In Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen’s funniest and most poignant movie, the comedian Alvy Singer, played by the director, reluctantly moves from his native New York to California in pursuit of love. It proves a disastrous relocation. He can’t drive, he hates the sunshine, he has no idea what to do with a line of coke, other than sneeze it away. Most damningly, he disdains the intellectual desert that is Los Angeles. “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he quips.
East Coast snobbery over southern California’s feather-brained hedonists was nowhere more scathing than in matters of fine art. New York, having eclipsed Paris as the centre of the art world in the postwar years, hosted a new breed of superstars: the abstract expressionists, serious, intense, relentless in their solemn pursuit of truth in their art. In comparison, LA was little more than a playground, distracted by Hollywood parlour games, easily flaunted wealth and the beach.
Needless to say, it was never as simple as that. Over the coming months, in a series of extravagant shows involving 60 southern California institutions, West Coast artists and curators are putting the other side of the story. “Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980”, supported by the Getty Foundation to the tune of $10m, is an unprecedented collaboration between the region’s galleries, which partly seeks to rewrite art history.
It aims to remind the world that southern California was the centre of several artistic movements that reverberate more strongly than ever today. New York’s AbEx zealots were undoubted pillars of postwar art history; but look at the contemporary art scene of the 21st century, its playful irreverence, its furious eclecticism, and its debt to the LA scene is obvious. The hyper-honed puppies of Jeff Koons and the joke-laden medicine cabinets of Damien Hirst are the direct successors of LA’s pop culture pioneers.
The LA story was never an unequivocally sunny one. The sociologist Mike Davis, in his influential 1990 book City of Quartz, emphasised the nightmarish quality that came from the city’s sense of exile, as Europeans fled there from the barbarous events of the 1930s. “Here was the ultimate city of capital, lustrous and superficial, negating every classical value of European urbanity,” he wrote, its new population “driven by one epochal defeat of the European Enlightenment to the shores of Santa Monica Bay.”
The clash between sunshine and noir values proved fertile ground for the city’s artists. There was a sense of freedom and inventiveness in the air, and of wanting to leave behind the legacy of war-torn Europe. Stanley Grinstein, a collector and early champion of their work, says LA artists looked out hopefully to the Pacific Rim, rather than anxiously over their shoulders to the east. “It gave them a different take on life,” he says. “In [the New York club] Max’s Kansas City, you would typically see five artists around a table, having intellectual discussions, arguing about art and how they fit in to the art world. But no one ever did that here.”
Grinstein is entertaining me in his LA home, along with the artist George Herms, whose Beat-influenced assemblage sculptures were a feature of the city’s art scene in the 1960s. “Before the labels came in, it was just bohemia,” Herms says of those days, not without nostalgia. “Music, poetry, art: that was the Baudelairean triangle. And that was the island I chose to live on.”
Ironically, the avant-garde atmosphere of Los Angeles was considered the perfect context in which to show a young radical artist from New York by the name of Andy Warhol. His 1962 exhibition of Campbell’s soup cans at Ferus Gallery was mercilessly satirised. An LA Times cartoon featured two barefoot beatniks in conversation: “Frankly the cream of asparagus does nothing for me but the terrifying intensity of the chicken noodle gives me a real zen feeling.” Warhol would move back east to become one of the giants of 20th-century art but the pop sensibility of his work stayed with LA’s young artists.
The city was developing its own artistic themes: there were the powerful pop symbols of beach and surf culture, symbolising the social changes that suddenly brought young people to the forefront of public consciousness. There were the technological advances made by local aerospace industries, discovering new materials whose glossy, polished surfaces fascinated artists. There was the sunshine.
Light and surface were prominent themes in the work of another celebrated émigré, Britain’s David Hockney. He, too, found freedom in the blue skies. “In London I think I was put off by the ghost of [Walter] Sickert and I couldn’t see properly,” he says in Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s zesty new book on the LA Art scene, Rebels in Paradise. “I remember seeing, within the first week, a ramp of freeway going into the air and I suddenly thought, ‘My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am!’ ”
Other art forms began to make their presence felt. One of the “Pacific Standard Time” exhibitions, Trouble in Paradise, opening at the Grammy Museum in February, recounts the intertwining of LA’s art and music scenes. Its curator Josh Kun tells me that it will venture beyond the over-familiar details of the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s. “There has been more documentation on what happened on two blocks of Laurel Canyon than on the entire east of Los Angeles,” he says. “That was a very particular vision of Utopia. But there was a lot more going on.”
