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LOS ANGELES — It has never been easy to see a Judith Baca mural. They are scattered around this city, splashes of color and depictions of triumph and trauma hidden alongside highways, alleyways and river banks. And they were even harder to paint. Baca had to overcome fumes from traffic whizzing by on the 110 Freeway (she brought a tank of oxygen for when her legs began feeling heavy), flash floods in the Tujunga Wash, and 112-degree afternoons in the San Fernando Valley.
That is finally changing. After 50 years of painting, teaching and social activism, Baca’s career is now being recognized in more conventional settings — museums, with walls, roofs, skylights, electricity, running water and air-conditioning. There are exhibitions celebrating this Chicana artist at the J. Paul Getty Museum and another set to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles, which will use its warehouse space to display her traveling international exhibition, “The World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear.” A Baca retrospective just closed at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, rising on a construction site near the University of Southern California, bought the 350-item archive of drawings and preparatory sketches for one of her most ambitious works, “The Great Wall of Los Angeles,” which runs along the Tujunga Wash, a channel feeding the Los Angeles River in the San Fernando Valley. That half-mile long mural, which tells the history of California from prehistoric days through the 1950s, is about to double in size, enhanced with lighting and a 90-foot viewing bridge. It is being financed by a $5 million grant from the Monuments Project of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“It’s amazing,” said Julian Brooks, the senior curator for drawings at the Getty, who is organizing her show there. “She does seem to be the woman of the moment. Judy Baca is everywhere.”
For Baca, it is a long awaited recognition not only for her, but for an art form that has helped define culture in Los Angeles. Murals and the artists who created them were historically ignored by the once overwhelmingly white and male-dominated world of establishment curators and art directors; the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority whitewashed one of her murals in 2019 because it had been tagged by graffiti. At the age of 75, she is pleasantly surprised by the flurry of recognition.
“Honestly — it’s because of the social justice movement in America,” Baca said the other day over coffee and cookies, sitting in the converted 1920s jailhouse in Venice that houses her organization, the Social and Public Art Resource Center. “They are going, ‘Oh my God: We don’t have a Latina. Oh my God: We don’t have very many women. Oh my God — and then you know there’s like, ‘Get her — we click off these five things.’”
“I mean that’s not to say that my work isn’t good,” she said with a laugh. “I mean no — my work has been good for a long time. And it’s been better and better.”
But if the world has changed, at least somewhat, so has Baca. She is today internationally recognized for her rich and vividly colorful depictions of history and social struggle. Museums are coming to her, competing to display her murals. She has nothing left to prove.
“I suspect that Judy is ready to see her work received and housed, and to have something of a reconciliation with the kind of institutions that can accomplish that,” said Anna Katz, a curator at MOCA. “But it’s just as much the institutions. The fact is that institutions like MOCA are asking themselves about their own histories of exclusion and looking to artists for whom that exclusion was at the core of their practice.”
From her earliest murals, such as the “Mi Abuelita,” painted in 1970 in the Hollenbeck Park Band Shell in Boyle Heights, Baca built a career as the outsider, creating a parallel world from the art establishment. She recognized, she said the other day, that the work of a young Chicana artist who was born at the St. Anne’s home for unwed mothers in Los Angeles, and raised first in an all-female multigenerational house in Watts and later in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, was unlikely to be displayed at the city’s pre-eminent museums, much less purchased by galleries or wealthy art collectors searching for a trophy to hang over a couch.
Instead, she commanded public spaces — river banks, park band shells, highway bridges — as her canvas. She championed a kind of painting that was scorned by collectors and historians and shunned by the nation’s most influential arts schools. “I went to Princeton, I have a Ph.D. I was never taught about this kind of work,” said Katz, who is organizing the showing of the World Wall. “In fact, I was taught to ignore it.”
In the process, Baca has helped to redefine the traditional definition of the artist. Her murals are community efforts; part of the creation process is recruiting people to help her research, conceptualize and ultimately execute the huge expanses that are her murals — gang members for the Great Wall of Los Angeles, Finnish artists for one of the panels of the World Wall exhibit.
“Judy invented a model of public art,” said Alessandra Moctezuma, a former Baca assistant who curated the exhibit in Long Beach and is a professor of fine arts at San Diego Mesa College. “Rather than plop down a monument or a sculpture, without accounting for the people around it, Judy really started a model where you have that community engagement early on in the neighborhood. So people in the neighborhood had a sense of connection with the work.”
