Burri, who was showing with Martha Jackson, so where does he look? To the next generation and that’s Bontecou and Scarpitta. I think in some respects, history has not served this generation of artists well because we have a tendency, as curators and critics, to think that there’s only one thing that can happen at a time and that there’s going to be a center of the art world, like New York. We know that not to be the case anymore.
FEINSTEIN If you were to give this new international context or tendency you’ve identified in this exhibition a name, what would it be? Destructionism? Voidism?
SCHIMMEL I’m a great believer that you don’t really know what something is until it’s over. I think it was over when Metzger, a fascinating artist, produced a manifesto [the third and final Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto, 1961]. Born in Poland, he lost all of his family in the war as a teenager and got swept up with other Jewish kids and was taken to England. He wrote in his manifestos on the relationship between art and destruction and the hope it embodied for him. His South Bank Demo [1961/2012, reconstructed for the “Destroy the Picture” exhibition], in the Soviet revolutionary colors of red, black and white, was not a sculpture, not a painting, not a work of art, but a demonstration against the nuclear bomb. [In this action, Metzger sprayed acid to dissolve nylon sheets stretched across a large, freestanding wood and metal frame.] So I would say that Art and Destruction are really at the core of it. I think we are going to be well informed about the legacy of the artists represented here in an exhibition that the Hirshhorn Museum is organizing [“Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950,” which opens September 2013].
FEINSTEIN In the course of our conversation, the void has assumed various aspects, having been seen as embracing a spiritual dimension, as the product of physical action, as a representation of wounded flesh and bullet holes, as a reflection of society. You wrote eloquently in the catalogue, “Destruction was not just a nihilistic act and the void was not just a black hole of despair; destruction was in a dialectical relationship with creation and the void was a space of potentiality.”
SCHIMMEL I was trying to take the word “void” and turn it back into something that is more contemplative and meditative and also of far broader implications. When I look at the negative space in Bontecou, I see it as violent, like a scream without any sound coming out and the voice is a pitch that is so high or so low that you can’t hear it, but it shakes the very earth that you’re standing on. To me, the void is the space left behind, but also a psychological space that has to do with the possibility of renewal of energy.
FEINSTEIN So the void is . . .
SCHIMMEL Absence that allows possibility.
Review: MOCA’s ‘Destroy the Picture’ boldly steps into the void
The art of creative destruction is on compelling view in ‘Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962,’ MOCA’s survey of post-World War II abstract painting.
Painting, especially abstract painting, is an inescapable metaphor for the human body. A canvas is a skin stretched taut over a skeleton of stretcher bars. Paint applied to the surface records humanity’s condition at any given period in time.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, that condition is pretty grim in a new exhibition of older abstract painting. “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962” compellingly surveys an art of creative destruction in the generation following the unspeakable cataclysm of World War II.
The void isn’t what it used to be. During the war and its immediate aftermath, global civilization stared straight into the abyss. What it saw there was slaughter, holocaust and the blinding flash of nuclear annihilation — human degradation and material destruction so horrific, so soul-numbing that one could be forgiven for insisting on looking away.
A phalanx of artists in Europe, the United States and Japan refused to. Escape was not an option.
Coming to terms with the trauma — with the seemingly impenetrable darkness of the void — was necessary. Abstract painting was the quintessential achievement that distinguished the 20th century’s first half and, if it wasn’t exactly responsible for what happened, it was certainly a language of spiritual optimism that had been thrown into grave doubt.
Abstract painting’s bodily metaphor was the vehicle for a wide variety of artists. For the 26 represented in “Destroy the Picture,” destruction was their chosen strategy. There’s one unfortunate absence, which we’ll get to in a moment, but the show makes its case with determination and verve.
The entry to the loosely chronological exhibition features a large, square window into galleries that lie beyond — a literal void opening onto the future. On a side wall above a large, disconcertingly elegant 1945 painting by Jean Fautrier titled “Dépouille” — French for skin or mortal remains — its scabbed surface a thickened mixture of pigments suggestive of rotting viscera, a quote from the artist introduces the show: “Painting is something that cannot be destroyed, it must destroy itself to be reinvented.”
Across the way, the show’s doorway is covered by Saburo Murakami’s 1955 “Entrance” — a paper membrane dividing rooms that, when the show opens Saturday, will be violently torn open for passage between spaces. What follows are 11 more galleries that together form a virtual catalog of ruinous motifs.
Punctured paintings by Lucio Fontana were pierced by an awl in linear patterns, a stabbed equivalent of surface drawing that suggests bullet-strafed walls.
Flayed canvases by Alberto Burri are pieced together from ripped and patched burlap. Fabric tears are sometimes highlighted with gold paint, like sanctified stigmata.
Robert Rauschenberg’s jet-black fields of torn, crumpled and tattered newsprint seem as if they have barely survived incineration. Five of the seminal black paintings from his influential career, made between 1951 and ’53, are an early high point in the show.
Shozo Shimamoto layered big sheets of rice paper, painted the surface a yellowed white, then drew with a sharp pencil that sliced it open — a traditional shoji screen undone.
Chiyu Uemae’s paintings, clotted with paint and sawdust, appear blistered from within and without.
Shredded street advertisements by Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé create internal drawings from the torn edges of paper — violent abstractions formed as if from submerged thoughts within the commercial culture of a society struggling to regain its footing.
Strips of canvas wound around stretcher bars and pulled apart with cables give Salvatore Scarpitta’s work an aura of industrial mummification.
Punctured, flayed, torn, tattered, sliced, peeled, shredded, bandaged — creating through destructive actions was a strategy that emerged simultaneously around the world. Some might regard it as merely an emblem of the capitalist cycles of boom and bust that Marx identified. But Europe was a pile of rubble, Japan a shocked mound of ash. America wasn’t physically touched, except in the isolated Pacific, yet the psychic scarring went deep.
Sometimes artists knew what others were up to, partly thanks to the new practice of international exhibitions sponsored by governments and independent groups hoping that cultural exchanges might increase understanding — staving off future catastrophe or, in the face of the Korean War, conflagration in Algeria and totalitarian repression in Spain, containing it.
Others developed independently. Shimamoto in Japan and Fontana in Italy were artists who had no idea that the other was also slicing open paintings to transform pictorial illusions of space into material manifestations of it.
There is even evidence of a deeply human recognition that, let’s face it, destruction is a thrill. When self-taught artist Niki de Saint Phalle attached bags of paint to canvases collaged with old shoes, chicken wire, broken toys and other trash, then took aim with a shotgun and pulled the trigger, the runny colors of red, yellow and blue paint represented “war without victims,” as she explained. But she was channeling destructive thrills into having a literal blast.
Saint Phalle’s work is, like Hain’s and a few others, unusual too in its use of color. By contrast, the rest of the show is almost uniformly limited to black (the void), brown (dirt), red (blood) and white (emptiness). Maybe half a dozen of the 85 works deviate from this grimy palette.
Some of it goes way overboard too — notably the melodramatic paintings of Kazuo Shiraga, who sometimes painted by kicking cans of color with his feet. The weakest is a large Shiraga dressed in the furry skin of a wild boar clotted with blood-red paint and “entrails” made from thick swabs of glue. Painting’s poetic materials here give way to bombastic figurative representation — a corny neo-Fauve “wild beast.”
