Lari Pittman

Lari Pittman

Lari Pittman’s unique approach to painting is revealed in his prismatic canvases where figures, objects, patterns, and text form nuanced and multifaceted pictorial surfaces that reference diverse subjects and styles. Taking inspiration from the realms of folk art, design, and the applied arts, Pittman refutes the traditionally established hierarchies between high art and decoration—balancing a sense of kitsch with his incisive political observations. Accompanying the mainstay of paintings in his oeuvre are works on paper, often collected into elaborate artist’s books.

Pittman emerged as an artist while attending the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the mid-1970s. His early decision to be a painter set him apart from the conceptual direction then predominant in Southern California, and he would soon become part of an emergent Los Angeles art scene that included his friends and peers Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. Kelley notably owned Plymouth Rock (1985), a painting that exemplifies Pittman’s preoccupation with history through visceral figures and motifs. In 1985, after being critically wounded during an attempted burglary in his Los Angeles home, the artist’s paintings took on the confrontational political character that he would pursue throughout the ‘90s and which garnered him international recognition. It was also around this time that the artist started to work in series, with distinct themes being developed across a number of canvases. A crucial method to articulate both polemical content—as in the 1989 Beloved and Despised series, which address queer identity and questions of gender—and to further motifs or formal tropes, it continues to be of prime importance in mature bodies of work such as the Diorama series (2021).

Over the past two decades, Pittman has shifted focus towards a more philosophical stance, often depicting his own memories, thought processes, and domestic objects in paintings that cross the traditions of vanitas, history paintings, and magical realism. These paintings function as rich dreamscapes, juxtaposing motifs from art history with the cosmology of signifiers and objects that fill his earlier oeuvre. His painted surfaces have become smoother, accentuating the synthetic quality of the works and showcasing the artist’s mastery of the medium. Considering his own artistic lineage, Pittman has expressed relating to a historical trajectory of female painters, from Florine Stettheimer, through Surrealists such as Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, to contemporary artists like Amy Sillman, Jutta Koether, and Charlene von Heyl.

Pittman was born in Los Angeles and spent part of his childhood in Colombia, where his mother was born. He received his BFA and MFA from CalArts in 1974 and 1976 respectively, where he found his intellectual grounding in the radical milieu of the Feminist Art Program. Since this time, Pittman has continually engaged social and political themes in his work. Using imagery that invokes, for example, the colonial past of the United States or the culture wars and AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Pittman explicitly and implicitly questions notions of national, sexual, and gender-based identities. Curator Connie Butler has expertly summed up Pittman’s ability to use the seemingly banal for incisive commentary: “Just as George Grosz’s gritty caricatures personified Weimar Germany’s cruel underbelly and Canaletto depicted the confection and decadence of eighteenth-century Venice, so Pittman’s fever dreams give ecstatic form to the unfolding freefall of the American empire. Lari Pittman makes history paintings for the now.” He has been teaching since the early ‘90s and recently retired from his position as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Pittman’s work is represented in over 40 museum collections worldwide including the Amorepacific Museum of Art, Seoul; Art Institute of Chicago; Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo; the Broad, Los Angeles; Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Kistefos Museum, Jevnaker, Norway; Long Museum, Shanghai; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museo Jumex, Mexico City; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

In his over four-decade career, key exhibitions of Pittman’s work have been organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1996); Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1998); Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Missouri (2013); Le Consortium, Dijon, France (2013); and Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California (2016). His paintings have also been featured in the Whitney Biennial (1987, 1993, 1995, 1997); Documenta (1997), and the Venice Biennale (2003). In 2019, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles presented a retrospective of his work, which will travel to Kistefos Museum, Jevnaker, Norway. He has received numerous awards and honors, including those from the International Association of Art Critics, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Flintridge Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the J. Paul Getty Trust Fund for the Visual Arts.

In 2021, Lévy Gorvy presents Lari Pittman: Dioramas in their Paris gallery, showcasing a suite of paintings that take the museological device of the diorama as a starting point. Five expansive works draw on the tradition of history painting, comprising items of jewelry inscribed with significant years in the linked histories of France and the United States. Nine smaller canvases depict embellished gourds alongside totemic animal presences as memento mori filtered through Pittman’s personal cosmology. A conversation between the artist and Connie Butler was recorded for the occasion, providing an in-depth discussion of the works being exhibited. The exhibition catalogue for Lari Pittman: Dioramas features an introduction by Allegra Presenti and an interview with Pittman conducted by Mark Godfrey.

Lari Pittman lives and works in Los Angeles.

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