Frank Lloyd Wright famously quipped, “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Thus the title of Sylvia Lavin’s exhibit on view at the Graham Foundation in Chicago now through July 26. But the art on display in this exhibit, most of which was previously shown at LA’s MAK Center for Art and Architecture and the school of architecture at Yale University, betrays no looseness of concept or execution—it’s a tight-knit assemblage of work that could only have sprung up from the fertile intersection of art and architecture in LA during the 1960s and 1970s.
The 120 drawings, photographs, sculptures, models, and other media on view at 4 West Burton Place include work from Morphosis, Frank Gehry, Richard Serra, Ed Ruscha, Denise Scott Brown, Archigram, Bernard Tschumi, Cesar Pelli and others. Lavin, the show’s curator, is a widely published design critic, historian, and a head of the Ph.D. in Architecture program and Professor of Architectural History and Theory at UCLA. But she wanted Everything Loose Will Land to reach beyond Southern California.
“I was aggressively on the hunt for a broader geographical context,” said Lavin. “The last thing I wanted was to describe an LA school of architecture.”
Take Grupo 9999, an Italian group of paper architects whose Los Angeles Megastructure (1966) imagines a self-replicating city assembled from modular units. The people among LA’s cultural ecology it seems were equally fascinated by natural systems and machine-loving futurism. That’s true whether you look to Florence-based Grupo 9999 or just down the road to the LA Fine Arts Squad. Victor Henderson and Terry Schoonhoven’s “Isle of California” (1971) uses the staid visual language of lithography to render fantastical visions of a city on the verge of environmental disaster. The utopian promise of America’s cultural frontier also gets a wry treatment from Denise Scott Brown, whose mirage-like city in the Mojave desert lures settlers from the highway with flowery facades and promises of cheap land bought on credit.
That’s just the room Lavin has labeled “ENVIRONMENTS”. The other rooms are “PROCEDURES,” “USERS,” and “LUMENS”—four primary means by which she said architects and artists found themselves working together. In a stroke of artistic serendipity, the show’s rooms are unified by Judy Ledgerwood’s Chromatic Patterns, a site-specific installation of vibrant floral wallpaper throughout the historic building.
As artists and architects alike pushed the image of LA beyond the clean modernism of Richard Neutra, they increasingly found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Carl Andre’s Cuts (1967) was a blueprint for moving work from New York to LA, looking within the context of this exhibit more like an architectural drawing than a sculpture. Meanwhile, the Architects of Morphosis acted like artists when they drew up farcical plans for their modular 2-4-6-8 House, a model of which could be folded up from a box of “assembly parts” or mailed around the world.
Designers of all backgrounds experimented similarly with ideas of space, time, and materiality, too, as when Peter Alexander trapped evaporating water in a cloudy resin box—an ethereal event captured in time. A piece of Cesar Pelli’s “blue whale” curtain wall for the Pacific Design Center sits nearby, attesting to a “finish fetish” Lavin said pervades the time period.
Of course the roiling creativity of artists and designers during the 1960s and 70s was more than just a collection of formal and conceptual ruminations. It was often acutely political. Judy Chicago’s dry ice mall installations speak of the same “light and space” movement of Peter Alexander’s resin box, while plans for a Womanhouse (1971) housing female artists are as pointed as they are architectural.
Lavin’s collection is engrossing, and more than a little enjoyable. The mixed media, which includes a video installation and several freestanding sculptures, helps bring the era in question out of the past. A celebration of the artists’ often whimsical humor helps—Alison Knowles’ 1967 House of Dust was a computer-generated poem that the artist’s collaborator Norman Kaplan arranged to have dropped from a helicopter over area campuses and museums.
Well aware that the artist/architect binary is a forced division, Lavin doesn’t make too much of such crossovers for crossover’s sake. Instead such work emerges as a natural condition of creative exploration from the time. But tackling urbanism, environmental and individuality in a postmodern city, the work in Everything Loose Will Land doesn’t feel like a geographic or historical oddity. It’s alive, still inspiring experimentation today in points far beyond LA.