But there is plenty of poetry here, some of it of the epic sort. Especially fine are works by Murakami, Shimamoto, Fontana, Rauschenberg and a few others. A final gallery assembles relatively minor paintings by three German and Austrian artists, a wry footnote from the original source countries of the motivating catastrophe. It is Lee Bontecou’s ferocious reliefs made from military canvas stitched with wire that end the show on an aesthetic high note.
One omission is worth noting. Painting is only being loosely defined when the diverse materials aren’t limited to canvas and paint. In this context, it would have been exciting to see the gouged, torn and punctured clay vessels made by Peter Voulkos in 1950s Los Angeles, which could have been juxtaposed with Fontana’s similarly “destroyed” ceramics of the postwar years.
Slab clay is merely a support for fluid glaze, after all, and vessels are by definition bodily abstractions that enclose a void.
Like Voulkos, who also painted, Japan’s Gutai Group and Europeans associated with movements such as Art Informel aren’t encountered nearly as often as American Abstract Expressionists, which MOCA has smartly installed in its permanent collection galleries for comparison. Former MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, whose final show for the museum this is, has built the exhibition around less familiar work, some of it from the museum’s collection. The idea was born from his marvelous 1998 show, “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979.”
The great Fautrier at the entrance almost wasn’t acquired by MOCA in 1986 because the artist was considered a minor figure not nearly so desirable as Rothko, Franz Kline and others in the nearby permanent collection rooms. The compelling revisionist history at the core of “Destroy the Picture” carries an implicit cautionary note: An absorbing, surprising show is a testament to the potential power of the long museum-view.
Kazuo Shiraga used to lay canvas out on the floor of his small Tokyo studio and slide around, spreading paint with his feet. Photos of him in action conjure up those fantastic images of Jackson Pollock that ended up on postage stamps, where Pollock crouches, splattering paint down on a huge canvas while a cigarette hangs from his lips and a tin paint bucket hangs from his hand.
Shiraga never had a cigarette or a bucket, though. He was the more elegant of the two cross-culture contemporaries and maybe the more eccentric. Often, he’d suspend himself above the floor by rope so he could slide more fluidly around the room, and once he took the whole skin of a boar and covered it in smears of red paint so it looked like a gross and bloody crime scene spread across canvas.
Before Shiraga started making his foot paintings, he trained as a traditional Japanese artist, which means he likely could render intricate landscapes with ethereal watercolor washes and write in flawless calligraphy. Curator Paul Schimmel saw some of Shiraga’s early work when he visited the artist’s studio 15 years ago — he included Shiraga, who died in 2008, in his 1998 MOCA show “Out of Actions,” about the objects and images artists’ performances generate.
“Show me what’s between this and this,” Schimmel said to Shiraga, pointing to the traditional paintings and then the physical work the artist started making circa 1952. “‘Nothing,’ ” he remembers Shiraga saying. “There was a void.” Japan had surrendered, World War II had ended and the emperor had been demoted. The world Shiraga knew was battered and unrecognizable. What could he do but start from scratch?
That visit with Shiraga inspired the title for Schimmel’s new exhibition, “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962,” or at least the title’s second half. The show opens this weekend in MOCA’s Grand Avenue galleries and includes work by Shiraga and 25 other artists who scarred, cut or, as Schimmel puts it, “literally assaulted” the picture plane in the years following WWII.
The show is significant for a few reasons, one of the most immediate being that it’s Schimmel’s last show as chief curator at MOCA, a job he has held for 22 years. When things turned sour at MOCA this summer and a board of trustees headed by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad forced Schimmel’s resignation, artist-trustees like Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari left MOCA’s board because they were uncomfortable with the museum’s new direction, and editorials on the matter became too plentiful to count. But everyone made a point to note: “Destroy the Picture” would still happen.
Schimmel agreed only to talk about this current exhibition and his work as a curator. While there has been media speculation that his relatively academic approach clashed with the push toward populism of MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who was appointed in 2010, all that seems beside the point with “Destroy the Picture.” This is a particularly easy exhibition to get and get into, with a through-line that’s visceral and unmissable.
When Lucio Fontana started poking holes and cutting slits in his canvases in Italy, Shiraga and compatriots Shozo Shimamoto and Saburo Murakami were trying similar tactics in Japan. “They didn’t know what they were doing at this point,” says Schimmel as he stands looking at these artists’ earlier works, hung in the exhibit’s first two galleries. But by the time French artist Yves Klein took a flamethrower to cardboard surfaces to make the work hanging a few rooms away, and Alberto Burri, working in Italy and later in L.A., set fire to plastic and then affixed it to canvas, artists did know what they were doing and they knew about each other.
That’s another thing about “Destroy the Picture” that feels significant — it suggests that globalism, a term that really just entered the art lexicon these last two decades, has much earlier roots. There’s a great painting that hangs in the middle of the exhibition, a tall, narrow one with paint drips coming out of the skins of popped balloons and sliding down over a hatchet, a shoe and other objects attached near the bottom of the painting’s surface. French artist Niki de Saint Phalle made this, using a rifle to shoot the paint-filled balloons before putting the painting on a Paris stage in 1961. American painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, then on the verge of becoming proto-pop icons, installed artwork around hers, while French artist Jean Tinguely let loose an automated sculpture and pianist David Tudor played “Variations II,” a particularly complicated composition by John Cage.
There are other stories like this — about the time Rauschenberg spent with Burri in Italy, for example, or about Klein’s trips to Japan. This international trend to “destroy the picture” was by no means coincidence.
“The world was never smaller than it was during World War II,” says Schimmel. After Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, what could feel more out of touch than a smoothly primed white canvas? “How could you make a painting on a coherent surface after all that?”
But World War II shrunk the world without erasing divisions and animosities — it intensified them instead in certain ways, as wars are apt to do. This means that when the Gutai group of Japanese artists, which included Shiraga, invited a Life magazine writer and photographer out to document a performance of theirs in 1956, the story never ran. It was too soon to show pictures of artists from a conquered nation aggressively smashing paint-filled bottles and smearing pigment with their bodies.
This also means an American artist like Lee Bontecou, the only woman other than Saint Phalle in “Destroy the Picture,” who would leave black holes — or voids — in the middle of welded steel spirals that protruded outward, is often seen as being singular, an angry lady-artist who took a solitary dark turn in response to the ravages of war. But she lived and worked in Italy in the 1950s, when Fontana and Burri were active there, and when American artist Salvatore Scarpetta was there, too, making paintings that looked like bandages piled on top of each other.
“I was amazed at the fact that they” — other curators — “kept presenting Lee as an outsider,” Schimmel says, stopping in front of a series of her works from the early ’60s. “Look around,” he says. “This is her world.”
It’s not a comfy world, and artists in it change as the years wear on. Burri starts burning more plastic. Scarpetta abandons his bandages and starts cutting gashes into shiny, resin-covered surfaces. Bontecou’s works start to look more and more like monsters. Something about this intensity feels particularly potent right now, to artists especially. “A lot of artists are excited about this show,” Schimmel says.
One of the show’s main financial backers is 40-year-old L.A. artist Sterling Ruby, whose recent bulbous vessels have included broken glass and intestinal or bonelike formations. He wrote a statement that had the tenor of a manifesto in 2010, in which he says, “I am smashing all of my previous attempts, and futile, contemporary gestures, and placing them into a mortar, and grinding them down with a blunt pestle.”
This act, he writes, is a way of dealing with a shared burden 21st-century artists still have. Global atrocities didn’t end with World War II; they kept coming, and maybe, Ruby says, that’s why visceral abstraction has made a comeback in contemporary art.
