By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Asco, I soon discover, should be as famous for its interpersonal meltdowns as for its conceptual breakthroughs.
“If you ask me today,” Gamboa says of the final years of Asco during a sit-down at one of his familiar haunts, Philippe’s in Chinatown, “It was a really good party that when you wake up, you wish it never happened.”
On a spring day in 1972, when he was 21 years old, Harry Gamboa Jr. found himself at LACMA, where he took his friend Cathy Llanes for a day of sampling the county museum’s high modern culture. As they looked at the paintings and sculptures and conceptual pieces that filled the museum’s galleries, Gamboa realized that not a single Chicano or Mexican artist was featured in the exhibits of modern art. He decided to make his disappointment known.
Gamboa now admits that at the time he was more than a little self-important. He had just experienced the East L.A. high school walkouts of 1968 — in fact, he was a leader of the walkouts at Garfield High — and he had participated in the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War in 1970. At LACMA that day, Gamboa found his way into the museum’s workrooms and confronted a curator.
“I said, ‘What’s the meaning of this? You don’t have any Chicano art on the walls,’ ” Gamboa recalls. “And without missing a beat — which, by the way, is something that I’ve learned, this casual, learned, dismissive manner, which is a talent — he turned quickly and said, ‘Well, Chicanos don’t make art, they join gangs.’ And then he sipped his drink.”
The conversation between Gamboa and the unnamed curator cannot be independently verified all these years later on the LACMA side, but there is no doubt about what happened next. That same night, joined by his Asco cohorts Herrón and Gronk, Gamboa returned to not only prove LACMA wrong but also to elevate the very concept of what can happen when you mix “art” and “Chicanos.” The three young men tagged their names in the darkness upon the entrance to LACMA — Gamboa, Herrón, Gronkie —in black and red spray paint. The tags, a twist on an assumed gangbanger pastime, were the artists’ signatures. Four years earlier, Ed Ruscha had declared war on the art establishment with his painting The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, but Asco took the sentiment a step further by declaring the building, the entire institution, one enormous conceptual art piece. The next morning, the fourth member of their budding art crew, painter Patssi Valdez, went to the site to pose for a photograph, with Gamboa behind the camera. She had been unable to get out of her house the night before.
They called the piece Spraypaint LACMA.Marcel Duchamp, the guy who brought us the urinal as art piece in 1917, would have been proud — and maybe a little jealous.
“That was the most relevant act of graffiti I can think of, as both a Chicano and an artist in Los Angeles,” Mario Ybarra Jr. told the L.A. Timesin 2005. “I feel proud that I carry that with me.”
“The only reason we spray-painted it,” Gamboa recalls today, “is because we couldn’t lift the whole place and toss it into the tar pits.”
The streets of East Los Angeles in the early 1970s were crackling spaces exploding with cultural and political energy, battled over by police, military recruiters, Brown Berets, cholos, and misfits more difficult to categorize — drag queens, punks, hippies and “jetters,” a subculture “to the tenth power” that Gamboa belonged to while at Garfield High.
Around 1971, Gronk, Herrón, Valdez and Gamboa, all Garfield alums, started working together on Regeneración, an art and literary journal Gamboa came to edit. Herrón, then Valdez’s boyfriend, was a muralist, whose best-known painting is The Wall That Cracked Open, created in a 12-hour fit of fury after he found his brother stabbed behind his City Terrace home. Valdez, more than a muse, was also painting at the time — though she wouldn’t show her work until much later — and gave Asco’s performance pieces a sense of fearless glamour.
Gronk had already been experimenting with different art forms. At the outdoor theater at Belvedere Park, he staged a performance piece titled Caca-Roaches Have No Friends, a twisted take on a children’s puppet show that featured Valdez and her sister Karen. In Benavidez’s book Gronk, the drag-queen artist Cyclona, who influenced Gronk early on, recalled the way the audience of mostly families responded to the show, which featured a caricature of male genitalia made with a large balloon and two eggs: “When I got to the infamous cock scene the audience went beserk! They started throwing eggs at me and burning the giant indoor trashcans. The police rushed the stage and stopped the show. We ran for our lives.”
Once Gamboa took the helm of Regeneración,he recruited Herrón and Valdez to contribute art, then added Gronk to the staff: “I saw some work by Gronk in Con Safos magazine and I liked it. I heard he was painting a mural at Cal State L.A. so I went to go see him and talk to him.”