“Tip the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
Once said Frank Lloyd Wright, famously smug. In his mind was the teenage City of Angels, then and now a sprawling metropolis of traffic jams, cultural piracy, and media cacophony. Angelenos had no innate culture but for those rootless scraps landing from elsewhere, and so emerged the LA style of denuded cool. It was a raucous period extending from the end of the 1960s into the early 1980s where there emerged a new context formed by accord between art and architecture and contest between commerce and creativity. The dynamics of this period are what curator Sylvia Lavin explores in ‘Everything Loose Will Land’ at the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House in Chicago, Illinois.
The exhibit arrived in spring 2014 in Chicago after an inaugural 2013 appearance in LA (obviously), at the Mak Center’s Schindler House, and an interim show at Yale’s Paul Rudolph Hall Exhibition Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. And for a exhibit documenting the emergence of an aesthetic common language from a place without one, that Lavin’s curation appears in Chicago—a city connected to LA by federal governance and not much else—adds a hint of irony to the show’s coy celebration of creative cross-pollination between art and architecture.
Included in the exhibition are 120 drawings, photographs, models, sculptures, and multimedia-miscellany from names like Judy Chicago, Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Denise Scott Brown, Maria Nordman, Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, Ron Herron, and many others. The Madlener House, a 1902 mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright-contemporary Richard E. Schmidt, and present home to the Graham Foundation, hosts the exhibition on its main and second floors. A cardboard sculpture of Bloxes greets you in the main foyer. It has no explicit connection to Lavin’s exhibition but implicitly comments on the malleability of retrospection; a tongue-in-cheek welcome to how ‘Everything Loose’ celebrates the varied.
The works are arranged into four distinct categories—Environments, Users, Procedures, and Lumens—which the brochure copy declares as four triggers “that caused architecture to coincide with other art forms as it sought to engage in this new cultural logic [emergent in 1970s in LA].” It’s not immediately obvious that this is the intention for the exhibit’s organization, though whatever feelings of disarray one senses walking through the rooms is likely postmodern reverb from the aesthetic discord of 1970s LA, emanating from many pieces as a dull glow.
In Lumens, on the second floor of the gallery, a five-foot-tall blue plexiglass pane, designed by Cesar Pelli and Victor Gruen Associates, reflects Connections, a geometric glass and wood sculpture by Frank Gehry and Richard Serra. Behind that, Billy Al Bengston’s Tubsteak, iconoclastic and psychedelic, lacquer on formica. On the northern wall, four flatscreens with obscure footage by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, John Whitney, and Eric Saarinen (son of Eero, who introduced the 20th Century to extraterrestrial architecture). In the room on the opposite side of the wall plays a film by Environmental Communications, originally installed in 1977 at LACMA.
The first floor is dedicated to Users and Environments. Unlike the white walls of the upper floors, the main floors pop with the fluorescent pinks and golds of painter Judy Ledgerwood’s Chromatic Patterns installations. These are floor-to-ceiling paintings reimagining baroque window screens against two-dimensional drywall, and much like the Bloxes, separate but complementary of Lavin’s selections. Collages by Ron Herron (Archigram), one-off catalogs and publications by Judy Chicago and Leon Koren, event posters by Morphosis, and handwritten notes from artist and architecture studios, present a multi-sensate visual mediated not only by materials (large plastic bubbles guard ephemera in appropriately space-aged fashion) but also by time itself.
Lavin calls the “cultural epistemology” emergent in 1970s LA a product of looseness and a “precise model city of the future.” Her exhibition highlights the interchange between the visual and architectural arts that, at the pinnacle of the postmodern era, established contexts for new cosmopolitan languages, apparitions, and celebrations. ‘Everything Loose’ suggests that culture, like matter, does not disappear; it lands.
[This article was written for the 2014 Frieze Writer’s Prize, which I am proud to add to my growing list of contests lost. I hope you’ve enjoyed my failure.]