Was LA (not NYC) the Post-WWII Art Capitol of the World?

Crack open any standard text on modern art since the end of World War II and you’ll read how New York City took over as the art world capitol from Paris. From the rise of the MoMA and the Guggenheim to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and pretty much every other modern movement, if it happened in art, it happened in New York City. But is that the true story? Starting next month and extending throughout 2012, Los Angeles hopes to rewrite the history books and wrest the title away from its East Coast Rival through an organized effort titled Pacific Standard Time that brings together more than 60 cultural institutions and more than 50 art exhibitions. Just when you thought you knew modern art history, Pacific Standard Time shakes up all your assumptions like a seven-point quake.


The idea for Pacific Standard Time began a decade ago at the Getty Research Institute as an oral history project. As the researchers began talking to artists, gallery owners, and other figures from the era, they realized just how much ammunition they had at hand in the battle with New York. The Getty Foundation soon began awarding grants to museums and other cultural institutions to dig into their archives and collections—first as part of the history project, then as the groundwork for the exhibitions that will appear over the next year throughout the Southern California region.

We all know what New York City has to offer as top of the heap of the post-war art world: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, and others. But does that star-studded lineup reflect the full spectrum of post-war art and post-war American culture? For me, the strength of Pacific Standard Time’s argument lies in how it represents segments of the population and their art in a way that the standard New York story doesn’t. In contrast to the Old Boys Club of the New York AbExes, Los Angeles offers a vibrant feminist art scene with a long history. Doin' It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building recalls the feminist landmark the Woman’s Building, founded in 1973 in L.A. by artists Judy Chicago and Sheila Levant de Bretteville and art historian Arlene Raven. She Accepts the Proposition: Women Gallerists and the Redefinition of Art in Los Angeles, 1967-1978 examines the role of women art dealers in promoting the art of women. Exhibitions focusing on African-American, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, and Chicano artists demonstrate and celebrate the diversity within the L.A. art scene while arguing for a truly global scope that New York City, for all the diversity of its population, can’t match in its post-war art history.

But even if New York wants to go toe-to-toe with Los Angeles in regards to Abstract Expressionism, the City of Angels can hold its own. In L.A. Raw: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles, 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, artists such as Wallace Berman, Chris Burden, Judy Chicago, and Betye Saar, in addition to the title’s bookends Rico Lebrun and Paul McCarthy, make a compelling argument that their collective achievement matches that of their opposite coast counterparts. Perhaps no single artist holds up to stars such as Pollock or de Kooning, but artists such as Hans Burkhardt, who worked in the New York scene when AbEx was in its infancy before bringing such ideas west with him in 1937, offer a different spin on and expand our concept of the potential of the familiar style. In My Lai (shown above), painted in the same year as the infamous Vietnam War massacre, Burkhardt uses the passion and fury of Abstract Expressionism to express outrage with abstract swirls of paint in which skulls seems to swim with the concrete reality of death. In contrast to the apoliticism of Pollock and de Kooning, the political engagement of Burkhardt and others reminds us that these artists worked in real time and space and not some hermetically sealed bubble.

Even if you don’t buy the premise of Pacific Standard Time, you have to admire the massive accomplishment in bringing so many institutions together in a common goal. (The website alone is a seemingly endless treasure trove of information.) "I don't think this level of collaboration could have happened in the East, where there is so much competition between museums,” Judy Chicago remarked in an interview about the project. “There's a spirit of innovation and self-invention that continues in California." They may not rewrite the history books and supplant New York City as the post-war capitol of the art world, but the organizers of Pacific Standard Time will succeed in bringing the “California State of Mind” of diversity and creativity to the minds of a whole new generation.

[Image: My Lai, 1968, Hans Burkhardt. Oil assemblage with skulls on canvas. 77 x 115 in. Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles. © Hans G and Thordis W. Burkhardt Foundation. Part of L.A. Raw: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles, 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy at the Pasadena Museum of California Art from January 22, 2012 through May 20, 2012.]

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.