Part 2: Helene Winer at Pomona
- Bas Jan Ader |
- John Baldessari |
- Chris Burden |
- Ger van Elk |
- Jack Goldstein |
- Joe Goode |
- Hirokazu Kosaka |
- William Leavitt |
- John McCracken |
- Ed Moses |
- Allen Ruppersberg |
- Wolfgang Stoerchle |
- William Wegman |
- John White
Excerpt from Before the Miraculous: Bas Jan Ader in Claremont by Carrie Dedon
Bas Jan Ader’s short life and even shorter career are often overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. On July 9, 1975, Ader began what was intended to be the central component of a tri-part work entitled In Search of the Miraculous: a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Cod to England in a thirteen-foot-long sailboat. It would have been the smallest vessel ever to make that journey. Before departing, he had gone on a nighttime walk from the eastern edge of Los Angeles to the ocean. He exhibited the photographs documenting this performance, along with the printed lyrics of A Life on the Ocean Wave and a live performance of students singing sea shanties, at the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1975. He intended to repeat this night walk and mirror the pre-voyage exhibition at the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands following his safe arrival in Europe. But Ader lost radio contact three weeks into the trip, and eight months later his empty boat was discovered by Spanish fishermen off the coast of Ireland. Ader had disappeared, and what happened in the middle of the Atlantic remains a mystery.
Ader’s sudden death during his most ambitious performance retrospectively shaped the reading of his earlier work. He became understood as a tragic romantic hero, on a quest for an unobtainable and unidentifiable quality that ultimately cost him his life. As Brad Spence, the curator of Ader’s first United States retrospective (at the University of California, Irvine, in 1999), noted, “In considering the work of artist Bas Jan Ader, there is an almost irresistible temptation to lapse into speculative narratives of the sensational and popular variety. This is perfectly understandable, since his story climaxes with the artist lost at sea in a risky performance. …Responses to his work are rife with personal projections and detective-style sleuthing as to his psychological state and artistic intent.” In particular, Ader’s famous Fall pieces were reinterpreted in this vein, as the prophetic preludes of the hero’s final downfall, the desperate and self-destructive acts of a man questing for something that even he could not define. Indeed, Ader’s entire body of work became redefined as his lifelong search for whatever “the miraculous” might entail.
In 1965, Ader’s “search” brought him to Claremont, California. While he originally moved to this apparently un-miraculous location to obtain his MFA, and later an MA in philosophy, at Claremont Graduate School (CGS), it quickly became an important site for the development of his work and career. This was evident in Ader’s 1967 MFA thesis project, entitled Implosion, one of his earliest works exploring the concept of falling.
Thematically and physically, Implosion consisted of many complex components. Ader filled the exhibition space with two large, multimedia constructions containing six smaller works and a book filled with poems and lithographic drawings. Ader described the entire installation as an “environment” that was subdivided into three thematic categories: part and whole, real and illusionary, and rise and fall. This final theme, which was to become so essential to Ader’s later work, was evident in paintings, linens, films, and photographs with titles like Niagara Falls, Humpty Dumpty, and Plan for a Dangerous Journey (all three works, 1967). The poster for the project showed a photograph of Ader smoking a cigar and sitting in a chair on the roof of his Claremont home, surrounded by Pop art styled, cartoon clouds. Ader titled the poster The Artist Contemplating the Forces of Nature (1967).
In 1970 Ader gave into these forces of nature by pushing the theme of falling—and literally pushing himself—over the edge of the same house in Claremont. In his first Fall film, Fall I, Los Angeles, Ader sits in a chair on the roof of his home before falling and rolling off the roof, into the bushes below. Reminiscent of the slapstick humor of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the film hovers between the realms of the comic and the tragic, as the viewer wonders about the fate of the artist. (In fact Ader’s wife, Mary Sue Ader-Andersen, once implied that he was badly hurt in the filming of Fall I, Los Angeles.) But the viewer is not given any information about the outcome of the fall, nor told why the artist was on the roof in the first place. The beginning and end of the fall are not made significant by Ader—only the act of falling itself. The artist provides no personal narrative, nor is he the subject of the film; rather, his body becomes a passive object used to illustrate the force of gravity, and the inevitable result of succumbing to nature. Ader once famously declared, “I do not make body sculpture, body art or body works. When I fell off the roof of my house, or into a canal, it was because gravity made itself master over me.” It is clear that his apparent failure to maintain control over his body was not simply a premonition of his death or a tragically self-destructive quest, but a conscious exploration of the natural gravitation of any object towards the earth.
Excerpt from Evidence: John Baldessari at Pomona by Glenn Phillips
In the fall of 1970, artist John Baldessari and curator Helene Winer each began new jobs: Baldessari as a professor of “post-studio art” at the newly formed California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and Winer as director and curator of the Pomona College Museum of Art. CalArts operated its first year out of temporary quarters in Burbank, as it finished the construction of its new campus in Valencia, California, a small town near the expansive northwestern edge of Los Angeles County. Pomona College is sixty miles away from Valencia, at Los Angeles County’s southeastern edge, in the town of Claremont. As Baldessari and Winer both settled into their jobs, these two unlikely communities on the outer fringes of Los Angeles County would become host to some of the most radical and advanced ideas about art making occurring anywhere in Los Angeles.
Winer’s first exhibition of (mostly) Los Angeles artists at Pomona took place in December 1970. Titled “Monoprints,” the exhibition aimed, according to the press release, to present “original work that can, in a loose interpretation of the term, be considered a print.” “Monoprints” included work by Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Sol LeWitt, and Joe Goode, among others. While many works in the show took the notion of a print loosely (LeWitt, for instance, folded and unfolded paper to produce a textured grid), Baldessari produced two works that challenged nearly every notion of what a “print” might mean. Evidence: Bowl Handed to Helene Winer Dec. 1, 70 (1970) consisted of a wide white bowl that had been dusted with graphite powder to reveal fingerprints. Evidence: A Potential Print (1970) took the form of ashes scattered in a corner of the gallery, with a footprint in their midst.
Baldessari had struggled as a painter for more than a decade before moving, in the mid-1960s, to a Conceptual practice that examined the process of art making and its reception as a system of rules and relationships. In 1966, he began a series of text paintings that aimed to remove his “hand” from the artwork by separating him from the work’s process of fabrication. Baldessari chose simple texts, often derived from art books and instruction manuals, and then hired out production of the canvas: “Someone else built and primed the canvases and took them to the sign painter, the texts are quotations from art books, and the sign painter was instructed not to attempt to make attractive artful lettering but to letter the information in the most simple way.” Many of these works also included banal or compositionally awkward photographs that were transferred to the canvas using a photo-emulsion process. Wrong (1967), for instance, includes an image of the artist standing in front of a palm tree, illustrating a “bad” composition that makes the tree appear to be growing from his head.
In July of 1970, Baldessari conceived to make his painterly self-effacement retroactive by burning in a mortuary crematorium all of his pre-1966 paintings that were still in his possession. He published a death notice in his hometown San Diego newspaper, and he began to repurpose the cremated ashes for new works. Some, for instance, were sealed into an urn as part of the documentation of the Cremation Project; others were baked into cookies. The ashes sprinkled in the corner at Pomona for Evidence: A Potential Print were also, of course, from the cremated paintings.
In a statement published alongside the Pomona works, Baldessari noted, “What is seen here is an attempt to avoid both ink and paper, but also the ACT, or at least delay the act or stretch it out in time.” That is, Baldessari was trying not only to separate the printmaking process from the use of ink and paper, but also from the “act” of printing at all, substituting in its place the often inadvertent act of leaving “evidence”—footprints, fingerprints—as marks of one’s presence. Production of the works required a bit of trickery: under the guise of a friendly dinner, Baldessari invited Winer to his home, making sure to hand her the white bowl during her visit so that he could capture her fingerprints. The footprint in the ashes was more mysterious and unidentified, but it pointed to a previous presence within the gallery, while also tempting gallery visitors to leave their own surreptitious marks within the powder. Together, the works pointed to art making as a larger system of relations: the curator has a literal “hand” in the process, providing opportunities and occasion to produce new work, and viewers form a constant, though often unacknowledged, backdrop to an artwork’s life on view.
