Stunned by Beauty

The Enduring Legacy of Joni Gordon

Joni Gordon

I try to keep that innocence and capacity to be moved by art every day. —Joni Gordon

Celebrated for nurturing the careers of emerging artists, Joni Gordon left an indelible mark on the LA art scene through her commitment as gallerist, collector, and co-founder the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art. LAMA is proud to present a selection of 30 works from the personal collection she built along with her husband Monte, many by artists whose careers Gordon personally championed, among them Martha Alf, Tony Berlant, Llyn Foulkes, Joe Goode, and Ed Ruscha.

In lieu of any formal training, Gordon was equipped with the steadfast conviction that she needed to live a life surrounded by art. In the fall of 1975, she renewed a failing storefront gallery on Melrose Ave. practically overnight. On the eve of her 39th birthday, Gordon purchased Newspace (named for its original location in Newport Beach) from painter Jean St. Pierre, a UC Irvine student who opened the collectively run gallery several years before. The rent was $200. “People were stunned,” Gordon recalled of her decision, “I mean, absolutely stunned.”

After first mounting a show of St. Pierre’s white paintings and selling them all, Gordon continued to transform Newspace into a reputable resource for artists and collectors alike, later dubbed “an incubator for Los Angeles’ contemporary art scene.” As Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Carol S. Eliel remembers, “[Gordon] had quite an eye, and was able to pick [artists] out of a crowd when others hadn’t started focusing on them yet.”

While Gordon’s role as a dealer may have initially seemed unexpected, she had in fact been honing her vocation since childhood. “I was kind of stunned by beauty at a very, very early age,” she remembered, “I would even, as a child, feel the sensation of beauty or art.” As a teenager, Gordon scraped together her money from working at summer camps to make a pilgrimage to New York after reading the 1950 LIFE Magazine featuring Jackson Pollock and Betty Parsons. Years later, Gordon would meet her “all-time hero” Parsons in-person and represent the artist-gallerist in Los Angeles.

It wasn’t until Gordon’s studies at the University of California, Los Angeles that her predilection for art was given the space to grow into a profession. She found herself drawn over and over to the university’s art building where she could observe emerging artists — Vija Celmins and Richard Diebenkorn among them — first-hand. Part-time positions at both Esther Robles and Felix Landau galleries further familiarized her with the city’s art landscape, and Gordon just kept going deeper. A chance encounter with Robert Smith led to their founding of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, and a subsequent errand for LAICA brought Gordon to Jean St. Pierre’s doorstep, making for Newspace.

As a gallerist, Gordon’s “first devotion was to Los Angeles painting and sculpture.” It was Newspace where now-renowned artists including Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy had some of their earliest shows. Describing her own taste, Gordon explained “I look at art intuitively, with a bias on beauty, classicism, clarity, skills, and originality. I am independent.” Gordon’s independence and fearless efforts to push the envelope helped define the creative spirit of Los Angeles for decades to come. Gordon herself put it simply: “My task is to keep inventing possibilities and potential in art.”

Llyn Foulkes

Llyn Foulkes was born in 1934 in Yakima, Washington and began studying music and art at a young age. He started playing music at eleven-years-old, inspired by the satirical and novelty bandleader Spike Jones. Foulkes first ventures into visual art were copying comic books and he had aspirations to be a cartoonist. He studied music at Central Washington College for a short time before being drafted into the Army in 1954. While in Germany, he worked on small watercolors and drawings and also absorbed the dark and devastating atmosphere of post-war Germany. After serving in the army for two years, Foulkes moved to Los Angles in 1957 to attend the progressive Chouinard Art Institute, which was founded by Walt Disney and later became California Institute of the Arts. His classmates there included other 20th century luminaries such as Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, celebrated Disney animators and costume designer Edith Head, as well as his future wife, Kelly Kimball, the daughter of one of the head animators at Disney, to whom he married in 1958. Foulkes found the structure of the school stifling and only attended for two years.

Foulkes began showing his work at Ferus Gallery in 1959, then run by famed curator Walter Hopps. Instead of focusing on the social aspects of cultivating his art career, Foulkes committed himself to his family and his art practice, driving a taxi during the day. Foulkes’ visual work is marked by an anti-establishment contrarianism that rages against art as commodification. His work can be somewhat elusive; instead of settling into any one medium or predictable style, Foulkes weaves together music, painting, assemblage, illustration and collage to create works of irreverence and caustic satire that take on materialism, repressed sexuality, violence, greed and humanity’s (especially America’s) propensity toward these moral deprivations.

The work gaining momentum in the 1960s in Los Angeles was more concerned with traditional aspects of aesthetics and was characterized by light, space, minimalism and a cool detachment. Foulkes was more aligned with poets and outsider artists such as George Herms, Wallace Berman, Edward Keinholz, thus he always remained a bit on the margins of the prevailing art scene, creating works centered on constructed memory, violence, disfigurement and political figures. He was also part of several bands throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including The Rubber Band, with artist R. Crumb and has been refining his one-man band contraption, The Machine, since 1979.

It has been said of Foulkes’ work that it is re-discovered every ten years. It may be more accurate to say that Foulkes reinvents his work every ten years. Ever restless, creating out of a fume of discontent, Foulkes is never content to settle into one mode. In the 1980s, rocks and archetypal western American landscapes, rendered with a dry, unromantic tone started to figure prominently in his work, accompanied by American cultural touchstones such as Mickey Mouse, superheroes, guns, vacation postcards and the Lone Ranger. After decades of creating art through a lens of critiquing the myths, histories, personalities and problematic psyches of American culture, Foulkes’ work of the 1990s and 2000s took yet another turn. His paintings became more introspective, examining the psychological aspects of death and his own ego, fears and beliefs, utilizing the motifs that have run through the entirety of his singular body of work.

Interest in Foulkes’ work continues to come in waves, growing in substance and esteem each time. A major retrospective of his work was held at The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles in 2013, following inclusions at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. Foulkes continues to work from his home and studio in downtown Los Angeles, in a space he calls the Church of Art.

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Auction Results Llyn Foulkes