Bob and Bob: Two Wild and Crazy Guys
For the last several months, I’ve been doing a bit of volunteer work for the research phase of Los Angeles Goes Live, LACE’s big Getty-funded project exploring the origins of Southern California performance art between the seminal years of 1970–83. In the process of conducting oral history interviews for the project, I was introduced to the work of several important artists from that period, including Dark Bob and Light Bob. Bob and Bob (not their real names, although they prefer to operate solely as such, even today) had an intense period of collaboration in the 1970s and 80s that produced numerous significant works, including drawings, paintings, videos, and performance pieces. In spite of the quality of their oeuvre, however, they remain largely unknown to the current generation of artists and art aficionados—one of those inequities of art history that is begging to be corrected.
As a duo, they adopted the persona of a couple of “idiots, innocents… just in from the Midwest,” all the better to freely stumble and bumble through the sprawling wilderness of this big city, pushing up against social boundaries and evincing a touching sense of earnest humanity along the way. They maintained their studio in Beverly Hills, of all places, and from that home base, they engaged in an ongoing series of spontaneous street actions that included sleeping or sunbathing in front of the Gucci store; barging into all doors marked “Private” or “Do Not Enter”; and dining in expensive restaurants only to discover that they had no money to pay the tab. One of these comedic actions, Rodeo Beach (1976), was the only work of Bob and Bob to be mentioned in the catalog for the Pompidou’s landmark 2006 survey, Los Angeles: Birth of an Art Capital 1955–1985 (it was not included in the actual exhibition).
They were almost always impeccably dressed in distinctive suits, a fact that immediately calls to mind the practice of Gilbert and George, another male performance duo from the previous decade. Whereas Gilbert and George had a dandy-ish quality to their “living sculpture” works, however, Bob and Bob were hopelessly embedded in the unpredictable ordinariness of their urban habitat, and sharply informed by a sense of adventure and discovery. The dapper G&G seemed to know exactly what they were doing; in contrast, the freewheeling B&B seemed to spiral onward like jesters, not quite knowing what might greet them around the next corner.
Sex is Stupid (1979) found the two Bobs strapped to the wall of the now defunct Los Angeles Institute for Contemporary Art (LAICA), suspended inside of a frame wearing their trademark suits and masks of their own faces. The two hung there for five hours, intermittently indulging in absurdist monologues while dance music played and free drinks flowed. Twenty-five of their artworks—also bearing images of their faces as leitmotifs, and with each one featuring a particular style of painting—lined the gallery around them, and were sold off at the bargain price of $25 each.
For the Bobs, it was an experiment in being successful visual artists: coming up with a signature motif and engineering an event so that lots of people would buy their paintings. And it worked—hundreds of people thronged the gallery, a great time was had by all, and every piece was sold. You could look at this performance as a critique of the art system, but it was also funny, inviting, and a damn good time. The audience was composed of thrillseekers from every corner of LA’s alternative universe—not just artists but also actors and musicians, including many punks who spat, threw cherry bombs, and lit firecrackers under the feet of the helpless Bobs. This kind of open, convivial, cross-pollinating spirit seems so sadly rare today, when most art events preach to a pre-determined circle of friends and colleagues.
The Bobs’ capacity to attract huge crowds, and their desire to involve their audience in their work, reached an apex with the massive 1979–80 New Year’s Eve blowout party, Forget Everything You Know, which also took place at LAICA. The gallery was filled knee-deep with popped popcorn, plentiful drinks were available, a dark room equipped with layers of foam rubber was designated as “Sex Alley,” and a 100-foot blank canvas lined the walls, awaiting the actions of the audience.
Dressed in suits and painted from head to toe in gold (Dark Bob) and silver paint (Light Bob), the Bobs perched on rafters in the ceiling, presiding over the scene below. Throughout the night, they dropped confetti, noisemakers, and art supplies down on the crowd, while continuously chanting, “Forget everything you know about… art. Forget everything you know about… family. Forget everything you know about… success.” And so on and so on. This raucous and completely out-of-control event attracted about a thousand people and lasted from roughly 9pm to 9am the next morning. People from that era still talk about that night, and some claim that it literally changed their lives.
The current vogue in performance art is all about audience participation, but how many of these performances can claim to be life-changing? Even the recent Mike Kelley/Michael Smith fundraiser for West of Rome, billed as “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery,” sounded like nothing so much as an excuse for well-heeled people to get spanked by a woman in a nurse costume, and experience Burning Man with air conditioning and indoor plumbing. Ah well. Perhaps in some respects, our innocence and capacity for going to the edge really is gone.
There is a lot more to Bob and Bob than the quick highlights I’ve scribbled here. You can check out some of their action at Dark Bob’s YouTube channel and personal website. His Facebook page is also a treasure trove of not just photos from the era, but comments from people who lived it!