ART : Maybe He Has the Right Idea : The coveted honor has its risks, not the least of which is the notion that the artist's time has come and gone

Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer

Did he or didn't he?

When Edward Ruscha made his negative declaration about retrospectives in a 1979 pastel drawing, was he telling the truth, or engaging in a crafty bit of self-promotion? After all, retrospective exhibitions--or, in the case of relatively young artists, mid-career surveys--are among the art world's highest honors.

"There's something in the heart of an artist that never wants a retrospective," says Ruscha, who at 54 has already had two (in 1982-83 and 1989-91). "The ring of a retrospective makes some of the best people cringe and stiffen." Although he based his legendary drawing on a remark made by his friend actor Bud Cort, Ruscha says the statement reflects the "push-pull, love-hate" feelings of visual artists who dread the specter of finality that accompanies retrospectives.

Artists are understandably ambivalent about summing up their careers, but a retrospective can confer a degree of validation that is difficult to win by any other means. The right retrospective--one that is organized by a respected curator at a prestigious institution, travels to other high-profile museums, attracts international critical attention and is thoroughly documented by a well-illustrated catalogue--is a peak event in an artist's life.

Artists need the exposure and respect that Class A retrospectives provide. Curators build their reputations on these exhibitions. Museums compete for the most coveted retrospectives and bargain with each other to arrange itineraries for the ones they organize. Which is to say that the territory of contemporary artists' retrospectives is a minefield of explosive egos, emotions and politics.

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which organizes and serves as host to more retrospectives of living artists than any other museum in the country, has been vehemently criticized for giving too much attention too soon to such art-world fashion plates as Julian Schnabel and for failing to accommodate the likes of Chris Burden, a "difficult" artist whose challenging work questions societal ills. The museum's recently announced plan for a full-dress retrospective for Richard Avedon--primarily known for his fashion photography--set off a firestorm of controversy.

"You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't (have a retrospective)," says John Baldessari, an enormously influential conceptual artist whose mid-career survey, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, ended a two-year tour in January at the Musee d'Art Contemporain in Montreal. Only a handful of artists would dream of turning down a major museum's offer of a traveling retrospective, but these shows entail an exhausting amount of effort, he says, and there is no guaranteed payoff.

"The benefit is that you get to see a large body of your work up at one time--something you can never physically achieve yourself. The exposure is undeniably helpful, but there are risks," Baldessari says. The big picture that emerges from a survey may not match the artist's view of his own oeuvre . Collectors may refuse to lend key works to the show, or only grant permission for the most prestigious museums on a tour. And curators naturally have their own ideas about how the artist should be represented, he says.

"If you are doing a good job on a retrospective you are going to be joined at the hip with the artist for about two years," says Lisa Lyons, who organized traveling retrospectives for Chuck Close and William Wegman before assuming her present position as director of the Lannan Foundation. "Both curators and artists face hard choices," she says. While curators ponder prospective candidates, "artists ask themselves, 'Are these people and this museum going to do well by me?' "

There is reason to worry because retrospectives imply a degree of finality that puts curators on the line and makes artists uncomfortable. "When you do a retrospective, you don't just do a show on an artist, you do the show," says Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. "A retrospective has to be more than an assembly of two or three gallery shows. You have to show a full-blown development or a series of breakthroughs--a large body of work that, when brought together, says something the art public doesn't already know."

But once that happens, there isn't likely to be another major survey of an artist's work for 15 or 20 years.

"You get to be stamped an official artist and kicked upstairs where you can be dismissed," Baldessari says. "The artist gets to be sort of like a chess player; you can be interchanged with any other artist by museums who are in the business of bringing people into the museum."

"I've probably had my five minutes," says Alexis Smith, whose mid-career survey recently closed at the Museum of Contemporary Art. "But now I'll be more free to go back to the studio and do what I want to do."

Smith--a Los Angeles-based artist known for collages inspired by popular culture--is pleased with the generous exhibition her work received at MOCA and gratified by the critical acclaim it generated. "It's the best possible presentation of my work," she says. But preparing the show and catalogue was "unbelievably inconvenient and stressful and hard on everyone," she admits.

