Fleeting Inscriptions: Asco, Ephemera, and Intergroup Exchange in LA
Scholar and curator C. Ondine Chavoya takes up the notion of “the collective,” in relation to the LA-based group Asco. Though Asco’s members performed and collaborated together, they have staunchly rejected the “collective” label, and with it, the implication of a cohesive artistic ideology and practice. Through an examination of archival ephemera and first-hand accounts by Asco artists, Chavoya reconsiders the group’s identity through their own self-identification and through exchanges with Los Four, another seminal Chicanx collective of the period. This significant new scholarly project considers Asco with an eye to its fluid and heterogeneous organization, thus reframing prevailing art historical discourse.
C. Ondine Chavoya, “Fleeting Inscriptions: Asco, Ephemera, and Intergroup Exchange in LA,” in Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s–1980s, eds. Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, Vol. III of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020). https://walkerart.org/collections/publications/side-by-side/artists-groups-in-los-angeles-asco-and-los-four
There is a striking absence of Chicanx and Latinx artists in art history and museum collections.The terms Latinx and Chicanx are gender-neutral alternatives to Latino/Latina and Chicano/Chicana. Spanish is one of many languages that assign gender to nouns and adjectives with Latino carrying the masculine “o” and Latina the feminine “a” endings. Response to and embrace of these terms has fluctuated since their initial emergence in the United States around 2004. In September 2018, Latinx was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In this essay, I use Chicanx and Latinx to refer to contemporary manifestations, such as the field of Latinx art history, but utilize the earlier terms when referring to historical subjects such as the Chicano Art Movement or the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. Asco: Elite of the Obscure: A Retrospective, 1972–1987, the 2011 exhibition that I co-organized with curator Rita Gonzalez, was a response and a corrective to this legacy of rampant institutional exclusion.Asco: Elite of the Obscure: A Retrospective, 1972–1987 was co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Williams College Museum of Art where it traveled in February, 2012. The exhibition also traveled to Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City in March, 2013. One purpose of the exhibition was to address a history that, as scholar and curator Chon A. Noriega has argued, “is fragile, ephemeral, and—in terms of the archive—largely neglected.”Chon A. Noriega, “Preservation Matters,” Aztlán 30.1 (Spring 2005): 14. Asco: Elite of the Obscure was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the very museum that members of the then nascent performance and conceptual art group Asco defaced by signing their names in spray paint on the museum’s exterior walls nearly forty years earlier. After Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, and Willie Herrón III made their marks on LACMA’s building, Gamboa returned with Patssi Valdez, the fourth founding member of Asco, who posed in the early dawn light for the now iconic photograph, Spray Paint LACMA (1972). Through this simple yet daring act, Asco claimed the building, and indeed, the entire institution, as an enormous conceptual artwork and “the world’s largest work of Chicano art.”Rita Gonzalez, Howard Fox, and Chon A. Noriega, introduction to Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 14. Spray Paint LACMA allegorized the exclusion of Chicana and Chicano artists through institutional critique.Ibid., 14.
Asco was wildly interdisciplinary and experimental with a deeply sardonic attitude and a confrontational edge. Notably, they were also all very young (just out of high school) when they first started working together. The artists adopted the name Asco—Spanish for nausea—as a way to signal and channel their disgust with many of the social conditions and injustices—including racial discrimination, inferior public education, police brutality, economic inequity, mass media stereotypes, and the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia—that affected people of color and young people in the US. Working together, they “developed a set of strategies based on the youth culture of East Los Angeles,”Coco Fusco, “My Kind of Conversation: The Public Artworks of Daniel J. Martinez,” in The Things You See When You Don’t Have a Grenade (Santa Monica, CA: Smart Art Press, 1996), 21. merging this with forms of protest that they learned while participating in anti-war efforts and Chicano student organizing and activism. Beginning in the early 1970s, Asco initiated impromptu public performances that creatively engaged forms of protest, experimenting with tactics of procession and occupation as in their Walking Mural (1972), First Supper (After a Major Riot) (1974), Instant Mural (1974), and Asshole Mural (1974). With a shifting roster of artists working into the late-1980s, Asco persistently moved between media, creating performances, public interventions, Super 8 films, video, mail art, fotonovelas, image-text works, theater, and other genres. In the process, the group developed novel methods, including the No Movie, an intermedia form in which “performances were created for the still camera to communicate concepts in a filmic sense.”Asco 83, exhibition brochure, Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2. http://repository.library.csuci.edu/bitstream/handle/10139/3326/ASCO%2083~.pdf. As Harry Gamboa Jr. explained, “No Movies are a series of events that are creatively effected to mimic or realize a cinemagraphic [sic] sense of being. A No Movie may incorporate graphic, photographic, written, and performance components in order to achieve its primary goal of projecting a concept. As opposed to the formalized filmmaking of glamorized conglomerates and their well financed [sic] technicians, the execution, promotion, and distribution of a No Movie need not be a tremendously expensive ordeal.” Harry Gamboa Jr., “Gronk: Off-the-Wall Artist,” Neworld 6.4 (July/August 1980): 33. Asco’s No Movies and performances often took the form of “camp spectacles and sly conceptual works,”Jesse Lerner, “Urban Renaissance,” Afterimage (March/April 2000): 14. and “like much of Asco’s body of work, depict[ed] unrelenting violence, cruelty, and absurdity, as well as Hollywood glamour, punk defiance, and cosmic irony.”Chon A. Noriega, “Art Between Viscera and Vomit: The Poetics of Disgust in Raphael Montáñez Ortiz and Asco’s Patssi Valdez,” Diálogo 20.1 (Spring 2017): 130. Asco’s early work has been characterized as “conceptually political.” Its themes were often political and violent, or politically violent, or about violence against those who were political.Philip Brookman and Amy Brookman, “Interview with ASCO, multi-media performance group, taped May 21, 1983, Santa Cruz, California, Part One: Interview at Exhibition,” CALIFAS: Chicano Art and Culture in California, Transcripts, Book #3 (Santa Barbara: Califas, 1986), 1. And while this body of work has been branded as agitprop by some critics, it was inherently much more ambiguous, designed to be difficult to define and pin down.
Although often described as a collective, the artists who founded Asco did not identify or describe themselves as such. In his catalogue essay for the foundational exhibition Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (1990–93), Harry Gamboa Jr. trenchantly declared, “The cohesiveness of the art group as collective was never fully realized by the individual members of Asco.”Harry Gamboa Jr., “In the City of Angels, Chameleons, and Phantoms: Asco, a Case Study of Chicano Art in Urban Tones (or Asco Was a Four-Member Word),” in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, eds. R. Griswold del Castillo, T. McKenna, and Y. Yarbro-Bejarano (Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, 1991), 128. Yet it remains a fairly common and persistent practice in the growing body of literature on the group to describe—or misidentify—Asco as a collective.The term collective, as art historian Maria Gough has explained, “Both before and after the October Revolution of 1917 … had a highly specific meaning as ‘a group linked to the proletarian revolutionary cause.’ And it is this revolutionary mode … that has become a vital precedent for contemporary manifestations of collaborative authorship in the arts.” Maria Gough, “Corps Concept: The Soviet Collective,” Artforum (February 2011): 172. There are many examples in the existing scholarship and art criticism where Asco is described or identified as a collective. The editors at Artforum, ArtNews, and Art in America consistently refer to Asco as a collective, and the art critic Christopher Knight described them as “the rambunctious Chicano collective” in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. See Christopher Knight, “The Two Lives of Gronk,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1994, F1. Coco Fusco wrote about the “interdisciplinary arts collective ASCO,” in her early essay “Ethnicity, Politics, and Poetics: Latinos and Media Art,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, eds. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture, 1990), 314. Even the Wikipedia subject heading for Asco is followed by the parenthetical phrase “art collective.” Shifra Goldman also regularly called Asco a collective. In an undated handwritten note about Asco, Goldman first wrote the word “group,” then crossed it out, and wrote “collective” above it. Shifra M. Goldman Papers, CEMA 119. Department of Special Collections, UC Santa Barbara Library, University of California, Santa Barbara. There is also a relevant example in my own writing. In my first published essay on Asco, I introduce Asco as a “collaborative creative corps.” See “Pseudographic Cinema: Asco’s No Movies,” Performance Research 3.1 (1998): 1–14; when the essay was later expanded and re-edited for the anthology Corpus Delecti, there was a shift in language that occurred during the editorial process from “collaborative creative corps” to “collective.” See Coco Fusco, ed., Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas (London: Routledge, 2000). Additional recent examples, include, Faye Gleisser’s “Asco, Chris Burden, and the Politics of the Misfire,” Journal of Visual Culture 17.3 (2018): 312–331; Suzy Halajian’s article “Counterspectacles,” Art Los Angeles Reader 4 (with Terremoto Magazine, October 2017): 7; Nicolas Lampert, A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements (New York: The New Press, 2013); and Andrea K. Scott, “The Glam Politics of a Chicano Collective from East L.A.,” The New Yorker (September 16, 2017). In the index for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945–1985 exhibition catalogue, the group is listed as “ASCO (American art collective)” and in Donna Conwell and Glenn Phillips’ essay, many more adjectives precede the artists’ group name: “The Chicano conceptual performance collective ASCO.” Donna Conwell and Glenn Phillips, “Duration Piece: Rethinking Sculpture in Los Angeles,” in Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art, 1945–1985, ed. Rebecca Peabody (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2011), 230. Nowhere in the exhibition catalogue, wall texts, or promotional materials for Asco: Elite of the Obscure, however, did Gonzalez or I refer to Asco as a collective. We both considered the term too rigid, fearing it would give the impression that the artists and collaborators cohered under a single interest. We were also concerned that the term collective was too over-determined by the arc of the historical avant-gardes of the twentieth century, especially Dadaism, Futurism, and Russian Constructivism.Although for some writers connecting Asco to Dada is significant and emphasized in their historicization and analysis. See Max Benavidez, Gronk (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 2007); and S. Zaneta Kosiba-Vargas, “Harry Gamboa and Asco: The Emergence and Development of a Chicano Art Group, 1971–1987” (PhD diss, University of Michigan, 1988).
