California Dreamin'

An ambitious new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art chronicles the myths—and the realities—of the Golden State.

Ever since the glister of gold launched the Gold Rush of 1849, California has enticed dreamers. They have come in waves: the pioneer fantasy-makers of Hollywood, Dust Bowl migrants searching for fertile land, Beats and beach bums and hippies, and now the aspiring dot-com moguls pouring into Silicon Valley. Over the past hundred years, millions of people from all over the world have migrated here, lured by that most potent of legendary essences: the good life. Some of them found what they were looking for, and many more did not, but together they created what amounts to a fabulously diverse nation-within-a-nation.

Legions of artists came here, too, drawn by the richness of the cultural explosion. Many (if not most) of the state's best artists came from points east, south, and Pacific. As a result, the stylistic diversity in California is perhaps the most exuberant in the whole country: There are landscape painters and painters of abstraction and "funk" (as well as funk sculptors and ceramicists), fine-furniture craftsmen, dressmakers, nature photographers, social-satire photographers, social-protest photographers, artists in all media reflecting Mexican and Asian roots—artists in any medium that can be conceived, really. They all put down roots in the Golden State during the gaudy, fractious century that just ended.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has drawn together the best work by these artists in the largest and the most ambitious exhibition in the museum's history. Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000, opening this month, comprises some 800 works of art, enhanced and explicated by a wide array of cultural artifacts: everything from orange-crate labels to a dragster designed by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth to the surfboard Sally Field used in the television series Gidget. Made in California also dovetails neatly with the current vogue for multimedia installations: As one might expect, the show places a strong emphasis on film and music, with 15 video monitors screening specially commissioned documentary films and clips from old movies, and several listening stations playing music by Chet Baker, the Eagles, and others.

The exhibition aims to show how the myth of California was created and also, despite the state's many spectacular achievements, how illusory and even cruel that myth can be. For every person who came to California and made a fortune in business or was "discovered" by Hollywood, there were many more who were still pumping gas or clerking at the five-and-dime ten years after they stepped off the Greyhound bus. The chief curator of the exhibit, Stephanie Barron, has approached her vast subject with a tough-minded skepticism that, one might say, is not exactly typical of Californians, who are by nature buoyantly optimistic.

"It was our intent to convey some of the familiar images, but to examine them afresh, and to reveal some surprising things about them," she explains about the show. "We also wanted to include voices from some of the marginalized groups who've been incredibly important in defining California. Two questions always in our mind were, 'Whose California?' and 'Which California?' "

In keeping with that philosophy, Made in California juxtaposes the classic themes associated with the state—the gorgeous natural landscape, the glamour of the entertainment industry, the dream of a life of luxury—with some gritty realities of its history. For example, in the section devoted to the fifties, Philippe Halsman's moody 1953 portrait of Dorothy Dandridge lounging in bed, inviting the viewer to come hither, is in bold contrast to a 1959 shot, by an unknown photographer, of Mexican-Americans being forcibly evicted from their houses in Chavez Ravine, which was being cleared to make way for Dodger Stadium.

From the beginning, the myth of California was a business proposition: Idyllic landscapes and romantic views of the Spanish missions, such as W. Edwin Gledhill's dreamily sentimental photograph of Mission Santa Barbara (ca. 1920), propagated an alluring vision to entice East Coast residents to the new Eden on the Pacific. The industrial boom in the postwar era created a huge new housing market, represented here by a promotional brochure for a suburb called Lakewood, "The Future City as New as Tomorrow," portraying the banal tract house in an idealized, heroically scaled watercolor that is, to 21st-century eyes, pure camp.

The state's most famous artist, David Hockney, who settled in Los Angeles in 1979, has devoted some of his finest work to a sardonic examination of the dream of the California good life. His many paintings of swimming pools at tony hillside mansions, such as The Splash (1966), are a complex blend of a genuine affinity for the subject—a native of damp, gloomy Yorkshire, Hockney obviously has a great affection for the Los Angeles lifestyle—and a sophisticated edge of irony: The houses look empty, the pools opaque, and the human figures that occasionally accompany them have a flat, ghostly air. The dazzling sunshine and sleek, cool aesthetic of southern California have had a powerful influence on his work, but he is always observing with the eyes of an outsider. His spiky drawings of palm trees, for instance, exude the exoticism of a 19th-century British explorer's sketches of bizarre flora and fauna in the jungle.

