Presenting a snapshot of a brief moment in time when two distinct strands of high and low culture briefly came together in a spirit of technological optimism
Though the boosterist Californian dream of the harmonious coexistence of man and nature may have choked its last amid the notorious LA smogs of the 1950s and 60s, the distinctive automotive-inspired minimalist art produced by a group of motor-obsessed ‘left coast’ artists of the 1960s may perhaps be seen as its last optimistic hurrah.
Since its official incorporation as a state of the union in 1850, California had long held a special place in the popular consciousness of Americans as a promised land of agricultural abundance, natural beauty and open space. Indeed, for many at the time, the expansion of the United States to the Pacific Coast in the 19th Century was seen as nothing less than the fulfilment of the quasi-religious doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’. But the subsequent promotion of the state as a veritable garden of America was to deflect from the fact that as well as being conducive for agriculture, California’s benign climate and distinct geographical features such as its deserts and dry lakes, also happened to make it particularly favourable for the development of such hi-tech military-related industries as aerospace and shipbuilding: industries which in turn attracted a skilled blue-collar workforce drawn out west by the promise of affordable living in sunny surroundings and the seemingly unlimited potential for the realisation of such core American ideals as autonomy and personal freedom.
And given that such ideals would, by the mid-20th Century, find their totem in the increasingly baroque shape of the automobile, it’s perhaps no surprise that Californians would pursue the aspiration of car ownership so vigorously that by the mid-1960s, the Golden State boasted more car owners than any other in the nation. Or that Southern California would become the birthplace of a burgeoning hot rod and custom car subculture; which originated, humbly enough, out of a depression-era spirit of make-do-and-mend, but which reached its zenith in the late-1950s and early-1960s amid the overheated coupling of newspaper reports of death on the roads and a slew of lurid teen teensploitation movies such as Hot Rod Rumble (1957) and Drag Strip Riot (1958). For if the motor car can indeed be seen as a powerful symbol of such covertly capitalistic American values as freedom, style, sex, power and motion, then the act of car customisation can just as surely be seen as a way of pushing those values to their logical conclusion and making them so overt as to become discomforting.
Thus, just as Detroit was selling the nation a sense of rugged, turbo-charged masculinity by way of bigger and faster engines, the increasingly countercultural custom car crowd simply set about tinkering with those engines to make them even bigger and faster. Likewise, in a curiously circular twist, whilst US car manufacturers were busy designing car bodies which incorporated wholly superfluous elements lifted from aeronautical design and popular science fiction, leading car customisers such as George Barris, Dean Jeffries, Bill Cushenberry and Daryl Starbird were finding employment designing vehicles for Hollywood movies and escapist TV shows such as Batman and The Monkees.
But given that the greasy nuts and bolts world of car customisation can perhaps be classed as a form of folk art pursued by practitioners who wouldn’t know a Monet from a monkey wrench, is it possible to view the work of such legendary car customisers as Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, who died in 2001, in a more elevated artistic context?
Well, flying in the face of the widespread moral panic which accompanied the rise of custom car culture (or Kustom Kulture as it became known), Tom Wolfe, in his 1963 essay, ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’ was the first to place the work of the LA-based car customisers within just such a context, conferring upon them the elevated status of ‘curvilinear abstract sculpture’ in a ‘streamlined modern’ style.
And more recently, Nora Donnelly, curator at the ICA, Boston, which hosted an exhibition of Custom-inspired art in 2000, expressed her view that ‘the job of customising a car mirrors that of an artist creating a work of art: precision, attention to detail, aesthetic decisions and passionate concern for the consistency of the whole.’ 1
Certainly, unlike most other car customisers, Roth, who was described by Wolfe as the ‘Salvador Dali of the movement’, was not content with merely re-styling cars off production lines. Instead, he would sculpt his own outlandish visions from scratch, creating their forms from plaster before moulding the still relatively newly developed material of fibreglass resin around the finished cast.
And so, for the Californian ‘Lowbrow’ artist and one-time Roth employee, Robert Williams, ‘Roth inadvertently altered the logical purpose of the automobile, from transportation and sport to a realm of vicarious mental adventure. That experience made Ed’s bewildering hot rods “art”.’ 2
Indeed, having completed his first fully-fashioned fibreglass ‘driveable sculpture’, christened The Outlaw, in 1959, Roth produced approximately one car per year up until around 1968. In doing so, he was in effect, turning the automobile production process on its head, from the assembly line to one-off creations being conceived, designed and built by a single craftsman or ‘artist’.
Meanwhile, the association between Roth’s work in particular, and that of fine art is also made by Howard N. Fox, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who draws direct comparison between the curves and luminosity of Los Angeles artist Craig Kauffman’s vacuum-formed ‘Untitled Wall Relief’ (1967), and Ed Roth’s fantastical 1963 creation, Road Agent. And by way of this initially facile-seeming observation, Howard formally links custom car culture to a style of Californian art that came to be known, disparagingly, as ‘finish fetish’.
