The conventional story of postwar American art relies heavily on the chapter in which Abstract Expressionism establishes itself as the dominant idiom, and New York, its home, as the hegemonic art capital. Figurative modes were, if out of fashion, alive and well, of course; MoMA's 1959 exhibition "New Images of Man" surveyed recent American art dealing with the human form. Among the participants was a stalwart of the Los Angeles scene, painter Rico Lebrun (1900–1964), whose grim, harrowing vision of bodies in distress is among 41 painters, sculptors, photographers, installation artists and performance artists that curator Michael Duncan compiles in L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945–1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy.
The catalogue is published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, on view through May 20 as part of the Getty's multivenue initiative "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980." With an essay devoted to each artist, it is a valuable reference; Duncan's research is thorough, his writing lucid. He identifies the roots of a "local heritage" of dark, emotionally turbulent or oppressive work that has sustained subsequent generations of Southern California artists. In a 1963 interview in Artforum, Lebrun described his imagery as "giving shape to a bloody and bony parcel bearing the imprint of trouble." In recent decades the subjects of L.A. artists may be less victimized than Lebrun implies but blood, bones and trouble remain.
Duncan argues convincingly that the circumstances of life in Los Angeles, including the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation of Hollywood and the rapid militarization of the Pacific coast, contributed new forms of angst. Influential works by the great Mexican muralists Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros depicted heroic, muscular struggle; protagonists of the era's film noir were often caught in the machinations of a hostile world. In contrast to the painterly figuration associated with the San Francisco area, a drawing-driven pictorial culture emerged in L.A., perhaps in part because of the movie industry's demand for cartoonists and animators (and despite Walt Disney's 1947 testimony before HUAC that the Screen Cartoonists Guild was a Communist front group).
Duncan appraises familiar figures such as Judy Chicago, David Hammons and Wallace Berman along with others less familiar back East: Les Biller (b. 1940), whose noisy, cluttered paintings reflect the influence of extended sojourns in Hawaii and Japan; sculptor John Outterbridge (b. 1933), a North Carolina native whose work taps into Southern black folk arts and ancient figurative traditions; and June Wayne (1918–2011), founder in 1960 of Tamarind Lithography Workshop—originally in Hollywood, and since 1969 at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque—and a printmaker who, in works like The Travelers (1954), contains the curvatures of flesh within rigid geometric structures.
Duncan credits painter Hans Burkhardt (1904–1994), an émigré from Switzerland who studied with Arshile Gorky in New York before relocating to L.A. in 1937, with providing a link between figurative expressionism on the East and West coasts. And he emphasizes the influence of everyday life in L.A. Betye Saar (b. 1926), who would become well known for found-object assemblages, witnessed the gradual growth of Simon Rodia's Watts Towers as a child visiting her grandparents' home in the neighborhood. A Chicagoan who moved to L.A. in her late thirties, painter Joyce Treiman (1922–1991) credited Southern California's sharp light and deep shadows for the formal clarity that animates her complex paintings, such as the hallucinatory Rabbit and Pills (1967–68).
In an afterword, "New Images of Man" curator Peter Selz traces social critique and political dissent within L.A.'s figurative tradition, impulses that the artists resolve in ways that are often at odds with classic, happy Hollywood endings-or any other form of catharsis. A natural medium for body-centric statements, performance art has been embraced by Barbara T. Smith (b. 1931), Kim Jones (b. 1944), Chris Burden (b. 1946) and Nancy Buchanan (b. 1946), and reaches an apogee of abjection with Paul McCarthy (b. 1945) in performances that, in Duncan's words, "have emanated an awe-inspiring corporeal funk and exploded conventional social and cultural norms with purgative fury" (p. 183). In Face Painting-Floor, White Line (1972), a performance in which McCarthy applied a 30-foot swath of white paint to the floor with his face and torso, the artist does not "bear the imprint of trouble" but imprints his abjectly expressive version of trouble on the world.