Excerpt from interview with Glenn Phillips, May 18, 2010
Glenn Phillips How did you first visit Pomona, and how did you decide to go to school there?
Chris Burden I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of high school in La Jolla [California] at the Scripps Oceanography Institute. I got a tiny National Science Foundation grant and took a Greyhound bus across the country. But when I was in La Jolla, I didn’t link up with the scientists. I spent most of my time there developing and printing my art photos.
California was an eye-opener for me. I had my first taco, and I learned how to drive a motorcycle. The room I rented was right on La Jolla Shores beach, and the surfers wanted a place to store their surfboards. Their dads were in the air force and had brought back Honda motorcycles. Hondas hadn’t been imported here yet. So the deal with these surfer guys was that if I let them store their surfboards in my room, then they’d let me teach myself how to drive their motorcycles.
I went to a prep school in Cambridge, and we were expected to have college interviews. On the way home, I drove back east with a couple of friends. Pomona College is on Route 66, so I ended up having an interview at Pomona, and subsequently ended up going there.
I started at Pomona as a pre-architecture student. That meant you signed up with the art department. You took art courses, physics, and advanced algebra concurrently. Well, the physics and algebra courses, especially the physics courses, were really hard at Pomona. So right away I started drifting towards art, because you’d have to spend forty hours a week on the math. It didn’t seem interesting at all, and a lot of the physics was over my head. I really liked making things.
One summer, I think the second summer, I went back and worked in an architectural office, called Cambridge Seven Associates. At the time, it looked like you had to be fifty-five years old and a principal in the architectural firm before you got to make any decisions. I was the lowest of the gofers. There were ex-Harvard graduate students from the architectural program on the lower levels of the building, drawing toilets and blueprints, and I was the gofer of the gofers, organizing magazines in the sub-sub-basement. The principals were all on the top floor, so the hierarchy of this company was physically structured by the building. And I just went, “Man, I cannot go to college for four years, and then do four years of graduate school, and then be sitting, working for somebody, drawing toilet bowls and blueprints, in the hopes that when I’m fifty-five, I’ll be able to design a building!”
So I came back to college, and it was at that point that I decided to become a sculptor. I’ll never forget going down and telling the chairman of the art department, Nick Cikovsky, that I didn’t want to be a pre-architecture student anymore. I wanted to become an artist, and specifically I wanted to become a sculptor. And he said to me, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s bad enough to be a painter, but a sculptor, you’re just committing financial suicide.” He used those very words: “financial suicide.” And I went, “Huh, well, we’ll see about that.”
GP You first studied sculpture at Pomona with John Mason. What was he like as a teacher?
CB John was a good teacher. This is going to sound kind of weird, but he would go in his office, and he was super grumpy and kind of intimidating for everybody to approach. The door would be open, and he would just sit there. And even as a student, I realized what the deal was—he didn’t want to be there. He was doing time. Drive out from East L.A. twice a week, sit in the goddamn office from one to five, and he’s done his job, right? If students want to come in and ask questions, they can. But I realized, he’s an artist, you know, he doesn’t want to be here! So in a way I kind of empathized with him.
GP You still have one of the sculptures you made in John’s class.
CB I was having a debate with John about what constituted art. Could a design object be art? Could something that was utilitarian also be sculpture? John said no. We were talking about making some fiberglass luggage. Well, couldn’t that be art? So I wanted to make this sculpture, this shape, which is sort of a three-sided Henry Moore. It was supposed to actually be a knife. On the sharp side, I was going to embed a razor, or a razor strip, so that it could be used as a chopper, a rocking chopper. I spent a lot of time making that thing, trying to get the perfect shape. I thought I could cast it solid. John didn’t say a thing. I finally finish the whole thing—it’s perfect—and then John says, “Oh, well you can’t cast that as a solid. It has to have a core, and you have to cut it in half.” Oh, crap. I had to start over. But you learn when you make a big mistake. John was a good teacher in that sense.
Ultimately, I never inserted the razor. By the time I got it done, it had been so much work, I just let it go as what it was, a beautiful shape.
Excerpt from interview by Marie Shurkus, October 6, 2009
Marie Shurkus My research revealed three different stories about how you first came to the States. So let’s start there.
Ger van Elk Mine is the classic story of an immigrant. My father flew back and forth between Holland and America. In the late fifties, he was living in Cheshire, Connecticut, but he was planning on moving to Los Angeles, where he was an illustrator for Hanna-Barbera cartoons. So on one of his trips back to Holland he confronted me, saying something like: “What the heck are you doing in Holland; it’s such a provincial place. It’s not good for you. You should be out in the world. You should come see me in Los Angeles.” So I decided to go to America.
MS Was that in 1959?
GVE Yes, I immigrated to the United States, and got a job in a pastry shop with my father’s friend Louie Cavalier. I earned $90 a week punching holes in Connecticut donuts, and it was great! I learned to speak English, got to know American culture. And then, after eight or nine months, I took the train from New York to my father’s place in Los Angeles.
MS Once in Los Angeles, you enrolled in Immaculate Heart College. Why there?
GVE Because I have always been difficult. [Laughs.] At that time, any self-respecting contemporary artist went to Chouinard Art Institute. But I thought, how can anyone possibly learn to make contemporary art? I found that ridiculous, plus I was intrigued by this nun place. It was unheard of to have nuns dressed in habits teaching contemporary art! I thought this is really one misunderstanding after the other, and decided that it would be more interesting for me to go see the nuns than to go to Chouinard.
MS Did you get a degree?
GVE No, before coming to America I went to art school in Amsterdam at the Kunstnijverheidsschool, which is where I became very good friends with Bas Jan Ader, though we lost touch right after school. You see, Bas traveled south, through Spain and onto Morocco, where he signed on with an English crew sailing west, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and on to San Diego. At that point I was already living on Sunset Boulevard, and one day I got a phone call: it was Bas looking for a place to stay. The sailboat had sunk, and the U.S. Marines had fished him and the crew out of the water. He had lost everything, his passport, everything lost at sea again, or for the first time. Anyway, I convinced him to join us at this funny place with the nuns. Mary Sue, whom he later married, was also taking classes at Immaculate Heart. We ended up living together for about a year, but then it was my turn to be a sailor. It’s not that I wanted to be a real sailor, but I thought I’ve got to go through that experience. So I signed on to an oil tanker for about nine months. When the tanker stopped in Rotterdam, I got off and spent more time making art in the Netherlands.
MS Is that when you organized the International Institute for the Re-education of Artists?
GVE I organized that group with Jan Dibbets and Reinier Lucassen in 1967. Back then international art schools were becoming a very popular phenomenon; it was like McDonald’s, something that was spreading everywhere. So we thought we could make it even more ridiculous by starting an international school for the re-education of artists in Conceptualism. We advertised classes on how to become an artist, tips on how to be a successful collector, or how to run your own gallery.
MS Did anyone try to enroll?
GVE Some people took it seriously, but most knew it was a joke. A few people got really annoyed. They didn’t like us making fun of people who were trying to start galleries, but we were against that kind of amateurism. I was very contrary back then.
MS What do you mean?
