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5 Reasons Not to Miss Pacific Standard Time's 'Crosscurrents' Before It Closes

ER Standard.jpg
"Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas." © Ed Ruscha. (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; gift of James Meeker, Class of 1958, in memory of Lee English, Class of 1958, scholar, poet, athlete and friend to all.)
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There are still three weekends left to catch the centerpiece exhibition of the internationally-ballyhooed Pacific Standard Time series of Southern California visual and performing arts events. To be sure, "Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970" represents just one of the manifestos inherent in the whole PST project. But it is the one that declares that "the history of modern art looks very different when viewed from the West Coast."

So when we went back to the Getty last week and took another look at the show, we willingly embraced the conceit that we were indeed walking through the post-war galleries of a distinctively L.A.-centric alternate-universe MoMA. This museum of modern art's collection, though, is going to be dispersed back to the four corners of the earth once the present show reaches the imminent conclusion of its scheduled run. We can think of plenty of suitably urgent reasons to catch this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition before it gets away. Here are five that jumped to mind while we were there.

1. Imagine there's no Warhol. It's easy if you try. No Pollock or Frankenthaler. No Twombley, Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers or any of the rest of that cadre of usual suspects. The paintings collected in "Crosscurrents" make a strong cumulative case that back when New York's abstract expressionists and pop artists and their cohorts were getting all the attention, a comparably vital scene was percolating underneath the radar right here in the Golden Land.

It's simply an embarrassment of riches on these walls. David Hockney's messy-bordered "A Bigger Splash" hangs right next to Ruscha's imposingly perfect "Standard Station" (and there's your 99% and 1% in a nutshell right there). "Hard edge" paintings by Lorser Feitelson and Frederick Hammersley stand out like a couple of idealized 1950s jazz album covers. Paintings from both Richard Diebenkorn's and John Altoon's "Ocean Park" series share a room. Ronald Davis's "Vector" and "Black Tear," side by side, create the illusion of jutting out into a third dimension, while Craig Kauffman's untitled "bubble," viewed head on, collapses into a flat, projection-like Rothko parody. (Those mid-century L.A. artists sure weren't afraid of colors.) Vija Celmins's "Freeway" typifies the reverence most of the artists here display toward the SoCal environment in which they got to work and play.

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2. The ceramic sculptures. In the most unique artistic medium that emerged in post-war Los Angeles, these pieces are entirely unlike anything anyone was doing anywhere else. Ranging from John Mason's massive "Blue Wall" tableau to Peter Voulkos's five-foot-tall "Little Big Horn" to the playful brightness of Ken Price's "BG Red," the near-dozen works on view in this genre are an eye-opening demonstration of how L.A. artists were expanding the modernist vocabulary.


"Gray Column." © De Wain Valentine.
3. Mirrors on the walls and in the halls. No one's ever suggested the denizens of L.A. aren't narcissistic enough. Which may be why so many of the pieces assembled in the "Crosscurrents" show and elsewhere around the Getty complex effectively function as mirrors—literal mirrors, which allow us to keep staring at ourselves even while we look at art.Before you even finish passing through the Getty's main front entry hall and make it into the central courtyard, Robert Irwin's "Black on White" stands in your way, a 30-foot granite slab, reminiscent of Maya Lin's D.C. mall Vietnam Memorial, with a polished surface that reflects the considerable activity of all its passers-by. Within the "Crosscurrents" exhibition rooms themselves, both a floor piece and a wall piece by Larry Bell, De Wain Valentine's "Red Concave Circle," and Joe Goode's "Torn Cloud Painting 73" all bounce viewers' own images back at them. And most notably (in a different Getty compound gallery space), Valentine's serenely grand "Gray Column" displays an impossibly shiny, impeccably pristine reflective surface of solid polyester resin.


"Four Corner Piece." © 2011 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Collection: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Purchased with funds provided by the Collectors Committee.)

4. Bruce Nauman's anti-mirror. Even as some of the works on display in "Crosscurrents" imply—and indulge—their viewers' fetish for self-regard, Bruce Nauman deviously kneecaps this gratuitous inclination in his famous "Four Corner Piece" installation. Viewers who experience this work walk through four connected narrow corridors. And each time we turn a corner and move from one of these passageways to another, we see a video monitor on the floor at the far end of the hall, displaying the real-time live-action image of our own backs and backsides disappearing around the corner (caught by a security camera discreetly perched above viewers' heads in each corridor). Walking counter-clockwise around the installation, we keep chasing our own tail, but the game is rigged against us ever catching it. Every time we see a new monitor, all it shows us for a quick second is our departure from the screen. Missing our own TV appearances over and over again—what could possibly be more antithetical to popular conceptions of the L.A. sensibility than that?

5. The Spotlight on Un(der)known Artists. The "Crosscurrents" exhibition's introductory wall panel text, in the antechamber that precedes the first room of displayed works, emphasizes that a lot of L.A. art emerges from the region's various "subcultures" and their hidden hotbeds of activity. We took this assertion to suggest that our city's art scene has traditionally been a bit polarized or even cliquish, ensuring that some artists' work over the years has not reached as wide an audience as it should have. One of the most valuable legacies of the entire Pacific Standard Time project obviously should be the reevaluation, or even just the recognition, of Los Angeles artists who haven't yet received their critical or curatorial due. In other words what "Crosscurrents" demonstrates to us, perhaps above all, is that artists like Melvin Edwards, Ron Miyashiro, and others are more than ready for their close-ups, even outside the context of an all-encompassing historic retrospective exhibition. If this project doesn't lead to more focused shows of their own for these and other under-celebrated artists, then PST won't have fully achieved its mission.

"Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970" remains on view at the Getty through February 5. "From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine's Gray Column" is on view through March 11.