Artists Teaching Artists


By Stacey Abarbanel

Published Jan 1, 2018 8:00 AM

Since the 1960s, UCLA’s visual arts program has attracted premier working artists to nurture the next generation of talent.

Richard Diebenkorn in his Santa Monica studio at Ashland Avenue and Main Street, 1970. Photo by Richard M. Grant, courtesy of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Tony Berlant, who grew up in Culver City in the 1950s, aspired to be an artist from an early age. “As soon as I had a car, I didn’t go to the beach, I went to the museums and around to every gallery — there weren’t that many — twice every month,” he says. In 1960, when Berlant entered UCLA as an undergraduate, renowned painter William Brice, who was on the faculty, must have recognized his talent right away. He placed him in an upper-division painting class taught by visiting artist Richard Diebenkorn.

Berlant was thrilled. “I had admired Diebenkorn’s work from the time I was in high school,” he remembers.

In fact, UCLA Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy had taken great pride in recruiting Diebenkorn, whom he later called “one of the half-dozen most distinguished practicing painters at the time.”

Diebenkorn, from San Francisco, was associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But his greatest acclaim was for his 135 Ocean Park paintings, inspired by the light and space of Southern California and created after he moved south to teach at UCLA. These abstract creations are counted among the defining bodies of work of the late 20th century.

Tony Berlant in his Santa Monica studio today, standing in front of one of his works. Photo by the Ingalls.

“When I was a student of Diebenkorn’s,” Berlant remembers, “he was already very famous. What you get from people like that is their attitude, dedication to independence, curiosity and focused obsession.”

But, Berlant says, famous or not, many of his UCLA teachers were tremendously smart, influential and supportive. Painter Elliot Elgart, for example, encouraged Berlant to change his major from art history to studio art, pulling him aside occasionally to coyly ask, “You know you’re great?” After Berlant made the switch, Elgart laughingly whispered in his ear, “You’re not that great.”

The ’60s were a singular time for art in Los Angeles. With cheap rent, plentiful light, good art schools and typical California verve, visual artists were blossoming here. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened in 1965. The nearby Ferus Gallery was a center of the nascent contemporary art scene. And midway through the decade, English painter David Hockney arrived to teach a summer class at UCLA, fell in love with the city and decided to call it home.

Changes were under way at UCLA, too. Murphy didn’t want students to “dabble in the arts” but to be “professionally trained.” So, in 1961, he formed the College of Fine Arts, helmed by an eclectic mix of exceptional working artists, including Laura Andresen (ceramics), Diebenkorn (painting), Brice (painting), Robert Heinecken ’59, M.A. ’60 (photography), Bernard Kester ’50, M.A. ’54 (weaving) and Lee Mullican (painting).

Installation view of Robert Heinecken: Object Matter. The Hammer Museum, October 3, 2014–January 18, 2015.

This stellar faculty nurtured a dynamic generation of students that included Neda Al Hilali ’65, M.A. ’68; Peter Alexander ’65, M.F.A. ’68; James Bassler ’62, M.A. ’68; Berlant ’62, M.A. ’63, M.F.A. ’64; Judy Chicago ’62, M.A. ’64; Vija Celmins M.A. ’65; Charles Garabedian M.A. ’61; Lance Richbourg ’60, M.A. ’62, M.F.A. ’67; and Don Suggs ’69, M.A. ’71.

“The main thing that made UCLA unusual,” Berlant notes, “was the particular set of students who were there at the time. That was easily as important as the teachers, who were excellent.”

Berlant even landed his first gallery show while still an undergraduate, when another influential faculty member, Robert Irwin, introduced him to gallerist David Stuart. Irwin, now perhaps best known to Angelenos as the creator of the Central Garden at the Getty Center, became a leader of the Light and Space Movement, the West Coast minimalists who explored how shapes and light could affect the environment and viewers’ perceptions. “Tony Berlant,” Irwin recalls, “was on a path of his own, and maybe I sharpened it up a bit.”

Irwin also recalls teaching Celmins, who became revered for her uncannily evocative paintings and drawings of everyday objects and natural environments. “I would think all week long about a question to pose to her,” he explains, “to expose her to her own wealth. ... And then she would come and talk about it. We would follow the path of her mind.”

Charles Garabedian, Clytemnestra & Iphigenia, 2015, acrylic on paper. ©Charles Garabedian, courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, Calif.

Many of the teachers took an interest in their students’ futures as artists. Years later Garabedian remembered how Brice, who taught at UCLA from 1953 to 1991, helped his students “find out where and what they wanted to be.” Many of these students, like some of their teachers, came to define or significantly expand their genres, and to continue the cycle of learning, as some returned to UCLA to teach.

Judy Chicago, for example, was a pioneer in the field of Feminist art. More than a million viewers have experienced her iconic work The Dinner Party — a symbolic history of women in Western civilization, begun in 1974 and completed in 1979. Garabedian has been lauded by Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight as “among the best painters Los Angeles has produced.” Heinecken, who founded UCLA’s photography program, is credited by The New York Times with work that “radically expanded the range of possibilities for photography as art.” And Celmins is currently preparing for a 2018 retrospective of her work that will travel from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Met Breuer in New York.

Berlant, based in Santa Monica in a spacious studio that was once a neighborhood grocery, is known worldwide for his painterly compositions in metal affixed to plywood canvases or boxes. His work appears in major museum collections, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA, Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. One mural-size piece hangs in the lobby of the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, and another work is in the collection of the new UCLA Luskin Conference Center. When Berlant returned to teach at UCLA from 1965 to 1969, he shared a faculty office with Diebenkorn, cementing a lifelong friendship between the two.