GVE Oh, I was constantly questioning myself and whatever was going on in the art world. For example, in the early sixties, it was forbidden to like Salvador Dalí. The general feeling was that Dalí couldn’t paint! I saw that he couldn’t paint in the manner that people think of as good painting. But I didn’t care, because I liked his concepts. Of course, I understand the phenomena of artists making pieces about painting, like Ad Reinhardt or Robert Ryman. In fact, I really appreciate their work. But I have always made work that functions as a witness to thoughts, a witness to things happening in the world and my relationship with society.
MS Does this notion of witnessing have anything to do with the projection pieces that you started making in 1969? For example, in the Self-Portrait behind a Wooden Fence piece, there is an actual wooden fence hanging on the gallery wall, but you also project a film of the same fence on top of it but slightly off register. As the film unfolds, we see your head emerge slowly from behind the fence, but of course you are only behind the fence in the film, not the actual fence hanging on the gallery wall. It’s hard to tell what we are really witnessing here. What were you trying to convey with this doubling of the image and the actual referent?
GVE It’s about comparison, making comparisons. It’s sort of like stating a proposition and saying, if this is the truth, then the other statement cannot be true. But maybe the other is the truth and the first one is not accurate. I’ve asked questions like that my whole life. When you look at my work, especially these early works, it always has a sort of schizophrenic element about struggling to make decisions. The projections also provide a strategy for adding information because the film pieces were always projected onto something concrete. So, if you have a film, you add something to reality: a story. You open the present up to another possibility.
Excerpt from Jack Goldstein’s Sculpture: Image Before Its Consequences by Marie Shurkus
In January 1971, the Pomona College Museum of Art became a very dangerous place. Entering the gallery meant sharing space with five Jack Goldstein sculptures, which were constructed of eight-by-eight-inch blocks of wood stacked approximately nine feet high. The wooden blocks were freshly cut and mostly unpainted. Accordingly, the wood dried and shifted over the course of the exhibition. The effect enhanced the sculptures’ instability while also animating them, as the invisible forces of heat and humidity announced their presence with audible cracks. In short, the sculptures confronted viewers with a palpable sense of danger.
Since the only armature holding these towering structures in place was gravity, the danger was neither imagined nor symbolic, but rather a potential held in suspension like the deadly weight of Richard Serra’s Prop pieces, initiated only a few years earlier. More to the point, Goldstein’s friend and roommate Hiro Kosaka recalled, the danger was real; they fell down in the studio almost every day. During the actual exhibition, however, they only teetered. In fact, the height of the vertical sculptures was determined by the size of the components and their ability to remain upright and maintain balance; taller stacks would have required larger blocks, Pomona curator Helene Winer explained. Pushing toward the impossible, Goldstein’s sculptures marked the edge of gravity’s power over composed shapes as well as the edge between actual violence and its threat. Like a video image placed on pause Goldstein’s physical objects thus contained and held both movement and danger in suspension,. Indeed, as Goldstein once observed: “An explosive is beauty before its consequences.”
Violent imagery and other forms of implied danger and overt spectacle populate Goldstein’s entire oeuvre, which encompassed sculpture, performance, film, photography, sound, painting, and prints. Nevertheless, Goldstein repeatedly insisted that his work was never about violence. Instead, Goldstein treated danger as a material that he used to craft a sense of anticipation and thereby enhance his viewers’ awareness of how representation operates. As Goldstein explained, “If there is a dangerous aspect, it’s because of what happens to an image when it anticipates, and so that moment before its fragmentation is gonna be violent, no matter what it is.” Goldstein’s 1972 film Rocking Chair specifically depicts this effect: after building a tense rhythmic rocking, the figure abruptly gets up and in one swift movement exits the frame, leaving the deserted chair to continue rocking wildly in his wake. Where Rocking Chair demonstrates the fragmentation of the image, Goldstein’s sculptures dramatize the moment before departure, when it appears in the violent tension of rocking or teetering, as only a threat, calling viewers to anticipate the potential consequences.
Although Serra’s Prop pieces offer an insightful precedent, Goldstein’s inspiration primarily came from Carl Andre’s “stacks.” This influence becomes especially apparent in Goldstein’s next series of sculptures, exhibited at New York’s OK Harris gallery in December 1972. Like those at Pomona, these sculptures relied entirely upon a balance negotiated between the material components and the ever-present force of gravity. However, the newer sculptures were composed of long, two-by-four planks that presented more complex and elegant forms. One critic even described their spiraling shapes as “miraculous”; for once again they seemed to defy gravity without the assistance of nails or other bindings. Nevertheless, one strong vibration—like a fist pounding on a table or some one jumping nearby—and these sculptures would crumble, their elegant shapes fragmenting, leaving a heap of planks scattered across the floor. In fact, Goldstein demonstrated as much in his films—A Glass of Milk and Some Plates—produced during the almost two years that elapsed between the Pomona and Harris exhibitions.
Although Goldstein’s work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and essays, little has been written about his sculptures. None of the originals exists anymore, which partially accounts for this critical reticence as well as their absence in the recent retrospective mounted at the Museum für Moderne Kunst. Moreover, after 1972, Goldstein gave up making sculpture to focus on his better-known film work, which Winer said was a direct outcome of the sculptures he exhibited at Pomona. Nevertheless, Goldstein always situated his artistic practice in terms of Minimalist sculpture. His focus, however, was not on the medium per se; rather, he latched onto Minimalism’s theatricality, which appeared initially in his sculptures as a dangerous discourse with gravity, and was later developed as a more pictorial value.
Excerpt from Wall Reliefs by Joe Goode by Julie Joyce
It seems every image I have used since completing school has to do with seeing through something, whether it is glass, water, skies, fires, trees...everything. What I am doing is projecting a way of seeing, essentially the same way through a different avenue, through a different image, in a way you don't normally see.
“Wall Reliefs by Joe Goode” featured a group of five sculptures designed and produced specifically for the main gallery at Pomona College. The Staircases (as this series of works was called) were indeed as named—replicas of actual staircases, positioned in profile and sunken into the wall at varying depths. Integral to the installation were colors and shadows cast through the strategic positioning of ceiling lights colored with filters—blue, red, yellow—that bathed these objects in variations of purples and oranges. Goode’s installation exists now primarily as anecdote or hearsay: vibrant for the viewer who had the good fortune of experiencing it, yet vanishing almost as quickly as it appeared. The artist hasn’t elaborated much on this series or this particular exhibition, at least in comparison to his other works. And their appearance in print is most often just as fleeting; they are discussed by Helene Winer in the modest exhibition catalog that accompanied his Pomona exhibition, but they appear briefly or not at all in other publications. Enhancing their elusiveness is the fact that only three of the sculptures reportedly still exist. However, this installation has a lasting significance, not only for the artist and the program at Pomona, but also in the exploration and expansion of art in Southern California.
Goode began working on the Staircases in 1964. Prior to the Pomona show, he exhibited a group of them in a 1966 solo exhibition at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. In this earlier manifestation, they projected from the wall to meet the viewer frontally, in contrast to the Wall Reliefs at Pomona, which were experienced primarily from their sides, where they existed “on the same plane” as the wall. This was an important distinction for Goode, who, then early in his career, was embarking on what was to become a life-long exploration of the physical and phenomenological aspects of spatial relationships. Other than the Staircases, he primarily explored these issues via conventional two-dimensional formats: painting, drawing, and collage. Thus, a large part of what distinguishes the Staircases from the rest of the artist’s oeuvre is the fact that they extended into the actual third dimension.
