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Art Watch : Craig Kauffman

Craig Kauffman is in focus for our Art Watch for today. This section is brought to you by Art From Us and Divvya Nirula. The Artists we spotlight here can be from any field, across any discipline, and using a variety of media. We share here why we think they are important and worth watching. Be it genius creators of eras gone by. Or the upcoming contemporary artist who is yet to have their first show. All come under the purview of Art Watch.

Artist Craig Kauffman’s contribution to art from the 50’ is invaluable, for not only did he put Los Angeles on the art map in the 1960s, a positional change in perception that all great art was Europe centric; also his art that was made from moulding industrial plastic to create ethereal wall-mounted sculptures, they were arrested kinetic forms with subtexts of sexuality and made to look like giant pieces of jelly candy. The smooth and clean shapes and their complex import were novel to the world of art. 

Kauffman was born in 1932 and was from the West Coast, America. This too was interesting because New York was the scene for eclectic art and culture, so in that sense Kauffman created an aura of explorative and new art in LA, a stamp she still wears.

He was internationally recognized and lauded for his sensuous use of pastel colours, new materials and sinuous forms. Craig Kauffman caught the attention of critics and collectors with his first solo exhibition of paintings at Felix Landau Gallery in 1953.

Why Craig Kauffman?

Kauffman was an eminent member of an eclectic group of artists who celebrated light, space and energy of a post war Southern California. It was time to forge new Minimalism, bringing in a glossy artistic approach. According to the director of the Guggenheim Museum, Richard Armstrong, the Californian artist rereferred to as the Cool School; Along with Chicago Imagists and Washington, D.C., painters who were called the Color School. They were a deliberate counterpoint to the Abstract Expressionists who ruled New York.

“California was never ashamed of being a new society, so it all fit together nicely.” Mr. Armstrong said.

His work was lauded by art critics for the newness of form and the vision that he brought forward.

The ‘clean’ Abstract Expressionist showed that Los Angeles art had arrived and that it would thrive on its own terms, instead of refurbished ideas from Paris, New York, or even San Francisco. A contemporary artist and friend of Kauffman, Billy Al Bengston, speaking about the artist said, “Kauffman was the first Southern California artist to ever paint an original painting. His paintings of ’57 and ’58 proved that we had to wash our hands, throw away our dirty pants and become artists.”

Work & Career

In the early 1960s Craig Kauffman and his wife moved back to LA after a stint in Europe. He realized that he had to reinvent and re innovate his style as his fellow painters had progressed to a clean, clear “L.A. Look.” In many of his drawings, while he ideated, he made small paintings on advertisements for shoes and lingerie. He continued to explore the sensual abstract forms and acknowledged a continued influence of Dada. Eventually the biomorphic forms, were developed through drawings, and then eroticized by placing them on top of advertisements for Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie or high heel shoes. This is what led to the birth of his vacuum made acrylic series that had echoes of overt sexuality, for the layers that it was constructed on.

He painted on the reverse of acrylic plastics and engaged flat shapes with smooth rounded contours, the bold and animated paintings demonstrated Kauffman’s skills as a draftsman.

The use of moulds and the discovery of the process of vacuum forming acrylic plastic would propel Kauffman’s work for the next several years, from 1964 to 1972. Kauffman gained international recognition, through these works, and they are included in the prestigious collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, LACMA, and MOCA.

It is important to note that he was the first contemporary artist to use this vacuum-form technology, Kauffman. The moulds that would shape plastic into flat structures, which he would manipulate and mount onto the wall of a gallery – thus resulting in wall-relief paintings, precursor to decals. This new technology would give him these transparent, translucent and opaque artworks that endlessly are intriguing and thus are featured here.

A Final Word

Never a fan of the thick and messy, Craig Kauffman crafted a new aesthetic altogether and one that is looked up to till date as a front runner for many minimalist artists like Dan Flavin, Ken Price and Robert Irwin.


For more Artists handpicked by Divvya Nirula – explore the ART WATCH archive.

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