Peter Plagens Explores the New York-Los Angeles Art History Rivalry

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L.A. boosters: MOCA curator Paul Schimmel and Wendy and Billy Al Bengston

In the founding myth of American contemporary art, New York in the 1960’s has long been considered an epicenter of vanguard activity. However, in recent years, scholars and filmmakers have made a powerful case for Los Angeles’s role in that story. This weekend, New York-based writer Peter Plagens took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to review two new books — Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Rebels in Paradise and Lyn Kienholz’s L.A. Rising — that continue this ongoing rehabilitation of the City of Angels.

Mr. Plagens writes that, in Rebels in Paradise, Ms. Drohojowska-Philp is “trying to make a case for L.A.’s scene in the 1960s being in the same ballpark as New York’s in the 1940,” and he presents a compelling, convincing summary of her case, noting that Andy Warhol had his first Pop show in L.A. in 1962, not in his hometown of New York, and that the West Coast city’s artists and curators were engaging in a wide variety of experimental pioneering activities even before the 1960’s.

There was, for instance, the time in 1955 that curator Walter Hopps and some artist compatriots installed an exhibition on a merry-go-round on a pier Santa Monica. “Paintings by the likes of Clyfford Still and Richard Diebenkorn revolved slowly to the accompaniment of a calliope, jazz platters, a dozen radios performing a John Cage score and recorded recitations by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac,” Mr. Plagens writes.

Political activism also arrived early in the Los Angeles art world. Ms. Drohojowska-Philp writes about artists erecting a “Peace Tower,” in protest of the Vietnam War, on the Sunset Strip in 1965, which was “four years before the Art Workers’ Coalition was formed in New York,” Mr. Plagen notes. “Take that, Manhattan!”

Mr. Plagens says that the books “present the West Coast art of the era as a kind of retroactive preview of the art world we have now,” and he highlights the artist Billy Al Bengston as a man ahead of his time. “He advocated artists dressing well and turning goodly portions of their studios into showrooms for sales,” he writes. “He hobnobbed with actresses and manipulated the media.” Meanwhile, he notes, artists were consorting with fashion designers, and concludes, “A jump-cut to today’s art fairs [and] gossipy Internet chatter … is hardly a jump at all.”

There may be a silver lining in this reevaluation of Los Angeles. While New Yorkers are being forced to surrender some of the credit for the creation of contemporary art, they may at least be able to blame Angelenos for many of the banalities that have become so central to it.