OTIS IN THE ART SCENE OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
by Scarlet Cheng, Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty member
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In the next two years, Pacific Standard Time: Art in Los Angeles, 1945-80, an initiative of the Getty Foundation, will explore and celebrate the legacy of contemporary art in Southern California. For far too long the achievements of this region’s artists and art movements -- some of which have spread far beyond its geographic borders -- have been under-recognized and under-documented. The Getty decided to do something about it. Their initiative funds more than 60 exhibitions and special projects about artists and art movements during the seminal period 1945-1980.
Critic Arthur Danto has defined the “art world” as composed of artists and “certain curators, dealers, critics, collectors.” Here in Southern California, we would add a handful of colleges and universities that have contributed to the essential strength and vitality of our cultural universe – with Otis College of Art and Design key among them.
Otis has been around in various incarnations since 1918, serving as an incubator for innovation in the post-war era. Pivotal was the arrival of Paul Voulkos in 1954 to set up the ceramic arts department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (later Otis). His work with ceramics had quickly moved into the sculptural. Assembling, tearing and gouging pieces of clay, he created an aesthetic that parallelled the Abstract Expressionist movement in painting on the East Coast. The work was revolutionary, especially because clay was generally considered more craft than art in those days. Through his own work and its exposure in art galleries, Voulkos challenged this concept and revolutionized the practice of ceramics. He also deeply influenced a generation of students, among them the late Paul Soldner (’56), John Mason (‘57) and Ken Price (’57). While their work is very different from Voulkos’, they internalized the lesson that an artist can harness any materials to his or her expression.
Mason had been interested in ceramics the first time he attended Otis, travelling from Nevada in 1949. At the time ceramics was craft-oriented and decorative, and the classroom was minimally equipped. He returned to Otis when he met Voulkos, who arranged a scholarship. “The main thing for me was to get off the craft track,” Mason says. “Voulkos’ vision was that you could be an artist and still work in clay.... It was that vision that made the difference. If you think about innovation, it’s always about that – it’s about a contextual shift. It’s not in the old linear progression.”
The gravitational pull of Voulkos’ energy was powerful. Billy Al Bengston (‘56) remembers the moment he and fellow Otis student Ken Price (‘57) witnessed a demonstration Voulkos gave when he first arrived in Los Angeles. “We just went ooooooooaaaah,” Bengston said in a published discussion with Henry Hopkins in 1999. “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.” Bengston found his own medium as one of the leading lights of the Finish Fetish movement in the 1960s, which used new materials such as paints designed for the automotive and aerospace industries. (In 1959 Voulkos moved on to UC Berkeley where he set up another ceramics department and influenced the Bay Area art scene.)
Another landmark for the school was when Ralph Bacerra took over the ceramics department in 1983, with an aesthetic as precise and deliberately exquisite as Voulkos’ was rough-hewn and spontaneously expressive. Bacerra covered smooth surfaces with eye-popping geometric forms created through multiple layers of over-glazing. He drew freely on both Asian and Western motifs. He, too, touched the lives of many students who went on to make ceramics or teach or both.
Although they made very different art, Voulkos and Bacerra shared the ethos of hard work, combined with a fearlessness in using any and all material that served their expression. Other Otis alumni have followed that path. Sculptor Mineko Grimmer (‘81) uses the basic materials of water (in the form of ice), rocks, and terra cotta in her sculptures that are animated by the sounds of ice melting and waterdrops falling. Multi-media artist Sarah Perry (‘83) launched her career making gorillas from rubber tires salvaged from the L.A. streets. Her work evolved into smaller and more intimate mixed media work, and today she is known for her elegant reworking of dessicated animal bones and feathers. While Sandow Birk (‘88) uses traditional methods of drawing and painting, his work reflects his urgent examination and critique of contemporary politics and religion. Rebecca Morales (’86) discovered vellum when she worked in art conservation, then made biomorphic scenes on irregular pieces of vellum. Gajin Fujita (‘97) creates large paintings that juxtapose geisha beauties and samurai warriors from the Japanese woodblock tradition with graffiti-style texts and symbols.
Going to Otis changed the life of Pattsi Valdez (’85). She has melded a folk sensibility with Magic Realism in her lushly colorful paintings in which ordinary objects and domestic scenes take on heightened auras. Born and raised in East Los Angeles, she worked as a hairdresser to make a living , while making art in her garage. She became part of the art group ASCO, which included Harry Gamboa, Jr., and Gronk. Still, it was her dream to attend art school – and Otis in specific. “I remembered going to the Otis Gallery and Otis parties in the old building,” she says. “I loved the Otis Gallery, it was beautiful. I remember going up the stairs, it was a like a dream, pristine gallery with high ceilings. I aspired to one day have an exhibit there.”
“I used to attend night school when I was 18,” Valdez says. “I would think, ‘If I could only be a day student!’ Eventually I was in my late 20s when entered Otis. I was already a practicing artist, it was a little embarrassing but no one noticed.”
She felt that the experience helped her in several ways. First, she wanted to learn the vocabulary that people used to talk about art, “the lingo.” “The other thing that was very helpful was leaving my neighborhood and mingling with a diverse group of artists,” she recalls. “Then I went to Parsons (in New York) as an exchange student for a semester which was really a good thing.” She recalls how helpful teachers such as Scott Geiger and Roy Dowell were. “Roy taught me how to do gouache, and I still make a lot of images using it.”
Alison Saar also found that Otis helped her concentrate on and formulate the shape of her art career. She entered the MFA program when her mother, Betye Saar, was teaching at Otis. (Betye Saar is one of Los Angeles’ most celebrated artists; her assemblage “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) is a landmark in American political art.) “I’d done my undergrad at a liberal arts college,” Alison says. “I really had to focus on the art-making process.” The two-year MFA program offered her that focus, and she had her own space in a shared studio.
Teachers came by with suggestions and critiques, and Saar recalls how helpful sculptor Peter Shelton was. “I was doing flat things and painting then, and I didn’t start doing sculpture till the last a month and a half of my program. Peter gave me a lot of encouragement, and that encouragement got me thinking about being a sculptor.” Today Saar is known for powerful figurative sculpture that often incorporates found objects, and her public work includes the Harriet Tubman Memorial in New York and the Monument to the Great Northern Migration in Chicago.
In 2000 Lynn Zelevansky, then curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and now director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, wrote a wonderfully succinct essay on the repositioning of the Los Angeles art world in a global context. The essay was part of a book published for the landmark exhibition “Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900 - 2000.” “But even under the best of circumstances, museums only provide part of the support needed for contemporary art,” she wrote. “In the absence of a diverse critical press and a strong art market, since the 1920s the [art] schools have been the glue that has held the Los Angeles art world together.”
Yes, the glue, and the spawning ground and laboratory for new ideas and ways of working, as well as the incubator of the young talent that will lead us through this new century.