How to Make Art History

Laura Owens, "Untitled," 2013, Acrylic, oil and Flashe on canvas. Courtesy the artist.
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Right now, in some small room, art history is being made.

The notion is a carved chunk of marble, a brass plaque, the halls of cold museums with blue-jacketted guards and a gift shop. A distant, grandiose thing. Forget about making history, many of us have trouble just getting out of bed.

All established culture, all art history, every weighty name plunked on every page of a textbook persists for a single reason: someone like you paid attention. A million tiny gestures and conversations, inspirations and contemplations, resistances and assertions, dreams and protests make any singular work of art possible; but what binds it all together is this almost neutral kind of care. I want to talk about paying attention, but I also want to show it to you: a few of the smallest moments that made up a history.

All writers and artists, curators and performers are utterly alone without you. Hate us, love us; be titillated, encouraged, bored, confused, or upset. The slap of your mockery will sting for sure, but beyond the discouragement there’s some consolation: you were, at very least, paying attention. This is one of the most basic gifts we can give: call it a currency or a commodity if your political economies bend that way. The Washington Post changed its motto not long ago to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Most everything can die there, including me and you, including art. When we pay attention to an artist or an exhibition, a piece of writing or a pirouette, we are giving it air and light.

It’s easy to get lost in chunky monographs and slick auction catalogues, the ads and articles of glossy magazines and the stiff archival paper of academic journals, trying to figure out how any of us can make a lasting contribution to the world through our work. We should talk about who’s paying attention; who has the time and the power to make others do the same; who’s got a megaphone and how they got it. There are responsibilities and risks: the weight of memory and the ease of erasure. Damnatio Memoriae is a Latin term that means “condemnation of memory,” sentencing a person to oblivion, by forgetting. It’s the fate of faces carved off monuments and names forbidden from repetition. Eliminating all recollection of a person was considered a punishment worse than execution.  

I’ve been paying attention to art in Los Angeles for my entire adult life. I don’t have any formal training in the history of art and the subject seemed too monolithic, too large for me to ever properly understand it all. But as a young writer I was inspired, perplexed, intrigued by art and artists and all the trappings and structures that surrounded them. So I sought to grasp it as best I could on a molecular level: the stories and histories, the artists, young and old, famous and unknown, the galleries and spaces of all sizes and durations that I could learn in my own city. I went to every opening and listened to every oldster with a tale. I watched closely and read widely. I braved traffic for dozens of exhibitions and events every week, and saw everything I could physically see. After fifteen years, I’m still here, paying attention, writing down what I can, remembering all I’m able to. The deeper one delves, the deeper art goes.

I’ve watched teenagers discover art, flail and fail, struggle and sweat into careers. I’ve seen explosive growth and bitter failures. Watched the coolest kids get their pics snapped by famous designers in fashion magazines and then utterly disappear: the hottest artists of one year or another, all but forgotten. And so many, too many maybe, that quietly drifted away. I’ve seen it happen more than once. Day by day, gesture by gesture, I’ve watched history get made. I’ve learned that all the most important artists and movements, legends and icons of art passed through places and communities just like this one. And for every art historical luminary there have been thousands around her creating a world through acts of care and attention, ambition and hunger, heart and soul. It takes all of this to make history.

The most important moments of the history that I’ve been lucky enough to witness didn’t occur at the opening of a retrospective or a VIP cocktail party or an exclusive gala. They happened in small dark places with just a few people: in tiny offerings of attention that accrued weight and significance with each act and each witness. Together we shared our lives and shaped them for one another. The people we fought and fucked, helped and avoided, sweated and dreamed and made art with. I saw it in performances where I could count the audience on one hand. Openings in basements and garages, the shabby office at the front of a bunch of studios that everyone shares as a makeshift gallery. I saw it happen in people’s living rooms, at exhibitions with little fanfare and less money.

