Collector’s Guide: West Coast Artists

An Artist Community in Los Angeles, California

In the 1960s and 70s, artists were drawn to the California coast seeking freedom from the heavily institutionalized canons of dominant New York and international art markets. What they found among the area’s expansive ocean, relaxed culture, and the dramatic southern California sky, was a booming environment that would become the West Coast arts scene, one that espoused experimentation and collaboration among all else.  

Along the sprawling Pacific coast, artists in Santa Monica and neighboring Venice, California, formed a tight-knit and close community of shared studios, frequent visits, and cross-inspiration over their careers. Artists among this group featured in our May 12, Contemporary Art sale, include Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, John Baldessari, James Turrell, Edward RuschaVija Celmins and Wayne Thiebaud

Sam Francis

It’s hard to begin a story of LA’s art scene without mentioning Sam Francis (1923-1994), the abstract painter and printmaker, whose lifetime residency in the Santa Monica area was interspersed with years abroad in Paris, France, and throughout Japan.   

Sam Francis prints at auction May 12: Her Blue Deeps, color lithograph, 1972. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000; Coral Poles, color lithograph, 1973. Estimate $3,000 to $5,000.

Francis used the proceeds from his successful painting career to fund his own Santa Monica-based print shop, The Litho Studio, printing his works and drawing a creative community of experimental printers from the area. Her Blue Deeps, 1972, and Coral Poles, 1973, were produced at his studio.  

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn in his studio at Main Street and Ashland Avenue in Santa Monica, 1970, photo by Richard Grant.

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), an artist associated with abstraction in the Bay Area, moved to Santa Monica to teach at UCLA in 1967, working out of a studio previously occupied by none other than Sam Francis. Inspired by the area’s natural light and beachside atmosphere, Diebenkorn would create his Ocean Park series of abstract paintings, referencing the Santa Monica neighborhood of the same name. Seated Woman in Chemise, 1965, and Seated Woman, 1965, two portrait study lithographs made prior to his move, preview his use of expressive line that would become a feature of his work in abstraction.

Richard Diebenkorn prints at auction May 12: Seated Woman in Chemise, lithograph, 1965. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000; Seated Woman, lithograph, 1965. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

James Turrell

At auction May 12: James Turrell, Untitled, aquatint, 1984. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000.

Across the street from Diebenkorn’s studio, was the previously vacant Mendota Hotel, where James Turrell (born 1943) had moved just a year earlier in 1966. The two were frequent studio visitors of each other, fostering a collaborative interest in the light of the coast. Turrell lived on the second floor and used the ground floor as a studio, becoming his experimental space where he created his first light projections — the Mendota Stoppages — using the building and light through his studio windows as orchestrated apertures. Turrell, who also collaborated with Francis on sky drawing pieces in 1969, would later translate his works into print form, creating expressions of similar beams of light like the 1984 black and white aquatint above.  

Ed Ruscha

At auction May 12: Edward Ruscha, Brews, color screenprint, 1970. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

Edward Ruscha (born 1937) arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, worked briefly in advertising, and by the early 1960s had become well known for his paintings, collages and photographs through his association with the LA-based Ferrus Gallery group. Ruscha is synonymous with Pop Art, California cool, and west coast experimentation.  His 1971 color screenprint, Brews, 1971, is from the News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues series, in which each image incorporates some of the organic substance described in the title — in this case beer.  

John Baldessari

At auction May 12: John Baldessari, Double Motorcyclists and Landscape (Icelandic), color lithograph, 2003. Estimate $3,000 to $5,000.

John Baldessari (1931-2020), first began spitting studio space with his Santa Monica neighbor, William Wegman around 1970 and spent most of life living in the Santa Monica Ocean Park neighborhood. With a Main Street studio alongside Diebenkorn and Turrell, Baldessari’s tenure as a pioneering conceptual artist often incorporated found photography of the Santa Monica area, artist studios, and the creative scene found there. Double Motorcyclists and Landscape (Icelandic), 2003, a later color lithograph from his career, reflects the influence of the early work and wide vistas the Santa Monica artists often focused on.

Vija Celmins

At auction May 12: Vija Celmins, Untitled (Desert), color lithograph, 1971. Estimate $30,000 to $50,000.

Chief among those to take direct inspiration from the area was Vija Celmins (born 1938). A 1965 BFA graduate of UCLA and a resident of Venice Beach until 1980, Celmins used the shoreline of Santa Monica-adjacent Venice to inspire her views of the boundless ocean, flat planes, and dusky, expansive light to in a spatial interest in the wide, panoramic vistas of the area. Frequently in attendance at gallery openings and social events in Santa Monica among Diebenkorn, Baldessari, and others, she was a fixture in the collaborative Santa Monica art scene. Desert, 1971, printed in nearby Cirrus Editions in Los Angeles, is the preeminent example of her work in this era.

David Hockney

At auction May 12: David Hockney, Pool Made with Paper and Blue Ink for Book, color lithograph, 1980. Estimate $30,000 to $50,000.

Like Celmins,  David Hockney (born 1937) emigrated from London to Los Angeles in 1964 and was quickly immersed in the culture of LA, living and continuing to work there for most of his career. Among his iconic California images are those of the Swimming Pool series, with which he first experimented with beginning in 1964, culminating in works like Pool Made with Paper and Blue Ink for Book, 1980.  

Wayne Thiebaud

Wayne Thiebaud prints at auction May 12: From left to right: Candy Counter, color linoleum cut, 1970. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000; Chocolate Cake, color lithograph, 1971. Estimate $8,000 to $12,000.

Another California icon, Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021) worked one summer during his high school years as an apprentice at Walt Disney Studios, Los Angeles, drawing in-betweens for the cartoons Goofy, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket. Thiebaud later went on to teach at universities in California. Thiebaud was not only a major influence on his students, but also became a progenitor of the Pop Art movement through his paintings of everyday objects, including his iconic series of sweets, candies, and cake, like Candy Counter and Chocolate Cake.  

Do you have a work by a California artist we should take a look at?