Her work is a procession of images that dwarf the viewer, searing moments captured in wildly vibrant colors: immigrants trudging through deserts, Chicanos being beaten by leather-booted Los Angeles police officers, Japanese internment camps, the early secret conclaves of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, the first modern-day gay and lesbian rights organizations, both founded in California. “All my pieces are about resilience in the face of adversity,” she said.
“Murals are not easel paintings,” Baca said. “They’re not individual works created for simple self-expression of your opinion in a public space. To do public works means that you’re making something. A real mural is connected to the architecture in which it’s placed, connected to the people for whom it’s painted and connected to who you paint with. And when it is incredibly well done, it’s like a choreographed dance.”
As part of the exhibition at the Getty, she has been commissioned to create a mural — 14 feet tall and 15 feet wide — of a salsa dancer joining the daily procession of domestic workers catching a bus on Wilshire Boulevard heading to the wealthy West side. (No painting here; this will be created digitally and printed on glass.)
Murals are part of the daily landscape of Los Angeles, hidden behind buildings and factories, particularly in the older blocks of downtown Los Angeles. “It is the city of murals,” Brooks said. California, and particularly Southern California, lends itself to this kind of art form. “Year-round painting. Super amounts of concrete: concrete rivers, concrete freeways, just a lot of spaces, ” Baca said. “And the proximity to Mexico,” where she went to study mural-making as a young woman. She counts as her biggest influences two of the great Mexican muralists — Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
But it is not easy. The murals are targets for graffiti taggers, and one of the ongoing projects of Baca’s organization is developing technologies to scour them clean. (Think medium-pressure water with a dash of citrus.) She was put in charge of the first city-sanctioned mural program in 1974, which fostered the creation of hundreds. But that program has long been abandoned, and today Baca and other muralists fight in frustration to get government authorities to even take steps to protect and maintain what is presented on public space. “It’s disrespectful to the communities who have created the murals,” Baca said. “Why should the muralists themselves have to maintain them? I’m supposed to be responsible for a public art work in a public space?”
As she enters this next chapter of her career, her work will be on display in more familiar places. The exhibition at the Getty Center, which opened May 31, chronicles the making of “Hitting the Wall,” a 100-foot-long mural she painted on an exit ramp coming off the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. It was a commission by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee in 1984, to celebrate the first time women were allowed to run in the marathon.
The mural is still there, but viewing it is nearly as challenging as running a marathon: Best (really only) viewed from a car navigating the curve of the Fourth Street exit. Baca asked the commission to put the mural someplace where people could see it — “this is no man’s land,” she argued — but the commission decided that a wall next to a freeway was appropriate for a city with such a car culture.
She has tried to make the best of that.
“You drive past it a million times and you see something every time,” she said. “You can absorb it. Your peripheral vision — it’s actually meant to be seen in pieces from a car driving.”
That said, the challenge of seeing a Baca is part of its appeal. Viewing the Great Wall means, at some points, scrambling down a dusty hill and squinting through bushes and a fence to see the history of this city and state sprawled out on the other side of a channel. The drainage canal is covered by cement, an unsightly legacy of a flood control project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Partly because it’s public art — it’s in a river, it’s seen from a distance — it’s one of the great masterpieces of world art,” said Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “It has been recognized, but it doesn’t have the same museum visitor-ship that a lot of other great masterpieces have.”
The next half-mile will be painted on the other side of the canal and will go beyond California to depict major events in American history as well. Baca’s office walls are lined with sketches of what will become full-size murals over the next few years: the shooting at Kent State University, Vietnam War protests, Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, and the lunch counter sit-ins in the South.
The mural was one of the first projects to receive funding from the monument project of the Mellon Foundation. Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the foundation, called Baca “a great American artist who has always had a strong sense of place, occasion and history.”
“The Mellon Foundation was drawn to the Great Wall because it is a truly epic project that pulls together the strands of the under-narrated history of the great, complicated, multivocal city that is Los Angeles,” she said.
Baca will oversee the project and again recruit community members, probably including gang members, to paint it. She was there with a brush when the project first began in 1976, and through the five years it took (with some breaks for fund-raising) to complete it. At this point in her career, as she prepares for knee-replacement surgery, she will be more the director: Her days of scampering up scaffolding are probably behind her.
Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the director of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, said Baca’s work, through its archive, will have a regular presence once the Lucas opens.
“Judy Baca is one of our great feminist artists,” she said. “She has not received the kind of attention she should have received over the course of her career. She has been a low and steady and every day practitioner. She is of our time, in time, and in every moment of our time.”