Critical Mass

On a trip to Europe this summer, a German art critic told me that every German artist she knew wanted to come to L.A. She wanted me to tell her why. I muttered something about there being a level of vitality from the institutional level down to the ground — meaning, basically, everything from the Getty’s opulence to Coagula’s insolence: from MOCA and LACMA and UCLA/Armand Hammer routinely competing for shows, to an ever-increasing number of small but potent museums (Jurassic, Skirball), to a relatively strong gallery scene, to the best collection of art schools anywhere, to the too-many-artists-to-name (but think Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon) who regularly show in Europe, to the equally long list of emerging artists whose names are leaking east, to Ed Ruscha and David Hockney’s now-historical views of the city, to the fact that people named Gehry, Beck, Tarantino, Salonen and Steppling, among others, live and work here. That’s the 1998 picture — some of it at any rate — but essentially, what the answer boils down to is: the past 20 years.

With a nod to the late and once-competitive Reader, there is no publication that so well covered this place — its high and low cultural moments — over that time as this one. Coverage of the art world was, in the beginning, secondary to the paper’s music coverage, mostly because the music scene back then overwhelmed nearly everything else. But the paper took as its mission going to the cultural edge and sending back dispatches, as in this cover story on L.A.’s first performance-arts festival, in 1980. As Hunter Drohojowska reported in her piece:

After tossing bunches of uncooked wienies at the audience, Johanna Went threw herself in a pool of blood on the floor, howling. Barry Markowitz ate raw meat. Barbara Smith spent the evening in a coffin.

In the garbage-dump area of the Atomic Café, Mark Kreisel put up an altar of 10 new commandments; notable among them was "Consider art a guest in L.A."

All this was art.

Drohojowska (the name itself a bit of performance) went on to describe the work of Bob and Bob, Rachel Rosenthal, Alexis Smith, Terry Wolverton, Chris Burden, the Kipper Kids and Weekly contributor Lewis MacAdams, among others. What’s interesting about her piece, though, is that she actually wonders on the reader’s behalf, "And what is performance art?" and then provides a primer:

Performance art uses techniques of both shock and boredom to bring about realizations — and sometimes changes — in both viewer and performer. Anybody can be a performance artist, anytime and anywhere. . . . Since some of you are still wondering if this stuff qualifies as art at all, let’s consider its origin — which is Dadaism. Dadaism was the name given to an unfettered revolutionary art movement in which the "act" was as important as the final product.

The coverage was often highly personal, as in Craig Lee’s 1981 profile of Johanna Went, whose performance art "might include sucking the eyeball out of a dead lamb’s head":

I remember the first time I saw her — I was hypnotized, fascinated, I laughed, was grossed out at points, bored, frustrated, elated — she was the first performer I had seen in a long time who had completely and totally involved me. And it was true for the rest of the audience — like her or hate her, nobody could take their eyes away from what she was doing.

And the Weekly covered trends, as in this 1981 Drohojowska survey of the burgeoning downtown art scene, "Art & The Downtown Gold Rush":

For what must seem like ages, people have been heralding the emergence of downtown Los Angeles as the center of contemporary art in Southern California. Predictions of another Soho-type art district, along with all the contradictions that Manhattan enclave has come to stand for, were being made for downtown L.A. almost before the first gallery banner went up. Between the opening of several new galleries and the arrival of LAVA ’81 — a daylong festival sponsored by Los Angeles Visual Artists — the damn thing’s finally happening . . .

In a city that has been historically grumpy about the dearth of exhibition space, 20 galleries spawned in as many months is a positive phenomenon. I guess. It’s just that it all happened so fast. Embryonic beginnings are spotlighted, thrown into exaggerated, high relief. So much attention has been focused on the development of downtown Los Angeles that an aura of self-consciousness now hangs as heavy as the smog. Conversations within the art world are tinged with the assumption that "the whole world is watching" . . .

All this attention tends to encourage competition for the sake of success ä rather than for the maturation of good work. The bandwagon rolls, and everyone jumps on in the attempt to be in the right place at the right time. And who can blame them? Artists in Los Angeles have been hungry for such a long time, they are excited by the mere whiff of recognition . . .


