Connecting Past and Present

Setting the stage for Judy Chicago’s “A Butterfly for Pomona,” on Merritt Field. Photo ©2012 Jill Thayer

Pomona, Spectacle, and Performance. As Pacific Standard Time, the Getty initiative continues to celebrate the emergence of the LA art scene, work from a myriad of art genres between 1945 and 1980 transpire in featured collaborations of cultural institutions in Southern California. Performance and large-scale sculptures by noted artists during this period are showcased January 19-29, 2012 in PST’s Performance and Public Art Festival. These works are being re-staged, re-created, and re-purposed to the delight and discernment of audiences old and new. As many were around for the initial productions, just as many had not been born. But the re-enactments of these time-based performances and site-specific installations have somehow overarched the decades to connect and reconnect. Those who remember the spectacle back in the day reconcile the artist’s intent, and consider its meaning and resonance in the context of today’s supersonic culture.

Judy Chicago’s new work, a fireworks-based piece entitled, “A Butterfly for Pomona,” evolved from her “Atmosphere” performances and environmental sculptural installations from the early 1970s––visual displays that muted the landscape with flares and an ephemeral veil of smoke bombs. Viki Thomson Wylder writes of the artist in Judy Chicago: Trials and Tributes (Museum Press Publication, Tallahassee, FL 1999. p. 130):

In 1970 Chicago had the inspiration to “paint” with air and she developed a series using fire and smoke. Her “Multi-Colored Atmosphere” was explained as a way to soften and feminize the environment. This was one of her first forays into collaborative artwork.

Colored smoke descends on Merritt Field in Judy Chicago’s “A Butterfly for Pomona.” Photo ©2012 Jill Thayer

Sitting in the bleachers at Pomona College’s Merritt Football Field amongst the huddled masses who came to experience the spectacle, one could only imagine the shock and awe such a performance would have elicited amid the Feminist movement 40 years ago. Viewers might have pondered Feminist issues or acknowledged the lack of prominence for women artists that Chicago ultimately confronted throughout her career. But aside from these topics of discourse, the crowd seemed to enjoy the moment, “Ooh-ing” and “Ahh-ing,” as if it were simply a fireworks display. But it was more.

Of course, the requisite documentation generated by cell phones and digital cameras mediated the moment, as captured images and video downloads instantaneously transmitted through streaming media to portals unknown. Even so, the crowd was mostly quiet in observance while the action and reaction of flares and pyrotechnics ebbed and flowed into hisses and pops, somewhat signifying the gentle whir of a butterfly in flight.

Above: The hush of the crowd gives way to the sizzle of pyrotechnics as “A Butterfly for Pomona,” by Judy Chicago lights up the Pomona sky. Photos ©2012 Jill Thayer

Judy Chicago greets spectators prior to the performance of “Burning Bridges,” by James Turrell. Photo ©2012 Jill Thayer

Bridges Sublime

Making our way from the football field through metal rows of bleachers, and on to stairways and dirt passages (eerily akin to herded cattle), we emerged into the crisp, actually downright bitter cold night air. We walked briskly through campus to Bridges Auditorium and secured a vantage point to view James Turrell’s light-based installation. “Burning Bridges,” was originally set in 1971 during the artist’s first week of teaching at Claremont Graduate School. Turrell produced the work by positioning road flares and aluminum reflectors to cast a radiant orange glow behind the archways of the structure, which replicated a burning building.

Turrell’s “Burning Bridges” set aglow, as the fire department looks on. Photo © 2012 Jill Thayer

The artist recounts:

“What happened is it was so effective that the fire department was called out,” he said, telling the story by phone Monday. “All of a sudden I heard the sirens approaching.” He said he left Roland Reiss, the new head of the program, holding the bag; he had to rush off to join his students at another performance. [Excerpt from: “James Turrell on Burning Bridges, part of January’s PST Festival,” LA Times Blog, Culture Monster, Jan. 18, 2012]

In an Oral History Artist Series I am producing for Claremont Graduate University, Professors Emeritus Roland Reiss and Karl Benjamin, both narrators in the project, described the original event in vivid detail in the transcripts. The art piece at the time, sent shock waves throughout the campus with the now infamous story of an uninformed fire department appearing to admonish the act citing, “If this ever happens again. . . !” Needless to say it did, and they did, but this time on cue.

Above: Images of the sublime in James Turrell’s installation. Photos ©2012 Jill Thayer

The crowd assembled behind a barricade in front  of the auditorium, as many clustered throughout the tree covered grounds for a ringside seat. Street lights marked stakeout points where students, faculty, families, and spectators young and old claimed their spot to witness history in the making, or perhaps, a re-creation of it.