Made in California thoroughly examines another enduring California icon: the automobile. Many of the finest artists who came to Los Angeles in the fifties and sixties, such as Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, and Craig Kauffman, were hip young guys, actively engaged in the car culture, who brought a similarly complex tone to their work, at once celebratory and ironic. One of the ways the exhibit succeeds best is in its use of ephemera, what the curators call "cultural documents," to broaden the viewer's understanding of the art works. For example, Kauffman's gleaming, candy-colored untitled wall relief borrows its artificially intense pink and yellow hues from the dragsters that were all the rage at that time in southern California, represented by Roth's extravagant fiberglass car, Road Agent. The curators make no claim that a dragster is a work of art, but setting it side by side with Kauffman's sculpture nicely clarifies the artist's inspiration.

The exhibition also includes an infamous glimpse of the car culture, Ed Kienholz's Back Seat Dodge '38, in which the figures of a young couple, rendered in chicken wire, are shown groping amorously in the back seat of a section of a real Dodge, with a few beer bottles littering the fake grass around it. When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art first exhibited the work, in 1966, it created a scandal. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered the work removed, calling it lewd and immoral, but the museum directors stood their ground. Given the relative tameness of the subject matter by today's standards, one might be tempted to reflect on just how profoundly taste in America has changed; yet after the recent controversy over the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, one rather finds oneself agreeing with the French, "Plus ça change. . . ."

Ed Kienholz was an exponent of what came to be called funk art: art with a visceral, sensuous appeal, gaudy, sloppy work that is more interested in having fun than in articulating profound concepts. California art, with few exceptions, has been at its best when it's been funky. In the first half of the 20th century, California artists suffered from an inferiority complex: At that time, New York City was America's cultural capital, leaving California artists the choice of either imitating New York or being treated as lightweights.

Richard Diebenkorn, who may just be the greatest artist the state has produced, painted abstract landscapes that were entirely Californian in their themes (beaches, freeways) and in the dazzling light that floods them, yet formally they are rooted in New York. He made several visits to the city in the forties, where he saw the work of Gorky, Rothko, Motherwell, and above all De Kooning, whose work influenced him profoundly. That should not be taken to mean that Diebenkorn was an inferior artist; the painters in New York were all influencing each other in equal measure, and any list of the great American modernists should include Diebenkorn's name. Nonetheless, from an art-historical point of view, Diebenkorn's studio in Los Angeles was a sort of West Coast suburb of New York, and his influence on other artists in California wasn't deep or long-lived (with the major exception of the still-life painter Wayne Thiebaud).

The art of California really came into its own as a school to be reckoned with in the sixties, with the arrival of Bengston, Ruscha, Kauffman, and other artists who took a cool attitude toward that amorphous entity known as the art scene: These artists didn't care about New York. Indeed, as their popularity—and their market value—rose, the established East Coast dealers set up outposts in Los Angeles to get a stake in the burgeoning California scene.

In 1982 the funk ceramicist Robert Arneson spoofed this phony New York versus California rivalry. After a critic for The New York Times, in a review of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, accused Arneson of provincialism, the artist responded by creating a satirical self-portrait entitled California Artist: The torso of a burly, bearded figure wearing a denim jacket and sunglasses sits on a pillar with a tacky scarf thrown over it. The arms of the figure are crossed jauntily, and he looks at the viewer with a contemptuous smirk. It's an image that seems to say, "You want a stereotype? You got it."

Though some contemporaries of Arneson's were also doing work about stereotypes, they were receiving less attention at the time. Using found cultural artifacts in mixed-media assemblages, Betye Saar created a series of bitterly humorous send-ups of racist "mammy" images, such as a shadow box entitled The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Enrique Chagoya set his sights on California's holiest icon, Mickey Mouse, in When Paradise Arrived, a charcoal-and-pastel drawing depicting a young Mexican-American girl about to be flicked out of the picture by an oversize version of Mickey's gloved, famously three-fingered hand. The sculptor Liza Lou struck a more affectionate note in her spoof of the "Superfly" culture of the seventies, Super Sister, a portrait, in polyester resin and colored glass beads, of blaxploitation film star Pam Grier, scantily clad and extravagantly Afro'ed, her arms akimbo in a mocking, but still defiant, pose.

Yet while Made in California makes a point of including the work of a great many artists who are outside the white, male mainstream, the exhibit's overall tone remains, like the state it celebrates, vigorously positive. It is in the nature of dreamers never to give up—and if the going gets tough, you can always go to the beach.

"Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000" opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on October 22 and runs through February 25, 2001. A catalogue of the exhibition ($35 softcover; $65 hardcover) and an anthology of essays on the state of California ($25 softcover; $50 hardcover), both of which are published by the University of California Press, will be available at the museum. 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036; 323-857-6000;
www.lacma.org.