I had heard of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens before I ever came to Los Angeles — not because of its undeniably impressive holdings or phantasmagoric landscaping, but because I knew it as the site of Robert Rauschenberg’s epiphanic encounter with Blue Boy and Pinky while on shore leave in 1943, a localized art-historical awakening whose impact has begun to be re-recognized only since the artist’s death on May 12.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Rauschenberg lately. But I’ve always thought a lot about Rauschenberg. For my money (I wish!), he was and remains the unsurpassed master of visual language in the modern era; his seemingly effortless improvisational command of semiotics was exceeded only by the richness, intricacy and originality of his formalist skills. Treating information as material, he translated Dadaist collage into the idiom of painting; painting into sculpture; then flattened the whole menagerie into a dense and simultaneous info-pancake of silk-screened magazine clippings that stripped pictorialism and narrative linearity down to their bare wires.
If that weren’t enough, he was a dyslexic homosexual drunkard —all top-shelf people in my chest of drawers. Rauschenberg was Ernie to Jasper Johns’ Bert — expansive, self-indulgent, mischievous and visionary. And while Johns’ academy-friendly visual vocabulary is more finely tuned, Rauschenberg was in a state of continuous eruption, spewing forth a torrent of picto-glossolalia that offered a new way to look at the world. Looking at the world was, in fact, Rauschenberg’s specialty. The first artworks he sold to a public collection were a pair of photographs Edward Steichen bought for MOMA in 1952 — years before Rauschenberg’s paintings were taken seriously. He always took brilliant photographs, and his own self-appropriated snapshots came to dominate his image morgue.
Rauschenberg’s photography was central to his practice though not particularly lauded within the field. Nevertheless, lately, it’s seemed to me that his pop-alchemical formalist legacy is more evident in the work of contemporary documentary photographers than among painters (or performance artists, for that matter — printmakers and designers more so). Maybe it’s just my personal fixation on Rauschenberg’s epiphany, but he seems to me to be the absent hub at the center of the Huntington’s This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs — a surprising outburst of world-class curatorial practice from an institution whose arcane tweediness has always been one of its main attractions.
The Huntington, which recently unveiled its extensively restored art gallery and reshuffled collection, has an enormous archive of photographs, which reflects the local boosterism of its founder and original resident, heroic railroad capitalist Henry Huntington. The 500,000-plus collection includes a number of extensive industrial-documentary projects detailing the building of the Central Pacific Railroad, the construction of the Edison electrical infrastructure and the transformation of Los Angeles from pastoral frontier to sprawling web of suburbs. It also includes more conventionally artistic groups, such as Edward Weston’s handpicked career-roundup bequeathal.
Using the collection’s local slant as a springboard, curators Jennifer Watts and Claudia Bohn-Spector have filled two of the Huntington’s project exhibition spaces, drawing material from the holdings of the Getty, LACMA, MOCA, UCLA, JANM and private collectors to compile an expansive, thematically structured portrait of L.A. Oscillating between the traditional pictorialist shibboleths of figure and landscape, the exhibit is further divvied among seven orbits — Garden, Dwell, Move, Work, Play, Clash and Dreams — to create a shifting mosaic of intersecting formal and conceptual nuances.
Ranging from William M. Godfrey’s tiny, yellowing albumen print of The Plaza, Los Angeles (1862) to Edit Nine (2008), a hot-off-the-printer, site-specific billboard installation by heroic anticapitalist Allen Sekula, and encompassing every tradition of photographic practice from dreamy pictorialism and gritty photojournalism to near-abstract formalism and unintentionally surrealist industrial publicity shots, This Side of Paradise seems alarmingly ambitious, attempting to encompass nearly 150 years of visual information in something like 200 frames. Which is what, 8.3 seconds in real — I mean movie — time? Talk about your info-pancakes!
Movies (along with real estate speculation) are the not-so-hidden subtext of much of the work presented. Marilyn Monroe working out, or in the morgue; Todd Gray’s soft-focus Goofy(Body) #6 (1993); Hiroshi Sugimoto’s whited-out theater screens; Ansel Adams’ totally atypical Mannequins, Columbia Movie Lot (1942); Anthony Friedkin’s Truman Show–esque Skyline and Lake, Universal Studios, Hollywood (1989); and Timothy Street Porter’s Flintstones Set at Vasquez Rocks (1994) — not to mention various glamour shots and publicity stills (particularly the posed slices of life from the “Dick” Whittington Studio archive) and street shots of hopeful extras, bathing-beauty contests and Angelyne billboards — all directly address the influence of the movie industry on the visual identity of Los Angeles.
But cinema is a subtly pervasive leitmotif throughout the work, beginning with the all-illuminating California sunshine that first drew the industry West, and which rakes through This Side of Paradise like a searchlight in a gala premiere or helicopter pursuit. Which isn’t to say that the expressionist conventions of noir are neglected — L.A. was the first American city with electric streetlights and neon signs, and the dark night of the locust is explored in grainy detail.
Lighting effects are only the most obvious indicator of the profound impact motion pictures have had on our visual-comprehension skills. While they may not have originated in the medium, a slew of complex visual strategies — implied out-of-frame action, split-screen simultaneity, the nonlinear juxtaposition of montage, etc. — were programmed into our perceptual software by the movies.
Sekula’s installation — a sequence of discontinuous documentary images beginning with the surprisingly elegant symbolism of the pigeon-spike studded Hollywood Greyhound bus sign and ending with a diptych depicting the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel (with pit stops for Chuck E. Cheese and decomposed-possum retrieval) — is patently cinematic, unfolding in the Huntington’s hyper-real landscape like an interventionist documentary, gently but efficiently inverting the categories of the real and imaginary.
It’s a telling reversal that points up the disorienting virtuality of much of the other work. A 126-year-old view of Commercial Street inevitably reads like the set of a Western. And while the exhibit is deliberately arranged nonchronologically, you can sense the gradual and fundamental shift in the human subjects’ understanding of their identity as a sort of latent screen image, just waiting for that close-up.
While this may not be so good for our species’ psychological makeup, it makes for some damn fine art. And even the most didactic and documentary photos have clearly been chosen and installed with a strong formalist eye. It’s remarkable enough that the curators have managed to assemble such a satisfying selection of individual works, but even more surprising is the success of their grand conceit.
Even the peculiar-but-functional forests of industrial-display struts designed by Daly Genik echo freeway infrastructure, and the fact that you have to haul your ass halfway across (billboard-studded) creation to see the whole show is annoyingly appropriate. But it is the curators’ porous approach to the categorical arrangement of this enormous spectrum of overlapping semiotic nuggets that will seem most eerily familiar to anyone who has ever tried to make sense out of Los Angeles. Or the contemporary visual continuum. Like Rauschenberg.
While the New York School painters were essentially extrapolating a refined hermetic language from 19th-century European roots — discriminating between and dismissing entire fields of visual information — Rauschenberg was groping for a position of total inclusiveness. In short, Rauschenberg — not Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists — was the first truly American painter, and his vision was inextricably connected with a way of looking at the world that emerged from Hollywood. On the spot where he wandered in to check out the cactus garden and wound up realizing “you could be an artist,” Rauschenberg’s synergistic, synesthetic, anarchistic worldview has come home to roost.
THIS SIDE OF PARADISE: BODY AND LANDSCAPE IN LOS ANGELES PHOTOGRAPHS | Boone Gallery & Library West Hall | The Huntington Library | 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino | Through Sept. 15 | (626) 405-2100