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.”

Betye Saar

A Los Angeles native and key figure in the Black Arts Movement, Betye Saar weaves layers of memory and resistance into her prints, collages, and assemblages. Saar graduated from UCLA in 1949 with a degree in design, which she parlayed into a greeting card line and an enamelware company. She had no early aspirations to become an artist, instead setting her sights on interior design: “Being from a minority family, I never thought about being an artist,” Saar told the Los Angeles Times, “But I could tell people how to buy curtains.” By the late 1950s, Saar returned to school with plans to become a teacher, but a chance encounter with the print workshop at Cal State Long Beach redirected the course of her career.

Saar worked in drawing and printing until the late 1960s, when a Joseph Cornell exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum inspired her to experiment with assemblage. This shift in medium very quickly led Saar to the accumulation of racist memorabilia, like the mammy jars that she would reclaim as symbols of defiance. Trips to both the Field Museum in Chicago (which she visited with David Hammons) and to Haiti in the early 1970s encouraged Saar's consideration of the intersections of black culture with magic and mysticism. Interested in the "visual ways in which magic could be conveyed," Saar started replacing Eurocentric references in her work with African symbols. Her works grew both in theoretical engagement and physical size, and her installations would sometimes take up entire rooms.

In 1975, Saar was featured in her first solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, and became the first African American woman to show at the institution. Upon the passing of her great aunt that same year, Saar began foregrounding a "mood" of memory and longing in her work. Amidst the decades-worth of personal belongings left behind by her aunt, Saar saw a portrait of a slower time when "people still collected memories." In response, she recycled her aunt's memories through her work, a spiritually imbued method of reinventing both personal and communal narrative.

Now in her 90s, Saar continues to mingle the personal, the political, and the mystic in her robust output. Her works are currently held in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the High Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Auction Results Betye Saar