Art from Protest

Pacific Standard Time events are in full swing all over Los Angeles. The Getty’s initiative, abut ten years in the making, has blossomed into a smorgasbord of varying artistic styles, disciplines, and interests. Among the vast number of artworks on display in the citywide-and-beyond initiative, something that stands out, perhaps because of the pulse of current events, is the focus on artist protests that took place in this all too pretty, quiet, hazy sort of city, beginning as individual acts of rebellion against social norms in the ’50s and culminating in full-blown political aggressions in the ’60s.

Art in general, is a form of protest. You are rebelling against reality, against what is, by fabricating something that never was and incorporating it into the world. On view in the Exhibitions Pavilion at the J. Paul Getty Museum, there are works from Melvin Edwards. A series of welded steel fragments, menacing and abstract at the same time. “I like things that resist while I’m trying to make them. That way I come up with something unexpected,” says the artist about his Lynch Fragments series, begun in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement in America.

He began the project in an effort to create artworks as powerful as the concept of lynching in order to combat it. These pieces are charged with a subject matter that spoke directly to race relations in the US and which would reverberate in events like the Watts Riots of 1965, and still resonate with the city today.

Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1950–1980, housed in the Getty Research Institute, takes the visitor through a series of topics which aim to illustrate how artists used art within the public sphere of their time in the hopes of eliciting action or some degree of transformation. On display is the small untitled reproduction of a 1955 sexually explicit ink drawing in the first issue of the journal Semina, which got the artist Wallace Berman’s 1957 show at Ferus Gallery raided for obscenity and the artist arrested, tried, and found guilty of the same offense. It’s a 3 x 4 inch reminder of a not so distant past when art had a tangible nemesis and thus something to rebel against.

Skip ahead to 1961, to a poster for the exhibition War Babies at Huysman Gallery held in early summer of that same year. It features the four artists involved in the show, each of different races, skin color, cultures, looking somewhat comically at the cameras while eating over an American flag tablecloth foods stereotypically associated with each of their particular backgrounds.

Something this ironic today would be found in a hipster’s hangout. Back in 1961, however, this poster caused a bit of a stir. The right-wing John Birch Society attacked Huysman for desecrating the flag while the liberals accused it of reveling in racial and religious stereotypes. The title “War Babies” was chosen because the participating artists – Joe Goode, Larry Bell, Ron Miyashiro, and Ed Bereal – were all born around the same time, 1937, and to draw attention to the unity provided by the circumstance of one’s birth in face of racial and cultural differences.

Jerry McMillan, who designed the poster, says: “No one of differing races hung out together like that… No one had seen that kind of poster before. It was a different kind of announcement.” With all the controversy surrounding it, the gallery closed its doors within six weeks of the show.

In 1966 Edward Kienholtz exhibited his 1964 sculpture Back Seat Dodge ‘38 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In a video provided by the Getty, you can watch the audience’s reaction to the piece and learn why it drew so much controversy. Then-county supervisor Warren Dorn led a censorship charge in an effort to win political points with conservatives.

To the surprise of many, LACMA stood behind Kienholtz and the sculpture remained, albeit with a compromise: museum docents were required to ensure that underage patrons did not have access to the erotic scene inside the vehicle. A win, in a way, and a sign of the changing times.

In good measure, LACMA now has up Kienholtz’s Five Car Stud 1969-72. Last seen in Germany in 1972, newly brought out from storage in Japan, it occupies and entire gallery at BCAM-LACMA, and makes no qualms about what it’s trying to say. A group of white men exacting a gruesome “punishment”, castration, on an African American man whom they have discovered drinking with a white woman. All the horror films and torture porn will not make one immune to the terror this scene invokes, which is not unlike that moment when, as a child, you get a glimpse of the monster that will frighten you forever.

Kienholtz understood protest because he understood outrage and took things personally. On a flight back from the East Coast with then-wife Lyn, TWA airlines, after refusing to let them carry on their newly purchased Tiffany lamp, managed to mishandle it in the baggage claim, smashing it to pieces, and assumed no responsibility for the damage. A few days later, Kienholtz returned to the airport with a statement of his lamp’s worth and a large fire ax. He proceeded to use the ax on a lost-and-found desk at the TWA counter, declaring that the damage to the desk was about the same as that to his lamp.

Protest. Insanity. Champion to all victims of careless baggage handlers. And as an artist, when his work is not held in storage for 42 years (as Five Car Stud has been until now), an advocate for race issues in America.

Another loud protest happened in Los Angeles against the Vietnam War, four years before the so-called “more politicized” art community in New York City took measure in 1969. The Peace Tower, on the corner of Sunset and N. Lacienega Boulevard came to be in a series of steps. According to Rebels in Paradise, Hunder Drohojowska-Philip’s lovely history of the L. A. art scene in the ’60s, (Henry Holt and Co., 2011) it happened like this:

Poster for the exhibition War Babies

at Huysman Gallery in Los Angeles,

May 29–June 17, 1961. Poster created by

Jerry McMillan and Joe Goode.

Photo © Jerry McMillan. Design © Joe Goode.

The Getty Research Institute, 2006.M.1.5.

Image courtesy of Jerry McMillan and Craig Krull Gallery

Santa Monica from Getty website

Irving Petlin and Arnold Mesches, were both living in Los Angeles, Petlin having lived in Paris through the Algerian Was of Independence – very convenient. Together the two started the Artists Protest Committee. Petlin, having somehow gotten his most apolitical friend, Craig Kaufman and his most politically-incited friend, Edward Kienholtz, together he called a meeting at Dawn Gallery which attracted dozens of other artists, which in turn decided to protest against the RAND Corporation. (RAND was at the time advocating for protected zones for Vietnamese civilians in order to allow more free fire in other parts of Vietnam.)

The protest was a success, drawing a crowd of over 800 to the Warner Theater, but was ignored by the press. This inspired Petlin to enlist the antiwar activist and sculptor Mark di Suervo to build a “Peace Tower”.

Built on a rented vacant lot, and adorned with 418 individual paintings of protest donated by artists all over the world it stood up for three months, time after which the paintings were auctioned off and the money used to support continued protests against the war. The tower did not have a restful stay, however, as city officials tried to have it demolished, on claims that it was unsafe. They relented, after artists suspended a Buick from the tower and it remained plumb and unbuckled.

Protest. Protest that got the attention of international intellectuals, and today remains in the history books for us to use as templates in our own endeavors in action and later, reflection.

I wonder what art will rise from today’s Occupy Everywhere protests?