A dark figure non-chalantly emerged to light a couple of flares as an incandescent amber glow consumed the alcoves behind the columns.

It wasn’t the eagerly anticipated enactment of a building engulfed by flames, staged to produce the spectacle of a raging inferno as many assumed. This was a quiet, meditative space sublimely painted in a radiant amber light, as if to deliberately infuse a calm over the site and the crowd. Some resigned in mindful reverence. Others grew restless waiting for the building to ignite. Was this the response of a de-sensitized culture dismissing over-the-top theatrical spectacles and performance art installations from decades past? Did the result justify the means? Has the intent of the artist and engagement of the viewer shifted over generations, genres, technologies, perceptions, and time? Such is the memory and experience of the sublime, which is Turrell.

James Turrell walks into the night following the performance. Photo ©2012 Jill Thayer

Connecting the Dots

During the Pomona performances, an unintended consequence emerged––one of connection and rekindled memories that lay dormant for many years. The festival spotlight unites many in the present with those of the past in a truly extraordinary effort.

Artist and Professor Ted Kerzie in studio reminisces during the Pomona performances at Pacific Standard Time. Photo ©2012 January Parkos Arnall

Ted Kerzie is another professor and narrator in the CGU Oral History Artist Series. He has a special connection to the sites and sounds of Pacific Standard Time, as he received an MFA from Claremont Graduate School, taught drawing and painting at Scripps, and is a major contributor to the West Coast Process movement in the 1980s. Kerzie was represented by Cirrus Gallery and others exhibiting internationally. The artist became Art Professor at California State University, Bakersfield retiring in 2006 after 40 years. Today, he is painting prolifically, as if reborn. The events of PST infused new life in him and his work. One key connection is his enduring friendship with Roland Reiss and Jim Turrell, with whom he has flown as a fellow pilot.

I asked Ted to share some thoughts on this Contemporary Art Renaissance, the re-emergence of his career, and his art buddies. He writes:

As a graduate student at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) in 1970 to 1972, and an Assistant Professor at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School in 1972 to 1976, I was involved deeply with the Arts in Southern California. Pacific Standard Time reconnected me in a way that not many artists ever get a chance to experience in their careers. I felt like a person who revisited the most in important time of his “emergence” into the Arts, as I was involved in art making that was changing the way the world looked at art and myself. Oh! All the questions I had. Little did I know what great experiences awaited me. Yes! I was able to go back to that time that formed my philosophical creativity, thanks to the Getty and Pacific Standard Time. I choose teaching as a profession to support my art, a Professor and Artist for over 40 years. After visiting several PST events, I realized that my own journey was truly successful. How many artists can say that and experience such enlightenment? I have discovered that my own work from that time continues today with great success and enthusiasm.

At Pomona, on January 21, 2012, I reconnected with my friends Jim Turrell, Roland Reiss, John White, and others, which was treat in itself. Watching two performances of Jim and John, [James Turrell’s “Burning Bridges” and John White’s “Preparation F” at Pomona College], I had different reactions than most in the audience. I judged the performances on my approach to art then as I was back in time like a time traveler, and an excited one at that. I knew I would view the performances differently, experiencing works like these before when I had Jim Turrell produce a flare piece in a wash-tunnel at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the 80’s. The police came then as well and it was not staged. During that decade, John White visited California State University, Bakersfield and presented a performance piece for the Art Department in the Nursing Building.

As a painter, I know you can’t make the same exact painting twice. The result is always different. This is why forgery never works! Knowing that I realized the dangers of recreating performance pieces, it was the recreation of time that was important to me. During the recent performances at Pomona, Roland Reiss and I sat in front of Bridges Auditorium and talked about those times. I had forgotten, I had a studio up in the attic of Bridges Auditorium at the same time Turrell did his flare piece in 1971. I made a 14 by 8 ft. easel that lay flat and stood up for my 12 ft. process paintings . . . we laughed about that easel. I am still painting and greatly appreciate my career more than ever. I refer to the experience of that evening as, “My Moment in Pomona by Ted Kerzie.” Oh yeah, with love stories too!

For more information on events at Pomona College Museum of Art and Pacific Standard Time visit:

2 thoughts on “Connecting Past and Present

  1. Wonderful take on the event, especially love hearing the perspective of Ted Kerzie who was present for so many of these original works! I think i will always have questions about the idea of re-creating performance especially when artists attempt to recreate moments of spontaneity such as Turrell’s staged interruption by the fire department, but love the passion with which Kerzie speaks of the time and his joy at being able to re-live those moments (especially as they reinvigorate his own artistic process!).

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