The challenge from Marc Lafia, Art and Culture director, was intriguing- keep a diary of my cultural wanderings and experiences for a week and see what, if any, connections there might be. One evening I went to Westwood Village to take in an art double header at the UCLA Hammer Museum. There was a lecture by Marilyn Minter coinciding with her show at Regen Projects and also a recently opened show of Charles Burchfield which compiled his work from three periods of his life and art.
Charles Burchfield was the first artist to have a solo show at MOMA in 1930. Much of the work in that show was actually from 1916-1918 and included watercolors of nature saturated with his invented visual lexicon of doodled shapes that represent various pyschological states. The effect is a scene that hovers between figuration and painted gestures and reflects his intensely personal experience of nature. As the depression wears on Burchfields style turns to a more sober scenic realism which coincidentally makes him famous and wealthy. After about a decade he literally returns to the early work, tracing his pieces from the teens and adding sections around the works to make expanded paintings. He integrates graphic patterns to represent natural textures and continues in this vibrant style of painting until his death in 1967.
Marilyn Minter started with paintings based on staged photographs of ordinary objects in her studio. In the 80's while searching for new subject matter it occurred to her that no artists were using sexually explicit imagery. It was a time of radical feminism with women claiming sexual activity as their own and in their own way. Minter's paintings of pornography were met with a cold response from the right (the era of the politicization of NEA grants) and also surprisingly from the left (the era of political correctness) as degrading to women. Marilyn was compelled to continue the work although it caused her to be a shunned outcast of the art world. After a few years she settled into work alternating between photographs and paintings that focused on fashion accessories in colorful close-ups. She has now been completely 'rehabilitated' with successful solo shows, a commission for wallpaper and a video used in the current Madonna tour.
When I got home that night I opened my Netflix envelope and watched a double feature of 'Three on a Match' and 'Female' from 1932, two precode movies with women in the leading roles. These films had it all- drunkeness, casual sex, motherhood, adultery and drug use. Each story was about smart, feminine women but each also ended abruptly with the lure of love and procreation overriding any dangerous inclinations of lifelong independence. They reminded me of 80's films about working women except with more fun parts.
As I reviewed my cultural diary for the week it occurred to me that the events of this single day had something in common. This sampling of 'high' art and 'low' art all shared a discontinuous popularity and episodic relevance. Acclaim crested, waned and resurfaced through the decades and categorizations as high or low drifted as times changed. Charles Burchfield did exceptional work in the late teens. It wasn't officially recognized until 1930. Then, as Art Deco and Surrealism gain favor, Burchfield moves to a less exuberant style of somber towns, factories and landscape influenced by the hardships of the depression on the average man. This topical new work is met with financial success crowned by an appearance on the cover of Time magazine in the late thirties. He dies in 1967 as Pop Art and then Minimalism take over the discourse of the art world and his work seems dated and peripheral. Now, at the beginning of this century, with our country searching for a renewed identity, his work is again relevant to questions of what is 'American' art and what can it contribute to a larger world in 2009?
Marilyn Minter searched for a voice in the art world conversation as a young artist. She assiduously developed her craft and worked to master the techniques of painting. In the early 80's, immersed in the thinking of Radical Feminism, she sought to reimagine women's allowed expression and relationship to sex and sexuality. She embarked on a series of pornographic paintings. The times were not ready for these ideas. The sexual repression beginning in this decade as a backlash to the 70's and the attempts to allow women equality with men in their careers collided in battles over gender roles. Society's rapid adjustment to female doctors, police and soldiers could not also accomodate them as sexual beings. In the lecture I attended, Marilyn talked about well known artists who loved her work from this period but wouldn't speak out for fear of the damage to their careers. Conversely, she credits the survival of her career to the network of artworld people who quietly helped her.
The early thirties were a similar time as society was attempting to preserve the social roles of women while accepting their equal political participation as newly christened voters. In the films I watched (each about 60 minutes) the freedoms of the 'Roaring Twenties' were meeting up with the realities of the financial collapse of the thirties. As the Depression worsened a return to more traditional societal roles was reassuring and comfortable. The subject matter of these films would make them unbankable today and so their contemporary distribution lends them a giddy shock. Although these are 'B' movies, the directors Mervyn LeRoy and Michael Curtiz went on to acceptance and success and actors Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart got early career breaks from these films.
Taken together these two films and the work of these two artists, at different times lauded, popular, out of favor or dismissed, reflect the push between the social milieu and the academic discourse of the twentieth century. These examples sometimes seem to float in time outside their historical context and demonstrate the malleability of meaning in art. The people who created these works made decisions in a queasy state of balancing the social mores of their present with an ongoing artistic discourse. Sometimes the work challenged and sometimes accrued from the age in which it was created but always with facets that remain uncannily contemporary.