There’s such a dearth of reliable writing about the history of art in Los Angeles that anyone who ventures into this vast, uncharted terrain deserves a medal. Sarah Schrank has certainly earned hers with Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles, a meticulously researched accounting of L.A.’s protracted journey into Modernism as seen through the lens of its public art. Essentially, Art and the City is an inquiry into the question of why Los Angeles was so reluctant to embrace the new art of the 20th century. In answering that question, Schrank, an associate professor of history at Cal State Long Beach, establishes a few central themes.
The first is that at the time the revolutionary Armory Show was taking New York by storm, L.A. was still a young city with a frontier-town mentality. It needed citizens, too, and toward that end, the city fathers manufactured an idyllic image of the place they were loath to relinquish as the century progressed. They had something to sell, and their pitch was conservative — they were in pursuit of solid citizens, not cowboys and moviemakers. They concocted a soothing image of the city revolving around images of orange blossoms and pretty young maidens holding straw baskets overflowing with nature’s bounty. The vast stretches of available land were also one of Southern California’s central selling points, and the city’s promotional imagery segued seamlessly into the lyrical school of Plein Air landscape painting that took root here early in the 20th century. The style fostered a network of art clubs devoted to it — and that, more or less, was L.A.’s art scene then.
Modernism began to sneak into L.A. via several very good art schools, chief among them Chouinard Art Institute, which opened in 1922. It would be 40 more years, however, before most citizens were even willing to consider Modernism as a legitimate movement. And, during those four decades, every attempt to bring anything that smacked of abstraction or Modernism to the general public was met with fierce opposition from the city. The chief strength of Schrank’s book, in fact, is how thoroughly it documents the shocking degree of control L.A.’s City Hall succeeded in maintaining over the visual arts for 50 years.
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Schrank turns to the city’s tortured racial politics in her examination of Mexican muralist David Siqueiros’ experience here in 1932. An avowed socialist, Siqueiros succeeded in mounting two exhibitions and completing three politically charged murals during the year he spent here. The best known of the three was America Tropical, a mural painted on an exterior wall on Olvera Street that centered on an image of a crucified Native American. City Hall had made every effort to publicly package its indigenous Native American and Mexican communities as toothless and quaint bands of happy brown people delighted to tend the crops; needless to say, the murals were immediately painted out, and Siqueiros was deported. America was terrified by anything that smacked of socialism, and by the ’50s, that fear had grown into full-fledged hysteria.
Everyone knows how effectively the HUAC hearings of the ’50s poisoned the film industry. What’s less known is that during the same period, L.A.’s city fathers, convinced that Modernism was a means of communist infiltration, cracked down on the visual arts with an iron hand. It seems almost comical today, but as Schrank makes clear in the most fascinating chapter in the book, “Painting the Town Red,” they were dead serious about it, and went to ridiculous lengths to root out any covert agents who might be sneaking around town with paintbrush in hand.
L.A.’s antimodernist tide finally began to turn in the late ’50s and ’60s, largely due to the efforts of artist Ed Kienholz and curator Walter Hopps. The organizing energy behind several small galleries, they made their biggest splash with the Ferus Gallery, which opened in 1957 and flourished until 1966. It was there that the first generation of unmistakably Southern California artists came together. They even came up with a few entirely new styles — finish fetish; light and space — that gave the city national credibility.
The book closes with a chapter on Watts Towers, the story of which largely revolves around issues of race and class. Imagine if the Towers were built on the Miracle Mile; had that been the case, they’d no doubt be known around the world as one of the city’s prominent cultural landmarks. Because they were located in a poor section of South-Central L.A. — the setting for one of the most destructive racial uprisings in U.S. history — the city government never knew quite what to do with them, and spent the better part of a decade attempting to have them demolished. How and why they managed to survive is a story of both victory and defeat. Yes, the Towers still stand, but the city continues to neglect them. The reasons for that are clearly laid out in Art and the City, a masterful work of research that will serve as an important reference for decades to come.