Bum(bad) Shelter 1979-1983

Gimme Shelter - an essay by Peter Plagens

The night previous, a creamy-skinned young man on the television set, standing before a beautiful map of Southern California decorated with magnetic numerals and symbols, said through his smiling, capped teeth and sprayed hair that the Air Pollution Control District predicted heavy smog due to the presence of the temperature inversion layer and temperatures soaring into the nineties, maybe hitting one hundred. The smog, he said, would begin building at about eight o'clock in the morning and reach a peak around five-thirty, during the rush-hour traffic home. Persons with respiratory illnesses were advised to see their doctors, or at least refrain from out­door exercise. Children were to be kept indoors, out of the fumes.

-The author, Merciful Brief (unpublished novel), 1972


Los Angeles in the early 1970s was not a happy place. Although the ’60s hadn’t been exactly paradise, either (the Watts riots in 1965, the sheriff cracking heads on the Sunset Strip during the “curfew riots” a year later, and the epigrammatic Manson murders during the last year of the decade), the dreamy, flower-child idealism accompanying all the tsuris had evaporated. Gone were sightings of happy, barefoot hippies on the sidewalks of Beverly Hills; present were dirtier transients crashing on old couches left out on the side streets off Hollywood Boulevard. Everything, from the water at the beach to the air in the sky above, seemed to have turned from bright blue to sinister beige. To top it off, the deepest recession since the great Depression of the 1930s had hit southern California particularly hard, and the aerospace industry perhaps the hardest of all. A lot of engineers found themselves out of work.

Jon Peterson—a presentable, moderately straitlaced young man in his mid-twenties (he was born in 1945 in Stillwater, Minnesota)—was one of them. But his unemployment was a matter of choice. Peterson, who as a kid loved to make model airplanes the old-fashioned way (with a balsa-wood airframe covered with paper that was shrunk to fit tightly over it via the application of clear butyrate dope), graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1968 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He worked first for half a year at General Dynamics in Texas and then, until 1972, for Lockheed and North American Rockwell in greater L.A. But as the artist he temperamentally was and would shortly professionally become, he couldn’t stand it. So he bolted for art school.

Otis Art Institute in those days had “of Los Angeles County” attached to its name and, as a public institution, was inexpensive to attend. Moreover, it was located hard by MacArthur Park, only a few miles west of downtown, and rents in that part of the city were pretty cheap. Peterson, who’d been taking night classes at Art Center College of Design to relieve the agony of working for the military-industrial complex, enrolled as a junior, but was put on a direct path toward a Master of Fine Arts degree. (He’d receive it in 1976.) The culture-shock was abruptly wonderful. “One day I’m sitting in a room full of bitter middle-aged engineers,” he says, “and the next day I’m drawing a beautiful model in Charles White’s life-drawing class.”*

The school had a bifurcated, but not warring-tribes, character. One the one hand, faculty such as White and Joseph Mugnani taught a kind of smoothly modernized academicism (one could obtain an MFA in drawing there), and on the other, permitted within its confines—largely from visiting teachers—a loose variety of conceptual art: sculpture-oriented (James Lee Byars), performance (John White), feminist (Wanda Westcoast), and architectural (Michael Asher). Peterson was especially taken with what he recalls as the “severe conceptualism” of Asher. Nevertheless Peterson’s first professional foray into L.A.’s art world, a solo exhibition at Joni Gordon’s recently opened Newspace Gallery, was as a painter, or at least as an artist whose work—muted field abstractions on large sheets of vellum—was as about as two-dimensional as you could get.



In a physical and political milieu like [southern California] you wouldn’t expect L.A. to have much culture and it doesn’t. Myriad struggling and/or underground dance recitals, performances, little theater, and concerts take place, but strictly hit-and-run; large emporiums like the Music Center downtown are hotbeds of light opera, Broadway musicals, and vanilla comedies. The art world of the La Cienega/Venice/Irvine axis compares reasonably with uptown/SoHo [New York] except in numbers, but it’s even more piddling in real-world political punch. (That the late ‘60s-to-now artists have gradually eschewed object art as too “irrelevant” and bourgeois in favor of something which has thus far only managed to politically reform a few curators is the subject for another essay.)

-The author, “Los Angeles: The Ecology of Evil,” Artforum, December, 1972


The following caricature precís of the above summary paragraph is actually a truth: The artists' milieu in Venice (California) still had one foot in the sunny Sixties, and it was the front foot presented to the culturally distant worlds of the general public and—more important to such young artists as Peterson—the straw-that-stirs-the-drink New York art world. That forward foot wore a “fantastic object” slipper and a “light and space” silk stocking. Successful artists who worked beachside were known as fabricators of shiny, precisely finished art objects (snidely referred to as “baubles for the rich” back East), or as direct manipulators of atmospheric illumination, with the participating physical materials either hidden away behind gallery walls or reduced to a practically weightless minimum. This esthetic went hand-in-glove with the artists’ shoreline work environment itself—lots of sun, hardly any smog (the ocean breezes shoved it eastward), and an architectural cleanliness. Perhaps needless to say, studio space in Venice had gotten too expensive for many young artists just out of school in the 1970s, and they had to look elsewhere to find affordable space in which to work.

