By Suzanne Muchnic
1:00 PM PST, January 12, 2013
Ninety-six works by 26 artists from the United States, Europe and Asia, brought together to illuminate a big — but overlooked — idea.
"Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962" is vintage MOCA. A boldly thoughtful, revisionist exhibition that focuses on destruction as a creative force, it's the sort of show that has long distinguished Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.
The project is also vintage Paul Schimmel, who organized "Destroy the Picture" and edited its substantial catalog. But the exhibition's closing on Monday will mark the end of his 22-year tenure as the museum's chief curator.
"I was surprised there had never been a show that dealt with this visually coherent phenomenon," Schimmel said in an interview at the L.A. museum in the last weeks of its run. "It runs parallel to a lot of things we know about art in the '50s, but it hadn't been brought together in one exhibition."
Schimmel was forced to resign from the museum as chief curator in June, which set in motion a series of events that shook the stability and reputation of MOCA — including the resignation of all four of its artist trustees, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie.
Schimmel is strongly identified with the museum and the rise of Los Angeles as an international art center. Over the years, as MOCA's art holdings have grown enormously, he has overseen more than 350 exhibitions, including more than 100 devoted to the permanent collection. He is a scholar of the art of the 1950s; the mastermind of ambitious thematic exhibitions; and the organizer of retrospectives for major artists such as Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy and Takashi Murakami.
"Schimmel was the face of MOCA to people in the art world, even though the directors seemed to get more press," New York art critic Peter Plagens wrote in an email exchange. "The best thing about MOCA was its exhibition program: more contemporary than MOMA's and better than other museums of contemporary art, in Chicago and Houston. Schimmel gets most of the credit since he was there for two decades and was the person who kept thebar high."
Schimmel won't discuss the circumstances of his resignation, or why he thinks the MOCA board leadership ousted him. However, trustee emeritus Eli Broad told The Times that Schimmel and MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch did not get along.
But it's clearly not a black and white relationship: When the museum announced the chief curator's departure, a press release praised his contributions and stated that the exhibition space at the Geffen Contemporary would be named in his honor.
Final MOCA exhibit
Schimmel, who began working on "Destroy the Picture" in 2008, stayed on to open it in October. And he has continued to work with Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, where the exhibition will appear from Feb. 16 to June 2.
Schimmel said that letting go of his long and deep attachment to MOCA was difficult. But he was feeling great about critical acclaim for "Destroy the Picture" and the audience's response.
"It's been a show that artists have really loved, in that it introduced them to a kind of history that they weren't aware of," he says. "It's also very interesting to see the show as part of a broad reconsideration of this period," he adds, ticking off related exhibitions coming up at American museums, and "L'art en guerre (Art at War), France 1938-1947," currently at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Now 58, the stocky, dark-haired curator has grown up alongside MOCA. His perpetually youthful curiosity about forgotten aspects of art history is his calling card.
The antithesis of the cool, standoffish aesthete, he comes on strong about the art he loves. He's a showman with gravitas, a blustery guy with a heart as big as his ambitions. But his exhibitions have hefty price tags and his drive and passionate determination to fulfill personal and institutional goals can make him difficult to work with. Brimming with art historical facts and stories about artists, he sometimes looks as if he's about to explode as he struggles to find the right words.
"This generation of artists represents a destructive mode of production that had global implications," he says of "Destroy the Picture's" artists, who slashed and burned their canvases, attached charred books and machine parts to their paintings, and created art from bandages or tattered burlap bags.
Reacting to the horrors of World War II, they filled an existential void with emotionally loaded alternatives to modernist purity.
"Artists from the United States, Europe and Asia were affected by the same political and social upheaval in the postwar era," he says. "Wars may break people apart, but they also make the world a lot smaller. Some experiences transcend culture."
Experiences that influence the look and meaning of art aren't always included in standard accounts of art history either, as Schimmel often points out in his signature exhibitions such as the 1992 sensation "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s," which injected a blast of youthful energy into Southern California's art scene, and "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979," the 1998 precursor to his latest show.
The concept of artists filling a postwar void emerged while Schimmel was focusing on performance-based paintings and sculptures in "Out of Actions," he says. In "Destroy the Picture," works often thought to be on the fringes of Abstract Expressionism, Pop and performance art are presented in a new, similarly thought-provoking context.
