Kompas 4: Westkust USA Exhibition in 1969, curated by Jean Leering

by Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción


In the late 1960’s post-minimal and conceptual, as well as arte povera were coalescing as trends in American and European art, and the curatorial practices of this period were profoundly involved in the evolution of these artistic languages. We can find evidence of this in the very radical exhibitions that occurred in 1969, all of which represented an experiment in their own right, which contained high concentrations of art made along the aforementioned artistic tendencies. The curators of these exhibitions all deployed very distinct methodologies, and each created the parameters for a patent style or showcase practices that later became endemic to their makers[1].

The artist and curator Irene Calderoni has this to say about this group of exhibitions that coincidentally all took place during the course of the same year, and which signaled radical shifts in museums across the US and Europe:

“Display techniques, catalogue design, advertising strategies, artist-institution relationship, are the things that made these exhibitions innovative in relation to traditional shows. The common matrix among them is the spatial and temporal context of artistic production, as it would coincide with the context of the exhibition. In most cases, the works in them were created for the exhibition, with relevant consequences to the status of both the art and the exhibition. The result was the realization of the centrality of presentation as well as the artwork as a function that is limited to that place and that moment of exhibition. They were event shows where the works ‘happened’[2]. “

These exhibitions dialogue with Kompas 4: Westkust USA (1969), curated by Jean Leering and his team[3] at the Van Abbemuseum, in Eindhoven, Holland, as they promoted a transatlantic viaduct through which art styles and movements would cross-pollinate each other. Leering had surveyed New York City in the year 1967, so he was already in contact with United States art and artists that had presence in both the East and West Coasts. The West Coast art scene Leering discovered was not as centralized as he had observed in the East Coast, and he also discovered that there was no such things as a mesial hub in the West Coast but more a series of art environments[4]. In regards to the styles of both ends of the continental US Leering mentions — “whereas the East Coast saw the concreteness of art in the process of making a work of art which has to be stripped of all illusionary elements, the West Coast seeks the concreteness of physiological vision to which the optical illusion may be instrumental[5].” In this paper I aim to expand on the observations Jean Leering made about the art of San Francisco and Bay Area as well as Los Angeles, and will also point out some points of deficiency in his curatorial criteria, and the public relations material issued to the press by the Van Abbemuseum.

About the Curator and His Observations

Jean Leering studied architecture, but even as he was training to become an architect, he was making exhibitions. He was involved with exhibitions since the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. He went from being an architectural engineer to being an art museum director at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 1964.  About the disciplinary jump made early in his career Leering states — “since the beginning these crossovers have been the main point of interest (of my work)… As soon as I got this position, my interest in the interdisciplinary was already taking shape… I was very fond of El Lissitzky.” The latter-mentioned Lissitzky was both an artists and an architect, as well as an exhibition designer, as was Theo Van Doesburg, and both of these inspired and interested Leering from his days as an architecture student. Jean Leerings style of curating aimed to underscore the link between art and anthropology, which to his admission was a trend in Holland in the 1970’s. He explains that at the time — “art was being ‘used’ to get people to think and be aware of their own situations… this was the idea, along with addressing how such a message can be achieved in an exhibition[6].”

Jean Leering circa 1969
Jean Leering circa 1969

One could argue that the Kompas series at the Van Abbemuseum was a way for bridging the experimental modes of the Dutch museum world and its repertoire of curatorial practices with the rest of the globe. Jean Leering organized the exhibitions with the purpose of generating and nurturing a sensibility to the art produced in the various centers of art around the world in the Dutch audience that visited the museum. The curator concludes his catalog essay stating that — “it is hard to draw the balance sheet of West Coast art, the idea and its conception, light and its reflection are the main concern of many of the West Coast artists. In this field, they have developed highly perfected techniques.” These conclusions are manifest in the selection of the art works, which were transported from their locations in New York, California, Missouri, Texas, and Washington D.C. in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom to Eindhoven to compose what was to be a comprehensive exhibition of art produced in the Pacific Coast. Leering wanted to further explore the survey of artists from a geographic area in Kompas 5, a survey of European art produced since the end of World War II to the late sixties. Jean Leering states, “this would be all the more meaningful as the contribution on the part of America has already been recognized and shown [in Europe] in an overwhelming way”. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, as part of the Marshall Plan sent surveys of American art to Europe — this led to what the French called, the Coca-Colonization of the continent[7]. Unfortunately, this last project under the label Kompas, although was advertised in the foreword of the Kompas 4: Westkust USA exhibition catalog[8], did not come to fruition.

