William Leavitt on Science Fiction, the Desert, and California Conceptual Art
Sep 3, 2019 10:43 am
Starting from a busy street in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, brick steps wind up a hill thick with trees and shrubs. The house William Leavitt (b. 1941) shares with his wife, painter Janet Jenkins, is near the apex. A two-story wood-frame cabin painted dark orange, it has exterior stairs leading to the living quarters, a cozy space with windows looking out on a massive royal palm. The tree mostly blocks a distant view of the gleaming lake, as I commented to Leavitt. In a relaxed way, he told me that he and his wife don’t need to see the lake; they know what it looks like, while the tree gives them privacy and protection from smog.
In this modest yet idyllic hideaway, Leavitt’s studio—a simple room with white walls and a concrete floor—occupies the ground level. Piled on the worktable are sheet music, a movie script, a study for a painting, tubes of paint, and a tangle of electrical cords. Three recent paintings hang on the walls; a music stand and bench stand ready for the artist, who plays cello and bass.
A painter, draughtsman, sculptor, playwright, filmmaker, and composer, Leavitt is known for understated installations that evoke midcentury California homes. Succinct scripts, scenarios, or soundtracks partially extend these works into the realm of theater. His plays have been staged in theaters and in galleries. These dramas are often set in a house that contains a powerful device or some supernatural object. They feature nonsensical yet evocative dialogue. They address the tragicomic anomie of modern life. Leavitt names Raymond Roussel and Alain Robbe-Grillet among his literary influences.
In the course of his fifty-year career, Leavitt, who earned his MFA at Claremont Graduate University in California, has worked consistently in multiple mediums with subtle shifts in theme. In the 1980s, employing conventions of architectural rendering and theater set design, he made hundreds of pastel drawings depicting domestic interiors devoid of human figures but charged with drama—modernist dream homes that have gone down-market and harbor anguished lives. In the 1990s he made drawings and paintings of exteriors, portraying iconic Los Angeles buildings with irony, exaggerating their form and ornament to make them look incongruous, or illuminate the fantasy inherent in them. He also began doing triptychs that merge ancient and modern imagery in a variation on a visual timeline. Science fiction motifs, integral to the architecture of Southern California, have become more prominent in recent years. An exhibition at his New York gallery, Greene Naftali, this past May featured paintings of robots and other machines in the desert. It also presented an installation, Sidereal Time (2014), based on an ancient timekeeping system keyed to the stars instead of the sun.
In addition to making quasi-narrative works, Leavitt has pursued an inquiry into the relationship between sign and meaning. Early photographic series, such as “Symbolic Objects” (1974), parody symbology. An image of a swan has the caption the virgin, and a boulder, resolve. A series from 2018 draws upon J.E. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols (1958), a glossary of archetypes from various cultures and disciplines. Employing chance operations, Leavitt grouped unrelated images, trapping the viewer into construing unexpected symbolic connections.
Leavitt is part of the first generation of California Conceptual artists, who drew on vernacular and didactic genres like the snapshot, signage, and the instructional video, making work with a playful sense of humor often missing from the art of their New York counterparts. Leavitt occupies a unique position in this movement and the Los Angeles art community. His first museum survey was a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2011, when he was sixty years old; before that, his primary audience was other artists. His influence may be discerned in the poignant-kitsch installations of Mike Kelley and in the work of Pictures Generation artists Jack Goldstein and Matt Mullican.
ANNETTE LEDDY So many of your visual works relate to a narrative. Talk about how you get the ideas for plays that turn into paintings.
WILLIAM LEAVITT I came of age in the late 1960s. That was when I was going to school and starting my work. But there had been by that time a lot of modern art movements. There was Abstract Expressionism. There was Pop art. There was Minimalism. There was Conceptual art, Color Field painting, photorealist painting, process art. As a person who studied art at a university, I was aware of all of these movements. And I think, as a young artist, I needed to find a way to proceed with my work. My idea was that my art would have some use, a technical use, like serving as an illustration of a stage set or something.
