Return to Articles

PASADENA'S
"RADICAL
P.A.S.T."

 

JOHN O'BRIEN


Radical P.A.S.T. installation at
Art Center includes key works by
(l. to r.) Marcel Duchamp,
Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly.

The Radical P.A.S.T. or, as the acronym in it’s elucidated form reads, the "Radical Pasadena Art Show Tour" is a very compelling set of intersecting and interconnected exhibitions about the art world in Pasadena of some twenty-five years ago. In particular, it focuses on the Pasadena Art Museum's catalyzing role in modeling this region’s cultural environment with regards to art making, exhibiting and collecting. Among the various ambitious ends to which these manifestations seek to bring closure (or, maybe more precisely, afford recognition), they chart many of the art events that were made in and many of the art world figures who converged on that (sleepy?) town between the early 1960's through the mid 1970's.

I say ‘sleepy’ in parentheses because the resulting art work and art scene documented by these exhibitions is anything other than the image one might have had in mind about some quiet, little ‘burb at the end of a freeway just north of Los Angeles. It's certainly a lot more than you'd have imagined
arriving here, as I did, in the mid-Eighties. Moreover, it is especially mindboggling to consider the vitality and extension of the scene if you keep in mind how there has got to be something and/or someone missing from the line-up. For every celebrated person or masterwork, there were many others in the rank and file. What flood and fire can't do to erode physical traces of culture (such as painted canvases or carved objects), mnemonic compression edits out for want of infinite space to record and memorialize everything. In fact, the exquisitely crafted subtitles for each venue’s portion of the exhibition gives the viewer and catalogue reader (well worth the reading, I might add) an idea of how difficult it must have been for the collective curatorial mind to settle on this representative slice from a very busy period of time in Pasadena history.

How Pasadena came to have an art museum with a focus on modern and contemporary art in 1954, then lose that particular version of the museum and it’s focus in 1974 (when it became the Norton Simon Museum), only to have the archives opened up again for general viewing in 1999 is, in itself, a fascinating tale of powerful people and powerful visions which came together for a fairly long time before they ultimately diverged. It was a fascinating time because of the extraordinary art world figures who became involved with the Pasadena Art Museum (PAM), helping to stimulate a climate of experimentation and research in visual art as well as music. The transformation of the museum after it’s demise as PAM effectively buried a portion of Pasadena's historical legacy in vaults that have only now been opened again in this focused, if sprawling, effort.

John Altoon, "Ocean Park
Series #8," 1962.

 

Don Sorenson, "Untitled," n.d.
Photo: Gene Deami

Radical P.A.S.T. installation at
Art Center includes key works by
(l. to r.) Roy Lichtenstein,
Kenneth Noland, Robert Morris.

Now, complete restoration of this legacy may be impossible, since the legacy itself changes irrevocably with the flow of time. But reliving some of its glory and aura should not be treated merely as an exercise in nostalgia. All one has to do is plot out what became of all the "splinter groups" that came indirectly out of the PAM closure (the Pasadena Art Alliance, the Fellows of Contemporary Art, those advocating the creation of MOCA, et al) to realize how vital that legacy is. It is as though the transformation of the museum and the passing of the "radical" past had left a kind of energy humming underground in greater L.A. that has now been given a specific and positive venue for a re-view of its' original expression; all that without accentuating the need to distance itself or rebel from the circumstances of having become "past." PAM, and along with it the Pasadena art world, comes alive in a very palpable way through the assembled invitations, writings, posters, photographs and art works on exhibit. The intensity of that particular moment in Southern California history is palpable in Radical P.A.S.T.

The overarching exhibition is subdivided by institution into distinct thematic/temporal groups of work. The Armory Center for the Arts represents the innovative process and research tendencies embraced by the then emerging art scene. At the Norton Simon Museum, there are highlights selected from the PAM collection, and an extensive set of documents archiving those events which had as their epicenter the PAM. At the Williamson Gallery of Art Center College, there are examples of the mostly East Coast influences on the art of that period as collected by the PAM. Photographs taken by local photographers from that time frame are on exhibit at the New Pasadena Gallery. A series of concerts by the Southwest Chamber Music group are revisiting the compositions of Karl Stockhausen, Harry Partch, Pierre Boulez and John Cage among others who were heard in the original Encounters series. The entirety of the effort can be best described as essentially an extended homage to the PAM. As a corollary, it is a commemoration of the energy and vitality of the art scene and those (artists, curators, collectors) who worked to structure it and keep it active within the setting into which history and circumstance set it.

