Maurice Tuchman: Still the Enfant Terrible : After 25 years, LACMA's fiery curator is not yet old news

It was swinging '64.

Vietnam was boiling over again, there were riots in Harlem, Stanley Kubrick made "Dr. Strangelove" and Bob Dylan was singing "It Ain't Me, Babe." Maurice Tuchman--a 27-year-old research fellow at New York's Guggenheim Museum--was considering an offer to become the first full-time curator of modern art at the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Awesome LACMA board members Norton Simon and Taft Schreiber had interviewed him and he was impressed by their "sharp, shrewd ambition." Big job for a guy just out of the art history program at Columbia University, but for somebody bred in the Bronx the decision to leave New York was a tough one. He needed advice.

The critic Clement Greenberg, the reigning aesthetic guru of the time, was his logical counselor.

"He told me to turn it down," Tuchman recalls. Greenberg, it seems, was not so much against the West Coast as he was against intellectuals working for institutions. He told Tuchman that the system would eventually grind him down, compromise his independence and turn him into a gray bureaucrat.

Fat chance. Tuchman took the job anyway. Excitement crackled through La Cienega's gallery row and word was getting around that L.A. had spawned a school of major significance in the artists of the Ferus Gallery.

That was 25 years ago. Recently, Tuchman's supporters celebrated his first quarter-century at the museum, a remarkable feat of longevity. There was no sign of the graying of the senior curator of modern and contemporary art. At 52, he is still a dashing fellow and health buff who works out thrice weekly on Nautilus equipment. Weekly, not weakly. It is almost as if he has remained mindful of Greenberg's prediction and determined to prove it wrong. He has been nothing if not colorful with his dandy's designer duds, Buffalo Bill mustache, long auburn hair and habit of appearing in chic precincts with interchangeable leggy blondes half a head taller than he. Back in the beginning when the standard curatorial image was that of a scholarly mouse, Tuchman's style was anoffense to convention.

"He may look like a Wunderkind to the museum but he'll never last. He loves Hollywood glamour. He should be a movie producer," judged an influential critic of the day.

Today, museum professionals are all but required to be handsome and stylish--celebrities in their own right. When New York's Museum of Modern Art named Kirk Varnedoe its new curator of painting, his first public act was to pose for a fashion ad in the New York Times Magazine. By that standard, Tuchman was simply ahead of the game.

There remains, however, a large and aggravated contingent of artniks who wish Tuchman had stood in the Big A. The bill of particulars against him heads off with the eternal lament that he has not done enough for local artists--an accusation leveled at every curator in every major museum in the civilized world. Every serious observer hereabouts has two lists in his mental Maurice file. One sets out "Those Artists I Cannot Understand Why Maurice Has Not Shown," while the other chronicles "All Those Turkeys Maurice Has Put in the Museum."

A more refined complaint has it that he lacks the insight to spot unknown talent, and a less refined one just involves general suspicion of his motives and values. It says he is a social butterfly and an influence-broker. As a noted European artist remarked when Tuchman's name popped up in conversation, "Oh yes, he's the one who opens every conversation by asking 'Where is the party?' "

Asked about all this, Tuchman shrugs like a centaur shaking off familiar flies. He was born Nov. 30, 1936 in Jacksonville, Fla. "That makes me a Sagittarius," he says as if recalling the old "What's your sign?" pickup ploy.

Funny. The sign is known for its love of the good life, a thick skin and a straightforwardness that can appear downright insensitive. Astrology buffs say the archer symbolizes the human being's struggle to overcome its animal nature. One is reminded that it was playboy Maurice who organized "The Spiritual in Art," a landmark exhibition investigating the role of occult metaphysics in modern art. This is not an uncomplicated guy.

"Only time can tell whether or not I made the right choices," Tuchman said. "Being a curator is a long-haul job. You help collectors for years in the hope they'll finally leave their works to the museum. You don't know the outcome of your efforts for decades. You just keep at it every day like brushing your teeth. We've never had an endowment for acquiring art for the collection. I've had to raise every penny and solicit every donation. Have we done anything? Look at the permanent collection. It's respectable now. Sure, there are horrible lacunae like there is no Brancusi but if somebody comes from out of town they see it's something. It's solid.

