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POP SMEAR

Bruce Kurtz was dressed in screaming yellow bell bottoms and a vest covered with pennies at the Phoenix Art Museum's opening July 6. Beatles music was blaring through loudspeakers and the hors d'oeuvres were Twinkies, Wonder bread, cheese puffs and celery sticks.

Kurtz's outfit was a tribute to the show that opened that night, "L.A. Pop in the Sixties." In addition to being the cynosure of all eyes opening night, Kurtz, the curator of twentieth-century art at the museum, is also the eye of the latest storm swirling around the exhibition.

The brouhaha he's started has to do with, of all things, wall labels, those usually innocuous and often ignored bits of text providing information about the show. If that seems odd, consider this label copy, describing work by Phillip Hefferton and Robert Dowd:

"Finally, there's a selection of large and cheerfully counterfeit dollar bills painted by Robert Dowd and Phillip Hefferton, of which the less said the better. Dowd's `Van Gogh Dollar' of 1965 was indeed prophetic, but it doesn't prevent it from being stupid."

Although this is a quote from Seattle art critic Lyn Smallwood, Kurtz's own words show he goes along with its sentiment. For example, Kurtz himself wrote, "The easy-to-understand one-liner visual jokes of Dowd's and Hefferton's paintings may be more along the lines of humorous greeting cards than paintings." And he goes on to compare Dowd unfavorably with others in the show: "Ruscha is not a one-liner artist. How could anyone fail to get the jokes of Dowd's and Hefferton's paintings, and once you get them, what more do they have to offer?"

Kurtz took a final swipe: "There may be too many borrowings and not enough originality in Dowd and Hefferton to place their art on the same plane as Ruscha, Goode, Baldessari, and Bengston."

Kurtz is referring here to the other artists in the exhibition, which features 72 works by Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, Wallace Berman, Joe Goode, Llyn Foulkes, Robert Dowd, Phillip Hefferton, and Billy Al Bengston. Robert Dowd was present at the opening and was so enraged that he went to Kurtz and demanded that the panel be removed. Kurtz refused. Then Dowd's publicist Veet Mano, who appeared at the opening complete with ponytail, white gauze California guru outfit and New Age vocabulary, confronted museum director James Ballinger with the same demand. Ballinger also refused.

"We agreed to disagree," Ballinger said of his conversation with Mano. "I clarified basic museum policy to him--that we had the right to install any kind of text panels we wished. This one may be a little harder-hitting than people are used to, but I'm not uncomfortable with it."

Although written by Kurtz, the text panels were sanctioned by the museum's executive staff. And, copies of the text were sent to the artists before the opening.

Dowd isn't letting the matter rest. "Robert is writing a letter of protest to the National Association of Museums," Mano said in a phone call from Los Angeles. "He's also going to talk to his collectors to see about removing his work from the show. I mean, if you were the owner of one these pieces, it would make you look stupid if you believed what Kurtz wrote. You know, like `What kind of idiot would own this stuff?' Would you want that?"

While it is not unheard of for museums to write their own labels for traveling exhibitions, slamming the very work they refer to is more than out of the ordinary.

When asked about that, Kurtz responded with innocuous generalities about involving the public: "Museums have found that about 75 percent of museum visitors are novices. They're interested and curious, but they don't have any formal art education or background. Already they're a little bit intimidated as soon as they walk in. Now, a lot of times these panels give you historical information which has nothing to do with the work hanging on the wall, or it's some kind of statement that this is the greatest artist since Rembrandt. The person looks at the work and says, `Hey, I don't agree, so I must be stupid. This guy's an expert, after all. I'm getting out of here.'

"What we tried to do here was show people that these artworks are subject to a number of interpretations and opinions, and that their opinions were just as valid as anyone else's." Dowd's publicist Mano claims that Kurtz has gone far beyond that. By acting like an art critic in the panels, Kurtz in effect has "recurated" the show and subverted what the show's organizer Anne Ayres had intended.

"That's not his job; he's just supposed to put the art on the walls and let the people decide what they think. It wasn't even his show," Mano complained.  

Organized by Ayres at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Los Angeles, "L.A. Pop in the Sixties" was three years in the making. After Newport, it traveled to Palm Springs and Seattle. Phoenix is its final venue.

Despite Mano's contention, Anne Ayres does not believe her show has been recurated. "I've read copies of the text panels," she said by phone from Los Angeles, "and I don't have any problem with them."

"L.A. Pop in the Sixties" has caused trouble from the start. In fact, it was controversial even before it opened at Newport Harbor. The show angered the very artists it wanted to highlight. They objected to the pop label, claiming there really wasn't an organized movement called L.A. pop.

As famous an artist as John Baldessari said, "I didn't want to be in this show. I had no connection with any of the other artists in the show. In fact, I wasn't even in L.A. during the Sixties--I was in San Diego. Beyond that, pop concerns have never been central to my work." (This statement is quoted in Baldessari's text panel.)

Baldessari, a conceptual artist with an international reputation, has gone so far as to schedule a talk, "Why I Am Not a Pop Artist," to be given July 19 at one of the Phoenix Art Museum's lunchtime gallery talks.

