LADDIE JOHN DILL
Venice Magazine 2004
Laddie John Dill has been an important fixture of the Los Angeles art scene for over three decades. From his first exhibitions at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York in the early 1970’s, Dill brought increasing recognition to a new style and sensibility coming out of Los Angeles. Dill’s work is inherently sculptural, and has consistently focused on the play of light over and upon elemental surfaces – sand, minerals, metal, glass. Variations of texture often play an equally important compositional role with color and form in a piece. The extensive resume reflects an extremely successful career: over 100 solo shows, in the collections of over 25 important museums, and in public and private collections too numerous to count.
Beyond Laddie John Dill’s significant accomplishments artistically, the artist has also been one of art community’s leading contributors to important charitable and civic causes. It is therefore hard to think of any artist more appropriate to choose for the poster in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of this year’s Venice Artwalk, May 22 & 23. Since the first Venice Artwalk, in 1979, Laddie John Dill has been one of its most active supporters.
As I arrived at the artist’s Venice studio, situated on Electric Avenue between those of his friends Ed Ruscha and Joe Goode, sounds of intense activity and fabrication emanated from the large double doors. Laddie stood out in front, relaxed as ever, taking time from an obviously hectic schedule to admire his friend Jim Ganzer’s latest acquisition- a 1970’s camper-van painted a breathtakingly ugly, yet somehow compelling, prisoner jumpsuit –road worker orarnge. The moment confirms the sense you get about the artist – always hard at it but never too busy for a friend.
VENICE: How long have you had your studio in Venice?
Well, I’ve been in this studio for almost 20 years. But the original studio I had in Venice was on Wavecrest and Speedway, right on the boardwalk.
How did you first get involved with the Venice Artwalk?
I just remember three women banging on my door – the door was actually on Speedway Alley. They introduced themselves and one of them was Sheila Goldberg, I forget who else was with her. They said that Frank Gehry had given them my name and that they were coming up with this concept, that for 35 or 40 dollars you could pay the Venice Family Clinic and visit artists’ studios, which you wouldn’t normally have access to. I think Chuck [Arnoldi] was involved in it and Brian Hunt because he was next door.
What would be your guess of how many artists were in the Artwalk initially?
Oh, I think there were all of fifteen artists, something like that. They had this dinner party afterward in the back of Tortue Gallery, which was this small gallery on Santa Monica Blvd. Thirty-five people showed up, or something like that. It was kind of successful and they just kept honing it. Somewhere along the line, it kind of reversed itself, and the Venice Artwalk became something that everybody wanted to be involved in. That’s I think when it became something that if you lived in Venice you knew that it was at the beginning of spring, the beginning of summer. It was always in late May and the weather was always perfect.
That’s true. When I moved here from San Francisco in 1986, I had heard about the Venice Artwalk, and it became one of the things that I looked forward to every year.
I’ve never been on it. I’m going to try and get out there this year and walk around a little bit. This year and actually, last year I had a little to do with some of the choices. I wanted to show the diversity of living situations and studio situations. I am lucky enough to have a large studio but I wanted to show that there were working artists that were in their living rooms with their canvas on the couch. I knew some artists that were actually living like that, and I wanted to give the real picture of what was going on in Venice, because it’s changed so much. Unfortunately, Venice has gentrified to the point where it’s somewhat impossible for a young artist to just come down here like I came down here in ‘69 with Chuck Arnoldi, David Deutsch, Jim Ganzer and my brother Guy. We came from downtown LA. Some of them were living over in an abandoned Amusement Park. I found a place over the Townhouse Bar on Windward Avenue and worked in there. Tom Wudl was in there and my brother was on the other side. It was just so cheap, you could find some place and just dig in.
What is interesting to me still is the behind the scenes aspect of Venice, where the façades of these non-descript buildings conceal this incredible creativity.
Actually, Venice as an artist’s community, started way before we came down here, because some of the guys here really are pioneers: Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, Kenny Price, Tony Berlant and guys like that, were the first wave down here. When I was at Chouinard [Art School] in downtown LA, I remember coming to Venice with a couple of students and actually being in Bengston’s studio, that kind of thing, meeting Larry Bell.
You say that with a certain sense of reverence. Were artists like Blly Al Bengston and Larry Bell major figures to young artists then?
Well, it was a pretty small game then. You had Ferus Gallery, Nicholas Wilder, Rico Mizuno. So all of those guys, and I have to include Ed Moses, were down here. They were the LA Art scene, from my point of view.
But, we should get back to Venice and the Clinic. The Clinic has always been an integral part of the community. The reason artists ended up in Venice in the first place was because there were large industrial spaces and it was cheap. Also, it was near the ocean. But along with that you had Oakwood, lots of poverty welfare and things that go with that; gangs, drivebys, that sort of thing.Venice was just sort of a free zone. In fact, there were a couple of town meetings with the cops of the Pacific division., They would say, “if you choose to live in this area and you choose this kind of life style…”. Half the people in the meeting were transvestites, (laughs) things like that. There was a real mix demographically, and the clinic really started to fill in a gap, which was very much needed and that was free medical care. I felt really good about getting involved with it. It started to become something that you looked forward to. It became a time when you saw some of artists that you would only see at that time of year. And so it sort of became a kind of really very important thing. It was a real magnet for artists.
What was the reaction or impact in Venice when the Venice Family Clinic opened?
When the clinic first opened there was a line around the block of people who would never go to the doctor. It’s such an integral part of the community now that people take it for granted.
Which is interesting, because the Artwalk itself seems only to grow in recognition.
Because of the Artwalk the clinic is a permanent fixture and owns its own property. The thing has snowballed. I work at other non-profit organizations in other ways, in schools and things like that. When something is working, it has a way of becoming a magnet for everybody. You want to get involved with something that works. And this particularly works very well. Thanks to the hard work of a lot of people.
Including you. I’ve been to quite a number of fund raisers you’ve hosted at the studio and oftentimes, I hear your name at the top of the list when people want a contact in the art world to get momentum around an idea or a cause.
I think that I’m just lucky enough to have a space that is conducive to that and the payback emotionally is great for me, I really enjoy it. When it’s working, it is great.
One [event] that was particularly close to me was a benefit that Chuck Arnoldi and Larry Bell and a few of us came up with, I think Chuck had the original idea of doing an art auction for Pat Hogan. Pat was a quadriplegic artist but trapped inside this body was this crazy, very talented Irishman. So, Hogan, like the rest of us, was fairly broke and he had very special requirements. And we thought of throwing a benefit. It just snowballed and we were able to give Hogan, who was just totally wheelchair-bound and painted with his teeth, a check I think for like $150,000, which he promptly accepted and then announced that he was moving to New York (laughter). That is what really gave me the taste of blood for that kind of thing.
You grew up in Los Angles, correct?
I grew up in Malibu. I grew up in pre-Geffen Malibu.
That would be more like the John Fante Malibu?
Yeah. It was a funky beach town when I grew up there in the fifties. My mom raised us, three kids. We lived in this house way up in the hills. Of course with the fires, we ended up living on Malibu Road. Everything was completely cheap in those days. You could buy a beach house for $50,000.
When did you first know that you wanted to become artist?
I don’t think I ever thought about being anything else. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I went to Chouinard and I changed my major every semester until I think I studied film making or something like that.
How did you get there?
I just happened to be in downtown LA. I had just received the good news from the draft board that I was rejected-this was in ‘63- and I thought, “Well I’m downtown, I think I’ll check out Chouinard”. So I walked in and went “ I – am - home”. It was really this funky place, just art, you know, so that’s how I decided to go there.
Was it difficult to make a living as a student and an artist early on? There weren’t many galleries or collectors in the 60’s and 70’s.
Well, I was really lucky, I have to say. I met Chuck Arnoldi at Chouinard. I had this frame company. It was basically in the back of my car. I made these plexi-glass frames. One time I went in to get the plastic I needed for my frames and I was five dollars short and trying to figure out where the hell I’m going to get this five dollars so I can get these frames out. I was crossing Temple St. [downtown] and the heat is coming in waves off the road and all of a sudden here’s Arnoldi coming down the street in this primered’ 57 Corvette. I just waved him over and said “Do you want to be partners in a frame company?” He said, “Yeah”. I said, “It’s going to cost you”. Chuck said, “How much?” “Five dollars”. And that’s how we became partners on this thing. It actually ended up paying the rent and everything.
How did your career progress from there?
