Just How Contemporary?

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

Los Angeles is one of only a small handful of cities internationally that can claim to be a major player in the discourse of contemporary art. The reason is simple: Since the late 1950s, a critical mass of important artists has flourished here.

It is because of those artists that an influential institutional matrix representing 20th century art has also emerged. Museums require the challenging and disruptive inquiries of artists; otherwise, they're just static cultural bank vaults.

Today, it's impossible to imagine this city's art life without the Museum of Contemporary Art or the programs in 20th century art offered by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. So embedded are they in the civic warp and weft of our cultural fabric that it's hard to remember a time when they didn't exist.

In reality, though, that time wasn't so very long ago. What a difference a mere decade makes.

Ten years ago this month, Los Angeles was lolling in the afterglow of two back-to-back extravaganzas that forever changed the cultural life of the city. On Nov. 23, 1986, LACMA opened its $35-million Robert O. Anderson Building for 20th Century Art, a massive structure fronting Wilshire Boulevard that gave the weight of bricks and mortar to the museum's bid for prominence in the presentation and interpretation of the art of our time.

Seventeen days later, on Dec. 10, MOCA opened its $22-million building on Grand Avenue, establishing a permanent downtown home for the display of current art that joined the museum's makeshift warehouse space in Little Tokyo. (The warehouse, dubbed the Temporary Contemporary in anticipation of its abandonment after the opening of the Grand Avenue building, has since become a permanent fixture of MOCA.)

L.A. hasn't been the same since. And if the programs offered by these two institutions have frequently reached stellar heights, energizing a sense of civilized cosmopolitanism in our otherwise often brutish daily lives, there is still a sense of something not quite right--something out of kilter or lacking. MOCA and LACMA have settled on a plateau, elevated high above the drab and ordinary landscape but not yet representative of the kind of dramatic change in cultural outlook that has been the lifeblood of this city's artistic legacy.

Our museums are lagging way behind our art.

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MOCA, the Anderson Building and the programs they were designed to accommodate couldn't have been more different from one another. Their relationships to current art are likewise distinct.

LACMA's Anderson Building is just one component of a much larger complex, an encyclopedic museum spanning thousands of years and scores of historical cultures. MOCA, by sharp contrast, regards only the art of the last 50 years or so, seen in splendid isolation and focused mostly on Western cultures.

MOCA occupies a more bustling urban location than LACMA, which was built on the old-fashioned, 19th century contemplative ideal of the museum in a park. And as works of contemporary architecture, the Anderson Building, clunkily designed by Norman Pfeiffer of the firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, is almost universally deplored, while MOCA, elegantly designed by Arata Isozaki, has been more widely praised.

In bureaucratic organization, MOCA makes few distinctions based on artistic medium. LACMA is more compartmentalized, with separate departments of photography, decorative arts and prints and drawings distinct from its department of 20th century art. As a result, those specialized mediums aren't often granted the high visibility of shows in the Anderson Building.

LACMA has also always had an aura of establishment old money, while MOCA capitalizes on the sizzle of younger flash with Hollywood connections. Because the Anderson Building and MOCA were being planned and built at roughly the same time, it was only natural that a certain rivalry would bubble up between them. And even though both institutions have downplayed it, a competitive spirit is unmistakable--and beneficial.

So what has been the effect during the past decade of these two exhibition spaces for Modern and contemporary art? Most critical has been the creation of significant permanent collections--the bedrock of any museum. The top three floors of Anderson are devoted to the collection, and if MOCA still cannot boast any galleries solely for display of the permanent collection at either of its two locations, it has nonetheless assembled a steady diet of more than 45 special exhibitions drawn solely from its remarkable holdings.

Neither museum, however, does a very good job of integrating L.A. into the larger history of postwar art. The failure is disheartening, especially as you can be sure that no museum outside California is going to do it.

Still, 15 or 20 years ago it was next to impossible to get any sense at all of postwar American and European art from museum collections here. Not only are those days definitively over, but no American city save New York can claim finer institutional holdings overall in contemporary art.

