Stunned by Beauty
The Enduring Legacy of 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.”
Born in New York City, Tony Berlant had his breakthrough moment when he was awarded the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Council’s New Talent Purchase Award in 1964. Berlant is best known for his collages and metal cubes sculptures, often constructed from found materials and especially tin – a material that entered his vocabulary after a chance encounter with a pile of discarded advertising signs. Employing both painterly aesthetics and an architectural approach, Berlant embraces a fragmentary approach to creating semi-abstract works, and as Kohn Gallery notes, has been “instrumental in establishing the aesthetic sensibility of the West Coast Pop Art movement.”
Berlant attended UCLA, where he received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in painting, followed by a Master’s degree in sculpture in 1963. He would then teach at his alma mater from 1965 to 1969 and go on to build a successful career over the course of six decades.
In addition to his own practice, Berlant has emerged as an avid collector of Mimbres pottery, painted ceramic wares that were created by the Mimbres people of southwestern New Mexico between 850 and 1150 CE. In 1974, Berlant co-founded the Mimbres Foundation, an organization responsible for bringing together the first-ever photographic archive of known Mimbres figurative pottery. Berlant’s personal collection was included in the 2018 LACMA exhibition Decoding Mimbres Painting: Ancient Ceramics of the American Southwest, which he co-curated.
Berlant’s works are included in the institutional collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hammer Museum the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.
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