The Exhibition Concept: Jean Leering’s Vision for Kompas 4 Westkust USA

The choice of the title Kompas for this sequence of exhibitions is a metaphor — Jean Leering acts on the assumption that developing trends, however diverse, issue from geographically defined centers of gravity. Some of these fountainheads as Leering addresses them, were the art centers covered by previous Kompas exhibitions. Kompas 1 (1961) surveyed Paris, Kompas 2 (1962), London, and Kompas 3 (1967) as mentioned before centered on New York City. For the Westkust USA exhibition Los Angeles was the original target, but as the curator learned upon visiting the area there is a large transit of artists from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which warranted the inclusion of the network of artist clusters situated in between them. The exhibitions aimed to orient the audiences to the current trends — “much in the same way as a sailor gets his bearings from the points of the compass.”

The focus for Westkust: USA represented a shift from the view that a city was the center of cultural activity in any country, but grew to include a completely geographic area. In the case of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the connections are few, but are powerful ones. Although San Francisco had more architecture, there was very little in contemporary art. The art communities in San Francisco in the 1950’s flourished around its popular art schools, to which art students flocked to since the end of World War II. The totality of the artists from San Francisco included in Westkust USA were all mostly Los Angeles artists associated with the California School of Fine Art (CSFA, today San Francisco Art Institute or SFAI). In regards to the relevance of these periods of teaching and circulation between both Los Angeles and San Francisco Leering states — “although currently Los Angeles may be seen as the most active art center in the area, the role of San Francisco and its Bay Area can not be negated, if only for the sake of history. In additions there are some local centers that also affect the overall picture.”

The curator lays out several open ended questions, like why there is so much more culture and more impressive architecture in San Francisco, with its Bay Area and incredible landscapes and weather, and its connection to the city of New York, but almost no interest in contemporary art? Leering sourced the power of the art schools in San Francisco so to the fact that “outside their walls interest in contemporary art was virtually nihil[9].” Interestingly enough, art on the West Coast began in San Francisco in the 1940’s, and as the next two decades unraveled, the artistic activity headed south and began to concentrate in numerous clusters of art galleries and alternative spaces in Los Angeles.

San Francisco: The Cultural Viaduct with New York in the 1940’s and 1950’s

Like New York and San Francisco is one of the main US ports, and both are centers of mercantile and commercial activity since the nineteenth century. The affluence and the proximity to the vast beauty of the landscape of the region provided great conditions for artists to work, and develop new approaches to the art making process during this time. The decadence of a city with great wealth made the city picturesque, and the charming residential districts provided artists living in San Francisco with a high quality of life. That “good condition to live in” as painter Mark Rothko wrote to friend Clay Spohn in 1947 about his stint teaching at CSFA – “a condition of artistic and intellectual tension, a tension that spurred creativity” – was something that artists and writers were unearthing all over the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Many artists from New York found respite in California, as a place that according to art critic Jed Perlman, “appealed to students who were less interested in a particular course of study than in a creative community[10].”  In spite of this large number of arriving artists to San Francisco and the great resources at the disposal of the city’s art schools in the 1940’s, the lack of any commercial outlet for the art made the scene extremely porous, and by the turn of the 1950’s most artists had circulated elsewhere. The city of San Francisco lost the inertia it had mustered in the previous decades from the cultural viaduct with New York, while down South the gallery scene exploded in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles: A Land of Radicals

By the early sixties galleries from New York had begun to open spaces in Los Angeles, as was the case of New York art dealer Virginia Dwan. This brought more art from New York and Paris to Los Angeles, who quickly set out to have a direct line of discourse with the East Coast on the commercial level. In San Francisco only those involved in teaching art found reasons to remain, everyone else went with the markets to Los Angeles, left seeking greener pastures on the East Coast (or elsewhere), or went underground.  The 1950’s marked the fork in the road for San Francisco and Los Angeles. With the market representation centered in Los Angeles, it was there that all artists came to visit — it was there that the international art scene flourished[11].

