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Los Angeles’ post-war art remapped: Pacific Standard Time puts city’s lesser known artists in the spotlight

The Getty funded project has resulted in more than 125 exhibitions, performances, and events to celebrate the city's history

The epic series of exhibitions and events that comprise “Pacific Standard Time: Art in Los Angeles 1945-80” emerged from modest beginnings. A decade ago, two important figures in the early LA art scene, the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Henry Hopkins, and Lyn Kienholz, one of the key chroniclers of the city’s art scene (and former wife of Ed Kienholz), visited the Getty Foundation’s director and deputy director, Deborah Marrow and Joan Weinstein, to express their concern that the documentation of the crucial post-war period in the city’s art history was in danger of being lost. Marrow and Weinstein set about distributing research grants that addressed these concerns, and soon heard that wonderful stories were being unearthed—narratives worthy of exhibitions and publications. The project snowballed, with the Getty eventually funding the project to the tune of $10m. It has grown to encompass more than 125 exhibitions in museums in greater Los Angeles, as well as many performances and events.

Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, Chris Burden and David Hammons inevitably appear in various shows and events, but, crucially, many less well known artists are given equal prominence. Artists from the Chicano community, for instance, feature in several exhibitions. “LA Xicano”, a project overseen by the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, includes four exhibitions across three institutions. “Art Along the Hyphen: the Mexican-American Generation” at the Autry National Center looks at art in the Mexican-American community before the Chicano Art Movement of the 1960s, which is itself explored in “Mapping Another LA” at the Fowler Museum. Also at the Fowler are documentary photographs of Chicano life and art by Oscar Castillo. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) is “Mural Remix”, Sandra de la Loza’s video and lightbox installation revivifying the 1970s murals that were a fundamental form of expression for Chicano artists.

LA’s African-American artists are the subject of “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80”, a 145-work survey including established artists such as Hammons and Betye Saar alongside relatively unknown figures. The 45 artists’ works are infused with the spirit of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, not least the assemblages of Saar, whose boxes of found objects often play on black stereotypes, and collages by Noah Purifoy that used detritus from LA’s race riots in 1965.

Both Saar and Purifoy also appear in “Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture, 1950-70” at the Getty Center, a journey through the dramatic shifts in art of the period. It highlights LA’s unique treatment of key international developments of the period: Finish Fetish artists, for instance, bridged the gap between two opposing New York movements, pop and minimalism, linking the former’s attachment to the surface of mass culture with the latter’s reductive geometries.

“LA Raw” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art traces the history of the often violently expressive works of LA contemporary artists such as Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley back to the city’s earliest modernist forays, in the work of Rico Lebrun and Hans Burckhardt. It confirms that, while abstract expressionism dominated New York in the 1950s, the West Coast was a far more plural culture: the “abject expressionism” the show explores led to a fertile strain of art over subsequent decades.

Architecture and design are also explored in depth, and Lacma’s “California Design, 1930-65: Living in a Modern Way” is a highlight. About 350 objects, from ceramics and textiles to industrial design, all lead to an analysis of the “California Look” and its transmission through magazines and, of course, Hollywood. A centrepiece is the reconstruction of the living room from the Eames House, Charles and Ray Eames’ contribution to the magazine Arts and Architecture’s visionary Case Study House initiative, in which architects offered a series of prototypes for modern living.

These few shows are truly the tip of the iceberg. The Getty stresses that Pacific Standard Time is an unprecedented event, but such is its scope, it seems equally apt to describe it as unrepeatable. Hopkins’ and Kienholz’s worries have been comprehensively allayed.