Downtown, they could get capacious studios in which they could also live, for pennies-on-the-dollar rents compared to what they’d have to pay anyplace with the scent of salt water in the air. In some cases, that meant as low as six-and-a-quarter cents a square foot—ridiculously cheap even forty years ago. The trouble was that most of the spaces were dilapidated, dirty, barely equipped with sinks or toilets (and sometimes totally without either), and dangerous—both in the sense of being structurally unsound (unreinforced brick in a seismic zone such as Los Angeles isn’t the best idea) and being located in what’s euphemistically called a high-crime area. Parking—Los Angeles had only token public transportation, and artists had to haul stuff in their cars—was unsafe, the air was poisonous (one artist remembers that the skyscrapers near the Civic Center were often invisible from the Santa Monica Freeway, a mere fifteen blocks to the south), and the studio-residences were often illegal, at the mercy of sudden appearances by municipal building inspectors.

In 1976, Peterson rented a downtown loft on the knife-edge between Skid Row (really risky territory) and Little Tokyo (cleanly entrepreneurial and waxing middle-class.) Concurrently with his big vellum paintings, he’d been making skeletal, airframe-like wood-and-wax sculptures. In his new studio, he started upping the scale of the sculptures to human-size. With that, Peterson says, “they lent themselves to the idea of a relationship to, or enclosure of, the human body.” At this point, Peterson—who found himself amidst a scruffily energetic artists’ milieu that would become known, and documented in Steven Seemayer’s film, as “The Young Turks”—was attracted to the work of Maura Sheehan. At that time, she was doing guerilla installations—e.g., painting pipes and valves on industrial street corners bright emerald green. Peterson says, “I liked the idea of ‘accidental discovery’ of an artwork...her work was so integrated and yet so in contrast to its context [that]...most, if not all, observers didn’t know it was art, but still noticed it.” He decided to do some outdoor work, too.

But a social side also emerged in Peterson’s artistic thinking. “We were always interacting with the homeless population, which was literally outside our door,” he recalls. (The poor parts of downtown Los Angeles had more than their share because the warm weather drew transients from all over the country; whatever else could happen on L.A.’s mean streets, you weren’t going to freeze to death.) The umbrella and antiseptic term “homeless population,” however, doesn’t quite describe the street persons who lurked—mostly harmlessly, but often not—on the sidewalks and in the vacant lots punctuating the downtown artists’ quarter. They were, in the conversational lexicon of the artists who lived among them, “bums.” The bluntly monosyllabic term has several related meanings and associations. It probably derives from the colloquial German term bummler—a loafer—and entered into American slang via the tens of thousands of German immigrants who fought for the Union in our Civil War. Its negativity carried over into the verb, “to bum,” meaning to beg, and the noun “bummer,” as in a bad experience.

In a 1979 notebook, Peterson entered this diagram





...and commented, “Since the artwork consists of the combination of the object and its use, it is not complete without both elements. The ‘use,’ however, can change, depending on the context. In the gallery the use is as a precious commodity. In the street, its use is as a shelter.” With that thought and impetus, the confluence—of Los Angeles’s 1970s dystopian character, the advent of an anti-Venice-beachy-slick art scene in downtown Los Angeles, Peterson’s sculptural development from the model airplanes of his childhood to the life-size ribbed pieces of the mid-1970s, and of the injection of an indirect social consciousness about transients into Peterson’s erstwhile formalist work—was complete. From 1979 through 1982, Peterson made a series of sculptures—sculptural installations, actually—that came to be known collectively as the “Bum Shelters.”

“My idea,” says Peterson,” was to make sculpture that could possibly be used as a shelter.” (Emphasis added) And thereby lies the tension of simplicity that made the works convincing and memorable as art. The work constituted a kind of hand-made (fiberglass over wooden ribbing), subtly irregular riff on Minimalism, painted (at first) bright, shiny primary colors. The first “Bum Shelter,” Los Angeles Shelter #1, 1979, a flattened cylinder, yellow on the outside and white on the inside, was set into the ground of a shabby vacant lot an angle of about 30 degrees. It could obviously be crawled into for shelter from the rain or cruel sun, but it would be quite uncomfortable for sleeping. “Which was after all,” the somewhat ruefully, residually art-for-art’s-sake Peterson notes, “the only kind of shelter the homeless need(ed).” Practicality—actually, survival—obviously trumped aesthetics in the demimonde of the downtown homeless. Almost immediately someone yanked the sculpture out of its hole, laid it flat on the ground, and slept in it.

