If you're like me, you tend to remember the moment when you fall in love. Perhaps it's the moment when the object of your attention tells a story from his or her childhood that perfectly reveals what a goofy, smart, and devil-may-care kind of person they are. Suddenly, you find yourself deeply hooked.
I had that kind of moment when I walked into the Getty's Exhibitions Pavilion for a preview of their Pacific Standard Time exhibition, “Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970.” One of the curators, Andrew Perchuk, began by showing us John Mason's Blue Wall, a stunning 1959 ceramic wall piece that hung in the courtyard of Ferus, the seminal Los Angeles gallery of the late '50s and early '60s, for two years. From there, he led us into the first room of the exhibition, where Ken Price's charmingly odd ceramic objects had an interesting dialogue with hard-edge paintings by Karl Benjamin and Lorser Feitelson.
Perchuk explained that these were all “indigenous forms of L.A. modernism” — daring experiments in ceramics and attempts in various media to match the scale and drama of abstract expressionist paintings. Looking at these beautiful, wild objects, all in the same room together, I found myself deeply hooked.
It's not as if I'd never seen these works before. I had, in several different exhibitions over the years. But the Getty's smartly curated exhibition (additional themes and iconic works are covered in subsequent rooms) is a perfect crystallization of why late 20th-century L.A. art is worthy of admiration, and as such, it functions beautifully as the gateway to all the other Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, and the first step in what promises to be a long and passionate art relationship.
A marathon of press previews last week took me through no fewer than 11 PST exhibitions. While the Getty show won my heart, the most revelatory one had to be MOCA's “Under the Big Black Sun,” a survey of 1970s art production in Los Angeles so expansive (to use the favorite word of curator Paul Schimmel) that everyone I talked to focused on different works in the show, and had radically different takes.
I went through a cluster of small galleries that focused on performative works by Paul McCarthy, the Kipper Kids and Tony Oursler — strange, experimental pieces that evoked a secret underground practice. Upstairs, very early pieces by Mike Kelley and Jonathan Borofsky offered surprising insights into the growth of their oeuvres. The show overall felt like a university course in L.A. art history that I wanted to return to again and again.
After the MOCA preview, I skipped the shuttle and opted to drive down Wilshire Boulevard for LACMA's splashy preview of “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.” As I told my passenger, I considered this drive itself to be part of the PST experience. Known as L.A.'s most iconic thoroughfare, Wilshire never fails to entertain with the variety of neighborhoods it traverses and the number of historic or simply odd buildings that are visible along its route.
“California Design” is another massive, sprawling show, jam-packed with design artifacts and featuring, of course, a stunning exhibition layout. The crown jewel is definitely the recreation of the Eames house, using actual furniture borrowed from the site while it undergoes some floor work. It's a perfect hut of modernist tranquility that makes you wish you could step inside and read a magazine on the couch.
The show is no less dense, art historically, than “Under the Big Black Sun,” but the experience of going through it is more like being the proverbial kid in a very snazzy candy store. We had fun listening to video presentations on big white retro earphones and gawking at the genuine Studebaker Avanti prototype parked in the back.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of PST, but as with any important relationship, it's best to take things slow, and let the various facets of the experience unfold over time. As LACMA director Michael Govan pointed out in our Pacific Standard Time issue last week, this is not a one-time celebration but rather the beginning of a new way of looking at L.A. art history.
Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.