“L.A. Raw: Abject Expressionism” in Pasadena

If you think of Los Angeles art as the cool school, get ready to turn up the heat. The Pasadena Museum of California Art has opened one of the more game-changing “Pacific Standard Time” shows, “L.A. Raw: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, from Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy.” (Above, Judy Chicago’s Gunsmoke, 1971.)

Start with the title. “Abject Expressionism,” a clever coinage of curator Michael Duncan, describes a phase of postwar art that now gets little attention. “L.A. Raw” begins as a Night Gallery of creepy, anguished, semi-figuration. It’s heart-on-sleeve art made in reaction to the concentration camps, the bomb, racial and gender injustice, and your basic man’s-inhumanity-to-(wo)man.

The Jackson Pollock of this Left Coast and often leftist movement was Rico Lebrun. Once the most famous modern artist in Los Angeles, Lebrun is today mostly known to, ahem, “specialists.” Lebrun’s Buchenwald Cart, above, shouts what Max Beckmann could only whisper. It dates from 1956. Lebrun’s Magdalene, from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is almost contemporary with Francis Bacon‘s early Magdalenes and crucifixions and has some of the same virtues.

Abject Expressionism walked a tightrope, abstract enough to be modern and figurative enough to be political. Hans Burkhardt, one of several key bicoastal figures, took the movement into the Vietnam era with My Lai (1968), an all-over abstraction collaging real human skulls. It forecasts Anselm Kiefer.

“L.A. Raw” presents an alternate-universe art history where figuration won the war and postmodernism took a backseat to politics. Such disparate beatniks, identity-politickers, and pomos as Judy Baca, Wallace Berman, Chris Burden, Llyn Foulkes, David Hammons, Robert Heinecken, John Outterbridge, Betty Saar, Edmund Teske, Joyce Treiman, and Charles White are each ingeniously connected to the show’s timeline-slash-conspiracy theory. As is Paul McCarthy, but don’t read too much into his title billing. This show is broad not deep, and no artist is represented by more than a few works.

The surprise witness is the declassé Magic Realist Eugene Berman. (Below, Berman’s 1943 Medusa’s Corner.) Fey, retarditaire,  and relatively apolitical, Berman spent a Hollywood sojourn as film set decorator. It turns out he was influential to many of the Abject Ex generation. Art history, people—read it and weep.

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