California Patio, William Leavitt, 1972/2011
It is evening in the backyard and garden of a contemporary hillside home in Southern California. There is a swimming pool, a flagstone patio, a redwood fence, some lawn and the usual tropical landscaping of succulents, ferns, leafy plants, and flowering shrubs. The beauty of the scene is most evident at this time of day when the combination of lighted pool, soft garden lights, black sky and the lights of surrounding homes comes into play.
On this particular evening a small cocktail party is being held on the patio adjoining the house. The guests are all close friends of the host and hostess. Their presence adds the elements of motion and sound to the setting; the men stand near the edge of the patio engaged in relaxed conversation, while the women sit in a loose circle of garden chairs arranged on the lawn. Now the hostess comes out through the sliding glass door to announce that a light buffet supper is ready inside.
These words appear, typed on a single sheet of paper, on the wall adjacent to William Leavitt’s installation California Patio (1972). They economically set the scene for what is itself an economical piece of scenery: a freestanding section of wooden wall framing a sliding glass door, bracketed by curtains. Through the open door we see paving slabs and a few shrubs, partly illuminated by two outdoor lights. What we don’t see is the guests at the cocktail party, nor do we hear their chatter. The structure is not a place but a picture, as brittle and as unconvincing as life itself can sometimes be.
At the current retrospective of Leavitt’s work, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, you can walk behind the row of plants (they turn out, on closer inspection, to be artificial) and look back through the doors like a nocturnal trespasser in a suburban garden. As it happens, this is more or less the position that Leavitt himself has taken – metaphorically, of course – in what is almost half a century of installations, paintings, drawings, photographs, plays and sound works. He moved to California from Colorado in 1965, and found the city of Los Angeles ‘quite a peculiar place’.