Instead, we carefully used terms such as “collaborative artists’ group” and “artists’ group,” or described Asco as part of a constellation of artist networks, attending to the ways in which artists involved in Asco self-identified and communicated their methods and forms of collaboration. For their part, in 1982 they declared, “Asco is a group of independent artists,” a decidedly different self-definition from the term collective.Asco brochure, Hispanic Urban Center, Los Angeles, October 1, 1982. In the final five years of Asco’s activities, until the group disbanded in 1987, designations such as Asco 82, Asco 83, or Asco 85 were often used—and printed on publicity materials—to signal a shifting roster of participants. See, for example, Harry Gamboa Jr., “ASCO 83,” Caminos (October 1983): 36; and the exhibition brochure for Asco 83 at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In our introductory catalogue essay for the retrospective, we outlined how Asco came together in the early 1970s as a “tight knit group of artists” through multiple spheres and activities, including muralism, performance, activism, the social networks of Jetter youth culture they were involved with in East LA,With a locus at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where artists Carlos Almaraz, Diane Gamboa, Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón III, Roberto Legoreta (Cyclona), Mundo Meza, and Patssi Valdez all attended, and perhaps with roots in the WWII pachuca/o youth cultures, “The Jetters were an informal category of students who were interested primarily in countering the established norms with their sardonic attitudes, parties, and excessive concern for fashion.” Gamboa, “In the City of Angels,” 122. In 2016, the Vincent Price Museum organized the exhibition Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943–1946 exploring the intersections of youth culture, social movements, and countercultural discourse in the post-war era; the exhibition featured artworks by over forty artists, including, Asco, Harry Gamboa Jr., and Patssi Valdez. and by working together on artwork for the journal Regeneracíon.See Colin Gunckel, “‘We Were Drawing and Drawn into Each Other’: Asco’s Collaboration Through Regeneración,” in Asco: Elite of the Obscure: A Retrospective, 1972–1987, eds. C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez (Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011), 151–167. See also the exhibition catalogue, Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology, ed. Pilar Tompkins Rivas (Los Angeles: Vincent Price Art Museum, 2018). We underscored, however, that Asco was an elastic framework, constantly contracting and expanding, always fluid and permeable, serving as a platform for collaboration and experimentation rather than a static entity.Participation was always somewhat fluid, porous, and occasionally haphazard in ways that were inextricably related to the often expeditious planning involved in their performances and availability of participants. In an interview with Shifra Goldman in 1988, Valdez characterized “the Asco period” in terms of its spontaneity: “There was a lot of spontaneity and a lot of energy, and a lot of working directly with the moment: how we felt at the moment, [and] what was happening at the moment. All that art was done at the moment.” Shifra Goldman, Interview with Patssi Valdez, June 6, 1988, audio file, Shifra M. Goldman Papers, CEMA 119, Department of Special Collections, University of California, Santa Barbara Library. Highlighting Asco’s “form of flexible and productive strategies for collaboration,” as well as their overall “precarious and sometimes wayward collaborative venture,”C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez, “Asco and the Politics of Revulsion,” in Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 80. we recognized that “Asco was never a synchronized body.”Ibid., 68. Asco’s methods of collaboration were not precisely defined, demarcated, or synchronized as the artists regularly indicated over time and as I detail in this essay; perhaps that is the point. It is worth considering that, like their No Movies, Asco repeatedly defined or conceived of themselves in the negative, thinking and speaking in terms of what they were not. In this way, the “symbolic force of this language of rejection and refusal” became a site of creativity, enabling Asco to imagine and develop new artistic forms, new modes of collaboration, and “new definitions and conjunctions for meaning through negation.”Ibid., 43. This approach was not taken up as a form of nihilist dismissal but as a means to explore possibilities outside of fixed or set options, aesthetically and organizationally, especially during times when the social and political context set increasingly prescriptive roles for Chicana/o artists and artists’ groups.
It is necessary to recognize, however, as Carlos Francisco Jackson has noted, that artistic “collectives have been prominent in many national and international artistic movements” and “were especially important in developing the Chicano Art Movement.”Carlos Francisco Jackson, Chicana and Chicano Art: ProtestArte (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009), 140. Jackson’s writing on “Chicano Art Collectives” also appears as an encyclopedia entry in Charles M. Tatum ed., Encyclopedia of Latino Cultures: From Calaveras to Quinceañeras (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2013), 129–135. With this in mind, Gonzalez and I also saw Asco operating in counter-distinction to other Chicano art groups of the time, such as Los Four, a group that “became emblematic, to a certain degree, of what Chicano art was supposed to be and look like.”Oral History Interview with Rupert Garcia, September 7, 1995–June 24, 1996. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Institutional recognition for Los Four came early with a group show at LACMA in 1974. For Asco, in contrast, such recognition came much later. This disparity is partly due to how Asco operated as a group: often in a less formalized way and with less interest in developing an identifiable collective aesthetic, especially during this early period. The lag in institutional recognition can also be tied to their use of ephemeral artistic forms—forms which were not easily presented or contained within the institution at the time. “Indeed, the art and activism of Asco,” asserted art historian Nizan Shaked in 2008, “had gone widely overlooked for decades until their noteworthy contribution began to be acknowledged and understood to its full capacity.”Nizan Shaked, review of the exhibition Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement, American Quarterly 60.4 (December 2008): 1059. In what follows, I explore different orientations to collaboration and collectivism pursued by Asco and Los Four. While these two groups are often positioned in opposition to one another in the chronicles of Los Angeles art and Latinx art history, here I aim to document how artists associated with both groups interacted and exhibited together in the early to mid-1970s and to turn our attention to often overlooked pieces of ephemera that signal moments of exchange and recognition.This focus on ephemera helps to surface additional important issues involved in Asco’s complex history and heterogeneous artistic output, and also brings attention to the richness of a diverse and robust archive of materials that is diminished when the history of the group and its innovations is narrated through a narrow range of key works that are repeatedly invoked.
