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June 30, 2011updated 08 Jan 2016 5:41pm

Best of the West

By Spear's

Predictions that Los Angeles will become the next capital of the art world have so far come to nothing — but is that about to change, asks Anthony Haden-Guest

FROM THE END of the Sixties through the Seventies I would spend weeks at a time in Los Angeles. Sometimes I would stay at the Château Marmont or the Sunset Marquis, at others in Laurel Canyon or out in Malibu, but wherever it was, the city’s energy was about movies, TV and rock and roll. I was far, far more likely to spend an evening in the Troubadour or the Whiskey a Go Go than at an art opening on La Cienega.

Yes, I knew artists, like Ed Ruscha and Mary Corse, but there was no art world in LA in the intense way that one existed in New York, raging away nightly in Max’s Kansas City. There were sporadic outbreaks of art activity — Eve Babitz played chess naked with Marcel Duchamp at the retrospective Walter Hopps curated at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963. But the art scene felt marginal.

There’s some footage in The Cool School, a fine documentary about the LA art world in the Fifties in which a group of artists are sitting around yakking in Barney’s Beanery and one of them, Ken Price, says that if there was a flash fire in the joint there wouldn’t be an LA art world. It hadn’t much grown since. The entertainment industry was just too overwhelming.

Curiously, there wasn’t much of a collecting scene either. I say curiously because you might have imagined that people in motion pictures would be interested in pictures. Barely at all. Of the old school, Edward G Robinson bought some good paintings and the producer Ray Stark collected what he called ‘petit format’ work. A generation on, Dennis Hopper was one of the first people to buy Warhol. He would go on to show his photographs at the Shafrazi gallery and played the German dealer Bruno Bischofberger in Julian Schnabel’s movie, Basquiat. But they were anomalies.

The Hammer Museum on Wiltshire Boulevard

A number of tremendous artists began emerging in California from the Seventies onwards, such as Chris Burden, whose performances included having himself nailed through the palms on top of a Volkswagen. CalArts, the California School of Arts, where John Baldessari and Allan Kaprow taught, produced so many of the artists who came to the fore in the Eighties — including David Salle, Ross Bleckner and Ashley Bickerton — that there was a rumour that there was a CalArts career strategy course.

That rumour budded in New York, of course, which was where they almost all headed en masse after graduation. There were fine galleries in LA, such as Doug Chrismas’s Ace Gallery and Michael Kohn, but the conventional art world wisdom was that even artists who chose to stay in LA, such as Burden, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray, needed to show in New York and Europe to figure on the art-world map. Just as the new breed of LA collectors, such as Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency, preferred to do their shopping there.

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Larry Gagosian and Arne Glimcher of Pace Wildenstein, mega-galleries with spaces in both New York and London, both challenged this wisdom, launching spaces in Los Angeles too. ‘If they’re shown really good art and really exciting shows and they’re convinced that they’re not being shown leftovers from New York dealers but they’re getting first look at work out of the studios or otherwise topnotch shows, I see no reason why they wouldn’t respond to that,’ Gagosian told me at the time.

Gagosian remains, but Pace Wildenstein upped tent pegs in the summer of 1999. Luhring Augustine, another Manhattan gallery that had opened in LA, also called it a day. But a decade later, two new Manhattan galleries are opening in Los Angeles: Matthew Marks is opening a space there and Perry Rubenstein is moving there in toto. Rubenstein, a significant figure in the Manhattan art world for 30 years, is closing his 23rd Street gallery, taking his two daughters out of school and moving to LA with his wife, the arts publicist Sara Fitzmaurice.

The MoCa Grand Avenue
So just what is going on in Los Angeles? Honor Fraser, a young British dealer, used to work for Gagosian there until she opened up her own space five years ago. ‘At that point it was very much about getting people through the door,’ she says. ‘Obviously Larry had an incredible brand and a lot of people wanted to be there anyway. But at that point there was a certain resistance.’

Fraser’s first couple of years on her own were in a tiny space in Venice. ‘So those years were very project-like,’ she says. But she then moved to Culver City, LA’s principal gallery zone. ‘It’s only in the last three years in Culver City that we have been part of the art world here.’

