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Frieze Los Angeles 2022

The Alternative Art Spaces That Shaped Los Angeles

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the landmark feminist performance space ‘Womanhouse’, Lauren Guilford introduces us to three spaces that shaped the Los Angeles art scene as we know it

BY Lauren Guilford in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine , Opinion | 14 FEB 22

The 1960s and ’70s in Los Angeles saw the emergence of numerous overlapping art communities, making this a pivotal period in which one can trace the roots of the city’s burgeoning modern-day art scene. Back then, Black, female and Chicanx artists, largely dismissed by mainstream culture, established the kind of counterinstitutions they saw necessary to reclaim cultural space. These alternative sites acted as creative incubators, supporting a range of emerging and experimental practices.

Watts Towers Simon Rodia 1951
Simon Rodia standing outside the Watts Towers, 1951. Courtesy: © Getty Images and Hulton Archive

The Watts Towers Arts Center

Between 1921 and 1954, an Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia, designed and built the Watts Towers in Los Angeles: epic, three-dimensional collages made from cement, sand and material scraps. In 1964, artist and educator Noah Purifoy co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Center (WTAC) with Judson Powell and Sue Welsh, intending it to be a place of creative freedom in which Black artists could exhibit work and develop their practices. The WTAC was a critical social space that catalyzed the careers of artists such as Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge and Betye Saar.

The 1965 Watts Uprising marked a pivotal social-political moment in the history of Los Angeles, as well as that of the US in general. The riots engendered new and more strategic approaches to assemblage art that attempted to reflect the fragmented experience of Black life in America. A swell of exciting practices grew out of this period of cultural creativity, which became known as the Watts Renaissance. For example, Purifoy led the creation of the collaborative work 66 Signs of Neon (1966), a seminal piece made with materials collected in the aftermath of the rioting. As artists experimented with materiality and fragmentation, they also experimented with the body: in their material practices, Nengudi and Hammons evoked bodies that defied fixed identifications. 

Exterior of the Woman's Building, Los Angeles, 1975, Maria Karras
Exterior of the Woman’s Building, Los Angeles, 1975. Courtesy: © Getty Research Institute; photograph: Maria Karras

The Woman’s Building

Feminist artists working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s developed practices that centered unapologetically on women’s experiences. This shift began in 1970, with the establishment of the Feminist Art Program at California State University, Fresno, by artist Judy Chicago. Chicago then co-founded a similar course, with fellow artist Miriam Schapiro, at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts); it was here that Chicago, Schapiro and their students created work for 1972’s ground-breaking Womanhouse, an art installation and performance space that launched the careers of leading feminist artists such as Suzanne Lacy, Mira Schor and Faith Wilding.

The activities and ideas that germinated at California State and CalArts led to the establishment of the Woman’s Building, a space Chicago co-founded with graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and art historian Arlene Raven in 1973. It acted as a hub for collaborative and politically engaged feminist artists, cultivating workshops, consciousness-raising groups, performances, coalitions and educational programs. Performance was a central focus for many people working at the Woman’s Building — engaging the body in live art allowed female artists to articulate their lived experiences, better understand their relationships to systems of oppression, and subvert patriarchal representations of women.

LACE summer residency show 2018, ‘Cavernous’
LACE summer residency show 2018, ‘Cavernous’, installation view featuring work by Young Joon Kwak and Mutant Salon. Courtesy: © Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions; photograph: Chris Wormald

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE)

The history of LACE can be traced back to the early-1970s Chicano student-youth movement in East Los Angeles, and the activities in the same period of Asco, an avant-garde performance collective (co-founded by Harry Gamboa Jr., Glugio ‘Gronk’ Nicandro, Willie Herrón and Patssi Valdez) whose name loosely translates as ‘disgust’. Famous for spray-painting the façade of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1972, Asco exposed the discrimination that pervaded the mainstream art world, raising questions about what and who is considered avant-garde. In 1978, three of Asco’s members co-founded LACE, along with ten other artists.

Initially funded by provision under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, LACE’s founding artists collectively envisioned a new kind of exhibition space that was more accessible and connected to the surrounding community; they were intent on creating a diverse and generative site for cultural exchange through dialogue and experimental performance. In Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. (2017), co-author and art historian C. Ondine Chavoya describes LACE as ‘a critical nexus for experimentation and political dissent, especially between queer and Chicano/a artists in Los Angeles’ — a fact that is often forgotten in characterizations of the space today.

Find out more about the Watts Towers Arts Centre, The Woman's Building and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE).

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, February 2022 under the headline ‘Independence Days’.

Main image: LACE Valentine’s Day Bash, 1987. Courtesy: © Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions

Lauren Guilford is a curator and art historian based in Los Angeles, USA. She is a candidate in the USC Roski Masters in Curatorial Practices and the Public Sphere Program where she is researching about alternative art spaces