Pavement Art: When Destruction Is as Important as Creation

The permanence of art stands in stark contrast to the business of buying and selling it. Art Platform – Los Angeles, held over a recent weekend in the massive, 720,000 square-foot L.A. Mart downtown, kicked off the much anticipated initiative Pacific Standard Time. It seemed everyone was there, from gallerists to dealers to booksellers to buyers to onlookers to people who came just for the free booze. It was meant to honor the city’s art culture, it’s progress, it’s progressive artists, and its eclectic internationalism.

It was also a reminder for those on the periphery of the scene, who have come to think that Baldessari, Ruscha, and Kruger are ossified museum artists, that they can still own a piece of high, mainstream, contemporary art, and for only a fraction or so the price of a home in the Hollywood Hills. The market would be over in just a couple of days. But the art, if you bought it, the art would last forever.

Pacific Standard Time (PST) is a city-wide event, ten years in the making, and costing ten million dollars of the Getty Institute’s generous funds. It covers art in Los Angeles, and southern California, from 1945 to 1980 over the span of the next six months. The art fair that ushered it in, proportionately as massive as the event itself, lasted only four days. Like a circus, it came to town, put up a big show, probably turned a profit, entertained, wowed, maybe even angered some people, and then picked up and left like it was never here. The galleries all went back to their home towns. The ones that were L. A. based went back to business as usual. And the art lovers scattered to the various places that will be showcasing southern California art from Santa Barbara all the way to San Diego.

In walking around the massive halls filled with art works and their admirers/critics, I thought of how this will all be packed away in a few days; like a circus tent, out of sight, the space left bare and white like nothing was ever there. The artworks that stood on display disappeared, but remain stored away in a gallery or a collector’s space. This reminded me of a book on the artist Kurt Wenner, Asphalt Renaissance, The Pavement Art and 3-D Illusions of Kurt Wenner. The book itself is designed for some reason to look more like an elementary school textbook than an actual art book, but the subject matter is worth considering.

Wenner’s work is an exercise in the ephemeral. A NASA space illustrator-turned artist, he is famous for inventing 3-dimensional pavement art in Rome some decades ago, and is responsible for bringing the art form to the United States and around the world. The art of pavement drawing is essentially ancient, but Werner’s addition, a technique which makes the images appear to either reach out of the pavement or seem perilously deep, is new. His drawings happen in open spaces, and the amount of detail and craft that goes into them is in direct negative correlation to the time they are actually on display, or rather, in existence. There is a very poignant photograph, early on in the book, showing two elderly people, standing by a chalk drawing, watching as it is being bespeckled by inevitable raindrops.

Wenner’s art is almost conceptual, or spiritual, in nature. It’s art not about image so much as about the craft that goes into the image. It makes craft palpable for a brief amount of time in an intricately crafted image. Then the image is destroyed almost to bring the viewer closer to the importance of craft. In so doing it asks, if something can be destroyed so easily, if an image that takes so much work and technique is so temporal, why do it at all? Wenner and his co-authors write: “…Cultures celebrate the ephemeral with elaborate paintings made from impermanent materials. In almost all cases, they are works of a spiritual nature, and their destruction is just as important to their sacred purpose as their creation.”

There are whole festivals of pavement drawing; entire streets are taken up by artists and their chalk drawings. These works, documented photographically in Renaissance Pavement will never have art dealers negotiating prices, will never be bought or sold, will never be stored or displayed and it makes you wonder what will eventually happen to the art you buy, and perhaps even more so: what of all the art you never even get to see?

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