Contemporary art Fairs Features USA

Los Angeles, 1970s style

As Frieze Projects recreates the artist Allen Ruppersberg’s art hotel, which ran for six weekends in summer 1971, we look back at the art scene in the city 40 years ago

One of the rooms in Al’s Grand Hotel featured cardboard cut-outs of Ruppersberg giving a peace sign. Photo: courtesy of the artist

At 6am on 9 February 1971, Allen Ruppersberg was thrown out of bed onto the floor of his studio. He would later learn that the 6.6 magnitude earthquake—Los Angeles’s worst in decades—had killed 64 people and caused damage worth half a billion dollars. It also delayed the construction of the new California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), 30 miles north of the city in Valencia. When CalArts finally occupied its building in November that year, the progressive school ushered in a new era for art in Los Angeles.

Ruppersberg, who trained in the late 1960s at the Chouinard Art Institute—the predecessor to CalArts—says that then, as now, schools were vital to the art community in the city. There were no art bars and precious few galleries. Al’s Grand Hotel, 1971, which is being “reinvented” this week for Frieze Projects by the curator Lauren Mackler of Los Angeles’s project space Public Fiction, was a short-term solution. For six weekends in May and June 1971, people could book rooms in an improvised hotel on Sunset Boulevard and hang out as they pleased. Each of the seven rooms doubled as an installation by the artist: “The Jesus Room” contained a huge wooden crucifix, while “The Al Room” contained cardboard cut-outs of Ruppersberg in different outfits, flashing a two-fingered peace sign.

Getting the party started

Claire Copley, who subsequently became Ruppersberg’s gallerist, moved to Los Angeles later that year, and found that everyone she met had visited the hotel. “I think it was a sort of three-day party, and that basically everyone who went there knew everyone, and knew Al,” she says. The artist William Leavitt, who was photographed shaking hands with his friend Ruppersberg on the hotel’s steps, says of its bacchanalian reputation: “Since it was during the 1970s, that’s perfectly possible. But I think the night that my wife and I went, it was rather sedate.” Ruppersberg insists that all kinds of visitors came through the hotel, but claims that he has long forgotten most of the stories people told him about what they got up to during their stays. And the ones that he does remember are not repeatable.

“It was fun. If it ain’t fun, what are you doing it for?” Ruppersberg says. He was affiliated at the time with a gang of Los Angeles-based artists who shared a distinctive sense of humour: Leavitt, Bas Jan Ader, Ger Van Elk and William Wegman, all of whom exhibited their installations, films and photographs at Copley’s gallery in the city, which opened in 1973. Many had also shown at Eugenia Butler Gallery before it closed in 1971. They made a kind of work that John Baldessari, an influential teacher at the new CalArts, termed “post-conceptual”. “I will not make any more boring art,” wrote Baldessari, over and over again, in a video from 1971.

Post-conceptual art in Los Angeles developed in response to conceptual practices in New York and Europe. Few Californian artists could afford air travel, but Ruppersberg exhibited widely and had visited Bern in 1969 for “When Attitudes Become Form”, the hugely influential exhibition organised by the late Swiss curator Harald Szeemann. Copley remembers artist friends passing around the catalogue Ruppersberg brought back. “It was like gold to people, just to see what was going on,” she says. “Plugging into what was happening in Europe was so much more comfortable and familiar for Al than plugging into what was happening in Los Angeles.

“LA was still dominated by the detritus, so to speak, of the Ferus Gallery,” Copley says, referring to the La Cienega gallery, which famously showed rising stars such as Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell and Billy Al Bengston (it closed in 1966). These artists, many of whom trained or taught at Chouinard, formed an enclave on the west side of the city, in and around Venice Beach. “The Venice boys were the ones who were in the power structure—all this macho stuff,” says Rosamund Felsen, an established gallerist who was a junior curator at the Pasadena Art Museum at the time. “When these other guys [Ruppersberg and his cohorts] came along, they were like a different breed. They were more intellectual and they had more sociological concerns.”

Spread-out scene

Then, as now, the so-called Los Angeles art world spread far beyond the official city limits. CalArts, perhaps the city’s most famous art school, was in a separate town, 40 minutes’ drive north. Artists Leavitt and Ader met in the mid-1960s at Claremont Graduate School, a comparable distance to the east, where Ader settled with his wife Mary Sue. Chris Burden, who studied architecture as an undergraduate at nearby Pomona College, then gained his master’s degree at the University of California, Irvine, which is almost an hour’s journey south of Los Angeles, in Orange County. Despite distinct similarities in their work and the relatively small art community in the city at the time, it seems that Burden and Ader never crossed paths.

Burden set up the gallery F-Space in Orange County with fellow Irvine students including Barbara T Smith and Nancy Buchanan, and it was there, in November 1971, that he staged the notorious work Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm by his assistant. Leavitt says he never ventured that far south—“it was really off the map; it was so far away”—but Felsen remembers attending openings for artists such as Judy Chicago and Allan McCollum at Jack Glenn Gallery, also in Orange County, which she admits seems extraordinary today. Ruppersberg notes that, back in the 1970s, the city was less clogged with traffic and one could navigate more freely. Now, he says, people tend to remain in their own neighbourhoods.

The dearth of serious collectors in Los Angeles was debilitating in the 1970s—as some people complain that it still is today. At the time, there were exhibitions of groundbreaking works by artists who are now major figures, but Copley says: “Not many people saw them, and certainly nobody bought the art.” Her gallery closed in 1977. “It was a funny time of nothing gelling, but a lot of stuff going on in different pockets that had really no central binding affiliation. People liked each other; there were no social divisions. It was just apples and oranges. And lemons.”

The variety of artistic activities in this period is astonishing. While Ruppersberg was running his hotel, Burden was getting shot and Leavitt was filming Ader falling off the roof of his house (Fall 1, Los Angeles, 1970), Judy Gerowitz was changing her name to Judy Chicago and founding the Feminist Art Programme at CalArts. Douglas Huebler was beginning his project to photograph every human being on earth. Paul McCarthy was making a video of himself pouring engine oil onto the pages of a phone book and babbling like a baby (Ma Bell, 1971) and was greatly influenced by Bruce Nauman, who lived in Pasadena. Ruppersberg recalls fondly the lack of hierarchy among artists, a characteristic that persists in the city.

The sentiment may not necessarily have been shared by artists of colour, however. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art staged its first exhibition by contemporary black artists in 1971, featuring Charles White, Timothy Washington and David Hammons, then little known. A year later, the Chicano art collective Asco spray-painted their names on one of the museum’s walls in a symbolic protest against their exclusion from the institution.

Although certain minorities undoubtedly found their cultural isolation frustrating and disempowering, many artists experienced isolation only in geographical terms. “One is isolated here,” Leavitt says. “But there is this umbilical cord that connects to the bigger scene, which sustains people. It didn’t feel like an underground, because there were similar things going on in New York and Europe.” That simultaneous sense of community and separateness is what draws many artists to the city today. “It’s still a land of individuals, I guess,” Ruppersberg says.

Two rooms in Al Grand’s Hotel are available for booking (8-12 May; rates from $350). For more details, call +1 646 578 8471

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