Permanent collections might be museum bedrock, but the event-oriented excitement of temporary shows is what gives the places juice. During the past 30 years, they've become an international museum staple. Since opening its doors, MOCA has presented just over 100 shows, slightly more than half of them major undertakings. The Anderson has offered more than 50, slightly more than half of those also ranking as major. Many have been outstanding.

Competitively, the museums are pretty well matched. MOCA's curatorial staff, which currently numbers six, originated 23 of those exhibitions. LACMA's curators, now numbering four, originated 24. The remainder at both museums consisted of traveling shows organized by other museums in the United States and Europe. And while it's difficult to make direct comparisons to other institutions in other cities, given the wide range of shapes museums take, LACMA and MOCA plainly rank high as active, influential programmers of 20th century art.

If one unique, distinguishing feature had to be singled out for each institution's program since 1986, it's this: LACMA, unlike most encyclopedic museums, which focus their early 20th century shows on French art, has given prominence to an alternative history of the influence of German culture. (Its sixth such show in 10 years, "Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler," will open in February.) And MOCA, unlike most contemporary museums, which acknowledge the design field in limited ways, has put architecture front and center, with five sprawling exhibitions devoted to architectural history, contemporary architects and pressing urban design issues.

The museums have been smart. LACMA senior curator Stephanie Barron has had a long-standing interest in German art (her husband, Robert Gore Rifkind, is also a patron whose major collection of German Expressionist graphics is housed at the museum), and MOCA Director Richard Koshalek had his professional training in architecture, not art. They've carved out distinctive niches using overlooked or neglected topics, giving their institutions sharp profiles in the highly competitive international museum arena.

The same cannot be said, though, for the two museums' programs in postwar art. No distinctive profile has emerged. The irony is that one reason for the vigorous sense of excitement that surrounded the back-to-back openings 10 years ago was the recognition that, since the 1960s, Los Angeles had emerged as that truly rare thing: a lively, distinct and influential center for the creation of important new art.

L.A. was only the second American city that could legitimately lay claim to such substantial artistic prominence, taking its historic place in proximity to Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Mexico City, New York and a few others. The situation was certainly unique, since those other 20th century artistic centers emerged in contexts principally defined in relation to established traditions of art, while L.A.'s art had exploded within a context largely shaped by popular culture and the modern entertainment industry.

Yet, despite some efforts, no L.A. museum was a truly vigorous advocate for presenting, studying or promoting this extraordinary phenomenon.

They still aren't. Some curious revelations can be gleaned from looking more closely at their exhibition histories.

Neither museum has attempted the daunting task of organizing a full history of the city's postwar art. (Ironically, the first such exhibition is now being organized in Europe; next spring, Denmark's Louisiana Museum will open a much anticipated survey of L.A. art since 1960.) Specific L.A. episodes, such as Assemblage art and Pop, have also been largely left to smaller museums in the region.

Both museums, however, have put together group exhibitions of new art with substantial attention focused on artists based in L.A. Among them was the second show in the Anderson Building--1987's "Avant Garde in the Eighties," a huge and finally chaotic look at recent international art that brought together work by more than 100 European, Japanese and American artists, 16 from L.A. And MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel assembled 1992's hit show, "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s," which dubiously proposed the emergence of a long-repressed "dark side" to sunny Southern California art, but nonetheless succeeded in catapulting several of its 16 artists into international prominence.

When a museum chooses to highlight the work of an individual artist, its institutional clout is put to most dramatic use. Institutions being notably clumsy and unwieldy, of course, that clout can sometimes actually squash the artist, like Steinbeck's Lenny inadvertently petting a bunny to death.

LACMA and MOCA have done small, focused shows with numerous area artists, including Judy Fiskin, Roger Herman, Peter Shelton and Jennifer Pastor, whose wildly beautiful "surfing Christmas trees" are currently at MOCA. Most important, though, the two museums have together made 13 L.A.-based artists the subjects of full-scale retrospectives or mid-career surveys.

