II. Painters and Housewives
The artist David Hockney first came to Los Angeles in 1963. He loved to go downtown, where the streets were seedy and the gay bars flourished; though his art for the most part focused on the lives of the very rich. The people in his paintings tended to live in the same houses that the Modernists had created as symbols of democracy.
It was in the early 1960s that Hockney began to paint one subject for which he’d eventually become renowned: the swimming pool. The challenge fascinated him: “It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything—it can be any color, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.” The painter also depicted another transparent surface that has come, partly due to his influence, to define the houses of Los Angeles: glass. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne concludes, “Glass walls have become, for Los Angeles, a modern version of the classical column: an architectural building block that’s both timeless and intrinsically wedded to the culture of the city.”
A working class Brit, Hockney was initially flabbergasted by the wealth of the people whose homes he turned into icons of his new city. In one portrait called “Beverly Hills Housewife,” a white woman with blonde hair stands near the center of the painting, wearing what looks to be a nightgown. She gazes toward the left, her back facing a glass window that stretches across the entire wall of her house. The flat rectangles of open space that can be seen behind her are typical features on these steel framed, prefab houses. A zebra-print lounge chair and modern sculpture decorate the otherwise spare interior, and a short palm tree stands with the lady outside. The 12-foot, two-paneled canvas was painted in a tiny studio in Santa Monica, where the artist had little room to step back from the picture while he painted it. The seam running vertically through the middle of the image, where the two canvases come together, resembles the seam of two windows meeting.
What, one wonders, has caught the attention of the pink-clad housewife? Or are we to take her pose as contemplative—even bored? The painting was completed in 1966, one year after the Watts riots. Perhaps she could hear something in the distance, the sound of shouting and fire truck sirens blaring across town.
When Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin and Andrew Young walked through Watts after the six days of rioting in 1965, they were met by the proud shouts of young men: “We won! We won!” According to a 1971 study published in the American Journal of Sociology, when the incredulous civil rights leaders asked why, the young men responded, “We made them pay attention to us!” The study, titled “Black Invisibility, the Press, and the LA Riots,” notes that there had been a stark lack of information about the city’s black community. Much of what was printed about African-Americans was related either to entertainment or crime. It is not surprising, then, that the Watts riots resonated differently for whites than it did for blacks.
Though housing covenants were made illegal by the Supreme Court after the Shelley vs. Kraemer case of 1948, landlords systematically restricted housing based on race in the 1940s and 50s. The Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963 was instituted in order to abolish these practices, but a popular proposition sponsored by the California Real Estate Association was passed in 1964 in an attempt to give property owners the freedom to follow their own discriminatory biases. This proposition, number 14, was officially considered unconstitutional in 1966, one year after the Watts Riots. Though the riots had other causes (anger over poorly kept schools and facilities, and the daily threat of being pulled over, frisked, questioned, arrested, abused, and in rare cases killed by police) this legal tug-of-war could not have helped.
Instead of receding back into its assigned territory in silence, the black community of South Los Angeles erupted in frustration. The study notes that more than half of the blacks surveyed after the Watts riots claimed that they hoped the incident would alert a sense of awareness, even sympathy toward these unfair conditions. However, the majority of whites surveyed—over 70 percent—interpreted the violence as a warning, a threat to their own safety. The riots simply “increased the gap between races and hurt the Negro cause.” The study concludes: “Preoccupied with their own interests, even the most liberal of whites have been easily distracted from the faint signals emanating from the ghetto.”
On a 2005 episode of the radio show This American Life, an advertising firm debates whether or not a soda commercial should include images of young African-Americans in a swimming pool. They wonder, Do black people swim? A test group of African-Americans respond in unanimous protest: black people do not swim. According even to their own imaginations, the image of the swimming pool does not reflect back a black population.
Hockney notes, “The look of swimming pool water is controllable—and its dancing rhythms reflect not only the sky but because of its transparency, the depth of the water as well.”