How Los Angeles Impacted The Art World

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David Hockney, David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), (1972). Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales/Jenni Carter via Artnet

Los Angeles has long been the epicenter of the American low-brow and pop culture landscape. Movies and  TV shows have long been filmed (and set in) LA, making the city the center of pop culture. But the city’s value as an influence for highbrow and fine art has long been undersold. While Los Angeles can’t compete with a place like New York, whose long established institutions have set the standard for American fine art and theater, LA has long played muse to some of modern art’s most influential figures.

20th century artists David Hockney and Ed Ruscha were both transplants to the city; Hockney splits time between native London and Los Angeles, whereas Ed Ruscha has consistently lived in Culver City since moving from Oklahoma. The city influenced both of them in distinct ways. Hockney’s unique palette, that largely relies on pastels, fit in well with the sunny, colorful Los Angeles landscape. Hockney’s most iconic work, A Bigger Splash, drew inspiration from the swimming pools people had in their backyards, and a pair of palm trees can be seen in the background. Swimming pools were a consistent inspiration for Hockney, and something he returned to a few years later in Pool With Two Figures, perhaps his second most well-known work. The aesthetic of the city itself was clearly something that left an impression on Hockney. 

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Ed Ruscha, Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire,  1964, oil and pencil on canvas, via The Broad

Ed Ruscha, likewise, took inspiration from Los Angeles’ numerous complexities and contradictions, and he explored the city both through painting and photography. He took an interest in both the mundane and mythic that the city had to offer. Ruscha painted gas stations and diners (sometimes on fire), and also photographed the unique architecture of LA apartment buildings. He also explored the self-aggrandizing side of Los Angeles, including his iconic painting of the Hollywood sign from behind and his painting of the 20th Century Fox logo. Ruscha also produced a series of paintings that were something of an abstruse Overheard LA (the Instagram account dedicated to documenting the often absurd things Angelenos say). Observations included “In California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, a real luxury” often juxtaposed with beautiful images of mountains and fields.

Robert Rauschenberg, though not primarily based in LA, spent some time in the city, and turned a photographic eye to its eccentricities. He also worked with LA print studios that helped inform his mixed media style. Contemporary artist Mark Bradford is one of America’s most influential, and he was born, raised, and continues to work in Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles, 1981, from Photos In + Out City Limits  © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y., via

Clearly Los Angeles has had a serious artistic impact, and has influenced some of the most important artists both from and outside its limits. These artists have all approached the city in very different ways, in part because of the varied and distinct aspects of the city that lend themselves to artistic interpretation. Of course, all cities are complex and have different aspects, but LA is unique in its confluence of working class neighborhoods, diverse immigrant communities, the film industry, and eccentric artistic communities. This has given birth to varied contradictions that are ripe for artistic exploration. It is both a city of tremendous depth and substance, as well as of vanity and shallowness. Its image of the great freedom and glamour of the American West clashes with the harsh realities of its poor communities. For as long as Los Angeles remains a paradox unto itself, it will always serve as a great inspiration for the art world. 


For more on LA artists, read our article on why Mark Bradford is the city’s defining artist.