Michael Compton, ‘Three Artists from Los Angeles’, 1970

Michael Compton joined Tate as Assistant Curator in 1965 and five years later took on a new role as Keeper of Exhibitions and Education. His approach was not that of an art historian but of someone who collaborated with artists and wanted to engage with the discourse of contemporary art. In his catalogue essay for the 1970 exhibition Three Artists from Los Angeles he focused neither on the artists in question (Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler) nor on their works (their contributions to the show were not yet known). Instead, he addressed, in somewhat convoluted terms, what he saw as the key conditions for perceiving the works, and only towards the end of the essay did he discuss how the culture and context of Los Angeles might have affected the art. His text was preceded by a short warning that the essay was simply his attempt ‘to think around my reaction’ to the artists, and by a foreword by the Director Norman Reid which highlighted the groundbreaking nature of both the concept and the content of the show.


Norman Reid

The exhibition introduced in this foreword is in several ways an unprecedented one in the history of the Tate.

Firstly, it comprises not individual paintings or sculptures but complete environments which have been specially designed by the artists for this gallery and which, apart from questions of material and scale, will involve them and their expert assistants in problems of exactly the same kind and importance as those that are involved in the making of more conventional self-contained works of art.

This is also the first large scale demonstration in London of art from Los Angeles, one of the two or three most creative areas outside New York and, finally, it is unusual for the Tate to show works of artists who are relatively unknown in this country except in large mixed exhibitions.

However, I feel that the scale of the work demands a setting like that of the Tate Gallery and also that the originality and power demonstrated in the exhibition will justify these departures.

The exhibition was devised and selected by my colleague Michael Compton.

I should like to acknowledge gratefully the co-operation of the artists and their assistants, the Pace Gallery, New York, the Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf and the Ace Gallery, Los Angeles; also Mr Herbert Enns and Mr Stan Spohr, Mr Donald Hankey and Messrs Beck & Pollitzer, who worked on the installation.

Fig.1 Exhibition plan accompanying Michael Compton’s introductory note in Three Artists from Los Angeles: Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Tate Gallery, London 1970

Exhibition plan accompanying Michael Compton’s introductory note in Three Artists from Los Angeles: Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Tate Gallery, London 1970

This is not a catalogue because there is no list of works. The exhibition will comprise three spaces in which three artists will have made their art. At the moment of writing we are not sure exactly what they will do – and we cannot know how what they will do will appear to us. Therefore we cannot attempt to help you to perceive it. So this is not truly an introduction to the art. It is not intended to be read until you have seen the exhibition.

The reason for this is quite simply that the experiences offered by the three artists are intensely sensuous and reveal themselves after a few moments of concentrated seeing. Anything one could write could only detract from their simplicity and could even distort the work.

What follows is merely my attempt to think around my reaction to these artists and their work and to tease out what seem to me the implications of their enterprise both collectively and individually.

Michael Compton

Three Artists from Los Angeles

Michael Compton


Any discussion of the work of the artists in this exhibition must begin with seeing – with perception. Of course, by definition all visual artists must be in some way concerned with visual perception but in most cases, working as they have with paint and with opaque materials in uncontrolled light, they have been obliged to work in the broad middle band of available perceptual signals and with fairly coarse relationships. Effects involving the distinction of forms by drawing, colouring, modelling, perspective, etc. have been made easily readable and the functional or crucial part has lain elsewhere, in the nature of the reference to the outside world or in the internal organisation of the work, in the stance taken in relation to the state of art at the time or in some intended effect on the viewer.

Practises of art based on theories of perception have appeared from time to time, for example Brunnelleschi’s invention of ‘legitimate perspective’ and Seurat’s ‘Neo Impressionism’. However, the media remained limited (in spite of Brunelleschi’s sky reflector) so that perceptual effects had always to be supported by cultural ones, that is, symbols or signs.

Among artists of the twentieth century perceptual effects of the figure-ground and of the colour recession–projection types have been quite common but even Albers and Noland have been content to use the effects on the viewer as if they were a language without straining his credulity and without leaving him in any doubt what the effects are.

Other artists have been concerned about perception only so far as to try to eliminate it as the functional element in their art – normally by a process of short circuit – the immediacy of the reference in a Lichtenstein painting for example, or the immediacy of the perception of a physical object in a Judd sculpture are such short circuits (even though they may be followed later by a more suitable appreciation of the sensations offered).

