On a trip to Europe this summer, a German art critic told me that every German artist she knew wanted to come to L.A. She wanted me to tell her why. I muttered something about there being a level of vitality from the institutional level down to the ground — meaning, basically, everything from the Getty’s opulence to Coagula’s insolence: from MOCA and LACMA and UCLA/Armand Hammer routinely competing for shows, to an ever-increasing number of small but potent museums (Jurassic, Skirball), to a relatively strong gallery scene, to the best collection of art schools anywhere, to the too-many-artists-to-name (but think Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon) who regularly show in Europe, to the equally long list of emerging artists whose names are leaking east, to Ed Ruscha and David Hockney’s now-historical views of the city, to the fact that people named Gehry, Beck, Tarantino, Salonen and Steppling, among others, live and work here. That’s the 1998 picture — some of it at any rate — but essentially, what the answer boils down to is: the past 20 years.
With a nod to the late and once-competitive Reader, there is no publication that so well covered this place — its high and low cultural moments — over that time as this one. Coverage of the art world was, in the beginning, secondary to the paper’s music coverage, mostly because the music scene back then overwhelmed nearly everything else. But the paper took as its mission going to the cultural edge and sending back dispatches, as in this cover story on L.A.’s first performance-arts festival, in 1980. As Hunter Drohojowska reported in her piece:
After tossing bunches of uncooked wienies at the audience, Johanna Went threw herself in a pool of blood on the floor, howling. Barry Markowitz ate raw meat. Barbara Smith spent the evening in a coffin.
In the garbage-dump area of the Atomic Café, Mark Kreisel put up an altar of 10 new commandments; notable among them was "Consider art a guest in L.A."
All this was art.
Drohojowska (the name itself a bit of performance) went on to describe the work of Bob and Bob, Rachel Rosenthal, Alexis Smith, Terry Wolverton, Chris Burden, the Kipper Kids and Weekly contributor Lewis MacAdams, among others. What’s interesting about her piece, though, is that she actually wonders on the reader’s behalf, "And what is performance art?" and then provides a primer:
Performance art uses techniques of both shock and boredom to bring about realizations — and sometimes changes — in both viewer and performer. Anybody can be a performance artist, anytime and anywhere. . . . Since some of you are still wondering if this stuff qualifies as art at all, let’s consider its origin — which is Dadaism. Dadaism was the name given to an unfettered revolutionary art movement in which the "act" was as important as the final product.
The coverage was often highly personal, as in Craig Lee’s 1981 profile of Johanna Went, whose performance art "might include sucking the eyeball out of a dead lamb’s head":
I remember the first time I saw her — I was hypnotized, fascinated, I laughed, was grossed out at points, bored, frustrated, elated — she was the first performer I had seen in a long time who had completely and totally involved me. And it was true for the rest of the audience — like her or hate her, nobody could take their eyes away from what she was doing.
And the Weekly covered trends, as in this 1981 Drohojowska survey of the burgeoning downtown art scene, "Art & The Downtown Gold Rush":
For what must seem like ages, people have been heralding the emergence of downtown Los Angeles as the center of contemporary art in Southern California. Predictions of another Soho-type art district, along with all the contradictions that Manhattan enclave has come to stand for, were being made for downtown L.A. almost before the first gallery banner went up. Between the opening of several new galleries and the arrival of LAVA ’81 — a daylong festival sponsored by Los Angeles Visual Artists — the damn thing’s finally happening . . .
In a city that has been historically grumpy about the dearth of exhibition space, 20 galleries spawned in as many months is a positive phenomenon. I guess. It’s just that it all happened so fast. Embryonic beginnings are spotlighted, thrown into exaggerated, high relief. So much attention has been focused on the development of downtown Los Angeles that an aura of self-consciousness now hangs as heavy as the smog. Conversations within the art world are tinged with the assumption that "the whole world is watching" . . .
All this attention tends to encourage competition for the sake of success ä rather than for the maturation of good work. The bandwagon rolls, and everyone jumps on in the attempt to be in the right place at the right time. And who can blame them? Artists in Los Angeles have been hungry for such a long time, they are excited by the mere whiff of recognition . . .
A friend . . . accuses the scene of being a stillborn child, a being that cannot survive. That remains to be seen. But all the self-congratulatory ego stroking already threatens to eviscerate the original appeal of the downtown area — a rough-edged, careless attitude that may have been scruffy and cocky, but at least held a measure of authenticity.