LOS ANGELES — From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971 is a look back at a pioneering program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which matched leading artists with aerospace and technology companies in the hopes of producing cutting-edge artworks. In a report issued following the completion of the program, LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman described the aim of the A & T initiative: “We wanted viable, productive connections to come about, but it was important to us that these reciprocal endeavors be challenging and rewarding to both the artist and the scientist or engineer, by provoking them to reach beyond habituated patterns.” The program occupies an important place in LACMA’s history, and in 2013, the museum launched Art + Technology Lab, an initiative inspired by the goals and spirit of Tuchman’s earlier enterprise.
For the artists, the original A & T program presented an opportunity to incorporate new procedures and materials into their work. The participating companies, such as Kaiser Steel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, RAND, and Lockheed Aircraft, had more pragmatic motives for participating: some wanted good press or to promote a certain project, while others were socially connected with Marilyn Chandler, the wife of powerful Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler and a major booster of the program.
The archival exhibition, which is housed in a small room off the permanent collection galleries, offers a glimpse of the inventive works produced through the program. The show contains proposals, correspondence, sketches, and photographs of works by Tony Smith, Robert Whitman, Newton Harrison, Öyvind Fahlström, Rockne Krebs, and R.B. Kitaj, among others. Only 20 works were successfully realized throughout the program, despite the participation of more than 30 companies and more than 50 artists. “Some of the invited artists were never successfully matched with suitable corporations, and other artist-corporate projects never progressed beyond a research-residency phase,” reads the introductory wall text, hinting at the issues inherent in matching ambitious and often liberal artists with conservative technology companies. In addition, many of the companies in the program were profiting from the Vietnam War, a thorny issue that is implied but not implicitly stated.
Tuchman approached artists who he thought would benefit from the program, but an additional 78 people submitted unsolicited proposals. One such artist was Channa Horwitz, whose Proposal for Suspension of Vertical Beams Moving in Space (1968) is included in the archival exhibition. In an intricate diagram, Horwitz imagined an installation composed of Plexiglas beams, which would float through space with the aid of magnets. It’s an intriguing idea, but in the end, no unsolicited proposals were accepted and no female artists were invited to participate.
Some of the collaborations resulted in successful projects. Working with the magazine publisher Cowles Communication Inc., Andy Warhol created holographic photographs of daisies. The work was presented twice, first at Expo ’70 in Osaka, where a “Rain Machine” created a dripping wall of water in front of holographs featuring multiple daisies, and again at LACMA, where larger holographs showed one daisy each in an attempt to emphasize the installation’s three-dimensional effect. Today the holographic daisies look quaint, but at the time of their creation, they represented the height of 3D image technology.
Claes Oldenburg’s “Giant Ice Bag” (1969) was produced in collaboration with WED Enterprises, the design and development branch of Disney. The pink sculpture was designed to undulate and twist as it deflated and inflated, in accordance with Oldenburg’s interest in objects that broke and then reconstituted themselves. After the initial three-month development period, WED pulled out of the collaboration, citing inflated costs and staff time. Oldenburg was then matched with the Los Angeles workshop and publisher Gemini G.E.L., which successfully completed fabrication of the sculpture. Despite the problems involved in producing the final piece, the bright photographs and loose sketches convey Oldenburg’s excitement about the creative potential of technological collaboration.
Some of the partnerships were so tightly synched that they produced unsurprising results. Richard Serra, who was matched with the Kaiser Steel Corporation, created stacked sculptures that did not differ radically from his usual output. In contrast, Robert Rauschenberg, who collaborated with the industrial company Teledyne, created an installation that split from his best-known assemblage work but was consistent with his later interest in viewer-activated spaces. The resulting installation, Mud-Muse (1968–71), was inspired by the burbling “paint pots” at Yellowstone National Park. Activated by both an internal soundtrack and the sounds of the viewers in the room, a system of pressurized air inlets at the bottom of the trough would cause bubbles to erupt in the mud’s surface.
A highlight of the exhibition is a sampling of documents from John Chamberlain’s residency at the RAND Corporation. Chamberlain had initially been paired with the sinisterly named International Chemical and Nuclear Corporation, where his proposal for the SniFFter — an “olfactory-stimulus response environment” that would emit over 100 smells including mother’s milk, cocaine, second-grade classroom, and Rembrandt painting — was, unsurprisingly, rejected. Chamberlain was then paired with RAND, a military-affiliated think tank. After lunchtime showings of his provocative film The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez were shut down, he circulated a memo to the entire RAND staff that read, “I’m searching for ANSWERS. Not questions! If you have any, will you please fill in below, and send them to me in Room 1138.” While some employees provided whimsical replies, other responses were hostile. One reads, “There is only one answer: you have a beautiful sense of color and a warped, trashy idea of what beauty and talent is.”
In all, the exhibit provides a taste of the colorful development and results of Tuchman’s program, as befits a focused show drawn from archival material. However, the subject is so rich that it could easily be examined in a larger exhibition, and hopefully LACMA will continue to spotlight works and documents from this fascinating part of its history.
From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971 continues at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through October 25.