A Flawed Ex-Paradise

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'Suburban Nightmare,' 1983, by Carlos Almaraz

If the great state of California had never existed, or if it had sundered along the edge of the Rockies and sunk, Atlantis-like, into the Pacific, what would the arts of the world have lost?

Manifestly, one great and incomparable thing that California made its own: the American film industry, in all its splendors and miseries. In architecture and design, a certain amount from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, little of whose best work was actually done in the state; and more from such European exiles as the two Viennese Modernist architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, who took refuge on the Pacific shore and found themselves in the company of assorted shrinks, religious prophets, musicians and writers, from Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann to Henry Miller and Nathanael West. A lot of photography, of course, especially ultrasharp f/64 pix of very grand mountains by Ansel Adams and fuzzy Pictorialist ones of American nudes capering among the redwoods in homage to Isadora Duncan. In sculpture, not a hell of a lot. In painting, sad to admit, not much either. Two shining exceptions are recent — Richard Diebenkorn (1922–93) and Wayne Thiebaud (1920– ). But it should be grasped that one is not dealing with New York City 1900–2000, and still less with Paris 1800–1900.

There have been good book surveys of California art, led off more than 20 years ago by Peter Plagens' "Sunshine Muse." But until now no institution has taken on the daunting task of mounting an exhibition that surveys the visual culture of California in relation to a century's worth of social changes in that huge, dynamic and almost crazily heterodox state. That is what the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has tried to do in a mammoth show that opened last month: "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900–2000." It involves some 800 works in just about every imaginable medium, set forth by a team of catalog writers and curators as long as the credit crawl on a George Lucas movie, under the general direction of LACMA's senior curator, Stephanie Barron. Its size makes for fatigue, and parts of it might have fared better as documentary film. But the story it tells is an absorbing one.

The first two pages of the huge catalog to "Made in California" tell you the essential plot line. On the left, a detail from a tourist poster, ca. 1930, showing two women chatting under a palm on a crag, with a luxuriant view of golden mountainside behind them: California as Promised Land, an earthly paradise, Eden without the snake. On the right, a photo of a suburban slide area in Los Angeles, where earthquake-stricken bungalows teeter on the edge of a muddy chasm at whose bottom lies an upside-down car. The heaven of nature, the hell (or at least purgatory) of black insecurity, both in the same place; a saga of innocence being continuously lost.

It's a working template of American experience and, on the whole, useful. The young man obeys Horace Greeley and goes West; in California, he runs out of America. It is the culmination and extinction of hope. The vision of plenty for everyone becomes a mockery — a process whose impact is amply documented by the 1930s social-realist segments of this show, with their dock strikers and Mexican migrant workers pitted against grasping Anglo bosses. Different cultures and immigrant races swirl around, not in a melting pot as some optimists have supposed but in unappeased opposition to one another.

However falsified it may now be, however much of a cliché it may have been even at the dawn of the 20th century, there's no doubt about the Edenic promise of California to generation after generation of Americans. To the gold seekers of 1850 no less than to the desperate migrant Okies of the Depression, to the wannabe actress on the bar stool in Schwab's as to the migrant lettuce pickers from Mexico and the Jewish kid getting into the nickelodeon business, California signified hope, plenty, release and transcendence. It was the New World's New World. "That's why I can hardly wait/ Come on and open up that Golden Gate/ California, here I come!"

Ceaselessly uttered, this hope was endlessly disappointed, but the allure of California never diminished (at least in the eyes of outsiders). Its early 20th century images are full of it, whether in a massive pair of strawberries, ca. 1910, on a railroad flatcar, a view of sublimely twisted eucalypts framing the far sky near Carmel, or in one of Gottardo Piazzoni's classical views that translates the sea pines of his ancestral Italy to the edge of the Pacific.

Religion itself was nonjudgmental and easy on kooks, unlike the stern Puritanism of eastern American origins. One of the few intentionally funny paintings in the show — there are plenty that look funny but weren't meant to be — is Barse Miller's 1932 view of a downtown temple in L.A. over which floats the apparition of Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist and sexpot, flanked by figures of Venus, her lover in a straw hat, and little top-hatted putti clutching sacks of dollars like teeny refugees from a Popular Front cartoon of bosses.

But the chief emphasis of the exhibition is on California as a place of incessant stress and conflict between groups and interests, as new migrant societies necessarily are. Each of its five sections corresponds to a 20-year slice of history, and tries to set forth (or at least to indicate) the dominant history, the winners' and losers' versions, of the era. It spends at least as much time and space on ephemera, from tourist brochures to labor pamphlets, as on certifiable masterpieces of art — which California has never produced in abundance anyhow.

The show isn't quite as good on icons of craft as one might wish. Its conspectus of ceramics is quite good, but it's weaker in furniture. There is a fine suite of low-slung Modernist furniture in gumwood designed by Rudolph Schindler in the 1930s for his unbuilt Shep House in Los Angeles, and a splendid 1908 sideboard with inlays of fruitwood, ebony and abalone shell by Greene & Greene, those Pasadena masters of the Arts and Crafts style. But it's hard to get much more than a hint of how much really good furniture was being made in California in the first third of the century.

A show like this, so sprawling and vagrant in its scope and so impressionistic in its detail, is bound to be plagued by the question, If this, why not that? Especially nowadays, when we are used to assigning the same density of meaning (or lack of it) to a pot or a cigarette case as to a painting. Few visitors, for instance, will find their hackles raised by the inclusion of those essential emblems of California street art, the custom car and the hot rod. But if anything, the trouble is that the show seems rather weak on them. Good that it includes Road Agent, a fabulously slick tomato of a chariot built and lacquered by Ed ("Big Daddy") Roth, dean of car customizers, back in 1963. But if there's one custom job you'd expect to see in a show about the growth of a California ethos but don't get a hint of, it's the kind of long-forked, stripped-down Harley chopper that starred in "Easy Rider" 35 years ago.

The exhibition's auto-eroticism sector does, however, include one triumphal fetish — Larry Fuente's "Derby Racer, 1975." Like some pious Latino decorating a shrine, Fuente glorified a convertible jalopy with an undulating crust of shards, beads, mirror fragments and pearly gewgaws. It is still a convincing, near folk object — an automotive equivalent, perhaps, to Simon Rodia's towers in the Watts neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles.

Of course, by the '60s the car had moved near the center of California art in more ways than one, because California life is hardly imaginable without autos and thruways (nor is American life in general, but California is less so). The very perception of landscape and townscape was locked into auto experience. Even conventional views of buildings in the street, like Ed Ruscha's gas stations, give the impression that they're glimpsed vividly and briefly from a passing vehicle. And an essentially traditional modernist like Richard Diebenkorn, during the figurative-landscape phase of his work in the '50s and early '60s — represented here by a slashing landscape called "Freeway and Aqueduct, 1957" — gave those landscapes a sense of rapid movement in deep space, and an imagery of roadworks, water conduits and ramps that you can't dissociate from the car.

The stuff of which cars were made also became the stuff of art. Only in '60s California would artists adopt the artificial seductions of auto finishes, the glittering sprayed enamels and fiercely inorganic colors of glaze that made Ken Price's little ceramic sculptures so immediate and memorable. They manage to look luscious and poisonous at the same time, and in terms of what curator Barron and her team have set out to show — the weird confluence of vectors in a flawed and contradictory ex-paradise — they are perhaps the most "Californian" objects in this whole enormous show.