History on the Surface: Pop Art and Postwar Urbanism in 1960s Los Angeles

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History on the Surface: Pop Art and Postwar Urbanism in 1960s Los Angeles Ken Allan Cécile Whiting, Pop LA.: Art and the City In the 1960s. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006. 268 pp., 20 color ills., 77 b/w. $39.95

Attempts to think historically about Los Angeles must first confront the myriad of popular images of the city that portray it either as a soulless capital of hedonism and consumption culminating in Disneyland, or as an unfathomable puzzle of sordid desires epitomized by the film noir tradition. Hackneyed as these images may be, they reflect the importance of geography and setting to the history of Southern California's "exceptionalism," identified most notably by Carey McWilhams in his late-19405 studies of the region, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land and California:The Great Exception. As Cécile Whiting notes in her new book, Pop L.A.:Art and the City in the 19605, discussions of the culture of Los Angeles often present the particularities of place as the prime movers of stylistic change-an "it could only happen here" attitude-in an easy substitute for the kind of historical inquiry that McWilliams found vital for understanding the area.

This tendency to interpret the culture and history of Southern California superficially is especially dangerous when confronting Pop art in Los Angeles, where the style's ambiguous relationship to the culture of the commodity is even more pronounced. But Whiting, professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine, challenges the view of West Coast art as a simple celebration of surfboards and hot rods by addressing the ways Southern California artists of the 19605 resisted the typical dichotomy between "sunshine" and "noir" accounts of Los Angeles. Looking at the work of lesserknown artists such as Vija Celmins and Noah Purifoy together with major figures such as Ed Ruscha and David Hockney, she argues, allows for more complex understandings of the expanding postwar urban landscape. Her book combines readings of advanced art, popular culture, and urban history to argue that space is the central issue through which cultural production and social change must be read in 19605 Los Angeles.

Whiting's study is a timely addition to the burgeoning scholarship on art and culture in postwar Southern California. This is apparent from a recent spate of museum shows, such as the Centre Pompidou s survey, Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of on Artistic Capitol; a growing body of literature on individual artists, such as Ruscha; and Peter SeIz's recent survey of art and activism, Art of Engagement-Visual Politics in California and Beyond, as well as Eric Avila's excellent cultural history Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles. Avila's study of the consolidation of white identity around pop cultural venues such as Dodger Stadium and Disneyland particularly complements Whiting's nuanced reading of the forms of advanced art, which performed a similar function for the primarily Anglo elites who promoted the Los Angeles art scene in the "culture boom" years of the early 19605.

Pop L.A.:Art and the City in the 19603 demonstrates the range of art activity in Los Angeles throughout the decade, which in most accounts tends to be reduced to the Pop painting of Ruscha and Hockney or the "finish fetish" work of Billy Al Bengston and sculptors such as Larry Bell and John McCracken. Whiting expands the discussion to include Llyn Foulkes and Celmins, who practice a kind of pop-oriented landscape painting; the assemblage artist Purifoy and the artistic response to the 1965 Watts Riots; the Los Angeles Happenings Alan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg staged at key sites in the commercial architecture of the city; and the importance of locale to the performance and installation work of Judy Chicago and others at the influential feminist co-op Womanhouse. Chapters on Ruscha and Hockney also do much to broaden our understanding of the roots of their visions in the public and private spaces of Los Angeles and help to set up Whiting's readings of other artists in relation to the importance of automobility and the erotic in Southern California. …