Goode’s Staircases were preceded by his Milk Bottle series (1961–62)—large monochrome paintings juxtaposed with an actual milk bottle painted the same color and positioned on the floor in front of the canvas. Goode recently recalled, “The idea to do stairs was from the same idea that inspired the Milk Bottle paintings.” Upon arriving home at the small dwelling in Highland Park that the artist shared with his first wife and new baby, he would often find a glass milk bottle sitting on the steps near the door. Goode’s fascination with the way the bottle “floated in space” was a part of the inspiration for these paintings, as was the way he could utilize this phenomenon toward the portrayal of expanding space, in this case by using the floor to reach beyond the canvas. The artist’s House paintings (1963)—reductive renderings of typical California bungalows on a monochromatic background—synthesized Goode’s use of the quotidian with his interest in metaphysical space. Goode explains: “If a house is typical enough, you always have an idea about what’s inside. ...It was the idea of intellectual transparency that fascinated me." In the Window paintings, begun at the same time as the Staircases, Goode depicted a view of the sky through a window, and overlaid that with a sheet of transparent Plexi. This deceptively simple device acted to disrupt the view out the window while simultaneously reflecting the viewer’s space, thus taking his explorations of space even further.
The Staircases, and even more prominently, the Wall Reliefs, appear to function like normal staircases, but in fact they go, quite literally, nowhere. As such, the Staircases convey denial to an emphatic degree, perhaps even more so than Goode’s other works (or the works of his peers). This point was certainly not lost on the critic William Wilson, who, in his review of Goode’s exhibition at Pomona College (and of John McCracken’s exhibition on view there concurrently), struggles to reconcile the evasive character of the work. Positing both Goode and McCracken in what he calls “Neutrality-style art,” the writer acknowledges that the work “makes some observers feel tricked, put on.” A similar reticence towards Goode’s work can be found in reviews of the artist’s Milk Bottle paintings, which John Coplans described as “the loneliest painting imaginable.” Philip Leider addressed their “unsettling quality,” or more specifically, their “intrusive moral overtone which set them apart from the inscrutably noncommittal presentations of his fellows.”
Excerpt from interview by Glenn Phillips, June 2, 2010
Glenn Phillips How did you first come to Los Angeles?
Hirokazu Kosaka I came in 1966 to go to Chouinard Art Institute. My parents insisted that I receive an American education. When I came to the United States, I brought fear; there was a language problem, a cultural difference. During the occupation in Japan in the 1940s and ’50s, I met American soldiers. Seeing American soldiers with rifles coming into the house with their boots on was very scary. I came from Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. You see thousand-year-old homes there, and merchants that go back hundreds of years.
I never knew the word “art.” In Japan, it’s called craftsmen or artisans. The Chinese ideogram is three symbols: ear, sound, and ladder, to support it. We have to hear it, the sound of the crafts. That’s how I grew up: I thought brush-makers were artists. Paint-makers were artists. We didn’t have museums. The museums were Buddhist temples, and the walls were screens that were painted five or six hundred years ago. Japanese gardeners were artists. I thought, coming to Chouinard Art Institute, that I would be learning something in that line of craftsman. But Chouinard was very different.
GP What were the other students like?
HK The first year, I met many non-Americans: people from Mexico, people from Europe, one or two Japanese. The students were very diverse. I always thought Americans were six feet tall, blue eyes. I was surprised. It was nothing like what I imagined. Most of my teachers were draftsmen in the lineage of Rico Lebrun. The first year was figure drawing for eight hours a day. I think there were thirty students in the class. We drew with charcoal. That’s all we did that first year.
GP And then you studied painting after that?
HK It was general studies: We had drawing class, painting class, sculpture class. I had an incredible handicap with language, but one of my interests was art history. Our teacher was a writer for the Los Angeles Times.
GP Jules Langsner.
HK Yes. He was showing some Chinese and Japanese paintings, and one of the paintings was from my neighbor’s temple. I told him this, and he was very surprised that I’d seen this painting. He asked me to sit around on the patio, talking about these paintings. He was also very fascinated with experimental art. The name Gutai came up. And I said, Jules, I know these guys.
GP So you had known some of the Gutai artists in Japan.
HK Yes, I knew some of them as a teenager. There was a publication that came out around 1956–57, which I had. My high school teacher was very experimental, and he was showing these photographs. I had collected a lot of photographs of that period.
GP And what did you think of that work? Did you think of it as performance, or photography, or was it just another approach to art making.
HK I think when I came to Chouinard, Allan Kaprow’s book on Happenings had already been printed. There were Gutai photographs in that book. That was very surprising. The word “Happening” was a kind of fashion for that period, not so much the word “performance.” I don’t think Gutai group called them happenings or performances. The word Gutai means concrete forms. That’s what’s Mr. [Jiro] Yoshihara, the leader of the group, was concentrating on. He painted circles all his life. The circle connotes Zen ensō, meaning empty. I think that’s the word Gutai was trying to say something about, this Buddhist notion of emptiness. I don’t think Allan Kaprow knew that. I talked to him a couple of times about that, and he just said, “I don’t understand.” But John Cage was profoundly moved by ensō. He did a lot of pieces about that.
I think my potential for making art was just seated in certain periods. I did well at drafting, and I did well in painting, but I think there was a limitation. The Gutai artists really influenced my work after my junior year. I started to see pictures of Joseph Beuys’s work in Art International magazine, and I saw Conceptual art, like Douglas Huebler. I saw pictures of earth art—[Robert] Smithson, [Dennis] Oppenheim, people like that. But when it became body art—that really brought back the Gutai group. Especially [Saburo] Murakami going through paper, or [Kazuo] Shiraga in the mud, looking for his art.
At the same time, I came from a very traditional background, and there was a conflict. I think the conflict was the Vietnam War. I was seeing the Vietnam War and looking at the images of bodies, just piling up. That also went back to Lebrun’s drawings for Dante’s Inferno from the early sixties. He was an artist in the army, and he went to death camps and drew all these incredible bodies. I also knew the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the first image that really blinded me was the Vietnamese monk who burned himself. I think it was in Saigon, and he just poured gasoline over himself and burned himself. He was so stationary. It was like meditation in a way, in this posture, and then he just collapsed. And I thought: I could do it. I wanted to do it. But…I couldn’t do it.
Excerpt from interview by Marie Shurkus, January 21, 2010
Marie Shurkus Your work really seems to stand out in the context of the late sixties. Who were some of your influences?
William Leavitt Ed Kienholz was a really strong influence because his tableaux were narrative and narrative was something I was very sympathetic to. Also Ed Ruscha. He did a show at Ferus Gallery in 1965 that was important for me, but I haven’t seen any of those paintings since. They depicted birds, pencils, and fish; and if I remember correctly, the bird was a Baltimore oriole. He used those three elements in different arrangements as figures on a black background. And these paintings were in line with my interest in the absurd. Ruscha didn’t really make much of those paintings later, but they did have an influence on me in terms of their presentation of the image as icon without its usual connection to meaning.
MS A similar sensibility seems to be operating in your piece Random Selections from 1969.
WL Yes, I used three-by-five-inch cards that had pictorial elements on them. I think there were maybe twenty different items such as smoke, wire, photo, cage, fish, and sand. They were just banal things from the world. I shuffled the cards and dealt three, then made a little drawing of the set, and then took a photograph of the actual objects in the combinations given by the cards. I think I only made three or four different photos of the various combinations, though I used that technique later on to generate material for scripts.
MS In 1969, you also collaborated with Bas Jan Ader, right?
WL I met Bas at Claremont Graduate School in 1965, where we were both students. Later we worked together on a publication and some outdoor installation performances; one we did at Immaculate Heart College was called A Hillside Work (1969) It was a waterfall of highway flares, laid out with one at the top, two, three…until it spread out at the bottom of the hill. All these flares were lit sequentially from the top to the bottom, creating a sense of movement unfolding. We amplified the sound of the flares with a microphone, so that you heard the hissing of the flares as they slowly burned out and the sound faded.
MS Audio is also a significant part of the work you showed in your first solo exhibition at Eugenia Butler Gallery in 1970.