"I am by nature a matchmaker. I've always seen it as part of my function to introduce artists to dealers and dealers to collectors and museum people. I like to put people together."

This appears to be true. He organized his support group, the Contemporary Art Council, years ago. It now has more than 500 members. He recently put together an additional group composed of people from the entertainment industry, the Entertainment Alliance Committee. He conducts about 40 educational meetings a year and still leads tours around Europe every other summer. He has acted as mentor to a string of junior curators including Jane Livingston, Stephanie Barron and Howard Fox, among many others. He worries about single acquaintances and is forever trying to fix them up. Parties at his house in the Hollywood hills are populated with stunning young women. They have, he says, nothing to do with his professional function, he just likes women and prefers their company. He has no close male friends in Los Angeles. Lonely at the top.

He's tirelessly enthusiastic about everything from new cars to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." His staccato speech is pleasant but waxes vaguely testy--the delivery of a guy who can't get no respect, but who is determined to tough it out. He's been at the flash point of controversy since his first contemporary one-man show at the museum.

1966: THE KEINHOLZ RETROSPECTIVE

The show is barely open before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors wants it shut down. It includes a big tableau called "Roxies" made of chimerical manikins that depict a brothel. "Backseat Dodge '38" is half a real car where chicken-wire figures are up to heavy petting and drinking beer. A standard headline scandal about censorship and the corruption of public morals ensues. Tuchman and the museum win. On the whole, the '60s were palmy for Tuchman. The darling of the board of trustees, he was given a free hand to produce such exhibitions as "The New York School" in 1965. The show surveyed the Abstract Expressionists before New York itself got around to it. A veritable coup.

The decade blended popular culture and fine art in an unprecedented way. It felt like one long party with guests wandering through a culture palace where the Beatles were hip to Bach, the ballet incorporated rock light shows and everybody ate Mexican in the royal dining room. La Dolce Video.

Tuchman married Blossom Plumb, a New York soap-opera actress who was every bit as amusing, attractive and likable as the burlesque-queen name implies. The pair counted as local beautiful people. The marriage ended in divorce after seven years.

1971: ART AND TECHNOLOGY

Tuchman launches the decade with an expensive and time-consuming epic exhibition called "Art and Technology." In a way it's another manifestation of his matchmaker syndrome. He has the idea that if artists are matched with high-tech industry, a creative cross-fertilization will result, spawning fresh ideas all round.

Five years and endless exercise of the museum's prestige and influence paid off with an interesting catalogue that mainly chronicled a huge communications gap between corporate types and artists.

There were exceptions. L.A. artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell worked at the Garrett Corp. with Ed Wortz, an experimental psychologist who shared the artist's interest in perceptual phenomena. The experience crystallized the art that came to be known as "California Light and Space"--today considered among the most original and influential of contemporary artistic innovations. Tuchman brokered the match that made it.

In the long haul, that alone made "A&T;" worthwhile. In the short term, the resulting exhibition was uneven and indifferent in quality. The word on the street was that Tuchman's reach had exceeded his grasp. He had produced a white elephant and crunched a lot of important toes in the process. For the rest of the decade, LACMA's modern and contemporary art department lay fallow.

Tuchman shrugs. "I was never aware of any problem with 'A&T;' other than some protest over linking artists with corporations that were involved in Vietnam. 'A&T;' had the highest attendance of any show we'd done. There were hard setbacks at the time. Art was sluggish, Artforum left town. County support was down, there was no real corporate support and the National Endowment wasn't in place. Everybody floundered. I didn't take it personally."

1971: THE CATFISH AFFAIR

Tuchman and curator Jane Livingston organize an exhibition of L.A. artists for London's Hayward Gallery. It includes an ecological project by Newton Harrison involving live fish in large tanks. Somehow the tabloid press gets wind of the fact that catfish will be killed and served to viewers during the course of the show. A real Gilbert & Sullivan scandal erupts over the wanton electrocution of the catfish. Certain little old ladies confuse them with pussycats. For a while it looks as though the show will be closed down but an 11th-hour compromise is reached. The fish are humanely filleted.

