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What's on in LA: Playing it safe with Schwitters, Duchamp, Warhol and Judd

Does LA have an artistic personality?

The art personality of a major city is usually a palpable phenomenon. But for too long I have had people ask: “What is LA art and does such a beast exist?”

To answer that question, I queried William Wilson, author of books on LA art and long-time art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Wilson has covered the LA art scene without interruption for nearly three decades and his insights simply confirm what observation tells me.

Wilson agreed that the art scene in Los Angeles in the 90s might be described as cautionary and conservative. This situation is fuelled by the tense geo-political atmosphere, by the bleak economic predictions that place art low on people’s lists of priorities, and finally by the spirit of outrage that gripped most politically liberal artists when the government began its attempts to censor art.

The resulting trend seems to be an odd version of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. In this cautious recessionary atmosphere, well-established galleries that might have been extremely experimental in better times are playing it safe. For March we see a bevy of handsome reputable shows that look yet again at old tried and true big artists. Russian Fauve artist Alexej Jawlensky at the Long Beach Museum of Art in Long Beach, Mark di Suvero at LA Louver in Venice, nineteenth-century masters of collage like Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp at Margo Leavin’s main space and twentieth-century icons of conceptual sculpture, Don Judd, Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre, at Leavin’s hilldale satellite space.

To drive home the point: the Lannan Foundation in Marina del Rey features Nicolas Africano, and pop artist James Rosenquist is on view at the Blum Helman Gallery in Santa Monica. Jack Rutberg Fine Arts in the La Brea art district of Los Angeles hosts a show of New York mainstay Mark Tobey, and you can see prints by Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and others in their high visibility league at the Security Pacific Gallery in downtown proper.

The New York Salander O’Reilly Galleries opened a 4,500 square-foot gallery at 456 N Camden in Beverly Hills, expanding the company to the West Coast with a stable of contemporary artists like Ken Nolan, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons.

Wilson prefers to interpret what some view as a lack of any coherent art Zeitgeist in LA as “the controlled promising chaos of coming of age”. “In the Eighties, LA’s art identity came from the growth and consolidation of reputable world-recognised art institutions. Remember, LA is very young and we didn’t have that museum network that everyone takes for granted in New York. In a play for that sort of credibility, the Museum of Contemporary Art was built; the Temporary Contemporary went up; we saw the expansion of LACMA and the construction of its impressive Oriental Art wing; the Getty’s new multi-billion dollar adjunct museum and study centre is under construction in Bel Air. A lot of pomp and circumstance went with this and the newcomer and regional artist without international ties might have got lost in the shuffle. The idea was that we had finally built these blue-chip artists and blockbuster shows. This has set the pace for many well known galleries, which is why you see dealers going with proven names,” reflects Wilson.

“The city has grown, spread out; it’s harder to keep track of the literally hundreds of people making art these days. So it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a coherent LA style ... perhaps one will never exist. I think now that the city’s institutions are in place, a secure feeling will begin to trickle down and we will start to see more and more support of small galleries and more experimental work and maybe the rebirth of some uniquely LA sensibility. What points in the direction of growth and consolidation is that even in these tough times, LA has seen some 100 new galleries crop up and very few have closed.”

Because of its isolation and distance from the European and New York art traditions, LA in the 50s and 60s was a seedbed of innovation. Art as big business with high stakes was as foreign a concept as life on Mars, so West Coast artists had more of a reserve-be-damned approach. In this atmosphere, the West Coast in general and LA in particular, produced such “breakthroughs” as the avant-garde ceramics of Peter Voulkos and innovations in materials from artists like Tony Berlant, Peter Alexander, Larry Bell and others who introduced found metal, light, resins and plexiglass as viable media. (An excellent show at the Corcoran Gallery in Santa Monica chronicles this period in LA art.)

Can this experimental spirit be duplicated? Critics, dealers and artists I talked to tended to think not. The obvious reason is that the world has shrunk. Like our international conflicts, our international art is spread with lightening speed to every large city, making the biblical aphorism “there is nothing new under the sun” an apt summary.

Yet Wilson and others think that instead of newness, we will see an increase in quality. “What all these second and third looks at well proven internationally accepted artists demonstrate is that LA artists like Frank Gehry, John Baldessarri and Ed Ruscha not only have staying power but are honing their skills and producing fine durable work that will be absorbed into the broader fabric of art history.”

Other gallery news is that the long respected LA gallery owner Rosamund Felson doubled her show space when she relocated to 8525 Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Since its inception, the gallery has been exclusively committed to artists that live and work in the city.

In Santa Monica at the Sherry Frumkin Gallery, there is some absolutely not-to-be-missed work that proves the creative spirit is alive and well in LA. Artist Ron Pippin shows rich poetic figures made of Victorian doll faces that have been draped and coiled in cloth, string, found objects, cruciforms, leather and all manner of bric – brac to look like beautific and bizarre clones of Joan of Art – warring, magical saints caught somewhere between the sublime, the stoic and the obsessed.

All the exhibitions mentioned in this round-up are on until 30 March.