ESSAY: Spotlight on Llyn Foulkes

Foulkes P_1988.9
Llyn Foulkes
American, born 1934
To Paul, 1973
Acrylic and photo collage on board, 16 x 12
Gift of Kenneth A. Cohen
A mysterious, faceless figure smeared with blood is depicted at bust-length in a suit, presented against a pale blue ground. Only the forehead, ear, chin, neck, partial cheek, bottom lip, and brows are visible—the eyes, nose, and top lip are replaced with a sepia-hued photograph of a pair of legs moving on tiptoe, as if in the middle of a dance step. Meanwhile, there are traces of thinly-applied red paint on the chin, lower lip, and elsewhere on the pockmarked peachy skin of the figure’s face. This painting, To Paul, is part of Llyn Foulkes’ “Bloody Head” series of the 1970s and 1980s, apocryphally inspired by Foulkes’ viewing of a cadaver with a detached scalp.[1]

In other “Bloody Head” works, the blood is depicted more viscerally, often surrounded by mauled, Bacon-esque flesh, or even obscuring the facial features with violent spray.[2] In To Paul, however, the blood is subtle, appearing on the chin, cheeks, and in trace amounts elsewhere on the head as if gently applied with a makeup blotter. The connection of the legs in the photograph to the figure’s brow line is elegant, especially in the way the curve of the eyebrow on the left seems to dip seamlessly into the line of the dancer’s extended leg. This same leg dynamically breaches the white boundary of the photograph, as if it is pushing past the picture plane, mimicking the three-dimensional thrust of the nose it covers (or replaces). Foulkes achieves a similar effect by blending the colors of the figure’s forehead to match the sepia-toned skirt at the top of the photograph, miming a jutting brow line and bridge of the nose.

In another departure from similar “Bloody Head” painting-collages, Foulkes has included a handwritten inscription at the left and top sides of the painting: “This painting is dedicated to Paul This painting is dedicated to Paul painting is [sic].” Foulkes’ For Father W.B., in the collection of the Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art, also features a dedication within the composition, albeit a far less cryptic one.[3] According to Foulkes’ studio assistant Stephanie Loyce Farr, To Paul refers to the Los Angeles-based artist Paul Sarkisian (1928–2019). Foulkes and Sarkisian’s artistic paths crossed several times. They were both included in the 1969 Whitney Annual Survey of Contemporary American Painting, and both participated in the representational painting exhibition Separate Realities, which was organized at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery the year To Paul was made.[4] Both artists were affiliated with Ferus during their careers and participated in the 1976 show The Last Time I Saw Ferus at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, which commemorated the iconic gallery after its closing ten years prior.[5] However, according to Farr, the painting was not ultimately given to Sarksian. Instead, the work passed to the David Stuart Gallery, which represented Foulkes roughly from 1969 to the mid-1970s and held a solo show of his work in 1974. Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure if To Paul was displayed in the 1974 show, but the painting’s inclusion is possible.

 Aside from the “Bloody Head” series, Llyn Foulkes (born 1934) is known for his mixed-media practice, and especially for his satirical paintings of American icons, both of the historical and commercial varieties.[6] (Mickey Mouse is a recurring motif.) Born in Yakima, Washington, he attended the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) from 1957–1959 after being drafted into the United States Army and serving in Germany. After leaving Chouinard, Foulkes quickly made an impact in his adopted city with his dark, moody mixed-media paintings, such as the disturbingly tactile Flanders (1961–62, from the collection of Ernest and Eunice White). Ferus Gallery, which represented Los Angeles’ most prominent rising artists (such as Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, and Edward Kienholz), held the first solo show of Foulkes work in 1961. Foulkes went on to become a mainstay of the Los Angeles-area art scene. He participated in multiple group shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art (2010 and 2011), the Laguna Art Museum (1981, 1992, 2001, 2004, 2009) and the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, CA (1999, 2001, 2002, 2004), among others, and exhibiting his work in solo shows at the Laguna Art Museum (1995) and Craig Krull Gallery (2006), among others.[7]

Despite his inclusion in well-known group shows, including 2011’s L.A. Raw: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles, 1945–1980, from Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy at the Pasadena Museum of California Art and 2011–2012’s Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in LA Paintings and Sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Foulkes is only recently truly receiving his due. A retrospective exhibition of his work was mounted at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, CA in 2013, which later traveled to the New Museum in NYC and the Museum Kurhaus Kleve in Kleve, Germany. Foulkes’ works are included in the collections of MOCA, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney, among other institutions.

[4] See Elise Emery, “Reality is subject of artists,” Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram, September 16, 1973
[7] For a more comprehensive exhibition history, see or

Further reading/bibliography:

Ed. Barron, Stephanie, Sheri Bernstein, and Susan Fort. Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2000. Exhibition catalogue.

Drohojowska-Phlip, Hunter. Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011.

Emery, Elise. “Reality is subject of artists.” Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram. September 16, 1973.

Fallon, Michael. Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2014.

Karlstrom, Paul. Oral history interview with Llyn Foulkes. Smithsonian Archives of American Art, June 25, 1997 and December 2, 1998.

McKenna, Kristine. “He’s an Angry Man, but It Isn’t Personal[:] The fire that still drives the work of Llyn Foulkes has changed directions--to politics, the art world and life itself.” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1995.
Selz, Peter. Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2006.

Stefans, Brian Kim. “Object Man: On Llyn Foulkes at the Hammer.” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 5, 2013.

Subotnick, Ali. Llyn Foulkes. New York/London/Munich: Prestel Publishing, 2013. Exhibition catalogue.

Wilson, William. "'Realities' Mirrors a Tragic Flaw." Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1973.

“The Gallery That Launched the L.A. ‘Cool School’.” NPR. June 10, 2008.

The Last Time I Saw Ferus, 1957-1966. Newport Harbor Art Museum, March 7-April 17, 1976. Exhibition catalogue.