3.3 / Make Big Demands

A Larger Stage

By Constance Lewallen October 16, 2011
Eleanor Antin. Representational Painting, 1971; video; black-and-white, silent; 38 min.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; purchase made possible by the Norma H. Schlesinger, Andrew and Paul Spiegel Fund. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Excerpted from Constance Lewallen’s essay “A Larger Stage.” Permission to reprint from State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 courtesy of University of California Press.

State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970 is co-curated by Constance Lewallen and Karen Moss.

Orange County Museum of Art: October 9, 2011–January 22, 2012

University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive: February 29–June 17, 2012

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In 1969, shortly after cremating his paintings in a ceremonial finale to his career as a painter, John Baldessari (b. 1931) transposed the letters that spell California as they appear on a map to their actual locations on the ground—in other words, he imposed “language on nature, and vice versa.”1 Working backward with his friends George and Judy Nicolaides, Baldessari traversed the state, first inscribing A at Joshua Tree National Monument with dry color, rocks, and wildflower seeds, then traveling north to end at Lake Shasta for the C (made with found logs), and so on. Other materials used included pigment, fabric, rocks, yarn, and a telephone pole (which, with its “fake” shadow made of black pigment, formed the L). Both a nod to earthworks and an absurdist literalization of the symbolic system of mapping, California Map Project Part I: California (1969/2009) is one example of several works by Baldessari that adheres to one of Sol LeWitt’s landmark Sentences on Conceptual Art: “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.”2 Here, Baldessari signals many of what were to become the defining features of Conceptual art: the tendency to create work outside of the studio; the emphasis on concept and process over physical objects; the absurdist idea followed to its rational conclusion; and the use of secondary material (photography and text) as documentation.

Eleanor Antin. Representational Painting, 1971; video; black-and-white, silent; 38 min.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; purchase made possible by the Norma H. Schlesinger, Andrew and Paul Spiegel Fund. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Conceptual art, defined broadly, emerged in the late 1960s more or less simultaneously among groups of young artists in the United States and elsewhere. Although most of California’s first generation of Conceptual artists remain less well known than their East Coast and international peers—such as Lawrence Weiner and LeWitt (New York), or Daniel Buren (France), or Art and Language (England)—they shared with them a rejection of traditional modes of art making in the context of the enormous cultural and social changes in society at large. The hyperconsumerism of the 1960s extended to the art market and offended idealistically inclined artists for whom art existed on a higher plane. Hence, they de-emphasized the creation of saleable paintings and sculpture in favor of works that privileged the concept and/or the process of art making, and documented them with some combination of maps, photographs, drawings, video, and text. Conceptual artists invented a host of new modes of artistic production and moved freely among them according to which were the most appropriate to the idea. Because many of these new genres—performance, site-specific installations, film, video, and such democratic forms as mail art and artists’ books—were ill suited to or disregarded by traditional art venues, these artists colonized alternative sites, such as the city streets or non-art spaces. Even in those instances when they exhibited in galleries or museums, Conceptual artists found ways to fundamentally alter the conventional artist–viewer relationship.

Linda Mary Montano. Chicken Dance: The Streets of San Francisco, 1972 (performance still). Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Mitchell Payne.

With several notable exceptions, California Conceptualists relied less on systems and linguistic structures than did their New York peers. West Coast artists who used language often combined it with humor, believing that you can have serious art and humor at the same time. Californians, especially in Northern California, tended to draw their art and lives closer together and often erased the distinction between the two. Nature played a greater role in the north—proximity to the mountains and deserts was integral to the work of artists like Paul Kos and Robert Kinmont, and others addressed environmental issues. At both ends of the state, artists were affected by widespread anti–Vietnam War and anti-establishment sentiment as well as the rise of civil rights. Conventional standards of decency were being attacked from all sides. In 1964, Southern California artist Connor Everts was arrested for work he showed at the Zora Gallery in Los Angeles (he was acquitted by the judge after the jury could not come to a decision), and Beat poet Michael McClure’s play The Beard, featuring nudity, opened in San Francisco in

1965. Offended by the suggested sexual content of Edward Kienholz’s Back Street Dodge ’38—a truncated car with the door opened to reveal desiccated lovers in an illicit embrace—city officials threatened to close down his retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964. A last-minute compromise allowed guards to open the car door briefly at fifteen-minute intervals. In nightclubs, Lenny Bruce flouted obscenity laws with his raw language and frank observations of hypocrisy in America. But 1965 was also the year the National Endowment for the Arts was established under President Lyndon Johnson, and the next year Drs. William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson published Human Sexual Response, a massive study that revealed that underneath a conventional exterior, sexual activity in America was much more varied and widespread than anyone had imagined.