April Street thought about a number of the artists in “Destroy the Picture,” particularly the Gutai group, when making the work for her new show at Carter & Citizen. For this work, she shaped hosiery by wrapping it around her body, then draped that hosiery off some canvases and used it to tie others together. “There is no way I can know what it was like to make a painting in the postwar climate the artists in this show lived in,” she says. “But I understand that when everything around me is chaotic, and my mind is locked in reality and helplessness, my own physicality becomes my most important instrument for change.”
Schimmel suspects others feel the way Ruby and Street do. “These artists [in ‘Destroy the Picture’] are fighting against the tendency to have a signature style,” he says. “They’re trying to make their work more political, more environmental. I think that’s what younger artists respond to.”
This show revises history in a way that makes it just a little more relevant to artists working here now, who have always been a critical and eager audience for his shows, and who will appreciate the gesture.
DESTROY THE PICTURE: PAINTING THE VOID, 1949-1962 | MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Oct. 6-Jan. 14 | moca.org
Renegade Llyn Foulkes is Making a Comeback With a Major Survey at the Hammer
At the age of 78, Foulkes is having his second big moment. The L.A. artist and musician showed with Ferus Gallery in the 1960s and enjoyed early recognition for quirky, detailed oil paintings — an enormous cow, or rocks that sort of looked like people. He later moved on to more complicated mixed-media works, creating intricate scenes that brought together cartoon culture and self-portraiture as well as an ongoing series of grotesque bloody heads. When Scott Indrisek spoke with him, Foulkes had had a few recent pieces in last year’s Documenta (13) exhibition, where he also sang and performed with his complicated, self-made musical instrument, dubbed the Machine. Next month a retrospective of more than five decades of his work comes to the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles; it will travel to the New Museum, in New York, in June.
Llyn Foulkes / Photo by Kevin Scanlon
To see the Llyn Foulkes slideshow, click here.
Scott Indrisek: Was it a daunting task, looking over this much of your work?
Llyn Foulkes: Oh, terrible — like intensive therapy without a therapist. I had to go all the way back to my childhood. You start thinking about the bad things you’ve done and what an idiot you were then. It’s my life, you know. And good or bad, you take it the way it is. Early on in the ’60s I was pretty well known, and then I gave up what I was doing and tried to go back to what I was doing before. Art changed, Minimalism and installation art and all that stuff came in, and there wasn’t that much in the art magazines about me in the ’80s. I’ve had problems from the stock market of art — let’s put it that way. I’ve always been out of the mainstream because I always talk against what’s going on in art.
SI: Did you have a peer group of artists on the West Coast?
LF: I’ve always been pretty much a loner, in the sense that I didn’t really associate with that many other artists. That didn’t help me either. In ’67, when I won the Paris Biennale, I started to feel like I was losing my soul because I would go in the studio and the magic was gone. You just start copying yourself. And then I turned around and started going back into dimension in my paintings, because my paintings had been all flat during the ’60s, except for the very early stuff, which was pretty raw. I put everything from dead possums in them to big black crosses painted with tar. But I didn’t start getting into the art magazines until I started to paint flat.
SI: Have you always supported yourself with just your work, or also doing other things?
LF: In the early ’60s I was driving a taxi and working in a hand-painted picture factory to make money. Hack paintings, they used to call them. You did what you did to survive. And then UCLA asked me to teach in ’65. I was a really good teacher. But that drained me in my art, because I was giving it all out to the students.
SI: And all this time you’ve also been playing music. Is that a distinct endeavor from your visual art?
LF: I’ve always played music, as long as I’ve been an artist. When I’m doing music I don’t think about the painting, even though some of the subject matter is the same. If I have songs about Disney, Mickey Mouse, or the Lone Ranger, any of that stuff — it’s in my paintings and my music both. But I’m also really into jazz and a lot of improvisation. See, when I was 10 or 11, I wanted to be a cartoonist. And then I heard Spike Jones. He had a novelty band; they made music that was kind of like cartoon music. So I identified with that, and I started imitating his records. And my mother would take me around up in Yakima, Washington, to the Moose Lodges or the Masonic Temples, and I’d do my little performance. She would’ve been like a stage mother if I’d been in Hollywood. I grew up in a family that was mostly women, because my father left when I was like a year old. The family never hugged or kissed or anything like that, but when I per-formed they would just go gaga over me and compare me to movie stars. So I started thinking the only way to be loved was to be famous. And when I was 17 or 18, I discovered Salvador Dalí, and then everything changed. I started to paint. My first painting looked a lot like Dalí; it’ll be in the show.
SI: Why does Mickey Mouse appear so often in your work?
LF: My former father-in-law, Ward Kimball, was one of the “nine old men” at Disney Studios. He gave me a Mickey Mouse Club pamphlet from 1934; the first page talks about how they implant things in children’s minds, almost unconsciously. This is the beginning of marketing. They go all the way down to little babies. People would rather go to Disney World than any of the other great scenic places in America. In Los Angeles, half the artists have worked for Disney. Not that they wanted to.
SI: When was the last time you went to Disneyland?
LF: Oh, I haven’t been for years. The first time I went was ’60 or ’61. I had a beard then, and I looked like a beatnik. I was with my wife and child, and they wouldn’t let me in. They had these big Aryan guys with blond hair and blue eyes, and one of them said to me, “If my kid looked like you, I’d whip him.” I was fortunate because my father-in-law had a gold pass, and I finally got in.
SI: Can you describe some of the materials you incorporate into the dimensional paintings?
LF: I’ve always believed in what I call material difference. Most oil paintings, they may try to be dimensional, but they aren’t — because everything is painted with oil, everything is the same material. You start using different materials, and they have ways they lie in the picture plane because they reflect light differently. That’s why, rather than trying to paint a sweater, I’ll use a real sweater. Or I’ll use real hair.
SI: What I remember from seeing your work at Documenta was the controlled environment for those pieces, including the way they were lit.
LF: I’m working with real shadows. So if you took the light and put it nine feet back, the painting wouldn’t look the same. I’m making it look like the light is coming from within the painting rather than from outside the painting.
SI: You worked on The Lost Frontier from 1997 until 2005. Is that the longest you’ve spent on one painting?
LF: The Awakening (1994-2012) took longer, oddly enough, though it’s the smaller picture. It started out being 9 feet and looked entirely different. The painting had to do with my divorce. And when I got the divorce I stopped working on it. It’s gone through all these changes. But all the paintings have. The Lost Frontier went through a lot of changes, too; there was a different figure in the left side rather than the Indian. I hacked it out with a machete. Everything I put in a painting is made to last. So when I change my mind, it wouldn’t be like Rembrandt painting over something, and you’d X-ray the painting and see what was under there and how he changed it. Oh, no, I had to chop it out. I had to drill it out. It was quite an ordeal over the years.
SI: What’s the base that you’re building on?
LF: I start with lauan wood. My main purpose is to try to get the painting to look as deep as it possibly can. When I look at a lot of big paintings, I think, yeah, they’re big, but they’re empty. And I just refuse to do it that way. If I’m going to do a painting that big anymore, I’m going to put as much as I can in there. People like Frank Stella talk about the space they make — he’s not making space. I look at those paintings that come out from the wall. They’re pretty fucking ugly. And all they do is jump out at you. And he writes this whole book on space. Man, I say you’re just taking up space. I don’t want to take up space. I want to make it go back in the other direction. There’s so much stuff popping out. I’ve got the same problem with installation art. It takes up all this room, people can put any junk they want in there, and you’re supposed to walk around and make the association.
