Getty Research Institute

Women Curators Remember the L.A. Art Scene in the Sixties

In the 1960s and ‘70s, L.A.’s art scene arrived. How this came about, and what it was like to be part of the big shift, was the focus of a recent conversation with curators Barbara Haskell, Jane Livingston, and Helene Winer, moderated by Andrew Perchuk, at the Getty Center. (You can see a video of the full event here.)

L.A. was smaller in the ’60s. Artistic communities were flourishing from Venice to Pasadena to Topanga, but everyone went everywhere. And why not? It only took half an hour to get from the beach to the east valley.

Spaces of creativity and collaboration were sprouting up across town. Print-making workshops  Tamarind and Gemini GEL were training up-and-comers and luring New Yorkers like Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein to art’s “second city.” The Ferus Gallery and Nicholas Wilder were not only showing the newest and latest, but evangelizing it to anyone who walked in the door. The Pasadena Museum of Art was filling its big new space with L.A. art, while Artforum was giving local artists real critical attention. And presiding over it all were men of intellect and aura: Walter Hopps, Maurice Tuchman, John Coplans.

All this momentum “gave the artists in the community a sense that there was something here that was real, that was vital,” said Haskell. The art they created was powerful then, and it remains powerful now. (Hear how powerful in the video clip above.)

Despite the ferment, there was an innocence to the art scene then. No one was selling, so there was no competition. “People weren’t clawing their way to the top, because there was no top,” Haskell joked. When news of John Altoon’s death broke at Betty Asher’s house in mid-party in 1969, “everyone was devastated,” remembered Livingston. “There was a brotherhood.”

Then again, not everyone was part of that brotherhood. Women, for example.

Winer recalled how, as the sole female faculty member at Pomona, she was asked by the clueless president’s office to serve tea at a faculty meeting. She eventually gave in, but only after Jim Turrell agreed to help out, in a ridiculous costume. Haskell was doing most of the curatorial heavy lifting at the Pasadena Museum, but she couldn’t get a promotion from curatorial assistant to assistant curator—so she just gave herself the new title.

Livingston remembered being unaware as women artists rallied against LACMA’s pioneering Art and Technology project, which left them standing at the door. And she reflected on the poignancy of seeing powerful work by African American artists in the Hammer Museum’s exhibition Now Dig This, while recalling that, in the 60s and 70s, these same artists—Melvin Edwards, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar, for example—were marginalized from the cozy art scene she knew.

The evening ended with questions, and a young African American woman in the audience asked cogently if times have really changed for women and black artists. Yes, agreed the panelists, but in complex ways. The art scene is now international, not regional; competition is cutthroat; the city is big, complex, and messy. There’s less innocence but more opportunity, which sounds like it might be a very good thing.

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      The idealized countryside painted by a native city dweller.

      This light and color study wasn’t meant for exhibition, but rather was a way for Corot to explore his new scenery outside of the studio. 

      Houses near Orleans, about 1830, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. J. Paul Getty Museum.

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