The artist John Baldessari is grumpy, or perhaps just tired. He has been dealing with the press, having received massive attention recently as the most included artist (in 11 shows) in the multi-show extravaganza known as Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945-1980. Following a few high-profile years, in which his retrospective has travelled from London's Tate Modern to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he has the right to feel exhausted. Pacific Standard Time includes more than 60 shows, scattered around southern California.
Baldessari gazes sombrely at a box on his desk that contains a toy, a yodelling pickle. He shrugs and says: "This is the gift I just got from Damien Hirst." The British artist had been flown into town to record a conversation with Baldessari and another LA artist, Ed Ruscha, at Larry Gagosian's gallery in Beverly Hills.
I started my own whirlwind tour of Pacific Standard Time at MoCA, in the downtown Geffen Contemporary space, and Baldessari was the first person I bumped into. I hugged him upwardly; at 6ft 7in, he is hard to reach. When I asked his opinion of the show he said it was "BM" – "before money" – and that, in fact, all art in LA in Pacific Standard Time, and particularly at MoCA, could be defined this way. "BM" – that is, before artists had money. I entered the cavernous space with his words ringing in my ears. The last time I was here I saw a Takashi Murakami show, and the contrasts between Murakami's work and Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 could not be more apparent.
Murakami's mirror-like surfaces speak of money and of the factory. The shimmering surfaces are carefully polished, to remove any trace of the artist or indeed his many assistants' hands. Tonight, these have given way to the simple objects and hand-worked surfaces of a group of artists, many of whom were deeply engaged with political or gender themes. We are talking about the height of feminism and race issues and the end of the Vietnam War, after all.
I am moved and intrigued to see works that have a rawness and handmade quality rarely seen today. There is a strange sculpture, The Nurse and the Hijackers (1977), made in cardboard by Eleanor Antin, of an airplane, cut away to see paper doll passengers and crew, including a particularly dashing mustachioed pilot. Nearby, the beautiful drawings of the feminist artist Judy Chicago spell out, in painstaking cursive, the traumas of her upbringing and struggle as an artist. Farther on is a strong piece by Baldessari, Virtues and Vices (for Giotto) (1981). In black and white, each work relates to the deadly sins and is labelled with familiar, sign-painted words.
Next, I go to Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at the Hammer, where there are more discoveries to be made, many of whom remain under the public consciousness. The show has as its centrepiece a fantastic room of work by David Hammons, the one black artist who has really succeeded in the "AM" days.
Among the highlights are three wonderful resin works by Fred Eversley, curves of overwhelming beauty in glowing colours. A little girl who spontaneously puts her hand through them touches me; her mother says, apologetically, that she thinks they are sweets. They look like they are made out of boiled sweets to me too, and I love their simple geometry.
Nearby, works by another major figure, John Outterbridge, well known within his native Los Angeles but not outside, are rough and raw and related in their construction to Louise Bourgeois' sewn dolls. There is relief work by Noah Purifoy, another West Coast artist who is new to me. Purifoy, who died in 2004, spent much of his time constructing a large installation in Joshua Tree, California. It was put together with no money – only passion for materials – it is now sadly suffering from neglect.
I move on to the Getty, where I find on view an unsurprisingly carefully, sensitively and expensively arranged "greatest hits" of the period. Andrew Perchuk, the curator of Crosscurrents in LA, Painting and Sculpture 1950-1970 tells me how he enjoyed seeing David Hockney meeting Ed Ruscha by their most fêted pictures, Hockney by A Bigger Splash (1967) and Ruscha by Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963). Both are great works, unmistakably, but I wonder how these innovative artists, particularly Hockney, would like to be canonised for work from nearly 40 years ago. Hockney's new work, produced in Bridlington, has the same energy and strength.
My discovery here is a piece, The Librarian (1960) by another local treasure, George Herms. It is an homage to a local librarian that is constructed predominantly of books and papers found by the artist after being thrown out by secondhand bookshops. The cost is little, the artistic value high.
On my last day in Los Angeles I make studio visits to several of the artists who are featured in the show. I start with Larry Bell, who is still in the Venice Beach studio of his youth. Next door, in a purpose-rented studio, is a showroom of early works which he still has because at the time of their creation, people didn't realise they were good. It is good to see this assemblage, a reminder of the creative process. The works were clearly made in a "BM" time and they are now benefiting from the "AM" collectors.
My final visit is to Baldessari. I marvel at the opulence of his new place as his labrador, Giotto, fusses over me. "It's too grand for me," Baldessari says, somewhat sadly. He tells me he is just back from the meeting with Hirst at Gagosian, where he expected to have a serious conversation with Ruscha about his work. Instead, Hirst asked them to tell jokes to each other – a strange decision, which might have worked with Baldessari, whose arsenal of jokes is legendary, but might not have suited the famously taciturn Ruscha.
But this is "After Money", Baldessari says, and we are back to our initial conversation at MoCA. The reality is that the vigour in these Pacific Standard Time shows comes from work made to satisfy the need of the artist, based on philosophy and politics, not the market. The world, the city and its problems are at the heart of the MoCA show, which recall a time when artists made work to change the world, not to consolidate their financial position.
Now, as these heroes labour on, still making powerful and relevant work, we realise that they might prove to be the exception of Baldessari's rule. Not every artist of the "AM" period is still so capable of producing "BM" work.
'Pacific Standard Time' continues in various venues throughout Southern California until mid-February
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