Also christened the ‘LA Look’, the minimalistic and sculptural art of so-called finish fetish artists such as the aforementioned Kauffman, John McCracken, Peter Alexander, Larry Bell and Robert Irwin was characterised by an obsessive interest in almost intangible qualities of iridescence, translucence, gloss and reflectivity. This to the extent that one critic went so far as to liken this defining aspect of the work to the ‘acres of tanning flesh’ which he spied on local beaches.
However, though many artists associated with finish fetish were indeed fully immersed in Californian beach and surf culture, their interest in the quality of surface undoubtedly owed far more to the sleek finish of the customised auto body than to any eroticisation of the human one.
Robert Irwin, in particular, had been a car customiser in his youth, and the recounting of his application of no less than twenty coats of ‘ruby-red maroon’ gloss to the dashboard of his 1939 Ford, in a 1982 biography of the artist, is certainly indicative of the extreme fastidiousness of Irwin’s later working methods, which would often see him taking up to a year to construct a hardwood stretcher for one of his giant paintings. Indeed, for him and many others initially associated with the LA Look, their experiences in the auto-body workshop were arguably as important to their practice as any formal art school training. For not only had their consuming interest in perfecting the qualities of sheen and gleam been something which had long preoccupied those within the world of car customisation, but the materials which the finish fetishists were using were often the very same as those used by the car customisers; polymer resins fibreglass, plexiglass, polyurethane and Rhoplex – many of which had originally been developed out of Southern California’s mighty aerospace industry and subsequently licensed for public use.
John McCracken, for instance, who once described cars as ‘mobile colour chips’, used pigmented polyester resin to coat his plywood and fibreglass sculptures. Billy Al Bengston, one of the first to incorporate the practices of custom car culture into his art, dripped automotive nitrocellulose lacquers onto aluminium to create signature works such as Conflict (1968) and Lady for a Night (1970). And Bengston’s fervent interest in car culture would inspire one of his students, Judy Chicago, to learn how to air-brush at body school and to use those skills to paint on to actual auto components – creating work such as Car Hood (1964), which reflected her status as a female artist operating within an artistic milieu centred around the influential Ferus Gallery, which Bengston himself once described as a ‘macho intellectual gangbang’.
But aside from directly referencing custom car culture itself, the greater part of the attraction of synthetic materials for the finish fetish artists was their ability to allude to, or mimic natural forms. Peter Alexander’s Cloud Box (1966), for instance, was cast out of polyester resin with water vapour introduced to create the effect of cloud formations. And as such, there’s a more than a little irony in the manner in which new materials developed within California’s high-tech industrial base would eventually, via the custom fabrication workshops, find their way into the studios of artists who would use them to replicate the particular qualities of light and space found in a variety of geographically distinct natural environments conveniently located just a short drive out of central LA.
A point which is acknowledged by Howard N. Fox’s comment that, ‘only Southern California could have produced such a seamless yoking of two such essentially antithetical mythologies as those of nature and the automobile; but throughout the 1960s… they did indeed come together.’ 3
Images: From top and left to right; Road Agent by Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, 1963 (various materials), Untitled Wall Relief by Craig Kauffman, 1967 (acrylic lacquer on vacuum-formed plexiglass), Cloud Box by Peter Alexander, 1966 (cast polyester resin), Untitled by Robert Irwin, 1965-67 (sprayed acrylic lacquer on shaped aluminium) and Car Hood by Judy Chicago, 1964 (sprayed acrylic laquer on 1964 Corvair hood). Sourced from Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900–2000 (University of California Press / 2001), Customised: Art Inspired by Hot Rods, Low Riders and American Car Culture (Abrams / 2000) and http://lagunaartmuseum.org/
- Customised: Art Inspired by Hot Rods, Low Riders and American Car Culture,
Ed Nora Donnelly, Abrams, New York, 2000.
- As quoted in Ed “Big Daddy” Roth: His Life, Times, Cars and Art by Pat Ganahl, Car Tech, North Branch, MN, 2011
- ‘Tremors in Paradise, 1960–1990’ by Howard N. Fox, as published in
Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900–2000, Ed Stephanie Barron,
Sheri Bernstein, Ilene Susan Fort, University of California Press, 2001.
Developed from a strand touched upon in my chapter ‘Remembrance of Finks Past: Kustom Kulture and Automotive Art’ within the book, The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Countercultural History by myself and Suzy Prince (Bloomsbury / 2014), this article has subsequently served as the basis for two shorter articles published in in Büro magazine (2014) and ICON magazine (2017).