Also, there was this idea at the time that the gallery was a theatrical space. My early installations were like fragments of stage sets. I did a Gothic curtain that had sounds of thunder behind it. At the time we called those works “environments.” But they weren’t really environments. They were sort of sculptures where I used trees and lights and sound. And then I made California Patio , about a California house with a sliding glass door that looked out onto a patio, and the work came with a description of what the scene was. It was a dinner party. According to the text, some people sat by the pool. The hostess came out and said, “Dinner’s ready.” So I constructed this little scenario for the set. The next step was a rudimentary play titled The Silk . It had three characters and a stage set. It had something of a story. It wasn’t really a dramatic story, but the characters went through certain operations. And so that was kind of the beginning.
LEDDY The “Robots and Ruins” series you exhibited at your last Greene Naftali show was based on a play or a screenplay, correct?
LEAVITT Right. It relates to a script I was working on. There’s a modernist house on a hillside around here, built about seven or eight years ago. And there’s some furniture in it. It’s finished but they didn’t finish the approach—like the carport and the stairs, the landscaping—and somehow the place has the aspect of a ruin. There are piles of sand in the front yard and cinder block with rebar sticking out of it. Then farther back there’s this sort of looming geometric structure. For the script, I moved that house to the desert. The characters went to the desert and found a robot in this house. And then I thought that maybe the house should have paintings of robots or devices.
LEDDY That’s so interesting. You see a building in your neighborhood. It gives you an idea for a narrative. You make a narrative and the narrative gives you an idea for some paintings. Levels of meaning then result from your process.
LEAVITT I guess I am curious about the particulars of where people live, or architecture. I’m interested in the variety of dwellings, and what they mean as social indicators.
LEDDY I’m thinking about the machines in the desert in the latest show. You’ve always had those in your work.
LEAVITT We recycle our childhood experiences. My father was an engineer who designed transformers and substations and power lines, so we would go to see them.
LEDDY Did he seem like a magician in his association with these things?
LEAVITT No, he was very low-key. I think he just really liked the designs. He was meticulous about drawing. He had an engineering office where people did the drafting. And they wanted me to be their protégé, but when I went to junior high and took mechanical drawing I was terrible. I got a C. They were so disappointed.
LEDDY Yet something stuck in your mind.
LEAVITT My father’s power lines and substations just kind of stayed with me. When I made the drawings, I realized I was going to the well of nostalgia. But that was what I wanted to represent right then. So I got it out of my system.
LEDDY The substations in your works sometimes appear next to ancient walls. Is that a contrast between past and future?
LEAVITT Yeah. Sort of. I wanted to build in some kind of decay. Those crumbling walls that you see in the painting really come from this house a block away from here. That’s what it looks like.
LEDDY It feels like there’s a broad statement about civilization in some of those works.
LEAVITT Ruins, CPU and Shadows  has a very particular, socially current feeling. There’s a ruin in the desert. The wall is like an electronic wall, like a CPU, but big. And then these few figures walking by it. I mean, I don’t want to be too overt about our situation here, but maybe I want to represent the wall that Trump wants to build in some way that’s a little distant.
LEDDY The figures beside it look like they are about to disappear. They’re just shadows. Maybe the work is saying that the end is near—not to be too literal. It feels almost like they’re ghosts, you know?
LEAVITT As if they’re generated by the wall or the CPU.
LEDDY You’re evoking science fiction associations by placing robots in the desert.
LEAVITT The desert does encourage science-fiction thinking.
LEDDY Your works from the ’80s are mostly set in the city or the suburbs. You would depict a home where the grill looked like a spaceship. You’d paint objects with a futuristic feel. But this is a different stage in your use of science fiction.
LEAVITT At that time, I was interested in the banality of suburbia, but maybe now I’m more focused on imminent dangers of the future.
LEDDY Could we talk about your literary influences?
LEAVITT When I started to read Raymond Chandler around 1970 I saw LA in a way that I hadn’t seen it before. Because he identifies places and buildings and areas in his work, and I appreciated that. In my plays and films, I’ve consciously avoided any kind of noir scenarios. There’s one called Nestor Takes Advice , where the character is a private detective. Because there have been so many noir films made about private detectives, he feels that he’s invisible—that he’s overexposed, that the genre is overexposed. He’s distressed because his occupation is a cliché. That’s something he has to deal with, the pervasiveness of noir in Los Angeles. So Chandler comes into the work, but I just try to keep it more about everyday ordinary people, ordinary life, suburbia.
