Howard Singerman on Pop Noir
Singerman, Howard, Artforum International
Pop artists took a professional interest in products and packaging in the '60s: Commercial design offered not only new source material--Campbell's Soup labels or Brillo boxes--but the model for a whole new way of doing business. Across the decade, modern museums learned their design lessons as well as the artists did, perhaps even better. "Art has entered into the media system," wrote Harold Rosenberg in 1968, arguing that the "archetypal creation of the media is the package, whether it contains cornflakes, a 240-horsepower motor or a retrospective exhibition of the paintings of Jackson Pollock." (1) Rosenberg's system is now business as usual, and the packages put together by curators and museum public-relations offices seldom raise eyebrows. It's to curator Paul Schimmel's credit, then, that his 1992 "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" elicited the reaction that it did. A group exhibition of sixteen Southern California artists, "Helter Skelter" aimed to destroy the old stereotypes of LA art and artists and to challenge New York's hegemony; it was also, and not coincidentally, designed to stamp Schimmel's name on that revision: "Helter Skelter" was his first show as LA MOCA's chief curator, a "go-for-broke debut," as the Los Angeles Times put it (Jan. 28, 1992), mounted less than two years after his high-profile hire. The exhibition introduced Raymond Pettibon and a younger generation of LA artists to museum audiences and highlighted new directions in the work of Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray. But it was the package (beginning with its name--"Helter Skelter" was, of course, Charles Manson's blood-scrawled calling card) that made the show the "succes de scandale" (as Art News obligingly acknowledged [Apr. 1992]) it was intended to be.
Almost every newspaper and magazine critic commented at the time on the deliberate provocation of the exhibition's title, and several also noted the scale and sensationalism of the museum's publicity campaign, as well as the crowd of eight thousand plus who showed up for the opening. "Teen delinquency and antisocial behavior take center stage," read a museum brochure, while in the catalogue, Schimmel spun the exhibition as though he were competing with Sally Jessy Raphael (a comparison offered by the LA Weekly). "The artists' use of debased signs and symbols, and their embrace of raw subjects from everyday life," he wrote, "shock and disorient the viewer into another state of mind." According to Artweek critic Lance Carlson (Mar. 19, 1992), the advance press materials promised "artists professedly concerned with 'alienation, dispossession, perversity, sex, and violence.' ... No wonder opening night attendees waited in lines that wound around the block." The opening had its own rewards: lasers, smoke machines, and postpunk and industrial bands like Ethyl Meatplow. "The whole insane atmosphere reminded me of the New York art events of the early '80s," actress and performance artist Ann Magnuson told Art News. "All that was missing was Andy Warhol."
Warhol didn't show up in Schimmel's catalogue introduction, either; his only appearance was a cameo in critic Lane Relyea's contribution, which knit the work in "Helter Skelter" to New York in the '80s, specifically to post-"Pictures" work that wedded Pop's media images to Minimalism's psychologized temporality. "Pop's influence continues to be strongly felt, [but] its vibrancy is fading," wrote Relyea. "In recent neo-Pop artworks--say, by Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Cady Noland--Pop's original optimism is gone, its youthful energy spent." Relyea's direct appeal to Pop and the recent history of New York art stood at odds with the thrust of the museum's overall package. The rest of the catalogue worked hard to situate the suburban-gothic sensibility of "Helter Skelter" firmly in Southern California, separating it not only from New York but also, and more insistently, from the art that had characterized LA since the '60s, from the polish of "finish fetish" and the ethereality of "light and space. …