Being of a certain age, it caught my attention that the creative activities of a number of artists of Social Security age are being featured in exhibitions around the country. It’s a fitting reminder that artists do not retire, and a topic that I am privileged to take personally. In some cases, these are artists that I have known or followed for decades; so, if I carry some bias or favoritism, I plead guilty, try as I may to maintain an objective distance. An advantage, however, is that I have a certain intimacy with how their careers and trajectory have unfolded. To our younger contemporaries they serve as a reminder that their talent, energy, and ambition to succeed is admirable, even necessary. But one should not be so impatient as to overlook the evolution of their work over decades. Do not just aim high; aim far.
Linda Vallejo has probably been enjoying her best stretch ever over the last decade, both creatively and in terms of curatorial interest. David S. Rubin has quietly sustained a drawing series going back to his years serving as curator at a string of museums around the country. Kim Abeles has been widely and consistently recognized for a massive body of work that is consistently advanced aesthetically even as she engages community themes and collaborations at a level that many social workers might envy. All are preparing to open new exhibitions.
There is a certain pattern and truism about the art world marketplace being relatively closed off to senior artists. Many are regularly exhibited in museums and university galleries, but rarely in the commercial galleries. But key gallery and museum exhibitions featuring older (in some cases recently deceased) artists such as Betye Saar, Bella Feldman, Yolanda López, Peter Alexander, Susan Rothenberg, Phillip Levine and others have recently or are soon to open around the country. I’m not interested in exploring art world ageism here, only to point out that value in the marketplace is not the same as recognizable artistic achievement. Besides, the artists typically don’t care. The appreciation of older artists for younger players and vice versa is common, probably more common than ever. And the playing field has enlarged, generally for the better. The creative and career paths of Abeles, Vallejo and Rubin serve as examples of the sheer breadth of personal development. While the trajectory of each offers a clarifying individual narrative, their differences help illuminate the larger historical arc of the past half century.
Abeles has been the most consistently acclaimed, regularly attracting institutional curatorial and critical interest and support from early in her career. The soon to open survey of her “Smog Collectors” at CSU Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery, which were one of her central projects thirty-odd years ago and that she has kept returning to, combine a simple formal exercise with a powerful social point of reference, climate change, that has only grown more urgent. Many are presented as commemorative objects, and often titled based on length of exposure and weather conditions. The artist’s hand sets the process in motion; but the works make themselves. The sheer volume and variety of Abeles’ body of work is exceeded only by the wit and richness of reference she brings to each of her projects. But her central lesson to a younger generation is the energizing joy that lies at the core of what on its face is a response to political corruption and moral outrage. There is a seeming magic to this that she has always had, and it has deepened with time and practice.
Vallejo took at least 30 years to arrive at the long series “Make ‘Em Al Mexican” that has been generating her work of the last decade or so. Her pursuit of art was so multi-faceted and relentless that one always wondered where her genuine aesthetic identity lay; but that is why a young to mid-career artist should not doubt the groping uncertainty of their work if it is done with commitment and purpose. The act of projecting the racially explicit brown hue onto, well, almost everything turned an impulse to achieve personal validation through professional acceptance on its head. Once she recognized that her identity had been there all along, she found a singular empowering, even performative act to be infinitely replicable with continually surprising results. The color serves as Vallejo’s surrogate through which she has gained entry to explore a wave of issues from the Western canon of art history to the economic implications of census data. An upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art will feature a full-size dining room that links her use of brown to objects and a setting signifying class privilege. Her original search for self-identity has turned into a more powerful imposition of her racial identity into social and political spaces. The layers of the decades have gradually resulted in a density of meaning compressed into work that has achieved an organic maturation without being conclusive.
A full-time curator for a host of museums around the country for about 40 years, Rubin started a series of dot drawings as a modest exercise that became part of his daily routine. That daily routine expanded to gradually become his central practice, ultimately replacing curating other artists once he retired from the institutional gig. After extolling the virtues of bringing personal spiritual experience, what he regular referred to as the “life force,” as expressed by artists, inside museum galleries, he sought to practice what he had been preaching. By nature an intimist, pens taken to paper at a desk in his apartment/studio, surrounded by a bevy of art collected over the years, provides him with his own form of spiritual liberation. The vocabulary of dots and lines are composed into alternately jazzy or balletic choreographies. The scale, the range, the aesthetic shifts are narrow, but that is the point. Rubin’s drawings, a selection of which will be exhibited at CSU Northridge’s Art Gallery, vibrate from one small moment to the next so that as you take them in, one after another, they expand into a mental space that begins to feel like one of Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms.” But you don’t need to walk into it to be inside.