In any case it follows that those artists who have worked to establish their art primarily as idea, as object, as feeling, as art criticism, as symbol, as form, etc. have, to that extent, reduced attention to it as percept. And, in so far as they do these things, they are likely to be working away from the threshold where anything that slightly disturbs the act of (visual) perception is vitally important. For example, any but the grossest changes in lighting will not only vitally affect object orientated art; on the contrary they can only reinforce its status as an object. An accompanying description in words will not much affect one’s experience of, say, a painting by Rothko (as say a small physical damage would) but it can radically affect one’s experience of certain works by Poussin or Duchamp for example.

One might be tempted to say that words are always disturbing to a work of visual art (unless they are essential to it) but it is clear that in purely visual terms the disturbance is marginal and most paintings survive being talked about. For example again, although Monet’s art was above all ‘visual’ and operated at the nexus of perception and the physical representation of precepts, a discussion of say the subject or even of how far the paint strokes were ‘pure’ colours does not much, if at all, alter the colours you see, one’s reading of the motif or even the mood of the painting. Indeed the illusionism deriving from the formal and colouristic relationships within the pictures is so strong that even physical factors like a certain amount of ill-lighting or of deterioration of the paint do not totally spoil them. If this were so we should no longer have any Monets.

At various times and particularly in the 1960s some artists have worked near what could be called the upper limits of perception, that is, where the eye is on the point of being overwhelmed by a superabundance of stimulation and is in danger of losing its power to control it. Vasarely and Bridget Riley seem to have done this at times. It might be possible also to think of certain works of Pollock and Dubuffet in terms of different kinds of excess of visual information. Certainly all of these artists sometimes produce the effect that the threat to our power to resolve what is seen heightens our awareness of the process of seeing.

However, the three artists in this show (among others of otherwise widely differing qualities including Michael Assher, James Turrell, Robert Mangold, Bernard Cohen, etc.) operate in various ways near the lowest thresholds of visual discrimination. The effect of this is again to cause one to make a considerable effort to discern and so to become conscious of the process of seeing. If this is where the art operates, it is clearly essential that the most careful control of the medium and of the viewing space must be exercised. Minute variations of white, black or colour, edges and surfaces, the level and directions of incident light all become critical. There must be (as far as possible) no marks on the wall, floor, or ceiling. Any such mark would not only be an extraneous thing to look at but it would in these conditions of highly actuated awareness, over-materialise the wall surface or even (like common objects in the eyes of some trippers on hallucinogenic drugs) acquire the power and character of a work of art.

However, obviously, this requirement tends to be self-destructive – each successive elimination only makes what is inevitably left more conspicuous but, in spite of what has been said, the artists do not like the idea of the art museum as a place of hushed reverence or of art as an aseptic, controlled experiment with the public as the subject. The sense of oppression that the person going into the spaces would feel if the control were too rigorous would in itself altogether negate the work.

A very high degree of reduction of disturbance is necessary but it can only be up to the point that is determined by the assent of the viewers. Beyond this point the viewer is left entirely free. It does not matter what preconceptions he brings with him, since he inevitably does bring some, but the provision of a catalogue essay to read before or in the show would encroach too much on this freedom by proposing a ‘correct’ view and so tending to become part of the art work.

Similarly the artists do not mind if people simply fail to see what is there but once they do see it, the works are devised in such a way that they see only and exactly what is presented by the artist.

However, although I have said that in the case of each of these artists (that is in some of their past achievements) the art works at the point where we become aware of our own sensory systems, this process can be seen as a ‘model’. I say ‘can’ because it is not necessary. It may also be absolutely sufficient (it can even be the ‘highest’ possible response) just to feel oneself become all eyes, to float and dream in the experience.

The ‘model’ is that of the relationship of perception to cognition – of seeing and knowing. In each case a subjective time element is introduced by the consciousness of the duration of the process of dealing with the work of art. One is clearly aware that the world looks different after a period in front of it.

