Have you ever heard of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Portrait of Jenny,” or “Death Valley No. 7?” No, these aren’t any movie titles that should ring a bell, or even the title of songs that live on in infamy, although they very well could be as the artist who made these wonderful works of art just so happens to also be a musician. Llyn Foulkes is the artistic genius behind the scenes of these famous pieces who has mastered his craft over the last five decades. Over the years, he has become known as the Zelig of contemporary art and has created quite the name for himself, and it all began from humble beginnings right here in the Yakima community.
Born on November 17, 1934, Foulkes loved music and art throughout his young life. At the age of 11, he already had his very own vaudeville band. Back then, he was inspired by Spike Jones, an eccentric trumpet-blowing, cowbell-ringing comedic musician and performer. Wanting to be like his hero, Foulkes built his own musical contraption equipped with horns and bells. He went on to study music in high school, playing drums and the timpani and began listening to jazz music. It was also around this time when he started to show a genuine interest in art at the age of 17, and he has been learning about the craft ever since.
By his teenage years, he already had a dream of being a cartoonist, but sadly, his art and music career didn’t start right away after high school. Instead, he was drafted into the Army and worked with the medical corps in Germany from 1954 until 1956. Upon his release from the service, he moved to Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute, now the California Institute of the Arts, from 1957 to 1959. His studies focused primarily on abstract work. During his career, he would also frequently turn to self-portraiture when using his craft to deal with personal hardship. “Music is my joy, painting is my angst,” quotes Foulkes to Ali Subotnick, author of his autobiography.
Upon graduating college, Foulkes quickly moved on to showing works at the Ferus Gallery, where his first one-person show was held in 1961. This was an exceptional milestone and showed that he was ahead of the curve as this show was just a year before Andy Warhol’s legendary exhibit at the same gallery.
He then held solo exhibitions in the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962 and the Oakland Art Museum in 1964. In 1963 and 1964, his works were shown in a new gallery across the street from Ferus, where his art was placed alongside the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Irving Petlin, among others. During this time, in 1964, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art became the first museum to acquire his work for their collection.
Soon after, in 1967, Foulkes was awarded the Prize for Painting at the Paris Biennale, Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which was followed up by a European exhibition there. Afterward, this same year, Charles Proof Demetrion selected Foulkes to represent the United States in the IX São Paulo Art Biennial in Brazil.
During the late 60s and into the 70s, Foulkes began to create more and more landscape paintings that utilized the iconography of postcards, vintage landscape photography, and Route 66-inspired hazard signs. As a result of all these different styles, his art has never been assigned to any particular art movement, but he has been associated with abstract expressionist, pop art, assemblage, and collage artists of his time. He’s spent his entire art career consistently inconsistent, surprising and confusing critics and galleries alike with dramatic changes of direction whenever it seemed he was about to be overtaken by popular acclaim.
Foulkes’s music developed alongside his painting career, following the same trail of success and reverence. Many admirers regard his musical acts as performance art, much to his probable disproval. Between 1965 and 1971, he played drums in the rock band City Lights, with the band opening for many other major rock bands. However, Foulkes disliked how amplified guitars sounded and ultimately parted ways with the band to find a sound that was more his style and speed.
Returning to his roots, he built yet another percussion instrument and formed his own group known as the Rubber Band in 1973. They stayed together until 1977, and after they parted ways, Foulkes returned to his childhood interest in one-person bands. He began playing solo with “The Machine,” a device he created, in 1979 and has continued to perform with it up and down the West Coast ever since.
Like with his music, Foulkes continues to create beautiful works of art that still leave their mark on future artists. Today, his works can be viewed in some of the most prestige’s places known to the art world, such as the collection currently held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. From enjoying art and music in classrooms within the Yakima city limits to headlining major art exhibits across the globe, Llyn Foulkes sure has made a mark on the art world and will go down in history as one of the greatest artists of his time.