NBMAA's Largest Exhibit Shows Off 'L.A. Cool' Artists

In the 1950s, the art scene in New York was all about abstract expressionists — "action painters" like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. A scattering of up-and-coming artists saw this trend, couldn't relate to it and decided to set up shop someplace else.

"It seemed like a cold place, both in weather and in the other way," said Ed Ruscha. "I wanted flash and thunder and palm trees and hot rods and sandy beaches."

At the time, Los Angeles was the country's fastest-growing city, and these artists joined the exodus. What emerged there, from what previously was considered to be a nonexistent art scene, came to be known as the "L.A. Cool School."

An exhibit of three of the leading lights of the postwar Los Angeles art world — Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses — is on view now at New Britain Museum of American Art.

The massive exhibit, "California Dreaming," comprises 100 paintings made between 1952 and 2016. It takes up 11,524 square feet, the entire second floor of the recently expanded museum. Director Min Jung Kim said it is the largest exhibit in the museum's history and the most comprehensive L.A. Cool School exhibit at any East Coast museum.

The show was curated by Thomas Krens, director emeritus of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York. Kim worked there for 12 years as the program director of content alliances. Krens and Kim live together in Hartford with their young son.

Art And Surfing

Bengston, a native of Kansas who moved to California with his family as a teen, said he preferred L.A. to New York because of the atmosphere and the lifestyle. "All of the artists famous at that time were located within a 10-block radius of each other. Almost to a person they'd drink until the Cedar bar was closed and then get up at 2 in the afternoon and do a little work," he said, referring to the legendary Greenwich Village watering hole. "In L.A., I'd go surfing and then do a little work and then go surfing again and then do a little work and then go surfing again and then do a little work."

The laid-back lifestyle notwithstanding, Bengston and his artist compatriots were serious about their work. A subculture built up around their ambitions, centered at the cutting-edge Ferus Gallery and Artforum magazine. "In the beginning, we were just a bunch of competitive [expletive]. We were a funny grouping," Bengston said. "We all had tremendous respect for each other's work. In everything else, we were competitive."

Other L.A. artists who exhibited at Ferus in those days included Ed Kienholz — who co-founded the gallery with curator Walter Hopps and poet Bob Alexander — Wallace Berman, Robert Irwin, John Mason, John Altoon, Kenneth Price, Craig Kauffman, Llyn Foulkes and Larry Bell. Ferus, which operated on La Cienega Boulevard from 1957 to 1966, also exhibited New York stalwarts including Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg.

"Aesthetically, we were trying to come up with something that hadn't been done before, but it had to be done correctly," Bengston said. Ruscha added, "It's a fallacy that it's all been done before and there's nothing more to do."

With that in mind, the artists, individually and collectively at Ferus, began to take abstraction into novel directions. One thing the men didn't want, Bengston said, was to regard their art with an eye toward popularity, praise or profit. "It's not a career. It's like a gamble," he said. Ruscha agreed. "As far as being an artist with a future, there was no such thing," he said.

Innovation was born out of this lack of expectation for critical and commercial reward. Nonetheless, when one artist sold his work, the others cheered him on. "If they sold something, you could borrow money from them," Bengston joked.

Krens, who has been following the work of the Cool School since he was a teacher at Williams College in the Berkshires in the 1970s, said European curators have focused more on the "Cool School" than American East Coast curators, even more than he did when he was at the Guggenheim and hired Hopps as a curator. The 1955-1985 L.A. art scene was the focus of a major exhibit at Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou in 2006.

"It's a little bit like Jerry Lewis films. Everybody thinks Jerry Lewis is a jerk but the French think he's an incredible auteur," Krens said. He added, though, that he wouldn't consider East Coast curators' lack of interest as prejudice against the men's art. "New York just tends to see itself as the center of the art universe," he said.

Kim took over at NBMAA in 2015 with the mission of expanding the definition of "American Art" to embrace artists from Central and South America and Canada and Mexico. "Still, we can't forget that there were these extraordinary pockets of creativity around," in the United States, Krens said.

Ruscha

All three artists in the NBMAA exhibit worked in a variety of media: collage, oil on paper, pencil, pastel, acrylic, watercolor, wood, crushed newspapers. Even Bengston, who calls oil-on-canvas "a stupid medium," contributes a few oils-on-canvas to the show, including one early work that resembles the New Yorky abstract expressionism he was fleeing.

Ruscha's portion of the exhibit is dominated by an array of his famous text-over-image paintings, which place random phrases against incongruous backdrops. A mountainscape holds the words "Figure It On Out," "Don't Nod," "Wall Rockets" or "Baby Jet." An airport-like grid of lights in the darkness frames the words "Never So Few" or "Talk Radio." A sky full of clouds declares "Cold Beer Beautiful Girls."