For example, as you enter the room you may have first to find the work of art. When you do find it, the space in the room may be re-orientated. As you stare at it, retinal bleaching produces changes in the image, dissolving some realities and creating others. Then you may set out to discover what it is that you are looking at and when you do the space will change again, as certain planes and objects become materialised and dimensionally related in physical space. The perceptual balance is so fine that it changes, under the impact of emotions and sounds, even of the viewer’s feeling about the artist’s intention.

We could think of this as a phenomenological model. However, it seems to me to be the strength of the perceptual model that the crucial function is at a level which is common to more or less all humans and that this precise level (that is the balance between illusion and awareness of actuality) is always available. This is the point at which illusion is created or broken down or the point at which the object is seen or not seen.

In the case of our three artists illusion is bilateral, things seem to have a material existence which do not and things which do have a material seem not to. Break down can occur in either direction.


Of course, illusion is something that is inextricably involved with the art of painting. The moment there are two colours (or two tones or two textures) on a canvas there is the illusion of two entities (of which one may be space or the canvas itself). Ever since the validity of illusion in painting was doubted in the nineteenth century this has been a problem to some artists, and the main spring of their art to some others. The frontier of the problem has advanced (or retreated) from the illusion of specific objects, ie: ‘representation’ to ‘abstract’ illusions of space or movement.

The case against illusion at any level has been that it denies the unity or the physical reality of the work of art. This happens because the illusion cannot be complete so that the point at which it breaks down is seen as a weakness in the integrity of the art work. One way of avoiding this problem has been to make the illusion as complete as possible given the nature of the medium. For example certain ‘pop’ works are pictures of pictures – two dimensional representations of two-dimensional objects – so that even if the scale and pigment are changed, the two dimensional reality of the canvas is not impugned.

Other artists, like Ron Davies, have made the conventional illusionism of perspective much more complete by shaping the support to the image. The only background is the real wall on which the painting hangs. (In works after 1967 he has deliberately sabotaged this illusionism in favour of the sense of ‘paint’.) At this level of conviction, when the illusion breaks down the subject of the painting is seen to be the illusion itself rather than the form ‘represented’ and the objecthood of the painting is therefore not diminished.

By adjusting light, environment, applied colour and object to very similar, interchangeable levels of reality the present artists achieve even more compelling illusions, and, since the illusion works on the basic level of discernment, but is ultimately completely explorable, it does not depend on anything outside the work itself and does not compromise it.

Environmental art

All the works in this show of course could be described as environmental. In this they share a quality with a great part of contemporary art. Needless to say this does not mean that they belong to a movement; it is simply that a need to involve the work with its environment is an outcome of many enterprises that artists are engaged in. One of these has already been referred to: in so far as a painting presents an illusion of space, the space within it must be different from that in the room in which it exists and it must obey different laws (in respect of parallax for example). The attempts to maximise illusion therefore lead to the attempt to integrate the space of the two. Similarly, the attempt to work at the fine limits of perception has led to the necessity of controlling the whole environment.

However there are several other forms of involvement with the ambient space which seem relevant and which seem to place Bell, Irwin and Wheeler firmly in the mainstream of western art. The enterprise of creating real space in a painting runs through Cubism, Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, Abstract Expressionism and present day Abstraction. Evidently, if the space in a work of art is to be seen as ‘real’ it must run beyond its borders. It must be the space in which we live. For this reason frames have disappeared, pictures are kept apart, walls have to be plain, sculptures stand on the floor, pictures and sculptures have grown very large. At the same time, because what is going on in the work of art is ‘real’, what is going on in the real world around it tends to become ‘art’ and therefore to become increasingly inseparable from the art object.

The same process has taken place in relation to the emotional and intellectual dimensions of the work. At a very early stage in the modern movement artists who were concerned with the emotional effect of colour (etc.) found a need to go beyond the canvas to the theatre and to seek the support or analogy of music. Duchamp demonstrated that the viewer’s concept of art affected and was affected by his perception of the art work itself. It must therefore be part of the art work. No doubt it is this awareness which has caused so many artists recently to be as suspicious of ‘right’ or favourable criticism as of ‘wrong’ or unfavourable. It is as much true of, say, di Maria as of Wheeler and Irwin. They are worried about the critic or museum man in effect changing their creation in a way that they are helpless to control or, at the very least, that irrelevancies are added to what leaves their hands as a complete entity.