A friend . . . accuses the scene of being a stillborn child, a being that cannot survive. That remains to be seen. But all the self-congratulatory ego stroking already threatens to eviscerate the original appeal of the downtown area — a rough-edged, careless attitude that may have been scruffy and cocky, but at least held a measure of authenticity.

In January 1982, the Weekly told us about another trend, video art, in Rita Xanthoudakis and Bruce Postman’s "Video as Art/Art as Video." "Video is a void," they concluded, "a medium into which anyone can put anything." But the most interesting thing in the piece was the mention of "recent L.A. resident Bill Viola" and former curator of video at the Long Beach Museum, David Ross. Ross would go on to direct the Whitney in New York (he’s now at San Francisco MOMA), and in that capacity put together this spring’s big traveling show of Viola’s video art.

Art reviewing in general was pretty spotty during this period but Drohojowska was good at weighing in with the odd large, informative trends piece, as she did again in March 1983. "L.A.’s Changing Contemporary Art Scene" was based on her observation that:

In Los Angeles, there has been a subtle but significant metamorphosis in the art world of late. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) and UCLA’s Frederick S. Wight Gallery, remarkably, all have new leaders. Some have recently been hired; others have merely solidified positions of power. These are difficult positions to gain, and almost impossible to maintain. Being committed to contemporary art in the art world is a trout’s life, an upstream swim against competing interests: the social whirl, capital campaigns, political intrigue, sexual philandering, the market — everything but art itself.

Drohojowska struck a prescient note when discussing the influence of MOCA:

Perhaps the most important aspect of MOCA’s presence is its effect on L.A.’s other art institutions, primarily our largest institution, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Although plans were already afoot there for a modern and contemporary wing, the announcement of MOCA excited LACMA to action. Money was quickly raised, a New York architectural firm hired, and the Robert O. Anderson Building . . . was quickly announced.

Anyone who’s experienced the Anderson wing would probably agree that a little more design planning would have been a good thing. At the end of 1984, Drohojowska attempted to define the moment in an essay on irony, and its new prevalence:

Art is a way of making us see the world anew. What the Postmodernists do by representing images and styles from a wide array of sources is to infuse them with fresh meaning. "Making it again," as Richard Prince says, is making it new.

Consider: Prince re-photographs Marlboro ads and presents them as his art; Lari Pittman composes paintings of chintzy wallpaper and fabric motifs; Jeffrey Vallance makes imitation tikis and represents the culture of the South Sea islands; Jim Isermann’s ’50s-styled furniture in turquoise and pink could have been lifted from a motel room . . . Michael Kelley rants and rambles about life, art, commerce, politics and sex in deadpan performances that simulate the insecurity of contemporary existence.

This art seems to be made in the spirit of an archaeological expedition, a search for meaning by sifting through the artifacts of contemporary culture. The values are relative and the scene is generally unstable, but the artists don’t look to the future. They’re trying to find significance in the here and now.

By 1986, the amount of coverage in the paper had begun to pick up; there were multiple art critics now, and the Weekly spotlighted 20 emerging artists of note. Twelve years later, a few of them stand out — John Fleck (chosen by Linda Frye Burnham), Daniel Martinez (by Lawrence Gipe, who should have been someone’s choice himself), Tim Ebner and Christopher Williams (Mark Selwyn), and Jim Shaw, picked by current Weekly posterist Robbie Conal, who wrote, memorably:

Frank Zappa used to say that his music was for the one kid in Thud, Kansas, who didn’t quite fit in. You know — the geek with pimples who collected bugs, read science-fiction magazines and knew all the words to Dr. Demento’s Top 10 hits of the week. Shaw’s art is like a low-budget TV docudrama of that kid’s puberty, played backwards on a Christian TV station, with Robin Williams on magic mushrooms as the kid.


