start slideshowIt Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969-1973
It Happened at Pomona

Part 3:At Pomona

March 10 - May 13, 2012

Opening Reception: Saturday, March 24, 5-7 PM

Excerpt from OPENING THINGS UP: Why and How it Happened at Pomona by Rebecca McGrew

Pomona’s strong point was that there was a sense that if you really had an interesting idea, nobody was going to stand in your way. And if you wanted to be a jock and marry a princess and settle in the suburbs, you could, but if you wanted to create this new gallery situation, and show all these artworks from Los Angeles, of course, why not? It was wide open. Because of the strength of the people, the chain of associations, you didn’t have an administration saying this is too radical. It sort of caught them after the fact, and they said, “Oh, wait a minute. This is too radical.” But it was already done…

–Kay Larson1(class of 1969)

Every once in a while, a pivotal moment happens in the history of art. This book argues that one such moment occurred in Southern California, at Pomona College, between the years 1969 and 1973. For artists as diverse as Michael Asher, Bas Jan Ader, Lewis Baltz, Chris Burden (‘69), Judy Chicago, Jack Goldstein, John McCracken, Allen Ruppersberg, and James Turrell (‘65), Pomona hosted major, and sometimes radical, new directions in their art. It is a surprising story: why would a moment like this happen in the sheltered, peaceful, and generally quite traditional environment of Pomona College, in the quiet city of Claremont?2 This essay endeavors to answer that question and the many other “whys” of this project: Why start with 1969? Why end with 1973? And what exactly happened at Pomona?

In its most basic form, the story goes like this: Pomona College art department chair Mowry Baden (‘58) hired curator Hal Glicksman in 1969, which set the stage for a series of innovative exhibitions that would continue with curator Helene Winer’s arrival in 1970. Curated by Glicksman and Winer, avant-garde exhibitions by influential young artists exploring the newest post-conceptual territories took place at the Pomona College Museum of Art. (The exhibition space at Pomona College changed names several times over the years. For simplicity’s sake, we will refer to it by its current name throughout this volume.) Their innovative programming included notorious performances by Chris Burden and Wolfgang Stoerchle, which, many claim, led to the firing of Helene Winer and the restructuring of the art department. The hiring of Lewis Baltz, Michael Brewster (‘68), and James Turrell in the early seventies added to the intense excitement in studio art.Yet, just a few years later, with the hiring of art historian Gerald Ackerman and artist Norman Hines (‘61), the department returned to a more traditional focus.

The full story of what transpired during these few short years is complex and nuanced. This moment at Pomona didn’t simply appear out of nowhere. Thomas Crow’s (‘69) essay in this catalogue chronicles the impact of the existing art scene in Claremont and delves more deeply into the connections between artists working in Claremont and the broader art scene in Southern California.

My essay examines the dynamics specific to Pomona College, but the cultural transformations of the sixties play a huge role in this story as well. Anti-war demonstrations, the sexual revolution, civil rights, women’s rights, gay liberation, the emergence of a hippie counterculture, and the rise of new left activism all led to dramatic social shifts. For the college communities in Claremont, this was a time of turmoil, fevered protest, questioning of authority, and personal and intellectual experimentation. A new sense of freedom lifted prohibitions and created new possibilities for engaging the world. Concurrently, equally dramatic shifts and transformations in art philosophy and practice created an exhilarating sense of experimentation that dramatically expanded what was possible, allowing performance, video, installation, and other dematerialized forms of art to join the more traditional mediums of painting and sculpture. While the era initially created hope for political and social transformation, by the early to mid-seventies, the utopian promise of the sixties was overtaken by disillusionment, as the promises of social change were undercut by assassinations, commercialization, and corruption. As the sixties ground to a halt, an era of complacency settled in and many wished for a “return to normalcy.” As radicalism fell from favor, the moment of “It Happened at Pomona” passed.

This essay sets forth an idiosyncratic and complex history of the visual arts at Pomona College from 1969 to 1973, drawn from research in the archives of Pomona College and the Pomona College Museum of Art, and conversations and interviews with former students, faculty, curators, and administrators. This essay explores a range of stories, knowing that many will still go untold. What follows is one version of what happened at Pomona.

The Beginning: Mowry Baden and Hal Glicksman Open Things Up

Mowry arrived...just a torrent of words...all interesting... ideas all over the place. Mowry opened the territory wide up. Mowry and Hal being here really made a big difference. [After graduating from Pomona in 1968,] I stayed in Claremont to go to graduate school because Mowry was here, and he hadn’t been here for very long, and I hadn’t had enough of Mowry. He was the most brilliant guy I’d ever met in my life.

–Michael Brewster 4

Mowry was one of the few people in my life who you could reliably count on for a brilliant and original point of view. Mowry would bring a slant to something that nobody else had. I think of how germinal so much of what Mowry did was. He’s someone who, when it shakes out a little bit, will be accorded a much, much more visible place than he has now. Mowry was also always sort of the grey eminence of the school as long as he was there, whether he was department chairman or not. It was really an odd little confluence of things that happened there. Everybody coming from someplace else for their own reasons. There was no plan about this school. This wasn’t like CalArts, a scheme to be a certain thing, or Irvine, where they really had an objective. It didn’t seem to work that way. It seemed to just happen.

