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Created: September 17, 2005
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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Ever the unconventional:
Los Angeles Art Association

By Christopher Miles
SOURCE: Los Angeles Times
Copyright: Source Copyright.
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Ever the unconventional
Los Angeles Art Assn. celebrates 80 years of providing forums for avant-garde artists.
By Christopher Miles
Special to The Times

September 15, 2005

A trivia question: When could you have first seen Marcel Duchamp's 1912 painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" in Southern California? Perhaps it was the 1963 Duchamp retrospective curated by Walter Hopps for the Pasadena Art Museum. Good guess, but off by a few years. In 1937, thousands viewed it at a Wilshire townhouse annex of the Los Angeles Art Assn.

Long before the modern art program at the Pasadena Art Museum, before Los Angeles became home to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the now-defunct Los Angeles Institute for Contemporary Art, and long before an expanding network of art schools and galleries made the area a mecca for new art and artists, LAAA was an outpost of the avant-garde. It offered Southern California some of its first glimpses of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada.

Founded in 1925 as the Museum Patrons Assn. — an effort to energize the art end of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art — the group changed its name and became an independent organization in 1933. It moved several times before landing in 1960 at the address it still calls home: 825 N. La Cienega Blvd., in the middle of what became known as "gallery row." Operating out of back offices at Gallery 825, an exhibition space devoted to showing veteran and emerging artists, the association celebrates its 80th anniversary with "The First 80 Years," works by 25 artists previously featured in LAAA exhibitions. The show is curated by Molly Barnes, critic, collector, radio and TV host and, from 1967 to 1984, proprietor of a gallery just down La Cienega from LAAA.

Even in a city now so saturated with contemporary art that the association no longer can claim outpost status, the exhibition stays true to the spirit of trying to offer rarely seen treats. Among these are Dadaist / Surrealist Man Ray's iconic "Cadeau," a clothing iron studded with carpet tacks; and one of Duchamp's "rotorelief" works, a motorized device similar to a record player with six changeable discs, each printed front and back with compositions that mesmerize when spun.

Like many works in the show, the piece is an example of work by Duchamp but not something he had previously exhibited with LAAA. Those looking for a piece-by-piece recounting will thus be disappointed, but many of the offerings are nonetheless impressive.

More than a few times, one turns a corner in the exhibition and has a who'd-a-thunk-it moment with works that recall the vitality of the oldest still-extant artists' organization in Southern California and the scene of which it is part.

LAAA brought not only art from Europe and New York to the West Coast but also artists, creating a forum for some of the city's most venerable transplants. Among them is Swiss émigré Hans Burkhardt, who in 1951 had the association's first one-artist show. In the new exhibition, he is represented by three fine paintings, one a lovely surprise from later in his career: a sweet, playful, even goofy piece of figurative abstraction that will stun those familiar with his often somber Expressionist works.

Another import, Oskar Fischinger, a pioneer of abstract painting and film who found his way to Los Angeles after fleeing Nazi Germany, also exhibited at LAAA. In this show he is well represented by works in oil on canvas and gouache on paper, spanning three decades and tracing the development of his lyrical geometric abstraction.

Some of the finer practitioners of the overlapping, largely California movements of Hard-Edge Abstraction and Post-Surrealism were involved with LAAA. Husband and wife Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg founded the Post-Surrealist movement. Feitelson helped run LAAA in the 1940s and curated some of its more significant exhibitions. In a photo reproduced in the show's historical documentation, an elegantly dressed Lundeberg trolls through an LAAA reception with a tray of champagne glasses.

Lundeberg, Feitelson and Hard-Edge painter Karl Benjamin are the real show-stealers of the new exhibition, shedding Expressionism and the fantastic imagery of Surrealism in favor of cool, reduced abstractions imbued with hints of imaginary space — mindscape without the psychobabble. Their work, decades old yet fresh and relevant, reveals the importance of the link between the association and the artists and testifies to the need to reconsider LAAA's place in history.

But there's a double edge to this assertion. As much as the exhibition effectively champions artists who made LAAA vital in its first 40 or so years, it can't hide the disappointment of recent decades, when too little of the work has been remarkable.

There are exceptions: The abstract paintings of Roland Reiss reveal the relevance of Hard-Edge predecessors and show where one can continue in that vein. A recent painting of L.A. freeway fly-over ramps by Frank Romero possesses the exuberance and humor for which he is known but is more elegant than much of his past work. And Kim Abeles' recent fusions of land- and cityscape — aerial photographs of urban grids marked with tiny yet exaggerated 3-D model trees — are among the artist's most successful attempts to merge social and environmental concerns with formally engaging art.

Much of the more satisfying recent work is in fact quite recent, connected to shows hosted by LAAA at Gallery 825 in just the last few years, suggesting perhaps a renewal.

This uneven yet worth-the-trip exhibition points to why the old outpost might again become a destination. *

'The First 80 Years'
Where: Los Angeles Art Assn. / Gallery 825, 825 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Ends: Sept. 24
Price: Free
Contact: (310) 652-8272;

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