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Los Angeles: ‘The Vivian Maier Effect’: An Artist’s Unearthed Photos Reveal a Bygone L.A.

In the early 1960s, photographer Joan Archibald abandoned suburban Long Island for the eternal summer of Southern California. Working at home from makeshift darkrooms in desert and canyon houses, she began creating striking, innovative photographs and adopted a Pop art sensibility that included changing her name to Kali.

After a flurry of public recognition in the early 1970s, Kali inexplicably receded to the shadows, yet continued to create art privately through the mid-2000s. When she died in 2019, she left behind a hidden archive of photos, astonishingly encapsulating a bygone dazed, psychedelic, hippie L.A.

Now, these mostly never-before-seen images are on view in KALI Ltd. Ed., a new four-volume hardback from powerHouse Books. In an insightful introduction, journalist and filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty & the Secret History of Hollywood; Studio 54; Valentino: The Last Emperor) gives a sense of the obscure artist behind the photographs.

Tyrnauer first heard of Kali from the book’s editor, photographer Len Prince, a friend from the Vanity Fair network as well as the ex-husband of Kali’s daughter Susan.

“He brought the already-curated book to me,” Tyrnauer says. “As the Dropbox unspooled hundreds of images hardly seen by anyone, I was curious. But when I saw the outer space images, I was obsessed.

“I think the amazing, haunting, and beautiful fact about Kali is that she for some reason very soon after she got started, hid her work,” Tyrnauer continues. “It sat unseen, in great heaps, hidden in white Samsonite suitcases, for decades. The discovery of the work, all at once, and almost all of it never-seen, is remarkable, and a distinguishing feature. It’s the Vivian Maier effect.”

Like Maier, the seemingly ordinary nanny who gained posthumous renown after leaving behind a massive trove of remarkable black-and-white photos furtively shot on the streets of Chicago and New York, Kali was devoted to her work. And Kali also blended in—she was a pioneer of alternative photography who could go unnoticed in a sunny sea of Southern California wives running errands in station wagons.

But different from Maier, Kali’s process involved unconventional finishes and a swimming pool. Her black-and-white photos ultimately take on the look of a jewel-toned acid trip. “Hers is a tie-dye aesthetic that’s out of fashion yet still stands the test of time,” says Tyrnauer. “There’s an exhilaration that comes from finding secret artists. It makes us want to know more.”

Born Joan Marie Yarusso in Islip, New York, in 1932, Kali married musician Bob Archibald, a trumpeter who was frequently on the road. They divorced. Searching or maybe escaping, she packed her bag, dropped her two children off at boarding school, and drove westward. In 1962 she landed in Malibu where, reinvented as a bikini-clad scenester, she partied with new friends like television star Richard Chamberlain.

At her mother’s strong suggestion, Kali left the beach for Palm Springs and bought a house formerly owned by Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin. It’s here where she immersed herself in photography, quickly turning the ornate bathroom into a darkroom and using the swimming pool as a giant wash for photographic prints that would become flecked with bugs and sand as they dried on the pool deck.

When not making art, Kali regularly chased UFOs into the dark desert night with her kids, who stayed with their mother most summers.

In 1973, she married lawyer Karl Davis Jr. and moved to his house in Pacific Palisades.  Immediately, Kali set up another darkroom (this time in the garage), and again used the pool as a giant finishing tank. But after Davis’s death in 2000, Kali became reclusive, further turning her attention to UFOs and the wild pumas who visited her backyard.

Kali’s ways of making art changed significantly over the years. Three stylistic periods are explored in the book, each in its own volume: “Portraits and Landscapes,” “Polaroids,” and “Outer Space.”

Her landscapes and portraits were shot in black and white. The wet gelatin prints (cypress trees, daughter Susan as model, Paul in Speedo, the artists, etc.) were lowered into the swimming pool and sprayed with paint, eyedrops of Dr. Ph. Martin liquid colors, and whatever else was handy. The result was textured and impressionist, beyond a traditional photograph. She called her painterly work “Artography,” a word she coined and trademarked.

For her Polaroid period, she added an additional step to her usual process: After copying the swimming-pool-processed prints in slide form, she’d then project them with her Beseler enlarger and shoot the projected images with a Polaroid camera.

“Outer Space” is the result of Kali’s long-held interest in aliens and unidentified aircraft. From endless hours of closed-circuit footage recording the happenings outside of her Pacific Palisades home, Kali obsessively logged details and took snapshots of the eerie orbs she viewed on a monitor in her bedroom/studio. Most of the film was found in an old flight bag and processed after her death.

Tyrnauer describes Kali’s story as a liberation narrative: “She’s leaving her East Coast life, rejecting the middle-class trajectory of marriage and kids—it’s very indicative of the time,” he says. “It’s not entirely unique, it’s seen in ’70s films like Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Coppola’s The Rain People, women of that generation who travel across the country in cars and land someplace west.”

She made her art in desert and canyon environments, places familiar to L.A. native Tyrnauer. His weekend place in the desert is not far from where Kali first tracked flying saucers, and he recently moved to a canyon house similar to the one in which he grew up.

“There’s something magical about hills of L.A. It’s big city and wilderness. Roll down the hill and go to Petrossian or In-N-Out Burger. Fill your car up at the gas station. Go home and there’s the frangipani and a herd of deer in driveway.”  As he notes in the foreword, his home in the hills, overlooking the city, is the ideal perch to be on while perusing Kali’s photographs.

For Tyrnauer, Kali’s art isn’t nostalgia, partly because the oeuvre seemingly has come out of nowhere, he says. His enthusiasm for the work is palpable. But other than to say “there aren’t a lot of moving pictures,” Tyrnauer is mum on whether she will be the subject of his next film.

Early on, there was a fleeting first brush with fame for Kali, most notably in 1970 in an article in Camera 35 magazine and an early ’70s gallery show in Monterey where legendary photographer Ansel Adams commented favorably on her work. That was the extent of her public life as an artist.

It’s hard to say why she went inward. Was it the hassle? Sexism? Was she unwell? Also, she’d remarried well and didn’t need to make money. Or was it artistic integrity? Tyrnauer wonders: “She might have ended designing album covers. Not to say that would have taken away from her art. Warhol designed album covers.”

In the end, her photographs were found crammed into cabinets and old hard-shell luggage.

Now, three years after her death from complications of Parkinson’s disease, she’s caught the eye of curators. Very few photographers, alive or dead, get a multivolume slip case coffee table book from a major publisher. And there are the gallery shows, including an important exhibition at Staley Wise Gallery this fall in New York.

Would Kali be pleased with all the hoopla?

Tyrnauer speculates: “While I can’t say for certain, I’d imagine someone who creates a brand and logo for themselves would be at least secretly over the moon to be celebrated like this.”

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