by Jonathan Griffin
At 6am on 9 February, 1971, Allen Ruppersberg was thrown out of bed onto the floor of his studio. Later, he would learn that the 6.6 magnitude earthquake – Los Angeles’ worst in decades – had killed 64 people and caused half a billion dollars in damage. It also delayed construction of the new California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), 30 miles north of Los Angeles in Valencia. When CalArts finally occupied its new building in November that year, the progressive school ushered in a new era for Los Angeles’ art world.
Ruppersberg, who had trained in the late 1960s at the Chouinard Art Institute – the predecessor to CalArts – says that then, as now, schools were vital for the art community in LA. There were no art bars, and precious few galleries. Al’s Grand Hotel (1971), which is being “re-invented” this week for Frieze Projects by curator Lauren Mackler of the LA project space Public Fiction, was a short-term solution. For six weekends in May and June 1971, people could book rooms in an improvised hotel on Sunset Boulevard, and hang out as they pleased. Each of the seven rooms doubled as an installation by the artist: “The Jesus Room” contained a huge wooden crucifix, while “The Al Room” contained cardboard cut-outs of Ruppersberg in different outfits, flashing a two-fingered peace sign.
Claire Copley, who subsequently became Ruppersberg’s gallerist, did not move to Los Angeles until later that year. Everyone she met had visited the hotel for one weekend or another. “I think it was a sort of three day party. And that basically everyone who went there knew everyone, and knew Al,” she says. Artist William Leavitt, who was photographed shaking hands with his friend Ruppersberg on the hotel steps, says of its bacchanalian reputation that “since it was during the seventies, that’s perfectly possible. But I think the night that my wife and I went it was rather sedate.” Ruppersberg insists that all kinds of visitors came through the hotel, but claims that he’s long forgotten most of the stories people told him about what they got up to during their stays. And that the ones he does remember are not repeatable.
“It was fun. If it ain’t fun, what are you doing it for?” Ruppersberg says. He was affiliated at the time with a gang of Los Angeles-based artists who shared a distinctive sense of humour: Leavitt, Bas Jan Ader, Ger Van Elk and William Wegman, all of whom exhibited their installations, films and photographs at Copley’s LA gallery, which opened in 1973. Many had also shown at Eugenia Butler Gallery before it closed in 1971. They made a kind of work that John Baldessari, an influential teacher at the new CalArts, termed “Post-Conceptual.” “I will not make any more boring art,” wrote Baldessari, over and over, in a video from 1971.
Post-Conceptual art in Los Angeles developed in response to Conceptual practices in New York and Europe. Few Californian artists could afford air travel, but Ruppersberg exhibited widely and had visited “When Attitudes Become Form” in Bern in 1969. Copley remembers artist friends passing around Ruppersberg’s catalogue: “It was like gold to people, just to see what was going on. Plugging into what was happening in Europe was so much more comfortable and familiar for Al than plugging into what was happening in LA.
“Los Angeles was still dominated by the detritus, so to speak, of the Ferus Gallery,” Copley says, referring to the La Cienega gallery that famously showcased rising stars such as Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell and Billy Al Bengston, and which closed in 1966. These artists, many of whom trained or taught at Chouinard, formed an enclave on the west side of the city, in and around Venice Beach. Rosamund Felsen, now an established gallerist but, at the time, a junior curator at the Pasadena Art Museum, remembers, “The Venice boys were really the ones who were in the power structure – all this macho stuff. When these other guys came along,” – referring to Ruppersberg and his cohorts – “they were like a different breed. They were more intellectual, and they had more sociological concerns.”
Then, as now, the so-called Los Angeles art world spread far beyond the official city limits. CalArts, perhaps the city’s most famous art school, was actually in a separate town 40 minutes’ drive north (traffic permitting). Leavitt and Ader met in the mid-1960s at Claremont Graduate School, a comparable distance to the east, where Ader settled with his wife Mary Sue. Chris Burden, who studied architecture as an undergrad at the nearby Pomona College, then got his masters at the University of California, Irvine, which is almost an hour’s journey south of Los Angeles, in Orange County. Despite distinct similarities in their work and the relatively small art community in LA at the time, it seems that Burden and Ader never crossed paths.
It was at the Orange County gallery F-Space, which Burden set up with fellow Irvine students including Barbara T. Smith and Nancy Buchanan, that he staged the notorious work Shoot, in November of 1971. Leavitt claims he never ventured that far south – “it was really off the map, it was so far away,” – but Felsen remembers attending openings for artists like Judy Chicago and Allan McCollum at Jack Glenn Gallery, also in Orange County, which she admits seems extraordinary today. Ruppersberg notes that back in the 1970s the city was less clogged with traffic and one could navigate more freely. Now, he says, people tend to remain in their own neighbourhoods.
The dearth of serious collectors in Los Angeles was debilitating in the 1970s – as some people complain it still is today. Despite exhibiting ground-breaking art by now canonical artists, Copley says, “not many people saw it, and certainly nobody bought it.” Her gallery closed in 1977. “It was a funny time of nothing gelling,” she says, “but a lot of stuff going on in different pockets that had really no central binding affiliation. People liked each other; there were no social divisions. It was just apples and oranges. And lemons.”
The variety of artistic activities in this period is astonishing. While Ruppersberg was running his hotel, Burden was getting shot and Leavitt was filming Ader falling off the roof of his house (Fall 1, Los Angeles, 1970), Judy Gerowitz was changing her name to Judy Chicago and founding the Feminist Art Program at CalArts. Douglas Huebler was beginning his project to photograph every human being on earth. Paul McCarthy was making a video of himself pouring engine oil onto the pages of a phone book and babbling like a baby (Ma Bell, 1971) and was greatly influenced by Bruce Nauman, who lived in Pasadena. Ruppersberg recalls fondly the lack of hierarchy amongst artists, a characteristic that persists in the city.
The sentiment may not necessarily have been shared by artists of colour, however. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) staged its first exhibition by contemporary black artists in 1971, featuring Charles White, Timothy Washington and David Hammons, then little known. A year later, the Chicano art collective ASCO spray-painted their names on a LACMA wall in symbolic protest at their exclusion from the institution.
While certain minorities undoubtedly found their cultural isolation frustrating and disempowering, many artists experienced isolation only in geographical terms. “One is isolated here,” says Leavitt, “but there is this umbilical cord that connects to the bigger scene, which sustains people. It didn’t feel like an underground, because there were similar things going on in New York and Europe.” That simultaneous sense of community and separateness is what draws many artists to the city today. Says Ruppersberg: “It’s still a land of individuals, I guess.”
First published: The Art Newspaper, Frieze New York edition, 8-9 May 2014