Is Llyn Foulkes the biggest, baddest, most influential and controversial multifaceted Los Angeles artist you’ve never heard of—despite being a septuagenarian alumnus of the legendary Ferus Gallery who, early in his career in the 1960s, had solo museum exhibitions and great success at international art biennials (most notably in Paris)? Despite having been exhibited at last summer’s Documenta (13), the every-five-year arts extravaganza in Kassel, Germany, and the latest Venice Biennale Art Exhibition the summer before? And despite the fact that, in a selectively soaring and closely scrutinized art market, his market has climbed steadily but his prices haven’t soared since the conclusion of last year’s “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980,” the groundbreaking multi-institutional trans-SoCal arts happening spearheaded by The Getty in 2011 and ’12, which documented the likes of seminal SoCalers such as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and, yes, Foulkes as well? Quite possibly.
Regardless, his renown is about to be rebooted and recalibrated courtesy of a blockbuster retrospective at the Hammer Museum, slated to run from February 3 through May 19. “Llyn is long overdue for this treatment,” says Ali Subotnick, the Hammer curator responsible for the approximately 140-piece show that spans from the late ’50s to today. “It’s the first major retrospective I’ve organized, and while there are few artists I’d like to feature this in-depth and on this scale, with Llyn I wish I had double the space.”
Subotnick describes the work as “uncanny—at times dark and disturbing, at other times funny and absurd, always visceral and unforgettable. His paintings have an exquisite texture achieved through his early technique of adding and subtracting paint with a rag (rather than brushes), and the tableaux and early constructions are thick and occasionally incorporate fabric, electrical elements, and other found objects like road signs, tree branches, and mummified animals.”
Born in Yakima, Washington, in 1934, Foulkes was drawn both to music and the visual arts from childhood. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist. I copied comic books,” says the artist, who now lives in the Brewery Arts Complex near Downtown. “The first music I responded to was Spike Jones because it sounded like cartoon music to me, so I starting imitating his records.”
From 1965 to 1971 Foulkes played drums with the band City Lights, and, in the 1970s, formed The Rubber Band before inventing his Machine, an assemblage of horns, organ pipes, cowbells, and other sound producers that have allowed him to be a one-man band, literally, in 1979. (He will perform at least twice at the Hammer.)
Nor has his visual oeuvre been less eclectic. From media—including found materials, printed materials, modeling paste, as well as paint, wood, and photography—and styles ranging from Pop to those far harder to categorize (such as his tableaus and “Bloody Head” series), Foulkes has, as he says, “always gone back and forth.” He is as adept at revisiting and reappraising earlier approaches and techniques as he is at mining completely new terrain, a consistent inconsistency that was for him artistically fecund and absolutely necessary.
“He is constantly taking risks and trying new things, and especially with painting, he’s created a new language in order to create the illusion of depth in his narrative tableaux paintings,” says Subotnick, explaining why Foulkes has been so influential among other artists, curators, and collectors (among them Diana Zlotnick, F. Elliot Leonard, and the late Murray “Mickey” Gribin, as well as such institutions as the Prada Foundation and several major Southern California art museums).
Paradoxically, trying new things can prove confounding to the art market, which often prefers its contemporary groundbreakers to stick to the style that made them so. It’s a tradeoff that Foulkes, who’s been married twice and is the father of three, accepts. “It’s never been about the money, I’ve never done something and thought, This will make me more money. I’ve never advertised myself—even my website was something somebody put up for me. I’ve never used assistants to make my art and I’ve never been part of the art scene,” he says. “It’s always been getting to the work, my point, and I have to get there on my own.”