In Los Angeles, the Univeristy of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) undertook some radical measures for diligently educating a collector class, like for example the production of packages of pedagogic material. Contemporary art writers Lucy Bradnock and Rani Singh, in their text titled “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag: Crafting an Art Scene” (an essay about Los Angeles in the late 1950’s) write:

“In 1957 they set up as part of their UCLA Extension Program which offered adult education classes published Looking at Modern Painting, a textbook for the uninitiated student of twentieth-century painting, complete with artists biographies, a glossary of major movements, and suggestions for further reading. The book was accompanied by a set of slides and formed on the basis of classes taught at UCLA by graduate students in art history, among them James Demetrion, Henry Hopkins, Shirley Nelson, and Nielson’s husband, Walter Hopps. Classes were held at the homes of wealthy students, many of whom were also interested in collecting — We’d talk about the art market. We’d talk about any number of things beyond what the course was devised for — Many students of Hopkins and Hopps, including Elyse and Stanley Grinstein, Betty Asher, and Fred and Marcie Weisman, became steady collectors in the area, offering emotional as well as financial support to a generation of artists.”[12]

In 1964 an editorial in Art in America would read, “there are at present seventy legitimate commercial art galleries in Los Angeles,”[13] while in San Francisco only the cloud of professors at the California School of Fine Arts, among the other art schools in the area, and their students produced and talked about contemporary art.

The Artists in Westkust USA

The list of artists included is as follows: Clyfford Still, Frank Lobdell, Richard Diebenkorn and Hassel Smith form what Jean Leering labels as the first generation. This group conformed the generation of East Coast artists who went to San Francisco and Los Angeles, and seeded the West Coast with their notions and practices in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Rothko was among these but Leering excluded him from this exhibition, perhaps because his work appeared extensively in the previous installment of Kompas in New York City. The rest of the line up includes — Peter Voulkos, John Mason, and Kenneth Price, as ceramists, Edward Kienholz, Bruce Conner and William T. Wiley, as assemblage artists, Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler, as manipulators of light, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, and Bruce Nauman, as new media, and Billy Al Bengston, Wayne Thiebaud, and Edward Ruscha, as artists under the label pop image. These artists were all in community between the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as the Bay Area, and taught in schools as well as shaped the development of commercial art spaces in those areas.

Installation view of works by William T. Wiley
Installation view of works by William T. Wiley

There was some resistance to the geographic rubric devised by Leering and his curatorial team, like the case of artist Ron Davis. The clash with the curatorial staff is described in the catalog essay by Jean Leering as follows — “the artist Ron Davis, for instance, whose work to all intents and purposes should figure in this survey, adamantly refused to be represented in the exhibition because of its supposedly limited regional character (he did not so much as allow the reproduction of one of his works in the catalogue).” And the curator goes on to state that he shares the anecdote because it “reflects something of the atmosphere in which artists on the West Coast live and work.” Could this be speaking to the inadequacies on the part of certain artists, who in the light of the uncertainties between the notions of East or West Coast art did not want the art world to peg them as artists from any one coast?

Installation view of works by Robert Irwin
Installation view of works by Robert Irwin

Another interesting altercation with West Coast artists was with “promising young artist ‘Jim’ Turrell”, as Leering calls him in the catalog essay. Turrell asked the curators to take him out of the exhibition lineup at the last minute because “he did not want to be known as an artist anymore, but intended to devote himself exclusively to science[14].” This artist just recently in 2013 had a retrospective of all the work he said he would never produce as an artist at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Clearly, Turrell was an idealistic youth, who at some point in his early development as an artist was so attracted to his main subject, light as a phenomenon, that he wanted to abandon the pursuits of art and dedicate himself to fully investigating the science behind optics and photonics. This is manifest in the mention of this conversation with the artist in the catalog essay by Leering.