WL Yes, I installed three pieces at Eugenia Butler. Forest Sound was composed of seven artificial plastic trees set on a sand hillock. A yellow spotlight lit the trees from below so you could see the concrete bases of the trees. There was also a tape recorder playing a looped recording of mockingbirds, which came from a speaker in the trees. The second installation, Garden Sound, was a clump of plastic vegetation, a wooden box with microphone and amplifier, and a speaker buried in the plants. A pump circulated water in the box, so you heard the sound of running water coming from the plastic plants. Each piece had its own room. Wind Sound was in the office area of the gallery. On one wall of the room was a tape player with a looped recording of the wind going through a radio transmitter—built from a little Radio Shack kit. On the other wall was a radio that received and broadcast the sound of the wind. Actually, the wind sounded a lot like static, but you also heard a whishing sound. I was mostly interested in the absurdist idea of broadcasting the sound of wind over a radio ten feet away—a wind environment in the office. I was interested in creating something that was illusionistic in terms of mood, or story, or place, or situation.
MS That sense of creating the illusion of a mood or a place also seems to describe your approach to narrative. The last time we spoke about narrative, you mentioned an influence coming from soap operas as well as from the author Alain Robbe-Grillet.
WL The banality of soap operas fits in with my interest in suburbia. I thought the style of soap operas was marvelous in this absurd way. It wasn’t that I wanted to disparage it; I just wanted to hold it there and think, What is this? I wanted to look at it not through a plot sequence, but through how it was presented. It does seem kind of opposite to what Robbe-Grillet was creating—this very reduced description of a place, a situation, pared down to a point where there was just this repetition of the language and a kind of blankness that he created, sometimes with a layer of dread underneath, but not giving you too much. He kind of left you to fill in the spaces yourself. So I was interested in how he did that. I was also interested in the philosophy of phenomenology, which asks that we look at things before judgment, and try not to assign any value to our investigations of the world, but just look at it and bracket it to see if something else will come up.
Excerpt from Back to the Wall: John McCracken’s Wall Works by Carrie Dedon
John McCracken was well established in the art world by the time of his exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art in February 1971. His work, associated with Minimalism in New York and with the “Los Angeles esthetic” of Finish Fetish, had been featured in solo shows on both coasts and internationally. McCracken was best known for his Planks—tall, thin structures that were brightly colored with meticulous, high-gloss finishes. These finishes are a distinctive feature of McCracken’s work; highly labor intensive, they require hours of work and layers of varnish, and are almost always entirely handmade by McCracken. Although they contain what he calls “subtle reflections of the maker’s energy,” the final product appears to be industrially manufactured. Reminiscent of surfboards, the Planks are exhibited leaning against the gallery wall at an angle. New York Times critic James R. Mellow described them in 1970 as “brightly colored Platonic slabs of lumber—ideally nonfunctional structural forms.” The Planks propelled McCracken’s art world success; in 1970, they were already regarded as his signature pieces.
At his Pomona College exhibition, however, the Planks did not appear. Instead, McCracken exhibited what the press release for the show described as “the first works by the artist that hang on the wall, bringing the pieces closer to painting problems that have always been integral in his sculpture.” The three rectangular works shared the same bright colors and glossy finish of McCracken’s earlier work, but they abandoned the floor altogether. Mellow described the Planks in 1970 as “not quite sculpture and not quite painting.” McCracken’s works are considered sculptural for their three-dimensional presence in the viewer’s space; they are simultaneously considered as paintings for their bright colors, which McCracken described as an actual medium of the work itself, and their glazed, two-dimensional surfaces. Less than a year after Mellow’s comment, McCracken’s exhibition at Pomona College moved his body of work even closer to painterly issues. One of the three untitled pieces was a long, horizontal, red work that abandoned the Planks’ smooth finishes in favor of a surface that, while still glossy, clearly distinguished the boards underneath, evoking both the texture of painting and the medium of sculpture. This and the other 1971 wall works seemed to be sculptures, by design and by fabrication, that were displayed and viewed as if they were paintings.
The Pomona College works were not McCracken’s first wall pieces, despite the claims of the press release. He began his career, as Melinda Wortz recalls in the catalogue for McCracken’s 1986 retrospective, “with painting on canvas and gradually incorporated other materials, such as lacquer, on the canvas; then he produced reliefs that hang on the wall, and finally allowed the work literally to come off the wall and stand freely in space.” McCracken’s early sculptures echoed their predecessors, which were highly polished slabs with recessed “slots” that allowed them to be considered relief sculptures even before their departure from the gallery wall. The step from one to the other seemed to be a natural one, as simple as removing the pieces from the wall and placing them on freestanding pedestals.
McCracken describes this development of his work as a natural push towards a more reductive and radical form. He notes in a 2005 interview that “the earliest works were composed of many elements, then the elements coalesced and simplified, and then they got to the point where they turned into different materials, and then what had been paintings became reliefs with hard surfaces, and then the reliefs got deeper, and jumped off the wall in the form of sculptures. The whole development was unconscious and intuitive enough that I was surprised when I fully realized what had been happening.” The push to further reduce the forms of his work could be read as an embrace of the Minimalist esthetic, but McCracken was striving to do something more complex with his pieces: he was attempting to create “beings.” He said in the same interview, “I went kind of full tilt with my ideas. I was purely inventing as much as I was thinking, but I was mainly trying to make things that had strong existence. They had to be interesting, beautiful, have the right scale and bearing, and have obvious, convincing being.” This association of his works with anthropomorphic beings (he describes them alternately as “heroic” alien beings and the creations of a future UFO traveler) differentiates McCracken from his Minimalist contemporaries. The Planks represent more than the tangible and imposing presence felt by viewers of Minimalist sculpture. They represent an alternate reality, a strange and unidentifiable presence that is at once foreign yet literally reflective of our own world, as the high-polished surface mirrors and distorts the viewer and his/her surroundings.
Excerpt from interview by David Pagel, June 7, 2010
David Pagel What was your relationship to the Pomona College Museum of Art when Helene Winer invited you to exhibit there in 1971?
Ed Moses I never paid any attention to it. I met Helene, one way or another, and she was fairly attractive, and I was always interested in attractive women.
I was also interested in materials, in drawing, in rawness. I was aware of resins and plastics through Craig Kauffman and DeWain Valentine. I had this idea that I wanted to wrap a painting in plastic. By un-stretching the canvas it has the extra edges I like, the raw edges. So I made a huge Mylar table, put rain gutters around it, placed the canvas face down, and poured resin all over the back of the canvas until it bled out to the edges. The excess was swept off into the gutters. I worked outdoors because of the fumes. I poured paint into the wet resin, squirted it in there and when it dried I lifted the whole thing off the table. What happened was that the resin bled through irregularly, so there were shiny and matte surfaces. Then I nailed the whole resin-embedded canvas to the wall. It didn’t exactly look like a laminated driver’s license, but it was a primitive attempt. It was contrary to the modus operandi of the resin and plastic art of the time, which was shiny and finished and polished. Being the contrarian that I am, it suited me. There, on the wall, was this big strange thing that looked like leather. In order to keep the edges from curling up, I used old stirring sticks, anything that had a history, to add to the natural aspect of the situation. The process was important. I like moving things around without an end result in mind, of finding out through the process things I couldn’t have thought of. When I do things that I think of it’s just the same old story. I do things that I know and use my somewhat experienced eye in editing and correcting. I wanted to free myself from that and just take it as it comes.
DP So for your show at Pomona, “some early work, some recent work, some work in progress,” in 1971, you made some of the works in the galleries?
