F rom William Merritt Chase in the 19th century to Willem de Kooning in the 1950s, artists have long been attracted to the Hamptons, with the light and natural beauty of the location revealed in their work. This summer, Sotheby’s East Hampton gallery will present the view from the other coast, revealing the aesthetics of the Californian landscape through a rotating selection of works by artists such as Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud, Mark Bradford, Henry Taylor, Jonas Wood and Mark Grotjahn.
Ruscha came to California from Oklahoma in 1956 aged 18, as he recalled: “I was coming over the desert and I could kinda feel Los Angeles coming towards me… And when I finally got here and saw what this place was like, I fell in love with it.” Having rejected Abstract Expressionism, Ruscha utilised advertising imagery and typography from his day job as a designer. His early work was included in the first American museum exhibition of Pop Art: ‘New Paintings of Common Objects’ at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962. Showing alongside pieces by Warhol, Ruscha’s pictures, such as Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, seem to be pure Pop.
However, throughout his career Ruscha has defied categorisation. His work encompasses Conceptual and Abstract art, film, photography and books. Projects such as the photographic exercise Every Building on Sunset Strip contrast with cryptic phrases and palindromes hovering over landscapes. Ruscha’s 2009 painting California Grapes Skins, offered by Sotheby’s East Hampton, uses the distinctive font of his own design – 'Boy Scout Utility Modern' – to repurpose words from Jack Kerouac's iconic On the Road: “In California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, a real luxury.” The painting was part of a series inspired by the novel, after Ruscha had created a limited edition artist book which paired Kerouac's text with black and white photographic illustrations taken by, selected by or commissioned by Ruscha, who is often compared to Kerouac as an artist dedicated to interpreting and chronicling the American landscape. In this particular work, Kerouac's words sit above a stylised mountain, that echoes the grand vistas of the American Sublime. What is constant in Ruscha’s varied work is a continual revisiting of the landscape of Los Angeles.
Ruscha was joined in Pasadena's Pop Art: ‘New Paintings of Common Objects’ exhibition by Wayne Thiebaud, who created portraits and landscapes throughout his long career. Drawn from his imagination, his vistas are either bucolic or urban, with steep San Franciscan streets rising like waves across the canvas. Others are almost abstract depictions of the mountains of the Sierra Nevada or expansive river scenes. As he observed in 2017, “[The latter] are the result of about 1,000 miles of delta down below Sacramento… But the pictures are also built up out of memory and using various projective systems.”
A later generation of artists influenced by the West Coast will also be shown at Sotheby’s East Hampton. For instance, Jonas Wood, born in Boston, has established himself in Los Angeles, producing portraits, interiors and landscapes that echo artists such as Matisse and Van Gogh. Working from photographs, Wood uses a variety of perspectives to create both abstract and representational art. Some echo Ruscha and Thiebaud in being imagined views; others reflect actual places in California or elsewhere.
In conversation with fellow artist, Mark Grotjahn, Wood explained his influences: “It can be an image of my mom, but it could also be a weird plant, a Michael Frimkess and Magdalena Suarez Frimkess pot, my kid’s toy, a banana tree, a fish, or whatever. I think that’s all coming out of modern painting and my take on Cubism and Picasso. Picasso just painted whatever he wanted, and if it got a little freaky and abstract, then that was awesome.” Wood’s bold, graphic works, sometimes made in conjunction with his wife, ceramicist Shio Kusaka, often feature lush foliage combined with vases, pots or even basketballs. This is encapsulated in the 2017 print Landscape Pot with Plant – surrounded by leaves, the sides of the vase barely contain a tightly focused view of a lush, sunlit garden.
The attractions of the West Coast are many, be it the food, the weather or the waves. For the artist, perhaps the appeal has been encapsulated by David Hockney, a former LA resident with whom Wood has been compared: “The light is different… It’s ten times brighter than anywhere else”.
See works by these West Coast artists, and many more, at Sotheby's East Hampton, 66 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, NY 11937