The invitation to consider the notion of the collective in relation to Asco has provided an opportunity to reconsider questions of self-definition, group organization, and intergroup exchange.Some of the early thoughts for this essay emerged in response to an invitation to serve as a respondent to the panel “Queer Play in the Archive: Chicano East L.A. and the Precarious Avant-Garde,” organized by Leticia Alvarado for the American Studies Association Conference held in 2014 in Los Angeles, and featuring innovative scholarship by Alvarado, Joshua Javier Guzmán, and Megan Alvarado Saggese. My consideration of Asco in terms of the “collective” serves as a response, in part, to Alvarado's conference paper, “Abject Play: Asco as Abject Structure of Feeling,” and a related chapter in her book, Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018). When asked about precisely these issues in 2019, Harry Gamboa Jr. emphatically stressed, “we were never a collective group,” adding, “the term was imposed by institutions and scholars.”Gamboa added, “People have always tried to appropriate the group or the meaning of the group.” Harry Gamboa Jr., conversation with the author in Venice, California, April 20, 2019. When asked about his resistance to the term collective, Gamboa described how one of Asco’s aims was to “rethink the Chicano Movement” and to reconsider the role of collectivism in the political activism of the Movement and the artists’ involvement in it. The Chicano Civil Rights Movement—of which Gamboa was a student leader—promoted particular forms of collectivism in its efforts to protect and recover rights and to promote cultural reclamation and self-determination.This is particularly evident in “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” adopted in 1969 at the First Chicano National Conference in Denver. The manifesto prescribes a specific mandate for artists in point six: “CULTURAL values of our people strengthen our identity and the moral backbone of the movement. Our culture unites the family of La Raza towards liberation with one heart and one mind. We must insure that our writers, poets, musicians, and artists produced literature and art that is appealing to our people and relates to our revolutionary culture. Our cultural values of life, family, and home will serve as a powerful weapon to defeat the gringo dollar system and encourage the process of love and brotherhood.” First Chicano National Conference, “El Plan Espirtual de Aztlán (1969),” in Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, eds. Rudolfo A. Anaya and Francisco Lomeli (Albuquerque: Academia/El Norte Publications, 1989), 3. In the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, collectivism was described in various ways, including as brotherhood, carnalismo, la familia, and La Raza. See Richard T. Rodríguez’s important book Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009). “Even with the ongoing drive to collaborate and to promote people,” Gamboa stated in our recent conversation, “[I] would not be subsumed by collectivism” again.
When discussing Asco’s modes of collaboration, Gamboa noted, “We were well aware of each other’s talents and often competed with one another.” There was an “agreement to perform together,” but, according to Gamboa, it was “always for specific credit … and never with the notion of a collective.”Harry Gamboa Jr., conversation with the author, April 20, 2019. In fact, the phrase “never a collective” was reiterated multiple times during our conversation. Two decades before this conversation with Gamboa about collectives, collaboration, and artists’ groups, MOCA curators Julia Brown and Jacqueline Crist asked Herrón: “How did Asco work?” Herrón responded: “It was pretty much collaborative all the time; everyone has ideas and in some way or another the ideas were used. The productions became larger and started to involve more people, although there were still many things being done individually.”Julia Brown and Jacqueline Crist, interview with Willie Herrón III, in Summer 1985 (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985). In 1981, art historian Shifra Goldman asked Patssi Valdez about the origins of Asco: “At what point, did you think of yourselves as a group?” “We never discussed it,” Valdez replied. “We just did things.”Later in the interview, Goldman asked, “Do you still consider yourself a part of Asco? Is it that formalized of an arrangement?” Reflecting on more recent collaborations, Patssi responded, “It’s really hard to answer that question. There’s always one of us missing.” Shifra Goldman, interview with Patssi Valdez, 1981, audio file, Shifra M. Goldman Papers, CEMA 119, Department of Special Collections, University of California, Santa Barbara Library. That same year, Gronk described Asco’s methods in a particularly unique way, claiming that their form of collaboration involved “using each other as our own media.”Jim Bronson, interview with Gronk for the exhibition Murals of Aztlán: The Street Painters of East Los Angeles, held at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles in 1981. The exhibition featured Gronk and Willie Herrón III along with several members of Los Four, including Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, John Valadez, and Judithe Hernández. Craft and Folk Art Museum records (Collection 1835), UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.
Asco’s organizational matrix is perhaps more easily compared to that of a rock band than to that of an art collective. This idea was noted by Goldman in the 1980s and advanced by some of the artists as well. Gronk often frames the origins of the group by describing how the artists entered a garage to collaborate on the magazine Regeneracíon—but instead of emerging as a garage band like many from their generation, they emerged as an artists’ group.The garages at the homes of both Patssi Valdez and Willie Herrón III were used as meeting places and studios for the young artists. In this context, it is germane to recall that both Harry Gamboa Jr. and Willie Herrón III were also musicians. Herrón was lead singer of Los Illegals, a band that released their first album Internal Exile with A&M Records in 1983. Gronk and Herrón co-wrote el lay, which released as a single two years earlier. See my essay, “The Vex and Unpopular Cultures,” in Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 346–355. Into the 1980s, participants such as Sean Carrillo would describe the form of collaboration as “the ASCO school of art,” especially as Asco began to engage more individuals for larger, ensemble-style stage performances, programs, and events.Sean Carrillo in Philip and Amy Brookman, “Interview with ASCO,” 42. Participants in the interview included: Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Marisela Norte, Sean Carrillo, Daniel Villarreal, and Diane Gamboa. Carrillo’s invocation of the “school of art” references how a number of younger artists in the 1980s were joining Asco’s increasingly multi-media projects and performances and learning and developing their own practice in the process. The word asco was often printed typographically in all caps (as ASCO) by artists in the group and many people writing about them. Art critic Christopher Knight wrote, “The snappy capitalization of the group’s name made it wickedly redolent of commercial corporate logos—sort of ACME with a hangover.” Knight, “The Two Lives of Gronk,” F1. There is a noteworthy history of artists adopting and playing with corporate-style names and logos in the global developments of conceptual art and the related correspondence art networks, from Vancouver’s NE Thing & Co, San Francisco’s T.R Uthco, and COUM Transmissions to the more recent RTMark, among others. Likewise, there is a recurrence of artists’ groups and collectives using acronyms, such as CAE (Critical Art Ensemble), CoBrA, or RCAF (Royal Chicano Air Force). However, when the name of the Asco group is treated simply or solely as an acronym, this has the potential to downplay that it is a word in Spanish with a very specific meaning, and the linguistic code-switching involved in the use of the Spanish language terminology can just as easily be obscured or overlooked.
The first official appearances of the name Asco were linked to specific group exhibitions. The first of these, Da me Asco, was held at the Student Union Gallery on the campus of California State University Long Beach in 1973. In 1974, an eponymous exhibition simply titled Asco was organized at Self Help Graphics and Art in East Los Angeles. However, when the artists speak about the history and development of the group, and the meanings and resonances of the term Asco, they usually begin their narratives at a moment in time that precedes these specific exhibitions.Early exhibitions that incorporated the word asco in the title include the Da me Asco exhibition in March 1973 at the Student Union Gallery at CSULB, the Asco exhibition at Self Help Graphics and Art from September 1–30, 1974, and Ascozilla at CSULA from August 4–21, 1975. Gonzalez and I treat how the term asco was deployed by the artists prior to and alongside these exhibitions and the official adoption of Asco as the artists’ group name in our catalogue essay in the section “Linguistic Origins” along with a discussion of an earlier moniker or configuration, Midnight Art Productions. See C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez, “Asco and the Politics of Revulsion,” Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 40–45, 46–47. See also: Chon A. Noriega, “Art Between Viscera and Vomit: The Poetics of Disgust in Raphael Montáñez Ortiz and Asco’s Patssi Valdez,” Diálogo 20.1 (Spring 2017): 123. In Goldman’s 1980 interview with the founding four Asco artists, Herrón becomes slightly exasperated with the interviewer’s line of inquiry, interjecting, “It was Asco, but we weren’t called Asco.”Shifra Goldman, interview with Asco, 1980, audio file, Shifra M. Goldman Papers, CEMA 119. Department of Special Collections, University of California, Santa Barbara Library. In her interviews, Goldman is very particular about establishing chronologies, and, in this group interview, she was clearly having trouble understanding the nonlinear timeline of Asco’s development. Likewise, in a solo interview between Goldman and Valdez the same year, the artist was compelled to explain, “It was a group but we didn’t have a name for ourselves. But it was a definite thing,” when describing collaborative projects that occurred before the group officially adopted its name.Goldman, interview with Patssi Valdez, 1981.