SI: So rather than taking up every available inch of space, you’re putting the room inside the frame.
SI: It has to be a challenge to display some of these works outside a controlled environment. Could it be in a collector’s house, in a totally different context?
LF: Well, actually, The Awakening will be, because Brad Pitt bought it. I was surprised. But the other ones, the bigger ones — I would expect them to be in a museum. In fact, for a painting like The Lost Frontier, I wouldn’t want that to be in somebody’s house. With all the work I put in on that, with all the spacing like that, why would I want just one person to enjoy it?
SI: You’ve always done most of the work on your own, with no assistants.
LF: Well, my eyes so are bad now it’s really hard to do dimensional things, small things. I don’t even know what’s going to happen there. But I see other people who use assistants all the time, and I find most of their work boring. To me the process is extremely important; it’s where you discover things. I could cite people like John Baldessari. You know there’s no process involved, they have other people doing things for them. If you’re not discovering things by the mistakes you make… And that’s why I find so much art boring now.
SI: The retrospective travels to the New Museum later this year.
LF: Yeah, it’s going to the New Museum in New York in June and then on to Kleve Germany in December. My last survey show never made it to New York so this is kind of a big deal. At first I was disappointed that the Whitney, Guggenheim and MOMA didn’t take the show, but having learned more about the New Museum and their programming, I feel like it’s the perfect place for me. I’m the bad boy in Los Angeles, and I’m sure I’m the bad boy in New York, and the New Museum gets that about me.
- ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
- January 31, 2013, 6:30 p.m. ET
At 78, a Los Angeles Artist Goes Viral
By ELLEN GAMERMAN/Wall Street Journal
Imagine Mickey Mouse visiting what looks like hell on earth—he might be staring across a dead wasteland, holding a rifle near a shriveled-up cat carcass or crawling out of Walt Disney‘s forehead.
This is the universe according to Llyn Foulkes, a 78-year-old Los Angeles artist who has been angling for a fight for most of his career, whether he’s tweaking a corporation or railing against an art establishment that has embraced him one minute and ignored him the next.
On Sunday, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is opening the largest-ever retrospective of Mr. Foulkes’s work. The roughly 150 pieces on display range from early paintings charred with black tar to midcareer portraits of bloody heads to more recent works using wood, paste and found objects in surreal montages.
Mr. Foulkes, a self-described loner whose Los Angeles studio is so solitary that he won’t even listen to music while he works, said he is a bit thrown by this moment in the spotlight: “It comes back and it fades away and it comes back,” Mr. Foulkes said of his fame. “I’ve never gotten this much attention, let’s put it that way. It’s a bit disconcerting.”
The artist and musician, who had stardom within reach early in his career after a solo exhibit at a trendy Los Angeles gallery in 1961, can credit more than the Hammer show for his current comeback. In the last two years, Mr. Foulkes’s works have been included at the prominent art exhibitions Documenta in Germany and the Venice Biennale.
Along with that international platform came what Mr. Foulkes’s longtime art dealer Douglas Walla calls a new “viral” interest in his work. French luxury goods magnate François Pinault has purchased several pieces since 2011, as has Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli for the Prada Foundation’s upcoming museum in Milan, said Mr. Walla, founder of the New York gallery Kent Fine Art.
“All of his paintings are sold,” he said.
Hammer curator Ali Subotnick has been planning this exhibit in her head ever since she met Mr. Foulkes in 2007. In her quest, she successfully lobbied the museum’s board to help buy one of Mr. Foulkes’s central works, “The Lost Frontier.” The bleak Los Angeles landscape includes an actual dead cat that a friend found in a church and Mr. Foulkes fixed to the surface of the work. Ms. Subotnick considers the painting a technical triumph: It’s 8 inches deep but gives the illusion of greater depth. “It looks like it goes on forever,” she said.
Though Mr. Foulkes is hardly an art-market darling, over the years his collectors have included such high-profile names as the actor Jack Nicholson, the artist and his dealer said.
“The Awakening,” a sad tableau of a couple in bed, sold last year to the actor Brad Pitt. The work, which is featured in the exhibition, depicts a naked woman coiled in a fetal position with her back to the artist, who appears in a self-portrait. Mr. Foulkes painted it in spurts over 18 years—a period that included the breakup of his second marriage. “I worked on that painting rather than working on the marriage, you see, and wound up getting a divorce and the painting survived,” he said.
Lately, his prices have rocketed. Small works that sold for $5,000 or less in 2009 now fetch $25,000 to $45,000, said Mr. Walla, and larger pieces have gone for $500,000 or more.
Mr. Foulkes’s father left home when the artist was a baby in Yakima, Wash., leaving him to dream up father figures, like the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, whose works inspired him to paint. He grew close to his first father-in-law, Ward Kimball, an animator at Disney who in the 1970s gave him a copy of an early Mickey Mouse Club Handbook. Though he drew pictures of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse as a five-year-old, as an adult Mr. Foulkes believed such characters were intended to brainwash children. By the early 1980s he was targeting Disney in his works, using Mickey Mouse as his creepy muse.
He has taken aim at the art world, too, publicly criticizing other artists or airing his differences with them. On Andy Warhol, for example, he said: “I turned my back on Warhol and I don’t think he ever forgot it.” Mr. Foulkes added that he believes Warhol’s famous cow wallpaper was a comment on his own earlier works featuring cows. “He was kind of like saying, ‘I’ll turn your cows into wallpaper.’ To me it was a personal thing.”
Mr. Foulkes said his outspokenness has effectively blacklisted him, leaving him out of museum and gallery shows. “I always said what I thought, which alienated an awful lot of people,” he said.
He doesn’t spare himself from harsh judgment. After a successful gallery show in 1969, when collectors swooned over his realistic paintings of rocks, he responded by calling the work formulaic. He destroyed a rock painting in his studio and moved on to something else—in this case, portraits of heads that looked like they were smeared with blood, inspired partly by a night watchman from a mortuary who showed him an autopsied corpse.
Today, his eyesight is failing, and he has been concentrating more on his music than painting. The Hammer will feature two concerts by Mr. Foulkes on “The Machine,” a musical instrument he began creating in 1979 that features horns, cowbells, percussion and more.
With the museum show coming to New York in June before traveling to Germany later this year, Ms. Subotnick doesn’t see Mr. Foulkes going underground again anytime soon. “He said he gets rediscovered every 10 years,” she said. “I promised him this time, it’s going to stick.”
A version of this article appeared February 1, 2013, on page D9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: At 78, a Los Angeles Artist Goes Viral.
Pioneering artist Llyn Foulkes wasn’t born in Los Angeles, but since moving to the city more than a half-century ago, L.A. has burrowed its way into his intense and challenging paintings. It appears as subject matter in canvases that mourn the stripping and gentrification of L.A.’s neighborhoods; and the city’s debris literally inhabits the surface of many of his paintings, which often incorporate an array of found materials. None are straightforward landscapes or portraits; rather, Foulkes condenses his impressions of the L.A. Basin into deliberate, tactile works that offer an abstracted sense of place. After all, the city’s issues often are those of the country as a whole, and Foulkes offers his unwavering opinions about the direction of both.