Other text pieces are set against no background: "Sudden Spurt of Activity" in pencil-on-paper, "Evil" in gunpowder on paper.

Ruscha said his phrases have no real meaning and those looking for an answer won't find one. "They just come out of the sky. I have no agenda with them. It's a spontaneous kind of thing," he said. "If I catch them and carve them in stone, it's a thought I had and I'm making it official."

The text pieces have a surreal quality, in the vein of automatic writing or a flow of stream-of-consciousness words.

Ruscha also was influenced by pop art, as seen in his "Standard Station Study" and "5 Cents" and images of comics and a bowling ball.

Ruscha is nonchalant about being understood or misunderstood, successful or unsuccessful. He called the art world "A big hamster wheel. Things keep rolling. Things get spit out. The big hamster wheel keeps moving."

Still, Ruscha, who was born in Nebraska, said living in Los Angeles is central to his life as an artist. "I come from a city, Los Angeles. I love it and I hate it. The negative stuff influences me. The positive stuff, too," he said. "The city does keep me going."

Bengston

When he began, Bengston's love of surfing was as well-known as his love of art. He became a fixture in the Malibu surf crowd, where he was nicknamed Moondoggie. Author Frederick Kohner liked the nickname so much he used it for a character in his surfing novel "Gidget."

While creating art, Bengston usually works with acrylic on canvas, but he goes in various directions with other media: textile, wood, ceramic, as well as polyster, resin and lacquer on aluminum; oil, Liquitex, enamel and lacquer on Masonite; lacquer on Formica. He likes using paint intended for cars. "If I'm gonna sell something 40 or 50 years later, it better be in the same condition," he joked. Automotive images appear in some of his works, including "Skinny's 21," a motorcycle image reflecting Bengston's old job as a motorcycle racer.

Inspired by Jasper Johns' American flags, Bengston began putting recognizable symbols — most frequently military chevrons — in the center of his works. Like Ruscha's bunches of words, Bengston's chevrons don't have real meaning, but are used to anchor his compositions.

Typically, he joked about the choice of a military motif. "I did it because I was so happy I was 4F," he said. "But seriously, I set out to do the dumbest thing I could think of." About a half-dozen of Bengston's chevron works are included in the show, planting the symbol in the midst of a row of swaths of blue paint, an oblong black sunburst, a monochromatic arrangement of leaves.

Some of Bengston's most vividly colored, light-filled paintings reflect the never-ending sunshine, flora and native art of Hawaii, where he established an auxiliary studio.

His view of his artmaking is so breezy that the person he was when he created these objects back in the day would be amused by the deferential treatment given to him now. "We were just having fun," Bengston said. "It's supposed to be fun. Why put so much time into it if it's not fun?"

Moses

Ruscha, now 79, and Bengston, now 83, are still based in L.A. Moses, who was born on a ship halfway between Los Angeles and Hawaii 91 years ago, has opted for Hawaii. Ruscha and Bengston came to New Britain recently to kick off the exhibit. Moses could not be there.

Moses looks at his art in a way reflective of his past as a battlefield surgical technician during World War II. "I'm leaving evidence that 'Kilroy was Here'," he said in a 2012 TED Talk posted on YouTube. "I was here."

Unlike Bengston and Ruscha, Moses does not rely upon common themes and imagery. "Most painters ... work until they get an image, a gig, and then they explore that and produce that over and over again until it's either worn out or just another cliché," he said in the TED Talk. "I mutate. One thing comes from another from another. Within that zone ... I can play with discovering things. And so I consider myself an explorer and not an artist."

Sometimes these transitions come accidentally. The emerging aesthetic of his "crackle painting" shifted when he tripped on a painted canvas, fell and hit his head, cracking the paint.

His work showing at NBMAA reflects his preference for experimentation, moving from one visual style to another, and one medium to another, markedly divergent from each other. The interpretation of the work is up to the viewer, and that interpretation may change from moment to moment. He has called his work "apparitional," such as what happens when one looks at a cloud and sees an animal, then seeing that animal disappear.

Giving the works titles could nudge interpretation in the direction of his own inspiration. Often Moses does not title his works. But there are thought-provoking exceptions, which often seem to have little connection to the image on the canvas. Sometimes those titles reflect their Los Angeles origins. "LA: Trac Cloud Cover IV," from 1987-1993, "Venice Beach Paddle Tennis," from 1952.

The showstoppers of the Moses portion of the show are two rolling screens, both titled "Frog," which offer a two-sided, multilayered, multicolored abstractions whose interpretation, like an apparition in a cloud, changes with every move.

"CALIFORNIA DREAMING: ED MOSES, BILLY AL BENGSTON & ED RUSCHA" is at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., until Oct. 15. nbmaa.org.

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