WHAT IS ARTISTIC SUCCESS?
Why Some Artists are Obscure: The Curious Case of Roger Kuntz
Last spring of 2009, the Laguna Beach Art Museum held a retrospective for a little known but aptly named, artist, Roger Kuntz (sounds like kunst, “art” in German). Since I teach a course in contemporary art in California, called “California Dreaming,” I was intrigued. I had never heard of this man. According to the museum, Kuntz, who died young in 1975 of skin cancer was once an up and coming, promising artist, named in Life Magazine as one of the top five artists in California in 1962 and was part of the California Pop scene. Kuntz was featured in the Los Angeles art magazine, Artforum in 1963 as a local art star. He made all the right moves. And then, five years later, he took a wrong turn and got lost and twelve years later he was dead.
Often, these retrospectives of the forgotten artist show the viewer someone who was unjustly overlooked by history, but the Kunzt exhibition showed two things: first, Kuntz was justifiably overlooked and second his career was a tragedy of missed timing and bad choices. For that reason, the exhibition was a fascinating one, raising the question of how one artist becomes successful and another does not. Success is more than random chance. Success is a matter of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right audience. Success is recognizing the moment and seizing it.
Roger Kuntz was right on target in the early Sixties, painting the concrete landscape of Los Angeles as a noir terrain of freeway with its engineered and programmed twists and turns and abrupt signage that replaced the free exploration and human communication. Begun on a national scale in the late 1959s, the California freeway was a relatively new subject in the art world. The artist was sensitive to the alienation that such transportation conveniences would bring to the population. And yes, today we fly along the asphalt in our private pods, isolated from our fellow human beings. The editor of Artforum, John Coplans understood Kuntz as a “Pop” artist, because the graduate of the Claremont Colleges painted the vernacular Pop culture of Southern California.
But Kuntz presented a dark vision of Los Angeles straight out of Raymond Chandler. In the early Sixties, the dark city painted by Kunst was a direct rebuke to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan and cherry acceptance of the City of Angels or Richard Diebenkorn’s hard edged, sky blue Ocean Park series. And then, in 1968, Kuntz went off course. When I walked into next room and into the next phase of his career, I said out loud, “Oh, something happened to him.” Suddenly his terrain changed from public to private, from contemporary to historical. Kuntz began painting nude women, or the same nude woman, over and over, usually in bathroom settings. Like many painters, he was really a drawer, someone who was better with line than color, and his choice of color for these paintings was too strong and too bright and too harsh. One could not help but compare Kuntz to Edgar Degas or to Pierre Bonnard, his obvious role models, but he lacked to obsessive voyeurism of these artists. There was a feeling that the paintings reflected his personal life and in a not very interesting way.
And yes, the next stage of his career placed him far away from the other artists in Los Angeles, those boys of the Ferus Gallery. He drifted to Laguna Beach where he proceeded to continue to paint his life in his beach home in a series of small works that are the kind that (unjustly) give the city a bad name for art. I hate the word “cringe worthy,” but I must use the phrase here. On the lower level of the museum, it only got worse. Kuntz’s last works raised the question of what kind of subject matter is appropriate to art? I am not referring to the controversial of the 1980s, the kind that faced censorship and caused controversy, but to something more basic—-should an artist ever paint a blimp and if so under what circumstances? Should an artist ever paint the astronauts visiting the moon, and if so, under what circumstances? At this point in his career, Roger Kuntz was painting the Goodyear blimp, while Billy Al Bengston had a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968. Ed Ruscha was the featured artist in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1970. Roger Kuntz was painting the moon landing. He was not a bad painter. He simply selected his subjects badly. He followed his personal life with his art, but his ordinary life was like all our lives: uninteresting. The Ferus Gallery artists also led uninteresting lives, like most successful artists, but they were intelligent enough to make art about their own times, not their own lives. It is a rare artist who can make great art about his or her private obsessions. It takes a great eye for culture to turn the vernacular environment to art. Roger Kuntz had a career shaped like a downward trajectory. If I compared it to the freeway, I would say he abruptly exited, made all the wrong moves, and reached a dead end. Art is all about the ability to make the right choices.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger