SUNSHINE & NOIR
AN INTERVIEW WITH HENRY HOPKINS
AND BILLY AL BENGSTON
Sunshine & Noir , Art in LA 1960-1997 , is the first exhibition of this scope to begin to sift through the art of Los Angeles and attempt to define its unique character and influence. The exhibition, at the UCLA/ Armand Hammer Museum October 7 to January 3, 1999, is unique on several other fronts as well.
Sunshine & Noir was curated, not by an LA Museum, but by Lars Nittve, of the highly respected Louisiana Museum in Denmark, where it opened. It subsequently traveled to Germany and Italy. In fact, Los Angeles was not initially considered as a venue for the exhibit at all, since Nittve did not wish to presume to tell Los Angeles about LA art. That the final run of the exhibition made it here, is due largely to Henry Hopkins, director of the UCLA / Armand Hammer Museum.
Through a distinguished career in various roles as museum director, curator, teacher, gallery owner and writer, Henry Hopkins has been shining a light on the art of Los Angeles since curating his unprecedented graduate show on LA artists at UCLA in the late fifties. It is fitting that this exhibition of Los Angeles art is Hopkins' final exhibition before he steps down to devote full time to teaching art at UCLA.
There is ample room for heated debate about the selection of only 49 artists to represent such a broad period of time. Yet, Hopkins embraced the enormous opportunities for Los Angeles that such an exhibition provides. Hopkins also extended the scope of the exhibition by scheduling Conversations on Art , a three part seminar series, and by inviting galleries throughout LA to host related exhibitions of LA artists. Thirty two galleries accepted.
To begin to set the context for that debate, I sat down with Henry Hopkins to speak with Billy Al Bengston, one of the seminal artists to begin to define a new era of art in Los Angeles, who has a number of important early paintings featured in Sunshine & Noir . As one of the original members of the legendary Ferus Gallery in the mid-fifties, along with Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Craig Kauffman, John Altoon, among others, Bengston created work that embodied a unique look and sensibility, free of the dominant New York aesthetic of the time, and which drew distinctly on influences from southern California.
As we began our interview it was immediately apparent that both men had great liking and respect for each other. They started in immediately with a spirit of humor, subtle goading, and passionate commitment to their work. I occasionally tossed in a question to feel useful.
Billy Al Bengston: Why the title Sunshine & Noir ?
Henry Hopkins: Actually I think it's all right. It does have, from the beginning as an exhibition, elements of 'sunshine' and 'noir'. Ed Kienholz was working on the 'noir' side early on. Obviously Robert Irwin and you and others were working on the light side. You were working, in my mind, on the kind of technology and sensibility of southern California. Then as you follow through straightening out in the 70's, 80's and 90's, of course it gets it gets darker and darker, but you still keep up this other line. What would you have called it?
BAB: Oh, no, no, no.
HH: You're not going to answer it?
BAB: Well, you've been in show business. It's a hook.
HH: Yes, it is a hook. I think here the word 'Noir' is associated with the idea of 'Film Noir'. It certainly has captured the imagination of a lot of people and it does seem to me now, more than any time I can remember in the deeper past, that there is a real interest on the part of more and more people that know more about Los Angeles history, Los Angeles art history.
Venice: Does this show represent a certain coming of age for Los Angeles?
HH: I don't know how Bill would feel about that, but certainly from my perspective. I have equated it occasionally to people somewhat like the old exhibition of New York School Painting that was done by the Museum of Modern art in 1952, that first exposed people like De Kooning, Guston and Rothko to European audiences and brought American art into national comment for the first time. Because of the reputation of Louisiana, which is a good museum, I think that certainly is a big factor. Now to say that somebody in Europe is interested enough in Los Angeles art to come and actively study it and make selections, that's what intrigued me and that's why I wanted it at the UCLA/Hammer at the end of this run.
Is it significant that it was put together from an international perspective?
HH:The international aspect has to do with a coming of age. At the same time, it's not just this show but a combination of things. You can't negate the Getty's opening in that context, which is bringing a lot of people to Los Angeles that would have gone on to Vegas or would have come to Disneyland, or maybe would have come for one day. But now we're getting leads off of that. Five European museums are coming during the time of the show - groups of thirty or forty people, to see Sunshine & Noir . The same thing is true of LACMA, and, I think, the full combination of things, this exhibition, your Absolut-LA International, even the Serra show at MOCA. Though we usually associate Richard with New York, he's a California artist. With all of these things going on, people here feel it's a mature scene.