Certain artists – ‘conceptualists’ – having seen that it is impossible to separate the physical work of art from the accretions of history, criticism and cultural factors have tended to go to one extreme and make these the effective focus of the work – minimising the hardware component (in the same way some have adopted the weathering, ageing or even damaging of works). The artists in this show however are among those who, by making the physical experience so specific, attempt to isolate the accompanying thought processes from it while not denying them. Indeed isolated in this way they may have a particular and conscious role to play in the experience.

Other so called conceptual works like Michael Heiser’s buried rocks and nameless pieces by di Maria seem to be conceptual; in another way. That is, they are simply realisations of the artist’s ideas which involve delegated or chance factors as well as simple ecological models (the trenches fill with water, mud and sand and are shaped by the wind). Here the programme itself may be exciting but it can be so only in relation to a fantasy of the work to be executed. It remains a functioning part of the work when complete, although the latter may be deeply and (or) unexpectedly moving in its own right (ie, irrespective of the specific concept it embodies). This situation has almost always existed in western art, for example think of the relationship between the concept for and the realisation of the Sistine ceiling at one extreme or for Hunt’s Awakening Conscience at another. Obviously their view of ‘conceptual’ art is not at all contrary to the mode of the three artists in this show nor to much contemporary formal art.

Commodity art

It is not by any means a new feeling that works of art should not be commodities – that even if the object is bought and sold – the essence of it in some way still belongs to the artist. This view is even embodied in the British law in the case of Augustus John vs. Lord Leverhulme. However the feeling has a new edge to it, produced, no doubt, by the rapidly rising resale prices by speculation in works of art, by the appetite of museums, collectors, magazine editors and finally, and on the other hand by the arguments of militants and by hedonistic subversion of the productivity ethic.

Confronting this, some artists have deliberately chosen worthless and impermanent materials (of course oil paint and canvas were once regarded in this light), have worked on too large a scale for anyone to buy, have restricted themselves to verbal concepts or activities or have integrated their work so completely in its environment that it cannot be moved. Needless to say romantic and political motives are not the only ones for these moves. Needless to say also that the three artists in this show, while they share a suspicion of the commodity approach to art, do not make it the basis of the presentation of their work. It would be nearer the truth, I think, to say that it is the nature of their work, as it has developed, that has tended to draw them out of the commodity market. The need they have to control the space very completely has meant that they have been less and less able to simply release it into the world in exchange for money. Moreover any great concern with the value of the work or the prestige of possession amounts to a serious psychological disturbance of it. In fact one artist, James Turrell, whose ideas were in some ways related to those of each of these three, has felt obliged to drop out of art altogether, basically, I believe, because all these things simply destroyed the simplicity of the experience he wanted to offer.

However the fact is that these kinds of arts, including the art of some ‘minimal’ and ‘conceptual’ artists, involves a much more complete collaboration between the artist and a museum, or a commercial gallery or a collector and often the assistance of technicians as well. Without these it cannot be realised and so the artist needs the gallery at a level beyond that of show place and income. However it seems probable that such a cooperation is generally workable only in a situation of economic abundance which obtains in America, Germany and a few other countries or where the public galleries are very active, as in Holland.

Closely related to the problem of collaboration and patronage is the sheer problem of surviving as an artist. This involves (in terms of the Los Angeles scene) not so much the question of getting enough money, although that may remain a problem, but also the physical survival of work which may be destroyed, damaged or invalidated by intrusions into its space. It may, as has been said, even be distorted by criticism or by appreciation (in these words for example) or by the intrusion of commercial factors or of other people’s egos. In spite of specially built installations the architecture of galleries or museums may remain intractable or the cost of changing it genuinely unacceptable. In trying to overcome one problem (for example marks on the floors in Wheeler’s installations) remedies may in themselves be even more of an intrusion (like asking the visitors to put on soft over-shoes).

Apart from all of these things which affect the existing art works, some of the same, or other, factors may, in such a sensitive situation severely inhibit the power of the artist to create. The art public’s response to and the fate of his work can pin him down or drive him willy nilly to new resources. For example, if he does not want to work with it, he must (continuously) seek to eliminate the specific ‘art culture’ response and to do this he must run to keep in the same place otherwise he will soon be swallowed up.

