A California State of Mind, Circa 1970

Eleanor Antin, “100 Boots,” 1971-73.

Alright, I’ll say it. A show that features conceptual art circa 1970 threatens to be dry. At the outset, you know you’ll be getting mostly documentation: photographic, video, film, and paper. Beyond the ordinary wall text, there will probably be artists’ statements explaining what was done while you weren’t looking. The typewriter, the mimeograph, and the camera will act as not-so-silent partners to the artists’ projects. “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970” at the Orange County Museum of Art doesn’t escape these confines, but ends up offering you just a little bit more.

Bruce Nauman, “Studies for Holograms (Pinched Lips; Pulled Lower Lip; Pulled Neck; Pulled Cheeks; and Squeezed Lips),” 1970.

The show is divided into categories like “Mapping the Land,” “Politics,” “Public and Private Space,” and “Language and Wordplay.” As with previous shows I’ve seen at OCMA, these divisions hinder the overall experience. I found myself wishing that the curators had stuck to working chronologically or geographically, simply because most of the works are more interesting when viewed across categories, instead of in isolation. Bruce Nauman and Bonnie Sherk, for instance, would have made interesting counterpoints to each other; “State of Mind” includes Nauman’s Thighing (1967), Studies for Holograms (Pinched Lips; Pulled Lower Lip; Pulled Neck; Pulled Cheeks; and Squeezed Lips) (1970), and Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-68), to name a few, which pair nicely with Sherk’s Sitting Still series, where the artist photographs herself sitting in public locations usually used for passing through, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the corner of Mission and 20th in San Francisco.

Bonnie Sherk, “Sitting Still II, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco,” from the “Sitting Still Series,” 1971.

“State of Mind” will appeal to those in the know before it appeals to the general public—Tom Marioni’s Process Print (1969) failed to capture the attention of the dozens of school kids running around the day I visited, as did Chris Burden’s video piece, Documentation of Selected Works (1971-74), in which Burden talks about most of his iconic performance pieces (Bed, Shoot).  It’s one of the gems of the show, as are most of John Baldessari’s pieces, which show themselves to be not just humorous and playful, but—by the time you get to Voluble Luminist Painting for Max Kozloff (1966-68)—downright contrarian.

John Baldessari, “Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-six Attempts),” 1973.

There is something for everyone, however; these same kids took delight in the hippie-looking, cut-out dudes featured in Allen Ruppersberg’s Al’s Grand Hotel (1971) and the animal intestines in Suzanne Lacy’s pieces. Also popular amongst the ten-year old crowd: sculptural works like Nauman’s Yellow Room (Triangular) (1973), Stephen Kalthenbach’s Raised Floor (1967/2011) and Robert Kinmont’s 8 Handstands (1969/2009)—one of which he performs at the edge of a cliff.

Robert Kinmont, “8 Natural Handstands,” 1969.

Kinmont’s piece touched me, too. The legacy left by conceptualism, California-based or otherwise, is pervasive, demanding and often unpleasurable.  Despite this, contemporary work that picks up conceptualism’s language is usually diluted and easy to overlook.  Concepts and actions that were once novel—if not out of bounds—are now familiar and trite. Walking into the main room of “State of Mind”—full of back-to-back projections, televisions, photographs, prints and paintings—after looking at Kinmont balancing at the edge of a cliff, offers just the faintest whiff of the energy of the moment.

“State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970” is on view at the Orange County Museum of Art through January 22, 2012 as part of Pacific Standard Time.