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Poolside Reading: A History of West Coast Art

California has long been the land of coastline and sunshine, but it's a relatively new player in the art world. The mid-twentieth century put the golden state on the creative map and the world finally got a taste of west-coast-cool. However, it's not all palm trees, beaches, and babes - let writer and California girl Angella D'Avignon walk you through the history of west coast art.

Did you know Andy Warhol's first solo show was in California? Los Angeles to be exact, at Ferus Gallery in 1962 where he premiered his Campbell's Soup Cans. California was a baby in the art scene, trying live it's life in the shadow of the current art capital New York City. The West Coast forged its own path by branching out wildly into new, resistant forms of work which blew the art world wide open and changed its course in history.

Shall we start with swimming pools?

Quintessential California (1930s-mid 1970s)

Poolside Reading A History of West Coast Art

Smog is the Best Filter

Undeniably, California has a specific aesthetic: our omnipresent sunshine and our flora and fauna are almost stereotypical. From valley girls to palm trees, California has always had it's own vibe. Capturing the more luxurious and notorious party side of LA, was british painter David Hockney. As a country bound boy who found himself in the wilds of California, Hockey famously loved swimming pools and found them to be utterly sensual, along with the young athletic men who swam in them. Overtime, the Brit-pop painter has proven himself a versatile artist, with his most recent body of work including the usage of fax machines, laser photocopiers, computers, and iPhones and iPads.

Trek further back in time to the 1930's when California Impressionism was all the rage within its small community. The California Art Club (amazing name) was a group of LA and Laguna Beach based artists who collectively and respectively painted en plein air (meaning outside), and hoped to capture the sublime landscape of the coast. Pastel and sun-drenched, it can be assumed that California Impressionist painters depicted an escapist version of California in a era dampened by the Great Depression.

Names to drop: David Hockney, Euphemia Charlton Fortune , Charles Reiffel

Examples of Quentissential California artwork: 

The Cool School (1950s-60s)

Poolside Reading A History of West Coast Art

Summer of '69 Pattern

Credited as the epicenter of West Coast art in the 1960's, Ferus Gallery on La Cienaga Blvd. made it's mark as the gallery to haunt. Here, a gang of mostly white men (and a few women) dominated the LA art scene. It was run by an association of art nerds including Walter Hopps, Irving Blum, and Ed Kienholz. Conceptualism was also on the rise and often included photography as the medium. Artist Ed Rucsha's work is marked by its graphic simplicity, playfulness, and a use of the vernacular in both architecture and language. His 1963 series, Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations literally documents 26 gas stations in California, speaking both to California's industrial history, as well as its car culture - freeways had barely been established by that time, and having a car meant having freedom.

Extra: National City

San Diego gets a bad rap when it comes to its art-town status, which is to say, it lives in the shadow of Los Angeles. In a way it does - but that makes it one of California's best kept secrets. Arguably California's unofficial patron artist, John Baldessari started out as a kid hanging out in National City, California in San Diego county. Baldessari's work is tongue-in-cheek and iconic. Now, he's undoubtedly become LA's art mascot - I still get a thrill when I catch sight of him.

Names to drop: Billy Al Bengston, Tony BerlantEd Ruscha

Examples of The Cool School:

Light and Space Movement (1960s-1970s)

Poolside Reading A History of West Coast Art

Peach Ombre

Like Florence, Italy, California has a unique relationship to light, and it's been said that the Light and Space movement developed because of LA's radiant sunlight and temperate weather. During the1960's and 70s, artists who were embracing Minimalism (the idea that art should be melted down to it's purest geometric forms: shape and line and volume) were making works concerned with the way perception could be altered with light and shape. Another consideration of California Minimalism, as some people refer to it, is Finish Fetish, which alludes to the materials and treatments that artists like Craig Kauffman used to make his "bubble" sculptures. Opalescent and atmospheric, this phase of art reflects masculine California cars and surf culture.

Names to drop: James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Lita Alberquerque 

Examples of the Light and Space Movement: 

Bay Area Figurative Movement (1950s-1970s)

Poolside Reading A History of West Coast Art

Stacked Donuts on Mint

It gets considerably less boisterous the further north you go, where the Bay Area Figurative Movement was quietly taking place in San Francisco. Artists like Clyfford Still, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, and Wayne Thiebaud were notably rejecting the purist notion which dominated Abstract Expressionist painting by returning to figuration. For prime example, Wayne Thiebaud's paintings are classically American but carry a California pastel palette in his buttery depictions of conventional American life. Cakes, candies, and women's pumps are among his subjects.

Names to drop: Wayne Thiebaud, Richard DiebenkornJoan Brown

Examples of Bay Area Figurativism:

Funk Art (late 1950's-60s)

Poolside Reading A History of West Coast Art


Another Bay Area movement was Funk Art, which was a reactionary, and less noticed art style that used found objects and non-functional ceramics to express concepts of anti-formalism.

Jay DeFeo is the most recognized woman artist of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, but the least written about historically. Her work is shrouded in myth as she only made one major piece, The Rose, which took eight years to complete. DeFeo lived on Fillmore Street during the Beat Movement in SF and worked day-in and day-out on her massive, encaustic, sculpture-painting. By day, DeFeo made jewelry to support herself while she worked on The Rose and supposedly embedded bits of jewels and chain into the work itself. (When she was evicted in 1965, movers had to cut the wall of her rented apartment in order to move the work.) Additionally, she was also one of the few women to have a solo show at Ferus.

Another mythic being from the Los Angeles art scene was contemporary artist, Mike Kelley. Coming up in the 90's art and music scene with Kim Deal, Elliott Smith, and Paul McCarthy, Kelley was prodigious and prolific, brilliant but reluctant to fame. Kelley worked locally and sourced his materials from thrift stores, for example, his Memory Ware Flats borrow from a Canadian folk art practice which combines common household objects (kind of like Rauschenberg's Combines) and are giant slabs embedded with thrifted tchotchkes and ephemera and organized by color and aesthetic. Inadvertently, the memory they evoke is a collective one, as hosts of humans' discarded stuff is compiled into one traceless but fully nostalgic "painting".

Names to drop: Bruce Conner, Wallace BermanEd and Nancy Kienholz

Examples of Funk Art:

Wanna be an art history pro? Check out the history of Modern Photography and Contemporary Art.

Poolside Reading A History of West Coast Art


Art History




Louisa Catharine Art And Patte… commented on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 11:54am
Falconette commented on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 12:02pm
We are two California artists. Thrilled to see this post! Thanks for representin'.
Mrs. Ciccoricco commented on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 9:01am
Thank you so much for featuring some of my works! California has been such an inspiration for me since I moved here from The Netherlands 4 years ago. :)
Shelley Ylst Art commented on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 5:57pm
It's great to see the west coast spot lighted!
Adaralbion commented on Saturday, June 4, 2016 12:53am
Thanks for sharing!
psychologist commented on Saturday, June 4, 2016 4:01pm
Forever Art & Fashion_Leslie T… commented on Sunday, June 5, 2016 5:09am
awesome 👍🏼

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