EM Yes. I planned to do some of the pouring of the resin in the gallery. But I was concerned about the fumes and the toxicity, so I didn’t pour any resin there. Instead, the gallery functioned as a place to build the resin paintings, marking them with chalk lines, snap lines, and masking them out. I had them in various stages of development. First I drew with snap lines, chalk lines, using pigment powders. I put tape over the canvases in irregular diagonal configurations. The designs came from Navajo blankets, second-phase chief blankets: diagonals, crisscross patterns, and lazy lines. Strips of paper went across, allowing for chance markings. I had various stages there to be seen and any of the stages could have been finished paintings. In fact, some of them I just left on the panels. They looked pretty nice. The two largest ones hung from long wooden sticks and looked as if they had been loomed. I put strings going vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. They made highly irregular patterns and let you see the substructure and the final construct.
DP You wanted something unfixed? In flux?
EM Right. I wanted the unpredictability. I had this feeling that to be an artist was to be a shaman. I believed, and still believe, that man leaves his mark as a response to his existence. I think there’s a genetic factor that makes certain people object makers. I never thought it was about making money. Who knows where that idea came from? There are different realities. When you’re drunk there’s a reality; when you’re in love there’s a reality; when you’re making love there’s a reality. So how do I respond to that and demonstrate that out of these compulsive lines? A handprint, a painting, or what?
DP What else was in the show?
EM Many of my small works on paper from that time involved cutting, folding, and compulsive coloring in, almost like 3-D architectural studies or abstract, shallow relief sculptures. To echo their format, I mounted them on eight-by-four-foot sheets of Celotex, a fragile composition board. I just push-pinned them in loose clusters, sort of salon style. I also built a platform with Celotex to keep people from taking the drawings off the wall or touching them. It was a barrier. At the opening a young guy stepped up on the platform and stepped right through the Celotex. He whirled around and ran out, leaving a puncture in the platform. It was a kind of on-the-spot performance that added to the environment of accidents, chance, and discoveries.
Excerpt from interview by Marie Shurkus, February 16, 2010
Marie Shurkus Your work changed significantly after you graduated from art school in 1967.
Allen Ruppersberg I came out of Chouinard as a painter with a minor interest in sculpture. But once you come out of school, you have to start over again—or at least in those days you did. I had some savings bonds that my dad had put away for me, and so I had a year or so where I could just paint and get started. Somewhere in that period, I went to see Frank Stella’s show at the Pasadena Art Museum. Looking at his Protractor series, I realized that he really knew what he was doing, and I didn’t. So that’s when I decided, I have to find my own language, my own voice. And that’s when I really started over.
MS Is that when you started working on the aquarium pieces?
AR The aquariums that you bought then were almost minimalist objects, like a Larry Bell box. They had chrome sides, and tops with little lights in them. They were like 3-D canvases and a readymade all at once. So they fit formally very well into my transition toward making more sculptural work. But what went inside the chrome aquariums became a much more personal kind of beginning. The whole idea of what an artwork could be was up for grabs, and that became my question, actually not just my question, but the question for my whole generation.
MS Your work Al’s Café from 1969 really took that question and ran with it.
AR Well, it began with the aquariums. You can look at the café as just a giant aquarium. And Al’s Grand Hotel (1971) is an extension of the café. The café is an extension of all the pieces that preceded it, beginning with the aquariums.
MS They seem like tableaux, three-dimensional images that people entered.
AR Well, what precede it are tableaux. And those indeed are images. When I made the three books—23 Pieces, 24 Pieces, and 25 Pieces (1968, 1970, and 1971)—those are about images, but they’re also tableaux.
MS How did you decide what places to include in 23 Pieces, for example?
AR I spent a lot of time driving all over Los Angeles, and California in general. Being from the Midwest, this was a great place to explore. Jack Goldstein and I would drive around town, look at things, and say: “That looks like a Robert Morris, or that looks like this other sculpture or earthwork.”
MS Were you specifically looking for tableaux? I ask because a lot of the scenes have a dramatic emptiness to them, as if something is about to happen.
AR Well, I was looking for essences, kind of the essence of indescribable atmospheres, or whatever you want to call it. So, it’s not only in the photographs, but it’s in the aquariums. It’s trying to capture something outside of art objects.
MS In 1970, you published 24 Pieces, which focused more on empty hotel rooms, but you would alter them slightly. For example, in one of them, there’s a picture taken off the wall.
AR There’s a trace of something taking place, but it’s only to indicate to the viewer that you can find traces like that anywhere. Anybody who walks into one of those places can find something like that.
MS In addition to location, there’s often a clue that suggests a narrative that’s left incomplete.
AR Yes, that really comes later, but it begins in those pieces.
MS Ed Ruscha also made books about locations.
AR Certainly, but almost everybody was making books at that time, because it was a way to make something that was not a museum piece or a gallery object. What I liked is that you could make something that could be distributed in a completely different way, and yet it was still art.
MS “The Location Piece” was your first solo exhibition, at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in 1969. When people arrived at the gallery—
AR They didn’t encounter an empty gallery. That wasn’t the point. There were a couple of minor pieces lying around, but the point was that they had to travel again. To go to see the real work—the show, really—they had to drive up La Cienega and come over to Sunset and Gardner, where I had rented offices much like this. Inside one office was the show, which was a room environment that you walked into. It was like walking into one of the aquariums, only it was real life, at its real scale, and it was located in a place where you would not expect to find such a thing
MS Some critics suggested that the location—an old office rather than a gallery or artist’s studio—created a relationship with detective novels and film noir. Helene Winer even once compared you to Los Angeles’s fictional Detective Philip Marlowe.
AR I was very much influenced by Raymond Chandler and all of that stuff. People still say the same thing when they come to my current studio—it looks like an old detective office. And it is. It’s from 1928, and all the details are still here. I like this kind of atmosphere. When I came out to Los Angeles in 1962, that sensibility was still around, in the post-war environment of the early sixties. I loved living in Hollywood. Part of it was the romance of old Hollywood; it was the time when Hollywood was being reinvented. I remember the curfew riots on Sunset Strip; I was a participant in all of that, so that became part of my influences, too.
Excerpt from Reprint of Paul McMahon, “Stoerchle Reviewed: Artist Performs in Montgomery,” The Student Life (March 21, 1972): 4.
Wolf Stoerchle’s show contrasted in many ways with Hiro Kosaka’s of a week earlier, notably in the way it was presented. While Kosaka to some extent ignored the audience and just did his piece, Stoerchle worked very closely with the audience at all times. Kosaka’s piece was in progress when the first spectators arrived. Stoerchle intentionally started about twenty minutes late to make sure that the audience would see the whole show, to avoid people missing the start and coming in while the show was in progress. Kosaka created an enigmatic situation for the audience in terms of how they should respond. Stoerchle provided a rug for the audience to sit on, lit only the performance half of the room (leaving the audience in darkness), and with masking tape marked off a boundary line between the performer’s space and the audience.
Stoerchle’s performance consisted of five different pieces done together as one show. There was strong continuity from one piece to the next, to the point that one really could not be sure whether it was one big piece or several small ones. The only demarcation between pieces was a short pause by the artist. Stoerchle cleared up the question somewhat in the short statement he made when he was finished by thanking the Once Group (a group of artists from Ann Arbor) “for the second piece.”
The way the performance was conducted was considerably closer to a sort of standard (if that word can be used) theatrical format than I expected from a contemporary artist. There seems to have been a certain amount of general criticism of aspects of the theatrical medium floating around in contemporary art for a while and perhaps an unwillingness on the part of some artists to commit themselves to a theatrical format. The use of this structure, however, seems to have been quite appropriate to the pieces Stoerchle performed. The pieces probably could not have been as effectively performed in a less formal situation.
All of the works dealt with vulnerability of different kinds. In the first piece Stoerchle straddled a mirror, which faced the audience, and raised the leg between the audience and the mirror, giving the illusion that he was sitting on the mirror and balancing, raising both legs at once. The audience, however, was aware that it was only an illusion and was faced with a case of illusion for the enjoyment of illusion.
