Smart people move to L.A. and then just “play tennis and swim” all day, quipped New York art critic Joseph Mashek in 1971. He wasn't entirely wrong. As art began to thrive in L.A. after World War II, artists wholeheartedly embraced California living, clichés and all. Without the following factors, L.A.'s art scene might never have distinguished itself from “serious” East Coast abstraction.
Abstract expressionism's aggressive lines and blobs may have seemed inspired in stuffy, overcast New York, but in the intense California sun? It just seemed confused and overwrought. The sunshine definitely deserves some of the credit for the “L.A. Look” — clean edges, industrial sleekness, bright colors.
Surf culture took off around the same time L.A. art did, and it's surfer-artists who made having a “lifestyle” in addition to an art career seem normal, if not essential. Eventually surf culture merged with skate culture and guys like Shepard Fairey graduated from skate parks to street art.
In the 1960s, artists lived and worked everywhere from Laurel Canyon to Eagle Rock, and this freedom to live in close communities or off the grid shaped their work. Ed Ruscha wandered the urban landscape, photographing gas stations and apartment buildings. Noah Purifoy and Ed Kienholz saw sprawl as a wasteland of discarded material and recycled this waste into assemblage art, which became a SoCal phenom.
Before L.A. had galleries or an art market, it had schools, such as the legendary Chouinard Art Institute, which became CalArts, and of course UCLA and current art-market darling USC. Artists taught to support themselves and, as their reputations grew, so did those of the schools. Now, even with an art market, school communities define L.A.'s art scene: Students study with their idols and stay, moving into group studio spaces and creating galleries with former classmates.
Craft-oriented Japanese and Mexican-American immigrant communities contributed to the growing popularity of ceramic art, and artists from both groups participated in the performance and activist art movements of the '70s and '80s. It's thanks to Chicano artists that we still have key community-oriented art organizations like Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Self-Help Graphics and SPARC Murals.
Car culture certainly informed the finish-fetish minimalism that flourished here, but sculptors like Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin owe a lot to developments in aerospace, too, then a booming L.A. industry. They experimented with the same vacuum-form processes used to make airplane windows and gave the surfaces of their sculptures polish and smooth curves evocative of sleek aerodynamic forms. In recent years, however, artists interested in industry have become more melancholy, like photographer Michael Tierney, whose Aerospace series mourns the lost optimism the California industry once represented.
The Watts Towers, the spectacular spiraling sculptures of shards of glass and concrete that immigrant contractor Simon Rodia constructed over decades, inspired a generation of artists to work publicly and from found material. In the early 1960s, the L.A. art community rallied to save the towers from demolition; Rodia's masterpiece outlasted the Watts riots, too. Edgar Arceneaux started the Watts House Project in 2008 for artists to work with neighborhood kids and create on-site artwork.
Hollywood imagery pervaded postwar L.A. and many artists took odd jobs in movie studios, so appropriating the industry's graphics seemed natural. Artists used marquee-inspired fonts in text pieces and cartoon characters in paintings and prints, and modeled exhibition ads after movie posters. Today, it's castoffs of the movies that make for some of the best art, like Kelly Sears' video tribute to a deceased starlet and Brian Bress's obfuscated movie star postcards.