They're still a little lax as you know. We'd like to have the gallery scene stronger, we'd like to have more people interested in buying Los Angeles art rather than going to New York and buying Los Angeles art. I think, for the first time, this roller coaster ride that Bill and I've had since the 50's, has leveled out at a much higher plane than before. It's still a roller coaster, but I think there's a base now that will hold.
A number of months ago, you invited the galleries to host ancillary exhibitions in conjunction with Sunshine & Noir , which, as far as I'm aware, is an unprecedented approach to mounting a museum exhibition....
HH: It is. Also for me, it was just simply common sense.
BAB: It's very interesting that the show is organized out of Europe because the younger guys are in Europe, New York. I haven't seen the show, so I can't reflect on it perfectly, but it seems that the younger people have a more European attitude. From what I look at, it seems like a total intellectual effort, not an aesthetic effort -
HH: As an exhibition you mean -
BAB: No, the work. The work that is chosen, of the younger people, seems to be an intellectual, almost game, as compared to thinking aesthetically. I think it's more a game of showmanship.
HH: Well, showmanship and European theory. I think what you're saying really hits an interesting knot. I can remember back in 1962, '63, I was talking to Rauschenberg who painted those black paintings, remember, early on ? He showed them in Europe and one of the Parisian artists came tohim and said 'Hey, you can't do that, that's my territory' and Rauschenberg looked at him said, 'Who gives a shit!'. American art, in my mind, in its history and all the way through, is about making objects, objects that mean something, that have some significance. They may mean a lot, may mean a little, but it's really the product in a way that's the thing. Then when we got into a period of time in the '80's, I don't know when it happened but I'll say the '80's, suddenly American art got involved with theory. It had never really been involved with theory before, it wasn't a question of talking about whether this came out of Jean Paul Sartre, or whomever, but now it's all these young grad students talk about, the theoretical aspect of art. It coincides with conceptualism, obviously, and we had some of that here early on with John Baldessari, who's in the exhibition, but it's more related to people like Joseph Kosuth, who tend to show all the time in Europe, in an intellectual format.
How different would this survey exhibition look if it were curated from an L.A. perspective, instead of from an international perspective?
HH: Even in the selection of Billy's work, or the selection of Larry Bell's work or the selection of Irwin's work - there is an associative thing to the 90's work which I would say is the driving force behind this exhibition. So it digs back in relationship to that. They didn't put in a number of people, whom I consider to be very fine artists, like Chuck Arnoldi and Laddie John Dill and Peter Alexander and a number of people, because they were looking for what they would have called "the cutting edge of the moment". In the old Ferus Gallery days when Billy was doing his thing, the kind of things that are in the exhibition, Kenny Price was doing his little boxes and pods; Irwin was coming out of abstract expressionism, Larry Bell moved into glass and things of that kind... that was pretty cutting edge stuff for anywhere, as far as I'm concerned, but it certainly was cutting edge then....
BAB: That was definitely the time when they were standing on their toes looking west.
HH: It was also a time which is still dramatically under-recognized, and that's one of the reasons I'm glad for this exhibition. I'm teaching art history and I keep repeating, that regarding the unique sensibilities of the artist's who work here, it wasn't a school. A lot of names have been applied, like "Finish / Fetish" and various other things. But Bill was his own artist, Kenny was his own artist, Irwin was his own artist. It wasn't like you had some theoretical binding force holding you together. It was more, I thought always-
BAB: A gang, concept-
HH: Yeah, a gang concept. Billy would have a show and it was important to Irwin that he look as good or better than Billy the next time he was up on the wall. There was no question about it, that was the art hood. And if there hadn't been the art hood, none of these guys would have stayed here, they would have gone off to New York, or someplace else. They had to have the competitive zeal to egg each other on.
Was there a strong temptation to head east to New York?
BAB: Didn't everybody?
Well, you stayed.
BAB: I was one of the stupid ones...
HH: Walter Hopps, who was a great supporter of yours, has told me, somehow in the context of the Ferus of that moment, (New York dealer) Martha Jackson asked you to show-
BAB: She picked me and...I was naive and sophisticated at the same time, in that after my exhibition I was ready to come back here and she says, (Bengston speaks in a thin nasal voice), "Honey, you've got to live in New York. I'll get you a studio, I'll give you money, and you'll have a show and in a year you're going to be very famous". And I said, "Martha, I'm not into this game, it's not about fame. I'm living!". I struck up great friendships in New York at that time.