The vulnerability in this piece was also quite clearly an illusion. The illusion that Stoerchle was balancing all of his weight on the mirror gave rise to the illusions that the mirror might break and that he might lose his balance.
The second piece, borrowed from the Once Group, was an “acting out” of the idea of “having the rug pulled out from under you.” (An interesting recent development is that some artists are openly performing others’ pieces, much like musicians playing each other’s pieces. Besides being a friendly gesture, this practice acknowledges the fact that many works can be “redone” by others.)
The acting out of phrases that evoke images has been widely used recently and can often be done as well by one artist as another; Stoerchle is making explicit reference here to the fact that one is always vulnerable to having the rug pulled out from under him.
In the third piece Stoerchle stripped, shedding his navy blue and red sweatsuit. While his assistant held his clothes stationary, Stoerchle, on his back, moved out of first his pants and then his shirt. He moved sort of like an inch-worm out of his shirt and wriggled out of his pants. The fact of his nudity seems to me to be the kind of vulnerability being used here, and as Stoerchle remained nude for the rest of the show, the sense of vulnerability remained at a high level.
In the fourth piece, Stoerchle, lying flat on his back, irritated his nose with a toothpick until he was forced to sneeze. As he involuntarily tightened his stomach muscles in sneezing he sat partly up and propped himself on his elbow, where he stayed after the sneeze was over. In the following eight or so sneezes, all forced by picking at his nose, Stoerchle stood all the way up, step by step, never moving voluntarily until he was already set in motion by the involuntary contractions of sneezing. At times this piece seemed a little contrived just because it was obvious that his intention was to eventually stand up, as opposed to going where the sneeze took him, and this did not seem quite right somehow. This piece points out a person’s vulnerability to his involuntary processes.
The final piece consisted of Stoerchle urinating on the small rug his assistant had pulled out from under him in the second piece. Standing nude, facing the audience, he concentrated for a short while and then peed, stopping himself immediately by tightening his muscles. He then relaxed his muscles and urinated again, stopping himself immediately again. This process continued until he was out of urine, about twenty spurts of urine, a lapse of about thirty seconds as the muscles relaxed, followed by another spurt, and so on.
Pieces four and five contrasted voluntary and involuntary physical reactions. Standing nude and urinating is in itself a very vulnerable position to be in, in front of an audience. This vulnerability was threatened at one point when a girl in the audience started clapping in the middle of this piece. If the audience had decided to start clapping it would have ruined the piece and left Stoerchle in an embarrassing position. In conversation later he mentioned to me that he had particularly enjoyed that point in the performance because it emphasized his vulnerability and because the audience, by not clapping, indicated a kind of support for the performance.
Excerpt from interview by Glenn Phillips, June 9, 2010
Glenn Phillips How did you come to Los Angeles?
William Wegman I was teaching in Wisconsin, at Madison, in 1969. It was a pretty amazing position: I was a visiting artist with Malcolm Morley, Richard Artschwager, Robert Morris, and John Chamberlain—all that year at Madison! It was a phenomenally interesting year, and that’s when I started working with video and photography. But it was just a one-year position. So I moved out in 1970 to teach beginning watercolor and life drawing at California State University, Long Beach. This was right after teaching Conceptual art and sculpture to graduate students at Madison.
So that was my first Los Angeles experience. I lived in a charming little house in San Pedro and significantly, I guess, I got a dog, and he started appearing in my videos right off the bat. I had a second studio space about a block away, and I used both of those sites for the videos, which appear in what became known as Reel 1 (1970–71). One space has a very normal-looking wooden floor, with a door and windows and so forth, and another is more of a loft-type space, sort of like a forgotten plumbing shop. I believe the house was at 921 Center Street. You might want to landmark that.
GP Definitely. Who were some of the first artists that you met out here?
WW Well, I met several of them about a year later. I wasn’t rehired for that Long Beach job, so I moved from San Pedro to Santa Monica. John Baldessari lived around the block, and I used to have coffee with him every morning. I was in a show called “24 Young Artists” at LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] in 1971, and I met a lot of young artists through that. There was Chuck Arnoldi, Laddie Dill, David Deutsch, and a gazillion others. Well, twenty-one others. And I met Ed Ruscha. I also used to play basketball in Venice with a group of Los Angeles artists.
GP I heard about that group. That was on Sundays, right?
WW Yes. It was Bruce Nauman, Doug Wheeler, and a few others.
GP Cynthia Maughan—who was a student at Cal State Long Beach when you were there—always made her video art pieces on Sundays when her husband was playing basketball with you guys.
WW I was a terrible basketball player. I also met Van Schley. Do you know him? He called himself a leisure artist, and he did some funny pieces. One was called World Run (1976), where he had himself photographed at every Olympic stadium as he ran around the world.
GP I was actually just looking at that book the other day! It’s made to resemble a charming, little coffee table book.
WW Van became a close friend of mine. He was interesting to hang out with. My neighbor in Santa Monica was Gary Weis, who ended up doing films for Saturday Night Live. He went out with Sharon Peckinpah, one of Sam’s daughters. I met Lorne Michaels then, and I did some pieces for Saturday Night Live in the mid-seventies.
GP That was after you moved to New York.
WW It was after, but I had several meetings with Lorne back then when he was describing this idea for a live comedy show that would bridge the new comedy with art.
GP You and John Baldessari traded studio spaces at a certain point, right?
WW We didn’t trade, because he didn’t give me his. I gave him mine. So it wasn’t a fair trade at all, was it? I left it for him when I moved to New York. He’s barely changed that space, except there are a million more objects in there than when I lived there. I visited John this year, and he gave me a chair I’d left in that space—one that appeared in several of my works.
GP Was it the same chair you used in the massage chair video, the one you hit with the stick?
WW Exactly! I have that in my little home museum. You can come and sit in it, and try out the vibrations.
GP Let’s talk a little bit about some of the works that were in the Pomona exhibition. You were showing photographs, video, and some sculptural assemblages, all together. The photographs were dealing a lot with doubles, or this idea of twinning, or identical situations.
WW Those little “find the difference” puzzles often fascinated me. I came to photography rather late. I never studied it in school. I borrowed my wife Gail’s camera when I was documenting some things in Wisconsin, and I came to the conclusion that I should be making work for the camera rather than just documenting sculptures. The idea was that the photographs should be the size that you would see in a magazine. At the time, photographs were being brought back to the studio as relics of earth art, and I wanted to distinguish myself from that side of the photo world. I didn’t want the photos to be documents, but the actual work. At the time, I thought I was really on to something that was mine. It had strength because it could be reproduced without changing the sense of the work, whether it was here or there. It didn’t have to be attached to a place. It wasn’t like, “Gee, if you were here, you would have seen this.”
Excerpt from interview by David Pagel, June 3, 2010
David Pagel When did you figure out that you wanted to be an artist?
John White After the first three months of art school, where I had gone for all the wrong reasons.
DP What were some of those reasons?
JW The main one was to get a job. I was a brewer, making beer in a San Francisco brewery. My dad was a brewmaster. I’d flunked out of Cal Poly [California Polytechnic State University], San Luis Obispo, and I went up to San Francisco State [University], played on their golf team, and flunked out of there, too. So, I was a mess. My dad said, “Let’s get you back on track. You’ll become a brewmaster like me, and I’ll help you out. But you have to go to school, okay?” He was real disappointed that I was flunking out because he wanted me to be the first one in the family to get a college degree. Anyway, I traced a bunch of drawings, a skier from a ski magazine, a golfer, things like that, and put them up in my dad’s room. He didn’t know I traced them and thought I had talent. So he said, “I’ve got somebody from Allied Industries, a chemical corporation, and they’d like to meet you because they’re hiring. They’re looking for a guy who’s white, knows how to play golf, has had some education, and knows the brewery business.” So I met this guy and he said, “You’ve got the job. But you have to go to school and learn single-line drawing because one of your jobs will be to draw the floor plans of breweries you visit in Argentina and places like that. You’ll have to walk in to the brewery, draw its floor plan quickly, and then be able to take everybody out to play golf, lose to the bosses, and schmooze.”