Lance Richbourg, who is distinguished by his luminous paintings of baseball scenes, remembers his years at UCLA as “the most remarkable” time in his life “because of who was there. There was a tight nucleus of people who were quite attached to each other," he says.

Neda Al Hilali at home in Los Angeles today. Photo by the Ingalls.

One genre that got an early boost at UCLA was fiber arts. In 1961, Neda Al Hilali arrived in Los Angeles from Czechoslovakia. Knitting, crocheting and lace-making had been a regular part of her home life, so at UCLA she immersed herself in fiber arts. She began with a loom weaving class taught by Kester, a potter and textile designer who helped reposition fiber art from a folk or craft practice to a branch of the fine arts and started the UCLA program. He encouraged his students — including Bassler, Gerhardt Knodel ’61 and others — to experiment with sculptural work, sometimes without a loom, long before the practice became established.

In 1971, Kester curated a seminal fiber show at UCLA’s Wight Gallery titled Deliberate Entanglements. The exhibition was a turning point, demonstrating that fiber artworks could stand on their own as sculpture.

Today, Al Hilali’s work is in the permanent collections of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design and others. She and Kester have remained friends. “I was so lucky to fall into his hands,” she says. “He brought in the art world, and then sent us out into it.”

At UCLA, the line between professional artist/faculty member and student was negligible, and faculty treated the students whose work they admired as colleagues. “Once you asserted yourself, you were in,” says Berlant, “and if you were making really interesting work, there was no sense of being a student. It was like, ‘Don’t come to school anymore, I’ll visit you at your studio.’”

Berlant immortalized this scene in his 1988 work Taxco Café. While Hollywood artists hung out at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, the Venice/Santa Monica crew congregated at this small Mexican eatery at Lincoln and Venice boulevards. Berlant depicts the restaurant’s interior and places amidst the tables the names of members of the group, rendered in shorthand: Berlant, Ed Moses ’55, M.A. ’58, Karen Carson M.F.A. ’71, Garabedian, Celmins, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Graham, Doug Wheeler and UCLA faculty member Chris Burden.

Tony Berlant, Taxco Café, courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, Calif.

During this time, Irwin was one of the artists showing at Ferus, the gallery founded in 1957 by artist Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps. Hopps had attended UCLA and staged art events on campus, but had never graduated. He later became director of the Pasadena Art Museum. Others in the Ferus gang included John Altoon, Bengston, Joe Goode, Craig Kauffman, Moses, Ken Price and Ed Ruscha.

The nearby Ceeje Gallery, open from 1961 to 1970, was informally known as “the UCLA gallery” for showing the work of many graduate students and faculty. Before most galleries considered ethnic and gender diversity, Ceeje drew a diverse roster of artists. Among the UCLA artists who showed there were Les Biller M.A. ’60, Eduardo Carrillo ’62, M.A. ’64, Roberto Chavez ’59, M.A. ’61, Annita Delano, Garabedian, Aron Goldberg ’59, M.F.A. ’77, Marvin Harden ’59, M.A. ’63, Louis Lunetta ’56, M.A. ’58, Joan Maffei ’59, M.A. ’61, Richbourg, Ben Sakoguchi ’60, M.F.A. ’64 and Jim Urmston ’56, M.A. ’60.

While most L.A. galleries remained focused on European and East Coast works, Ferus and Ceeje sought out the free spirits of Southern California, whose vibe reflected the openness and sense of possibility that permeated Los Angeles. In contrast to the more formal scene at Ferus, Ceeje took an open approach, leading to the wry refrain that “If Ferus was the cutting edge of L.A. modernism, Ceeje was the ragged edge.” “The Ferus had sophisticated art world connections,” Richbourg recalls, “but those of us at Ceeje were funky expressionists.”

Today, galleries have sprung up all over the city, and Los Angeles has its own burgeoning Arts District, as well as a number of world-class museums. UCLA has embarked on construction of the Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios in Berlant’s hometown of Culver City. On campus, students no longer park for free in a dirt lot, dig for clay on campus as they did with ceramicist Andresen, or need to hunt for their own studio spaces in the city. In other words, much has changed.

Celmins in her studio, circa 1964. Photo by Tony Berlant, courtesy of the photographer.

Yet one constant remains: At UCLA, practicing artists — often those who have reached the highest echelons — teach. They are mentors, role models and sometimes collaborators with their students. The Department of Art has retained its stellar status, continuing to attract such giants of their respective genres as conceptual artist John Baldessari; performance artist Burden, whose LACMA–based 2008 Urban Light sculpture (composed of 202 vintage street lamps) quickly became a Los Angeles icon; feminist postmodern artist Barbara Kruger; social documentary and fine art photographer Catherine Opie; painter Lari Pittman; sculptor Charles Ray; and sculptor and installation artist Nancy Rubins.

The department’s generational ethos — in which esteemed practicing artists nurture budding talent — is part of why L.A. is the vital art capital it is today, and why, Berlant says, UCLA is home to one of the nation’s top studio-based art programs. “UCLA gives highly talented artists the freedom to practice their art directed by their inner voices.”

The students are the lucky beneficiaries of this tradition of mentorship and excellence. The creative results speak for themselves.

Vija Celmins, Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992. Medium: Woodcut on Whatman 1953 paper. Collection of the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, gift of the artist.