1976: THE POLLACK INTRIGUE

In a bizarre incident, former gallery owner Clark Pollack launches an "oust Tuchman" campaign in the L.A. Free Press. During one taped interview session, Pollack confesses that he sees the series as his last chance to make a name for himself in the art world and that if it fails he will kill himself. Shortly thereafter, he is found dead--a suicide. A tragic coda to the incident came in 1985 when artist Andrew Wilf, a former member of the Pollack gallery stable, died in grim circumstances.

Tuchman went about his business but there was so little in the way of significant exhibitions that it looked to the scene as if Greenberg's prediction had fulfilled itself. Tuchman had become another faceless functionary blended with the filing cabinets.

What a mess. And all he ever really wanted was to be a comic strip artist.

Tuchman grew up in the Pelham Parkway district of the Bronx, a Jewish enclave noted for spawning artistic talent. His parents had emigrated from Izbesta--a village in eastern Poland--fleeing the rising tide of Nazi anti-Semitism. His father had been a furrier, a skill of little use in Depression America. He became a matzo baker.

Pelham Parkway was lower middle class at best, but it was all the Tuchman family could do to hang in there at the bottom of the social scale. They were the last family in the neighborhood to buy a television set.

Maurice won a scholarship to Manhattan's legendary High School of Music and Art but his mother refused to let him go, fearing he'd be mugged on the subway. He wound up at an ordinary Bronx school where the boredom quotient was so high, all he could find to do was play sports and escape into the imaginative world of his strips. He worshiped the artists of Superman, Mary Worth and Rex Morgan, managing to meet them all. They encouraged his own efforts.

He felt he had found his calling but attended City College of New York (as it was then called) to please the ambitions of his mother. In college, he had the epiphany of discovering his own brain. A smart chum introduced him to politics, literature and women. He finished his undergraduate work in three years and at about the same time came to the dismal realization that he was a good cartoonist but not a great one.

"My desire just crashed. It was a black moment," he said. "I felt shipwrecked with absolutely no prospects."

Nothing is bleaker than being 19 and feeling your life is over. For a year, Tuchman pursued a vocational guidance course at the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Finally, his largely silent counselor looked at him and said, "Art history?"

Tuchman, whose life seems to follow a depressive-manic, bust-and-boom pattern, went straight to the library. He found a facsimile copy of the legendary Celtic illuminated manuscript, "The Book of Kells." Poring over it, he was gripped by a revelation. He saw for the the first time how a work of art can reinvent itself for succeeding generations. For the first time, he had what he calls "an out-of-self experience."

Art history seemed to be the answer, but he knew it was the province of refined scholarship and that--compared to his cultured middle-class preppie friends--he was seriously one-down. In 1956, he took a crash 10-week course at the University of Mexico--then reknowned for its art-history program. He was, of course, blown away by the the murals of Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco and the mosaic murals of Pablo O'Higgins. (Something in Tuchman is attracted to art that incorporates complex craftsmanship and natural materials. He has a polished rock that thrills him like an artwork and is currently fascinated by Australian aboriginal art and Haitian voodoo objects like bottles encrusted in glass gems.)

Back home, he got a night job at the post office and enrolled at Columbia's graduate school. Its principal aesthetic intellectual eminence was, at the time, Meyer Schapiro. Tuchman calls him "a passionate humanist"--a medieval scholar also interested in contemporary art. His early writings on artists like Jasper Johns helped illuminate and legitimize the seriousness of works like Johns' "Target With Four Faces."

Tuchman wanted to study medieval art but--having no Latin--turned to his own times. Schapiro instilled many interests in him including a fascination with the Russian avant-garde and a love for Chaim Soutine, the Expressionist painter from Lithuania. Soutine became the subject of Tuchman's doctorate dissertation.

"There was no one looking after his posterity. He died intestate in Paris during the Nazi occupation," Tuchman said.

By luck, Tuchman joined the Schapiro circle at one of those golden moments when everybody in the class was destined to play a significant role in the art world. Guest seminar lecturers included the likes of Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. Fellow students were William Rubin, who would become the Museum of Modern Art's powerful curator of painting, artists Donald Judd and Lucas Samaras and the budding critic Barbara Rose.

"She was beautiful and feisty in those days. We got involved and for a while we were going to get married," Tuchman said.

Tuchman thrived in the bracing environment until he was gripped by another black patch.