In 1988, the Weekly assessed the state of the local art world in "Arts Crunch: How L.A. is Flunking as an Arts Mecca," which featured excellent pieces by Linda Frye Burnham (on the city’s failure to support artists), Lewis MacAdams (on a proposed 1-percent-of-capital-improvement-funds remedy), Rubén Martínez (on the struggles of minority artists) and Torene Svitil (on LACE at 10). Particularly impressive was Burnham’s impassioned "feh!" to the arts community, which, had we enough space, could be reprinted in its entirety. In lieu of that, a sampling:

You just landed at LAX, arriving in the new capital of the art world with your bags full of artworks, your heart full of hope. . . . With galleries and museums springing up like weeds, with the Getty Trust and its money glittering like the spires of Oz, with the hot-shot L.A. Festival grabbing important performance premieres even before the Brooklyn Academy of Music can get their hands on them — well, what other choice is there? L.A., the jewel in the Pacific Rim, has to be the ä arts mecca of the coming century. Even New York magazine says so. Like many of the painters, sculptors, performers and media artists you know, you joined the rush for the West Coast. It’ll probably be a while before you realize that a lot of the people you passed at the airport were the artists of Los Angeles on their way out of the city, leaving a sinking ship . . .

L.A. is a cheapskate. It touts itself as the next capital of art, but treats its artists like illegal aliens. The pitiful amount of support Los Angeles offers its artists is a disgrace. . . New York spends $8.87 per capita on the arts, Baltimore $6.36, Miami $5.20, L.A. $1.53 . . . We are hayseeds, living in the boondocks, so far from the center of the art world we can scarcely get a whiff of what real art smells like . . .

We adulate state-supported geniuses like Pina Bausch and Maguy Marin, whose spectacles are the product of healthy arts environments elsewhere. Where are the intermedia spectacle-makers, the postmodern circuses, the landmark critics, the thriving artistic companies of Los Angeles?

You know where they are. They’re standing in line with you and me at LAX, heading out of town.

Under its second editor, Kit Rachlis, the paper reacted nicely to the 1989 NEA/Jesse Helms flap over the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. The Weekly put three writers — Michael Lassell, Michael Ventura and Ralph Rugoff — on it, and put Serrano’s notorious photograph Piss Christ on the cover, above the headline "What’s Wrong With This Picture?" It was smart, and effective. Inside, Lassell issued a call to arms (and fingers and legs and genitals):

This challenge to First Amendment freedoms ought to provoke every artist and art institution currently receiving NEA funds to produce the most confrontative, affrontive art imaginable — to fill books with it, cover gallery walls with it, roll it across cinema screens, sing it and dance it and write it until this country comes to understand that we are the American people only when the tyranny of people like Jesse Helms goes down in flames. Clearly, fucking well is the best revenge.

Meanwhile, Ventura basically interviewed himself on the subject of government funding of the arts.

I’m going to re-create a conversation I’ve had many times. X is the other person. M — that’s me.

X: Why don’t you apply for an NEA grant?

M: I don’t accept money from people who drop napalm on children . . .

X: Aren’t you being a little extreme?

M: Possibly — but not as extreme as dropping napalm on children.

X: The people who give out NEA money are not those kind of people.

M: You’re right. But they’re the sort of people those kind of people feel safe with. Doesn’t that make you wonder? Makes me wonder . . .

X: You’ve taken money from film studios, and you despise them.

M: Guilty. I tend to think ill of most people who have enough money to pay me. It’s a defect in my character.

Only Ventura could turn a national moral flap into something about himself. (Of course, as usual, he did it well.) But the highlight of the cover package was Rugoff’s well-reasoned piece comparing the Helms-D’Amato take on art to that of the Nazis, who in 1937 organized a "denunciatory survey of contemporary art" called "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art). Rugoff was one of the few Helms critics who also understood that neither Mapplethorpe nor Serrano — nor anyone else, for that matter — existed in a cultural void, that:


. . . going back to the Salon des Refuses, modern art has defined itself as an oppositional culture, a reaction against Academy-sanctioned art . . . Rather than cater to the lowest common denominator — the "mass audience" targeted by Madison Avenue and Hollywood — modern art developed by pursuing loftier agendas, cutting itself off from the concerns of the general audience. The result has been an arts culture that leaves John Q. Public as befuddled as his Nazi counterparts . . .

As in 1930s Germany, very few people actually "understand" modern art, a fact dramatically underscored by the reaction to Piss Christ. (The aggressively literal misreading of the piece as a degradation of Jesus Christ — as though Christ were somehow made of plastic — indicates an inability to deal with basic conceptual tools, such as metaphor.) Rather than attempting to restrict the NEA’s granting procedures, Helms and company should clearly be seeking to augment the agency’s education programs. Hopefully arts organizations, and artists themselves, will also reconsider their responsibility as educators. Scorn for public opinion, long a trademark of modernism, isn’t going to wash anymore.