That is very like LA, which isn’t so much a city as a loose agglomeration of districts — which makes it intolerably irksome to get around. Indeed, in that regard it resembles London more than Manhattan. True, the internet is steadily replacing direct experience, but it cannot substitute for studio visits and gallery hopping, so the art world was fragmented.

Fraser believes that the principal motor of change in the LA art world was the appointment of two museum heads some years ago: Annie Philbin at the Hammer and Michael Govan at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ‘Both Annie and Michael Govan have been able to unify all the many districts and have been able to connect them,’ she says, ‘and I think that was what LA really needed. What Michael and Annie have done over the last eight years has made what is happening now possible.’

What is happening at Culver City specifically is more or less the same that is happening in Hoxton or on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but more so. ‘All the galleries open up the same night and it’s crowded, there are students and stuff,’ says Anthony James, a London-born artist who moved from New York to LA four years ago. ‘But it’s not about the openings. If you go to shows at really good galleries in other parts of LA, sometimes only about twenty people turn up — which is a bit weird, right? It’s because Culver City is where there are bars and little clubs.’

Artist Anthony James with KO (2008), a wrecked and burned Ferrari 355 Spider

James didn’t move to Los Angeles in search of an art scene, but simply because it satisfied working needs. ‘I’m trying to make work that’s very highly fabricated,’ he says. ‘I want a fetish finish. It so happens that the people I have found are in LA. I’ve started to work with Peter Carlson from Carlson & Co, who made all Jeff Koons’s work, and Jeff’s work has the highest production quality. The attention to detail is meticulous.’ Right now he’s working on a neon word piece for Kyle DeWoody’s art production outfit, Grey Area.

But James, having moved, has become a convert: ‘LA may not be the largest city in the art world, but it’s about evolution. It’s about the changing of the baton from Paris to New York, and New York is about to pass it as well. It’s a piece of clay that’s still being manipulated. It’s still on the climb.’

So he thinks the energy will go from New York to Los Angeles? ‘I do — but we’re talking twenty years. If you look back just ten years, and all the great LA artists had to show in Europe or New York; now that’s changing. I remember a Charles Ray piece in Shaun Regen’s gallery — it was three pieces he had made in Japan, ten years in the making. It was one of his greatest works — he could have shown that anywhere in the world, but he still chose to put it in LA. Ten years ago he wouldn’t have made that choice.’

Perry Rubenstein was looking for gallery space when we spoke, and he was equally gung-ho. ‘I have made the determination that this is a city that is not simply great but that it’s on the cusp of greatness,’ he says. ‘One of the things that I’ve noticed is that Google is putting 6,000 people in Venice, California. Google has bought Jay Chiat’s former headquarters, the building that Frank Gehry designed for Chiat Day. A sleepy beach town with its artistic history and tradition is having 6,000 Googleists! That’s going to change the character, the energy, the temperament of the community. That’s a deep thing. Six thousand kids changing fundamentally the creative character of the community.’

He sees the fact that LA was/is a movie town as a plus. ‘Artists are film directors now,’ he says. ‘We love film. The affection and the inter-relationship manifests itself in the work and in the aspirations of the artists, and in the aspirations of people who were formerly defined by film. The record industry doesn’t exist any more. These things are happening fast. That’s why I’m here now and enthralled and excited to be part of it.’

However, on 6 September 1992, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by Deborah Solomon entitled ‘The Cologne Challenge: Is New York’s Art Monopoly Kaput?’. Then Berlin happened and it was Cologne that was Kaput! Not all are as visionary about LA as James and Rubenstein.

Alexandre Charriol, a young French artist, moved from New York to LA three years ago. ‘I felt like a change,’ he says. ‘I found it very spread out — I had a hard time pinpointing where to go, what to see. It hadn’t surfaced yet; I couldn’t fall into it. Every gallery was ten miles from each other.’ But there are good artists there. ‘Yes. But they hide. They just live there.’ So he’s glad to be back in New York? ‘Yes.’

We’ll see.

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