"Most of my family had been killed in the Holocaust but somehow my parents didn't tell us about it. Lots of Jewish parents didn't tell their kids what had happened. Sometimes my mother would just start crying, but she wouldn't tell us why."

Tuchman says his dawning consciousness of the horrors of The Final Solution--Der Endlosung--affected his stability. "My mind felt threatened by the rising intensity of my hatred for the Germans. There was only one way out."

Tuchman's solution was to apply for a $90-a-month Fulbright grant to study in Berlin. Rose was already there. Tuchman moved in with her and they led the life of bohemian students during one of Germany's coldest winters. They parted and Tuchman took a room in a professor's house--saturating himself in German culture. He learned the language, hitchhiked around and haunted the clubs and Bierstubes.

He met Erwin Leiser who made the classic documentary film on the Holocaust, "Mein Kampf." He saw it one night in a kino filled with a German audience. Together, they watched the spectacle of piled corpses and skeletal survivors at Dachau and Buchenwald.

"That did it," he says. "The catharsis of confrontation. No matter how bad reality is, it is better than the specters of the imagination."

It was over.

Tuchman returned to New York, promptly forgot his German and started that dicey process followed by every young person just out of college--finding a place in the world. Most art historians of the day became teachers. Tuchman decidedly did not want to teach. He kept body and soul together by writing entries on art for the Columbia Encyclopedia. He's still proud of that.

Then came the chance to be a research fellow at the Guggenheim, where he would meet its director, Thomas Messer, and work 60- and 70-hour weeks. "He was a great teacher, demanding and giving." Tuchman remembers.

"At the time people barely knew what a curator was. But on the first day I walked through the boiler-room entrance at the Guggenheim, my path was clear. A museum is a place where it all happens--a confluence of art and power, scholarship and money." We know what happened then. What happened now?

1981: 17 ARTISTS OF THE '60s

Tuchman's modern and contemporary department is just beginning to snap out of its coma with an exhibition of L.A. heavyweights including everybody from Larry Bell to Peter Voulkos--all the boys. On the gala opening night, 100 women artists mass in front of the museum wearing tuxes and carrying placards reading, "White Boys Ain't the Only Ones Making Art in L.A." Everybody in the crowd wears a mask of Tuchman's face.

For a minute it looked like double deja vu.

A new decade and new hostility against the veteran curator.

Once again he shrugs. His glasses are fairly powerful and his eyebrows almost nonexistent so he always looks a trifle surprised. He confesses the protest was mildly upsetting but "conceptually it was quite a good artwork in itself."

He keeps a photo of the crowd with his memorabilia collection on the bathroom wall.

In 1982 he married Sari Shapiro, a Hollywood agent. Again, the liaison lasted seven years. "No, that was probably not my last marriage," Tuchman says. "The closeness of marriage is wonderful and it's a great growth experience."

Omens notwithstanding and dissatisfaction being eternal, the '80s have nonetheless proved a vintage decade for Tuchman and his team. The opening of the Robert O. Anderson Building for Modern and Contemporary Art provided a stable and available showcase. Even before it opened, the department proved itself an idea-tank of international significance with exhibitions like "The Avant-Garde in Russia"--a landmark exhibition hailed for reviving a crucial lost chapter in modern art.

Tuchman's colleague Stephanie Barron has become a curatorial star in her own right with exhibitions like "German Expressionist Sculpture" and "German Expressionism: the Second Generation." Everyone is waiting for her revival of Hitler's notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibition.

As the departmental exec, Tuchman basks in the glow of every show he signs off on, including an epic Max Beckmann retrospective that no New York museum had the sense to take and, of course, his own "The Spiritual in Art" which had the gumption to assert that modern art was inspired by spiritual as well as formal and historical considerations.

His current big project is a sequel to be called, "Outsider/Insider: A History of Visionary Art and Modernism." Why this recurrent fascination with the mystical?

"I'm not a mystic but it interests me because so many great people are. I hope this exhibition will confront the big challenges of the '90s and beyond--ecology and mental health. I hope it will cast some light on questions of why is there so much anxiety in the society, why we are so neurotic, crazed and drug-ridden. It will deal with larger issues. I'm a citizen and I feel it's the responsible thing to do."

Sounds admirable. On the other hand what about that artist I like that he never shows?

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