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Southern California Art? Look It Up

Posted By Administration, Sunday, December 16, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

In Los Angeles, Lyn Kienholz is known within the art world as a hostess extraordinaire. Since 1974, the year after her divorce from the Pop sculptor Ed Kienholz, she has entertained and connected countless California painters, sculptors, writers, politicians, and museum curators at her home in the Hollywood Hills.


Yet her target audience is often the world beyond Los Angeles, where she feels the work of California artists is underappreciated. Working through the California/ International Arts Foundation, which she set up in 1981, she has originated 13 shows of California artists and architects that have toured internationally, compiled dozens of artist interviews at her two Web sites, and helped organize and finance dozens of films, books, and shows.

Now, in her latest and perhaps most ambitious project, she is at work on an encyclopedia that aims to write Southern California into international art history. As yet untitled, it will document more than 600 artists who lived, worked and showed there between 1940 and 1980 as well as the salient galleries, art schools, exhibitions and art-related events of the period.

"There's so much written about L.A. and art, but it doesn't give the full story," Ms. Kienholz said in a telephone interview from her home office. "You need a place where you can go to one document and find everything."

The book will include virtually every artist who ever exhibited professionally in a museum, gallery or public space in Southern California, from San Diego to Santa Barbara and as far east as Claremont, between Jan. 1, 1940, and Dec. 31, 1979. Along with the usual suspects — John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, John Outterbridge, Betye Saar, Sam Francis and Robert Irwin — there are also figures one might not typically associate with the area, like the Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who was active in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1953, and the sculptor David Hammons, who lived there between 1963 and 1974.

Only a few decades ago the city's art profile was basically "la-la land," Ms. Kienholz said. "We were the laughing stock, because of the film business."

But in reality, she observed, the midcentury Los Angeles art scene was wildly inventive and exciting, as she learned in 1961, when, after moving to the area from Washington, she took a job at the front desk of the storied Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood.

Ferus had been founded in 1957 by Mr. Kienholz and Walter Hopps, who later became the curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. During her first year there the gallery gave Andy Warhol his first solo show and drew a visit from police officers for exhibiting "Roxy's," a Kienholz assemblage that took viewers through the rooms of a surreal bordello populated by mannequins.

From 1965 to 1967, Artforum had its office upstairs, and throughout the decade there were many other galleries nearby, including the Huysman Gallery, the Rolf Nelson Gallery, Primus-Stuart Gallery, and the Ceeje Gallery. Around the corner on Melrose Avenue was the print publisher Gemini G.E.L., founded in 1966 by Ken Tyler, a master printer, and others.

"It was just fabulous," Ms. Kienholz said. "On Monday night you'd walk up and down La Cienega with your glass of wine, and go into the galleries."

A lot of the excitement, she said, arose from the sense of "no holds barred."

"The artists weren't conservative," she said. "It was all these funny guys who got off their surfboards and started making art, like Ken Price and Billy Al Bengston."

After marrying Mr. Kienholz in 1966 she became his office manager and studio assistant and also traveled widely with him abroad for his exhibitions. Along the way her outgoing personality helped her forge friendships with artists, curators, and collectors, and a powerful idea took hold.

"We'd travel, and people would say, 'There's no good art produced in Los Angeles,'" Ms. Kienholz said. "I'd say, 'But there's lots of good work.' It was a seed that grew."

In 1974 she was hired by Pontus Hulten, founding director of the Pompidou Center in Paris, then under construction, to establish a foundation that would acquire American artworks for the museum. That's when the idea for her foundation was born, she said. To finance it she sold Mr. Kienholz's notorious 1964 assemblage "Back Seat Dodge '38" to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it is a defining highlight of the collection. (During her marriage she had bought it back from a collector at her husband's suggestion.)

Ms. Kienholz's first major show was an exhibition of large-scale California sculpture by Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri and others that opened at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles and later toured Europe. More exhibitions followed, including an early solo show for the architect Frank Gehry that toured Europe in 1990 and '91.

Armed by two grants from the Getty Foundation, she and Henry Hopkins, the former director of the Huysman Gallery and the retired director of the Armand Hammer Museum, instituted the L.A. Art History Project. Between 2002 and 2004 they investigated the records of dozens of local museums, galleries, artists and collectors. "Lyn was one of the people who really made us aware of the threat to these important historical materials," said Joan Weinstein, an associate director of the Getty Foundation who oversaw the project.

The impetus for the encyclopedia kicked in when she collaborated on "Los Angeles 1955-1985," a 2006 show at the Pompidou Center. Early on, she was asked to draw up a list of artists and was crushed when not all were included.

"On the way home from Paris once, I thought, 'What should I do so that everyone who should be recognized is recognized?'" she said. The answer seemed to be the encyclopedia.

Ms. Kienholz began her research by sitting down with a glass of wine and listing every artist she could recall and later brainstorming over more wine with friends. Later her associate Corinne Nelson gathered more names by combing through vintage issues of Art in America, Artforum and The Los Angeles Times.

In addition to the big names the encyclopedia will also include lesser-known figures whose careers began in the 1960s, like John Lincoln, whose drawings and paintings can suggest Jean Cocteau. From the 1970s, there are intriguing examples like the artist Bruce Houston, known for kitschy assemblages made from cake decorations and plastic toys, and Connie Zehr, a Minimalist installation artist who has often worked with sand and silk.

Ms. Kienholz is especially intrigued by midcentury custom car artists like the painter Kenneth Howard, known as Von Dutch, said to be the first to decorate the nose of a hot rod with flames. She will also include Tony Rosenthal, who set off a controversy in 1954 when he designed a 14-foot bronze for a new Police Department building that depicted in a highly abstract style a policeman protecting a family.

In October the Getty awarded her foundation another grant to document the little-known history of the city's African-American artists, many of whom will also appear in the book.

Each entry will contain an excerpt from a vintage review as well as two color images showing how each artist's work developed, provided that Ms. Kienholz and her assistants are able to track them down.

She intends to publish the encyclopedia sometime next summer, well before the next big European survey of Southern California art, "Time and Place: Los Angeles, 1958-1968," opens at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm in October.

"Many of us out here do know what went on, and what's going on," she said. "But the rest of the world is still learning."
By Carol Kino


www.nytimes.com

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