My friend Martha sometimes jokes, darkly, that Berlin is the cemetery of her youth. For me, that’s Chinatown in Los Angeles. One of my first jobs out of school was working for China Art Objects Galleries. By the late ‘90s, they were at the center of a scene that brought thousands from all over the world to descend on a slightly run-down tourist’s neighborhood with an embarrassment of cheap, empty storefronts. Whether China Art or Black Dragon Society was the first gallery in Chinatown is of some debate, but outside of the debaters, it might not matter. I can walk down Chung King Road and list in every storefront the succession of galleries and artist studios, artist-run and alternative spaces, non-profits, for-profits, and no-profits. I can point to the building where Daniel Hug and Golinko Kordansky opened on Bernard St. Ivan Golinko quit to become a designer. David Kordansky moved through a succession of ever-larger spaces and is now one of the most successful galleries in Los Angeles. Dan Hug left eventually to become the director of Art Cologne and then Francois Ghebaly took over his space, and when David Kordansky moved to Culver City, the artist-run exhibition and performance space Human Resources began there. It’s where Joel Mesler had Pruess Press (and probably still holds the lease) after he finished diannapruess gallery and before he started Rental, and I know that he handed off that particular office to Trudi, a collective that was mostly just the artist Matt Chambers, who handed it off to a bunch of artists who ran it as a gallery space called WPA. For years in the front vitrine of a shared hallway, artist Brian Kennon ran  a gallery for his press called 2nd Cannons. The space was about two feet by four feet, had a sliding glass door, and truly great shows. He paid for it all by covering the building’s trash bill.

I’d hate to count the number of icey Tecates I pulled from red buckets there, how many openings and readings and screenings, birthday parties, and endurance performances. I saw Julie Tolentino kneel for hours while gallons of honey poured into her mouth and down her naked body. In the street there, I saw Dawn Kasper after a wildly frenetic performance crash her truck into another car after she sped away as a finale. I can still see Dan’s smile and hear David carefully and precisely taking apart a review I wrote of one of his shows word-by-word in the street, asking and probing what I really meant. He might have quoted Calvin Coolidge. I remember meeting a 23-year-old Neil Beloufa, before MoMA and the Biennale and all the prizes, as he scrambled together that installation that formed one of his very first shows. Another artist showing at 2nd Cannons did a mock sculpture of the thickest Artforum you ever saw as a critique of magazine-ad commerce; his exhibition opened the week that the world financial markets – and the artworld (and Artforum’s ad revenue) – collapsed. Last I heard, the whole of the building on Bernard St. was the painter Henry Taylor’s studio. This is just one building. Every city has a building like this. Dozens upon dozens.

But in that one building, for the time it was lively, I saw almost every artist from LA (and beyond) you ever heard of. And probably most importantly, thousands of artists you never did. I saw the countless artists and patrons, passersby off the street alongside super-serious curators and collectors and critics. All the accumulated reviews and features from a hundred magazines and newspapers, most of which have since gone out of business. I saw the old woman that collected all the empty cans for recycling and the one with the blond dreadlocks and the limp that never failed to show up for the free beer. All the students and friends and family and scenesters. Every single one of them made up a community that shaped a time and place. They shaped my life as much as they shaped art history.   

One of the things that I really like about Laura Owens’s new catalogue for her retrospective at the Whitney Museum is her inclusion of letters, receipts, and all  kinds of other ephemera. Coming of age as an artist in Los Angeles (she also showed at China Arts in 1999), you can see her broke and trying to hustle money, getting turned down for jobs: the notes for projects never realized and the flyers for shows all but forgotten. You can see the tiny actions and disappointments, the diligence and struggle that made up just her early life as an artist. On her website, you can peek at the flyers of every group show she was ever in. One of them, apparently at a DMV in Hollywood in 1998, lists well over a hundred artists, each contributing a 5×7 inch card to an exhibition that lasted a couple of weeks in July. Some of these artists went on to become stars and others distinguished professors. Some dropped out and came back. Some disappeared into other lives, some into death. Only one of them had a solo retrospective at the Whitney Museum. That community, so evident here in this omnibus show, needed to happen. All of those artists needed to be there. I cherish everyone that simply showed up.  

Showing up is the most important part of the job, and it’s one of the most important parts of life. Being present, paying attention, giving and receiving care. And maybe some of the hundred artists in Owens’s show didn’t even show up; maybe some people just came because they wanted to get laid, to go to a party, to dress up and be seen. But together, they made a moment, a buzz of energy and activity. They made a world and contributed in their small way to history. They made being an artist or caring about art less lonely. Does it matter that some of them became famous and some didn’t?

I’ve woven together a professional life paying attention to art, doing my best to look deep and respond truly. To witness all those words and pictures, acts and ideas, individuals and collectives that pass before me, to try and contain these stories, to repeat them when anyone comes asking.

It took a thousand attempts to write this one thing. It took a thousand people you’ve never heard of and few that you have to make even this possible. A thousand blows for just this one break, each and every important.   

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