HH: That's what 1961, '62?
BAB: I don't remember exactly. Probably about '62, '63. I became very friendly with Andy Warhol, with John Chamberlain, with David Smith, with Jim Dine. I was with those guys all the time and they magneted to me because of the technique. You saw what happened afterwards, John started spraying his pieces. He came out here to learn. David Smith went home and got out his spray can. It was a funny thing. I saw it happen but nobody ever hooked it to me, but I knew what they were doing. Andy was at that time trying to do the silver paintings and he couldn't do them. And I said, the reason you can't do them is because you're putting acrylic paint on an oil-based canvas. He says, "Oh, really !"
HH: What drew you to the masonite surface and the lacquers and your unique approach to all this?
BAB: Well, it just seemed reasonable to me because I've always been technique oriented. I've always felt that a painting should last long enough that somebody could get a cut at it 50 or 100 years down the road and could say, "This is shit". I mean the stuff I'm looking at today isn't going to last 20 years, so then nobody will get a cut at it. I figure if you're going to come up to bat you might as well be up to bat. We all know about Josef Albers. They were talking about Albers color, and I would look at it and it had no color at all to me because it was one dimensional. The depth didn't come forward, it didn't go back. Being in abstract expressionism the idea was to move beyond the surface, be in front, back and all around. But nobody was doing that because they just weren't doing that. At the time I was working in a motorcycle shop. I loved painting tanks and stuff like that. I mean we'd go out and race these things and they're out in the elements for years and they hold up fine. You get an oil painting and you're lucky if it gets six months before it starts cracking. So this has got to be a better surface.
HH: Especially if you can take it on the road!
BAB: You know, it was just logical at that time. You remember how we all were hooked on abstract expressionism and thinking about having a painting that was beyond the picture plain, that you couldn't pin down. That's where it came from.
HH: There was also one little show in there we talked about that I thought was a hum-dinger, I guess that actually came before "Skinny" and that was the " Heart s "show-----
BAB: I was doing masonite paintings-
HH: Even then ?
BAB: Right after the valentines. Irving [Blum] wanted me to have a show because he had an opening slot and I said 0k. He wanted to show the masonite paintings and I said: "I'm not done with them." Because at that time I was too ego-maniacal. I cared too much. I said, I just can't do it. Because of this gang mentality I had to do something, I had to show some kind of work, but therewas nothing else I knew, my frame of reference was too narrow, I mean, I knew Kenny's work, I knew my motorcycles, I knew surfboards, that's it. And my motorcycle had a lot of parts, and I worked on it all the time, so I painted the parts of the motorcycle. But it wasn't what I intended to do.
HH: Tell me about the chevrons and the irises, how did you come to those devices.
BAB: The irises were first. They came after the Valentines. Robert Irwin and I shared a studio on Havenhurst. I had done the Valentine, we just always were working, we didn't do anything else. I said, what the hell am I going to do next? I'm sitting in Barney's [Beanery] and they had these iris sugar packets on the counter. I always liked irises, and I always liked bearded irises when I was a kid in Canada, so I just sort of abstracted that a bit and then I painted a couple of them. Kenny came in and said 'that looks like the Count coming through the window' and that's where it became Dracula. But I dropped it because I got on to the motorcycle thing, and I knew that you couldn't have a soft little wimpy hermaphroditic image in that situation so....
Was there any sense of this paralleling the Pop imagery coming out of New York?
HH: I think it was quite different here.
BAB: Look, there was nobody buying paintings. You could do anything you wanted to do.
The chevrons came out of the blue. Irwin and I were flying back from Europe and Irwin was going on and on - you all know how Irwin can talk, for hours . I mean we're on a twelve hour flight that stops in Newfoundland! It's endless and he's going on and on about the translucency of this...and I'm thinking oh, fuck. He says, what are you going to do? and I say, "I'm going to paint sergeant stripes." He says 'Huh?' and that's when I knew I had the right idea. Because it stopped him from talking!
HH: Now you also had another area that's even less recognized, but a very important one in terms of California evolution, and that had to do with the whole clay movement at Otis. Were you a student at Otis ?
BAB: This goes back to '52. I originally was a ceramist. I always liked ceramics, and Bernie Kester was teaching ceramics. He went to City College, so I decided to go to City College. The following summer I got a beach attendant job at Doheny, and I met Kenny. Kenny was getting into ceramics at that time, I was ahead of him...by about three weeks. We struck up a friendship and I said, come over and visit me at City College. He started coming over and we started terrorizing the whole thing and then we saw that Peter Volkous was coming to town.
