Learning from 1970s-era LA art and architecture

by Lori Waxman, Chicago Tribune, Arts+Entertainment, section 4,
Thursday, May 22, 2014

The greatest challenge may ultimately be to understand how its many eclectic parts fit together.

A lot of artists and architects were thinking very seriously about Los Angeles in the 1970s. This may have been less than apparent in the high art—and high architecture—bastion of Chicago or New York, where intellectual snobberies and suspicious misunderstanding about the West Coast stubbornly persist even today. Everything Loose Will Land, a sprawling, buzzy exhibition on view at the Graham Foundation, gives the city its due as a site of inspiration and experimentation.

The artist couple Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt made a droll film about the divide a year before the decade began. "East Coast, West Coast" is one of the more familiar works in this display of 120-plus rare drawings, prototypes, plans, photographs and models, and it finds itself in funky, pioneering company. Organized by cultural historian Sylvia Lavin, the show explores the convergence of art and architecture in Los Angeles during what turns out to have been a heady 10 years.

Lavin found a lot of contemporaneous research on which to draw. Artist Bill Al Bengston documented the studios of compatriots like Ed Ruscha, Peter Alexander, and Ed Moses, all of whose artwork is included in the show. The L.A. Fine Arts Squad, in a departure from what seems to have been a generally optimistic atmosphere, sketched apocalyptic visions of the city moldering under 20 feet of water and violent shorn adrift from the mainland.

The broadest record of the local scene comes courtesy of ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNICATIONS, a little-known collective that made and distributed slides, films and catalogs of LA's unique man-made and natural structures. Seen here, their visual account of the city's dingbat and franchise architecture, billboards and freeways suggest departure points for pop painting by Ruscha and Bengston, as well as a car rental shop by Peter de Bretteville, parkway billboards by the team of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, and an ingeniously ironic big box store by S.I.T.E, in which the parking lot erupts seismographically to form the building's roof.

Whether on canvas or facade, these artists and architects all made the bold choice—equal parts smart and garish—to enlarge commonplace pictures, materials and words to the size of structure.

Much of what seems to have been on the minds of artists and architecture in LA had to do with rethinking where and how to live. New kinds of homes, workplaces and universities were continuously being proposed and occasionally built—sometimes by licensed architects like Frank Gehry, sometimes by do-it-yourselfers like artist Allan Kaprow.

A short film by Bas Jan acer, playing on loop in the Graham lobby, announces this mindset via the distinctively philosophical slapstick that was the Dutch artist's routine. There he sits, perched thoughtfully on a chair precariously balanced atop the rood of his gabled house; there he tumbles, in slow motion, all the way down to the bushes; there he goes, doing it over and over again.

Another kind of introduction come by way of Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, who fed a series of proposition about people, materials and needs into a computer in order to generate a set of possibilities. The sky was the limit, so she dropped a 1,000-foot-long printout of the resulting poem from a helicopter. A more rudimentary guide is offered in a children's book that tells the story of P.J., a small boy who found a big, old cardboard box, and after many suggestions and adjustments managed to turn it into a welcoming home.

More specific, if not necessarily realizable, proposals include a handful of triply collages by the British group Archigram envisioning "Instant Cities" of neon nets and giant TV screens that could pop up in deserts or at freeway intersections.

Architects and artists alike planned and constructed radical homes and studios for themselves and others, reveling in commonplace materials and the naturally abundant light of California.

Feminist artists, led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, founded the Woman's Building, a public center for all kinds of creative endeavors by women. The first Morphosis Architects produced the "2-4-6-8 House Kit," including an exploded axonometric drawing, a T-shirt and a copy of Italo Calvino's novel "Invisible Cities." CalArts dean Craig Hodgetts and graphic designer Keith Godard teamed up to imagine "UniverCity," a wired, mobile, flexible campus that integrated students and nonstudents in a total environment for playful learning. Uncanny glimpses of the future—of the hyper mediated, infotainment saturated, infinitely portable, DIY reality of today—glimmer everywhere.

The challenged of exhibiting archival materials are many. For all the brilliance they reveal, they themselves can be drab, multipage and inscrutable. Enter novel display cases that bubble forth like spaceships or skylights, and a catalog containing full copies of historical articles and letters. In an audacious move—one that more institutions ought to try—neutral white wall yield to vivid murals by local artist Judy Ledgerwood. Left over from a recent show, Ledgerwood's hand-painted quatrefoils take traditional floral wallpaper, which would have originally embellished the Graham's historic Madlener House, to its extreme. A more serendipitous mash-up of Prairie-style ornamentation and 1970s post-modernism would be hard to imagine.

With a sunset typographic cover that could be a muted Ruscha, the catalog also serves a repository for lengthy but necessary contextual descriptions, which have been judiciously kept to a minimum in the gallery. (Viewers with a smartphone can listen to some narratives via a digital audio guide, but museums may have jumped ahead of the general population here. Not everyone had a smartphone, and until they do, lending devices would equalize access.)

The greatest challenge of Everything Loose Will Land may ultimately be to understand how its many eclectic parts fit together. Lavin has a fascinating thesis about Los Angeles as a site of "dearchitecturization"—in which the traditional aims of architecture come undone, and which I keep misreading as "Dear Architecture"—but you'll need to study her catalog essay in order to really follow along. Take the lack of didactics in the exhibition as permission to freely float around, dip in, dive under or fall off a roof.

Don't worry! Remember, everything loose will land eventually.

"Everything Loose Will Land" runs through July 26 at the Graham Foundation, 4 W. Burton Place, Chicago, 312-787-4071, grahamfoundation.org

Lori Waxman is a special contributor to the Tribune and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute.

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