LEARN: Assemblage in L.A.

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.

Though it could be considered cliché today to say that Los Angeles is like a collage, the truth remains that the city is pieced together from disparate neighborhoods, attitudes, and histories. Its freeways and thoroughfares are at times the sutures that hold its citizens together, but at others the divisions that tear them apart. Perhaps it is this aspect of L.A. that fostered an inclination on the part of its artists toward collage and assemblage. The Getty’s site illustrates the broad range of materials, scale, and subject matter that they adopted when creating objects in this medium.

(A note on vocabulary: the term “collage” is often used to refer to two-dimensional, flatter compositions, and “assemblage” has come to signify sculptural, three-dimensional works. But both refer generally to art objects that are made from fragments of different materials joined together.)

Beginning in the late 1950s—and intensifying through the 1960s—L.A. artists embraced collage and assemblage for numerous reasons. For one, their main ingredients were usually found objects, which artists could unearth from the world around them at little to no cost. The postwar period was a time when consumerism was on an exponential rise. So were the trash heaps, which filled with refuse as Americans bought the next best product and threw out the old. In works by Edward Kienholz, Gordon Wagner, and Llyn Foulkes, objects like dolls, typewriters, signs, doorframes, plastic and painted elements come together to produce intriguing and often disconcerting results.

Artists could also take on collage and assemblage with little to no artistic training. This was the case for George Herms, who modeled his artistic approach on the work of Wallace Berman and Robert Alexander. He met them by chance in the mid-fifties and they soon amassed a close-knit group of artists, poets and actors, each of whom created collages and hovered at the edges of mainstream society. Many of their constructions were private aesthetic statements sent through the mail; others were sculptural objects that brought new life to that society’s detritus.

This transformative potential of collage and assemblage—wherein the old is enriched and reimagined in novel and thought-provoking ways—made it an excellent mouthpiece for the major sociopolitical shifts that characterized the 1960s. Melvin Edwards constructed his Lynch Fragments, a trenchant series of steel sculptures, by welding together scavenged pieces of metal. Edwards manipulated each scrap so that its previous life is just recognizable, but is subsumed into a new, provocative whole. Noah Purifoy, for his part, used burnt rubble from the 1965 uprisings in Watts to produce compositions that speak of the hardships of L.A.’s African Americans but also suggest the possibility of rebirth and renewal.

Watts is of course also the home of the Watts Towers, L.A.’s most prominent and monumental assemblage. Built entirely by one Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia, the towers became a symbol of personal achievement and aesthetic vision. They influenced many artists to create artworks out of found materials, including Betye Saar, as she explains in a compelling video. Saar mentions another inspiration for her framed constructions: an exhibition in 1967 of Joseph Cornell’s surrealist assemblages. Organized at the Pasadena Art Museum by the renowned curator Walter Hopps, this and other of his exhibitions, particularly of Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, played a prominent role in promoting collage and assemblage to artists in L.A.

While the postwar turn to assemblage in California is sometimes dubbed a “movement,” it clearly encompassed a vast network of artists of different backgrounds and methods, each working in their own idiom. The ability to juxtapose past and present, multiple dimensions, and myriad social references made collage and assemblage a logical vehicle for the aesthetic experimentations of Los Angeles’s artists. And it continues to do so today.

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

by Claire de Dobay Rifelj

Also see A History of L.A. Artist Studios


1) The Phrenologer’s Window, 1966, Betye Saar. Assemblage of two-panel wood frame with print and collage. 18 1/2 x 29 3/8 x 1 in. Private collection, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY. © Betye Saar

2) Untitled (Art is Love is God), 1955, Robert Alexander. Wooden box, photograph, bullet, and paper. 3 7/16 x 6 7/16 x 3 5/16 in. The Getty Research Institute, Charles Brittin Papers, 2005.M.11.29. Courtesy of the Temple of Man, Inc.

3) Card to George Herms, 1967, Dean Stockwell. Letterpress, ink, and gelatin silver prints on board. 5 1/4 x 3 9/16 in. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of George Herms, 2009.M.20.17. © Dean Stockwell

4) The Librarian, 1960, George Herms. Wooden box, papers, books, loving cup, and painted stool. 57 x 63 x 21 in. Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Molly Barnes. © George Herms

5) Gordon Wagner in his studio, ca. 1964–66. Photo by and © Harry Drinkwater