L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Pacific Standard Time, a nearly year-long paean to SoCal art history, has barely begun and, already, I’m experiencing PST fatigue. Funded by the Getty Institute and the result of at least a decade’s worth of scholarship by the Getty researchers and others, PST will include 60 or so exhibitions and more artists than you can count, all of whom were working between 1945-1980. Over 60 institutions are “partnering” with the Getty, which means SoCal galleries and museums will be ablaze in the glory of their own history for much of the foreseeable future. Shows have titles like Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics 1950–1980 or Best Kept Secret: UC Irvine and the Development of Contemporary Art, 1964-1971, mouthfuls that would be at home on textbook covers. The draw of the PST initiative is, of course, that some of the work on display will have barely been seen since it was made, and uncovering overlooked gems makes a canonized period of L.A. history feel open and alive again. However, even this draw exacerbates the fatigue. Obscure, surprising gems from the 1950, ‘60s or ‘70s will undoubtedly send you reeling back through history; you’ll want to learn more about the work’s making and reconsider its makers. And how will you ever get through 60-plus exhibitions that way?
One particular work that’s not obscure per se – it’s been reproduced in biographies and other SoCal histories –sent me back through archives and biographies. It’s Judy Chicago’s Car Hood, made in 1964 and scheduled to be on view at the Getty Center. You wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as hers at first. It acrylic lacquer on the hood of an actual Chevy and it looks more like something Billy Al Bengston or Craig Kauffman might have come up with: minimal, flat, metal, bold. But upon closer look, the feminist matron’s characteristically bodily—yes, vaginal—imagery presents itself in the form of a red and pink curve that drips downward. It’s car culture meets mother earth, and it’s also festive, far more folksy than anything Bengston might have done during that period.
Chicago, who still went by “Judy Gerowitz” at that point (she was “the first of several women to adopt pseudo-geographical surnames as Feminist gestures,” quipped critic Peter Plagens), made Car Hood around the time she participated in a show of hard-edge abstraction at L.A.’s Rolf Nelson gallery. Earlier the same year, she had enrolled in auto-body school. According to biographer Gail Levin, who also notes the car-painting instructor drove a lavender and candy-apple colored convertible, Chicago was the only women out of 250 students. She learned the craft, though, and after 8 weeks she could manipulate lacquer and spray paint on metal, which meant she too could achieve that “finish fetish” aesthetic the boys in SoCal were becoming known for. Her dabble into this traditionally male world would, seemingly came to an abrupt end when she moved to Fresno in 1970 to start the first Feminist Art Program, dropping all the masculine pretenses she’d adopted to get ahead in the ‘60s art world. After spearheading a number of other feminist ventures — most notably Womanhouse, the month long women-only, live-in performance piece, and the Woman’s Building, an abandoned art school in downtown L.A. turned into space for women artists — she would begin The Dinner Party, the work for which she’s still most famous.
Never before had I considered the slick, overly perfect glazed plates from The Dinner Party an offshoot of car culture. That they might be makes them even more compelling. A massive installation comprised of a triangular dinner table set for an entourage of female ground-breakers all downplayed by history’s canon, The Dinner Party has an explicit theatricality. Each plate is clearly inspired by female anatomy, and this can be overwhelming, even hard-hitting. But see it in light of the unapologetic kitsch of California custom cars and the absurd obsessiveness of the fetish finish aesthetic, and suddenly Chicago’s feminist opus becomes sunnier, a masterful mash-up that’s formal flair should celebrated as much as its message. Screw the institution; women can have fun too, it suggests. After all, the piece is supposed to be a party.