One of the Weekly’s strengths has always been the number of staffers and writers who are themselves artists and musicians. While this has produced informed looks at others, on occasion it has given the paper an opportunity to respond personally. In 1994, for example, there was yet another flap over the NEA, this time regarding a performance piece at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by one Ron Athey, an artist who also happens to be assistant to then and current Weekly editor Sue Horton. In a piece called "Blood, Boots and White Weddings," Athey explained his work in general, as well as the "special baptism ä piece" he performed called "Washed in the Blood," during which:

I stand on a riser over Darryl and scrub his back with a Betadine solution. I recut existing scars (we cut and heal them up to three times). There are 12 cuts, each about one-and-a-half inches long. That’s three sets of three parallel lines, in a sort of perpendicular stair-step formation, a traditional African tribal pattern, and a triangle, the symbol of queerness. The bleeding is always heavy at first, but it slows down. Paper towels are pressed against the wound, making an imprint, then they are alternately passed to the two assistants, who clip prints to the line and send them out over the audience. The prints are not touching any heads. They only come close to a couple of people, mostly over the aisles or completely stage right. This act has been performed in L.A. for at least 2,000 people: three nights at Highways, one night at Los Angeles Theater Center, three club nights.

When the lines are full, the factory workers and one of three trained tech dykes strike the lines, keeping them taut so they don’t droop and brush anyone (although this happened once the first night at Highways). Plastic bags are staked beneath the pulleys, and the prints are bagged right there.

Athey went on to write about his notoriety:

Among my friends and cohorts, media whores and other artists, the unanimous response to the controversy surrounding my Minneapolis performance has been "Congratulations" or "That’s the best thing that could have happened to you." Maybe, but the victory is bittersweet.

Since the "attack," I’ve had to define and contextualize my work. I feel if I do too much of it, the work will become self-conscious. I’ve also had to search for my peers. Who’s in this with me? . . .

On a working level, I feel blacklisted. It’s good for "alternative" performance spaces to present an artist who has press controversies, but who will take on the religious right and the "taxpayers"? Who will risk losing their funding? . . .

This controversy over my "funding" and the content of my art has left me feeling even more marginalized from the arts community and the gay community. . . I resent that I feel a responsibility to the NEA, that I feel responsible for their funding agenda, which has never directly funded me and probably never will. But somehow we’re caught up together.

By this point in the Weekly’s history, reviewing had gone beyond art to include the odd architecture piece (by the likes of John Pastier, Michael Gildea, Aaron Betsky) and even some dance criticism. And while the art reviewing had previously been spread around to a number of critics (Peter Frank, Lane Relyea, Susan Kandel), it was now in the hands of Ralph Rugoff. Over the five or so years he was the Weekly’s regular biweekly critic, Rugoff reviewed dozens of gallery and museum shows. But he also pushed the limits of art criticism, writing about such subjects as the 75th Annual Convention of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the L.A. Times redesign, the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, about which he wrote:


The stationary quality of waxworks isn’t, ultimately, a drawback but a virtue. For one thing, static images are more deeply engraved in memory. A still image can draw focus with unremitting intensity in a way that moving, and potentially more lifelike, images can’t. A man who goes blind at the age of 50 finds that he remembers his wife’s face not from daily life, but from familiar photographs.

The frozen postures of wax figures imbue them with the uncanniness of the spellbound; with in ward-gazing eyes, even Arnold Schwarz e negger radiates an entranced serenity. And precisely because they’re motionless, you can examine them at your leisure, scrutinize them with a thoroughness rarely permitted when looking at living bodies. At a time when the parameters of the real are blurring, there’s something reassuring about their obvious artifice, something comforting in their failure to deceive us.

And if they come to life, you alone are responsible.

That brings us into the recent past. Happily, over the last three years we’ve been able to increase our regular art coverage. It’s not enough, of course, and never will be. There’s just too much going on. Which is why all those German artists want to be here.

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