The major retrospective of Foulkes’ work now on view at the Hammer Museum is a long time coming. (His last such exhibition was nearly 20 years ago at Orange County’s Laguna Art Museum.) That it was organized in Los Angeles reflects the importance of the artist to his hometown and vice versa. Foulkes’ particular experiences in the city as a place to live, breathe and make art are part of what give his work its visceral punch and its convincing edge. Seeing his paintings and constructions, you may well glimpse Los Angeles in an altered light.
Foulkes came to L.A. in the late 1950s, first by way of a rural, mountainous town in Washington state, where he was born and raised; and then via the war-ravaged cities of Europe through which he traveled in his two years in the Army.
Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Foulkes landed at Chouinard Art Institute — L.A.’s premier art school, which was located downtown before it merged into CalArts in 1970 — and he excelled in painting and drawing courses, winning several awards.
He married young and lived in Eagle Rock, which like today offered more affordable and spacious living spaces, and a chance for Foulkes to explore the neighborhood’s craggy areas. He also would travel up to Chatsworth, in the northwest Valley, spending time among its peculiar natural rock formations.
It wasn’t long before both locales showed up in his paintings. Works such as Geography Lesson (1960-61) and Geographical Survey of Eagle Rock (1962) reflect some of Foulkes’ earliest forays into representational imagery — his student work had leaned toward abstract expressionism — and they demonstrate the artist’s method of applying paint to canvas with soaked rags. The result of this technique, entirely Foulkes’ own, is a texture that exists somewhere between crumpled paper, jeans, animal hides and the mottled surfaces of rocky peaks. It transforms a simple mountainside into a lush, evocative, even sinister apparition.
In the exhibition audio guide, Foulkes mentions that the Native American tradition of seeing figures in rock formations resonated with him early on. His large-scale rock paintings from the later 1960s, colored in an array of bright, monochromatic washes, bring this ritual to life: Bulbous protrusions and depressions could well double as noses, mouths, limbs and orifices.
Straddling landscape and portraiture, these works combine Foulkes’ specific observations of L.A.’s natural beauty — always in danger of being commercially developed — with surreal fantasies. Their timeworn surfaces also serve as metaphors for an imagined American West, where Levis-clad cowboys still have untapped spaces to explore.
In the artist’s subsequent portrait series, which occupied him through the 1970s, he employed a similar technique to apply red paint atop his subjects’ faces. In these pieces, the blotchy surfaces allude to blood rather than skin, and the results are similarly arresting.
In 1979, Foulkes moved with his second wife to Topanga Canyon, transplanting his studio to one of Los Angeles’ more remote neighborhoods. But instead of becoming more introspective after the move, Foulkes’ works expanded both in terms of physical depth and cultural scope, and L.A.’s ties to Hollywood and the corporate sphere took center stage.
A page from the 1934 Mickey Mouse Club Handbook clings to the surface of Made in Hollywood (1983), the first of Foulkes’ painting-constructions to move outward from the wall like a stage’s apron, as curator Ali Subotnick notes in the exhibition catalog. Foulkes uses a combination of sculptural objects and painted surfaces with trompe l’oeil effects to bring the illusion of deep space onto a relatively flat surface (it measures a little more than 7 inches in depth). The handbook shows how Disney attracts America’s youth to its consumer-driven entertainment, and a photograph of Foulkes’ children — propped atop one of his distant, painted rocks — embodies the casualties of this social experiment.
Other stage set–type constructions of the 1980s, like O’Pablo (1983), detail Foulkes’ struggle to find his place within the L.A. art world and among fellow artists. Specific addresses mingle with reproductions of the artist’s work and other personal references, each offering crumbs from which one might piece together his whereabouts, influences and yearnings.
Foulkes currently works in the Brewery, downtown L.A.’s live-in arts complex, where he moved in 1997, and over the last two decades the artist has reflected upon the city’s built environment.
Soon after moving to Los Angeles, Foulkes was dismayed to witness the razing of stately Victorian homes on Bunker Hill in order to make way for downtown’s future skyscrapers. The Rape of the Angels (1991) — this time a flat canvas, still imbued with a palpable depth of field and carefully collaged objects — is an allegory for this incessant process of urban renewal. In the offices of “LALA LAND CO.,” the artist stands next to a money-hungry city planner, who is seemingly in cahoots with a tiny Mickey Mouse sitting on his shoulder. Foulkes composed the work with a strong network of vertical and horizontal lines, which both echo the skyscrapers visible through the window and confine the painting’s subjects. By including himself in the picture — which Foulkes has done repeatedly in recent work — the artist maps his personal history onto the fraught historical landscape of his beloved, but convoluted, city.
Foulkes’ retrospective closes with his monumental construction, The Lost Frontier (1997-2005), housed in a separate, carefully lit room. The piece is only 8 inches deep, but it presents a view reminiscent of the Sepulveda Pass that stretches backward miles and miles, toward a seemingly infinite horizon. As the Wild West recedes further into the past, Foulkes revives its spirit through his own expansive, unexplored territory.
You could really lose yourself surveying The Lost Frontier, trying to take in each of its innumerable assembled fragments. In the end, it is Foulkes who says it best in the audio guide describing the picture: “It’s all about Los Angeles. We’re in a lost frontier. We don’t know where in the hell we’re going.”
LLYN FOULKES | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Wstwd. | Through May 19 | hammer.ucla.edu
Art review: Retrospective shows Llyn Foulkes’ sharp eccentricity
The best works in the Llyn Foulkes retrospective at UCLA Hammer Museum are odd. But behind the eccentricity are biting messages.
|Llyn Foulkes’ “Who’s on Third” is part of the retrospective. (Hammer Museum / February 5, 2013)|
Llyn Foulkes is a crank. That’s a good thing, because we need cranks.
I might not want to sit next to one on the subway or listen to one give a floor-speech in Congress. But popular culture and institutional art have a way of smoothing out or even debasing life’s often painful rawness. Works of art offer contemplative distance, which can make zealous eccentricity especially riveting.
Take “The Corporate Kiss” (2001), a bracing bit of strangeness that is on view in the sprawling, 50-year retrospective exhibition of Foulkes’ art newly opened at the UCLA Hammer Museum. In it, Mickey Mouse stands on a man’s shoulder and plants a big cheerful smooch on his cheek. The man, beleaguered and despondent, barely responds.
His careworn face expels an open-mouthed sigh, downcast eyes staring from beneath a furrowed brow. A bleak, empty brown desert unfurls behind the pair, beneath a limpid blue sky.
In this painting’s gonzo reinterpretation of the biblical kiss of Judas, which launched the physical, emotional and spiritual suffering of the Christian Passion, the betrayal of art by popular culture is on frank display. Disney’s famous, empire-building rodent is cast as Judas, keeper of the 30 silver pieces; the man’s careworn face is a self-portrait, making the artist the abandoned savior.
Foulkes is a long way from Giotto’s famously heartbreaking rendition of the subject at the dawn of the Italian Renaissance. Here, a personal narrative is embedded in the picture.
Born to modest circumstances in a central Washington farming town in 1934, Foulkes came to Los Angeles in 1957 to study at the Chouinard Art Institute. Three years later he married the daughter of Ward Kimball, one of the celebrated team of Disney animators known as the Nine Old Men. (The couple later divorced.) Kimball published a 1975 book titled “Art Afterpieces,” in which famous masterpieces were updated in absurd contemporary terms — Mona Lisa bedecked in hair curlers, for example, or tan lines on a Degas nude.
