Meanwhile, down in San Pedro…
Making a show of it
Ron Linden has championed artists for over two decades
by Bondo Wyszpolski
When the gallery director resigned from Los Angeles Harbor College, Jay McCafferty knew who to ask to take over her position. “And I said sure,” Ron Linden recalls. “I’d had limited experience when I was fresh out of grad school, taking my turn as the gallery director at Bradley University in the middle of Illinois.“So I took it on, and I enjoyed it.” That was in 2000. “Taking that job, and then founding the Warshaw Gallery on Sixth St. in San Pedro, collaborating with Ray and Arnée (Carofano) here at Gallery 478, and then the TransVagrant Projects, I just felt — given the opportunity — that not to do it would be tantamount to a criminal act.
“Because,” Linden continues, “if I can present works by people that I believe in, then that would be fulfilling an obligation. Plus I enjoy curating, selecting, and collaborating with various artists. There’s been quite a variety, from the political, to the romantic, to the distant kind of formalist abstraction that takes a trained eye to see that there’s anything there.
“So I’ve had a good time. I’ve introduced young people (to a wider audience), which I also feel is part of the responsibility. As an educator I’ve gotten a real kick out of seeing them move on to good undergraduate programs, and some of them to graduate programs in fine arts.”The current show at Gallery 478, where I met with Linden on a recent Saturday to talk of matters past and present, is titled “Craig Keith Anthim: Selected Works.” It’s on view through Dec. 30. Antrim, who was born in Pasadena in 1942, had lived for some years in San Pedro. He died this past September. In his press release for the exhibition, Linden wrote that “Antrim wedded spirituality with the sensual in his work, much of it influenced by his understanding of philosophy, Jungian psychology, and the philosophy of Joseph Campbell.” In 1986, Antrim was included in the prestigious LACMA show, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985.”
The work at Gallery 478 includes pieces from each decade of Antrim’s career, from the 1970s onward. But, says Linden, “it wasn’t selected based on a calendar of any sort. I was just looking for paintings I found arresting and fetching to my eye.” Ultimately, though, “I don’t look at (the show) as a requiem or anything other than a real pared-down survey of an artist friend who was dedicated to what he was doing and has passed recently.”Que será, Seurat?
The artists Linden has promoted and the shows he’s curated have done as much for South Bay artists as anyone. He’s also had some success as a visual artist in his own right, both in group shows and solo shows.
It all begins in Chicago, where he was born in 1940.
“I went to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was in high school,” Linden says. “I went to classes there for a couple of years and then I enrolled at the University of Illinois in architecture. My father was a consummate engineer, a good conceptual guy and designer, and architectural students were required at that time to take free-hand drawing, free-hand perspective, and beginning painting, where you’re working from still lifes and so forth.” These classes took place “in this great old building on the U of I campus, which just reeked of art. You could smell the oil paint downstairs all the way to the third floor. It was amazing.
“I found that much more interesting than the mechanical aspects of architecture. When I explained to my father that I had changed my major he was quite disappointed. I don’t think he ever forgave me.”
When asked which paintings or painters grabbed his attention in those early days, Linden mentions two very different works, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884-1886) by Georges Seurat and “Excavation” (1950) by Willem de Kooning. Both pictures were in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and Linden would walk by them almost weekly. He says of the Seurat that “as I matured, the way I saw the painting changed.” Seurat and Paul Signac are the best known propagators of Pointillism, a technique that, as Linden notes, “if you put a dot of yellow next to a dot of blue it’s going to give you a visual green when you step back and they merge. So that one taught me there was a lot more going on there than just this idyllic Sunday afternoon with well-off Parisians.”When it came to the de Kooning, “I couldn’t figure it out to save my ass.” And then, perhaps subconsciously, “the first abstract painting that I made was like a version of a de Kooning — amateurish, of course. I tell friends it took me my entire undergraduate career to fully understand de Kooning, and I still marvel at (his work) all these years later, more than any of the other abstract painters.”
After receiving his BFA from the University of Illinois Linden continued on to grad school, although by this time he was married and had two children. In addition to being a teaching assistant he worked nights and weekends fixing cars. Presumably he wasn’t too creative with the repairs.
With his MFA Linden scored a job as an assistant professor of art at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. “That was in the late ‘60s,” he says, “and there was NEA money around.” Having been a teaching assistant in lithography while in grad school, he founded a lithography workshop at Bradley.
The school treated him well, even sending him and other faculty members to a college art association conference in San Francisco. A couple of people he’d known from the Midwest were instrumental in helping him land a summer teaching job at USC, “where,” he says, breaking out into a wide grin, “I encountered the most boring, undermotivated students that I could ever imagine.”That aside, however, Linden made up his mind to stay in California, and in Old Town Pasadena he found, serendipitously, he adds, an 8,000 square foot studio for $400 a month. The area was run down at that time, with “junkies and drunks and thrift stores and dive bars and a porn theater,” but, he continues, “a lot of great stuff went on there, too. I was a block away from Bruce Nauman, Peter Plagens, Walter Gabrielson, Karen Carson…”
Linden was in Pasadena for most of the ‘70s. “Then when the urban renewal began all the artists got priced out, and I moved downtown.” He spent the ‘80s in downtown Los Angeles, “which was exactly the right time to be there because after 6 o’clock at night it was artists, musicians, and bums, and that was it. You kind of felt like you owned the city, and there were a number of bars (Al’s Bar, for example) and eateries that were just legendary.