HH: So you knew about him.
BAB: Oh, yeah, he was the stud duck of all time. And Bernie Kester hated him.
HH: Well I can imagine why. You can't talk about two more opposite personalities in the world-
BAB: Oh yeah, he was the absolute opposite of that. And Kenny and I went over and saw Pete's demonstration- there was no greater love. We just went ooooooooaaaah. Then Pete got the job down there, at Otis, and I went up to San Francisco to Arts and Crafts. I was Volkanized by then. I came back and I worked for Pete for a year. Then I gave up ceramics because first of all I couldn't be as good as him, there was just no way.
HH: How did you come in to the Ferus circle? You were first in right?
BAB: Yeah, I was first in. I met Kienholz putting out a little gallery-
HH: Now Gallery ?
BAB: No, before Now, over in the Silver Lake area. I met him in some kind of situation, he was always a hustler. And then he opened the Now Gallery, and Pete Volkous and I went by the Now gallery-
HH: Which was on La Cienega in the old turn-about theater space
BAB: Yeah. Somewhere around summer, when I decided I was not going to be a ceramist anymore, I said, I could paint as well as I do ceramics. Also, I think everybody's creative juices, their touchstone, is that you go to what you don't understand because if you don't understand it, that means there's something there that you have to get to. That's when I went to the College of Arts and Crafts, because Diebenkorn was there. So I just came back because that was where Walter Hopps was showing the San Francisco painters. I met him at that time. Ed and I hit it off because I was pretty wild, and Ed liked wild people.
HH: When I first got to know Ed-there was about 180 degrees between Kienholz and myself, except we both had an Idaho heritage. We were talking one time and he said "Come on up to the house." I said, OK, and we were sitting there having a glass of wine or something and he said "do you shoot ?" I said, "What do you mean, do I shoot ?" I didn't know if he was talking about drugs or what he was talking about. He said "Do you hunt?" I said, "I hunt birds, I don't hunt animals". He asked "How good are you?" And I said, "Well, I grew up that way." So we went out to the garage and he got his staple gun and shot a staple in the wall. Then we stood back about fifteen feet and he got out a 22 pistol and he loaded it. "OK, first one to hit the staple wins,
right ?" Then he says, "You first". I'd never really shot a pistol before much in my life, and I'm sure my eyes were closed and god knows what, but I hit the staple and we were friends ever since.
BAB: But in that house I lived there before he did.
HH: Did he barter you out of it?
BAB: He thought it was really cool and I thought it was too expensive. It was $50 a month, more than my budget at the time. I actually only spent $10 a month - that's all I'd ever spend at that time, then I went to $15.
HH: I could buy an Ed Ruscha for $10 a month, I could buy a Joe Goode for $10 a month-
BAB: You mean $10 flat.
HH: No, actually, they were each $200 total.
BAB: Those were expensive, even then!
HH: That's interesting in the context of what we're talking about, because that really was the transition. You guys started at Ferus, but if two people came to the Ferus gallery it was a miracle. If somebody came in to buy something it was beyond comprehension. But by the time I had opened Heisman, which was 1961, they had the old La Cienega Art Walks. People were getting excited about LA art. I did a little show of Joe Good's, little drawings, I can't remember what the price was, I'll say $50 a piece. We sold four of them. That was at the time when Irving Blum had done the Warhol show, '61, maybe '62.
BAB: I introduced Irving to Warhol. It was right in that period of time, it was a thing where you'd get word from New York that Rauschenberg had sold out or somebody else had sold out. And that just didn't happen here, but then it started to.
Was there any sense early on, with your generation in L.A., that you might beable to make a career out of being an artist?
BAB: Not with mine.
HH: No, absolutely not with yours, but with Ruscha and Goode and Bell. There was a true feeling that they were going to make art and that they were going to make a living making art. It couldn't have been true in your generation.
Were you able to support yourself? Did you work at other jobs?
BAB: I sure did.
HH: Didn't teach much early on? There used to be a thing, I don't know if it's true or not, but it's possible that one of the things that disassociated the painters in Northern California from Southern California is that in Northern California people all taught, that's how they made their living. Here there was a 'do anything but teach'. Is that a true statement?
BAB: Absolutely true. I could make a lot of money faster by doing other things, probably make a fool out of myself
HH: You mean, like painting motorcycle tanks?