DP That was in 1962?
JW In 1961 or 1962. I was twenty-four or twenty-five. So I open up the yellow pages, and it says “The Patri School of Art Fundamentals, For the Absolute Beginner.” I call this guy up and he says, “Bring your portfolio down Wednesday, and I’ll see what you’ve got.” This was Monday, so I called a couple of girlfriends and I told them my situation. They said, “Let’s all meet tonight over at Judy’s house.”
DP And they made your portfolio?
JW I paid for the pizza and the beer and had a portfolio by the end of the evening. On Wednesday I walked into the Patri School. Giacomo Patri was a well-known illustrator, trained by [László] Moholy-Nagy of the Chicago School of Design [now Illinois Institute of Technology] and the Bauhaus before that. He looked at my portfolio all of five seconds and slammed it shut. I had gone out and bought a nice heavy one. And he said, “Did you do this?” I said “Well, that’s my portfolio.” He said, “I don’t need to see it. Sit down and start drawing.”
DP And you were hooked?
JW It was a wonderful place. I lived there from 1962 to 1964. I said to hell with the brewery job. My dad stopped talking to me. I got an AA degree. By my last year, I was teaching drawing at the Patri School.
DP You fell in love with the scene?
JW Boom! I fell in love. I had no fucking idea what was going on. But it was just that you could smell it. I just felt it. I just sensed it. I gave up everything and moved in. I met these drunk guys who would paint for three days and then collapse in their rooms. They took me in! I was this raw material. Monday was sketching, Tuesday sculpture, Wednesday big drawing, Thursday design, and Friday you take all that and make something out of it. And Patri ran all the classes. Absolutely fantastic.
DP Then you went to Otis to get your BFA?
JW My BFA and MFA, from 1965 to 1969.
DP How was it different?
JW At Otis, students were channeled toward academic drawing or the design department. It was nothing like the Patri School. It was actually more old-fashioned, rigidly structured. Performance was not taught. But that school was good for me because I had everybody hating me—the students, the teachers. It made you tough with your own ideas and you had to fight for yourself. All in all, it was a way of knowing what I didn’t want to do. So in some odd, ass backwards way, it worked as an education.
DP You had assignments?
JW Yes. I made paintings that I thought were acceptable for Otis, and I did my own work for myself and my friends. I’d go home at night to do them, or I’d wait until after the faculty had gone home and then paint what I wanted at Otis.
DP Your secret work.
JW Yes, which wasn’t so secret when it came time for my MFA thesis show. On hollow-core doors, I did floor plans from the brewery, schematic drawings that I’d made into big paintings. Down at the bottom I had written various phrases, like “performance notations” and “dance notations.” I brought these works down to the gallery for my thesis exhibition and Wayne Long, the lead faculty member on my committee, said, “What’s this?” I said, “It’s about performance art.” But I was told, “No, this is not art, this has to do with theater. You’re not going to get away with this for your master’s show!” He fucking freaked out!
So I had one of those devices retail stores use to affix price stickers to merchandise. It was called a Dymo. I printed out “Untitled #1,” “Untitled #2,” and so on, and stuck those tags over the words at the bottom of my paintings. That placated the faculty. And then, the night before the show opened, I snuck in through the basement with my studio mate and we tore off the stickers. By the time the faculty saw them, too many people were already at the show. They couldn’t do anything. My timing wasn’t bad.
Excerpt from HELENE WINER INTERVIEWED BY REBECCA MCGREW, Metro Pictures Gallery, New York, New York, October 8, 2008
Rebecca McGrew Let’s begin with a discussion about your background and how you came to Pomona College. You were previously at Whitechapel Gallery in London; what brought you back to Los Angeles?
Helene Winer I was away from Los Angeles for about three years. Most of that time I was in London working at the Whitechapel Gallery as assistant director. I started at Pomona a few months after returning to Los Angeles in the fall of 1970. I grew up in Los Angeles, in Westchester, and I studied art history at USC [the University of Southern California]. After college, I landed what for me was a prize job at the L.A. County Museum of Art [LACMA]. Jim Elliott, chief curator, and curator of modern art, hired me as a part-time assistant. I think I told him that I would do anything, even empty ashtrays, if he would just hire me.
RM What did you do at LACMA?
HW I was an all-purpose, curatorial/exhibition assistant not assigned to any department until I was assigned to American art. For the prints and drawings department, I catalogued prints and assisted on Pablo Picasso’s eighty-fifth birthday print survey, for which I drove around Beverly Hills with a Polaroid camera documenting prints in collectors’ homes. I helped in the decorative arts/costume department, sometimes getting my photo taken in period costumes.
I quickly gravitated to contemporary art, as I became acquainted with artists and curators. Through them I discovered the galleries that were active in Los Angeles at that time, like Dwan Gallery, which had shows of Minimalists such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, and Irving Blum Gallery, where the Pop artists and Ferus artists showed. I remember seeing Warhol’s Mylar pillows [Silver Clouds, 1966] at Irving Blum.
At twenty-three, of course, I naturally became acquainted with all of the younger, and all male, artists. I got to know Ed Ruscha because he designed catalogues for LACMA and designed for Artforum. I was there when Ruscha unveiled his Los Angeles County Museum on Fire [1965–68, now owned by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.] on the museum patio. I posed for his famous Artforum ad/marriage announcement [“Ed Ruscha Says Goodbye to College Joys,” January 1967]. I was bartender for Jim Elliott’s parties for friends, like Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg, at his apartment above the merry-go-round on the Santa Monica Pier. These are some of my most vivid memories of that time, along with buying my first artwork—two paintings by Richard Pettibone for $15 at his annual studio sale.
RM Why did you leave Los Angeles and move to London?
HW My job at the museum was tremendously valuable, but it was also a very loosely defined, entry-level job. So when friends of mine went to Croatia (then Yugoslavia) to shoot a film, I joined them with no real purpose but to spend some time in Europe. It was certainly not a career move. After visiting Croatia, Greece, and Italy, and spending several months in Paris, I moved to London. Bryan Robertson, who had just retired as director of the Whitechapel, told me of the assistant director job there. It was very fortunate timing, and I stayed for two years. It was the peak of Conceptual art activity for both American and European artists, with London as a hub. My introduction to that work, and the often intense, serious talk around it, was in stunning contrast to the mute, wry stance adopted by the artists I had known in Los Angeles. But I left London, primarily because I was unable to adapt to the dark and damp weather, or survive on the impossibly low pay.
RM Tell me about what the Los Angeles art world was like in 1970, when you came back and started working at Pomona College.
HW Los Angeles had changed dramatically during the few years I was away. When I left, it was the late sixties, and the Finish Fetish artists were prominent in L.A. The counterpoint group was the "assemblage" or Topanga artists. I respected both groups of artists and admired what they did.
Los Angeles in the 1960s was still fairly isolated and had developed a kind of parallel universe where the main artists had careers that were serious and active locally, and included shows in New York and Europe. But I cannot think of one artist who was fully embraced outside of Los Angeles. I believe this problem for L.A. artists really did not change substantially until the 1980s.
When I returned in 1970, Chouinard, where I took painting classes as a teenager, was closed, the Finish Fetish artists were now firmly established, CalArts had opened and UCI [the University of California at Irvine] had an ambitious art program.
RM Was your position at Pomona College similar to Hal Glicksman’s before you?
HW I was hired as gallery director and assistant professor. Other than some secretarial and very part-time student help, the gallery had no staff. Director then meant curator, registrar, PR, transport, preparator, etc.