The potential for confusion in Asco’s history and organization lies partially in the widespread deployment of the terms “collective” and “artists’ group” as interchangeable and synonymous classifications. This happens more frequently in English-language writing. In Latin America, and Mexico in particular, there is a subtler, if implied, designation between the two terms. The number of artists’ groups that emerged in Mexico City in the 1970s–early ’80s are “collectively referred to as los Grupos,”Arden Decker, “Los Grupos and the Art of Intervention in 1960s and 1970s Mexico” (PhD diss, Graduate Center, City University of New York, 2015), 17. The movement toward Grupos developed in the aftermath of 1968, including the Tlatelolco Massacre, and in response to other forms of state violence, suppression, and socio-political struggles. See also the exhibition catalogue, De los grupos los individuos: artistas plásticas de los grupos metropolitanos (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1985). In more recent years, there has been a resurgence in the use of the term collective in contemporary Latin American art, particularly with regards to socially engaged practices. See, for example Bill Kelley, Jr., ed., Talking to Action: Art, Pedagogy, and Activism in the Americas (Chicago: School of the Art Institute, 2017); and Grant Kester and Bill Kelley, Jr., eds. Collective Situations: Readings in Contemporary Latin American Art, 1995–2010 (Durham. NC: Duke University Press, 2017). while the term colectivos is often used in reference to the rise of muralism in the earlier part of the twentieth century.See Jennifer Jolly, “Art of the Collective: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Josep Renau and their Collaboration at the Mexican Electricians' Syndicate,” Oxford Art Journal 31.1 (2008): 131–151.
The extensive exhibition, Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, consolidated significant efforts to historicize the Chicano Art Movement as a national movement in the United States. A section of the exhibition was devoted to three artists’ groups: Asco, Los Four, and the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF).The CARA exhibition also included a slide show of fifty-four murals, often executed collaboratively or by teams. The exhibition catalogue included an eight-page appendix titled, “Catalog of Grupos, Centros, and Teatros,” in which the individual entities are listed geographically. The choice to use Spanish-language terms for each is noteworthy. R. Griswold del Castillo, T. McKenna, and Y. Yarbro-Bejarano, eds., Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, UCLA, 1991), 223–232. See also Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s important book, Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master’s House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1997). In the catalogue, the terms grupo and grupos were generally privileged over the term collective. Indeed, grupo is a word specified and defined in the multi-page glossary provided in the catalogue. Yet even as the catalogue relies on the term group or grupo, its glossary definition simultaneously—and slightly contradictorily—uses collective as a synonym for grupo. The definition provided for grupos reads:
Artists’ groups or collectives that were organized throughout the country during the time of the Chicano art movement. Grupos were often affiliated with specific community art centers (centros), and their cooperative efforts ranged from producing collective works of art to showing individually produced art in exhibitions devoted to their grupo or to Chicano art generally. They often wrote manifestos and position papers outlining their shared philosophies and goals within the framework of the Chicano civil rights movement.“Grupos,” in “Chicano Glossary of Terms,” Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 362.
In describing the relationship between artists’ groups and the development of the Chicano Art Movement in the same catalogue, curator Philip Brookman recounts that “Chicano artists have often come together in structured groups to achieve their goals.” As Brookman develops his analysis, he marks a distinction between “structured groups” and “collectives.” At the very least, Brookman is careful not to collapse the two terms, saying, “These groups are multifaceted, fluid organizations—sometimes formed as collectives—that seek to empower the development of the alternative structures deemed necessary to fulfill community needs and aesthetic goals.”Philip Brookman, “Looking for Alternatives: Notes on Chicano Art, 1960–1990.” Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 181. What is significant about Brookman’s description is how he calls attention to the fluidity of artists’ groups and emphasizes that sometimes artists’ groups are formed as collectives—but not always. A collective is thus not the singular or exclusive route for the structure or organization of artists’ groups; likewise, it should not be the de facto term or concept.
What is also salient in Brookman’s account is that regardless of the specific configuration that an artists’ group took, one of the crucial motivations for these groups to come together in the first place was because “mainstream cultural institutions” were simply “inaccessible to the Chicano community.”Ibid., 181. This point recurs frequently throughout narratives about the formation and rise of Chicana/o art groups. For instance, writers Max Benavidez and Kate Vozoff note, “For artists so estranged from the mainstream, art collectives offered a small-scale community and a way to alleviate their mutual isolation. Most artists of this period [the 1970s] describe the early art groups not as an aberration but as the only possible forum for self-expression and survival.”Max Benavidez and Kate Vozoff, “The Wall: Image and Boundary, Chicano Art in the 1970s," in Mexican Art of the 1970s: Images of Displacement, ed. Leonard Folgarait (Nashville, TN: Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, Vanderbilt University, 1984), 50.
In Los Angeles, “two Chicano art groups [Asco and Los Four] typified the community perspectives of the decade,” according to Benavidez and Vozoff, who ultimately frame the two groups as “inversions of one another.”Ibid., 50. More recently, curators Chon Noriega and Pilar Tompkins Rivas linked the two groups, while noting significant distinctions: “Asco and Los Four were artist groups, each initially formed with four core members, which developed distinct aesthetic agendas (one conceptual, the other expressive) and also served as a basis for art exhibitions that sometimes drew in other artists.”Chon A. Noriega and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, “Chicano Art in the City of Dreams: A History in Nine Movements,” in L.A. Xicano, eds. Chon A. Noreiga, Terezita Romo, and Pilar Tompkins Rivas (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center Press, UCLA, 2011), 73. No doubt, Asco and Los Four each assumed different sensibilities and agendas—not just about art and art-making—but also about collaboration and the function of an artists’ group. These differences point to vastly “different ideologies” about “producing art within a group framework.”Arden Decker, “Los Grupos and the Art of Intervention in 1960s and 1970s Mexico,” 179.
In comparison to Asco, Los Four was much more formalized. Los Four held member meetings, took and distributed minutes, and wrote and published manifestos.By utilizing a number in Spanish, the name Los Four also slyly invokes the famed Los Tres Grandes of Mexican art history in the early 20th century (1920–1950): David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco. The collective spirit that Los Four aspired to was conveyed in a California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) student newspaper at the time of a 1975 exhibition on campus: “The member’s idea was to deal ‘collectively with the production of art—be it printing, film making, graphics, or outdoor murals—and to protect that property through collective ownership of that property.’”“Los Four Exhibit in Union Gallery,” California State University Los Angeles University Times, v. xvi, n 23, November 6, 1975, 4. Members of Los Four signed a charter for incorporation in 1975, and were therein technically “Los Four, Inc.”The desire to incorporate stemmed from Los Four’s “overriding concern for institutionalizing their efforts in order to establish an economic base of operations.” “Los Four” in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 288. And, as a visit to the Archives of American Art revealed, Los Four maintained a shared bank account with checks bearing the name of the group.In contrast, according to a 1988 report published by the Ford Foundation, the Asco group had an operating budget of zero dollars. See, Joanne Pottlitzer, Hispanic Theater in the United States and Puerto Rico: A Report to the Ford Foundation (New York: Ford Foundation, 1988).
The naming of Los Four originated with a 1973 exhibition at the University of California at Irvine. It was curator Hal Glicksman who suggested that it would be best to have a smaller number of artists specified in the name of the group and the title for the group show initiated by Gilbert “Magu” Luján as part of his MFA thesis exhibition in the university gallery that Glicksman oversaw.Chon A. Noriega and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, “Chicano Art in the City of Dreams,” 76. As reported by William Wilson, “The idea for ‘Los Four’ was conceived by UCI gallery director [Hal] Glicksman and [Gilbert] Lujan, who recently took his MA. Glicksman suggested that Lujan pick the other artists. Lujan selected his three friends.” William Wilson, “Bit of the Barrio at County Museum,” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1974, 8. Luján invited Carlos Almaraz, Roberto “Beto” de la Rocha, and Frank Romero to participate. While the group’s name suggested a stable and finite number of four members, the roster of artists in Los Four often changed, as did the number of artists in the group. Artists Judithe Hernández and John Valadez, for instance, participated in numerous projects and exhibitions, becoming, ironically, the fifth and sixth members of Los Four.The name of the group never changed with the addition of new artists or when it surpassed the specified number of four. In other words, though Los Four was much more formalized than Asco, it, too, was somewhat porous. For example, founder Luján left the group during the summer of 1974 as a result of tensions with the Oakland Museum and the Los Four exhibition tour—although his departure ultimately proved to be temporary.See Josine Ianco-Starrels, “Art News,” Los Angeles Times Calendar, October 6, 1974, 78; Gilbert “Magu” Luján, photocopied letter to René Yañez, August 24, 1974. Shifra M. Goldman Papers, CEMA 119. Department of Special Collections, UC Santa Barbara Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.
