The public can relive a groovy decade of Orange County art history beginning this Sunday by visiting the Laguna Art Museum’s exhibition, “Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971.”
It spotlights a hip Orange County known by few that welcomed a roster of bonafide cutting-edge artists, from California and overseas, as UC Irvine instructors, whose adventurous students in some instances grew up to eclipse their mentors.
Instructors Tony DeLap, Vija Celmins, Ron Davis, Robert Irwin, David Hockney, Craig Kauffman and Ed Moses among others, mentored students like Michael Asher, Nancy Buchanan, Chris Burden, Marcia Hafif, Jay McCafferty, Alexis Smith and James Turrell, to name a few.
Today, such students and their teachers are on equal footing, their work in permanent collections of museums world-wide and commanding stratospheric prices none of them ever dreamed of then.
“We all wanted to sell our art then but it really was not about that, it was about it being seen, about feedback,” recalled DeLap, of Corona del Mar. He served as consultant to the show curated by the museum’s curator, Grace Kook-Anderson.
It all began in 1961 when Artforum writer/critic John Coplans was hired to establish a studio art department at fledgling UCI. He recruited DeLap, who had taught at various institutions in the San Francisco Bay area and at the Claremont colleges to oversee the hiring of faculty.
With an aesthetically diverse faculty, various isms such as Finish Fetish, Light and Space, performance, video, conceptualism, feminism, and installation thrived, causing Ed Moses to reportedly compare the place to a Petri dish.
Los Angeles artist Larry Bell recalls teaching a few semesters of sculpture at UCI. “It was mostly about decision making, instilling confidence and helping students trust their intuitions and feelings,” he said. “It wasn’t much of a scene, so most interactions took place in artists’ studios. Mostly, we were trying to do stuff that nobody else had done before.”
The re-installation of his 1967 “Houdin’s House” in the museum exhibition evidences his ability to conjure the unusual, driven in part by a fascination with magic and illusion. The latter also inform his early glass pieces, distinguished by intricate interplay of shape and pattern and later work that cleverly manipulates perceptions of light and shadow.
DeLap suggested the early UCI years as an exhibition subject to Bolton Colburn, the museum’s former executive director. He determined the show would serve as a suitable contribution to Pacific Standard Time, the six-month long series celebrating the birth of the Los Angeles art scene after WWII. “Best Kept…” runs in tandem with others underway at museums and galleries around the region.
DeLap recalls an era of less isolation between the Los Angeles and Orange County art scenes. “There were few barriers between places then and even fewer galleries we needed to get to if we wanted to show our work,” he said. “But, with no traffic to speak of, we felt free to travel where and when we pleased.”
Kook-Anderson, a relative newcomer to the area, said, “it’s been fun to hear accounts of when there was almost nothing there. Yet, it was not a boring place because the intellectual community was strong. Instead of looking for material stimulation, artists saw potential–it was a bit like a Western frontier,” she said.
Side Bar Events:
Sunday, Oct. 30. Curatorial walk-through with Grace Kook-Anderson, 1 p.m.
Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive www.lagunaartmuseum.org Free with paid admission.
Friday, Nov. 4. Films by Marcia Hafif 6:30 p.m. reception 7 p.m. screening. UC Irvine, McCormick Screening Room, Humanities Gateway Bldg. free. park $10
Sunday, Nov. 13 Art Education Then and Now panel discussion. 1 p.m. Laguna Art Museum 307 Cliff Dr. Free with paid admission. www.lagunaartmuseum.org
Saturday, Dec. 3. Curatorial walk-through with Grace Kook-Anderson, 1:30 p.m. Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr. Free with half-price admission www.lagunaartmuseum.org
Friday, Dec. 9 Films by Richard Newton, 6:30 p.m. reception 7 p.m. screening. UC Irvine, McCormick Screening Room, Humanities Gateway Bldg. Free. Parking, $10
Friday, Jan. 13. Films by Gary Beydler, 6:30 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. screening. UC Irvine, McCormick Screening Room, Humanities Gateway Bldg. Free. Parking, $10
Sunday, Jan. 15. Conversations with Peter Frank and Cecile Whiting, moderated by Grace Kook-Anderson 1 p.m. Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr. Free w. paid admission.