There are numerous beautifully wrought art works on exhibit in all of the venues. The quality of directly viewing this art work so supersedes any documentation of them as to be noteworthy. That direct viewing is much better than any reproduction is obviously true of any art work; but once you have had a chance to get up close to some of, say, the cast resin work at the Simon you remember its' perceptual complexity. Moreover, that particular casting process disappeared from the art world just about as quickly as the maladies connected with its' extensive usage got to be known. The visual/tactile values of these works, whether from the overtly textured genre like the assemblages of Bruce Conners, John Outterbridge, Claire Falkenstein, George Herms and Llyn Foulkes, or the more ethereal light space work of Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and Vija Celmins, act as powerful attractors for your attention.

Whenever there are a set of exhibitions to be viewed in a sequence, there is a tendency to contrast and compare. As you get around to the various parts of the show there are some physical and contextual conditions that begin to bracket your construction and understanding of the historical framework of this period of art making. At the Armory Center for the Arts, for example, I found myself reflecting on the role of ephemeral art projects in reference to larger art historical time frames. Happily, there are two performances by John White and Barbara Smith in the program, underlining the importance of performance art to that era. Still, looking back over the PAM archives that really isn't a representative portion of what was considered important to the art world in their estimation of the times. There are also several installations which were revisited by artists such as Connie Zehr, Richard Jackson and Peter Lodato, who are renowned for their contributions to this type of work. Viewing all this in it's revisited form, it is easy to understand why it was found to be so compelling by contemporaries. Nonetheless, it must have been made harder to find institutional support for both of these branches of art making after the closing of the PAM. The irony is that while much of this ephemeral work complemented, and in some cases drove the other genres, it was also difficult to preserve in a format suitable for historical transmission.

At Art Center on another occasion, I found myself thinking about taste and how it changes. I vividly recalled a Carter Ratcliff mid-Eighties slam essay about how Frank Stella's early work was about the closest thing to corporate logo art, and how Frank should pretty much be considered the poster boy for the junk bond market's Art Boomfiasco. I used to find that judgment pretty easy to agree with, but it wasn't working out as easily the day I was in the Williamson Gallery. Rauschenberg's Cardbird series seemed truly inspired, and Agnes Martin's loosely gridded Leaf in the Wind was still aweinpiring. So what if I never liked protractors? And, yes, the Brillo boxes are beginning to look retro in a very wonderful and kind of a funny way. My taste has changed and the fact that somehow these "influences" were collected and preserved provides me with a touchstone as to the entity of that change.

To get to the portion of the exhibition that is on view at the Norton Simon Museum, you, naturally, have to go down into the cellar. Hidden away behind the Hindu statuary, itself situated in very salon-style painted rooms on pin spot-lit pedestals, you will find the Radical P.A.S.T. It is certainly no longer buried but it has obviously just been disinterred. Fresh and somewhat of a surprise, it's bright colors and slightly crowded clusters of art work jump out at you from behind the darker, European-style museum galleries.

On one side of the first room you enter, it is full of vintage black and photos, handworn invitations and numerous documents and letters The other side is full of lithographic prints and smaller works on paper and canvas. There are literally so many significant art works to view that it is like having found a secret treasure trove. It is hard to know where to begin. There is a wonderful Joe Goode Torn Cloud Painting next to Ed Ruscha's Annie Poured from Maple Syrup. Charles White and June Wayne's lithographs remind us of the newly established (under Wayne's visionary guidance) Tamarind Press Workshop, another history in the making in Hollywood. There are extremely powerful and poignant works on the wall and floor, on view one after another. My list gets longer and longer, and then an abbreviated list goes on to include spectacular works by John Altoon, Ed Moses, Llyn Foulkes and Ed Keinholz. The last room houses the array of works done in cast resin, fiberglass, acrylic and lacquer that I mentioned above. In all, it is a feast for the eyes and an elation for the spirit.

So with the Radical P.A.S.T. finally out in the open (more or less), and the ongoing, spacious remodeling of the Museum space that is literally opening the galleries and entryways up to more direct lighting, is there enough reason to look forward rather than just revel in the past? If the Museum's revisitation as an architectural entity is taken in conjunction with the re-opening of the PAM. archives, that might even be interpreted as a move towards a broader plane of historical bracketing on the part of the Museum itself. I admit that this is my hope, not a fact, but one that should be possible. I would be in support of a similar opening of the historical bandwidth without necessarily advocating an outright shift towards the fashions (and fads) of contemporary art. After all, this is also a celebration of the radical that is past. What that leaves open is yet to be discovered.