ART REVIEW : Ambitious Exhibits Demonstrate MOCA Spreads Itself Too Thin

TIMES ART CRITIC

The Museum of Contemporary Art presents a pair of exhibitions that try to do too many things at once. The smaller--and by far the more interesting--is "Selections from the Beatrice and Philip Gersh Collection." The big one is a sprawling and only occasionally coherent shuffling of some 150 works from the permanent collection called "Constructing a History." It would be more aptly titled "Deconstructing History."

Both shows are housed in MOCA's California Plaza headquarters on Bunker Hill. They derive graceful authority from architect Arta Isozaki's galleries and a crisply professional installation. If the cosmetics are a hit, the content is another matter.

The Gersh material stands up nicely. The couple are veteran Los Angeles art patrons who have collected for some 30 years. She is a MOCA trustee and both have been active at the old Pasadena Art Museum and the County Museum of Art. They have donated and promised works to MOCA including a small Jackson Pollock and Susan Rothenberg's spooky "Black Dress."

Their collection skips through the history of modern art from a small 1912 Kandinsky to Ed Rusha's recent "Picture H House" which represents his welcome return to the use of images after a long siege of pure wordworks. The 45 examples (on view through March 11) admirably combine objects of unpretentious domestic scale with a keen eye for excellence. Aside from a slightly indifferent Frank Stella--"The Whiteness of the Whale"--virtually everything is of museum quality. They also reveal a knack that museums often funk in their quest for boffo impressiveness by the yard. The Gershes know how to distill.

The most striking quality here is in the number of works so small as to approach miniature scale while capturing the essence of the artist. Francis Bacon's "Portrait of a Man With Glasses" packs all his essential Pinteresque vision of everyday horror into a canvas about one foot square. From 1963--the period before Bacon started doing impersonations of himself--it compresses his talent for painting a face that vacillates between old-master solidity and the scattered terror of a mind coming unglued.

The Gersh nose for condensation sniffs out the right stuff in everything from Giacometti's poignantly dignified 23-inch "Bust of a Man" through de Kooning's 1949 pastel "Two Women" and on to Joel Shapiro's foot-tall bronze block-man. It expands the surrounding gallery space into an immense hall where a cabinet-size painting looks like a vast billboard. A very amusing and unusually good work by Jenny Holzer sits nearby. It is a marble bench carved with ironic modern truisms like "Government is a Burden on the People." Near the Shapiro it becomes a marble temple.

It's a nourishing aesthetic experience only diluted by a barely disguised sense of lurking mixed-motive. The Gersh collection is virtually enveloped by the art from the permanent collection--as if the museum can hardly wait to get its hands on them. One can hardly blame the desire, but the symbolism of the installation and the courtliness of the catalogue foreword sets one worrying about matters unwelcome in the midst of an artistic experience--of the shrinking numbers of serious collectors and the vanishing breed of truly philanthropic donors to public museums.

Then there is "Constructing a History" (to March 4). The general idea seems to have been to put works in unusual juxtaposition so as to trigger unexpected insights. The first space contains artworks by such disparate contemporaries as Allen Ruppersberg, Julian Schnabel and Louise Lawler. The only insight to be gained from the combo is that there sure is a lot of different stuff going on. But we already knew that.

In the second gallery it appears that the idea was to put the art in roughly chronological order, demonstrating the way MOCA's permanent collection is slowly growing to be able to track the development of contemporary art. Here we find classics by the likes of Miro, Gorky and Pollock followed by a room of Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner leading to another space full of minimalists.

Here we see the likes of Morris Louis and Jules Olitski. The odd man out is Ron Davis represented by one of his back-painted geometric-illusion panels. Presumably this was the work that was supposed to kick open the doors of perception. All it does is cause us to remember that not every Davis is a masterpiece.

A room of California light-and-space types such as Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Mary Corse is invaded by such contextual anomalies as Agnes Martin and Sherrie Levine. The net effect is to remind us that when you combine such delicately nuanced art it loses its subtle resonances and just looks thin, thin, thin.

The presentation carries on like this for some 15 tedious galleries. Occasionally it works, as when Vito Acconci's cinder-block construction about social repression is joined by Larry Clark's suite of drug-culture photos, "Tulsa." We certainly knew that both artists have a subversive, outlaw quality so it's not the information that's important, it's the poetry of the combination. They rhyme, these guys.

There is a hasty quality to the exhibition as if--unable to decide on theme--assistant curator Ann Goldstein just tried to present several at once. The result is a patchwork of art trying to prove similarities where none exist and papering over significant differences. But the main shortcoming here is trying to do a visual version of a college-exam compare-and-contrast essay question with works of radically different quality.

Fine things show up by the likes of Anselm Keifer, Jill Geigerich and Alexis Smith, but there is too much fudging about probing the significance of art whose main significance is that it's second-string work. Revelatory combination is an important staple of curatorship but it only works to advantage when the art is all about equally super. New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent collection is smartly placed, but this is possible because the works are all masterpieces.

"Constructing a History" seems to have been infected by MOCA's ever-clearer leanings to spreading itself too thin. It lives under a veneer of activities all of which are good in themselves. Good community relations are good, as are good international relations. Good publicity is good. Design shows are good as architecture, performance and radio broadcasts are good.

But a place that calls itself an art museum is by definition about a solid and undistracted striving for excellence. As we move into the '90s, let's hope this admirable young institution sets its priorities and pursues them with the tenacity of a mountain climber.

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