ART : Public Warm, Critics Cool Toward ‘Helter Skelter’


“I had it all wrong. I thought there would be a public outcry against the exhibition and a supportive critical response,” said Paul Schimmel, curator of “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” as the controversial show approached today’s closing. “Instead, the public has loved it. We have had about 100,000 visitors, a phenomenal number for a contemporary art show. They keep coming back and writing favorable comments. But at the same time, we have received some very strong critical opinions--some thoughtful, some outraged.”

None was more outraged than Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, who wrote: “If you thought new American art couldn’t get much worse than it was by the end of the 1980s, visit MOCA and learn.” He granted faint praise to works by Chris Burden, Victor Estrada and Manual Ocampo, but declared that Mike Kelley’s installation is “visual zit popping” and pronounced Raymond Pettibon “the nadir of this Valley Girl Dada.” Hughes’ conclusion: “Helter Skelter” proves that MOCA is the Louvre of adolescence.

New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman reached a similarly damning judgment: “The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging. . . . Unfortunately, the movement turns out to be good old adolescent nihilism.”


Newsweek critic Peter Plagens also bemoaned the latest proof that art is “regressing toward adolescence,” then issued a report card: “Art, B-minus; Sociology, C.”

West Coast writers generally took more kindly to the exhibition but expressed serious reservations. Christopher Knight, The Times’ art critic, said that pitting “an art of Darkness & Claustrophobia” against Los Angeles’ defining art tradition--Light & Space art of the ‘60s--didn’t work. “Helter Skelter” is too busy “fiddling with established public perceptions” to answer profound questions about the rise of this dark sensibility, he concluded.

Writing in Artnews magazine, Los Angeles critic Hunter Drohojowska applauded the show for “shedding light on several artists whose disturbing works have remained mostly underground phenomena” but complained that the message is “watered down.”

Ralph Rugoff of the L.A. Weekly charged that the show cops out by avoiding more issues than it confronts and by neglecting “the politics and aesthetics of race and class.”

“I’ve been quite surprised by the sheer quantity of coverage,” Schimmel said, in a telephone interview. “I expected a lot of local coverage and hoped for national attention, but I never imagined that there would be so much interest internationally,” he said, noting that lengthy articles have appeared in European newspapers and magazines and that Chinese, Canadian and British television have covered “Helter Skelter.”

The attention has been gratifying and many of the artists in the show have been invited to participate in other exhibitions as a result of the publicity, he said. But the critical fray has been troubling. “I feel that the show got too far ahead of the art,” he said, explaining that many critics got so carried away with writing about the show’s theme that they failed to address individual artworks. “I don’t blame the critics for that. It has to do with how the show was perceived,” he said.