Peterson’s second effort, Los Angeles Shelter #2, 1979 was sculpturally leaner and more graceful, a long triangular “roof” plane with two outwardly slanted legs at the base; it was made for a specific location where two chain-link fences met at an acute angle. A man (the eventual occupants were almost always male) could crawl between the legs, rest his head under the point and be protected (after a fashion) by the fencing on either side. These first two shelters quickly gained Peterson a word-of-mouth reputation, and his fellow artists started referring to them as “Bum Shelters.” Initially, Peterson resisted the label because of the connotations of both their jerry-built-ness as functional objects, and condescension toward the users. But if there’s anything harder to fight than city hall, it’s the terminology of one’s peers. The name stuck.

The third, Los Angeles Shelter #3, was a low, red, igloo. Los Angeles Shelter #4, —sculpturally the best of the lot—took the form of a long, longitudinal half of a slightly squared barrel vault, again painted red, that was simply leaned against the side of an unused loading dock. Public success followed on the heels of Petersons’ cohort’s increasing approval of the “Bum Shelters.” Peterson was invited to build shelters in Houston, Washington, D.C., Madison, Wisconsin, Santa Barbara and New York. (The artist lived in an abandoned state mental hospital on Ward’s Island while he made his New York Shelters.) Peterson and his “Bum Shelters” were written about quite favorably in the art magazines, The Village Voice, and several major dailies. In 1980, on the basis of his “Bum Shelters,” Peterson received a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.

But by 1983, Peterson says, “I was moving beyond the shelters in my thinking.” More to the point, the shelters were beginning to move away from him as an artist; they were beginning to be considered—astonishingly—as perhaps part of a real solution to the homeless problem. Peterson even got a phone call—which he never returned—from a Congressman wanting to know if the artist would be interested in scaling up his shelter project in the legislator’s home state: North Dakota. The unintentional surreality of the politician’s query caused some introspective chagrin for Peterson. He recounts the end of the “Bum Shelters” this way:


"In one of Henry Miller’s Tropic of... books, Miller is working in a big Manhattan office building. He's his usual craven character, seducing as many shop girls as possible. On the way up to Miller’s job, the elevator stops and a man gets in. He gives Miller a look that says ‘I've got your number.’

A similar thing happened to me. I had just gotten the NEA grant, had a show scheduled at one of the best galleries in D.C., and was featured at the International Sculpture Conference in D.C. Riding high! I was staying as a guest at a Washington socialite's home. Walter Hopps—one of the founders of L.A.’s great Ferus Gallery and now the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art—came to dinner one night.

I had never met Hopps, and was pretty intimidated by his presence at the table. Somehow, the conversation turned to my great work—the “Bum Shelters”—as a humanitarian. I modestly basked in the praise. Hopps was, however, silent. At one point I looked over at him, and he gave me the same look that Miller had gotten in the New York elevator. He had my number."


To understand the brief, bright arc of Jon Peterson’s “Bum Shelter” sculptures is to understand the always disjunctive relation of modern art to society at large. Unlike, say, a Renaissance artist commissioned to paint flattering frescoes for a Duke, or the Church, and thereby fulfill an obligation to render a social service—or at least what those patrons would see as one—Peterson made his “Bum Shelters” on spec, and almost surreptitiously put them to social use, pro bono. But unlike the typical modern artist—including his fellow putatively rebellious “Young Turks”—Peterson demurred from indulgent self-expression whose social purpose, if any, would be confined to intra-art-world plaudits and/or administering yet another mild shock to a fatigued bourgeoisie. For a few years, at the dawn of the Age of Reagan, Peterson found a precarious balance between his esthetic sensibilities as an artist and an awakened awareness of the underclass. That Peterson ultimately returned fully to art, and eventually to painting, should not be held against him. Almost a half-decade of an artist’s serving his conscience while being equally true to his muse is a rare and laudable accomplishment.


— Peter Plagens, New York, February, 2013

Los Angeles Shelter # 1, 1979

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Los Angeles Shelter # 1, 1979

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Los Angeles Shelter # 2, 1979

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Los Angeles Shelter # 2, 1979

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Los Angeles Shelter # 4, 1979

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Los Angeles Shelter # 5, 1980

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Los Angeles Shelter # 7,1981

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Santa Barbara Shelter, 1980

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Washington D.C Shelter # 1, 1980

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

Houston Shelter, 1983

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

New York City Shelter # 1, 1980

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"

New York City Shelter # 2, 1980

Wood, Fiberglass, Pigment"