Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–81

by Jonathan Griffin

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

John Divola, Zuma #9 (1978/2006)

Events sometimes tell their own story. 1974: Richard Nixon resigns; Patty Hearst is kidnapped by left-wing terrorists; the U.S. oil crisis continues. 1975: Saigon falls; Gerald Ford survives two assassination attempts, both in California. 1976: Chairman Mao dies. 1977: Elvis Presley dies; Jimmy Carter is sworn in. 1978: Californian cult, the Peoples Temple, commits mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana; Harvey Milk and George Moscone are shot in San Francisco; Proposition 13, limiting Californian property taxation, is passed. 1979: Three Mile Island nuclear disaster; the U.S. embassy in Tehran is seized; revolution in Nicaragua; Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, reigniting the Cold War. 1980: the U.S. and other countries boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow; John Lennon is murdered. 1981: assassination attempt on the Pope; Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is assassinated; AIDS is identified; Ronald Reagan is sworn in as president.

These seven years in California were, as David Foster Wallace once titled an essay on John Updike, ‘Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think’.[i] Countercultural icons died, extremist factions became more active, and US popular politics veered to the right. The future no longer inspired confidence, and moral degeneracy (epitomized by Nixon’s disgrace) was thought to be to blame. The Christian right argued for the reuniting of church and state, and was instrumental in bringing Reagan to power. Artists also recognized a need for strong moral voices, many arguing instead for the reuniting of art and life.

The something that ended, curator Paul Schimmel forthrightly states in his introductory essay, was Modernism. The movement had become emblematic of those centralized, authoritative institutions that were so mistrusted. What replaced it was a pluralism of forms, styles, interests and agendas that teemed in the era’s mood of disenchantment and anxiety. Sunshine was obscured by noir, to paraphrase one of the city’s more fatuous characterizations (also echoed by Schimmel in his choice of title, lifted from a 1982 album by Los Angeles Punk band X).

News photographs of the above events are projected throughout the exhibition. Schimmel may be amongst the first to chronicle their impact on American art in the late 1970s.[ii] He is certainly alone amongst curators contributing to Pacific Standard Time (of which this show is a major part) in claiming this narrow window as the source of California’s most underrated contribution to international art discourse. He makes some bold assertions. ‘What cohered as Postmodernism during the 1980s in New York effectively codified ideas and concepts evolving from art made in California between 1974 and 1981,’ he writes.[iii] This specious argument seems to rest on the heterogeneity of the Californian art scene, relatively free from the pressures of the art market and the obeisance to ‘movements’ and trends seen at that time in New York.[iv] While this may have contributed to its ongoing development, Postmodernism is generally thought to have been well underway by 1981, already having assimilated the influence of regions as diverse as Las Vegas, Italy and Japan in fields outside visual art.[v]

The exhibition’s most evident concern is not Postmodernism, but politics. It opens with a draft of Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, on loan from the Nixon Library. Quadruple-spaced in Courier type, formally it resembles much of the text-based art that follows. While options for word processing were vastly more limited in the late ‘70s than they are now, this typographical format came to stand in art for a professional but personal mode of written address: Douglas Huebler, for instance, uses it to explain his procedure for making Variable Piece #70 (In Process): 166A (1975–6), and signs it like a letter at the bottom. As part of My Father’s Diary (1975), Guy de Cointet also types his first-person narrative over four sheets of paper (even today, Courier font is the industry standard for screenplays.) In her collages Downtown and Sunset (both 1980), Alexis Smith pairs typed snatches of Chandleresque narrative with non-sequitur items of bricolage, tempting the detective work to which her vocabulary alludes.