–Lewis Baltz 5

In April 1968, Mowry Baden returned to Pomona College to teach art, run the gallery, and chair the art department. His former classmate, Frank LaHorgue (‘58), had contacted him at former Pomona College President E. Wilson Lyon’s (President from 1941–69) suggestion. Realizing how tough it would be to take on all three jobs, Baden negotiated a three-year contract that included a single-year term as art department chair. Baden joined two colleagues in the art faculty at Pomona—painter Guy Williams, and sculptor David Gray, both of whom were well liked and respected. Baden hired Hal Glicksman as director of the gallery and assistant professor of art, in the fall of 1969, based on his reputation as an artist’s preparator at the Pasadena Art Museum.6

Baden was a highly influential and challenging artist, colleague, and teacher. He was also a diplomat, adept at bridging the gap between artists and administrators. Speaking in 2008, former Pomona College President David Alexander (President from 1969–91) remembered with regret accepting Baden’s letter of resignation in 1971. Baden thrived in the close-knit and energized atmosphere of Pomona College, becoming close friends and remaining in contact with many former colleagues and students. Stories about Baden’s life-changing influence turned up frequently in interviews with former students. Writer and critic Kay Larson, for example, returned to Pomona College in the spring of 1968, just after Baden had started working at Pomona. She remembers distinctly how different the department felt with Baden’s dynamic presence.

Larson remembers “walking into Mowry’s office and not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but saying I wanted to make art about the intercession between the earth and the universe.” She recounts, “I think I was talking about angels. It was about being in the middle, between phenomena and something more transcendent. And I had no idea what I was talking about. Mowry just said ‘Sure!’ He was able to open the doors without any effort at all...just by being so accepting.”

Baden worked closely with Glicksman, collaborating with him and the artists that Glicksman invited to be part of the Artist’s Gallery program, a program instituted by Glicksman in which the gallery functioned as a studio-residency for post-conceptual and Light and Space artists. As gallery director, Glicksman (and later Winer) taught art history courses in addition to programming the exhibitions. Glicksman established a seminal series of exhibitions dealing with light and space art and new forms of installation.7After just one year, in June 1970, Glicksman left to work with Walter Hopps as associate director at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Baden and Glicksman kept up a long and detailed correspondence after Glicksman left Pomona, sharing ideas about the role of art and its potential to create change. in a letter written after Glicksman’s departure, Baden wrote:

I have been thinking of late that your gallery program at Pomona was a most tactful acknowledgement of some obvious truths that need facing. I’m really glad I saw you and the artists do that. Except for the aspect of impermanence, the whole program lay in that long tradition of artist and institutional patron....The only way I can see to tighten it up is in ownership. And [it] seems to me Bob Smithson said something to that effect over Walter’s [coffee shop in Claremont] grease one noon. His sequence went something like this: 1) Artist makes a proposal for a specific site. 2) Artist finds a patron who must assume ownership of the site and pay for the work. 3) Because it is owned by someone it obtains instant longevity. Longevity is really a matter of memory. To have any substantial memory the work must, however brief, be public....Like Taliesin, Soleri’s Scottsdale and best of all, Watts Towers and Merzbau.8

Both Baden and Glicksman (and later Winer) recall a strong camaraderie that united the studio faculty to the gallery, often culminating in evening parties in the gallery courtyard that also included students. Lewis Baltz, then a student at Claremont Graduate School (CGS; now Claremont Graduate University) who also taught at Pomona College, held his first gallery exhibition of his now well-known Prototype series at Pomona, at Glicksman’s invitation. Baltz had taken Glicksman’s course on nineteenth-century art history and developed a close relationship with Glicksman that extended beyond Glicksman’s departure in 1970. 

 

1. All quotes from Kay Larson are from an interview with the author in Kingston, New York, April 7, 2010.

2. Pomona College is part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, which consists of five undergraduate colleges (Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona, and Scripps colleges) and two graduate schools of higher education (Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute). Located adjacent to the Claremont Village, in the heart of Claremont, the Claremont College campuses are adjoining and within walking distance of one another.

3. Baltz, Brewster, and Turrell all received MFAs from Claremont Graduate University. (See faculty list in this volume.) Baltz and Turrell were teaching classes at Pomona College while they were enrolled concurrently as graduate students.

4. All quotes from Michael Brewster are from an interview with the author at Pomona College, Claremont, October 2, 2008.

5. All quotes from Lewis Baltz, unless otherwise noted, are from an interview with the author in Zurich, Switzerland, June 11, 2009.

6. In the interview in this volume, Mowry Baden goes into more depth about his connection with the department and the hiring of Hal Glicksman. Characteristically modest, Baden regularly guided discussions to Glicksman, Gray, and Williams, and later James Turrell (whom he hired in 1971 to replace him), instead of mentioning his own contributions to the dynamic climate at Pomona. 

7. See the interview with Glicksman in this catalogue for more discussion about his projects and legacy. 

8. Undated letter from Baden to Glicksman, on Pomona College letterhead. Hal Glicksman Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. 2009.M.5.