MOCA has presented 10 of those: John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, Richard Diebenkorn (paintings), Robert Irwin, Edward Kienholz, Ed Moses, Edward Ruscha, Alexis Smith and two for Bruce Nauman (a full retrospective and a second one focused on drawings). LACMA has mounted six: Billy Al Bengston, Richard Diebenkorn (drawings), Mike Kelley, Lari Pittman and two for David Hockney (one of paintings, one of drawings).

Not surprisingly the double-headers--Diebenkorn, Hockney and Nauman--were shows by artists who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. They are figures of established stature.

But consider this: Only two of the 16 retrospectives were of artists who came to prominence during the past decade, the period in which MOCA and the Anderson Building have been in operation. And both of those artists--Kelley and Pittman--have had their shows at LACMA, under the auspices of curator Howard N. Fox.

You might expect MOCA, not LACMA, to have seized the moment by presenting surveys examining the most important new international artists in our midst, but that has not been the case. Thanks to Fox's tenacity, LACMA takes those honors.

Here's another curious factoid: In the past decade, MOCA organized just three of its 10 retrospectives of L.A.-based artists (Baldessari, Irwin and Moses), while during the same period it organized four large-scale architecture exhibitions. Museums partly demonstrate their commitments by the shows they choose to organize themselves. The general perception that MOCA is unusually committed to architecture seems justified.

LACMA only organized two of its retrospectives (Hockney's paintings and Pittman), but the relative dearth of such locally organized shows reflects a larger institutional conundrum. By the 1980s, New York had lost its singular hold on establishing reputations in contemporary art, but it retains enormous influence. Many American artists want their shows seen there, and so do many career-minded curators. It is thus far easier for New York museums to export their shows to L.A. (and elsewhere) than it is for museums in L.A. (and elsewhere) to export their shows to New York. You sometimes get the feeling that L.A. retrospectives and period surveys don't get done here because Manhattan venues are hard to come by.

The mind-set that says a show or retrospective is momentous only if it's seen in New York or embraced in Europe is profoundly conservative. It also ignores precedent. "Helter Skelter" traveled nowhere, yet it ranks among the most influential contemporary shows of the 1990s. The Pittman retrospective is now in Houston and will also be seen in Washington but won't hit New York; still, the show is easily the most important mid-career survey mounted in the United States in recent years.

What's needed is an attitude adjustment--the confidence to assert artistic significance, without anguished concern for establishment ideas promoted in New York or Europe. MOCA and LACMA sometimes screw up the courage, but not nearly often enough. And too often they blindly recite tired pieties, which undermine their purpose.

An unwitting example of the problem can be seen at MOCA now. In "Color Fields," a show of abstract paintings from the permanent collection, an introductory wall text casually instructs that the term Hard-edge painting "was adopted in 1959 to describe Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly's interest in the potential of geometric form and color." In reality the term "Hard-edge" was coined for a 1959 show at LACMA, specifically to describe the work of four L.A. artists--notably John McLaughlin, whose gorgeous black-and-white painting "No. 7" hangs not 30 feet from the wall text.

Of course Stella, who was the subject of a 1989 extravaganza in the Anderson Building, developed his signature style in New York; and Kelly, who will be the subject of a retrospective arriving at MOCA in February, conjured his in Paris. Poor McLaughlin had the misfortune of creating his in Southern California, becoming the first authentically great postwar artist in L.A. Tellingly, neither museum has ever given him a retrospective; as with L.A. Assemblage and Pop, it took another small area museum to do that.

You would expect this kind of wall text error at a museum in Manhattan or Cologne, but MOCA and the Anderson Building were established to rectify just that sort of self-destructive parochialism. Maybe it's a matter that's finally out of their hands, given that museums in a commercial culture such as ours can only secure an artistic reputation if a market also stands behind it. But as we celebrate their 10th anniversaries, it's plain that while these two museums have racked up impressive track records, there's still a ways to go.

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