LA Confidential: Richard Cork Finds the Seamy Underbelly of Hollywood on Display at the Pompidou Centre
Cork, Richard, New Statesman (1996)
As soon as you enter the Pompidou Centre's show "Los Angeles 1955-1985: the birth of an art capital", the mighty roar of the MGM lion assails your ears. But the noisy animal quickly begins to look lazy rather than macho. He is, after all, a pampered Hollywood celebrity, not a lord of the jungle. Indeed, after a while, the noise he emits in Jack Goldstein's looped film sounds more like a self-indulgent yawn.
Yet there is nothing dull about the Pompidou's epic survey, a sure-fire way to electrify your weekend in Paris this summer. Directly opposite the lion, LA's own glamorous image of LA is reinforced in spectacular style. Ed Ruscha's colossal 1962 painting shows the 20th Century Fox logo projected through the night sky in titanic orange capitals. Ruscha calls it, with cool irony, Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights, and the jumbo-sized canvas has a bold, eye-punching impact.
Ruscha is the master of Californian pop, and the man who convinced sceptics that LA art really counted. At a time when New York dominated attention as the centre of the western art world, he gave the sprawling west coast city an arresting visual identity.
However, the Paris exhibition is as concerned with the seamy underbelly of LA as it is with Hollywood gloss. No trace of Tinseltown alleviates Edward Kienholz's sculpture The Illegal Operation, made in the same year as Ruscha's sleek panorama. An abject female torso slumps on a rusty wheelchair in Kienholz's festering tableau. Something has gone horribly wrong, and the bedpan beneath the seat is a mess of dirty forceps and broken syringes. In another nightmarish installation, Kienholz shows two monstrous fibreglass creatures lying in a bedroom so grimy and forlorn that it makes Tracey Emin's bed look sanitary. Kienholz gave this 1964 tour de force a marvellously sick title: While Visions of Sugar Plums Danced in Their Heads.
David Hockney, the Bradford-born prodigy who made LA his home, defined a more restful and sensuous side of Californian life. No nightmares disturb the slumber of his tanned and naked youth, stretched out in the sun beside a pool alive with eye-dazzling reflections. Hockney is celebrating his own escape from grey northern puritanism, to a fantasy city inhabited by affluent art collectors basking in exotic mansions.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Robert Irwin gave LA art a more ethereal dimension. In his room, immense circles of light float and interpenetrate, like planets dissolving in deep space. The young James Turrell goes even further, beguiling us with a glowing horizontal oblong called Raemar Blue (1968). The work is as wide as a cinema screen, yet devoid of Hollywood movie icons. Nothing is permitted to disrupt the seductive blaze of colour.
Ironically perhaps, LA art consistently refuses to be pinned down to a single, easily marketable identity. Turrell's smouldering minimalism was soon challenged by the subversive antics of conceptual and performance pioneers.
John Baldessari, the form-breaking postmodernist who taught at the newly opened California Institute of the Arts, knew how to deploy an understated yet irresistible strain of humour. In one grainy black-and-white video, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, he patiently holds all 26 letters in front of his silent, illiterate student. …