The Artworks in Westkust USA

Installation view of works by Peter Voulkos
Installation view of works by Peter Voulkos

As part of his advising staff Leering kept the art dealer Irwin Blum, the gallerist Nicholas Wilder, and notably the artists John Coplans, who assisted substantially in the organization of the exhibition. The curators divided the works by medium, and Jean Leering and his staff added a few labels (mentioned above with the artists) that throw light on the nature and intention of the new works included in the exhibition. The organizers divided the artists by age, with Cllifford, Still, Diebenkorn, and Smith, all painters, being the eldest. Paintings by Diebenkorn and Still go all the way back to the 1940’s, when these pioneered to teach on the Pacific Coast.

Among the new media works produced by the younger generation included in Westkust USA, is a series of videotapes by Bruce Nauman, in 1969 still magnetoscopic tape, which is recalled by Leering in the catalog essay as having the air of a happening or performance. At this time, the term was strongly associated with conceptual art and the Fluxus movement. Nauman also exhibited a neon work titled Window or Wall Sign (1967) and a series of holograms or ‘light pictures’ titled 6 Holograms (1969), which along with the video works and his Performance Corridor (1969) sharply contrasts the volume of painting included in the exhibition, which comprised about half of the works of the entire survey.

An interesting artist who was included in Westkust USA was the sculptor John MacCracken, who produced sculptures made of wood, finished with a layer of fiberglass and colored polyester resin. The surface luster of these Planks, incidentally the sculptures’ title, affects the intensity of the color, which leaning against the wall creates a visual illusion where color becomes volume and vice versa. His sculpture became world-renowned when the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as the alien space-probe/monolith in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey used one of MacCracken’s sculptures.

Edward Kienholz showed the one assemblage which radiated a sort of nationalistic aura, titled National Banjo on the Knee Week (1963), but no one other work expressed anything uniquely “American,” with the exception of paintings by Billy Al Bengston, whose paintings of military echelons over abstract fields may have been referencing the US involvement in the Vietnam war. Examples are the paintings titled Meatball (1963) and Liberty Valence (1968).

The Arguments

Leering, Where Are the Women?

Were there not any? In the art scene of the West Coast of the 1960’s there were many women involved, including the painter Jay De Feo, who recently had a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The following female artists were working alongside all the men in Westkust USA, teaching and making art: Sonia Grechtoff, Helen Lundeberg, Linda Levi, Betye Saar, and Eva Slater, just to name a few. They were as active and as present in the conversation about the art, but the curators omitted them from the survey. To be fair there were women in the show, three of them in fact, but they were the subjects of works by Wayne Thiebaud and Bruce Conner, the latter representation being an unflattering assemblage titled Señorita (1962). The Thiebaud women are the only  female entities in the exhibition, with the exception of course of two paintings by Ed Ruscha titled Annie, like the young little orphan girl from comic strips, broadway plays, and films, made in 1965 and 1966 respectively. The two Annie’s were placed in between two other works by Ruscha, one titled Talk About Space (1962), and the work titled Ripe, (1967). Why were none of these women showcased? Why was the entire line-up composed exclusively of only white men?

In an interview with contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist an older and wiser Jean Leering reveals that — “human interests should always be at the center of your policy as a museum director. Your job as a director was to interest people in art, to consider the correspondence between their interests and art, and then use these interests as a starting point[15].” This statement can only heighten the irony.  Jean Leering expanded the notion of survey exhibition by addressing an area, rather than the usual centers of culture, and for all this expansive thinking, fell short by not expanding views on the sexual politics of the times.

First Exhibition of West Coast Art in Europe? Really?

The exhibition press release (included as appendix) it states that “We consider this exhibition of very great importance as for the first time in Europe a survey is to be seen of the development of art in the dynamic part of the United States California and its two big cities San Francisco and Los Angeles.” This would be grand, if only it was true. There was at least one more exhibition, early in the 1950’s, when a group of West Coast artists that included Sam Francis, Claire Falkenstein, and Frank Lobdell exhibited in Paris. In a review of this exhibition, the critic Michel Tapié even dubbed them the “école du Pacifique”, although the artists utterly rejected this notion[16]. The artists from the West Coast may not know or even want to know what they are, but they are certain of what they are not. They are not some passive group of artists that will not fight being boxed-in in terms of style or geographic location. The need to divide the art of the United States is perhaps more an imposition than a fact, perhaps the constant ebb and flow of artists across great cities of the United States demands a label that is broader than East or West.


