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Books: Sixties art in the US, a tale of two coasts

Eva Hesse’s tragic vision and the multifarious works by artists in California

The 1960s continue to be the focus of much scholarly attention and increased exhibition activity, providing a welcome opportunity to transcend well-trodden critical paths and the recurrent feasts of nostalgic celebration that pay homage to the heroics of pop warriors, minimal precisionists and conceptual artist-philosophers.

Eva Hesse has long surpassed the status of marginal practitioner, having been recognised as a key figure of the 1960s even in her lifetime. Encountering Eva Hesse carefully interweaves art historical accounts in search of “lost contexts” with a biographical approach that attempts to look beyond the tragic narrative of the female genius who died at the height of her career. The editors acknowledge both the historical contexts of the past that need rediscovering as well as the progress made in theoretical readings, in particular feminist approaches which allow a variety of competing and complementary interpretations. The book is accordingly made up of many voices that highlight different aspects of the artist’s art and life—from personal reminiscences and artists’ responses to scholarly analyses and reflections on curatorial methodology.

We encounter Hesse in captivating colour on the cover of the book (in an image that unfortunately seems to be reversed), holding one of her hypnotic creations from the mid-1960s, fashioned from rope and papier-mâché in bright pink and deepening violets, and meet her again throughout this intelligently illustrated book. These crafty and humorous constructions suspended between painting and sculpture in strange, toxic colours now seem as significant as her celebrated later, more “abject” work in translucent fibreglass and latex. Encountering Eva Hesse introduces a number of possible interpretations that reconstruct a number of “lost”, often surprising if not unlikely, contexts that give Hesse’s work additional texture and depth beyond the feminist icon and pioneer of post-minimalist practice.

Where Hesse was initially and superficially defined by her gender and formal “eccentricity”, Los Angeles has been clichéd as a geographically and culturally distant province in which any idea of cultural sophistication was a lost cause, a kind of Wild West version of the capitalist dream, unashamedly commercial, obsessed with popular culture and tainted by a pervasive vulgarity.

In Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s, Cécile Whiting critically rehearses many of the stereotypes lumbered onto Los Angeles and how they coloured both the production and reception of art. California has been seen as ready-made pop territory, the urban sprawl with commercial architecture and plastic artificiality of the entertainment industry offering themselves as pre-eminent subject matter. After World War II, Los Angeles represented the Promised Land, an ever-expanding city of eternal sunshine in which dreams were not only produced but became reality. However, Los Angeles was also a city on the edge, an apocalyptic disaster waiting to happen, a megalopolis of uncontrolled expansion, precariously perched on top of the San Andreas fault.

Dr Whiting seeks to define the city as a place of diverse creative activities “in a variety of styles that evoke and redefine the urban vernacular”. The book explores the construction of an urban identity as seen through (and actively shaped by) the work of a disparate group of artists. Pop L.A., as a loose stylistic and psycho-geographical category, was strangely un-pop. The excessive sunshine of Southern California has always been balanced by plenty of noir. The presence of a Beat colony and the abject constructions of the Junk and Assemblage artists during the 1950s tell a darker story of physical and mental decay, social despair and isolation, and of sordid obsessions in a culture of plenty that reveal the underbelly of the American dream.

There always existed a strong conceptual tendency in Los Angeles and Dr Whiting’s concentration on artists such as Vija Celmins and Ed Ruscha (or John Baldessari who does not feature here) emphasises the intellectual and formal distancing devices prominent in art made in Los Angeles. The semi-ironic macho muscle-flexing of artists such as Billy Al Bengston, Dennis Hopper and Ed Ruscha celebrated the city as a construct of art, artifice and over-riding commercial impetus, while David Hockney’s roaming foreign eye found his fantasies of the city as a sexual paradise full of homoerotic promises confirmed.

The second part of the book moves away from the city as a standardised and homogenous landscape and focuses on the Watts Tower as a neighbourhood landmark, which became the centre of political protest, and on the city as an unlikely site for happenings and performances. These often centred around the all-defining automobile (for example, Claes Oldenburg’s Autobodys, 1963), “inappropriate” subjects and transitory structures (Allan Kaprow’s Fluids, 1967, utilising tons of ice, for example) and challenged architectural and institutional banality with the amorphous and fugitive phenomenon of smoke (Judy Chicago’s Multicolored Atmosphere, 1970), the latter signalling the arrival of feminist performance and alternative, more diverse realities in the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. The rise in the 1960s of Los Angeles to “Second Art City”—an artistic centre in a city famously without any obvious centre itself, perfectly prefiguring the decentred post-modern metropolis—is charted evocatively with a selective history of the art and artists while considering its rapidly expanding network of museums, galleries, art schools and critical channels within the context of urban and economic development.

o Griselda Pollock (ed.), Encountering Eva Hesse (Prestel, 2006), 256 pp, £35 (hb) ISBN 3791333097

o Cécile Whiting, Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s (University of California Press, 2006), 272 pp, £26.95, $39.95 (hb) ISBN 0520244605

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sixties art in the US—a tale of two coasts'