Comedy in art must always fight for respect. The art world prefers wrangling with weighty social, cultural or philosophical matters — "importance." In L.A. the comedic artist negotiates an especially tricky path because the art world consciously seeks to distance itself from the frivolities of showbiz.
As I see it, there are three kinds of comedic artists. There are funny artists like William Wegman, who famously photographed his dog in various outfits and comic situations. For Wegman, funny is enough.
In the second group are artists like John Baldessari or Al Ruppersberg, who, in curator-speak, "use humor in their work," i.e., as an element in some overarching analysis of our relationship to cultural artifacts.
L.A. also is strong in a third group, which I call concrete comedians. Going further than funny pictures, concrete comedy is gestural comedy, often carried out in the theater of the wider world rather than the studio.
Mainstream comedy is narrative, verbal and illusionistic — a funny line spoken by a funny character in a make-believe story. By contrast, concrete comedians, such as Andy Kaufman, live their comedy. It's much more about doing than saying.
To my mind there are five essential L.A. concrete comedians active during the Pacific Standard Time period:
Ed Ruscha's deadpan photography
His photograph books from the 1960s, such as the one in which he photographed every building on the Sunset Strip, embody a kind of gestural deadpan. An outrageous action or conception is presented with a veneer of factual neutrality. Most comedians signal that they're doing comedy at the same time they're doing it. But the deadpan comedian doesn't signal the comedy, so the audience isn't given a cue as to how to respond. We feel disoriented but giddy.
Eleanor Antin's 100 boots
In the early 1970s Antin bought 50 identical pairs of black boots and put them in various scenarios — queued in a line as they enter a church, at work in an oil field, etc. She's not using the camera in the modernist way of documenting an action; instead she's using it to establish a fictional field where something imagined can take place. She's a concrete comedian partly because this elaborate gesture is carried out at various real-world sites, but also because the final form of the work is not just a photograph, it's a postcard, an object that is reintroduced into the theater of the real world via the postal system.
Bas Jan Ader's pratfalls
When Ader would purposely fall off the roof of his house or ride his bike into a canal, he was transposing the comic pratfall into the key of the everyday. It's intentional and highly self-conscious failure, and thus it isn't failure at all. Furthermore, his pratfall isn't just part of an illusionistic, make-believe story — it is the story.
Chris Burden's violent performance
Where a bodybuilder will explore the body's nonfunctional, one might say decorative condition by pushing it toward an exaggerated physical ideal, the concrete comedian plays up physical weakness, ineptitude, vulnerability, failure — all the flipside qualities that classic comedians have always explored. When in the early 1970s Burden had himself shot as performance art, he pushed the physical theater of the comic body in a violent direction. The country at that time was reeling from violence — the Vietnam War, the Manson murders, riots, assassinations — and Burden is doing a kind of punk slapstick, akin to violence comedians such as the Three Stooges, but updated and set against a socially violent backdrop.
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Bruce Nauman alone
In the mid-'60s, Nauman in his studio would do things like draw a square on the floor and walk around it, or manipulate a neon tube between his legs. These behavioral inventions can be seen as serious phenomenological inquiries into blah blah blah, but they're also ridiculous. Nauman's innovation was to disengage comic behavior from any subject matter. Cut off from the outside world, from topicality and social consciousness, the comic body spins on its own axis.
—As told to Zachary Pincus-Roth
David Robbins is an artist and the author of Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of 20th-Century Comedy.