Kayne Griffin Corcoran is pleased to present Surface to Air: Los Angeles Artists of the ‘60s and the Materials That They Used, curated by Robert Dean. This exhibition devotes itself to artists working in Los Angeles in the 1960s who shared certain commonalities in their use of materials and fabrication techniques that, for the most part, were specific to the environs of Southern California. Artists include Peter Alexander, Hobie Alter, Kenneth Anger, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Judy Chicago, Ron Cooper, Ron Davis, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, Ken Price, Ed Roth and Ed Ruscha.
The ‘60s Los Angeles culture of surf, sun and space brought with it the influence of new technologies, grasped by these artists as fresh resources to approach questions of process, form, and finish. In the late ‘60s John Coplans applied the moniker “finish fetish” to these particular artists and in some ways it is an appropriate appellation—if we limit ourselves to discussions of this use of materials and techniques as a means to an end. However, this term is just as misleading as it is helpful, and like most terms applied to groups of artists by critics eager to discover new trends, the artists themselves have generally abhorred it. Still, all painting is surface, so Coplans may have a point when considering these surfaces of nonillusory condition. We are considering for the most part artists who had created objects that exist primarily as objects—and some crafting objects that have a sense of nonmateriality.
In bringing these artists together, Surface to Air will examine not only the similarities between their work, but also the consequential divergence from one another in their practice—both because of, and in spite of, the nature of their shared context. While artists such as Billy Al Bengston and John McCracken celebrated the surface of objects, others—Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, and to a large degree Peter Alexander and Ron Cooper—were interested in the interplay of light, optics, color and transparency within the object. Ron Davis riffed on his own brand of abstract expressionism and color field painting, and Ken Price obsessed over the geometry of skin articulated in his distinct blocks of color. Bengston and Judy Chicago employed recognizable motifs and patterning that often related to motorcycles and hot rods, and in their fascination with surface polish McCracken’s planks and Kauffman’s pinstriped vacuum-formed plastics recall surfboards. Kauffman also produced images of an abstract geometry and later explored issues of translucence, fabricating with a precision objects that were inspired in part by the work of László Moholy-Nagy. Meanwhile Irwin attempted, after an endeavor into abstract pointillism, the pursuit of no imagery; no illusion at all. Rather, this work became about the perception of an object in light and space whose significance was divided equally between the object itself and the light and shadows it would cast.
This context, and indeed the artwork being produced by these artists, may be contrasted within the broader throes of East Coast Pop Art and Minimalism occurring at the same time. Drawing this comparison, Robert Irwin stated, “We saw it and they didn’t. They relied on conception while we worked in the domain of perception. Without any vast backdrop of history to support our investigations, we just had to rely on our eyes.” (Irwin quoted in Weschler, Lawrence, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing, p. 78).
To further reflect upon the immediate cultural background that these artists drew upon, the exhibition will include antecedent ‘folk’ objects and materials. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Irwin, “a folk art is when you take a utilitarian object, something you use everyday, and you give it overlays of your own personality, what it is you feel and so forth. You enhance it with your life.” He continues, “a folk art in the current period of time would more appropriately be in the area of something like a motorcycle. I mean, a motorcycle can be a lot more than just a machine that runs along: it can be a whole description of a personality and an aesthetic.” (Ibid, p. 17). With this in mind, included will be objects such as a custom car designed by Ed Roth and a vintage surfboard by Hobie Alter. Also included are films by Ed Ruscha (Miracle, 1975) and Kenneth Anger (Kustom Kar Kommandos, 1965).
Robert Dean is editor of the Edward Ruscha Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and author of several other publications.
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