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State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970

by Constance M. Lewallen and Karen Moss
University of California Press, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley CA, 2011
296 pp. Trade, $39.95
ISBN 978-0-520-27061-9.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


This book should probably be evaluated in two ways: as a catalog of an exhibition of specific artifacts and imagery relating to certain artists, and, second, as a general history of conceptual art in its time and place.  I value the catalog, yet am puzzled by apparent omissions in its broad historical narrative.

The book begins appropriately with John Baldessari's iconic map of California, where he located on a popular map each of the letters spelling out the state's name and went to those sites, spelling out the letter in a natural material like rocks or logs, with dye or scuffled into the sandy soil.  Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt, and Adrian Piper were artists from the East Coast who exhibited austere and cerebral works in California that inspired its artists to move beyond more traditional painting and sculpture.

While some artwork here seeks a zen-like moment of enlightenment, some of the most compelling work from this time is political and topical.  Deadpan photos of parking lots, carports, and every building on the Sunset Strip, were assembled into books by Ed Ruscha, while Howard Fried and Bas Jan Adler produced sequential photographs seeking to shake the miraculous out of mundane daily life.  These are contrasted with documentary photos by Fred Londier of 29 arrests of smiling young demonstrators at the 1972 antiwar action before the Headquarters of the 11th Naval District in San Diego.  Paul McCarty—later creator of Grand Guignol political tableaux like “Train, Mechanical”, George W. Bush robots coupling with pigs to express the artist's disgust at the administration's Iraq war—was producing peaceful slide shows of quotidian urban details in 1971.  Martha Rosler's collages brought the Vietnam war home, juxtaposing its violence with exemplary bourgeois households, like Pat Nixon's White House.  Mel Henderson installed the name ATTICA in Christmas tree lights upon a Newport Beach hillside a few months after the terrible massacre in that New York state prison.  Henderson along with Joe Hawley and Alfred Young wrote the word OIL in nontoxic dye in the water alongside the Standard Oil docks in Richmond, alerting the world to the fragility of their transport process and risk of ecologically disastrous spills.

There were art collectives, like Sam's Cafe (Marc Keyser, Terri Keyser and David Shire). ASCO (Willie Herrón, Gronk, Pattsi Valdez and Harry Gamboa Jr.), who are too often ghettoized to appear only in histories of Latino art and culture, are included in State of Mind as vital Los Angeles performance artists.  Born around 1950, they may be the youngest artists here.  Among the citywide Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 exhibits in 2011, viewers could have compared ASCO’s show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to their Detroit-originated contemporaries Destroy All Monsters at the Prism Gallery, co-curated by Mike Kelley, who arrived in California in 1975.

The human body was a site of action for Bruce Nauman, Linda Montano, Chris Burden and Howard Fried.  Suzanne Lacy, inspired by New Yorker Allan Kaprow's residence at CalArts in Valencia, combined it with community, especially communities of women.  The Cockettes were an outrageous troupe of hirsute San Francisco men in glittery drag and outlandish costumes; in the 1980s I was delighted to learn they'd lived in my loft building on Clarion Alley, for I'd read about them at age 14, in Rolling Stone.  Julia Bryant Wilson's essay "To Move, to Dress, to Work, to Act" traces their participant Hibiscus to a famous photo of students vs. National Guard troops, where he's a beardless innocent inserting a flower into a guardsman's rifle.

Bonnie Sherk began to bring elements of agriculture and animal husbandry into San Francisco city limits, resulting in the marvelous Farm at the corner of Potrero and Army (later Cesar Chavez) Streets, which thrived for a quarter-century.  Lynn Hershman and Alan Ruppersberg created installations referencing, or located in, Los Angeles and San Francisco hotel rooms, respectively.  Tom Marioni, Paul Kos and Jim Melchert all did works that interrogated the art-making process itself, as well as the museum as art's premier and privileged site.  My hurried list of these artists may read like the whirlwind tour provided in Constance M. Lewallen's "A Larger Stage", the historical essay that occupies about half the book, and details what was evidently a rich and engaging exhibition.

But how complete is this history of California conceptualism circa 1970, even on its own terms?  When I was still in high school—a couple years after reading of the Cockettes—Esquire magazine ran a multi-page photo spread "CALIFORNIA DADA", featuring what were supposedly some of the edgiest artists on the west coast.  There was mail artist Anna Banana, and Irene Dogmatic, in a dog mask and leopard-print shift.   Sculptor Clayton Bailey, later to produce memorable robots, was photographed with a Bigfoot skeleton, measuring its "penis bone" with calipers.  There were probably five more astonishing notables featured.  This article elicited much interest in my teenage art gang in Michigan, as it probably did elsewhere around the US.  I'm surprised it's not mentioned in the text, if only as a misleading moment in the popular press about untraditional California art.

In Karen Moss's essay "Beyond the White Cell: Experimentation/Education/Intervention in California Circa 1970" mention is made of San Francisco State College (later S.F. State University) and the Experimental College it initiated in 1965.  But there's no mention of its Center for Interdisciplinary and Experimental Arts (CEIA, later InterArts Center), which began in 1954 according to its long-time Director Jim Davis, in a conversation in 1994, when I taught there for a year.  The Center lasted about fifty years, until it was disbanded in this century, and included on its 1990s faculty interactive cinema pioneer Christine Tamblyn, political videographer Jesse Drew and radical montage-maker Craig Baldwin.  But what was it doing circa 1970?  We don't find out here.   Or is it and the Experimental College (was it then a part?) conflated in this narrative?

By the late 1970s the San Francisco Art Institute was an exciting center of Punk rock and performance, as Mark Van Proyen affectionately documented in online publication Bad Subjects #51 (2001).  And, though also slightly outside of the authors' time frame, mention might have been made of the Conceptual Arts program (later Conceptual and Information Arts; where I got my M.F.A.), begun nearer 1980 by Bryan Rogers and James Storey, then led for two decades by Stephen Wilson, to investigate the intersection of art, science, technology, and a theoretical analysis of culture.  This was certainly an institutional affirmation of the creative processes the artists whose work is profiled in State of Mind had initiated.  Though later works like Carlee Fernandez's "Bear Study Diptych" of 2004 appear in State of Mind, and there are helpful mini-biographies of each artist at the back the book, citation of conceptual art still taught at S.F. State and elsewhere would have helped to remind us that California conceptual artists didn't all just give up making art in (or after) the 1970s and go to the beach.

Last Updated 2 August 2012

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