A History of L.A. Art Spaces

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.

A recurring refrain throughout the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions has been the notion that in pre-1980 Los Angeles, opportunities for artists to exhibit and to profit from their artistic activities were scarce. While the latter is certainly true—L.A. had no where near the stockpile of collectors, galleries, and museums as did a city like New York—the Getty’s online archive highlights the wide variety of sites that artists found to show their work.

To give a little background, L.A. proper did not have a dedicated art museum until 1965, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard. At its predecessor—the Los Angeles County Museum of Science, History and Art in Exposition Park—some L.A. artists were included in the annual juried exhibitions, but art galleries in the 1940s and early 50s rarely showed work by young L.A. artists. Certain spaces did at least expose them to the work of New York and European avant-gardes, including book stores like Jake Zeitlin’s “Red Barn,M.J. Royer’s Book Shop, and Books 55, as well as Barbara Byrnes’s American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood.

Artists responded to this dearth of gallery representation with inventive solutions. In the mid-1950s, Edward Kienholz negotiated with the owner of the Coronet Louvre Theatre on La Cienega to install work by local artists in its lobby. He did the same with the greenroom of the Turnabout Theatre, a space that Kienholz named the NOW Gallery. In a more private context, Wallace Berman was known to make art inside of abandoned buildings in Venice Beach, and in 1957 George Herms staged his “Secret Exhibition,” an ephemeral display of work on Hermosa Beach open one day only to close friends. In later years, Billy Al Bengston and Guy Dill made their studios available for exhibitions and performances by fellow artists.

By the 1960s, numerous gallery owners came to appreciate the artistic talent emerging from these makeshift spaces, and the hotspot for viewing it was on La Cienega between Melrose and Santa Monica Boulevard. On Monday night “Art Walks,” visitors would flock to galleries run by, among others, Felix Landau, Esther Robles, David Stuart, Rolf Nelson, Nicholas Wilder, Riko Mizuno, and Molly Barnes. One prominent stop was the Ferus Gallery, one of the earliest spaces on La Cienega to focus on L.A. art—including that of Kienholz, one of its co-founders.

On the museum front, LACMA may not have opened until 1965, but the nearby Pasadena Art Museum, under the direction of Thomas Leavitt and Walter Hopps, gave important solo exhibitions to artists working in L.A. in the 1960s such as Llyn Foulkes, Peter Voulkos, Craig Kauffman, and Ken Price. It was also the site of Hopps’s New Painting of Common Objects—the first exhibition of Pop art in an American museum—which featured paintings by Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode. Ruscha mentions in a video that LACMA was slower to promote art made in Los Angeles. However, thanks in part to the efforts of curator Henry Hopkins, the museum soon followed Pasadena’s lead and organized exhibitions showcasing L.A. artists in the 1960s and ’70s.

For women artists and artists of color, meanwhile, the prospect of showing one’s work in Los Angeles was still difficult. Betye Saar found early opportunities at small organizations like the Palos Verdes Library, and later received attention from larger institutions as well as galleries devoted to the work of African American artists. Noah Purifoy, for his part, organized the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon at UCLA, which presented assemblages made from the rubble of the Watts uprisings. Universities frequently supported L.A.’s less-represented artists, and it was at the California Institute for the Arts that the groundbreaking Feminist Art Program, under the direction of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schaprio, came into being. For one of its projects—Womanhouse—female students transformed the rooms of a suburban house into art installations that played upon notions of domesticity and societal constraints.

Bypassing altogether the need for an exhibition space, Eleanor Antin produced her serial postcard work, 100 Boots, which she sent through the postal service. Between 1971 and 1973, Antin mailed out 51 sets of postcards that told the story, in pictures, of one hundred boots as they traveled across the country. Ed Ruscha also circumvented the gallery system by producing paperback artist books, each one illustrating a series of mundane objects in a deadpan photographic style. He sold them for as little as $2.50, which made them available to virtually anyone.

Artists in L.A. have consistently found ways to exhibit their work in both traditional and unconventional spaces, bringing their work to various audiences both large and small. This innovative spirit is still present today, even as Los Angeles is now considered a major center for contemporary art with world-class museums and dozens of high profile galleries.

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

by Claire de Dobay Rifelj


1. Interior view of Barbara Byrnes’s American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood in the late 1940s. Image courtesy of James Byrnes

2. Wallace Berman in an abandoned building on the Speedway (an alleyway running parallel to the beach) in Venice, California, ca. 1955–57. The Getty Research Institute, Charles Brittin papers, 2005.M.11. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Photo by Charles Brittin

3. Exhibition announcement for Action2: Works by West Coast Painters, at the NOW Gallery inside the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles, September 5–25, 1956. Robert Alexander, designer. Letterpress on paper mounted on cardboard. The Getty Research Institute, Charles Brittin papers, 2005.M.11.15. Courtesy of the Temple of Man, Inc.

4. Felix Landau in his gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. Photo by Frank J. Thomas. Courtesy of the Frank J. Thomas Archives

5. Exterior view of Nicholas Wilder Gallery at the time of Ronald Davis’s first solo exhibition in 1965. Image courtesy of Ronald Davis

6. Poster for Karl Benjamin exhibition at the Esther-Robles Gallery in Los Angeles, 1964. © Karl Benjamin. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Michael Asher, 2009.M.30.12