The reprise of the Los Four exhibition at LACMA in 1974 is regularly celebrated as the first exhibition of Chicanx art in a major museum, and although the exhibition received hostile reviews from the mainstream art press at the time, it was immensely popular and travelled extensively throughout California afterward.LACMA’s press release promoted Los Four as “The first major exhibition of contemporary Chicano Art.” Scholar Karen Mary Davalos’ research on the history of Chicana and Chicano art exhibitions has uncovered numerous other “first” exhibitions in Los Angeles and importantly reveals what is at stake in these overlapping claims. Karen Mary Davalos, “Remixing: Tracing the Limitations of Art History in Los Angeles,” in Chicana/o Remix: Art and the Errata Since the Sixties (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 181–212. As a result, Los Four “immediately reached a level of recognition apart from the rest of the city’s Chicano artistic community.”“Los Four” in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 288. The Asco artists crashed the LACMA opening dressed in elaborate costumes and makeup in an act that could be considered either an outlandish upstaging of their rivals or an extension of their rambunctious and rebellious relationship to the institution that inspired the defacement of the museum two years earlier. The action could be read as another form of institutional critique, one that potentially continues, revives, or regenerates the critical questions evoked by Spray Paint LACMA, an intervention responding to the question of what is inside and what is (or remains) outside of the museum.
The two groups were keenly aware of their differences, and commentary from the artists invokes various points of distinction—sometimes in the form of veiled critiques. In contrast to Los Four’s manifestos, Herrón explains, “We just did it… and we defined it afterward.”Benavidez and Vozoff, 51. In describing how the artists in Asco would define their projects and collaborations afterward, Herrón’s statement calls attention to the critical role that the circulation of the images of and writings about the group’s work had in representing and making it available to a public. As a result, published and televised interviews with the artists, press reviews, writings by the artists, and artists’ talks all served an important function in circulating and publicizing the activities and perspectives of Asco. In addition to No Movies, Asco also circulated clippings, published interviews, and announcements through mail art networks often stamping Asco or Asco/Chicano Cinema onto these personalized multiples and photocopies. Gronk recalls that “there were no bylaws, there were no fees, there were no … manifestos or anything like that.” He continues, “Our manifestos came out of our No Movies. Our manifesto came out of like, you know, the criticism or critiques that we would do on our fellow artists at that particular moment in time.”Rita Gonzalez and Jennifer Flores Sternad (now, Jennifer Ponce de León), interview with Gronk, August 31, 2004, 22 of transcript edited June 2005. And, in this regard, some of Asco’s critiques were directed at the “collectivism officially promoted” by Los Four.Harry Gamboa Jr., conversation with the author, April 20, 2019. As Gamboa retrospectively declared, “the notion of being a collective was something we laughed at.”Ibid. Years earlier, this burla or mocking laughter surfaced when Gamboa asked Gronk in a published interview, “What would you be if you were not an artist?” Gronk cheekily responded, “I’d be one of Les [sic] Four.”Harry Gamboa Jr. “Gronk and Herrón: Muralists,” Neworld: A Quarterly of the Inner City Cultural Center v. 2, n. 3. (Spring 1976): 29.
These intergroup rifts resurfaced during a 2011 panel discussion at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College featuring Gronk, Judithe Hernández, John Valadez, and Patssi Valdez as part of the programming for the Round Trip: Eight East Los Angeles College Alumni exhibition. Distinctions were articulated as differences in style—at once aesthetic, political, and sartorial—but in ways that were largely distilled and communicated in terms of personal affect. For example, when characterizing the relations between Asco and Los Four and while invoking her group’s more Marxist orientation, Judithe Hernández recalled, “We were so revolutionary and grubby. [Asco] were so glamorous.”Author’s notes, “Round Trip Artists’ Panel 2” with Gronk, Judithe Hernández, John Valadez, and Patssi Valdez. Moderated by Max Benavidez, August 13, 2011. The first panel in this series, held on July 9, 2011 featured two artists associated with Asco—Diane Gamboa and Willie Herrón III—along with Clement S. Hanami and Kent Twitchell and was moderated by Karen Rapp. In 2017, artists Judithe Hernández and Patssi Valdez exhibited together in a two-person show. Judithe Hernández and Patssi Valdez: One Path Two Journeys was held at the Millard Sheets Art Center at the Fairplex in Pomona (September 1, 2017–January 28, 2018) and was part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. Several years later Hernández elaborated on this topic when explaining in a slightly more critical tone, “They were too cool for us, or we weren’t cool enough for them.”Judithe Hernández, interview with Karen Mary Davalos, on September 26, 2009, and July 14, 2010, Los Angeles, California. CSRC Oral Histories Series, no. 13. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2013, 32.
Despite the recognition of their differences—which these various critical jabs pronounced—members of both groups sporadically came together for specific projects and exhibitions. In the early period of each group’s activities, there were interconnections and exchanges within what was a robust and porous network. Intersections between various groups were frequent “among counter-cultural formations,” a fact that aligns these two Los Angeles artists’ groups with the ethos of the broader counter-cultural developments of the era.Deanne Pytlinski, “San Francisco Video Collectives and the Counterculture,” in West of Center: Art and the Countercultural Experiment in America, 1965–1977, eds. Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 57. Artists Gronk and Carlos Almaraz served as particular points of connection between the two groups, and can each be considered the two queer founding members of their respective artists’ groups, although Almaraz did not use the term in his lifetime.For more information, see “Carlos Almaraz,” Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A., eds. C. Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz (Los Angeles and Munich: ONE Archives at the USC Libraries and DelMonico Books • Prestel, 2017), 372–373; and Howard Fox, Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz (Munich: Prestel, 2017). Almaraz and Gronk both showed at Mechicano Art Center in East Los Angeles, as did Harry Gamboa Jr. and Willie Herrón III.In his oral history interview with Margarita Nieto, Carlos Almaraz recalled that “the Asco group were thrown out [of Mechicano Art Center] rather quickly after one important show; they were kicked out because they were just too way out for them.” Oral history interview with Carlos Almaraz, February 6, 1986–January 29, 1987, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. For more on Mechicano Art Center, see Reina Alejandra Prado Saldívar, “On Both Sides of the Los Angeles River: Mechicano Art Center,” L.A. Xicano, 41–51. Almaraz also contributed to Regeneración while Gamboa was co-editing the journal and the other founding members of Asco were working on the magazine’s visual imagery.Several of the drawings featured in Regeneración also appeared in issues of Loyola Marymount University’s student literary journal El Playano (1949–1989). The spring 1972 and 1973 issues contain drawings and contributions by artists Carlos Almaraz, Diane Gamboa, Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón III, and Patssi Valdez, among others. By 1976, Almaraz and Gronk were both involved in the journal Chismearte: Almaraz co-founded the Concilio de Arte Popular that published the magazine and Gronk was on the editorial board.Almaraz’s manifesto, “The Artist as Revolutionary,” and Asco’s No Movie interview were both published in the premiere issue of Chismearte. See Chismearte 1.1 (Fall 1976).
Almaraz wrote an essay titled “Groak at Mechicano” for a college assignment in 1972.Carlos Almaraz (formerly Charles David Almaraz), “Groak at Mechicano,” 1973, Carlos Almaraz and Elsa Flores Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Written in the first person, the five-page typewritten text—now in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art—is part diaristic record of the young artist’s journey to the Mechicano Art Center, part exhibition review, and part profile on the artist Gronk (referred to as Groak and later as Lorenz Groak Pedrigon throughout).Gronk utilized and experimented with several names during this period, and Groak and Lorenz Groak Pedrigon are part of the roster of names the artist utilized early on that Max Benavidez identifies in his monograph Gronk (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center Press, UCLA, 2007), 7. Although Almaraz’s text and title suggest it was a solo show, the actual exhibition he describes was much more likely Ahora lo Veras, which also included work by Gamboa and Herrón.The group exhibition Ahora lo Veras held at Mechicano Art Center in November 1972, featured works by Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, and Willie Herrón III. Eddie Ytuarte interviewed the three exhibiting artists along with Patssi Valdez for the community newspaper El Chicano. Eddie (Edy) Ytuarte, “Chicano Art Lives in East L.A.: ‘A True Barrio Art,’” El Chicano, December 7, 1972, 9. The article, along with Tim Gergen’s photograph of the four founding members of Asco outside Mechicano, is reproduced in Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 384–387. After its premiere at Mechicano Art Center, the exhibition Ahora lo Veras traveled to the East Long Beach Neighborhood Center, later renamed Centro de la Raza. This version of the exhibition was the first time the group exhibited outside of East Los Angeles; the exhibition was reviewed in the California State University at Long Beach (CSULB) student newspaper. See, “Barrio Depicted on Canvas,” Forty-Niner, February 22, 1973, 5. This student essay curiously documents an early encounter between the two artists. Almaraz patently sizes Gronk up in this inchoate period of contact—before Almaraz began working with Los Four and while Gronk was participating in what can be described as proto-Asco group projects and exhibitions.
