Westward-Ho! the Art Capital of America

CALIFORNIA PAINTERS: NEW WORK by Henry T. Hopkins, Portraits by Jim McHugh, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 143 pp., $40 cloth, $29.95 paper

THERE are those who insist that Los Angeles, not New York, is America's art capital. These individuals point to the lively Los Angeles art scene, to the city's passionate commitment to the artistically novel, and to its brand-new, forward-looking art museums.

But most of all, they point to the many famous and about-to-be-famous painters, sculptors, printmakers, video and performance artists, what have you - who live, work, and exhibit there.

It's a strong enough argument - especially when it touches upon uninhibited expression and innovative ideas - to make a number of New York art professionals a bit apprehensive. And their concern is hardly alleviated whenever a new book extolling Los Angeles or California art comes on the market.

``California Painters: New Work,'' an oversize, richly illustrated book devoted to paintings executed since 1984 by 41 California artists, is a good case in point. Not only does its author, Henry T. Hopkins, state that ``Destiny and a solid economic base seem to be shaping California as the new creative center of the nation,'' but he also goes on to inform the reader that from California ``will flow the ideas that will feed the nation.''

To support these claims, Hopkins focuses on two of California's (and America's) ``big gun'' artists, Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis, and a number of only slightly less well-known painters, including Roy De Forest, Robert Colescott, Nathan Oliveira, Edward Ruscha, Joan Brown, Mark Tansey, Wayne Thiebaud, and Joyce Treiman. In addition, he enlists the services of the English painter David Hockney, whose presence may be a bit unfair, but whose inclusion isn't as far-fetched as it may seem. No one, after all, has caught the spirit of southern California better than he has in paint.

Each artist is represented by at least two works, a photographic portrait in color by Jim McHugh, and (in most instances) a short statement. Although few of these statements add anything significant to the visual impact of the paintings, some do underscore the common-sense attitude of several of the artists. Colescott's words make particular sense: ``First of all, I'm a painter and so I want to make paintings that look good.... Second, I want to make paintings that are about things that interest me. I paint about myself a lot.'' And not to be outdone, Frank Romero declares, ``My art is about having fun.''

Treiman, on the other hand, takes a more serious position. ``To make connections in my art with ideas, with great art that has been done, with myth: this is my challenge and what I have tried to cope with.''

Another serious note is struck by Gordon Onslow-Ford, one of the ``old masters'' of California art, when he informs us that ``Painting is my form of meditation. For a day to be bread I need to create something, to see anew.''

When all is said and done, of course, it's the art that matters most. Here the book scores significantly with a steady stream of fair-to-excellent examples of late-1980s painting representing almost every currently fashionable mode of expression - as well as a few that tend toward the idiosyncratic and controversial.

Masami Teraoka, for instance, borrows heavily from traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints in order to comment on social and environmental issues in ways that allow him to ``use both the subtlety of Japanese art and the dynamism of its American counterpart.'' De Forest, in a lighter vein, creates a wildly fanciful and colorful world in which dogs of all shapes and sizes play major roles. And Jess, ever novel and imaginative, uses subtle variations of dense collage and montage effects to fashion richly detailed, highly ambiguous private universes.

For sheer quality, however, Diebenkorn - as usual - comes out on top. His ``Ocean Park #132'' is undoubtedly the finest, the most sophisticated, the most accomplished painting in it, and one of the strongest Diebenkorns of recent years. And yet, one wonders, would he now have quite the reputation he has in California if he hadn't convinced New York-based critics and curators of his importance? I think not. And that brings us right back to the issue of Los Angeles vs. New York. Unquestionably, artists living in or near Los Angeles produce excellent and significant art, but it is still New York's approval that is sought if a truly major art-world reputation is to be achieved. Once that is no longer the case - and I suspect that time might not be far off - Los Angeles could easily become the art-world equal of New York, and possibly even its superior.

In the meantime, however, California artists will continue to go their own way as Hopkins details in the introduction to this generally quite excellent survey of that state's best-known painters. Peter Alexander will go on producing his glowing nighttime aerial views of cities; William Brice will persist with his stark, dramatically simplified totemic-like images; Jill Giegerich will maintain her position as one of California's best nonobjective artists; and everyone else in this book, from Hans Burkhardt to Paul Wonner, will continue to create and to exhibit locally with diminishing concern for what New York might or might not think of their work.

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