Jack Tilton Gallery is located in a beautiful townhouse on E. 74th St.. Somewhere between the subway and the gallery is a nursery school so luxuriantly lacking in handprints, messes and improvised playthings that the crowd of children out front seems almost inappropriate. When I arrived at the gallery door on the tree-lined street, I rang a bell and was buzzed in.
The first floor gallery is large and white, the ceilings high and the staircase prominent and slightly curved. I reserve a guilty love of austere gallery spaces. The white box is conceptually problematic for me but certain art is done a service by these walls whose sole purpose is the display of a series of objects. I can think of nothing more conducive to the images complete domination of your gaze. This is also I suppose, a way of saying that art I like and want to look at without distraction for long periods of time, should be hung on white walls and I liked David Hammons' body prints.
I am stopped in the hallway before the main gallery by "The Wine Leading the Wine," two figures in profile facing left. What I automatically assume is a man (because of the artist's name? because of the figure's hat? his posture? I honestly don't know) has his head tilted and a bottle of wine (because of the title) to his lips. He is slouching forward and leaning back simultaneously -- pelvis slightly protruding along with the soft curve of his belly. A hand curls over the top of his shoulder, a series of marks stark in color and sensual in contour cupping the light space of a sleeveless white shirt -- a bit dirty I think. Drunks spill things. The hand narrows to an unnaturally thin wrist and the knuckles meet the chin (bearded perhaps) of the figure being led. This second character fades towards the edge of the print, disappearing into the subtly variegated monochrome background for there is no third figure to frame his body as he has framed the other.
As I stood about six feet away from another piece called "Close Your Eyes and See Black" (1969), admiring the amount of activity in this deceptively simple shape, I was shaken from my reverie by the voice of a gallery assistant helping a French couple shop for art. Yes, it was very easy to appreciate the prints and other objects so neatly framed by a lack of color, but as I listened to the prices roll off of her well bread tongue I had to reconsider whether I could actually stand for these white walls. While an innocuous background aesthetically speaking, it is not so innocent politically. As we step outside to admire the beautiful stonework and realize that we will never be able to afford to live here it becomes difficult to claim that aesthetics are asocial. And it is even harder to argue that the art on display is anything but political -- if not in content then in origin.
The second floor held a collection of works, mainly sculpture, produced from the early 60s to now, collectively titled L.A. Object. L.A. was not the friendliest of places to be if you were an artist or not white or both in the early sixties and these sculptures and prints are products of a highly politicized environment as much as, if not more so, than any aesthetic credo. It is distinctly difficult to find a common visual thread in L.A. Object. There are the pin-headed sculptures of John Outerbridge, their plump bodies lounging on white cubes, small abstract sculptures of bamboo and other materials by Alonzo Davis on the walls, a framed wasps nest with a suggestive slit down the middle entitled "The Source" by Kenzi Shiokaba, Betye Saar's collage on wood-panel re-interpretation of phrenology. There are, however certain intersections; many of them are made from found objects, marginalized items but couldn't this have as much to do with economics as anything else? A number of them are figural, but since when has the human body been above politics? What they do have in common is a location in space and time to a place and a moment marked by a country recovering from H.U.A.C. and the Watts riots as well as the vital artistic communities that emerged from the literal and ideological rubble.
In 1911 the city of Los Angeles established the Municipal Art Commission who claimed authority over "public building, bridge, approach, fence retaining wall lamp post or other similar structure proposed to be erected by or under the authority of the city, all paintings murals decorations, inscriptions, stained glass, statues, bas reliefs and other sculptures, monuments, fountains, arches, gates and other structures of a permanent character." L.A.'s relationship to art was not the de facto aesthetic fascism that we associate with commercial galleries but a carefully articulated assertion of authority on the part of the state.
Over forty years later Wallace Berman (who has several pieces in LA Object) added significantly to the notoriety of the Ferus gallery when he was arrested for the content of a piece in his show. And it is from this history of antagonism on the part of the state and protest on the part of the artist from which all of these artworks issue, if their creators were not directly involved in the conflict.
In bringing them together Jack Tilton has offered the public a chance to think of these works in terms of their social and specifically geographic origin and in so doing suggests a dimension of social history that is popularly ignored, namely the generative aspect of marginalization and conflict, but it remains to be determined whether these objects can legitimately claim meaning in an environment that aspires to the vacuum behind price -- tags far larger than the incomes of artists economically obliged to create sculptures from trash that will never be found on East 76th St. New York, NY.
# The Art of the City: Modernism, Censorship, and the Emergence of the Los Angeles's Postwar Art Scene. Sarah Schrank. American Quarterly. 665.