Almaraz reports that the exhibition upset his aesthetic sensibility. He found the paintings of faces and figures on cardboard, paper, and Masonite to be “brutal” and “unpleasant and hard to look at.”Almaraz, “Groak at Mechanico,” 2. He loosely describes some of the sculptural elements in the exhibit, including a sewn multimedia work displayed on the floor and a vintage dress adhered to a wall, and he remarks on the thematic and conceptual connections in the show between collage, environment, and theater. But what strikes Almaraz most about the exhibition is how the installation communicates Gronk’s—and presumably the other artists’—interests in performance, happenings, and intermedia. Moreover, Almaraz stipulates that such attributes can be identified with the artist himself, claiming, “Groak is a man of costume and illusion; everything is a part of his work in the same way that everything is a part of his theatre.”Ibid., 4. In the essay, Almaraz postures as an art critic obliquely and disapprovingly critiquing Gronk for his performance in the role of avant-garde provocateur and as an artist taking on multiple identities and roles.
Although not featured in the exhibition, Almaraz also describes an early Asco performance, Stations of the Cross (1971), and conveys the threats that the unannounced public happening elicited from passersby.Willie Herrón III recalls that in response to Stations of the Cross, “people were calling us putos [faggots] and cussing us out from the cars. Coming back for the second time to call us putos again.” Shifra Goldman, interview with Asco, 1980. Herrón also remembers that there was a similar response to Asco’s Walking Mural (1972) that traversed a similar course along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles on Christmas Eve the following year, “They ripped my cape, man. They tore my tail off as they screamed putos.” Harry Gamboa Jr., “Gronk and Herron: Muralists,” 30. The morbid procession along Whittier Boulevard, a main commercial thoroughfare in East Los Angeles, was staged as a protest against the Vietnam War. During a busy Christmas Eve, Herrón dressed as a calavera Christ carrying a large cardboard cross with Harry Gamboa Jr. and Gronk in procession behind. As he attempts to explain the precariousness and risk involved in the performance, Almaraz suggests, “Groak lives in an environment that is quite hostile towards him because his theatrics (some personal) makes ‘vatos’ [Caló for dudes or homeboys] feel uncomfortable.”Almaraz, “Groak at Mechanico,” 4. Clearly, what Almaraz is trying to identify and communicate here is homophobia.
Almaraz concludes his account by declaring that Gronk’s work is “very aggressive” and offensive, and it is evident that he can not quite disentangle his assessment of the artwork form his encounter with—and estimation of—Gronk. Overall, Almaraz is disdainful, finding the exhibition to be neither beautiful nor an authentic representation “of the barrio.” Ultimately, Almaraz declares it as “terribly aggressive; it comes at you and pulls at you.”Ibid., 5. The sensation that Almaraz describes as uncomfortable, unpleasant, upsetting, or aggressive is exactly what the (future) Asco artists would identify as the Asco effect that they sought to achieve through their work together.For example, Willie Herrón III described how part of the effect Asco hoped to achieve with their art and actions was, “We wanted to reach inside and pull peoples’ guts out.” Max Benavidez, “Interview with Willie Herrón,” radio broadcast, kpfk-fm Los Angeles, June 8, 1981, audiocassette, Gamboa Collection, Stanford University Libraries Special Collections. Almaraz’s review serves as a testimony to how Asco’s work was received and the responses it generated among artists within the Chicano Art Movement.
Despite such antagonisms, exchanges between members of Asco and Los Four existed and can be traced through several promotional and archival documents. A poster for the first iteration of the Los Four exhibition that opened at University of California at Irvine on November 21, 1973, illustrates potential forms of connection and exchange between artists in Los Four and Asco. The poster reproduces one of Roberto “Beto” de la Rocha’s sketchbook pages still showing the fringed perforations at the top from the ring binding.The drawing featured on the poster was included in the exhibition. Slides of the gallery installation at University of California, Irvine, found in Hal Glicksman’s Papers at the Getty Research Institute reveal that the ink drawing, titled Dedicación (1973), is by Beto de la Rocha. In 1974, Roberto “Beto” de la Rocha created a serigraph poster for the first widely publicized East Los Angeles Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Celebration featuring an art exhibition, music, theater, dance, food, and games along with a desfile, or parade, from Evergreen Cemetery to “Self-Help Grapics [sic] and Art Inc.” The artist’s diminutive signature, Beto, appears just off-center on the bottom of the print; in the lower left-hand corner, the sponsors are identified as Self Help Graphics and Art, Asco, and Los Four. The drawing depicts a female subject in a three-quarter portrait pose looking out to the viewer. The figure is surrounded by a dense array of text and other drawings, including images of cacti, pyramids, calavera skulls, and a space ship. Alongside these images are phrases, including: “que viva la raza,” “los marcianos legaron ya” (“the Martians have already arrived”), “arte chicano existe” (“Chicano art exists”), and “con safos.”The “Chicano Glossary of Terms,” in the CARA catalogue provides the following definition for “Con Safos” or “C/S”: “Usually seen in the C/S form, the initials stand for the motto ‘Con Safos.’ It is typically added at the bottom of a graffiti placa (as well as murals) to serve as a charm against defacement. In the case of defacement, the C/S motto also warns that the same will happen to the offending party’s placa,” 362. In 1975, Sally R. Romotsky and Jerry Romotsky wrote, “Con safos functions as a guardian to the inscription, simultaneously protecting and challenging. Its meaning is generally translated by barrio youth as ‘the same to you.’” Sally R. Romotsky and Jerry Romotsky, “Plaqueaso on the Wall,” Human Behavior 4.5 (May 1975): 68. In an otherwise caustic review of the Los Four exhibition at LACMA (where it travelled after Irvine), art critic William Wilson described de la Rocha’s drawings as “delicate, elaborately poetic portraits of friends surrounded by the barrio environment and icons.”William Wilson, “Bit of the Barrio at County Museum,” 8. In his review, Wilson claims that LACMA had been “invaded” by Los Four and that the exhibition looked like “the setting for a fiesta, a ‘West Side Story’ rumble or, possibly a revolution,” in stark contrast to the rest of the museum’s “sleek and sophisticated” galleries. For a brief discussion of Wilson’s often cantankerous perspective on Chicana/o art, see my “Introduction” to the “Institutional Frameworks and Critical Reception” section in Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology, eds. Jennifer A. González, C. Ondine Chavoya, Chon Noriega, and Terezita Romo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 413–416.
In the top left corner of the drawing, the names Gronk, Willie, and El Bob appear. Like the many other names and text in the portrait, the typographical style invokes that of Pee-Chee folder art, doodles, or placas—a form of wall-writing that functions as a symbolic marker of territory and/or affiliation. The listing of names effectively operates like a collection of placas or plaqueasos— “a public announcement of names”—that maps out and visually pronounces a roster of associations and affiliations.François Chastanet, “Placas in Los Angeles, the first suburban blackletters?” Baseline: International Typographics Magazine 55 (Summer 2008): 7. Chastanet explains that placas are “names, prestigious symbols of invisible territorial frontiers and pledges of allegiance and loyalty to a specific neighborhood, where the sense of place is essential.” This form of cholo-style graffiti lettering functions as a system of public address, and, as art historian and curator Rocío Aranda-Alvarado details, announces “loyalty, unity, presence, group identification, demarcation of space, territoriality, and many other concepts.” Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, “Charles Bojorquez: Taking Old School Further,” American Art 18.3 (Fall 2004): 88. For more on placas, muralism, and Chicanx art, see Jerry Romotsky and Sally Romotsky, “Placas and Murals,” Arts in Society 2.1 (Summer–Fall 1974): 286–299; and Marcos Sánchez-Tranquilino, “Space, Power and Youth Culture: Mexican American Graffiti and Murals in East Los Angeles, 1972–1978,” in Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology, 278–291. The intimate sketchpad has been transformed into a poster to publicize the group exhibition. In this confluence, we see the advertisement for a group show—or a solo show for an artists’ group—that situates the group and its members within a broader community network of artists and interpersonal and cultural spheres. Here we can see the intersections and overlaps of this network of artists illustrated in the form of vernacular barrio traditions, such as plaqueasos and the roll call. We can grasp, too, how aesthetically and conceptually important these connections must have been for artists like de la Rocha.