“The Corporate Kiss” follows a similar path, but the joke is transformed into a social portrait of considerable despair. The painting is actually a relief, with features built up, scraped down and built up again, and the tattered plaid shirt and thermal jersey added as collage. The surface is as weathered as the man while Mickey’s swollen cheeks are like a tumor.
Partly the work succeeds by refusing polarization and self-aggrandizement. Foulkes is on record as a great admirer of Kimball’s abundant skills. More important, the story of the Judas kiss is not a simple tale of good and evil, saintliness versus immorality, since without it the biblical narrative of salvation could not blossom. The man who is kissed is complicit in the tragedy. “The Corporate Kiss” is a contemporary portrait of human frailty.
Certainly it’s odd. So are all the best works in Foulkes’ retrospective, organized by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick.
That’s because much of it forces an unholy alliance between incompatible artistic urges. One is Expressionism, the other Pop art.
Expressionism speaks of private, deeply personal impulses, which spill out from primal motivations. Pop, by contrast, manifests itself in more anonymous, socially constructed ways.
The show opens with a group of drawings made during Foulkes’ childhood, when he had aspirations to become a cartoonist. Great cartoons are pop culture’s underbelly, their nutty raucousness navigating life’s madhouse.
The next gallery introduces black and brown paintings, often bleak, that Foulkes made after art school — an era when Abstract Expressionism held sway. By then he had spent two years in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany, where the grimness of the charred postwar landscape was everywhere.
These early paintings engage Beat Generation elements familiar from Ed Kienholz and Wallace Berman, with their recycling of broken, cast-off objects. An awareness of Jasper Johns’ use of letters, numbers and collage is also apparent.
In the third room, Expressionism and Pop collide — and the show begins to percolate.
The chief drawback is that, at nearly 140 paintings and mixed-media works, plus a slew of juvenilia, the crowded exhibition is way too big. Foulkes’ esteem has waxed and waned over the decades, and the job of a retrospective like this is to secure the artist’s reputation by making the strongest case. It needs editing by at least one-third.
In the 1960s and early 1970s Foulkes looked to postcards, commercial signs, magazines, comics and other sources in mass reproduction. Social trauma lurks in the pop motifs.
“Junction #410” (1963), painted in the traumatic year of JFK’s assassination, features a barren photographic hill, reproduced six times down the right side of a big canvas like a movie-frame stuck in a projector. A “caution yellow” border on the other side, plus diagonal black bars marching across the center, turn Frank Stella’s mute geometric Minimalism into an evocative end-of-the-road warning.
This dead-end theme turns up again in a completely different way in “Portrait of Leo Gorcey” (1969), named for the actor who starred in a series of Hollywood movies about Depression-era street kids. The cracks and shadows in its 9-foot monolith of desert rocks harbor apocalyptic suggestions of corpses embedded in the stone.
The painting is one in a recurrent series. Disconcertingly, their fields of color are pleasant pastels. With Martin Luther King dead in Memphis and Bobby Kennedy assassinated in L.A., bodies piling up in Vietnam and Gov. Ronald Reagan on the ascendancy after sending police into UC Berkeley, Foulkes’ dissonant rock paintings form a creepy “monument valley.”
Benign cruelty continues in another extensive series of more than two dozen “bloody heads.” All are men. Their eyes are obscured by cascading blood, geometric shapes, collages and anything else that might strip them of distinctive individuality.
Around 1990, though, the wheels started to come off Foulkes’ art-wagon. Big, ambitious, mixed-media reliefs — sort of contemporary history paintings — are erratic in the extreme, some powerful and others blandly ineffective. Desolate paintings on subjects like Operation Desert Storm and fundamentalist Christian bigotry are merely fervent rants.
Perhaps the problem was caused by the rousing success of “Pop” (1985-’90), a marvelously bizarre sound-and-light installation on which Foulkes worked for five years. This homey tableau, set in a suburban living room, shows a young girl resting a gentle hand on the arm of her bug-eyed, TV-watching father, who holds a plastic cup of Coke in one hand and his wrist in the other, as if searching for a pulse. We look over the shoulder of a blank-faced boy in the foreground, able to read the Mickey Mouse Club oath he has copied into a composition book.
The scrawny father’s unbuttoned shirt reveals the red-and-yellow logo of Superman underneath, while a gun is holstered at his waist — as if a genuine superhero might need one. The ruin of the nuclear family is underscored by the Hiroshima mushroom cloud rising on a calendar page on the back wall.
Foulkes had built an elaborate, outlandish musical instrument out of car horns, a xylophone, organ pipes and cowbells, and “Pop” is accompanied by a soundtrack featuring a woozy, rewritten rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” played on it in the satirical manner of Spike Jones. Your eyes bug out at the painting, just like the father aghast at the TV.
Foulkes will perform on his instrument, called the Machine, on Feb. 26. As a snappy catalog essay by Jim Lewis puts it, a “one-man band” is an inherent contradiction in terms. The clash is akin to an Expressionist Pop art, a dissonant conflict ideal for carrying Foulkes’ recurrent theme of travesty — social, cultural, personal, environmental and political. When he pulls it off it’s a sight to behold.
Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
When: Through May 19. Closed Mondays.
Richard Jackson wants to make you feel uncomfortable
His explosive and deliberately hard-to-view works tend to frustrate expectations of what a painting is.
The sculpture of a giant black Labrador outside the Orange County Museum of Art looks friendly, nose to the sky and tail up. But with a hind leg cocked, “Bad Dog” is designed to spray gallons of yellow paint through a powerful gear pump onto the museum building.
“We’ll see how long it lasts. I don’t think it’s such a big deal, but you never know how people will react,” said Richard Jackson, the 73-year-old artist behind the dog. “Sometimes people feel they should protect their children from such things, then the kids go home and watch ‘South Park.'”
Jackson made “Bad Dog” for his first museum retrospective, opening in Orange County on Sunday. It is also something of a surrogate for the artist himself, if not a true self-portrait.
Jackson is a museum outsider, rarely getting shows in U.S. institutions. (A 1988 mid-career survey at the Menil Collection in Houston is the biggest exception.) He doesn’t follow the rules. And he is one messy painter who likes to mark his territory.
For nearly two decades now, Jackson has been building machines for making paintings with a basement inventor’s sort of ingenuity and a wicked sense of humor: sculptures rigged with pumps or other devices designed to spray, spew, splatter, pour, spurt, excrete, fling or otherwise deliver paint onto a surface like walls or floors.
OCMA Director Dennis Szakacs, who curated the retrospective, describes the work as difficult for museums, not to mention collectors who have a wall to fill. “His work is large, it’s messy, it’s complicated, and some pieces require huge amounts of labor only to be destroyed, so it confounds standard museum practice,” he said.
But the challenges are not, Szakacs suggested, gratuitous, and several younger artists are fans. He called Jackson “wildly inventive” and overdue for reappraisal — “one of the most influential and least understood artists working today.”
“I don’t think anybody has expanded the definition and form of painting as much as Richard has.”
The early work
Early on, Jackson pushed painting in new directions by exploiting the sculptural potential of the painted canvas. He also did stunts with canvases akin to the sorts of things that contemporaries Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman were doing to their own bodies.
In the ’70s, Jackson nailed paintings face down to the floor of his studio. Or he pressed freshly painted canvases onto the wall to stain them with color.
