Llyn Foulkes Retrospective at the Hammer

Hosted by

Llyn Foulkes, like his peers Ed Ruscha and Ken Price, attended Chouinard Art Institute in the 1950s to become an animator. The school, then near MacArthur Park, was Walt Disney's primary training facility. (Now it is Cal Arts.) None of those artists actually did cartoons in the end but the humor, alienation and comfort with Pop culture grounded a certain way of thinking about art for all of them. Along with the poetic drift of Jasper Johns.

Llyn Foulkes, the retrospective organized by curator Ali Subotnick at the Hammer Museum, opens with a vitrine of Foulkes' earliest cartoon drawings and they are both funny and bitter, qualities that remain more or less consistent throughout the show of 140 pieces ranging from then up to the present. Some of the work is familiar from Foulkes' presence in various group exhibitions in recent years but there is much to be learned here about the artist who is often regarded as something of an outsider. In my opinion, one surprise is that there is very little work in the show that is not frankly amazing in the merger of technique, content and conviction.

Llyn Foulkes, "Portrait of Leo Gorcey," 1969
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Gift of the artist and purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art
Photo by Sheldan C. Collins

A native of Yakima, Washington, Foulkes studied music and art at college before serving in the army in Germany, where he saw post-war destruction and as well as old master paintings in museums. After his return to the states, he moved to LA and embraced his destiny. Success came quickly with shows at Ferus Gallery and Rolf Nelson Gallery, a 1962 show at the Pasadena Art Museum and, in 1967, he won the award for painting at the Fifth Paris Biennale. His earliest paintings feature elements of collage or assemblage and unusual methods for giving his paintings extra dimension. They are followed by mid-60's paintings of rock formations, some tinted in pastel colors or with borders or words that highlight the relationship of illusion to flat surface. Those rocks recur over and over in paintings as the desolate high desert landscape that used to surround L.A. becomes covered in suburban sprawl as far as Joshua Tree. Urbanization and the over-development of LA is one of Foulkes' deeply felt themes.

Llyn Foulkes, "The Lost Frontier," 1997-2005
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Purchased with funds provided by Erika Glazer; Susan Steinhauser and Daniel Greenberg/The Greenberg Foundation; Amy Adelson and Dean Valentine; Linda and Jerry Janger; Kadima Foundation; Heidi and Erik Murkoff; Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy; and Joel Portnoy
Photo by Randel Urbauer

There has been a good deal of speculation over what is seen as the inherent anger in Foulkes' art but, in this show, I felt more of a loss of innocence, even despair, over cynical corporate greed, political corruption's affect on patriotism, embodied by Foulkes in the figure of Mickey Mouse, an American symbol more potent than the bald eagle at this point. Foulkes had a lengthy relationship with this cartoon figure in part because his father-in-law was Ward Kimball, one of Disney's first animators. Mickey is included in wide variety of pictures, standing for corporate control and media manipulation. Foulkes' obsessive relationship concludes with a hilarious painting of Mickey the Rat, as he called him, shot dead by the artist.

Llyn Foulkes, "The Awakening," 1994-20012
Private collection
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Implied narrative in Foulkes' art manifested in a number of paintings so heavily layered with paint that they read as three-dimensional and none is so spectacular as the epic Pop, which he worked on from 1985 to 1990. It is in a darkened gallery so the effect of a man wearing a Superman t-shirt under his everyday clothes, hunched uneasy in his easy chair, eyes bugging out, watching the gray glare of a TV while his son is reading platitudes of good behavior rendered in a penmanship book. On the wall behind him, there is a calendar permanently open to an image of an exploding atomic bomb as well as painting of the Hollywood sign. A young woman attempts to sooth the man with a touching gesture to no avail. A musical soundtrack by Foulkes plays in a the jingle jangle tones of Spike Jones, who influenced him.

Foulkes has been his own man, a darling of diehard followers of the LA art scene, for decades but he is now an artist of international stature. After closing at the Hammer on May 19, the show travels to the New Museum in New York and then the Museum Kurhaus Kleve in Germany. But the reason we are talking about it today is that he is performing on The Machine, a contraption made by him of horns, cowbells, organ pipes and drums. He plays all of them and sings along next Tuesday, February 26 at 7:30pm at the Hammer. For more information, go to Hammer.org.

Llyn Foulkes, Pop, 1985-90; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Purchased with funds provided by the Graham Trust and the Acquisition and Collection Committee.