The feminist and Chicano movements were especially important in Southern California, while the demand of gays and lesbian for equal rights was most strongly felt in the north. In 1968, there were massive walkouts by Chicano students in East Los Angeles, and, between 1969 and 1971, the Chicano Moratorium, a loose affiliation of Mexican American groups, combined to protest the Vietnam War not only in Los Angeles but also in Chicago, Albuquerque, Denver, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, and elsewhere, culminating in marches of Chicanos around the United States. The peaceful demonstrators were attacked by tear gas from helicopters, and in the ensuing melee, many were injured and four were killed in East Los Angeles.

Martha Rosler. First Lady (Pat Nixon), 1972, from the series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, 1967–72; photomontage; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, New York.

Like the Dada artists in Europe who were sickened by the devastation of World War I, American artists saw the Vietnam War as a tragic consequence of an imperious political system from which they felt alienated. Antiwar protests raged throughout the state, although they differed in character in the north and south. In the Bay Area, the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, had set the stage for civil rights and antiwar protests that continued to be centered on campuses from Berkeley to San Francisco State College to the University of California, Santa Cruz; in the south, the protest movement was mostly based in ethnic communities.3 Both north and south intersected with the counterculture ethos of drug use (marijuana was to Conceptual artists what whiskey was to the Abstract Expressionists), rock music, and utopian fantasy. Following the Beat scene of the 1940s and 1950s, by the 1960s San Francisco was on the forefront of dissent, home to a flourishing underground press and radical activists like the Diggers, who gave away food and money and performed political theater in public spaces. Newly formed bands like the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin joined the band in 1966) established the Bay Area as the West Coast center for psychedelic rock. In short, California was ripe for artistic experimentation. Even if they were not directly engaged in protest activities, young California artists could not help but be aware that the old order was under attack; revolution was in the air, and traditional forms of art seemed remote and wholly inadequate to the concerns of the moment. The action was rarely in the studio, even less often in the museum or commercial gallery; the action was in the streets and other venues not usually associated with art.

Robert Kinmont. 8 Natural Handstands, 1969/2009; nine black-and-white photographs. Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photo: Bill Orcutt

California Conceptualists have most often been described in the following regional terms. Northern California Conceptual artists, such as Terry Fox, emphasized the body and ritual and tended to conflate their life and art activities. In this respect, these artists had an affinity with European Conceptualists, such as Joseph Beuys (with whom Fox performed at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1971). Others, such as Tom Marioni, Linda Mary Montano, and Robert Kinmont, were influenced by Eastern philosophies. The Northern California artists worked in the full range of new genres but placed an emphasis on performance: precedence shifted from object to event, film, and video, in which time is conceived as a medium. Their Los Angeles counterparts, such as Baldessari, Robert Cumming, Lowell Darling, William Leavitt, Allen Ruppersberg, Ilene Segalove, Alexis Smith, and William Wegman, drew on popular culture—print media, movies, and TV, particularly Hollywood—in terms of imagery and narrative impulse (Cumming and Leavitt were particularly fascinated by the artificiality and seductiveness of movie sets). These artists also worked in an array of nontraditional genres, although photography and video predominated. San Diego, despite its being generally conservative and home to several military bases, was the locus of highly politicized art by Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and others. They studied at the relatively new campus of the University of California, whose faculty—Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, and David and Eleanor Antin, as well as the German Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse (Allan Kaprow joined the faculty in 1974)—were immersed in feminist, environmental, economic, and social issues. Rosler described their attitude as “antimodernist” in that they were against the modernist notion of art as separate from the rest of culture and society. “We were a new school, small, sitting on top of complex ties to the real world and the war. We might as well make big demands; why not do what we wanted. Either the market or the institutions were going to change or we would ignore them and make new ones.”4 

William Wegman. A Basic Guide to Lettering, 1972; two black-and-white photographs; 11 × 14 in. each. Courtesy of the Artist and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

While there is some truth to these characterizations, in surveying the wide range of Conceptual practices in California, it becomes clear that artists across the state shared methodologies and themes that are as important as, and at times trump, geographic differences. For example, many used mapping to document works that were done in nature. Others took as their subject the urban environment, documenting its mundane features or performing in the street. Artists North and South engaged in forms of linguistic wordplay. A thematic approach affords a fresh look at this seminal period in California Conceptual art and demonstrates that it foreshadowed much of the work being created by young artists today.

Notes

  1. R. H. Fuchs, John Baldessari (Essen,Germany: Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven and Museum Folkwang), 12.
  2. Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger, 1973), 75. Baldessari affectionately lampoons these sentences in the video Baldessari Sings LeWitt (1972).
  3. For an in-depth analysis of the antiwar movement in California, see Marcia A. Eymann and Charles Wollenberg, eds., What’s Going On: California and the Vietnam Era (Oakland, Berkeley, and Los Angeles: Oakland Museum of California and University of California Press, 2004).
  4.  Martha Rosler in conversation with author, March 21, 2009.

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