How do you hold a “secret exhibition”? In 1957, Los Angeles artist George Herms did just that, setting up his assemblage sculptures among the foundation blocks of a row of demolished buildings in Hermosa Beach. The show wasn’t publicized, and was visited by just two people, both friends. Since he was moving away, Herms didn’t pack the works up again, but abandoned them to the elements.
The secret exhibition had several purposes. One was to return the works to their origin: Herms had accumulated their component parts while beachcombing or scavenging vacant lots in the area. Another was to comment on the tension between the development of L.A. as a commercial art center and the censorship that still dogged those trying to show modern art—just months earlier, Herms’s friend Wallace Berman had suffered at the hands of the Hollywood vice squad, who prematurely closed his exhibition on grounds of indecency.
Herms’s secret exhibition disappeared, but his personal archive was acquired by the Getty Research Institute in 2009. Like the Charles Brittin papers, it has proved invaluable to those of us working on the Pacific Standard Time research initiative at the GRI. The boxes stored in the special collections contain myriad treasures, including hand-printed gallery invitations, exhibition announcements and posters, delicate mail art objects, letters, and photographs.
From these, we can build a picture of the Los Angeles art scene in the fifties. We can discover what art was shown, and where—on the walls of cafes and bookstores and in the lobbies of movie theaters, as well as in more conventional gallery spaces. The artist Ed Kienholz showed works at Vons Café Galleria, for example, and organized small exhibitions of his friends’ art in the foyer of the Coronet Louvre. In 1955, Walter Hopps even mounted an exhibition of paintings in the empty merry-go-round building on the Santa Monica pier.
We can learn more about significant, but short-lived, experimental ventures like Hopps’s Syndell Studio, which opened in Brentwood in 1955, or the NOW Gallery, founded by Kienholz in the green room of the Turnabout Theatre, in 1956. These precursors to the more famous Ferus Gallery, which opened in 1957, were vital in the development of an avant-garde community in Los Angeles.
At a time when commercial galleries still showed mainly European modern art, artist-run spaces grew out of a dearth of opportunity to show work. But they were also motivated by artists’ desire to take control of the presentation and dissemination of their work. For many, this took a playful turn. Artists such as Herms and Berman instigated projects that experimented with ideas of display in various ways, such as Wallace Berman’s loose-leaf publication Semina (1955–64), distributed by hand and by mail, resembling a miniature traveling exhibition of art and poetry.
Hopps and his friends made and exhibited artworks under the guise of a fictional artist, Maurice Syndell, christened, like the gallery, for a Midwestern farmer Hopps had heard of by chance. Like Herms’s “secret exhibition”, these projects reveal a fascination with display in all its many guises, and an awareness of the issues raised by the development of the Los Angeles art world.