Comparison and allegiance seem to have guided Schimmel’s sprawling hang, which packs MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary – a difficult, warehouse-like space – with over 500 objects by around 130 artists. There is no single path through the show, and alternative routes unfold different associations. His approach is overtly anti-hierarchical, hiding many of the era’s most familiar figures (Paul McCarthy, John Baldessari, Mike Kelley) in the gallery’s farthest reaches. There’s a Hollywood-themed room, in which the lion from Jack Goldstein’s film Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975) roars impotently alongside William Leavitt’s The Impossible (1980), a fiberglass dungeon wall with an ominously dangling chain. Then there’s a Romantic Conceptualist room, in which Vija Celmins’ cloned rocks (To Fix the Image in Memory, 1977–82) chime with Paul and Marlene Kos’ video Lightning (1976) and Bas Jan Ader’s sea shanties. Nearby are grouped four Bay area artists – Joan Brown, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Stephen J. Kaltenbach and Linda Montano – who have all been influenced in one way or another by Buddhism. If these groupings affirm certain stereotypical views of Californian life – whether Tinseltown schmaltz or an interest in Eastern spirituality – then their parallel inclusion (and interrelation) complicates a simplistic image of the state. Leavitt and Ader were, for instance, close colleagues, despite Leavitt’s interest in artifice and Ader’s embrace of genuine peril.

Schimmel’s strategy of comparison seems at first somewhat conflicted. If the era’s most enduring legacy was that of diversity, then isn’t it counterintuitive to emphasize similarity? Pluralism, however, was as much about finding kinship as it was about declaring difference.[vi] If minority groups such as African-American, Chicano, Latino, Feminist or Queer artists made their voices heard in the melee, they did so because of strong links among their peers. What is interesting is where we see these identifications fraying; it is revealing to see Chicano collective ASCO espousing a photo-conceptualist approach akin to that of Chris Burden, while white artists such as Jonathan Borofsky or Terry Allen were clearly influenced by Mexican muralists.

While artists saw widely disparate artistic strategies as equally valid, they also realized that the wider public did not yet share this view. Their transgression of aesthetic categories was deliberately confusing. Gorgeous hanging banners by Billy Al Bengston (by reputation one of the more macho Finish Fetish artists) are aesthetically sympathetic to the nearby drawings and fabric works of the younger, Feminist artists Kim MacConnel and Judy Chicago. No indication is given, however, of who influenced whom.

Black and white documentary photography proliferates, both architectural (Lewis Baltz, Judy Fiskin, Joe Deal, James Welling) and social (Chauncey Hare, Ellen Brooks, Allan Sekula). The deluge of similar work makes it difficult to parse the divergences between these artists’ concerns. Welling’s near-formalist compositions, for instance, are very different in intent to the ‘New Topographics’ work of Deal or Baltz. In the cases of Hare and Sekula, their images seem rather co-opted into telling socio-political stories (in the manner of the contextual slideshows through the exhibition) at the expense of their reflections on the nature of their own medium.

Faring better, here, are the artists who, in the manner of the nascent Pictures Generation, approached photography as a field of opaque 2D objets trouvées. Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, in the often hilarious Evidence (1977), reprinted archival photographs without explicatory text; in another series, Christopher Williams detailed, in tortuously long titles, the source of his images (the John F. Kennedy Library) and the conditions for their selection (shot on May 10, 1963, with the President’s back turned to the camera). Politics, in this work, is inextricably entwined with a commentary on the movement, presentation and interpretation of images.

It is a nice irony that light – California’s most bountiful resource – should remain the primary ingredient in works ­that are so conceptually and tonally gloomy. Robert Heinecken made Inaugural Excerpt Videograms (1981) by pressing photographic paper to his television screen at key moments in Reagan’s swearing-in ceremony; the blurry faces appear submerged, like Terry Schoonhaven’s nearby painting Downtown Los Angeles Underwater (1979). In his Zuma series (1977/2006), John Divola framed improbable Pacific sunsets within the smashed windows of a derelict Malibu beach house. The flash of his camera makes the ocean light seem all the more unreal – almost toxic.