Having a retrospective entails "a weird process that forces you into self-examination and taking stock of yourself," Smith says. "I had to rethink what I did throughout my life."

Despite the trauma of dredging up one's artistic past and seeing it march around the walls of a museum, there is no better way than a well-chosen retrospective to present an artist's oeuvre to the public. Little wonder, then, that these comprehensive exhibitions have become a staple of museum programs. But who decides what artists will be given vast spaces in museums and where their shows will travel? The answer to that one is easy: Curators originate ideas and take them to museum administrators for approval.

A more difficult question is how curators make their choices. A quick look around town might suggest that Los Angeles connections are an asset. Having done a bang-up retrospective for Baldessari, MOCA just feted Smith. Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, this spring's "Lewis Baltz: Rule Without Exception" tracked the career of an influential photographer who grew up in Newport Beach and studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Claremont Graduate School. Four years ago LACMA mounted a hugely popular survey of the work of David Hockney, a renowned British artist who resides in Los Angeles.

These four examples suggest that Los Angeles museums automatically mount retrospectives when deserving natives and adopted sons and daughters develop a far-reaching reputation, have a significant impact on their peers and reach a certain age (59 in the case of Baldessari, 41 for Smith, 46 for Baltz, 50 for Hockney).

The facts dispute that perception. For one thing, the Smith show was organized by the Whitney, not MOCA, and Baltz's retrospective arrived here courtesy of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. For another, being on the receiving end of such shows is not a rare occurrence. The County Museum of Art has been host to comprehensive surveys of the work of such major Southland figures as Ruscha, Richard Diebenkorn and Billy Al Bengston--all organized by out-of-town museums. LACMA's Mike Kelley retrospective, scheduled for the summer of 1994, is the creation of the Whitney.

Similarly, MOCA has welcomed--but not originated--traveling retrospectives for such prominent Los Angeles-based artists as Ruscha and Jonathan Borofsky, photographer Garry Winogrand and architect Frank Gehry. The museum is in the process of organizing retrospectives for Robert Irwin and John Cage, two seminal artists with L.A. roots, but four other L.A.-connected retrospectives--for Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Vija Celmins and Bruce Nauman--will be imported during the next couple of years.

The Hockney show, which traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London, is the only major traveling survey for a Los Angeles-based (though hardly local) artist that LACMA has organized in the last 10 years. Baldessari is the only Los Angeles artist to receive a full-dress, on-the-road retrospective from MOCA in the museum's eight-year history. A William Brice retrospective, which went from MOCA to the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, was sponsored by the Fellows of Contemporary Art, a free-floating group of local art patrons.

Is this a scandal? If so, it is an enormously complex one.

A survey of a dozen key museums across the country reveals that outside of New York, few institutions make a serious effort to organize major traveling retrospectives for artists who live in the community. It can be argued, however, that no area outside of New York has been the home of so many significant artists as Southern California.

Indeed, the perception than Los Angeles artists are better appreciated elsewhere is such a long-festering issue that 17 years ago the Fellows of Contemporary Art established a program to sponsor mid-career surveys and other exhibitions featuring local artists. The group has no building and it spends a mere $75,000 to $85,000 for mid-career surveys--in contrast to budgets of $200,000 and up for museum-organized retrospectives--but it offers exhibitions in exchange for space.

Museums have coveted space, but they also have agendas designed to satisfy diverse constituencies. The County Museum of Art, for example, has 10 curatorial departments dealing with everything from ancient Assyrian artifacts to contemporary American paintings.

"We feel an obligation to show the work of artists who are part of the Los Angeles scene," says Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, outgoing director of the County Museum of Art, who is headed for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But he believes the museum fulfills that obligation in smaller shows, such as a group of five one-person exhibitions currently on view.

LACMA threw its weight behind Hockney because "he is a major artist who has made Los Angeles his home, has interpreted Los Angeles and whose art has been affected by Los Angeles," Powell says. "His art has had an impact on other artists, and his 50th birthday seemed an appropriate time to take a look at his work."