In one breakthrough work, originally installed in 1970 in Eugenia Butler’s L.A. gallery, he propped up a series of eight large canvases to create a maze that the viewer could walk through. He painted the canvases, then forced a clean canvas through the narrow corridor like a spreader, creating Gerhard Richter-like scraped-paint effects throughout the maze.
It all makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Once inside the maze, you can’t stand back to view any painting from what feels like a proper distance. And once you enter the inner chamber, you are confronted with the backs of four canvases — further upsetting any expectation of contemplating a painting.
Jackson has just finished re-creating this piece, not seen in California since 1970, for the show. Also in the show will be a new “stacked painting” of the sort first shown in 1980 at the Rosamund Felsen gallery.
In the original version he used 1,000 freshly painted canvases, laying them on top of one another like bricks to make a 16-foot-tall wall. The acrylic paint worked like a sort of glue. At the time, he did everything himself, from cutting the wood for the stretchers to priming and painting the canvases.
This time, for an installation involving 5,050 canvases arranged in a stair-like formation (each stack is one painting taller than the one before), he didn’t make his own stretchers and had an assistant mix paints for him, but he still did the paintings himself, as many as a hundred a day. Most were abstract, but he did a few landscapes to mix things up. “I like trees,” he said.
“I’m interested in what one person can accomplish on his own,” he said from his studio in the foothills of Sierra Madre. “Even if I don’t finish something, to me that’s more interesting than what a corporation could do.”
A prickly individualism
Jackson’s rugged and sometimes prickly individualism has deep roots. Born and raised in Sacramento, he spent his free time hunting on a 2,000-acre ranch in Colusa County homesteaded by his family, who are descendants of President Andrew Jackson. He studied engineering and art at Sacramento State College.
“Both of my grandfathers built their own houses,” he said. “I grew up with tools, not books. I like making things.”
He held down odd jobs like Christmas tree farming and mining for gold in Sierra City before getting his first gallery shows in L.A. in the 1970s. And he worked as a housing contractor for decades, even into the 1990s while he was teaching a sculpture class at UCLA and started showing with the powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth. (The late Jason Rhoades, who was once Jackson’s teaching assistant at the university and quickly became “a big pal,” introduced him to Iwan Wirth.)
Jackson now also shows with David Kordansky in L.A. But “contrary to popular opinion,” Jackson said, “I don’t make any money. There still isn’t a market for my work.”
And now, on the eve of his first museum retrospective, he still sounds rather wary of the art-world success that has largely eluded him.
“Since I’ve become an artist, the whole nature of the thing has changed in a lot of ways. If things were like they are now when I was young, I probably wouldn’t have been interested in art,” he said. “Today it’s more of a business, with artists who are self-promoting and have curators, registrars and secretaries.”
He adds wryly: These days the most important tool in an artist’s studio is his telephone.
Jackson’s studio in Sierra Madre looks more like an auto body shop, complete with power tools, welding and woodworking equipment and milling machine. Outside he keeps two black labs, inspiration for “Bad Dog” and favorite hunting partners. “Duck, pheasant — they’ll retrieve anything.”
Inside one wall is lined with deer antlers. There is no phone or computer in sight.
Another early work in the Orange County show — which at first glance mirrors a corporate mind-set — is “1,000 Clocks,” which made its debut in 1992 at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of Paul Schimmel’s groundbreaking “Helter Skelter” exhibition of L.A. artists. The large installation consists of a thousand clocks blanketing the walls and ceiling of a gallery, all set to the same time.
But the assembly-line, group-think aesthetic of the work reads differently when you see the primitive gears on the back and realize the clocks are handmade. Jackson built each one himself (“at my own expense,” he adds) over the course of five years out of 44,000 clock parts.
The piece was a strange fit in the MOCA show, which unleashed the dark or grotesque visions of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. “My work didn’t really belong in the show,” he said, remembering visitors leaning against his piece for a better view of Kelley’s.
“The piece was about time and turning 50 — I was probably the oldest artist in the show. It needed to be shown on its own somewhere, and needed to have a focus on how it was made: someone spending all this time working on time.”
Not long after that, Jackson started making his machines for painting, which unleashed a torrent or small storm’s worth of paint, typically in unpredictable ways, onto a large surface like the walls of a room.
In one case, it’s an upside-down replica of a Degas bronze ballerina, modified so that paint drips down her legs. In another, it’s a carousel of sculpted deer that shoot paint from their backsides at various targets in the room — a reversal of usual hunting roles.
Art critics have compared this body of work to the jacked-up action painting of Jackson Pollock, taken to an absurd extreme.
The macho swagger — or humor — of it all doesn’t escape Jackson, who calls one of his mechanical works “Painting With Two Balls” after a Jasper Johns work with the same title.
For the most recent version of his work, first made in 1997 and done again this month in Orange County, Jackson sets a 1978 Ford Pinto on its side and positions two large spheres above it. When Jackson starts the car and the wheels start spinning, so do the large spheres — making one large device for flinging paint, when poured from above, across the room.
With these mechanical devices or surrogates, Jackson calls the moment of painting the “activation” of the work. In the case of the Pinto ignition, museum staff gathered to watch the process, but he usually prefers to work privately, no art-world spectacle or ticketed viewings.
“I think it’s better for people if they’re not around. It makes the work more interesting for them, because it forces them to use their imagination,” he said. “If you see how it’s done, it takes the mystery out of it.”
The other reason he doesn’t seek out an audience, he says, is that often something goes wrong. He mentioned a project last year that was designed for the public, part of an arts festival, and failed to work on the first try. Before a crowd of several hundred people, he was getting ready to send a large radio-controlled model plane loaded with paint bombs crashing into a large wall near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But before the plane took off, one of rear stabilizers broke.
As Jackson describes it, the crowd soon started to get panicky. But he was energized by the challenge — and worked with men on the ground to glue and tape the stabilizer back on, making for a successful second run.
“When something goes wrong, the people observing start feeling sorry for me, and they think this isn’t going to work,” he said. “But it’s good to have a problem to solve on the spot. It forces me to be creative. So in a way when the trouble starts, that’s when the fun starts for me.”
Given Jackson’s interest in the unpredictable, it’s not surprising that he sounds ambivalent about re-creating older works for the show that no longer exist.
“I don’t want to redo old work,” he said. “But I don’t want to be a crab either.”
Most of all he would prefer to focus on new projects: “I have too many things I want to do and too many things I have to do, and they’re not the same.”
One unrealized project, he said, is to transform a gallery into an inside-out, upside-down log-cabin-style cuckoo clock, in which animal figures jump out of the walls. It would double as some kind of tavern or bar.
Another desire is to crash a full-scale but radio-controlled Cessna carrying buckets of paint. The plane itself is on display at the end of the retrospective, as if waiting for the ideal patron to step in and fund the action-painting.
He would also like to crash a car loaded with paint. In the past he’s talked about using a brand-new Porsche. Now, having spent some time in Orange County, he says a Bentley might do the trick. (“There’s a Bentley on every corner here.”)
What’s the point? “I guess it’s a sort of irreverence: I think I’m always trying to change people and the way they think, so you attack their sensibilities.”
Art review: ‘Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain’ shows life
The retrospective at Orange County Museum of Art is awash in paint, all to prove a point about the medium’s vitality.
|“Painting With Two Balls” is part fo the Richard Jackson exhibition. (Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times / February 21, 2013)|
If you like paint, you’ll like “Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain,” the artist’s 40-year retrospective exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach. It’s awash in the stuff.