The influence of Punk is felt throughout the exhibition. Its music andsubculture arrived in California in the mid-1970s, imported from London to L.A.’s Sunset Strip. For many young artists, its energy and danger superseded the increasingly formalized art performance scene. It soon spread to San Francisco, and splintered into diverse subgenres. Raymond Pettibon, whose posters are included here, was famously associated with his brother’s band Black Flag. Artists such as McCarthy, Tony Oursler, The Kipper Kids and Tony Labat all internalized, to varying degrees, the confrontational stance of Punk performance.[vii]

Punk’s DIY attitude encouraged intrepid innovation. Everywhere people were constructing their own platforms for broadcast or exhibition, and speaking directly to their audience. In both Bill Owens and Jim Goldberg’s photo portraits, their subjects address the viewer in accompanying texts. Martha Rosler, Suzanne Lacy and Chris Burden all speak to the video camera as if presenting their own television programmes. New technologies such as the Sony Portapak allowed artists to create videos that were no longer constrained by the brevity and expense of film. In the manner of Burden’s infiltrations into television broadcasting earlier in the ‘70s, for Decoy Gang War Victim (1975) ASCO distributed a photograph of ‘the last gang war victim’ to local TV stations, at least two of which broadcasted the staged image. (The influence of the emerging computer industry, however, was not visible in the arts until about a decade later.)

This emphasis on breadth of activity might lead one to assume the exhibition is more comprehensive than is in fact the case. Many important artists are not included, perhaps because they do not conform to Schimmel’s dirty black picture of the period (where is John McCracken, Robert Irwin or Ken Price, for instance – let alone David Hockney?). Most surprising, perhaps, is the omission of Michael Asher and Thomas Lawson whose work could have contributed to the show’s Conceptual and Pictures-based themes. Perhaps the problem is only that the selection criteria are not apparent to the viewer. Maybe the aforementioned artists are not essential to Schimmel’s argument of pluralism arising from political frustration and the failure of modernism – but then neither is all the work in the show (particularly the abstract and process-led painting that occupies the final, wearying galleries).

These inconsistencies make clear that the exhibition is caught between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, it states that the most significant contribution of Californian art in this era is that of pluralism – a post-historical plethora of equally valid but divergent practices. On the other, in order to convince that this moment was culturally coherent – that it was indeed an identifiable ‘moment’ – it has to emphasize continuities between disparate practices, and disregard relevant work inconveniently made outside of its seven-year remit.[viii] What ‘Under the Big Black Sun’ ultimately achieves is a comprehensive recalibration of California’s public image, even if that involves layering just one more fiction over a city already well known for its narrative prowess.


[i] David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster And Other Essays, 2005, Little, Brown & Company, New York, p.51

[ii] Douglas Ecklund’s 2009 exhibition ‘The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Lynn Cooke and Douglas Crimp’s ‘Mixed Use Manhattan’ (2010) at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, were more conceptually focused precursors. (Crimp, it should be noted, curated the original ‘Pictures’ exhibition in 1977.)

[iii] Lisa Gabrielle Mark and Paul Schimmel eds.,  ‘Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981’, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and DelMonico Books • Prestel, Munich, London, New York, p.16

[iv] ‘Mixed Use Manhattan’ proposed that approximately contemporaneous artistic activity in New York was far more coherent in its attention to photography and the subject of urban public space, despite the curators’ claim for the simultaneous diversification of art practices.

[v] Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, the curators of the 2011 exhibition ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990’, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, go so far as to admit that many of its key practitioners, such as Robert Venturi or Ettore Sottsass, had made important work even before 1970. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt eds., ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970–1990’, 2011, V& A Publishing, London, p.9

[vi] In her catalogue essay, Rebecca Solnit notes that, as a teenager, her wry assessment of adherents of the burgeoning Punk scene was that they were ‘Different like everybody else’. Mark and Schimmel eds., Ibid, p.92

[vii] Catalogue essayist Thomas Crow makes an insightful comparison between Iggy Pop’s violent and self-abasing performances and Paul McCarthy’s video-performance Sailor’s Meat (1975), which is featured in the exhibition. Mark and Schimmel eds., Ibid, p.51

[viii] A concurrent Pacific Standard Time exhibition, ‘State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970’, at the Orange County Museum of Art, reveals both a continuity in Conceptual practices in the region prior to 1974, and an alternative reading of work by many of the same artists as ‘Under the Big Black Sun’.

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