January 17, 2019

LACMA’s latest exhibition tries to capture the time when everything changed — the ‘Summer of Love’

In the late 1950s, when flapper dresses made one of their regular comebacks, I recall my mother scoffing (apropos of something worn by my girlfriend) that this sort retrospective fashion statement showed a total misunderstanding of what the 1920s and 1930s were about.

Now that we’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of the famous “Summer of Love,” I’m trying to figure out whether any of the backward glances will be able to convey a sense of what it was like. And there will surely be those of us who will continually insist that the celebrants have no idea “what it was really like.” My favorite current example – this year, New York’s annual summer Shakespeare Festival is advertised in the subways as “Free Love in Central Park,” because they are performing “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” not because the last pathetic remnants of hippiedom will find their way to the Big Apple’s core. Also trying to cash in on the anniversary year, the Whitney Museum of Art’s current exhibition is “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era,” a confused fruit salad that is less about art than about trying (with limited success) to explain the spirit of the era – as if a museum could really manage that.

Although I was living in Berkeley at the time, making frequent hops to get at the energetic L.A. art scene (remember those sexy short-skirted PSA air hostesses? remember “PSA – all the way”?), I am struck by how the summer of 1967 resonates for me more in relation to the Six-Day War than to the emergence of flower children. In retrospect, it’s intriguing to consider that two such asymmetrical and unrelated, if contemporaneous, events both involved a kind of euphoria that ultimately led to bitter disillusion, even as they had profound impacts on their respective societies.

But I’m all for distractions to keep serious issues (like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Darfur, etc.) at bay, so perhaps the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) summer celebration, “SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s from LACMA’s Collection,” is an appropriate means of romanticizing about and misreading the ’60s and ’70s – pretending that we can understand the spirit of an age by looking at its art (will LACMA succeed where the Whitney failed?) So why not look back to a time when the art hype was as modest as the art market, especially in relation to West Coast artists, who were still stigmatized as being too far from the East Coast mainstream?

Surely LACMA, itself a creation of that era, is the appropriate venue for such a look-back. After recent years’ scandals over the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and who knows what else on view in museums and on TV and in the movies, it’s difficult to imagine oneself back in a time when the L.A. County Board of Supervisors raised a ruckus over the naughty goings on in the back of Ed Kienholz’s, now emblematic Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964), threatening LACMA’s curatorial independence. Neil Armstrong hadn’t yet walked on the moon (that was in 1969), but the array of new materials that were emerging from technology associated with the space program was already suggesting new opportunities to artists – especially those on the West Coast, who felt less constrained by the waning doxologies of Abstract Expressionism and emerging energies of Pop Art, Op Art, Color Field painting and various other new canons.

The sleek-finished works by Larry Bell (coated glass), Peter Alexander (cast resin) and Craig Kauffman (molded plastic) are among the various works in LACMA’s exhibition that express what was then a somewhat new aesthetic. That sensibility was also reflected in paintings with sleek surfaces (John McCracken) that used new paint materials. There’s an irony that such slickness took hold as an art aesthetic at the very time when “polished” seemed at such variance with the hippie mode that characterized California as anti-establishment in ways that the rest of the country would gradually emulate.

Jewish artists in this mix? Yes, a few. Larry Bell and Tony Berlant, for example, at polar distances from each other’s aesthetics. Born in Brooklyn, but very much an Angeleno from the age of 5, Berlant’s Jewish sensibilities are probably more evident in his person (he describes himself as a “Jewish male American artist of a certain age”) than in his art – although he has been commissioned to make the occasional tzedakah box.

Berlant’s two- and three-dimensional objects are made from decorative tin covered with colorful illustrations that he has neatly assembled into collages by painstakingly spaced and hammered tiny brads. This speaks of handcraft, almost like the cobblers and craftsmen one might see in a Middle Eastern bazaar, yet the work is more funky than exotic and clearly reflects Berlant’s love of the color of Matisse, the delicate line of Pollock and the secretive illustration of Cornell (among others).

Whereas Cornell’s assemblages assert the reconfiguration of both odd and familiar/recognizable things into some new mysterious context, Berlant’s work is made from the most ordinary material – tin hammered flat – assembled into combinations of color and pattern and form so that we only sort of know the origins of each newly assembled scrap. It’s the directness and apparent simplicity of this sensibility – quite complex on close examination – that makes Berlant’s work so appealing, and, in some ways, it may be even more in tune than many of his contemporaries with that famous Summer of Love and its aftermath. Aside from his inclusion in the LACMA summer exhibition, Tony Berlant’s recent work, represented by the LA Louver Gallery in Venice Beach, can also be seen this month at Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach.

It’s worth considering that an artist who was brought up to believe that “studying is the same as being in temple” and that Jewish humor really derives from a built-in impulse toward self-examination, has given us a rich body of work that ultimately speaks of visual intimacy. Berlant’s intricate creations aren’t meant to overwhelm, but rather function as personal close-ups for the artist – and for us, as well.

Tom L. Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.