“And then gentrification hit downtown L.A.” Meanwhile, Linden had made some trips south to San Pedro, helping out friends who were refurbishing half of Ted Twine’s building, and putting in an art studio. “In doing so I looked around San Pedro and was taken aback by how beautiful it was.” He’d told his wife that if they ever got booted from downtown L.A. they were going to consider a move to the harbor area.
Which then happened, and soon Linden was meeting with many of the artists and the gallerists who’ve played a key role in his life ever since. Some have moved on, of course, and some have passed away. “Now chaos reigns, as usual,” he says. “Just when you think life was going to get easier it gets more complicated.”
Why, do you think this area’s going to get too gentrified?
“Yeah, I do,” Linden replies. “And this terrifies me. There’s no overall plan.” He then points out that although the galleries and the artists have given downtown San Pedro a cachet, he feels that their best interests aren’t being properly safeguarded. Artist enclaves are too easily steamrolled over by profit-minded developers. Linden again emphasizes the richness of the local art scene, while also pointing out that it’s often been overlooked in the context of art across Greater L.A. He specifically mentions the city-wide Pacific Standard Time (PST) series of exhibitions that took place 10 years ago. “My response to Pacific Standard Time, where they totally missed the South Bay, was to do a show called, instead of PST, ‘PSST: Art in San Pedro 2000-2012.’” That was his rebuttal, one might say, to the notion that art radiating from the South Bay and the harbor area was marginal. Linden knows firsthand that there are plenty of artists around making top of the line work that can stand with the best of them anywhere.The teaching circuit
The majority of the artists who Linden champions create in an abstract rather than a figurative vein, and without “a trained eye to see that there’s anything there whatsoever” viewers might simply avoid a serpent’s nest of squiggles, and instead linger in front of a pier scene at sunset. In that common enough scenario, Linden’s chosen artists are easily passed over and ignored.
“Yes,” Linden replies. “Especially now. And so the under-represented, that’s important to me, too. That’s why I love Harbor College also, because it’s such an outlier. The financial demographic is probably the lowest of the 10 community colleges, but the South Bay here, and in particular Wilmington and San Pedro, Harbor City and so forth, they’re talent-rich. They might not have a lot of money, or a lot of access to higher education or to the kind of training that they deserve, but I like working for the less-privileged, those with less access. I teach sophomores in community college like they were sophomores in (four-year) college. It’s a development process where if you can give people a leg up, you’re doing them the best favor. You don’t tell them what to do, you tell them how to do whatever they can imagine, and that pays off.”
But his days at the school in Wilmington are now over.
“I retired when I discovered the impossibility, and the dishonesty of attempting to teach studio art online,” Linden says. “I cannot do it, efficiently or significantly. Besides which I’ve turned 80, so I said it’s time to throw in the towel. I gave it that one semester of online and I was so disappointed and burned out.” Art is visceral, visually tactile, and immediate, and viewing it on the computer screen is a poor substitute for embracing it in person. “I didn’t know what was going to melt first, my iMac or me… Hours and hours (spent) to get nowhere. But, anyway, it was an enjoyable part of my life.”So, if we step back several years, how many shows per semester did Linden curate for Harbor College?
“In the beginning I was just really over-zealous,” he replies. “I produced a show a month, so that would be about six shows in an academic year, and I drove myself a little nuts, and everyone else too, probably. I got it down to three professional shows, sometimes two depending on how the semester worked out, with an artist talk for students, and open to the general public, and then the annual student show, where often I’d install more than 100 works of art in all mediums. It was floor to ceiling stuff, salon style, all in caps.
“But,” Linden adds, “the professional shows were really worthwhile, and the response from students was good. I have a hell of a lot of (art world) friends out there, and they’d show up and speak honestly with students, and students found that quite refreshing. Nothing that sounded like a canned speech.” Importantly, the students were made to understand “that there’s no such thing as a bad question; you know, if you have a question, ask it. And in every sense, without exception, the artists were just great.”
In for the long haul
Linden is asked if he’s shown any of those artists in Gallery 478, or Warshaw Gallery, whom he first exhibited at Harbor College.
“Yes, a couple of them I did,” he says. “I’m kind of split in a couple of ways. In the era that I came up in, galleries didn’t have like 30, 40, 50 artists on their roster; they had maybe a dozen, and many of them, like for example Daniel Weinberg (1933-2022) here in Los Angeles who not unlike Leo Castelli (1907-1999) only showed art that he believed in. And because his stable was limited to that, he could show his gallery artists every couple of years.
“And so I’ve had several repeats, because I think the work warrants it, and because I don’t want to get too spread out. I don’t know how it works out if you ever broke it down, whether you could say that 15 percent of the shows were newcomers and 85 percent were established veterans or mid-career, but that’s kind of the way it’s been.”
