Sense and insensibility
Woody Allen — or more exactly his alter ego in Annie Hall — explained the tidiness of the streets of Los Angeles by the fact “they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows”. Somehow this barb seems to epitomise the culture of Los Angeles in the 1970s as surveyed in this curiously eclectic exhibition, which covers everything from Ed Ruscha’s copious and bland semi-conceptual art to softcore porn of gay beefcake magazines.
Incongruous as such a conjunction may seem at first sight, it is perhaps less so when we consider these ostensibly very different images side by side.
Ruscha is the logical place to start, and if one had not already come to the conclusion that he was overrated and ultimately rather vacuous, this exhibition will help to make this clear. Some of his early work stems from pop, conceptualism and minimalism, but the conceptual content is never very strong or consistent and, as this exhibition shows, he soon subsided into producing cool quasi-conceptual decorator pieces for the Los Angeles moneyed class.
Cool, indeed, as the title of the exhibition suggests, is the defining quality of the sensibility that underlies these works, or one might indeed say insensibility, for cool is ultimately an attitude of disengagement and indifference. More exactly, it is a superficial aesthetic response to novelty of design without content, belief or conviction. As I have observed before, this is still one of the most common responses of visitors to exhibitions such as the Biennale: they will glance for a moment at some complex installation, acknowledge it with the word “cool”, then move on to another superficial experience.
And what else can one say before the designs of Larry Bell or Ronald Davis and some others? Perhaps in the aftermath of hard-edge abstraction these patterns seemed interesting. Today they look slight and mechanical. But what about a more complex image such as Ruscha’s Sweets, Meats, Sheets (1975)? It’s bright, it’s deliberately loud, it gratingly juxtaposes colour saturation and the suggestion of glamour with the banality of consumer products and most conspicuously steaks on styrofoam trays and wrapped in taut plastic from a supermarket shelf.
This is, however, a much more complex image than those of Bell, for it recalls in colour and composition Tom Kelley’s famous nude of Marilyn Monroe against a red satin background (1949), so we can read it as a deconstruction of the star into the attraction of sweetness (Hershey’s chocolate Kisses), the reality of flesh and the metonym of sheets for sex. But this facile and reductive interpretation of Marilyn is less insightful and especially less humane than the original glamour shot, which at least acknowledged the dream of beauty.
Cynicism is not the same as critical thinking; it is, as we saw in the postmodern period that ensued, all too often a lazy and indulgent stance, especially when it becomes an alibi for inaction and indifference, and when, as in this case, the end product is interior decoration with a knowing sneer.
Sex was, ostensibly at least, easy in Los Angeles in the 70s. It was in the middle of the sexual revolution that had begun the decade before with the invention of the pill and would continue until it was brought to an end by the AIDS epidemic of the early 80s. In the meantime, it seemed that there were few boundaries: for better or for worse, this period represented the opposite extreme of the pendulum swing that has brought about today’s surprisingly puritanical attitude to sexuality, ridden with guilt, anxiety and resentment not seen since the later 19th century.
Los Angeles was the capital of what has been called in hindsight the golden age of porno-chic because, in the wake of a series of important legal cases from 1957 onwards, the legal concept of obscenity had been significantly limited: this made of cut-up photographs of naked girls taken from the erotic magazines that also flourished in this period, well before the age of the internet made such media obsolete. The cutting up and recombination in Heinecken’s work inhibits a straightforward response to the images as erotica, inviting a more complex and dreamlike reading of the experience of sexuality.
The same sort of material is dealt with more subtly in the photographs of Christine Godden, who focuses on glimpses and suggestions rather than th physically or psychologically explicit imagery. Godden’s shot of a young woman’s legs, ggf fa falling open as she drives her car, is thus more subtly su provocative, because of the way that it implicates im the viewer, than some of Heinecken’s e relatively explicit imagery.
Homosexuality was also part of the liberated world of Los Angeles, and the exhibition inwwc c cludes a collection of images of bodybuilders and a other young men, all coyly equipped with G-strings, in a variety of mock-athletic poses. GGT These images were produced by an amateur photographer p who published them in cheap magazines that could (after the Supreme Court mmo overturned a post office ban) be mailed to subscribers. sc
The sexual freedom, including Hollywood’s tacit ta tolerance of homosexuality, was one of the things th that most appealed to the young David Hockney, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1964. HHH He also liked the weather. The exhibition includes c a couple of pictures of a naked young man in the bathroom, one standing in the showmme e er and the other at the hand basin while Hockney himself, with his camera, is reflected in the nnb b bathroom mirror.
Water, as a symbol of the ubiquity and fluidity id of sexuality, already appears in one of Godden’s pictures, in which the naked pelvis and leg of a girl are set beside shimmering sunlit water.
But it was Hockney who saw in the swimming pools of Los Angeles an image the erotic state into which one can plunge and lose all sense of boundaries and identity. Hence his images of figures diving into a pool or swimming underwater, sometimes watched by others standing on the edge, still outside and in the world of normal social conventions. A painting of this subject, indeed, was sold a few weeks ago for almost $124 million, a record for a living artist.
These themes may be followed in a group of video works from the permanent collection that can be seen a little further on in the modern galleries — and indeed can also be looked up on YouTube. One of these is Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964), an incoherent but spontaneous Dionysiac orgy of nudity, blood Throwing three balls in the air to get a straight line (Best of thirtysix attempts) Betsy’s hands, by the pool EVEN DURING THE 70S THERE WERE PLENTY OF PEOPLE WHO WERE NOT HAVING A VERY GOOD REVOLUTION was a time when full full-length length adult features were produced with some attempt at narrative coherence, were shown in mainstream cinemas, and helped bring back audiences who had abandoned movies for television.
The most notable American productions of the time included Behind the Green Door (1972), The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), Caligula (1979), originally based on a screenplay by Gore Vidal, and, one of the earliest but most notorious, Deep throat (1972), which was a massive hit but whose star, Linda Lovelace, later became a born-again Christian and claimed that she had been forced into the role. It is a rather pathetic tale, deeply American in its alternation of dereliction and repentance, but it reminds us that all was not entirely cool after all in the pornography business.
This is the culture that informs many of the photographic works in the exhibition, most obviously Robert Heinecken’s collaged images
John Baldessari’s (1973), main; Christine (1973),