California Dreamin’

The embryonic counterculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s gets short shrift in art history textbooks, which usually leap from Abstract Expressionism to Pop and Minimalism with barely a nod to the radical, imaginative innovators in between. Two solo shows at major Chelsea galleries right now fill in the blanks.

At first glance, Mark di Suvero’s soaring, 24-foot-high sculpture Nova Albion and Edward Kienholz’s intricate, trailer-size Roxy’s couldn’t seem more dissimilar. But both Mr. di Suvero and Kienholz were Californians in their early 30s when they created the masterworks in these solo shows, both used scavenged and recycled materials-and both here mostly display the ingenuity and inventiveness that are hallmarks of the finest American sculptors.

Kienholz made art about sex in the backseat of jalopies, about state mental hospitals, about bordellos.

In 1965, Mr. di Suvero worked on the beach at Point Reyes, 20 miles north of San Francisco, hard-pressed to find a space anywhere else where he could execute a construction as tall and expansive as Nova Albion. As water lapped the shoreline, he (astonishingly, working alone) hoisted, angled and balanced lengths of steel, cable and local redwood into a playful, ebullient network of lines of varying thicknesses. Silhouetted against open space, the weathered trees were in sharp contrast to the smooth, manufactured metal parts. Originally, Nova Albion included a broad, low-lying element upon which a couple could lie, swinging back and forth. Mark di Suvero literally demonstrated that for ambitious sculptors, the sky’s the limit.

Critics back in the day didn’t get it. Because Mr. di Suvero’s exhilarating medley of materials bore a superficial resemblance to superstar Franz Kline’s calligraphic slashes, his structures were compared to the Abstract Expressionist’s canvases. They didn’t acknowledge the originality of his quirky, towering art as forcefully as they should have. Fortunately, with his current show at Paula Cooper Gallery, we now have the opportunity to right that wrong.

Mr. di Suvero’s exhibition illustrates his versatility by including other aspects of his practice. A large, somewhat psychedelic painting at the entrance to the gallery evokes the artist’s hippie roots. And three relatively recent, elegant steel sculptures suggest that the artist shapes, cuts and welds geometric forms as if he were using paper, glue and scissors. The bold imagery and the raw surfaces of this trio reveal Mr. di Suvero to be a master not just of the complex, but the understated.

Two blocks downtown, Roxy’s is the late Edward Kienholz’s imaginative 1960-1961 re-creation of a decrepit, 1940s-style bordello. As you approach the Kienholz, you hear old tunes wafting from a Wurlitzer jukebox stocked with Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman. Sometimes, you’re also greeted by the smell of stale tobacco smoke or cheap perfume. The entryway table is strewn with issues of Time, Life and the Saturday Evening Post from 1943. Sofas that have seen better days are arranged on faded Persian rugs. Various end tables hold ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts; a glass globe encasing a red rose; and a tchotchke of the three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Roxy’s (at David Zwirner Gallery through June 19) probably has one detail too many.

Kienholz was a co-founder of the legendary Ferus Gallery, and this is his first tableau, the term the Los Angeles-based artist used for his walk-through environments that addressed the day’s big themes-the Vietnam War, abortion-as well as life in backwater America. He made art about sex in the backseat of jalopies, about state mental hospitals and, here, about bordellos. The bordello is populated with eight bizarre, fragmented figures, including Miss Cherry Delight, A Lady Named Zoa and Cockeyed Jenny, assembled from a plethora of found objects, ranging from an old-fashioned sewing machine table to an antiquated mail drop box. Occasionally, a bag covers the head of Dianna Poole, Miss Universal, to underscore her being as ugly as sin.

Fifty years ago, Kienholz’s Roxy’s was viewed as a searing commentary on its epoch. But as the decades have passed, the works have remained artful-but lost much of their bite. Nonetheless, the artist’s and artwork’s historical importance is indisputable: Like many of his room-size sculptures, Roxy’s is a precursor of installation art. His bizarre figures formed from all sorts of oddities have influence beyond their time and call to mind today’s current crop of figurative sculptures (the work of Matthew Monahan, Thomas Houseago).

Fifty years ago, these sculptures, Nova Albion and Roxy’s, were infamous and radical, and their creators were at the fringe. They now belong to the core of American art.

 

Mark di Suvero at Paula Cooper, 534 West 21st Street, Chelsea, through July 31, http://www.paulacooper.com.

 

Edward Kienholz at David Zwirner, 519 West 19th Street, Chelsea, through June 19, http://www.davidzwirner.com.

California Dreamin’