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Bill Lasarow

THE ART WORLD
ACCORDING
TO ARTSCENE



Drawing by Kent Twitchell

Art is for those among us whose eyeballs form a direct pipeline to our brain. They say that our culture has become so saturated with a constant bombardment of images that nothing sticks. But the art world defies this notion--other than that dealing with it has been a tempting target for aesthetic gamesmanship. Here is where you spend some time to allow images to sink in. It continually amazes me how easily the discussion flows along when stimulated by looking at things made strictly to be looked at, or choosing to focus concentrated seeing even on things that are not.

The eye plus the brain equals the heart. Damned simple equation, but it drives this little subculture that generates so much heat and passion that to many of its inhabitants it appears all encompassing. We engage in this ongoing discourse about what the driving issues are that make art important, and which art best personifies and extends our historical continuum--as though nothing were of greater consequence. Paradoxical as culture must be, who does not also remember being told that art is supposed to have no practical value? How many average Joes head off to their jobs in the morning agonizing whether it is the Matissean or Duchampian mode presently in ascendency among contemporary artists?

But we do care, and care a great deal, precisely because we have restless eyes that pump up our brain cells into a state of alertness, and it all causes our hearts to beat stronger and faster. It’s nothing more than life, life heightening and intensifying itself. Art is one of the ways in which we seek that force, that energizing dose of animation that pushes life out of the “have to do” and into the “gotta do.” The selling point for culture has always been: this is what makes life “more than.”

In Southern California the prevalent cliché until only a generation ago was that we lived in a cultural wasteland, meaning that little of consequence originated here. And that nobody cared. A large city full of rubes who thought Pollock was a variety of fish. To the degree that L.A. possessed a cultural discourse it was all it could do to contribute the occasional oddball genius who would bring the distant modern mainstream to dim public attention. Culturally speaking the area was fed by a trickle, not a stream.

But that trickle, the Stanton Macdonald-Wrights, the Agnes Peltons, the Lorser Feitelsons and Helen Lundebergs, gradually broadened, laying the groundwork for the emergence of the first generation to genuinely feed avant garde discourse back out beyond L.A. in the late fifties and early sixties. It has been nearly a half-century since a group that included Robert Irwin, Richard Diebenkorn, Bill Al Bengston and, soon after, James Turrell, David Hockney, Ed Moses convinced leaders of the art world in New York and abroad that Los Angeles was at last spawning a convincing discussion specific to the region that contributed to international art. Most of these artists remain with us, often continuing to create art that remains vital and relevant.

But it would not be for another generation that the scale of activity surrounding the edifice of their achievement would truly begin to resemble the kind of structural complexity and sustainability that justify our thinking of Southern California as a place from which cultural emanates.

As an art student during the mid-1970s I recall participating in a minor way at the opening of one of America’s first alternative spaces, the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, or LAICA. Its emergence helped mark a turning point in which the number of people aspiring to contribute and succeed within the art world here had clearly exceeded the number of exhibiting venues available. For the first time artists sought to create their own organization by which to exhibit, and in doing so enlarged and energized the local audience. As the impulse that gave rise to alternative spaces grew, more individuals set out to represent and exhibit artists in private galleries.

The oasis of a relative handful of serious galleries and museums forty years ago, patronized by a circle of people that, for the most part, knew each other, was at last molting into a regional network of professionals and an audience too large to be tightly knit. It was as this occurred that ArtScene was begun.

In 1980 there may have been a total of 150 exhibition venues in Southern California, and certainly no more than 70 to 80 were owner operated galleries. Today that number stands at nearly 450, of which around 250 are private galleries. There is a clear calculus connecting this growth to the quantity of artists that reside in Southern California, and the appetite people have to encounter visual art. When we first set out to launch ArtScene this explosive growth had not yet taken place. But it was precisely in anticipation of it that the basic premise for this publication was determined: we would be a digest that would provide a clear informational gateway into the art world’s exhibition venues. Everything from the range of art on exhibit to the physical location of these spaces would be demystified.

That brings me to the mission of ArtScene, which since its inception has been to deliver a wide open door of information and informed opinion about Southern California’s fine art gallery and museum landscape in a condensed format. Rather than going to market research firms to find out what the audience that follows visual art wants, to be quite honest, I began with the given that ArtScene would simply be for people who really love the stuff. We would not set out to win over the skeptical or resistant. Nor would we kiss the ass of this or that component within the local art establishment in order to curry favor. Nor would we pursue heady theory and dense intellectualizing for its own sake, irrespective of the winds of taste. If successful this would be a primary tool for people who like to get out and see original art. New or experienced, visual junkies or occasional visitors, fans or professionals.

For the most part, people would pick up ArtScene only if they happen to be in a gallery or a museum shop, and it would be a freebie. Not a puff piece promo for those with deep enough pockets to buy the most advertising, nope. ArtScene would ask each and every gallery and museum to pay its way, but only for an informational listing. Not much money that we asked for then, or ask for now, because the priority would be access. But no giveaways either. Everyone would be treated equally, no free ride if a gallery is too poor, a museum too small--nor if a dealer was too important for that matter.

Same deal in the way our editorial section would be operated. I wanted to reflect the reality of what is being shown month in and month out in the literally hundreds of venues throughout Southern California, but in a necessarily limited amount of space. ArtScene would therefore cap the amount of coverage that any individual exhibitor receives each year, and contributing writers would be shielded from any knowledge about advertisers. Their articles would be exhibitions of their choosing, and my only role would be to steer our general intent to maintain broad and varied coverage, and to mediate on their behalf in making the necessary arrangements. From an aesthetic standpoint, ArtScene would be a referee, not a partisan. So we set out to embody and develop these premises in early 1982, just myself and publishing partner Beate Bermann-Enn, going gallery to gallery, museum by museum. We wanted to sell these ideas just as much as we wished to sell listing contracts for this new monthly art digest.

From a formal standpoint, what this added up to was my notion of classic form, conceptualized to remain applicable through changing times. Here I was, suddenly looking around at the pro publications--art and otherwise, and pretty much all I saw flew in the face of these assumptions. Calculated informality seemed to place all the emphasis precisely on fashion, trend, and style. Here I was setting out to essentially argue that art doesn’t need any of that. It just needs itself.

If it launched at all, ArtScene would begin on terms that we could work with, and work with for a long time. Otherwise, no go. And after a few issues, if the consensus suggested that it would have to be done differently--if it was out of step with the commercial interests or aesthetic ideology of our intended gallery and museum clients--well, I was completely prepared to make ArtScene a very short run.

Now it’s, hello, twenty years later. It’s not like this little art digest is about to displace Art in America, let alone Rolling Stone. Ain’t supposed to, of course. But meeting those monthly deadlines is way in my blood, and I’m sitting here at my trusty keyboard getting juiced up imagining what the coming twenty years will have to offer. Personally, I fall into the “visual junkie” category, hopelessly addicted to the stuff, inclined to feed my brain through my eyeballs. And ArtScene has been from the start, and remains just the kind of vehicle that I originally envisioned for expressing this sort of attitude. I’ve remained entirely constant to that approach, and have no plans to change one bit.