I got a job at Gemini.[Gemini G.E.L. is a legendary fine art print studio on Melrose Ave. Ed. Note] I became a printer over there and worked under Ken Tyler. I met Stanley Grinstein, Sid Felsen, all those guys. That really opened up the world for me.I ended up working for Jasper Johns quite a bit. I opted to do that instead of going to gradschool and itwas thebest thing I ever did. Because I was able to be friends with guys like Jasper, and particularly Bob Rauschenberg, and to work with Claus Oldenburg, Joseph Albers, people like that, who only came to LA to work with Gemini. I was working with light pieces in those days, and I did a collaboration with Bob Rauschenberg. He and Rosamund Felsen, who was much interested in young artists at that point, and still is actually, brought the Sonnabends to my studio and they offered me a show in New York. I actually started in New York.
So your first exhibition was with Sonnabend Gallery?
Yeah. I feel like I really got lucky because of the timing. I did this big sand piece in my studio and I knew the Sonnabends were coming but there was another guy around named Willloughby Sharpe. He had an alternative museum in San Francisco and I was just about to disassemble the piece and do a show in Willloughby Sharpe’s place so I had a choice - I could leave the piece together and let the Sonnabends see it, which was a real long shot, or go up and do the show at Willoughby’s. I opted to let the Sonnabends see it and it really changed my life. So I moved to NY and Chuck came with me, we lived in Jasper Johns’ place for a couple of months and then we moved to Bob Rauschenburg’s place and it was amazing experience. It was the 1970 and 1971. There was still all that energy from the ‘60s,Warhol was around; it was a different world.
From the late fifties, through the sixties and the seventies, there seems to have been a real synergy between some of the LA artists and several of the key artists in NY. Was there any of that with the galleries?
The only gallery actually interested in showing your work or actually had any clientele was Irving Blum [director of Ferus Gallery] with Andy Warhol, and I don’t think they sold any of those. I mean the Soup Can show.
As Irving tells it they only sold one out of the ten Warhol Soup Can paintings for $100 and he ended up buying that back so he would have the entire set. So in LA, it was Irving and it was Nick Wilder. And Rico. I did a show with Rico, when I came back. And I did a show with Pasadena Art Museum, I think because of my experience in NY it just made things probably much easier. Nowadays, I think it is easier for young artists to survive. I love the scene downtown.
It’s great. We did a lot downtown last summer for the Absolut-LA International.
I was in Chinatown the other night. I loved the atmosphere, all the galleries were opened. Some of the galleries down there, the artist didn’t have enough money to frame the work so they just push-pinned it on the wall. I just wish that we could get back to that a little bit here in Venice.
It is exciting. There’s a great energy, especially with the galleries on Chung King Road. In its own way Abbot Kinney, in Venice, has a similarly unique quality.
Abbott Kinney changes in waves. At first, it was kind of like antique furniture, and then it seemed like you’d see the same lamp in every storefront. And now you can sense a wave of couture coming in. Pamela Barish has got a new place. I think she’ll do well. It’s different now, I have an 11-yr. old son, Jackson, and I feel a little bit more comfortable about him walking around with his friends and his mentor Jake, than I would have back in 1969. It’s changed in a good way. What I miss is, or what I am going to miss, actually, I should say it that way because you can see it is inevitable, is that mix of demographics. You’ve got a school teacher next to a guy who might be on trust fund for all I know, next to an environmentalist. It’s just a completely different thing.
Let’s talk about your current work. I know you just had an exhibition in Michigan outside of Detroit with a new gallery there. What else do you have on the horizon?
Well,, a lot of commission work, it varies. I do a lo t of work on the east coast. And recently I‘ve been commissioned to do very large pieces in Texas – Houston, Galveston, and Beaumont. I think it’s connected to the oil industry, frankly. But, obviously, we’re sitting in this room, and there is kind of a diversity of work. The latest thing I’ve been working with is aircraft aluminum, 60/60 aluminum. I’ve always been interested in the manipulation of light and a sense of flying or looking at landscape from a great distance. So working with this metal really allows me to get that dialogue going at least with myself. To me it captured whatever ambient light there is in the area. We’re in a light-controlled room right now but if you put it outside, it could be a completely different piece. So it actually takes in the light that’s around it and then reflects back what you see in terms of light conditions and then as you move across it, it has a kinetic feeling to it.
There is an amazing texture to this metal. You think of un-patinated metal as being very cold and harsh, and this is so sensual it reminds me almost of silk.
Well, they photograph like cloth. In fact, I’m doing a large piece in Pasadena, the surface will be metal, two columns will be 8 ft. wide and 40 ft. high. We’re actually in the middle of it now.
Will it be a public piece?
It’s for a private building but it will be owned by the city of Pasadena. It will be on the side of a building at the corner Lake & Walnut .We have to go through the art tribunal over there and they’re real conscientious.