6 Oklahoma friends went to L.A. to pursue their artistic dreams. They all made it big - now their work is back together in their home state
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. To read more about Paul Ruscha's art installation, "Dinner for Donald," dedicated to former President Trump, click here.
Six OKC friends went to L.A. to pursue their art, their work is now back together in their home state
NORMAN - A cheerful clown appears to grin out of the smooth surface of a knotty pine plank, while the golden-brown companion piece bears a striking resemblance to a fierce-faced mandrill, a large, intimidating African monkey.
The two wooden wall hangings on view at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art not only are works by Mason Williams - a Grammy winner, comedy writer and visual artist who grew up in Oklahoma City - but they also are an aesthetic inside joke between him and Paul Ruscha, a fellow artist and Oklahoman with a fondness for using found objects in his pieces.
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"Those are really funny," Ruscha said, grinning at the cleverly titled "Knot a Clown Hole" and "Knot a Mandrill Hole," which Williams gifted to him in 1995. "It's wonderful. ... I'm happy to be here and represent the other guys, who are all now in their 80s - I don't know that they want that known - but they're still producing. I'm a little younger than that, so anyway, it's good to be here and it's good to be alive."
Cheeky humor, personal obsessions and intimate portraits abound in the exhibition "OK/LA," an eclectic showcase of works by Williams, Paul Ruscha, his iconic brother Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, Patrick Blackwell and Jerry McMillan.
Through paintings, photographs, books and more, the group retrospective tells the story of lifelong friendships that have spanned decades and miles.
All six of them grew up in Oklahoma City in the 1950s and '60s. All six of them went West to California as young men to pursue their artistic careers. All of them made their mark.
And now all of them have work in the same exhibit for the first time - and in their home state.
"This is the first time that these six artists have been exhibited together - ever. And it's happening here in Norman, Oklahoma, and I think it's important that people take the opportunity to come see it," said "OK/LA" curator Mark White.
"Many of these artists have national and international reputations ... and most people don't often recognize that they got their start in Oklahoma as art students.
Now, granted, the majority of their careers was spent in Los Angeles, but I think it's important to see that this is as much a part of Oklahoma's art history as it is the nation's art history or the world's art history."
Years in the making, "OK/LA" is thought to be the first exhibit to examine both the enduring relationships among the six artists as well as the powerful influence their Oklahoma upbringing had on their work.
"How could it not? I mean, it's such a great state," Paul Ruscha said during an autumn interview at the museum, which is on the University of Oklahoma campus. "As far as art goes, you had to be pretty creative to want to make art, and these guys, really, they had to get away from Oklahoma and just interpret the feeling that the state had given them where they ended up, which was in Los Angeles and Hollywood."
On view through March 7, the exhibit is the culmination of years of discussions, coordination and labor by White, the museum and the artists.
"Very few exhibitions, books, articles to this point have really pointed out the Oklahoma origin for these artists. So, I think it's important to see that, yeah, OK, they spent the majority of their careers in Los Angeles, but there's still something that is identifiably Oklahoman that is part of their artistic DNA," said White, the former director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum.
"They spent their formational years in Oklahoma ... and it wasn't really until they reached their later teens in many cases that they decided to leave Oklahoma and head for the West Coast. And most of them have remained on the West Coast; in fact, only Patrick Blackwell lives on the East Coast. So, Oklahoma has continued to influence their careers in a variety of ways - and you really see that in the show. One of the reasons it's called 'OK/LA' is that there is a juxtaposition between their memories, their experiences in Oklahoma and those that have happened in Los Angeles."
Paul Ruscha was the catalyst behind the exhibit, which he initially envisioned to mark the anniversary of the 1960 show "Four Oklahoma Artists," which featured early works by Ed Ruscha, Goode, Blackwell and McMillan at the Oklahoma Art Center (a precursor to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art) at the OKC Fairgrounds.
"It was the first exhibition ever for these four artists who had all gone to Chouinard Art Institute in L.A. ... Then 60 years later, these guys are all still alive and making art - and thank goodness Mark decided to do something about it. It's wonderful, and including me, I was really not expecting that. But I'm glad he did," Paul Ruscha said. "The old show was really great, too, the first show they did at the fairgrounds, except there were a lot more paintings. They were into painting at that point."
"OK/LA" was originally slated to open last June with a panel discussion involving all six artists on the OU campus. But the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the original exhibition schedule, created logistical problems for key West Coast lenders and canceled plans for in-person programming. But the museum overcame the setbacks.
“The chance to exhibit the individual and collective work of some of Oklahoma’s most talented and influential artists on the national and world stage in the last 50 years does not come along every day," said Byron Price, the museum’s Wylodean and Bill Saxon interim director, in a statement.
Five years younger than his brother, Paul Ruscha recalled that he often tagged along with the group when they were growing up.
"It was 'beat it kid.' They cottoned to me once I was grown up, but yeah, it took a while," he recalled with a laugh. "Ed and Joe Goode and Mason Williams were all very close as young kids in grade school. Joe was an altar boy in the Catholic church where we attended - he and his brother Dick - and I was always kind of fascinated by that because we weren't allowed to be altar boys because our father had been married before. ... That kind of Catholic effect on Joe and Ed is really quite apparent in many of the works they did."
Even their teenage shenanigans at Northwest Classen High School often involved artistic methods.
"Many of the ways in which their friendship manifested was through their training as artists," said White, now the executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Art. "There's a great story that Jerry told about he and Joe making little sculptures in class and then lighting them on fire or taking balls of clay and throwing them out at an armored truck that had pulled up into the parking lot.
The driver would get out and look angrily at the windows to figure out who was doing it. So, there was always this sort of humor - this kind of acting out through art - and in their career going on, I think that just continued,"
The museum will present at 3 p.m. Friday a virtual discussion with Williams about the exhibit. While "OK/LA" showcases his visual art, Williams is arguably best known as the Grammy-winning composer and musician behind the instrumental "Classical Gas" and for his long career as a television writer. As head writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," Williams actually gave a young Steve Martin his start in show business.
"So, I think the humor has to be part of this show," White said. "There's a lot of dry wit in the show, which I would think of as being something very Oklahoman."
When: Through March 7.
Where: Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave., Norman.
Virtual discussion with Mason Williams: 3 p.m. Friday; register at www.ou.edu/fjjma/Events.
Features Writer Brandy "BAM" McDonnell covers Oklahoma's arts, entertainment and cultural sectors for The Oklahoman and Oklahoman.com. Reach her at email@example.com, www.facebook.com/brandybammcdonnell and twitter.com/BAMOK. Please support work by her and her colleagues by subscribing at oklahoman.com/subscribe.