SCOTT SIMON, Host:
Today, more than 60 cultural institutions in and around Los Angeles launch an unprecedented collaboration with a grand theme. Spanning four decades, it's the story of the L.A. art scene - its birth in the years after World War II, and how it became a major force in the art world. Called "Pacific Standard Time," the goal is nothing less than to rewrite the history of art in America. Edward Lifson reports.
EDWARD LIFSON: When we talk about how America came to dominate the art world, the story mostly taken place in New York. Now, Los Angeles wants its share of the narrative. For the past 10 years, the super-rich, L.A.-based Getty Foundation has doled out grants to help realize "Pacific Standard Time" - about $10 million total - to large and small museums and cultural venues from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD TRIPPIN'")
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) Blue you sit so pretty west of the one.
LIFSON: This being L.A., the press preview at the Getty opened with a dreamy, overproduced film using celebrity cachet - the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis bonding with L.A. artist Ed Ruscha. And yes, they're driving in a car.
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ED RUSCHA: I like looking at art that I'm not in anticipation of.
ANTHONY KIEDIS: You know, I feel the same way. My favorite experience with art is visceral - where I see it and it just makes me go, oh, oh, oh, look at that, oh. Something great happened right there.
LIFSON: And that's the theme of "Pacific Standard Time" - that something great happened right here. The exhibitions run from L.A. pop to pottery; they cover the tumultuous 1960s and '70s, with the African-American L.A. rebellion, Chicano, Asian-American and feminist work. George Herms was part of the scene almost from the beginning. He was friends with beat writers and poets, Herms created assemblages and collages out of found objects.
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LIFSON: Today, he's in his mid-70s and still works in his Topanga Canyon studio. And the Getty asked him to kick off "Pacific Standard Time," or "PST," with free jazz on a homemade instrument and a riff on his fellow artists.
GEORGE HERMS: Beauty is your duty. And remember, kids, it's not secondhand smoke that kills; it's secondhand thoughts.
LIFSON: Another artist in "PST" studied painting at an auto body shop, then in the early 1960s sprayed the hood of a Chevy Corvair with bright colors and patterns and hung it on the wall. Sound macho? The artist is Judy Chicago. She told the press preview that the scene was way too macho, but that she still owes a lot to the spirit that was here.
JUDY CHICAGO: It's freedom from the shadow of European art; the freedom from the shadow of the art market and of New York. It allowed artists to think about making work and not selling work. The idea was to be taken seriously as an artist - that was the goal that we all had.
LIFSON: "Pacific Standard Time" aims to inspire the next generation to learn about the struggles of the past.
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SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Thank you for letting me be myself again.
LIFSON: Leimert Park is still a center of L.A.'s African-American culture. Dale Davis and his brother ran Brockman Gallery at 4334 Degnan, from the 1960s to the '80s.
DALE DAVIS: We had ceramics; we had very fine-art prints; we had silk screens. We had art in Leimert Park - in the actual park - hanging on ropes between trees. I guess people would look at it and say, ah, it's very primitive. But who cares? The idea was, we wanted the community to see the art.
LIFSON: In the late '60s while fighting the draft, Davis assembled metal and glazed clay pieces - some 4 feet high - into what look like bombs. He named it "Viet Nam Game." It's in the "PST" show "Now Dig This!" at the Hammer Museum, and Davis is especially proud that it's in the catalog.
DAVIS: It's what we have needed as minority people: documents that show that we exist, and that we have made a difference in the lives of Los Angelenos and now, the world view.
LIFSON: In L.A., cultures intersect, overlap and influence the aesthetic.
DORA DE LARIOS: Hi, how are you? Good to see you. Would you like some coffee?
LIFSON: Dora De Larios serves coffee in turned and glazed mugs in her West L.A. studio that also holds 10-feet-high ceramic totems and other crosscultural works that reflect her Mexican heritage and her childhood in L.A.
POST: Artist Dora De Larios incorrectly defines nisei as being first-generation Americans. The nisei are second-generation, born in the U.S. to immigrant parents.]
DE LARIOS: In our neighborhood, there were nisei - first generation to the United States, immigrants from Japan. And I loved the people. And they all spoke Spanish because our whole neighborhood spoke Spanish. It didn't matter if you were pink, you had to speak Spanish.
LIFSON: And so she came to incorporate an Asian aesthetic into her work. She takes a light-green vase off the shelf.
DE LARIOS: It's made of porcelain and it has a celadon glaze, and it's subtle and quiet. The relief is just an abstraction of brush strokes. But it doesn't say anything. I mean, it's not saying, oh, my gosh, in Japanese or anything. It's just an expression.
LIFSON: Her glazed stoneware Mother and Child from 1968 can be seen at the Autry National Center in the "PST" exhibition called "Art along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation." During the 10 years of preparation for "Pacific Standard Time," scholars dug deep into archives, and interviewed artists, dealers and collectors. Labs restored and preserved these often-fragile works. All of it is now documented. Annie Philbin directs the Hammer Museum. She quotes an L.A. artist.
ANNIE PHILBIN: Lari Pittman said something the other night, at our gala - where he said, this is a moment where L.A. gets to shine and look very glamorous and very polished and very together. But let's just have that be tonight, and let's wake up tomorrow and still keep it a fixer-upper. And I think that's kind of the feeling that everybody has a little bit. It's like, let's not get carried away with this because we do love that aspect of everything being possible because it's not codified.
LIFSON: For a city that is largely about tomorrow and imagining new possibilities, "Pacific Standard Time" is one sustained and serious look in the rearview mirror. For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson in Los Angeles.