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Histories of modern art are typically centered in Paris and New York. Los Angeles is relegated to its role as the center of popular culture- a city of movie stars, tan lines, and surfers-but lacking the highbrow credentials of the chosen places. Until 1965, there was no art museum, few notable collectors, and-especially in terms of modern and contemporary work-even fewer galleries. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, L.A. witnessed a burst of artistic energy and invention rivaling New York's burgeoning art scene a half-century earlier. As New York Timesart critic Roberta Smith has noted, it was "a euphoric moment," at a "time when East and West coasts seemed evenly matched." Out of Sightchronicles the rapid-fire rise, fall, and rebirth of the L.A. art scene-from the emergence of a small bohemian community in the 1950s to the founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1980- and explains how artists such as Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, and Ken Price reshaped contemporary art. William Hackman also explores the ways in which the L.A. art scene reflected the hopes and fears of postwar America-both the self-confidence of an increasingly affluent middle class, and the anxiety produced by violent upheavals at home and abroad. Perhaps most of all, he pays tribute to the city that gave birth to a fascinating and until now overlooked moment in modern art.
By the time he was eighteen, Ed Ruscha was sure of two things: he wanted to be an artist, and he needed to get out of Oklahoma. Art school was the answer, and Ruscha knew that the most highly touted ones were in New York, maybe Chicago. But “the East,” he figured—“that’s just too old-world for me.” California was more like it; he had visited with his family as a kid and was taken with what he thought of as “that California style.” Los Angeles was “the only place” to be, as far as Ruscha was concerned. So in the summer of 1956, he packed up his six-year-old Ford with Smitty mufflers and set out on Route 66, heading west. In the mid-fifties, painters in Los Angeles, like their counterparts in New York, were searching for a way forward in the wake of abstract expressionism. Initially, few artists in either city doubted that the future of painting lay in abstraction of some kind, a presumption that would be seriously challenged only as the decade drew toward its close. Jasper Johns’s paintings of targets and flags were shocking in their use of familiar symbols as “ready-made” images that both were and were not representational. (What, after all, is the difference between a flag and its image?) Ruscha himself would experience the shock firsthand in 1957, when he spied a reproduction of Johns’sTarget with Four Facesin a magazine, a work that he said “hit me right between the eyes.” But the present state of American painting was far from Ruscha’s thoughts as he and his friend and fellow traveler Mason Williams burned through countless quarts of oil, rumbling past the Indian reservations and trading posts, abandoned mining towns, and cheap motels that punctuated their crossing of the scorched desert regions that lay between Oklahoma and Los Angeles.