by Zoya Mirzaghitova
Pomona College in Claremont, California is not very well known; thought for a moment in history, more precisely 1969 to 1973, it became an avant-garde centre for radical and conceptual art. The moment was brief, many artists who participated went on to leave a mark in the history of art and at the end, the entire fine art department faculty at Pomona resigned or had their contracts terminated.
When I was writing a research paper last semester for one of my art history classes I had no idea that any of that had ever happened. All I knew was that there was a book called It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969 to 1973 and it had the information I was looking for. I was desperately looking for this book because it seemed to be the only one to mention a work by Michael Asher I was researching, called the Pomona College Project. This book was not in the University or Public libraries, parts of it were not to be found online, in fact the only place that told me about its existence was the publisher’s website. Having finished my essay without it and long forgotten about the book I was shocked to stumble upon in the boxes of books sent over to the Satellite Gallery Bookstore from READ Books at the Charles H Scott Gallery. Intrigued to have finally found the book I read it and found out about this curious and seemingly forgotten moment in history.
This avant-garde moment in history of the college happened during the tenures and under the influence of Hal Gilksman and Helene Winer as Pomona College art gallery curators and directors. Gilksman started at Pomona in 1969 and organised exhibitions and projects with artists like Michael Asher, Judy Chicago, Lewis Baltz and Ron Cooper. Winer continued with the same spirit, inviting Joe Goode, John McCracken, John White and Guy Williams. Both were supported by the Fine Arts department faculty and were generally ignored by the administration until a couple of years into the radical programming.
The pivotal moment seemed to happen during the performances of Chris Burden and Wolfgang Stoerchle. Burden’s performance criticised TV when he threw burning matches at a naked woman (who just happened to be his wife) and the audience were able to view it in person, where people thought it was horrific and on a television screen where it felt commonplace. Stoerchle’s piece was described as the last straw for the administration of the college event though it was not terribly offensive or shocking in the eyes of the students. Stoerchle criticised the institution and, I would argue, art itself by urinating in the gallery during his performance. This is said to have cost Winer her job and most of the faculty resigned in protest.
The scales were also tipped by the collector Norton Simon who was a significant supporter of the gallery and an advocate against contemporary art. He donated 5 historical works to the gallery and in the turmoil of the era the college turned on a more traditional and conservative path with the help and influence of the old supporter.
This book contains an interesting mix of the history of a specific institution and a significant moment in the history of art. Many important works came out of those years at the college, many of which are not very well written about. Along with essays and interviews on the situation in Pomona, it provides detailed documentation, analysis and artist statements on many significant works that were displayed or created at the college at that time. It shows the power of art to influence and scare institutions, as well as providing its own critique of the educational system, pointing out the publication created to celebrate the centennial anniversary of art at Pomona and that happened to completely skip over those 4 years in the history of the collage gallery.