Unquenchable Playfulness

Painting detail, Ed Moses

Pacific Standard Time—the massive, Getty-funded undertaking in 2011 that featured over 60 exhibits throughout Southern California highlighting Los Angeles art between 1945-1980—was a sea change for me. The span and the range of work was staggering, and it revealed a complete art ecosystem that emerged quite apart from the pulsing international epicenter that was New York. PST allowed me to see more clearly how growing up in California during those years has informed and determined my artistic development even now. The artists whose work I saw during those formative years were sassy, insouciant, and self-defined. They seemed uninterested in penetrating the arcane layers of East Coast sensibilities and social/ideological hierarchies. There was a braggadocio I could feel, even as a teenager who had never been anywhere except the Western United States.

The mark PST left on me was deep, and I wrote about it a lot on Slow Muse. (A list of links to those posts is included below.) PST served to shift the thinking of others as well, like Roberta Smith who wrote in the New York Times:

“Pacific Standard Time” has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.

I had a similar moment of being reminded of the soil that fed my artistic root system when I went to see the New Britain Museum of American Art’s exhibit, California Dreaming. The show features the work of three artists who were at the center of the Los Angeles art scene during that same PST timeframe. Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses were all Ferus Gallery cohorts (along with Ed Kienholtz, Wallace Berman, John Altoon, Craig Kaufman, Larry Bell, Frank Gehry, Robert Irwin, and Ken Price.) Amazingly, all three artists are still alive (Moses, the oldest, turned 90 last year.) Also amazing is that this is the first time they have exhibited together, and the first time their work has been featured in an East Coast venue.

And what a show it is.

Ruscha is the master of droll wit and visual/language play, and his early Dada-like projects (like throwing a typewriter out of a speeding car and documenting its death on the highway, part by part) had an irresistible smart ass quality that I loved right from the start.

But it was Bengston and Moses (and Northern California artist Richard Diebenkorn,) primarily painters, who were closer to my way of working. Their aesthetic penetrated me, both by intention and sheer proximity. From my earliest exposure to their work in the mid-60s, I could see how they took on materiality with wild abandon, coaxing the surfaces of their paintings into micro-universes of lively enchantment and irresistible beauty. They partnered with chance and with process, and that required them to be fully present in the moment of making. Their work did not drift into the dark and depressive side. Rather they kept an essential connection with a more playful and optimistic sensibility. The climate of LA is there in Bengston’s and Moses’ work: a not-New York, self-defined way of making.

Moses has been particularly outspoken about his way of working. As a student of Tibetan Buddhism for most of his life, he has incorporated many of those practices into his art making methodology. “The rational mind constantly wants to be in charge. The other parts want to fly. My painting is the encounter between the mind’s necessity for control and its yearning to fly, to be free from our ever-confining skull,” he has said. In her book about Moses, Barbara Haskell remarked that this letting go of control allows Moses to “step outside himself, letting his materials direct his hand without conscious interferences.”

That Moses way of art making is also captured in a passage included in the text at the NBMAA show:

At a certain time, if the right catalyst takes place, the work is ignited. These paintings are all about engaging the activity of the search, the fool, the meandering…By doing enough work, I will end up with one that is really magic, one that transcends merely good or beautiful.

Unlike Moses, Bengston and Ruscha, I didn’t stay in California. As soon as I finished college I moved to New York City where I lived for nearly 10 years before taking up a lifelong residence in Boston. When I arrived on the East Coast I was astounded by the general lack of familiarity with California art and California artists. That of course has changed over time as the art world has become increasingly non-geographically determined.

But as Roberta Smith pointed out, the art history canon is still in need of being rewritten particularly in its portrayal of West Coast art. Some efforts have addressed that, like the Guggenheim’s insightful show from 2009, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989. Linkages with Asian art and West Coast artists were a big part of the premise of that show.

Seeing California Dreaming is confronting my own origin story, a bit like encountering a box of old photographs in a grandmother’s attic and suddenly remembering all those places and faces again. And while the art formalism that was native to New York when I arrived in the 1970s has become more of an international style, this show reminded me that there are so many other species and genera to consider. I am from a different fauna group, one I share with many of those mid century California artists.

Moses’ description of the way he works is in a lovely alignment with “scientist gone galactic” Barbara Ehrenreich‘s transcendent view of the way our universe works. From her wonderful book, Living With a Wild God:

The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.

A few favorite moments from the NBMAA show:

Installation views

Close ups from Billy Al Bengston

Close ups from Ed Moses

Ed Moses at 90

Pacific Standard Time, on Slow Muse:

Pacific Standard Time: Begin the Rewrite

Pacific Standard Time: Light and Space

Pacific Standard Time: A Time Out of Joint, at the Geffen

Pacific Standard Time Sidebar: Theaster Gates at the Geffen

Pacific Standard Time: Proof at the Norton Simon Museum

Pacific Standard Time: California Dreamin’ (On a Winter’s Day)

Pacific Standard Time: More on a Theme

3 Replies to “Unquenchable Playfulness”

  1. Sharon Summers says:

    Hi Deborah – you’re SUCH a fantastic writer. I really look forward to reading everything you express and reveal 🙂 Could you tell me what the large rectangular-shape painting is titled (and by whom), the one in your very first installation view. Thanks a lot 🙂

  2. deborahbarlow says:

    Sharon, I am sorry I did not see this comment until several weeks later. The paintings in the first installation shot are by Billy Al Bengston.

  3. deborahbarlow says:

    PS And thank you for such kind words about my blog. I really appreciate it.

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