California’s Radical, Multicultural Art History No Longer Shunned

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Considering the steady rise of so many Californian artists since the turn of the 21st century, it may be surprising to find the lack of a full scientific treatment of California art history. Jenni Sorkin, associate professor of art history at the University of California, Barbara, just published Art in california with Thames & Hudson, which provides an indispensable study of the history of visual art in California from the turn of the 20th century to the present day.

For most of the 20th century, art in California was valued against other cultural capitals, most often New York. Failure to recognize the unique socio-political, geographic, and conceptual contexts that shape the work of artists in California has led to decades of disdain; California was seen as a sort of regional elsewhere, a hub of consumer culture rather than high culture. Yet, as Sorkin argues in his introduction, “California’s visual art has continued unabated and its history is arguably more radical, rooted in multiculturalism, ethnic identity and community belonging from the beginning. “. Art in california, she continues, “redirects the reader to what has been hidden in plain sight for a century: throughout the period, California has been a predecessor of the contemporary global … in the sense that its cosmopolitanism and its diversity have deep roots in its complex history of migration and exchange. Sorkin doesn’t mince words about the nature of this “complex story”: Settlement colonialism and racialized notions of conquest and prosperity led to the forced displacement and oppression of Mexican and Chinese Californians throughout the late 19th century, and the native populations of California were wiped out by the state. genocide sanctioned. These insidious drivers of the state’s initial prosperity are indicators of coincident economic and cultural forces that, with its massive scale and distinctive geography, continue to shape California’s artistic output and global influence.

Art in california is organized thematically and chronologically, ranging from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day through discussions of pictorialism and direct photography; the influence of Mexican muralism; post-war abstraction; the proliferation of art schools; art and activism; reciprocating spatial movement; identity politics; and the history of California-specific exhibits in the state. With so much ground to cover and little space, Sorkin’s most successful chapters manage to lucidly superimpose the socio-political, geographic, institutional and cultural concerns of the day.

In the first chapter, the story of Sorkin’s photography in the early 20th century weaves together the impact of the Californian landscape on identity formation and the contributions of Japanese American photographers before and during their racist abuse and internment. Likewise, in the second chapter, Sorkin’s discussion of the mural projects of José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros – and the ensuing controversies – executed throughout the state during the 1930s, puts shed light on both the interconnected history of Mexico and the United States and the influence of Mexican Muralism on the art produced by future generations of Californian artists during the Chicanx liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Chapters Five and Six, respectively, Sorkin emphasizes the importance of art schools and alternative spaces as crucial support systems for many California artists from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Statewide, art programs and artist-run or alternative spaces were known as experimentation incubators and provided exhibition and employment opportunities that were otherwise unavailable for local artists, especially in cities like Los Angeles where a strong network of galleries and sustained support from museums as contemporary art only materialized in the mid-1980s.

Rupert garcia, “Down with the Whites” (1969) (© Rupert Garcia, Courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco)

Sorkin’s investigation is an unprecedented example of inclusiveness, consistently bringing artisans, artist-educators, women, queer artists, and artists of color to the fore – while reiterating that for most of the period covered by this book, the opportunity in the art world (in California as elsewhere) was reserved for heterosexual white males. Her approach is refreshing and non-hierarchical: she gives almost all of the artists mentioned roughly the same space, regardless of their status in the art world. She also narrows down her discussion of some of the most frequently highlighted developments in California art, such as the Light and Space movement, to a single mention. This forced some thinking on my part: Would it have been possible to directly engage – or challenge – these historically dominant narratives and the inequitable power dynamics that produced them? How does a more equitable and anti-colonial art history navigate such questions of revisionism? Fortunately, Art in california provides the resources for the next generation of students to assess this for themselves.

Bernard Zakheim, “Library” (1934) (collection of the city and county of San Francisco, commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project for Coit Tower)

Art in california by Jenni Sorkin is published by Thames & Hudson and is available online.

Each piece is a recording of the artist’s position, movements and sensations during the artistic creation, the pains and temperature changes as his chest rises and falls with each breath.


With growing calls for the repatriation of colonial-era artifacts and against the illegal trafficking of antiques, hiding them in public view in a chamber of secrets is doubly unethical.


As long as wars were fought, wars had to be sold. And just like with weapons, the US military has long been at the forefront of propaganda.


The sculpture is combined with contemporary photographs by Ilaria Sagaria in an Uffizi exhibition on violence against women.


Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.


The art industry has faced material shortages due to COVID-19 and the climate disaster.



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