At first glance, California would seem to be an exceedingly unpromising place for major art to emerge in the second half of the Twentieth Century.  A new state with a throwaway culture without a history, California had small pockets of local art scenes, more or less picturesque and more or less obscure, with most of the available money going to architectural development and occasional decorative embellishments, with the bulk of the financing going to film. Art was often allied to these enterprises, acting as a pictorial inducement to move to the Golden State or as a partner to movies. Unlike New York City, which had Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 as the gathering place for local and European avant-garde art, California tended to be geographically isolated and culturally limited.

There was a small group of individuals who supported avant-garde in their own diverse ways: Walter and Louise Arensberg and Galka Scheyer.  Hollywood attracted artists and the oldest art schools, Otis and Chouinard, had an internationally known faculty: Alexander Archipenko, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Hans Hofmann. In San Francisco, the California School of Fine Arts dominated the San Francisco scene and was the site of important works by the Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera. In 1940, Rivera created a mural, Pan American Unity, (today located at the San Francisco City College, for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco.  California, like other American states, benefited from the WPA mural program and, even today, murals by Maynard Dixon and Millard Sheets and Helen Lundeberg remain in Los Angeles from those days.

The main avant-garde scene in Los Angeles could be characterized as a Surrealist scene, both European and home grown, supported by collectors from the movie colony, such as Sterling Holloway, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price.  Man Ray lived in Los Angeles from 1940 and showed in San Francisco at the de Young and at San Francisco Museum of Art.  Ray married Juliet Browner in a double wedding with Max Ernst (now divorced from Peggy Guggenheim) and Dorothea Tanning in 1946.  The art of Ernst did not necessary please all Angelinos. Indeed, the famous actor, John Barrymore, got drunk and urinated on one of Max Ernst’s works at an art opening.

The remnants of Dada lived on with the Arensberg, in their important Duchamp collection, and from the occasional visits of the famous artist himself.  While New York City contemplated Surrealism as painting or as “plastic automatism,” Los Angeles understood Surrealism from the standpoint of the found object and in relation to anti-art subversive forces.  While New York City artists extended Modernism along formalist lines and were forced into de-politicizing their art from the late Forties on, artists in California, alone and neglected, were able to be engaged and political, producing content-saturated art.

This local Los Angeles taste for meaning and content in Los Angeles art existed in large part because of the Surrealist sunset in L. A.  Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim had visited the city in 1941 and their colleague Julian Levy rented space next to the (Frank) Perls Gallery.  Other gallery owners included Guggenheim associate Howard Putzel, Stanley Rose, and Earl Stendahl. Of particular importance to the conceptual trend in the art of post-war Los Angeles was the trace of Man Ray who lived in Los Angeles until 1951 and had an important retrospective there in 1966. In contrast to the lingering influence of Surrealism, artists in Los Angeles, now the dead center of a post-war military industrial complex, were impacted by the experience of being at Ground Zero during the Cold War.

The aging Surrealists arrived in a land of continuous boom and mass suburbanization on an unprecedented scale.  Between 1940 and 1960 no fewer than 60 new cities were incorporated, many of which served highly specialized constituencies in greater Los Angeles. Despite the apparent clash between the past and the future, the artists of Los Angeles embraced the nostalgia of the found object in a culture that threw everything away.  As will be discussed later, the artists of the fifties were witnesses to the possibility of immanent nuclear destruction, because this center of the defense industry would be ground zero for any atomic attack.

Los Angeles had been “made” by the Second World War.  An important port city, LA was ideally situated on the Pacific Rim, a jumping off point for the Pacific Theater.  People streamed into the city from all over America to work in the war industries and the boomtown bustled with the constant presence of service personnel.  The region’s prominence did not end with the fighting.  California had recovered quickly from the war, thanks in no small part to the large petroleum production.  The vast defense industry that emerged during the Second World War and remained intact for the Cold War continued the prolonged economic prosperity and population growth.

But for  artists, the prosperity had a dark side.  It seemed probable that at any moment a button could be pushed and everyone and everything would be blown away.  The assemblage works of Ed Kienholz and the casual craft of Wallace Berman was a mute testimony to their alienated state of mind—one gathered detritus and made comments upon a society that could not last in the shadow of constant atomic threat.  Art, for these artists, could not be permanent or universal or humanistic, as it was in New York.   Art could only be fleeting and ephemeral for tomorrow all could vanish in a mushroom cloud.

While artists contemplated an uncertain future in Los Angeles, the movie business or  “the industry,” bounced back from wartime restrictions and stringencies and remained the largest filmmaking center in the world.  In short, California was developing industries for the late Twentieth Century and becoming a high-tech industrial base while the East Coast was still dependent upon the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and heading towards a post-War future as the Rust Belt.  Without much fanfare the United States government shifted federal largesse to the West Coast, the site of the race to the future—outer space.