But Kurtz, along with Ballinger and curator of education Jan Krulick, may have undermined the show in a more subtle way--by the physical layout of the exhibition, the way visitors were guided by the artworks through it.

The exhibition is actually two shows: "L.A. Pop in the Sixties" is the main one, but the museum has also assembled top selections from its own collection and called it "POP! Goes the Collection." This latter grouping consists almost entirely of art by New York pop artists, and it's these works the visitor encounters first. In the main hall, for instance, you see several Jasper Johns prints on the right, some Robert Rauschenberg prints on the left, and a set of Warhol prints of soup cans.

The L.A. work suffers badly by comparison. The two main thrusts of pop art were the use of commercial techniques of production combined with the ironic presentation of banal images. Begun in New York in the late Fifties as a reaction to abstract expressionism, pop art became the most popular style up to the mid-Sixties.

Rauschenberg and Johns are considered the twin fathers of pop art, and Andy Warhol their most famous progeny. The first two artists combined the gestural brush strokes of the abstract expressionists with depictions--or actual inclusions--of mass-produced, everyday objects. Rauschenberg's prints are crammed and layered with a hodgepodge of unrelated images taken from the popular media: celebrities, news photos, supermarket ads, and so on. They're the visual equivalent of listening to ten different radios tuned to ten different stations.

Across the hall, Johns' gray prints stand as quiet counterpoint. They depict simple objects--a cup, a light bulb, a ruler--taken out of context to perform roles that seem more mysterious the longer you look at them.

Then you turn the corner toward the breezeway, and there you find New York pop proper: Oldenbergs, Rosenquists, and Lichtensteins. Almost all of them simply stand up and hum.

Look at Claes Oldenberg's litho for a giant scissors obelisk for Washington DC. It's a simple drawing, but just contemplating the very idea makes you want to finance its construction. Check out Roy Lichenstein's "Whaam!" with its comic-book fighter pilot. You can almost hear the explosions. James Rosenquist, known mainly for his gigantic, baroque, billboard-style paintings, shows his virtuosity with several small, tight, energetic prints.

All these works seem so fresh they could have been made yesterday. After absorbing these images, you finally turn left into "L.A. Pop in the Sixties" and . . . what a letdown. The Southern California type of pop art either benefited or suffered, depending on your viewpoint, from being free of the intensity and hothouse atmosphere of New York City. At its best, it could engage the viewer in the mystery and ambiguity of everyday life; at its worst, it could fall as flat as an old joke. Though many are respectable works, these pieces do run a distant second to the New York art.

And Robert Dowd doesn't even finish in the money.
Bruce Kurtz is right, of course, in his infamous text panel. Dowd's work is as flat as warm Coke. He painted single images of money and stamps on mid-size canvases, with such variations as leaving out some letters on the dollar bills, or smearing Lincoln's face. They're as empty as Andy Warhol's eyes, and there's not much more to say about them. The only bright point is Dowd's "Van Gogh Dollar," with its pleasing colors and lively brush strokes; it's a good joke, it looks fresh, and the fortunes of Van Gogh's "~~Irises" have given it renewed mileage. But Robert Dowd is no longer a very well-known artist. Why is he in this show, and why did he show up at the opening? No other artist did. In fact, Dowd has visited two other venues for the exhibition, Newport Harbor and Palm Springs, accompanied not only by his publicist, but also by his dealer and one of his collectors.  

Bruce Kurtz says he's never heard of an artist being preceded by this kind of entourage for an opening, especially for a group show. And artists usually don't follow an exhibition around from place to place. More devastatingly, Kurtz says he had never heard of Dowd before seeing this exhibition in Los Angeles. Publicist Mano, who can most kindly be described as energetic and voluble, makes much of the fact that Dowd was persecuted by the Secret Service in the Sixties. Dowd made some small prints of money and was accused of counterfeiting. He was brought in and questioned and told never to make that kind of work again. That experience disturbed him deeply, according to Mano, and upset the trajectory of Dowd's career. He did not stop making art, but he did stop doing money pieces. He has continued to exhibit, both in the United States and abroad, but he has not recovered his early reputation. By his inclusion in this traveling exhibition, and by dragging an entourage around with him, Dowd apparently hopes to revive a dormant career.

But the work doesn't support the hope.
Everything in the show is stronger than Dowd's (and Hefferton's) work, so Kurtz's tough commentary about him is understandable.

Also, seeing the two artists' work together provides an answer to another one of Dowd's complaints: Why were he and Phillip Hefferton lumped together? The answer is obvious: The works are so similar you cannot tell who did what.

Dowd claims that the other text panels provide favorable interpretations of the other artists and that only he and Hefferton were slammed. They deserve it.

Hefferton's huge canvas--the truncated central portion of the back of a $20 bill--is a waste of wall space that should have been given to Wallace Berman or Ed Ruscha. But there has not been a peep out of Hefferton, who presumably received the same information and copies of the text panels as Dowd. Not a peep. His not wanting to be associated with his own work in this show is understandable. His work here is so bad it is hard to imagine why Anne Ayres would wish to include it. There's no reason to exhibit either Dowd's or Hefferton's work in this show, except to shore up a flimsy and sagging central premise--that there was such a thing as L.A. pop, and that it produced a strong body of work.

