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The Dark Side of Pop

John Baldessari was among the first generation to make Californian art prevail against the New York hegemony. Californian artists profited from a fascination for the land of eternal sunshine – and from an uneasiness in the face of Hollywood’s culture industry. Harald Fricke on the myths and iconography of American West Coast art.

Paul McCarthy: Bossy Burger, 1991, Mixed Media Installation.
© Courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
Photo: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg

Robert Hughes was not amused. On April 20 1992, the Time magazine critic wrote: "You think the art of the eighties was bad? This here is even worse." What prompted his reaction was an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art: for "Helter Skelter," the curator Paul Schimmel invited 16 Californian artists from the past three decades who have been investigating themes such as sex, violence, and death in their works. There was a toy train driving through an apocalyptic comet landscape from Chris Burden; Charles Ray presented a nine and a half-foot high doll of a woman in a manager outfit next to the shriveled figure of a naked man; in addition to an installation of an office space, Mike Kelley created the disturbing video film Heidi together with Paul McCarthy; and Raymond Pettibon’s drawings, which combine hippies and surfers with motifs from 40s thrillers were exhibited in a museum for the first time. Yet for Hughes, all of these works merely testified to art’s downfall. In them he saw nothing more than an "outsider art" that wasn’t above using every last "hackneyed juvenile slang" or "cliché from the American psychotherapy scene," as long as it shocked the public.

Raymond Pettibon: Untitled (The Figurativer), 1998.
Photo: Deutsche Bank Collection

Hughes was right. "Helter Skelter" turned out to be a scandal – and made contemporary art from Los Angeles famous worldwide. The title alone, which alludes, like the Beatles song, to Charles Manson’s Satanic cult of the late sixties, was criticized by the press as being tacky. Others were disturbed by the way Paul McCarthy addressed sexuality in his installation >The Garden, which showed a male doll mechanically copulating with a tree. In general, the explicit portrayals in many of the works were a challenge to America’s prudery and Christian morals, to say the least.

Mike Kelley: Spectral Personification, 1998,
Photo: Deutsche Bank Collection

"Helter Skelter" not only invoked a counter-image to the religious persuasions of a senator the likes of Jesse Helms; the exhibition seemed to bid farewell to the ideal of a clean-cut America altogether. But it also felt like a late revenge on the eighties, throughout which New York had dominated the art scene with Neo-Expressive painting. Now, the redneck cousins from California were on the doorstep, whose drawings, installations, and videos were brimming with the raw and aggressive power of punk and smothered all the brilliant surface shine. And they succeeded in doing so: over 8,000 visitors came to the opening of "Helter Skelter," and afterwards, the public was waiting in line in front of the museum for weeks.

Ed Ruscha: Standard Station, 1966,
©Photo: courtesy Greystone Gallery

Yet despite all this, "Helter Skelter" was never a product of the zeitgeist, but the result of a tradition that had already been in place for around forty years. The art of the West Coast always seemed to embody the dark, forlorn side of Pop. While New York Pop Art formed a bridge to contemporary product design and the Madison Avenue advertising industry during the sixties, even back then artists in San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles were more interested in the marks consumerism was making on everyday life. Andy Warhol’s silkscreens might have made icons out of Campbell soup cans, but for Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, mass production was an expression of the social impoverishment determining reality to a large degree. In 1963, Ed Ruscha published his photo book Twenty-six Gasoline Stations; each photograph portrays nothing more than an empty gas station taken from the same perspective.

Ed Ruscha: Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963.
©Ed Ruscha

The series was meant to portray the standardization of industry visually overtaking the country: each of the photographs was taken along Route 66 on the way from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, which Ruscha traveled several times a month. The myth Jack Kerouac invoked with his novel "On the Road" crumbled in Ruscha’s uniform landscapes populated by identical signs. Trips no longer seemed like adventures, but like an endlessly monotonous repetition of the everyday. Over the following years, Ruscha expanded this view to include other phenomena and published the photographic volumes Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966), and Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967).

John Baldessari: Ball Oldsmobile, 1935
National City Blvd., National City, Calif., 1996,
©Courtesy Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles and
Sonnabend Gallery, New York / Photo: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg

In similar manner, in the sixties John Baldessari unmasked Pop’s promise to reveal the illusion behind it. His photographs printed on canvas such as Econ-O-Wash or Looking East on 4th and C from 1967 are based on images he shot driving by in a car. The sky is overcast, the pavement grey, telephone poles stick out like bare rods in a wasteland of streets and row houses. Baldessari wasn’t interested in employing a particularly "anti-artistic" staging to formulate a critique. Instead, it’s the real situation being examined here, one from which he saw no escape: "These places were always like this, long before I myself was born – nobody wanted to live in this neighborhood." Baldessari showed the ordinariness of an overly settled, socially dysfunctional environment; that was his early criticism of California’s suburban system, which was already booming back then.

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