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.”

Ed Ruscha b. 1937

Ed Ruscha is known for his detached, cool gaze over the American landscape, its vernacular and built environments. He is a leading voice in contemporary art, consistently subverting the aesthetic and conceptual conventions of photography and painting, as well as the mythic narratives surrounding American culture.

Ed Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1937 and grew up in Oklahoma City. He moved to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend what is now the California Institute of the Arts. Upon graduating in 1960, Ruscha began working in commercial advertising, putting him in contact with relationships between image and text and the language of consumerism and popular culture. Ruscha’s early drawings and paintings bucked against the prevailing trend of abstract expressionism, depicting wry, irreverent takes on the banality of the urban landscape. In 1962, Ruscha was included in New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum, a show considered the first museum exhibition of Pop Art that included works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Wayne Thiebaud.

In 1963, the year Ruscha’s now-famous artist book Twentysix Gasoline Stations was published, he received his first solo show at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Ruscha made sixteen artist books in the 1960s and 1970s, most of them comprised of photography taken in an antagonistically plain, documentary style, covering subjects such as swimming pools, parking lots and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). In his photography and painting, Ruscha does not attempt to idealize his subjects, but rather stares deadpan at the ordinary objects and spaces that exist on the periphery of the experience of our surroundings. Ruscha is also celebrated for his approach to language, which is often amusing, incongruous and common, exploring the multiplicity of words and turning them into solid objects to be contemplated and played with.

Ruscha’s first major retrospective was in 1982 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The cover of the catalog featured a drawing he had made in 1979, with the text: “I don’t want no retro spective.” Ruscha continues to reside in his adopted city of Los Angeles, actively creating work that speaks to our rapidly changing contemporary landscape, the way we use language and our conception of the American ethos.

Auction Results Ed Ruscha