Another influence on the writing was Raymond Roussel, just because he took the drama out of any story situation, and I was interested in that. Roussel’s Locus Solus  is a tour of a mad scientist’s mechanical devices that is entirely emotionless. He describes one after another, without plot development. This way of building narrative could be oppressive for some readers, but for me it was a relief not to be tied to the kind of plot that required an emotional response. I think that, living in LA and in the supercharged atmosphere of Hollywood, I just wanted to have my own way to present theater. I’ve been criticized for that. It’s not very dramatic.
But I’m also a visual artist. When I did The Silk, director Tonda Marton’s father came to one of the shows. He’s a film director too, and he said to her later that it was like a slideshow. Because it really didn’t have any dramatic qualities. I thought that was a really good comment. I thought that’s how we artists present our work: we use slides.
LEDDY Do you consider yourself a Conceptual artist?
LEAVITT Not necessarily. I feel like I’m a narrative artist. In a way I was reacting against Conceptual art. But maybe not. Maybe I was just going along with it.
LEDDY You’re considered part of the first generation of Conceptual artists in LA. Do you not identify with John Baldessari and other artists of that movement?
LEAVITT I guess I identify with Baldessari. Conceptual art is a pretty broad category, so I would fall within it. If you restricted it to Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, and Robert Barry, then I might not.
LEDDY California Conceptual is a little different anyway.
LEAVITT It makes me think of the part in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville  when they’re driving in Paris at night. I forget the details, but the streetlights go by and the guy says they’re a hundred light-years from Earth. So you get the idea that you’re in outer space, approaching a planet, overlaid on the scene of driving at night. That’s how I understand using narrative with Conceptual art.
LEDDY We haven’t talked about your films. How do the films relate to your practice?
LEAVITT They’re narrative films with fantastical elements that are emotionally played down. Equilibria  came from the idea of a Faraday cage in the form of a teepee. The main character is a young experimenter, and he could sit in the cage to block out all electronic signals from the commercial world and talk to the spirit world.
In the sequel, Behavior , the Faraday cage was used in a different way, to cure a couple’s addiction to wearing fancy clothes—like tuxedos and ball gowns—and going out to role-play as really rich people. They wanted to stop, but couldn’t. So they used the Faraday cage to block their obsession. The idea is totally absurd, but it gave me a chance to have these images of the people and the Faraday cage and so forth.
LEDDY Your films and plays are concerned with the same themes, the same problematics of modern life. Has your work process changed over the years or has it stayed very much the same?
LEAVITT I think it’s somewhat the same. I have different spaces to work in. But I always feel like I’m working in a kind of constricted space because that’s where I started. When I was living on Beverly Boulevard in the ’70s, I had a medium-size studio, and that’s where I made my installations and videos. Then my life situation changed, and I was living mostly in apartments, so I would paint in the living room or a spare bedroom or write on the kitchen table. I think for a long time I just accepted that my space was limited, and I would make use of it in that way. For me, that connects the writing and the painting. It’s a scale thing, where you’re writing on the table and you’re painting on the wall close by, so they feel related to each other.
LEDDY Did you do the paintings for your last Greene Naftali show in the studio here?
LEDDY This studio is modestly sized. You couldn’t do a giant painting in here.
LEAVITT Well, I think my paintings are close to photography. A photograph can be small but you have to read the image and figure out what’s going on. But with a lot of large abstract paintings, you’re experiencing the surface and the texture and the color. You’re reading the painting as a kind of material. Whereas with a photograph . . .
LEDDY You’re reading the content.
LEAVITT Yeah, you’re looking for something else. You’re looking for some kind of story. So I think that’s why I don’t feel the need to make larger paintings. The material will get in the way.
LEDDY And the size that you use seems to have something to do with how the paintings would hang on the wall in a house. The scale is domestic.
LEAVITT Yeah. Or the works could be used as stage property in a theater somewhere.
ANNETTE LEDDY is a writer, critic, and oral historian for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
This article appears under the title “In the Studio: William Leavitt” in the September 2019 issue, pp. 78–87.