LEARN: A History of L.A. Artist Studios

As Part of the Citywide Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 Collaboration, the Getty Center has Recently Launched an Interactive Web Archive. ForYourArt Asked Claire de Dobay Rifelj to Help Navigate the Archive.

This dynamic site offers a digital snapshot of the art scene in Los Angeles from 1945–1980 via artworks, documentary images, video interviews with artists and a historical map related to its four exhibitions.

The years following World War II were not always hospitable for young artists working in Los Angeles. Not only was there a conservative attitude amongst the city’s cultural elite, but also galleries were interested in showing modern art from Europe and New York rather than that of the homegrown variety. Though the 1960s were more favorable to L.A. artists in terms of exhibition possibilities and recognition, the studio played a crucial role in the production and dissemination of artists’ work.

The Getty’s map of historic sites shows that studios were located throughout the L.A. basin, and different neighborhoods shifted in popularity over time. In the 1950s, many artists worked in what today is West Hollywood. This put them close to “Gallery Row,” the crop of art galleries that stretched along La Cienega between Melrose and Santa Monica Boulevard. For only ten dollars a month, Billy Al Bengston rented a space on Clark Street in the same building as Robert Irwin, with John Altoon a few doors down. Later on, in the hills north of Sunset, artists Edward Kienholz and Betye Saar both experimented with assemblage.

Artists migrated in large numbers to the edges of the city throughout the 1960s in search of bigger spaces and cheaper prices. Venice, a rundown neighborhood at the time, drew both painters and sculptors. Market Street alone housed Larry Bell, Irwin (now in a new space) and De Wain Valentine, each of whom filled their warehouse-sized studios with heavy machinery and large sculptures and installations. On the opposite side of L.A., Pasadena became a hotbed of artistic activity at a time when rents were low and the Pasadena Art Museum was producing groundbreaking exhibitions. Within just a few blocks were the studios of Judy Chicago and Lloyd Hamrol, Mark di Suvero, Ronald Davis, Bruce Nauman, and Norman Zammitt.

Photographs of L.A. artists’ studios suggest that they usually contained more order than chaos. While the walls of Vija Celmins’s space in Venice have traces of drips from her paintings of common objects, white sheets of paper or canvas provide a layer of cleanliness. She stands in front of them looking impossibly hip. And though Ed Moses is seen painting with a roller on the floor of his studio, creating a potential mess, clear plastic sheets protect the flooring from any splatters. Behind him, supplies are lined in rows. In another shot, Ed Bereal poses in his space in Eagle Rock next to a selection of his sculptures, which are installed as neatly as if they were in a gallery. In fact, Billy Al Bengston used his own studio, now in Venice, as an exhibition space that he called Artist Studio, replete with stark white walls and polished flooring.

Studios don’t necessarily have a direct effect on the work that’s made within them, but in some cases they certainly do. Working out of his modest suburban home on South Ogden Drive, Robert Graham produced small boxes containing miniaturized forms and figures. Richard Diebenkorn, meanwhile, began painting larger, more abstract canvases in response to his new large studio in Santa Monica. As a video interview with curator Sarah Bancroft explains, he was affected by the light that streamed daily through the studio’s transom windows—an influence that was shared by artists working all across L.A.’s varied landscape.

Delve deeper into the history of the Los Angeles art world by visiting Pacific Standard Time at the Getty Center. The Getty will continue to add materials to this site, so check back often.

by Claire de Dobay Rifelj

Also see What You Need to Know About L.A.’s Ceramic History.

1. Vija Celmins in her studio in Venice, California, 1966. Photo by Tony Berlant. Art © Vija Celmins
2. Ed Moses working on a resin painting on the floor of his studio in the early 1970s. Image courtesy of Ed Moses
3. Larry Bell in his studio in Venice, California, ca. late 1960s. Image courtesy of and © Larry Bell