Back to the initial question, there was a two-person show that Linden had readied for Harbor College that didn’t happen, but which he’d like to see revived. It was called “Evenso,” and it featured sculptures by Coleen Sterritt, and paintings by Katy Crowe. It was scheduled for mid-March, 2020.
“On the day of the opening,” Linden recalls, “I was setting up in the gallery and everything was ready, and then word came over the line that the campus is closed down. So we had to cancel the opening. I was disappointed because the installation was beautiful. You can’t anticipate juxtapositions like Coleen can put together. There’s an element of Arte Povera in it because it’s all found material, rededicated and/or repurposed. And Katy’s paintings take you by surprise, too, because they look so unassuming. At first glance you go, What is that about? And then you look at the subtleties in the work, the layers and the thought that goes in, and they’re marvelous.”
Ironically, through the instigation of noted art critic Peter Plagens in New York, Linden was able to have “Evenso” written up in Two Coats of Paint, a blogazine out of Brooklyn run by Sharon Butler. It was featured, along with five images of the installation, “so we got more hits with a show that nobody ever saw live, which was just amazing.” Linden, of course, would rather that people had been able to experience it in a gallery setting. “We’ve talked about doing a redux of that show here, because this space would be big enough for what Coleen and Katy do.”Worthy of our attention
I don’t really mean to, but I put Linden on the spot when I ask if he’d like to say a few words about any specific artists, in particular those he hadn’t already spoken about. It’s not a good question to ask, because invariably someone important or influential gets passed over. Nonetheless, the question is out.
Linden mentions Merwin Belin, one of his favorite iconoclasts, whom he’s known since the ‘70s, “who makes collages and eccentric objects, always deliberately beneath the radar.” Jay McCafferty’s name has surfaced a few times, including in the very first line of this nice, long article. McCafferty has work in the Getty’s permanent collection, and this writer, who knew him briefly but as someone noble and sincere, was deeply saddened upon learning of his passing. “I believe in his work in the long run, for sure,” Linden says. “Jeeze, there’s so many people,” he adds, “I almost feel guilty singling them out.” But he mentions a few more, including Eric Johnson, “who’s technically one of the finest craftsmen that you’ll ever see, bar none. And we have painters like Marie Thibeault, we have sculptors like Ann Weber.
“The list goes on,” Linden says, and he mentions Ted Twine, “who I think is a very good painter,” and in fact right now, at this moment, Twine has a solo exhibition running through Jan. 7 at the Palos Verdes Art Center (details below). Craig Antrim’s name again comes up, fondly of course, as having been someone who, as a teacher, was “open, accessible; as a friend, jovial, hospitable, generous of spirit,” but who apparently maintained a low profile “and just kept on doing his work, and I think always searching for a resolution, spiritually — not in a religious sense.”Linden pauses and continues. “Peggy Reavey and Yong Sin are outstanding, and they fly mostly beneath the radar, too.” He praises their intensity, commitment, and, a point he stresses, their authenticity. “Peggy doesn’t mess around and neither does Yong, and both of them work all the time.”
Inevitably, of course, it comes full circle to where we’re sitting, in Ray Carofano’s Gallery 478. In some way, because the gallery (and photo studio) is often a gathering point during the San Pedro First Thursday Art Walks, Carofano has been a key figure in the local art scene, and his fine art photography has been widely acclaimed (his hardcover book, “Faces of Pedro,” was profiled in these pages). “It’s a pretty rich environment around here,” Linden says, “and everybody watches out for everyone else. Craig (Antrim) was definitely part of that.” After COVID started shutting down the local diners and bars Linden says that Antrim complained to him that he missed his own extroverted self, referring to their Thursday lunches where, in Linden’s words, “we’d all hang out at Walker’s Cafe and drink beer and talk, and enjoy a couple of hours right there at Point Fermin.”
Linden lights up a cigarette, and now it’s time for a few snapshots. I’ve compiled a list of local artists Linden has helped along in one way or another, but there’s no way to include them all here (you’ll find most of them on Linden’s Wikipedia page). In the future, Linden intends to get behind many others as well, giving them a push, and encouraging their self-confidence.
“I will do that as long as I can,” he says, “to try and present artworks by significant artists. And I try all the time to never talk down to the audience. Often there are little docent groups that will come in and look at a show, and I don’t sugarcoat or soft-pedal it. I feel that part of the mission is to elevate the public and get rid of misapprehension. A lot of people feel a sense of alienation like it’s an insider world when it really isn’t. What could be more open than laying your life out there on a — no matter what it is — a musical score, a written manuscript, a painting?”
And then he sums it all up. “I’m just trying to carry on, you know?”
Related shows: Craig Keith Antrim: Selected Works, through Dec. 30 at TransVagrant & Gallery 478, located at 478 W. 7th St, San Pedro; Ted Twine: Deep Flat Theory, through Jan. 7 at the Palos Verdes Art Center, 5504 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes. PEN