TEN YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, AFTER SEVERAL years of abdominal ruptures, fistulas and other grim, untreated medical portents, L.A.-born machinist and auto painter Ken Howard died from cirrhosis of the liver -- a common ailment among artisans who work with the lead-based enamels favored in commercial painting, and compounded in this case by years of heavy boozing. This probably isn't a very unusual story in the automotive customization industry, but not too many custom painters, 10 years after their deaths, wind up with their names emblazoned on a line of designer jeans, and a solo museum exhibit of their work. But there has never been another painter quite like Ken "Von Dutch" Howard.
Von Dutch, as he is almost universally known, is variously credited with inventing the over-the-top decorative mode of pinstriping that became the hallmark of hot-rod modification, and with being the first person to airbrush monstrous caricatures onto T-shirts -- inspiring Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and thereby millions of impressionable prepubescent minds, not to mention jump-starting a billion-dollar niche of the garment industry. He's also said to be first in the chain of idiosyncratic weirdos who married West Coast blue-collar popular culture to high art, a feverish hybrid that blossomed in the 1980s as Lowbrow art. Some even claim that Dutch was greater than the sum of all these -- that he was a latter-day Leonardo da Vinci, albeit a drunken, erratic, cantankerous, even sociopathic one.
Dutch was born and grew up near Watts, the son of an accomplished sign painter who did the gold-leaf lettering for the doors of both City Hall and UCLA. Never one for schoolwork, Dutch is said to have ended his academic career by climbing out a second-story school window into a tree. In some ways he never came down. As a young teenager (and perhaps even earlier), Dutch was striping motorcycles at a professional level, and had already developed his now ubiquitous "flying eyeball" logo. Blessed with a misanthropic anti-authoritarian streak as well as a preternatural facility with the paintbrush and lathe, Dutch found himself in the right place at the right time -- riding the wave of post-WWII disgruntlement to underground fame in the nascent hot-rod and Beat cultures. Photos from the mid-'50s show the ascendant icon with a patently un-bohemian flattop, but dressed in a proto-psychedelic airbrushed shirt, sitting cross-legged and playing the flute, surrounded by empty Gallo jugs, a third eye glued to the middle of his forehead. Weird with a beard, Daddy-o.
The '50s were Dutch's heyday, at least in terms of being a productive member of society. His reputation spread far and wide, and he found himself in the enviable position of being able to charge exorbitant prices to paint whatever he wanted. Originally striping only motorcycles, Dutch took on car jobs as a sort of joke -- legend has it his sweeping, freeform, curvilinear style was invented when a customer asked him to cover the cracks that had shown up on his door after a hasty paint job. Once it got started, that line just seemed to keep going -- skittering from surface to surface, occasionally submitting to the contours of the object it was decorating, but more often tangling in on itself to form intricate geometric landscapes or figures (often a pointed caricature of the vehicle's owner) before zipping off to inscribe the hood or trunk in a corona of flame. Dutch worked quickly and produced thousands of paint jobs during this period, and it is on this work that his reputation as an innovative visual artist rests.
Sadly, much of this work is now lost or untraceable, and only a glimpse of it is to be had in "Von Dutch: An American Original," the otherwise comprehensive exhibit of his life and work at the Cal State Northridge Art Galleries through October 5. Still, that glimpse is enough to solidify Dutch's status as both a remarkable, unprecedented talent as well as an important influence on the legendary Ferus Gallery artists, whose Finish Fetish and Light & Space works spearheaded L.A.'s first forays into international art-world prominence. The impact of custom automotive techniques on these movements has been cited often enough, but usually in a general -- and generally dismissive -- manner. The truth is, if you speak of custom car painting in L.A. in the late '50s and early '60s, you are speaking of Von Dutch. He was even invited to exhibit in that archetypal L.A. gallery, but couldn't stomach the bullshit of the art world, even in those allegedly freewheeling days. Mind you, if Dutch had been a little cagier and painted his semi-abstract pinstripe fantasies on archivally prepared minimal surfaces, instead of the thrift-surrealist enamel paintings that were his apparent attempt to crash the gates of high culture, the history of L.A. abstraction might have been altered dramatically. We'd have Yek 40 years sooner!
On the other hand, if he had been able to fit in smoothly with the movers and shakers of the Fine Art world, he wouldn't have been Von Dutch. Instead, he blew them off -- as he blew off almost everyone. At the height of his popularity, Dutch found that the rewards of fame and prosperity were painful distractions from his work -- the only thing he cared about. He turned his back on success, living a Gypsy lifestyle out of a converted Long Beach city bus and working itinerantly and close to the poverty line -- as a machinist and sign painter as often as a pinstriper. Nevertheless, that line was unstoppable. "An American Original" collects a dizzying array of objects -- crash helmets, gas tanks, spark-plug testers, a prosthetic leg, fire extinguishers, rocking chairs, bicycles, buckles, tools, work gloves, doodled napkins, etched-glass windows, clocks, signage and novelty machines (though not the coin-operated guillotine, nitro-powered roller skates or steam-engine television he invented and built from scratch). The few objects not graced with his poised but restless line are the elaborately engraved knives and operational firearms that he carved from metal and wood without plans or measurement.
IN THE LAST TWO DECADES OF HIS LIFE, "Leonardo" Dutch found his Ludovico Sforza in the form of the Brucker family and their Movieworld: Cars of the Stars Museum in Buena Park. Parking his bus in the lot, Dutch became the museum's artist-in-residence, designing displays, painting signs, building cars, and manufacturing improbable gizmos like the Schockenschpitter and Beepelfleetzer for the Chamber of Horrors. When the museum folded, Dutch followed the collection to Santa Paula, content to hide out and tinker away his final years. Most of the Northridge show comes from the Brucker's collection, and it is thanks to them and the legion of Lowbrow and Kustom Kulture enthusiasts that enough work has been preserved to make up such an exhibit. Dutch would be horrified. As strong as the visual work remains, much of his status as an art hero derives from his sheer contrariness. It remains a central paradox in non-mainstream culture that in order to honor the vision of someone like Dutch, whose life and art were fashioned as a repudiation of the intangible vectors of coercive cultural enshrinement, we have to resort to the same hierarchical canonization procedures -- museum retrospectives and Melrose boutique branding campaigns -- that he lived to subvert. But I suppose that's the pessimistic view. If just one young artist comes away inspired by this show and preserves his individuality and vision by becoming a crabby, antisocial, narcissistic Gypsy drunkard, it's all worth it.
VON DUTCH: An American Original | At the CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE ART GALLERIES, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge | Through October 5 | Travels to Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center on December 7
Get the Arts Newsletter
Get the latest news and offers from the LA art scene sent directly to your email address. Exclusive events and art related sales you won't hear about anywhere else!