Art in California was very different from New York in the post-war era, but these distinctions were complex, ranging from the mindset of the artists to the realities of the art scene.  While New York was a single focused center, California had two art sites, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  In contrast to the relatively homogenous scene in New York, the two cities had entirely disparate traditions.   In San Francisco, the heritage European expressionist painting established a firm foothold; while in Los Angeles, the artists were more responsive to the lingering influences of Dada and Surrealism.  In New York, the impact of Duchamp could become Neo-Dada, which is rather different from the influences of Surrealism in Los Angeles. These two movements, Dada and Surrealism, could not be comfortably accommodated to the Modernist line of art development and was termed the “Other Tradition” by art historian, Rosalind Krauss.

The father of the Other Tradition, Marcel Duchamp was an active presence in Los Angeles and was well known in San Francisco, long before his work was remembered in New York City. The Dada tradition, an old one, dating back to the First World War, is both preserved and reawakened in the two major sites for art, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Art in California is essentially a post-World War II experience, in the sense that the region emerges as a particular site for art forms that would have international impact.

If one disregards, for the purposes of discussing contemporary art, the California Impressionists and contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement, then serious avant-garde art is a product of the wartime environment.  Before the Second World War, California was best known for its thriving scene in photography to the North and for its role as the movie capital of the world to the South. Less well known was the region’s importance for architecture.  Some of the most innovative early Modern architects practiced in the Los Angeles area, from Charles and Henry Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra.

With ample opportunity for building single-family homes and small housing units, these architects, several of them immigrants, could forge forward into modernism.  Modernism in California, especially in Los Angeles is worth discussing in relation to the barriers of politics and war in Europe.  In contrast, the West Coast with its polyglot non-tradition of many styles was a fruitful site for experimental architecture.  Irving Gill’s now-destroyed Dodge House was built as early as 1916, predating Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, 1929.  While Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene Brothers were descended from the arts and crafts tradition, but Neutra and Schindler produced very important examples of what would be called The International Style.  Both Neutra (Lovell Health House, 1929) and Schindler (Lovell House, Newport Beach, 1926) built houses for Philip Lovell, which were two of the best examples of modernist white walled architecture outside the Bauhaus.

As this international group of architects suggests, California was a land of migrants and immigrants of many cultures and ethnicities: an uneasy mixing bowl where Anglos insisted on maintaining a cultural, political, and economic domination.  The history of Los Angeles, for example, can be written in terms of the movement of ethnic groups around the city, shifted at the will of the Anglos.  Their voices will not be heard until the Sixties, making the Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia one of the rare public monuments asserting diversity and ethnicity and personal commitment to a sense of place.  But the Watts Towers were more than a statement of one person’s determination, they became, over time, a symbol of art in Los Angeles and the peculiar direction art in Los Angeles has taken.  Rodia worked as a bricoleur, a hunter and a gatherer, who worked with the objects found in his environment. Like the artists of Los Angeles who would begin their mature careers shortly after Rodia mysteriously left in the early fifties to return to his native Italy, he worked in isolation, without support or audience or appreciation, except by the few who were open-minded. Under such circumstances, without major museums, without patrons, with few galleries, the artists were in a curiously “pure” situation, making art for art’s sake alone, showing art for a truly elite audience–themselves.

In summation, both Los Angeles and San Francisco and their two very different art scenes have traditionally been ignored in favor of art in New York.  Broadly speaking, regardless of brief deviations, New York has always been a painting town, as was San Francisco, until the sixties.  Although people have always painted in the City of Angles, Los Angeles has always been an object making town.  To repeat, a very important factor the artists in Los Angeles was the shadow of the Cold War.  Acutely aware of the militarization of the nation, the artists of Los Angeles expected the world to end at any time.  There seemed no purpose to make art that was lasting, much less archival.  The LA artist has always worked with stuff, junk, detritus, and objects without history, without recognition, only to find out—over time—that something important had been wrought and their art was validated after the fact.

In contrast to this homegrown culture of the found object in Los Angeles, the artist in San Francisco was in a considerably more traditional milieu that of European painting and modern art, imported by artists from New York City, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko.  The impact of their influence as teachers and as artists was the famous Bay Area Figurative School, which evolved out of abstraction on the East Coast.  The New York aura was a short lived phenomenon, however, and the San Francisco period of Figurative painting soon gave way to something more home grown: object-based “funk art” created in a Dada frame of mind.  Indeed, Dada and Surrealism have an extended, albeit it American, life in California, north and south.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

11 + 5 =