The following year, Gronk participated in the exhibition Los Four en Longo, held at the Long Beach Museum of Art,The promotional poster indicates that Carlos Almaraz, Beto de la Rocha, Gronk, F. Hernandez, Judithe Hernández, and Frank Romero participated in this exhibition that ran from October 9–27, 1974, at the Long Beach Museum of Art. Longo is a Chicano colloquialism for the city of Long Beach and connected to the naming of barrio gangs. where as one of six exhibiting artists, Gronk presented a brown paper bag filled with videotape.Gronk considers this experimentation with the medium of film and video as a continuation of his exploration of the No Movie format. Author’s conversation with Gronk in his studio in downtown Los Angeles, June 27, 2017. As Almaraz recalled years later in his oral history for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, “We [Los Four] tried to collaborate with Asco … We did a couple of exhibits, the Long Beach exhibit, and we tried things, but it didn’t work.”Oral history interview with Carlos Almaraz, February 6, 1986–January 29, 1987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. By 1975, meeting notes indicated that “Los Four [was] basically an exhibition group,” with seven or more artists variably participating in projects tied to specific exhibitions.Notes from a Los Four meeting dated May 23, 1975, Carlos Almaraz and Elsa Flores Papers, Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Such was the case for the Los Four/Asco exhibition held at The Point Gallery in Santa Monica in June of 1975.The Point Gallery was dedicated to “presenting works by young artists and totally committed to their careers,” wrote Diana Zlotnick in the “Exhibitions of Note: Westside” column that appeared in the May 1975 issue of her Newsletter on the Arts, 4. The physical location of The Point Gallery, located at 2669 Main Street at the intersection of Hill Street in Santa Monica in Ocean Park, is a significant site in Los Angeles art history. Built as the Mendota Hotel in 1913, today it is the site of a corner Starbucks in a block of buildings restored and developed by comedian Bill Cosby. Before it was The Point Gallery, it was the site of James Turrell’s studio from 1966 to 1974, and where Turrell first developed his Mendota Stoppage series (1969–1974). See Ed Schad, "Driving Pacific Standard Time: How a Studio Becomes a Starbucks," LA Weekly, September 22, 2011, https://www.laweekly.com/driving-pacific-standard-time-how-a-studio-becomes-a-starbucks/. A total of eight artists participated in this exhibition as Los Four: Carlos Almaraz, Gloriamalia Flores, Judithe Hernández, Gilbert “Magu” Luján, Maricio Ramirez, Roberto “Beto” de la Rocha, Frank Romero, and John Valadez. Meanwhile, four Asco artists participated: Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón III, and Patssi Valdez, who exhibited spray-paint paintings on canvas. The exhibition was not reviewed and few details remain about its layout, checklist, or other specific attributes. According to Gamboa, none of the Asco works sold.Gamboa, “In the City of Angels,” 127. A photograph of the exterior of the building on opening night showing people spilling out of the small gallery and onto the street is available on the Getty’s GRI blog, but otherwise few details have emerged. See, https://blogs.getty.edu/pacificstandardtime/explore-the-era/archives/i234/.
Each group was responsible for generating and circulating their own publicity; as a result, there were at least two different promotional announcements for the exhibition.Notes from a Los Four meeting dated May 23, 1975. The one that circulated more widely and can be found in numerous archives and collections is a printed postcard with twelve different images arranged into a grid on one side. Each participating artist is represented by an image, text, or some combination of both within a small rectangle. These announcements were offset lithographs printed with an overlay of colors, including red, yellow, orange, and green to suggest that the cards had been spray painted, and were cut in a way to create a variability in color patterns on each card. The postcard carries forward the visual aesthetic of the striking accordion-fold catalogue designed by Frank Romero for the Los Four exhibition at UC Irvine.
The invitation design suggests a discrete delineation between the artists’ groups: the Asco artists all appear in a single column, while the Los Four artists are clustered in the two other columns. The images used to represent the groups also differ. Six of the eight Los Four artists submitted drawings of human figures for the announcement. While several of these drawings include the artist’s signature, the space allotted for each artist is so small that the signatures are rendered nearly illegible. In contrast, three of the Asco artists, Gamboa, Herrón, and Valdez included graphic renderings of their names; in essence, they submitted their signatures.Gronk’s somewhat cryptic and unsigned contribution featured a photocopied collage of commercial magazine images of pencils that creates a visual-verbal play on the name of the gallery, The Point, through its representation of two pencil points. Email correspondence with Gronk, August 15, 2019. While Herrón and Gamboa employ typography, Valdez engages barrio calligraphy and placas. These forms are in fact intricately related, as the specific written aesthetic of placas was based on and influenced by typography associated with newspaper headlines and titles as well as honorific items like diplomas and certificates.See Steven Heller’s interview with François Chastanet, “Marking in L.A.: An Interview with François Chastanet,” November 18, 2009. https://www.aiga.org/marking-in-l-a-an-interview-with-francois-chastanet.
Valdez’s contribution is a remarkable placa or plaqueaso that shares stylistic similarities with the drawings and collages she produced for Regeneracíon and the now nonextant aerosol works on canvas she experimented with and exhibited during this time. Valdez’s first name is rendered as a stylized placa using a diamond shape to dot the “I” at the end; the letter is rendered in such a way that it resembles a candle stick, with the diamond shape forming a flame above. Two lipstick marks flank the placa. Produced with marker, it effectively channels the tradition of barrio calligraphy, which aims to bestow an “aura of prestige around their street names to represent them with maximum dignity and pride.”Chastanet, Baseline, 8. Valdez’s piece was made in collaboration with a young graffiti artist, known as Joker, who Valdez was teaching at the time as part of a program to provide art lessons to “at-risk” youth including those involved in gangs. The student produced the lettering and Valdez provided the lipstick prints, and then submitted the doubly- or triply-signed work for the exhibition announcement card.Email correspondence with Patssi Valdez, August 12, 2019. Valdez’s contribution importantly appropriates and retools what was a predominantly masculinist form—especially at this time—to represent her participation in the exhibition. A variation on a popular clique name “El Loca,” or “the crazy-one,” appears above Valdez’s placa, asserted in an “incorrect” way that transgresses the strictly gendered and codified rules of the Spanish language as well as the barrio traditions of clique naming. (Loca is gendered as female and the article El is plainly masculine.) Curiously, the way the nickname is written is as a single conjoined word, “eLoca” but with the “eL” hovering below the “oca,” and the “L” extending to join the two registers and connecting to Valdez’s name as well. Joker, the clique name of the student who inscribed the letters, appears below Patssi, with the name of Valdez’s artists’ group, ASCO, anchoring the roll call below.
The second publicity document for the exhibition at the Point Gallery was a thermal photocopy that appropriated one of the photographs of the performance of The Wedding of Maria Theresa Conchita Con Chin Gow (1971), a simulated queer marriage on the quad at CSULA featuring Robert Legorreta (Cyclona) as the veiled bride in white beside a kneeling groom in a top hat.Sean Carrillo identified the bridegroom as Charlie Cox in “Summer 1977,” e.a.t. Journal v. 3, August 2018. Cyclona holds a bouquet and sturdily embraces the artist Mundo Meza whose head is tilted back. Neither Cyclona nor Meza are identified in the promotional flyer nor were they included in the Los Four/Asco gallery exhibition. And, although Gronk often collaborated with Meza and Cyclona during the time of the performance image, some four years earlier, Gronk did not appear in the wedding performance.The photograph of The Wedding of Maria Theresa Conchita Con Chin Gow was shot by Gronk as he revealed in a 2017 studio visit. Before Asco, as Gronk explained to Shifra Goldman, “I was working with performance artists who were not recognized as performance artists at the time,” including Robert Legorreta (Cyclona) and Mundo Meza. See Goldman's interview with Asco, 1980. At the top of the flyer, ASCO is spelled out in all caps in letterpress stamps, with the “S” coming from an inverted numeral “5” and the “C” formed by a U flipped on its side. A vintage snapshot of two men seated in a park, one bare-chested, is collaged onto the wedding portrait obscuring much of the bridegroom’s face and upper body. The gallery name, “the point,” is collaged to the bottom of this photograph, although no details about the exhibition, such as address, dates, or hours, are provided. In this way, this invitation is much more informal and less traditional since it does not include these necessary details.