As an institution devoted to postwar art, MOCA's scope is relatively narrow. But the museum's program is a delicate balance of disciplines (painting, sculpture, photography, performance, video and architecture), artistic generations and local, national and international interests, says Sherri Geldin, associate director.

To justify the expense and effort of organizing a retrospective--which entails arranging loans, setting up an itinerary and publishing a catalogue--curators must be persuaded of an artist's significance and influence on his peers. And timing is critical, according to Whitney curator Richard Armstrong. If a retrospective comes too soon--as some critics judged the case of Terry Winters at the Whitney--it can do a disservice to the artist. If it's too late--as was said of New York artist Robert Longo's retrospective at the County Museum of Art--even the best curatorial effort can't resurrect an artist who is perceived as irrelevant.

There are also market factors to be considered. While a major museum show tends to escalate prices for an artist's work, "a retrospective can be the kiss of death," says MOCA's Schimmel. "It stops the artist from working for two or three years, and when it is over the market for the artist's work may have peaked."

Given these dangers, it is not surprising that curators compete for prime candidates and search for overlooked artists. When Armstrong seized upon Richard Artschwager as a subject of a retrospective, he based his decision in part on the fact that Artschwager's work was not well known because it had been in and out of favor. Judith Tannenbaum, associate director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, decided to pursue Vija Celmins after a New York gallery show renewed her admiration of the artist whose work is highly regarded but rarely exhibited.

Lyons determined that a retrospective for Chuck Close was in order when she visited his studio. "Here was one of most important artists of his generation--the single most important artist of his generation to work with photographs--and his work had not been seen in a large gathering," she says. "There was a significant body of work and a dearth of serious critical writing about him."

No matter how curators say they select artists for retrospectives, "it comes down to curatorial passion," Schimmel says. MOCA curator Julia Lazar naturally took on the forthcoming John Cage retrospective because of her passion for temporal art, he says, while museum director Richard Koshalek is curating MOCA's Robert Irwin retrospective because of his longstanding association with the artist. One measure of these allegiances is that curators who change jobs take planned retrospectives with them. Elisabeth Sussman, who began working on the Mike Kelley retrospective while she was at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, is now organizing the show for the Whitney, her present employer.

As to the artists, those in demand can hold out for the best offer. Other retrospective wars are won by long-term loyalties or assorted bargaining chips. As it turns out, MOCA approached Smith about a retrospective but the invitation came too late. She had a longstanding agreement with Whitney curator Richard Armstrong, who began following her work more than a decade ago, when he served as curator at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego). In the case of Baldessari, the County Museum of Art popped the question first, but MOCA won by agreeing to grant art historian Coosje van Bruggen the copyright on a book in progress, which became the exhibition catalogue.

These days, decisions about who organizes what retrospective are strongly influenced by the increasingly international perspective of leading museums. While New York art magazines review foreign exhibitions and international art fairs (often featuring the same artists) cover the globe, curators from Cologne, London, Paris, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles fish in the same stream. And they fight to land the big ones, regardless of where the artists come from.

Meanwhile, European curators have been busy organizing retrospectives for American artists. Ruscha's recent survey, which appeared at MOCA, was the work of curators at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Sam Francis' upcoming retrospective is being organized for the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle in Bonn by Francis' old friend Pontus Hulten, founding director of MOCA.

This notable lack of regional logic works both for and against artists. While satisfying mandates to play in the international big leagues, museums grant less preferential treatment to local artists. This reduces the number of slots that might be available to members of the home team, but it also has the effect of presenting the lucky few in a more prestigious context.

The concept of contemporary artists' retrospectives has changed significantly over the past few decades. Once viewed as lifetime achievement awards and often staged posthumously, true retrospectives have turned into mid-career surveys. Frank Stella has distinguished himself by having two such exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, an institution that generally reserves such honors for deceased artists. During the '80s, when the contemporary art scene became more active and the market heated up, aggressive young hotshots began to have mid-career surveys almost before they had careers--and certainly before they had amassed a significant body of work.

Those days are over, according to many curators, but retrospectives are unlikely to fade away. The decisions will simply get tougher as the world grows smaller.

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