Los Angeles

Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler all work in Los Angeles but they do not in any general way represent what is going on there. Although what they are doing is closely related to some of the most significant areas of sensibility in modern art, and is therefore not in any sense provincial, there is something specific to Los Angeles about their art. Factors which may contribute to it include (in no particular order):

There are a number of excellent artists working there who belong to a similar age group and who get on apparently well with each other. Most of them have studios close together in the small, derelict beach community of Venice. They form an important primary audience for each other without forming a close knit movement. That is, since there is no ‘opposition’ they are not entrenched in a style or ideology and lack some of the pressures that New York artists feel.

They also lack the economic and competitive pressure produced by intense crowding and, while they work hard and long, they do not seem to be geared up for instant production.

However, although the example of intransigence of, say, Keinholz or the slow and step by step reduction worked through by Irwin, may have allowed younger artists to start one jump ahead, there is no master in the sense that Hoffman, Pollock and de Kooning were masters.

The artists (and their supporters) have access to New York but are not so involved as to be dominated by its moods.

There is a lot of money in California and in the last few years an increasing part of it has been spent on Los Angeles artists (although, curiously, not much by the film and television people generally). Some of the credit for this has to be given to the local commercial galleries, some to Artforum which was set up in Los Angeles and still gives good coverage to its artists, and some to the two major local art museums, the County Museum and Pasadena with their energetic curators and the degree of rivalry which exists between them.

The same museums have actively cooperated in mounting their work particularly, in the case of two of our three artists, John Coplans of Pasadena.

These are factors which seem to have helped the artists to be both free and ambitious. Factors which may have in some way helped to make their art look the way it does are naturally harder to establish.

They include again, obviously, the artists who affect each other mutually. In such a community life style, the pre-occupations and experiments of one artist can crystallise the ideas of another.

Certainly a number of artists are interested in perception while a kind of (‘funky’) wit is expressed by others in relationships of medium to content (Ruscha, Price, Naumann, Bengston, even Bell), the explicit use of expensive materials and processes (Valentine, Kauffman, Bell, Irwin, McCracken).

One of these common attitudes is the willingness to use fairly (but not spectacularly) elaborate techniques and to involve large amounts of money and time in the production of work. This is in principal no different from, say, traditional bronze casting, except that the techniques are adapted and invented much more quickly and readily to new intentions and so do not have the conservative effect of traditional media.

What happens typically is that an artist like Bell or Irwin, needing to realise some new idea, will acquire machinery or involve commercial workshops, in each case employing technicians or specialists. They will quickly perfect techniques and media and, in effect, tool up for the job. This whole apparatus (materials, people, machinery, ideas) becomes the medium and is played with, exploited and adapted until it becomes boring or until new ideas render it obsolete, when it is scrapped or merged in a new medium.

What makes this peculiarly possible in Los Angeles is the unique and, to a foreigner surprising, number of craft industries in the area. Although the automobile customising and the prop and scene-building departments of the movie and television studios may be the most spectacular of such industries, the very high rate of cultural obsolescence and the parochial structure characteristic of the city cause them to flourish in every area. Moreover these are not old fashioned conservative crafts but are the up-to-the-minute skills of small competitive groups of men, usually pragmatic and self-taught, who have seen a chance of making money out of a new idea.

Naturally this kind of set-up – much more open-ended than either the traditional paint suppliers, art foundries and stretcher makers in one direction or traditional factories at the other – is vastly more congenial and adaptable than either to the artists’ needs.

Although at present it only marginally concerns the particular artists in this show, the type of major industry typical of Los Angeles area is also favourable. The aerospace industry for example (which shares some of Larry Bell’s techniques) is not only orientated to rapid obsolescence but therefore also to technological extemporisation and to free access to outside experts, techniques and information. The preoccupations with precision, environmental and sensory control are naturally shared with this industry.

This whole tendency to work up and then scrap techniques, associations and information constitutes their professionalism and perhaps contributes to a dynamism that will allow them to survive as artists. Since it is not founded on creating style as such, it would seem less vulnerable to changes in the art climate.

Finally, I do not know whether it has anything to do with Los Angeles but all three artists Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and Doug Wheeler have dared to involve themselves with sheer beauty of colour and material in a way that very few others do at this time. If they need any ‘right’ to do this it is certainly given them by their concentration on what must be the core of any visual art – seeing.