How '70s L.A. Changed the Art World Forever

The new book by former art critic Michael FallonEXPAND
The new book by former art critic Michael Fallon

Anyone who visited "Under Big Black Sun," MOCA’s 2011-12 Pacific Standard Time exhibit that took the fertile anarchy of '70s L.A. art as its theme, won’t have trouble grasping the thesis of art critic Michael Fallon’s new book, Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Fallon picks up where the famed Ferus Gallery left off, focusing on the moment between its 1960s Cool School and L.A.’s re-emergence as a force on the national art scene in the 1980s. In doing so, his exploration runs in parallel to a larger story about a decade in which a hobbled California had to rethink its identity after its mid-century heyday. As such, Fallon weaves together numerous threads — how the city became an epicenter for feminist art as well as radical white men, the game-changing influence of lowbrow artists like Robbie Williams, the impact of Chicano artists and the birth of L.A.’s unique relationship with public art — to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of the moment in which the City of Angels reshaped the national cultural discourse.

As Paul Schimmel, MOCA’s erstwhile chief curator, wrote of "Under the Big Back Sun," “[W]hat cohered as postmodernism during the 1980s in New York effectively codified ideas and concepts evolving from art made in California between 1974 and 1981.”

Like Schimmel’s thesis, Fallon’s book fits into a trend of mining the period for clues as to how we got here. “The culture we live in now really came about in the 1970s,” says Fallon, who will read from and sign his book tomorrow at Claremont's Huntley Bookstore at 2 p.m. “That book Future Shock, if you read it now, it’s kind of cheesy, but it’s really true.”

Alvin Toffler published that mega bestseller in 1970, positing in it that the relentless pace of change thrust upon us would produce psychological fractures — and, in the process, injecting the term “information overload” into the popular discourse.

Michael FallonEXPAND
Michael Fallon
courtesy of the author

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It's fitting that such a pessimistic tome would inaugurate a decade in which America’s mood was famously defeatist, an era that reads like a greatest hits of great recent failures — the Vietnam War lumbering towards its ignoble end, a crippling recession putting the lie to our postwar boom, and the moment when energy became a crisis. In California, the mood was perhaps even darker — the economic slump hit L.A.’s massive aerospace industry with particular force and the Manson murders taught Angelenos to fear their neighbors, while across the state a searing drought served as an object lesson in limitations. The growing consensus was not just that the shine had worn off the Golden State, but that the California Dream was imploding in real time.

And since artists are just as much a product of their time as the rest of us are, into this breach, a new breed gleefully dived, finding a relatively leveled playing field defined by experimentation and excited by risk. It was a decade in which the Pasadena Art Museum was pioneering pop art, CalArts was literally breaking ground on its Valencia campus, and artist collectives like Asco took to the streets, through performance and the burgeoning mural movement, turning the city into their canvas and thus helping to foster L.A.’s unique relationship to public art, at the time “a central zone for sociopolitical commentary.”

As cool as those Ferus cats were, by contrast, the work that they produced “feels like a relic,” Fallon says.

Fallon, an L.A. native who left the city in 1992 to join the Peace Corps, is now an arts writer based in Minneapolis. “I grew up studying with the students of the artists of the 1970s,” Fallon says. His book devotes much of its attention to contextualizing the rise of that generation’s biggest stars — household names like John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Judy Chicago and James Turrell—  but Fallon argues the zeitgeist found particularly apt expression in the lesser-known Angeleno performance artist Bas Jan Ader. The Dutch transplant's work In Search of the Miraculous was intended to consist of a solo voyage across the Atlantic in a refitted Guppy 13 sailboat, culminating in a stroll through Amsterdam. Instead, Ader vanished at sea. With his death, the era’s burst of nihilism found its apex.

Ader embarked on In Search of the Miraculous in 1975, a pivotal year in Fallon’s estimation. “All the strains of thought, all the influences of the decade and the history and struggles came to a head then,” he says, noting 1975 also represented the last year Chris Burden — famous for being shot in the arm and crucified upon a Volkswagen — practiced his perilous brand of performance art and the first year Baldessari graduated a batch of his CalArts students out into the art world.

"All the things people were grappling with, they'd grappled with," Fallon says. "It was like people were saying, ‘Now’s the time to be real.’”

Fallon will read and sign Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s at Huntley Bookstore, 175 E. 8th Street, Claremont on Tues., Sept. 30 at 2 p.m. (909) 607-1502;

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