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Diving Into the Meat and Potatoes : MOCA’s permanent collection provides a look at the attempt to build a Postmodern Museum of Contemporary Art : COMMENTARY

Last summer, the Greek-born artist Jannis Kounellis had an abrupt change of heart and withdrew from an exhibition planned for late November at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Into the suddenly gaping hole in its schedule, the museum slotted a potentially snore-inducing exhibition, dubbed “Constructing a History: A Focus on the Permanent Collection.” But what began as filler unexpectedly emerged as a fascinating excursion into art of the recent past--a voyage that raises provocative questions for museums everywhere.

The Museum of Contemporary Art began to form its collection nearly a decade ago. Along the way, special exhibitions have been mounted of major bequests and acquisitions, including the celebrated Panza, Barry Lowen, and Rita and Taft Schreiber collections. But never has the museum had a substantive portion of its holdings (today numbering about 1,000 pieces) on regular view. The absence of a relatively stable array of galleries devoted day-in, day-out to the meat-and-potatoes stuff of a museum--a truly permanent permanent-collection, so to speak--has always been a serious weakness.

The suspicion has been that MOCA’s collection simply wasn’t strong enough to hold its own. Certainly there are big gaps, but “Constructing a History” shows there’s more than one curatorial way to skin a cat. The scheduling disaster has turned out to be a boon.

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Organized by curator Ann Goldstein, “Constructing a History” shuffles the historical deck in eye-opening ways. Chronology is abandoned, groupings are arbitrarily made. One gallery might have paintings and sculptures from the 1950s, the next an arrangement with works that span nearly 50 years. A room may be filled with chiefly monochromatic works, offering a surprising range via minimal means, or with images that chronicle the visceral, social and symbolic uses of landscape.

Mediums get mixed. Juxtapositions jostle. (In the most dramatic, small photographs by Edward Weston and Brassai hang next to Jackson Pollock’s magisterial 1949 drip-painting, “Number 1.” All three suddenly reveal a poetic intimacy.) Throughout, works by internationally acclaimed modern masters are installed side by side with those by artists of much younger, less established reputation.

There’s even an insightful pause in the action. Smack in the middle of the show, a second exhibition has been mounted. These “Selections From the Collection of Philip and Beatrice Gersh,” a Beverly Hills couple who are well-known collectors nationally, italicize an important point: The stories institutions tell about the history of art are fundamentally shaped by the smaller narratives of individual private collectors. Indeed, the labels show that several important works from the Gersh collection, including David Smith’s 1961 sculpture of brushed aluminum, “Cubi III,” are promised gifts to the museum.

Obviously, a lot is going on in this exhibition. And somehow, it works.

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At least, most of it does. Many of the 150 paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs and prints are first-rate, but a good number are not. Certain galleries feel cramped, others seem haphazard. Confusing signage leaves you unclear as to where the Gersh collection ends and the museum collection begins. (Maybe that’s the clever point? Nah.)

Whatever the complaints, they’re soon pushed aside. For this is an exhibition that gets pulled off through sheer, self-evident curiosity about works of art, and about how they mean what they mean. In subtle and insightful ways, it invites you into its own process of discovery.

With just five works, the very first gallery sets the stage. Julian Schnabel’s chunky “Corinne Near Armenia” (1984), a lumbering classical figure painted across a field of rubble, and Anselm Kiefer’s “Wege I” (1977), a smoky-black miasma of printed heads of great German thinkers of the past, announce that history itself will be the subject of the show. Very different mixed-media works by Louise Lawler and Allen Ruppersberg pointedly suggest that a museum is a very particular, and specifically modern, frame of reference through which history gets visually written. (The murderous imagery of Ruppersberg’s 1982 diptych, “Still Life,” sardonically casts the museum as mausoleum.)

These twin poles--history and museum--tend to be invisibly merged in most installations. Stephen Prina’s “Aristotle-Plato-Socrates” brilliantly opens them up to scrutiny. Using recorded sound, graphics, bookplates and reproductions of famous paintings, Prina threads the founding philosophers of ancient Western culture through two of modern culture’s founding fathers--Rembrandt van Rijn and Jacques-Louis David--then subjects them to the present world of science and technology. It makes for a compelling rumination on freedom and its illusions.

In the space of a few minutes, this first gallery makes something plain: We are not about to see a show in which the course of art since 1945 is thought to have been all sewn up. We won’t enter a collection that follows a prearranged narrative, into which the young museum will try to fill the slots with acquisitions. Doubtless there are major works by pivotal artists that MOCA would love to have. If this show is a reliable guide, however, the aim will not be merely to fill in the blanks.