Gamboa recounted later that the “intergroup rivalry” between Asco and Los Four was at an “all-time high” at this juncture while exhibiting together at the Point Gallery on the Westside of Los Angeles.Gamboa tempered his description of the rivalry between Asco and Los Four by adding that such “perceptions proved to be misleading.” Harry Gamboa Jr., “In the City of Angels, Chameleons, and Phantoms,” 127–128. Almaraz would appear as one of the six Chicana/o artists showcased in “Seis Imaginaciones: Artistas Chicanos en Los Angeles,” a cover feature for La Opinión’s art supplement, known as La Commundiad, in 1980. Alongside Almaraz, the other artists included were Jerry Dreva, Gronk, Willie Herrón III, John Valadez, and Patssi Valdez. Harry Gamboa Jr. selected the artists and photographed them together for the cover of issue. La Opinión Suplemento Cultural, no. 11, July 13, 1980. This was the last time the two artists’ showed together in an exhibition that they organized themselves.After the joint exhibition at The Point Gallery, Los Four and Asco “realized that their rivalry, whether sparked by outsiders or ignited from within the group did not allow them to present their work together in the future.” Reina Alejandra Prado Saldívar, “The Formation of a Chicano Art Canon: Narrations and Exhibitions of Los Four, Asco, and Self-Help Graphics” (Master's thesis: University of Arizona, 1997), 68. Individual artists in the two artists' groups would be shown together many times in future exhibitions such as Murals of Aztlán: The Street Painters of East Los Angeles and Hispanic Artists in the United States, and occasionally the two groups would also be shown together in exhibitions like Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation. The groups grew more separate as their conceptual differences and aesthetic directions became more pronounced and as both individual personalities and group identities became increasingly defined in opposition to each other. As Gonzalez and I noted in the catalogue for Asco: Elite of the Obscure,
The Asco group functioned as an umbrella collaborative structure for imagining and producing a wide range of work, most importantly in the production of their own identities as artists, which necessarily involved a certain amount of self-mythologizing for the individuals involved in the group and for the group itself.C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez, “Elite of the Obscure: An Introduction,” Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 22.
Collaboration for the group was complex and can perhaps best be understood through its shifting dynamics and exchange, both within Asco and between groups over time. It is possible to discern these internal negotiations and individual expressions through the ephemera of the period, such as the Point Gallery postcard and its emphasis on the signature or placa. After all, as critic Roberta Smith has suggested, “Invitations are style statements in a minor key, ancillary artworks of a collective sort.”Roberta Smith, “Art Invitations as Small Scraps of History,” New York Times, May 16, 1993, 37.
In their reference to graffiti, the use of signatures and placas in the ancillary form of the postcard invitation invokes the gesture of the now iconic Spray Paint LACMA. Graffiti was used strategically as a medium and sign system in Spray Paint LACMA. Enacted as a retort to the reported response of a LACMA curator—who when confronted with a question about the lack of Chicana/o art in the museum’s collections, claimed that Chicana/os did not make fine art, but only made folk art or were in gangs—Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón signed their names. Thrusting their individual placas onto the museum’s walls mobilized one of the primary functions of graffiti: to “assert a group’s presence against their erasure by the dominant culture.”William Erwin Orchard, “Graphic Language: Politics, Popular Art, and Latina/o Literature” (PhD diss, University of Chicago, 2012), 5. A part of the texture and impact of the institutional critique (and its continued relevance) emanates from what scholar Marcos Sánchez-Tranquilino identifies as one of the placas’ key functions, which is to “keep a public check on the abuse of power in the streets.”As Marcos Sánchez-Tranquilino notes, “It is my contention that placas or plaqueasos, the name given to the unique form of graffiti insignias developed by Mexican American barrio calligraphers over several generations, is not vandalism at all but rather a visual system developed by Mexican American graffiti writers themselves to keep a public check on the abuse of power in the streets.” Marcos Sánchez-Tranquilino, “Space, Power and Youth Culture,” 280. We can extend this idea to consider how artists associated with Asco asserted their presence in order to put a “public check” on the museum. Spray Paint LACMA used unsanctioned graffiti as a form of conceptual and institutional critique to mark exclusionary practices and cultural boundaries while also circumventing them—even if only temporarily.François Chastanet, Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles (Astra, Sweden: Dokument Press, 2009), 56.
Graffiti marks—and remarks on—contested spaces and is subject to cycles of repression and (re)emergence as well as processes of erasure and (re)inscription.Susan Stewart, Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 209. The fleeting inscriptions of three artists’ names in black and red spray paint were quickly whitewashed, presumably dismissed as a crude act of vandalism, yet the group’s critique could not be so readily suppressed. Spray Paint LACMA is now recognized as a key work by Asco, and is remembered as a landmark of conceptualism in the 1970s. It has also come to be known as a radical act of protest about museums and institutionalized racism, becoming a powerful example for subsequent generations of artists. Even if it was only seen in person by the artists and a handful of maintenance workers, Spray Paint LACMA has had an indelible impact on contemporary art.The traveling exhibition Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement (2008) highlighted the influence of Asco on a subsequent generation of artists.
While a minor form, copies of the Point Gallery postcard invitations—which did not directly engage with the walls of an institution, but instead circulated freely and abundantly in artistic spheres of their own making—have certainly outlasted the actual spray paint surreptitiously applied to the museum wall. As such, the invitations are ephemera but not necessarily ephemeral, since they also outlasted the manifestly ephemeral event they promoted—the exhibition. In context with other artists’ signatures, Valdez’s placa opens up a dialogue about inscription, representation, and artistic identity, while also calling up the impact and legacy of Spray Paint LACMA, a work with meaning and resonance that is still open, ongoing, and contingent as it continues to circulate through photographs over time. Valdez did not participate in the guerilla graffiti under the cover of night with her male counterparts, “even as the iconic image is predicated on her body marking the space of the male artists’ ephemeral authorship vis-à-vis the museum.”Chon A. Noriega, “Conceptual Graffiti and the Public Art Museum: Spray Paint LACMA,” in Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 260. Malik Gaines has suggested that “Valdez’s photographed body personifies the racial, gender, and political differences that played out against the body of the museum in this action, a museum that had a poor history of showing women artists, people of color, or performance art, even.”Malik Gaines, “City after Fifty Years’ Living: L.A.’s Differences in Relation,” Art Journal 71.1 (Spring 2012): 92. Therefore, Spray Paint LACMA, “made visible the condition of exclusion and marginalization faced by Chicano artists,”Gwyneth Jane Shanks, “Performing the Museum: Displaying Gender and Archiving Labor, from Performance Art to Theater” (PhD diss, University of California Los Angeles, 2016): 34. while the action itself was predicated on the exclusion of Valdez’s participation in the graffiti defacement. Forms of defacement, according to Michael Taussig, simultaneously make visible social regulations and limitations while also having the capacity to liberate new meanings and conceptions.Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Language of the Negative (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999). And placas positioned on public walls distinctly function as “a call to act and react.”Sally R. and Jerry Romotsky, “Plaqueaso on the Wall,” 69.
Over the years, Spray Paint LACMA has generated extensive responses and reactions from participants and later raconteurs and commentators. Valdez, for example, explained in 1981, “I was there after it [the spray paint] was done.” And, when asked about Gamboa’s photograph, Valdez responded in a fairly sassy and defiant way, “My name wasn’t there, but I was.”Goldman, Interview with Patssi Valdez, 1981. This variance in modes of participation (between the presence of the body or the placa or signature) may also signal the incompleteness of the collective act. And, in this way, perhaps we can also see Patssi Valdez’s placa as part of an ongoing dialogue about exactly whose name appeared on walls of the museum in Los Angeles, a continued negotiation and reassessment of forms of collaboration and their limitations.
The author would like to thank Tatiana Flores, Richard T. Rodríguez, and especially Mari Rodríguez Binnie for their astute and generous feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.
C. Ondine Chavoya is a Professor of Art History and Latina/o Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he teaches courses in contemporary art and visual culture. A specialist in Chicanx and Latinx art, Chavoya’s writings have appeared in Afterimage, Artforum, Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, CR: The New Centennial Review, Performance Research, Wide Angle, and in numerous exhibition catalogues and edited volumes. His curatorial projects have addressed issues of collaboration, experimentation, social justice, and archival practices in contemporary art. Recent exhibitions include Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011), Robert Rauschenberg: Autobiography (Williams College Museum of Art, 2017), and Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. (MOCA Los Angeles, 2017). He is also co-editor of Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology (Duke University Press, 2019).