The Pasadena Art Museum was a legendary institution at the white-hot epicenter of postwar art in Southern California. That fascinating, percolating, seminal era is being celebrated throughout the Southland in a series of exhibitions called Pacific Standard Time—and in Pasadena right now.
The Pasadena Art Museum began in 1924 in a house on the northwest corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevard. It moved to 56 N. Los Robles (now the Pacific Asia Museum) in 1942, and in 1953 it received a remarkable collection of nearly 500 pieces of important 20th-century art. Contemporary exhibitions followed, with the likes of Sam Francis, Robert Irwin and Richard Diebenkorn. A Marcel Duchamp retrospective in 1963 put the museum on the international art map; the next year the Encounters series presented revolutionary composers like John Cage. This farsighted museum even sponsored the first Andy Warhol retrospective in 1970 and began art education that became the Armory Center.
It was the presence of the museum and its many supporters—as well as reasonable rents—that attracted artists like Judy Chicago, Bruce Naumann and others to the Pasadena art scene in the mid to late 1960s. Eventually the museum outgrew its space as well as its funding, and in 1974, Norton Simon paid off the accumulated debt, took over the collection and moved it to a new building, merging it with his own collection.
The remarkable story of a little museum that could—and did—while changing the course of art and design is recreated in two galleries at the Pacific Asia Museum. Visitors can admire precise Paul Klees, luminous Larry Bells and enigmatic Lionel Feningers, as well as a Joseph Cornell box and a stack of Warhol Brillo boxes, all assembled by curator Jay Belloli in a spirit of rediscovery rather than reverence. I got goosebumps imagining all the spirit, energy, support and vision that the community poured into an avant-garde international art movement. It challenged my stereotype of midcentury Pasadena as a stodgy, traditional community. In the wake of the burgeoning Arroyo arts scene, Eagle Rock’s nascence and downtown LA’s art nights, it’s probably time to begin haunting the student shows at Art Center and the Armory for a look at the next wave. Meanwhile, get inspired by 46 N. Los Robles and the other events of Pacific Standard Time, a remarkable way to celebrate art in our region. The Armory, the Huntington and the Norton Simon are all participating with shows currently, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art will have an exhibition starting 1/22/2012.