What will the aim be? It’s risky to presume too much. This show is only temporary, decidedly tentative and not fully worked through. But, as far as I know, this presentation of the permanent collection represents something virtually unprecedented among American museums: It’s the first, full-scale attempt at organizing what could be called a Postmodern Museum of Contemporary Art. And at this late date, that’s a distinction rather startling to realize.

It isn’t news that we’ve been living through an extraordinary boom in new construction of American museums. Nor should the presses be stopped to headline an announcement that there’s been a phenomenal rise of the cultural doctrine called postmodernism. These are simply two of the developments indispensable to any reckoning of where we’ve been in the decade that ends today, as well as to any hazy speculation about where we might be headed in the one that blasts off, ready or not, come Monday morning.

You would not be witless if you assumed that new museums and new art might have something to do with one another. You certainly would be forgiven, however, if you couldn’t say just what that relationship might be. Why? Well, I know this will be hard to believe, but museums, which solemnly boast of the decisive importance of their educational mission in all things artistic, aren’t doing very much to help.

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In fact, to look at art museums across the land, whether old and stately or new and aggressive (or some other combination thereof), you would likely never know that something called postmodernism had ever happened. At least, you would never know it was anything more than a stylistic comet that had come and gone in the cultural cosmos, leaving behind a modest shower of dazzling lights and an annoyingly large cloud of murky dust.

Part of the problem in any discussion of postmodernism is the slipperiness of the term, which can mean different things to different people (not to mention the headache-inducing locutions of cheery, related activities such as hermeneutics and deconstructionism). The field is an intricate tangle.

Not long ago, UC Irvine professor of history John Patrick Higgins came to the rescue, describing postmodernism in as succinct a manner as any I’ve seen. So, in an effort to make sure we’re all on the same track, and in a thoroughly postmodern spirit of appropriation, I’ve stolen his definition for my own: “Postmodernism is the Paris-inspired, Nietzsche-influenced school of thought that claims there is no objective knowledge but simply interpretations and rhetorical persuasions.”

To be sure, numerous museums have been acquiring art that fits this tidy description, and some have been acquiring it at a relatively furious pace. Typically, their holdings are organized according to a chronological history of styles. Those with large collections tend to insert postmodernism as a recent link in the long and venerable chain.

Postmodernism, however, is not a pictorial style. It is a way of thinking. And one of its principal thoughts has been that it is time to sever the very chain of stylistic history that museums have helped to forge, a chain that has become as much a confining shackle as a stabilizing anchor.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that institutions haven’t rushed to embrace, promote and put into practice a principle that would seem to require a thorough overhaul of everything they’ve long held dear. But here’s a dilemma: How can museums, which in increasing numbers are rushing to embrace contemporary art, effectively deal with a school of artistic thought that is essentially contradictory to their own established patterns?

Inadvertently or not, the Museum of Contemporary Art is tackling the conundrum. The experience of going there is individualized, made refreshingly surprising. “Constructing a History” manages to break the cookie-cutter mold, whereby museum collections everywhere are looking more and more alike.

For me, the biggest surprise of all, and the one that persuades me the museum is onto something, is that I was actually engaged by the inclusion of Jules Olitski’s monumental 1967 canvas, “Tender Boogus.” Inch for inch--and there are a lot of them in this 21-foot-long painting--this is probably the silliest, most vapid work around. So what’s the deal?

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Olitski’s position in the 1960s is fixed. As the avatar of color-field painting, proposed by the influential critic Clement Greenberg to be the most important art at a moment when Pop and Minimalism were disrupting the flow of aesthetic traffic, Olitski was set up as a historical inevitability--as next in line to be acclaimed a master. It didn’t happen. A minor distraction, color-field painting got run over.

The episode, still being sorted out today, is a pivotal one, and certainly ripe for any serious understanding of recent history. But how to acknowledge it in a museum?

If organized according to the history of styles, a collection featuring Olitski would appear to regard him as a genius. One that banished him from the kingdom would leave an embarrassing hole, conspicuously suggesting he’s a colossal flop and rendering the historical moment unspeakable. Either way, culture gets played as a gross cartoon.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, however, you’ve been primed. Rather than links in a chain, history is offered as a matter of discussion, argument and persuasion, spoken through the language of art. No longer a fixed polemic, “Tender Boogus” is restored to being simply a painting. Not a very good one, in my far from lonely estimation, but that’s the point: Critically poised, you find yourself looking at a work of art and asking, How did history happen?

In the permanent collection of a museum, who could ask for more?


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