But as a whole, "L.A. Pop in the Sixties" proves just the opposite. It reveals that there really wasn't a coherent movement called L.A. pop, or at least enough of one to build an exhibition around. Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode, perhaps, could be called pop artists, since they presented pop images in a relatively unaltered state: a logo, a folded newspaper, milk bottles. But Llyn Foulkes works on too many levels to be called pop, Billy Al Bengston is borderline with his motorcycle parts, Vija Celmins is much too melancholy and brooding for the snap of pop, John Baldessari is a conceptual artist, and Wallace Berman was a mystic and shaman.

Berman is responsible for the most interesting works in the show, although unfortunately he is underrepresented by only three pieces. (This isn't the museum's fault. Newport Harbor Art Museum kept some back.)

Each of Berman's pieces is a 46-by-49-inch Verifax collage--an early form of photocopy--consisting of 56 nearly identical images of a hand holding a transistor radio. In each image, the main body of the radio has been excised and the rectangular blank filled with another image.

Most are printed as negatives, like x-rays. These small images range from Fifties nudie photos to crosses, snakes, guns and mystical images from the Cabala. The gridlike formation and similarity of hand images keep the works from looking chaotic, allowing the viewer to scan and peruse, pick and choose among the smaller images, like changing channels on a Watchman.

These untitled pieces look like some universal tarot deck of all cultures, laid out in manifold mystery. I found it difficult to move away from them because, although I knew it was impossible to solve the riddle--you're not supposed to--I got hooked on my own curiosity. Which were my symbols, and why? The haunting phrase from Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" repeated in my mind: " . . . something is happening here, but you don't know what it is . . . " If these pieces are pop, they are the dark side of pop.  

Ruscha, one of the best known of the California artists, also contributed strong work to the exhibition. He makes words sing and dance. "Securing the Last Letter," in which a painted C-clamp squeezes the last s in the huge orange word "BOSS," booms and throbs like--to use a Ruscha-esque phrase--a Halloween tuba. And that clamp adds just the right amount of kink; you wish you could ease the tension on that last s.

"War Surplus" gets behind the eyeballs and into the mind. It's a big blue square canvas that looks scuffed. The word "WAR" dominates the top half of the canvas, with "SURPLUS" in smaller letters along the bottom, both painted in yellow. The painting looks war-weary, carrying an exhausted victory draped over its arms, out of the blue. How can he do this with two words? John Baldessari is a conceptual artist. The risk of early conceptual art was always whether the strength of the idea overcame the poverty of means employed to communicate it. Baldessari's early photo-word pieces here are too weak to make the grade. One piece consists entirely of the following statement printed on a large canvas: "A TWO-DIMENSIONAL SURFACE WITH NO ARTICULATION IS A DEAD EXPERIENCE." Hey, he said it, not me.

Billy Al Bengston's mid-size square canvases have motorcycle parts painted in their centers, surrounded by variously modulated fields of color. The best is "BSA," which is roughly like a black-and-orange target with the BSA logo in the middle. Painted on Masonite, it's slick and shiny and beautiful.

The exhibition seems to build its rationale on the superficial characteristics of pop art--using commercial imagery and mass-produced products--but that's a pretty shaky scaffold for widely disparate work. You have to look hard for the ambiguity, subtlety and depth that characterize strong art. Almost all the pieces are worth looking at for a little while, but only a few--the Ruschas and Bermans--get in behind the eye, where the real rewards begin to emerge.

In the last panel of the exhibition, titled "Good, Better, Best," Bruce Kurtz wrote, "We tried to emphasize ambiguity, subtlety and difference of opinions in our texts for this exhibition." But he didn't have a lot of subtlety and ambiguity to work with in the first place.

As for those controversial text panels, do they work the way Kurtz wanted them to? These unusual text panels were the result of hours of discussion among the museum's executive staff--Ballinger, Kurtz, Krulick, et al.--and the new policy (or "mission," as Ballinger described it) is to make patrons more comfortable with their own opinions.

Just as pop art was a leveler between high art and mass art, so these text panels are supposed to reduce the intimidation many patrons feel when confronting works of art in a museum.

But do they really work that way? Maybe the effect is just the opposite. Kurtz's wall panels look as elitist as the traditional kind: Nicely printed, blown up on the walls, mounted on foamcore, they are the pronouncements of an expert. Making them provocative only makes them more intimidating. "L.A. Pop in the Sixties" will be on display through August 19, and "POP! Goes the Collection" until August 5, at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central.

chris: try to use this one in the first leg; think of it as a subhead. anna

The brouhaha he's started has to do with, of all things, wall labels, those usually innocuous and often ignored bits of information.

Dowd's work is as flat as warm Coke. His paintings are as empty as Andy Warhol's eyes, and there's not much more to say about them.

"L.A. Pop in the Sixties" reveals that there really wasn't a coherent movement called L.A. pop, or enough to build an exhibition around.


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