He says the rich ethnic mix of LA is reflected in some of its greatest musical moments. “Take Ritchie Valens singing ‘La Bamba’, a song that has become anthemic, it’s played at every wedding. But it has a complicated history: a predominantly black band – with a Jewish woman bass player, Carol Kaye – backing up a Mexican-American artist, who is inspired by a black singer, Little Richard, playing a song that comes from a Mexican folk tune.” He says it is time for the city to celebrate its ethnic heritage more explicitly. “Maybe we don’t need it to be a Chicano tune any more, maybe it needs to be an LA tune.”
Kun says the great thing about “Pacific Standard Time” is that its numerous exhibitions will more accurately reflect the multilayered cultural history of the city than any one-off show. “LA is really not the place for an overriding narrative. We are the city of side streets. There is always another way to go. But the idea of ‘Pacific Standard Time’ is that it tells a number of different narratives. The idea that anyone owns this story is ludicrous. For a culture geek like me, it is super exciting.”
The most prominent artistic figure to come out of Los Angeles during the period covered by “Pacific Standard Time” is Ed Ruscha, whose cool, demotic images – he made his name with a small book of black-and-white photographs of gas stations – became as identified with the city as Hockney’s shimmering swimming pools. In a telephone conversation, he tells me that the series of exhibitions will reveal to the public “a lot of those artists who haven’t been seen in the fast lane of the art world, who haven’t been so aggressive in getting their message out there”.
He describes the immediate postwar years as a “sleepy time” in LA. He says it was the foundation of the area’s numerous art schools that “began to wake us up”.
It was commonly held that New York was where things happened: “It seemed that there was this little island with the 212 area code that was producing all the hot art, the game-changing art,” he says. But he also thinks the differences between the personalities of New York and LA artists have been exaggerated. “They were deeply into their own rhetoric,” he says of figures such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, “but they loved flashy cars and Hollywood movies too.”
Once LA artists became confident in their own methodologies, they began to embrace the radical social movements of the 1960s – feminism, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war protests – as well as their more innocent native themes. These were the halcyon days of performance art and political activism, and they produced numerous causes célèbres: Chris Burden’s 1971 performance video piece “Shoot”, in which the artist was shot in the arm; Wolfgang Stoerchle urinating in public at the Pomona College Museum of Art, a favourite haunt for happenings.
The very fact that LA lacked the material infrastructure – galleries, dealers, auction houses – that drove New York meant that its art scene was more inspired by processes and events. The scene was dispersed (“Everyone was always 45 minutes’ drive away,” recalls Herms) and uncompetitive. By 1980, Los Angeles was ready to take its place in the newly globalised art market place, and its “native” artists – Ruscha, Hockney, John Baldessari – were among the most collectable in the world.
For Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty foundation, “Pacific Standard Time” is an initiative that grew from modest intentions, rather than seeking to turn art history on its head. The foundation began by making a number of ad hoc grants to institutions with the primary aim of “saving the historical record”, she says. “The artists were beginning to pass away and the records were getting lost. We were losing the history of LA.”
But the drive to preserve the memories of the postwar era, via a number of oral history projects, turned into something much bigger: “We discovered this amazing tapestry of creative ideas, things that had never been seen, and the whole thing just kept growing. And people will see that a lot of late 20th-century art was born here.”
And how about those movie moguls, engrossed in their right turns at red lights? Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute and co-director of “Pacific Standard Time”, says that even the entertainment industry is coming to terms with LA’s art heritage. “Not so long ago, if you were at a Hollywood party and you said you were an art historian, people moved away. Now they want to sit next to you.”
‘Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980’ opens in galleries throughout southern California on October 1 and runs for six months. Its presenting sponsor is Bank of America.www.pacificstandardtime.org