Thick, brightly colored paint oozes like mortar from between thousands of canvases stacked like bricks into a kind of room-size temple, and it’s smeared in rainbows that unfurl across white walls. It’s shot from a pellet gun at a big drawing and out of the rear ends of carousel animals toward spinning canvases and sculptures on surrounding walls.
Paint is pumped through neon tubing that spells out the show’s title, clogging illumination, and into a bathtub copied from one where a hero of the French Revolution was ignominiously murdered. It has dripped from glass models of human heads, oozed from squashed metal models of a ballerina and spewed from a hose wielded by a sculpture of a reclining nude glimpsed, voyeur-like, through the crack in a barely opened window. It puddles on pedestals and the floor.
Gloppy paint covers tall walls in a narrow hallway-maze, which a visitor is invited to enter. I didn’t go in. This is the only museum exhibition I’ve seen that posts a sign at the entry warning visitors not to touch the art for the specific reason that the paint might not be dry.
Why all that paint? One reason is that Jackson, born in Sacramento in 1939, started making art in Los Angeles around 1968, when painting was in one of its periodic death throes.
This time painting was under assault as a quaint irrelevancy to an industrialized, mass-media world. Jackson’s veritable mania for paint comes across as a smart, assertive and sometimes funny retort — “Oh, yeah? Take that!” His paint fabricates a theater of the absurd.
In the museum lobby just beyond the entry, an actual Ford Pinto tipped on its side is splattered with red, yellow and blue paint, as are the pedestal that hoists the automobile up, the nearby walls and columns, the surrounding floor, plus two canvas spheres on top. These two large balls are attached to the Pinto’s upright wheels.
When the car engine was revved, Jackson, standing on a ladder, poured paint onto the spinning spheres, flinging paint everywhere.
The subcompact Pinto, once a wildly popular model that was pulled from production in 1980, has a controversial reputation for bland design and questionable safety. Admirers and detractors line up on both sides. Jackson’s composition, worthy of a carnival sideshow, inserts the dispute into the tonier context of abstract art.
The paint-splattered auto with the dangerous reputation obliquely evokes Jackson Pollock, the coincidental namesake artist whose 1940s drip-paintings revolutionized Modern art. Pollock famously died in a 1956 car crash, at the tender age of 44.
Four years later, Jasper Johns made a three-panel work slathered in red, yellow and blue in which a pair of small spheres was wedged in between two stretcher bars in the middle. The orbs are like eyes peering back at you from inside the painting.
Johns’ “Painting With Two Balls” makes fun of the macho posturing prominent in Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist era. Jackson’s 1997 automotive version explodes the scale of both its predecessors, reflecting the outsize prominence Pollock and Johns hold in recent art history.
Notably, Jackson’s contraption is not just “a painting” with balls. It also performs the action of using balls to make the painting, instead of using a conventional brush. Pollock’s revolution came from removing the brush from the canvas, instead drawing in space above a canvas laid out on the floor and letting the paint fall where it may. Jackson ups the ante, pushing action painting to absurdist lengths.
The process orientation of Jackson’s work is intimately tied to what other artists have done. A partial list of artists whose work specifically inspired what’s in the retrospective includes Jacques-Louis David, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Johns, Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman. It tracks the modern history of art, starting in 19th century France and continuing into the American present.
Jackson’s Sacramento birthplace was also the home of painter Wayne Thiebaud, a nationally recognized artist whose 1960s still lifes of voluptuous cakes, pies and ice cream cones are known for being slathered in thick strokes of luscious paint. Art comes from art. So does a worldly acceptance of the absurd.
Sometimes, the absurdity doesn’t get beyond a mild joke. For the museum’s front lawn, Jackson constructed a giant sculpture of a friendly black dog who lifts his leg on the museum building, now ignominiously sprayed with yellow paint. Jackson’s “Bad Dog” is less a take on Claes Oldenburg’s monumental sculptures of ordinary things than an overblown riff on Banksy, the anonymous but popular British graffiti artist.
Banksy has employed the same image of a urinating dog as a metaphor for the way graffiti is an ongoing pissing match between renegade artists and establishment society, as well as among competitive street-artists themselves. I’m not sure that applying the observation to nongraffiti artists enshrined in institutions adds much to the conversation that we didn’t already know.
One of the most appealing features of Jackson’s work, though, is that he seems to approach art as a job — not as some high-flown calling or mystical impulse, but as a conscious line of work. Labor has value, and it’s not always as obvious as one might think.
Take that claim about painting’s supposed death amid the phantoms of our powerful media age. The claim ignores a salient fact, which is that painting has always been dead. For art, the dull reality of pigment smeared on a piece of cloth or board is pretty much irrelevant to the question of its significance. Any painter’s job, past or present, is to make painting live.
The retrospective, organized by OCMA director Dennis Szakacs, divides its 19 installations, 38 drawings and four project-models into two parts. The early work (1969-1988) is composed of wall paintings and free-standing painted sculptures, all made using paint-slathered canvases as primary materials. The works since then are mostly infernal machines, like “Painting With Two Balls” and “Bad Dog.”
A pivot between early and late is “1000 Clocks” (1987-1992), the show’s only work made without paint. Begun as Jackson approached age 50, it is a large room entered and exited through Dan Flavin-like corridors of white fluorescent-light tubes. The walls and ceiling are constructed entirely of identical, handmade clocks.
Every 60 seconds, all 1,000 minute-hands move in unison and generate a very loud click. As much as a measure of time’s passage, the startling noise sounds like the cocking of a gun.
Given the inevitability of the next tick, “1000 Clocks” swells with quiet dread, like some gigantic time bomb. The work is suffused with a relentless, audio-visual plea for taking action — somehow, anyhow, even if only contemplatively — before it is too late.
“Ain’t Painting a Pain,” with its title’s anagram-like construction, frames the show inside a puzzle. Look closely and you’ll find that the floors in several Jackson installations are likewise composed of giant puzzle pieces.
Notably the title is a statement, not a question, which suggests that the puzzle is to be, well, puzzled over rather than answered. Jackson’s art does it in a host of ways, some more trenchant than others. Pain might reside in that puzzlement, but so does considerable pleasure.
‘Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain’
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clement Drive, Newport Beach
When: Through May 5. Closed Mon. and Tue.
Contact: (949) 759-1122, http://www.ocma.net
Here are three new paintings are added to my Cosmos Suite of paintings 2.24.2013. These are the 7th, 8th and 9th paintings created in the Cosmos Suite. They are also the 4th, 5th and 6th large scale paintings in this body of work.These Cosmos Suite paintings are created using various experiments in media and paint application. Johnson has done substantial research into the area of the history of painting materials and there use, and employs this knowledge in the production of his work.
There are now a total of nine paintings in the Cosmos Suite. Six of the nine paintings are thirty by forty inches in size. Three of the paintings – the originals in the suite, are twenty by twenty four inches in size. Each painting takes about a month to create as there is a three week drying time between the first and second layers of the painting. As the suite grows there will be additional sizes including larger works.
Cosmos Suite: A Meeting Between Two Figures in Space
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
Cosmos Suite: State and Grace – final – complete 2.25.2013
30×40 inches, oil on canvas by Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles (2013)
New Abstract Paintings: The Cosmos suite (2012)
Golden Dream (2012), part of the Cosmos Suite of paintings
Two at Night (2012) from the Cosmos suite of paintings, Oil on canvas, 30×40 inches