"Whether it's the exhibitions I've done on second-generation abstractionists in New York, or late Surrealism and early Abstract Expressionism, or developmental Pop art, or this exhibition, they all come from a desire to look with real rigor at a group of artists who have not been written into the history," he says.
Schimmel's next step is not clear. He hasn't even decided whether he will stay in Los Angeles, and he won't discuss future projects and options.
At the moment, he is a co-director of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, a grant-making organization founded by the artist, who died last year. Schimmel is also working on a retrospective of British Pop artist Richard Hamilton's work. The show was dropped from MOCA's schedule when Schimmel left the museum, but it will open in February 2014 at the Tate Modern in London and travel on to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.
But the curator and his legacy aren't likely to fade away.
Ann Goldstein, a former senior curator at MOCA who directs the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, characterizes her longtime colleague as "a serious scholar who is not afraid to put on a good show," and an essential force in the art world.
"Above all, Paul is driven by his love for art, artists and museums," Goldstein writes in an email. "He was determined for L.A. to see the best, and for MOCA to do its best, and for the museum to celebrate its community, and ... for MOCA and L.A. to be positioned as a respected leader in the international arts community. That raised the bar for all of us at MOCA and also for the field, and certainly for me personally."
A native of New York City, Schimmel was smitten with art in his youth. He received his bachelor's degree from Syracuse University and served as an intern at the nearby Everson Museum of Art. James Harithas, the Everson's director, moved to Houston to head the city's Contemporary Arts Museum while Schimmel was still a student.
But he soon followed Harithas to Texas, got a curatorial job at the Houston museum and began organizing the kinds of exhibitions that would define his career.
His biggest success there was "American Narrative/Story Art, 1967-77," a show that included the works of Los Angeles artists Baldessari and Alexis Smith.
While working in Houston, Schimmel says, he realized that the art historical lineage he had been taught "made it seem as if New York was so singular that nothing could happen without going through it. I learned that, even in Texas — maybe especially in Texas, because it's an independent nation in its own way — you could stand up for a region and it would have consequences that were not just limited to that region."
He returned to New York in 1978 to do graduate work at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, but left in 1981 to become chief curator of the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art). Schimmel was only 26.
During his eight-year tenure there, he organized shows of American postwar painting, including "The Interpretive Link: Abstract Surrealism Into Abstract Expressionism" and "The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism," and a 20-year survey of Chris Burden's work.
Move to museum
Schimmel moved to MOCA in 1990 to become chief curator at a fledgling museum. Founded in 1979, it opened the bare-bones facility now called the Geffen Contemporary in 1983, and launched its Grand Avenue headquarters in 1986.
He has drawn criticism over the years. "Helter Skelter" was a popular success, but some critics hated it. Robert Hughes' review in Time magazine said that the show made MOCA "the Louvre of adolescence." New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote: "The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging."
Schimmel's decision to install a Louis Vuitton boutique of objects designed by Murakami in the Japanese artist's exhibition in 2007 also stirred up considerable controversy. For Plagens, "that godawful Murakami show with the ethically questionable boutique inside" was a low point in the curator's career.
Plagens has panned other Schimmel productions, but he attributes his negative reviews to differences in taste. "I like art that looks good. Schimmel likes art that pushes the envelope."
But the curator wins high praise from many colleagues.
"Paul Schimmel has consistently grappled with complicated ideas in his shows," says Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"Idea shows are harder to do and harder to fund than monographic shows, and one of the
hallmarks of Paul's career has been his fearless engagement with ideas," Barron said. "And he has been a staunch advocate for artists from Los Angeles."
Schimmel attributes much of his success to joyful discoveries.
"There's nothing more fun than trying to introduce a new generation to a new audience or to introduce an overlooked generation to the art world," he says. "Doing things that have gone without substantial research and support is what you are supposed to do. If art history is fixed and there is only one narrative, what do you need art historians for?"
Looking back over his years at MOCA, Schimmel calls himself "unbelievably fortunate" to have worked with a team of highly talented curators at a young institution with "a very strong commitment to the art of our time, our place, our community, and a sense that it really needs to be of true and international consequence.
"I suspect that I will continue to strive in that direction, working with great artists and doing important exhibitions. I can't imagine not."
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