 Jean Leering concludes the catalog essay by stating –“In the West Coast area, especially Los Angeles is aware of its merits. It stands on the threshold. It expects to equal New York or even take its position in the seventies. In view of the ideas and attitudes that have been developed in this city, it seems justified, at this point, to come out with such expectations.” This sounded prophetic then, and it certainly did hit the nail on the head, not in the replacement of New York as the largest art center in the United States, but in the augury that Los Angeles would step up to be the extension of the New York art market in the West Coast. Artists continue to come back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and teaching artists still flock to teach at the schools of art in the Bay Area. The market scene down South continues to bloom and rake in international renown, while San Francisco continues to be what it was in the 1960’s, a haven for artists and professors who want to build community and experiment with new methods of expression. Westkust USA presented an image of the Pacific art scene that still operates today, with the exception of the recognition of female artists, and the expansion of the domain of art and politics to include the queer, as well as the broad spectrum of practices heralded by the advent of information technologies.

In this exhibition floor view, we can see (from left to right) John Mason’s Spear Form (1957), Richard Diebenkorn’s View from the porch (1958), Hassel Smith’s Psychoseismorama (1960), and in the vitrine, a series of sculptures by John Mason (made between 1957-1963).
In this exhibition floor view, we can see (from left to right) John Mason’s Spear Form (1957), Richard Diebenkorn’s View from the porch (1958), Hassel Smith’s Psychoseismorama (1960), and in the vitrine, a series of sculptures by John Mason (made between 1957-1963).

[1] Op Losse Schroeven/Situaties en Cryptostructuren, curated by Wim A.L. Beeren, Piero Gilardi, Harald Szeemann (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Holland), Live in Your Head: when attitudes become form, curated by Harald Szeemann (Kunsthalle, Bern, Germany), Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte (Whitney Museum, New York City, US), Spaces, organized by Gwen Farrelly (MoMA, New York City, US), 557,087, curated by Lucy Lippard (Art Museum, Seattle, US).

[2] Irene Calderoni, Exhibition Aesthetics in the Late 1960’s, in the anthology Curated Subjects, edited by Paul O’Neill, 2011: Open Editons, UK.

[3] The curators Eugen Thiemann, and Zdenek Felix

[4] Kompas 4: Westkust USA, exhibition catalog, written by Jean Leering, 1969, page 7

[5] Kompas 4: Westkust USA (1969), exhibition catalog introduction essay, by Jean Leering

[6] Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Protest Against Forgetting: Interview with Jean Leering, found on A Brief History of Curating, 2011

[7] Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War. By Reinhold Wagnleitner. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press. 1994

[8] Kompas 4: Westkust USA, exhibition catalog, written by Jean Leering, 1969, page 4.

 [9] Kompas 4: Westkust USA, exhibition catalog, written by Jean Leering, 1969, page 7.

 [10] A Culture in the Making: San Francisco and New York in the 1950’s and 1960’s, exhibition catalog for show at the Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco in 2007, page 13. Exhibition opened originally during at Art Basel Miami Beach on December 7-10, 2006.

[11] From the Pacific Standard Time Catalog, pg 68

[12] From the Pacific Standard Time Catalog, pg 70 – Henry Taylor Hopkins, oral history interview by Wesley Chamberlain, 24 October 1980, 17 December 1980, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

 [13] Gifford Phillips, Culture on the Coast, Art in America 52, No. 3 (1964): 22

 [14] Kompas 4: Westkust USA, exhibition catalog, written by Jean Leering, 1969, page 5.

[15] Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Protest Against Forgetting: Interview with Jean Leering, in text A Brief History of Curating, 2011

[16] Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950-1965, edited by Caroline A. Jones. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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