Surfing through the Modern World: Pacific Standard Time in Los Angeles
In California, nature and humans have conspired to create one of the most extraordinary environments ever. It is not always a beautiful or good place–nature shakes things up with earthquakes, droughts, floods, and plagues of pests of almost biblical proportions, and humans have contributed sprawl, pollution, and social iniquity. It is, however, even in its ugliness and injustice, its violence and its inhuman scale, a place of great beauty, with exhilarating vistas that are both natural and of a social kind.
Now over seventy different institutions and galleries around Southern California are celebrating the art that has sought to represent this place, especially in the era after the Second World War. Called Pacific Standard Time (PST), it was funded by the Getty and will encompass almost 170 events by the time it closes next spring. It was during the period on which PST focuses that the utopian dreams that have fueled the State’s growth brought millions to
its beaches, valleys, and deserts, and that a truly Californian culture took
I tried to see as many of the shows as possible during a
brief trip to Los Angeles last weekend. One of the first I took in was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Living in a Modern Way, which will be up through
March 25 of next year. I walked through with the exhibition’s designers, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, and had the pleasure of sharing their delight at the hundreds of objects
curator Wendy Kaplan and her team had assembled.
The display itself represents the best California design: an open wave made of metal studs energizes the staid environments of the Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion, with objects floating on and above simple, white platforms. My favorite touch is
the jewelry, displayed in little bubbles on a high table. Towards the far end of the gallery, a
mint-condition Avanti, designed by Raymond Loewy for Studebaker in 1961, points
the way towards a reconstruction, in the best Hollywood stage set tradition, of the
The show makes the argument for living in Southern
California as inhabiting a set: it is a thin artifice, created by a great deal
of technology, floating over a landscape from which it does not have to close
itself off, or which it pretends to incorporate, setting the scene for a new
way of living. That all this design
might hide how things are made, or the costs of making them, or the fact that
there are people out there who could not afford this new American Dream, is the
price of the completeness and the optimism of the vision.
The strength of Living in a Modern Way is its concentration
on that domestic set, and how everything from the furniture in the houses (an
amazing stereo cabinet Craig Ellwhood designed for the 1961-1963 Rosen House,
for instance), the crockery, and even the clothes (an Addie Masters “Hostess
pajamas” outfit from 1940) all contributed to that play of modern manners. They were not integrated in the manner that
Henri van der Velde had proposed at the Bauhaus, but rather were are all
related attempts to show how technology could transform nature into an open,
free, and relaxed space through which you could go surfing.
The delights of this exhibition are myriad, from the
reaffirmation of the importance of the Case Study program and everything it
entailed, the graphics of Alvin Lustig, the bathing suits of Rudi Gernreich,
the ceramics of Edith Heath, he jewelry of Margaret de Patta, or the landscapes
of Tommy Church, to the emphasis on lesser known figures such as Greta Grossman
and wonderful objects such as a streamlined 1935 Ice Gun (put the cubes in one
side and get crunched coldness out the nozzle), an amazing 1939 desk by Kem
Weber, or the two-piece Atomic Dress by Gilbert Adrian.
The importance and the beauty of mid-century modern design
is by now something most of us recognize. Living in a Modern Way lets us see why and how it happened, how it all worked together, and how it proposed a whole new way of living. It is a good place to start if you want to understand
Pacific Standard Time, about which there's more to come later.