BAB: Well, you know I could get $50 for a tank. But I could get $150 for jumping off that floor-(points to the second story floor of his studio).
BAB: Stunts! I could do standard falls for a day and make $500. We used to do what is called stock footage falls. They put them in those tank westerns and stuff like that.
Was there a sense that LA was going to come into it's own much earlier on ?
HH: When I came to UCLA as a graduate student, I just couldn't see myself as a dedicated scholar in ten years of the 16th century or the 18th century. At that time nobody was working in Los Angeles art. I asked if I could do an exhibition on LA art. The committee argued and argued, and then: "OK, Henry, you can do a show." So I did a little show called something like '50 paintings by 37 Los Angeles area painters'. So I selected the show and hung it. I found the catalog the other day and I hadn't seen it for years and years. You were in the show, Kienholz, Irwin, McLaughlin. But that funny little exhibition from the university gallery traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Art, traveled to the DeMoines Museum, traveled to the Fort Worth Museum, traveled to seven venues. But believe me there is nothing to lead you to think that LA was going to be competitive to New York. Chicago was the second city then. And nobody thought that this would move as fast as it has. That's why I get so angry at people now when they say, 'Well, LA didn't have this, LA didn't have that.'' This is a forty year phenomenon. Norton Simon hadn't collected a (picture) forty five years ago. The Getty was a dumb little place on the hill. It's just fascinating how much
good art has come to this town - historical and contemporary. And now everybody thinks we're the best training ground in the country. I think we've reached a higher level of maturity and what that means is that people are now willing to look back and pay some attention to this generation and hopefully earlier generations.
You were in San Francisco for 12 years as director of the Museum of Modern Art. Was it difficult to decide to come back to Los Angeles?.
HH: Well no, my heart has always been in Southern California and that comes out of - Bill could probably tell a similar story . I was born and raised in Idaho and my father had business in Chicago and California. Every February we would come down to Southern California and we'd come out of the 10 degree below weather of Idaho and go across the Nevada desert and through Las Vegas, a blip on the map, hit that valley and come into San Bernadino and the orange grove would just knock your head off. Then you would start to smell that funny combination of oil and sand, and you'd get to be hooked. So that's my Los Angeles. It will always be that way no matter how ugly it gets, it will always be my Los Angeles.
BAB: Heavenly place, heavenly place. How much did this show cost for you to bring in?
HH: I couldn't estimate. Exhibitions get hideously expensive. But the major cost in this, because a lot of the art had to come back to Los Angeles, was smaller. This was not necessarily more expensive. If we had to do expensive shows like the Serra show at MOCA, God knows how much that must have cost.
By way of contrast, you tell a story Henry, of an exhibition of San Francisco artists, all of whom became major figures, that Walter Hopps was bringing to show at Ferus-
HH: On this particular trip, Jim Newman and Walter Hopps, were going up to San Francisco to borrow some San Francisco art which he showed quite a bit of and they had a little trailer behind the car. They brought it down here and while they were parked in front of this little house over in West LA. He came out the next morning and the trailer was gone. And he thought 'Oh shit, I don't have a dime to my name, how am I going to tell these people, how am I going to work this out? And he fretted, as Walter always fretted, and probably went out and faded away for a few hours and the next day he went out on the front lawn and there was the art on the front lawn, the trailer was still gone-they probably thought that anybody who brought that art down had to really want it, because nobody else did.
It must have been all of a thousand dollars worth.
HH: If that, maybe $500.
Since the late 40's, it seems that the history of the Los Angeles art scene has been as much about the cyclical ebb and flow of L.A.'s promise-
HH: It was really quite a meaty scene here in the 40's - a lot of good film writers, even certain actors like Vincent Price and Edward Robinson, Billy Wilder. Then it kind of faded and then came back with this bunch and then kind of faded a little bit, again.
BAB: Like the great Love Boat collector. He comes and goes.
HH: That's right. Doug Cramer. He came and went and that's typical of the '80's and '90's.
BAB: Everyone thought he was the second coming, and I said, "That's gonna be short lived - it's a sitcom."
HH: I'll give you a tiny story of resentment. I was working for Fred Weisman, and Nora Halpern was working for him too. MOCA had just opened, and she came into the office one day just glowing, she had the capacity to just absolutely glow. And she said, "This is fantastic! Nothing like this has ever happened before in Los Angeles!" And I looked at her and said 'Nora, you're full of shit'. (Laughs) It's all generational, it's when you come and when it's there and how it works.