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Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s

by Cécile Whiting
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2006
268 pp., illus. 20 col/77 b/w. Trade, $119.85; paper, $39.95
ISBN: 0-520-24460-5; ISBN: 0-520-24460-3.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven
Faculty of Arts, Blijde Inkomststraat 21, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium


Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, and (just tomorrow or Already today?) Shanghai… we all know the cities that have "made" art, that "are" art, whose image has been shaped by artists living and struggling in it, and whose dynamism and growth have proved able to make a difference in the cultural field. In comparison with the aforementioned cities, the status of Los Angeles is quite ambivalent: Although it is one of the most mesmerizing and rapidly changing urban environments of the world, it is not considered a real city, neither by its inhabitants (who often regret its "lack" of centre, of structure, in a word of image), nor by its visitors (who find no city but only a freeway system, who look in vain for something that would go beyond its superficiality); and although it hosts a lively art scene, it has never been able to seriously challenge "the" other city that is New York. Not a city? Never an art centre? Obviously, except perhaps in the 1960s, when L.A. urban and demographic structures were exploding and a new form of art, pop, was celebrating the collapse of traditional Modernism.

It is the interaction between these two fields, the mutual shaping of the urban and the cultural that is the focus of this wonderful book by Cécile Whiting, who succeeds in sketching an image of L.A. that can bear the test with the best studies on the cultural construction of and by other great cities. It must, therefore, be seen as an important contribution to the renewed interest in space, not only as a broad cultural marker (and L.A., which is "all space and no time" is of course a great case study) but also as the steppingstone toward a renewed evaluation of the spatial vernacular, i.e. of the local and the regional, deprived of its negative connotations of provincialism or geographic essentialism.

The notion of "urban" as well as that of "cultural" are defined by Whiting in a sense that is simultaneously narrow and broad. It is first of all broad, since the notion of "urban" covers a wide range of spaces and uses of space: the author discusses issues such as the outdoor life, the shift from city dweller to car driver, the typical L.A. "sprawl", the façade culture, the gap between public and private sphere, and the dialectics of marginalized places and places for marginal Angelenos. As far as the notion of the "cultural" is concerned, Pop L.A. emphasizes inevitably the visual arts, more appropriated to match the city’s pure "superficiality" than the temporal arts of literature, hence the focus on painting, sculpture, photography, but also on performance (the most ephemeral and therefore superficial of temporal arts). At the same time, however, Whiting avoids to take on board any material that might have fit her project: Hollywood is hardly represented, and equally absent is much of the non-visual pop culture of the era (pop music, underground comics, psychedelic design, for instance, are only mentioned in the background). It is thanks to this highly delicate balance between the foregrounding of visual environment of the city and its visual representations, on the one hand, and the low profile representation of other aspects of the culture of the 60s, that Whiting has succeeded in offering a vision of the city that is as sharp as its forms and structure may seem blurred and shapeless.

The same sharpness characterizes the content of the various chapters, and the points the author wants to drive home. Pop L.A. is built around four major case studies, which each brings into prominence a certain place, a certain way of moving around, a certain genre or medium and an artist (or a group of artist). One finds thus extremely interesting and innovative readings of —— for instance, Ed Ruscha’s photographic artist books, which create a new vision of L.A.’s commercial spaces seen from the driver’s seat, David Hockney’s upgrading of Physique Culture’s homosexuality and his dialogue with high-modernist debates on the meaning and the medium of painting, the reuse of junk and debris and its amazing reflection in Simon Rodia’s Watts towers, and the politicization of the happenings by artists like Allan Kaprow and Judy Chicago, who bring in new forms of radical and feminist contestation, very different from the classic lamentations on the loss or absence of what a city is supposed to be.

A similar acuteness can be found in the major theses that Whiting is defending in this book, which does not fall prey to the extreme visions of the city: the boosterism of the city’s developers and speculators, the elite condemnation of pop’s shallowness. Given the importance of place, the author correctly and healthily insists on the dialectical and structural aspects of this notion: no place without its opposite (in this case: no vision of Southern California without a comparison with Northern California, or with the Desert, or with the East Coast), no place without mediation (one of the best known forms of mediation is of course the tradition of the landscape, and Whiting has brilliant pages on the impossibility of excluding photography from the practice of painting), no place without observer (and this observer is mobile, and motorized), and finally no place without time (i.e. cultural memory, planning, and the tension between both).

In short, a crucial book on the era in which L.A. tried hard to become a city and an art centre, i.e. a city as art centre and an art as representation of new urban life, and a dramatically helpful tool in our own attempts to get a better understanding on the new L.A. that has never ceased to destroy and to exceed itself.



Updated 1st October 2006

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