Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Research Institute

It Happened in L.A.: George Herms Gets Creative for Rent Money

George Herms at Earful, a Tap City Circus raffle in Los Angeles, 1972

George Herms at “Earful,” a Tap City Circus raffle in Los Angeles, 1972. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of George Herms, 2009.M.20.24. Photo by and © Jerry Maybrook

George Herms is known for his poetic assemblages of discarded, disheveled materials. But back in the ’60s, he had preoccupations besides art: he was “tapped out”—that is, broke and ready to tap-dance on street corners for cash—and facing eviction.

His solution? “Tap City Circus,” a carnivalesque fundraiser that was equal parts auction, picnic, and performance. Herms called it  “the highest example of using life’s pitfalls as a springboard.”

The first raffle, held in 1961 in Larkspur, California, was such a success that Herms staged it every 18 months or so until 1972. Each event had a special name. Lucky invitees to the 1965 “Raffle,” Herms’s first Tap City Circus at his new home in Topanga Canyon, received colorful, hand-printed invitations stamped “L-O-V-E.” You can see one in the Pacific Standard Time exhibition Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1950–1980, opening this Saturday at the Getty Research Institute.

Announcement for “Raffle,” a Tap City Circus raffle in Los Angeles, June 6, 1965. Designed by George Herms

Announcement for “Raffle,” a Tap City Circus raffle in Los Angeles, June 6, 1965. Designed by George Herms. Letterpress, woodblock, rubber stamping, and tinted gelatin silver print. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Rolf G. Nelson, 2010.M.38.4

After “Raffle” came “Roofle.” Another was dubbed “Earful.” Prizewinners at the “Waffle” event received a “wall full of effluvia.” (Hear more of the story, and learn about Herms’s mail art, in this video interview with the artist and curator John Tain.)

Raffle tickets, which cost $1, were small numbered cards decorated with poetry or imagery that could also be taken home as souvenirs. Prizes were books or prints. But lucky winners could also opt, as an alternative, to squirt Herms with a hose. And the Grand Prize winner could take home one of the artworks on display in Herms’s house. Tap City Circuses were social gatherings, too. Local artists came to picnic and stage impromptu musical performances.

Ironically, all this industrious work, from the raffles to the elaborate printed cards, required more time and effort than Herms could possibly have recouped in raffle funds. The event’s fusion of childish antics, disciplined craft, and seeming indifference to life’s practicalities was, in the end, an art piece of its own.

Adapted from a sidebar written by Nancy Perloff. Read more about Tap City Circuses in the new book Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945–1980.

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      #ProvenancePeek: July 31

      Every art object has a story—not only of how it was made, but of how it changed hands over time until it found its current home. That story is provenance.

      This small panel by Dutch master Gerrit Dou (photographed only in black and white) is now in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. It was sold to American collector Robert Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, in the summer of 1922.

      How do we know this? Archival sleuthing! A peek into the handwritten stock books of M. Knoedler & Co. (book 7, page 10, row 40, to be exact) records the Dou in “July 1922” (right page, margin). Turning to the sales books, which lists dates and prices, we again find the painting under the heading “New York July 1922,” with its inventory number 14892. A tiny “31” in superscript above Clark’s name indicates the date the sale was recorded.

      M. Knoedler was one of the most influential dealers in the history of art, selling European paintings to collectors whose collections formed the genesis of great U.S. museums. The Knoedler stock books have recently been digitized and transformed into a searchable database, which anyone can query for free.

      Girl at a Window, 1623–75, Gerrit Dou. Oil on panel, 10 9/16 x 7 ½ in. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

      #ProvenancePeek is a monthly series by research assistant Kelly Davis peeking into #onthisday provenance finds from the M. Knoedler & Co. archives at the Getty Research Institute.


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