There’s ‘Sexual Politics’ and Museum Politics Too

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

In the year now concluding, the art world was in the process of figuring out some pretty thorny issues. Like ways to fund cultural institutions, how to loosen the deathly grip of the academy, the future of multiculturalism, whether the art market will revive--little things like that.

Confusion reigns, as usual. Still, a variety of notable exhibitions and events took place in Southern California--some notable because they were good, some because they were not. Here, in no particular order, are 10 of them.

1. BEST MUSEUM SHOW. With its brash mix of demanding rigor and open-hearted generosity, “Lari Pittman” set the town on its ear. The mid-career survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in June followed the artist’s development over the course of 15 years, beginning with frankly decorative mixed-media paintings and ending with exuberant extravaganzas that are among the finest paintings being made anywhere today. Together with a fine retrospective of the L.A.-based artist’s drawings, organized by the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara last spring, the show made 1996 Pittman’s year.


2. BEST GALLERY SHOW. Ken Price kicked off the season in January with a delicious group of sexy, large-scale, candy-colored ceramic sculptures at L.A. Louver Gallery. In the late 1950s Price figured out that traditional ceramics could be a wholly unexpected venue for the new hybridization of sculpture (as clay form) and painting (as ceramic glazes), which was starting to shake up American art. He’s been upping the ante ever since, in a long career of extraordinary achievement.

3. BEST GALLERY DEBUT. Michelle Fierro assembles abstract paintings from floor sweepings and studio detritus, scattering the flotsam on her canvases and sometimes even piling it up into tiny little towers that are bolted down from behind. At a time when abstract painting is considered by many to be a marginal artistic activity, the canny inventiveness of her oddly poignant method results in fragile surfaces marked by determination and yearning. Fierro’s September solo debut at Burnett Miller Gallery was memorable.

4. OUTSTANDINGLY BAD MUSEUM SHOW. “Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ in Feminist Art History” was a must-see exhibition--much the way a 12-car pile-up on the 405 demands that passing motorists stop and gawk. Chicago’s gigantic tchotchke was a pop culture phenomenon in 1979, but the gruesome show at UCLA’s Armand Hammer Museum, bolstered by a catechism of inert academic theory, treated the ceramic souvenir as a holy icon and the audience as either pietists or penitents. By default, a variety of first-rate feminist artists got demoted to the ranks of Chicago acolytes. Yikes.

5. MOST OUTRAGEOUS MUSEUM SPECTACLE. The normally sleepy Laguna Art Museum had a banner year. First it auctioned off (for no defined purpose, except to rake in a cool $1.7 million) its uniquely distinguished holdings of some 90 photographs by Paul Outerbridge--a 1968 gift of the artist’s widow. Then, badly bungling an eventually consummated merger plan with the Newport Harbor Art Museum, it ripped its constituency into warring factions. At least Laguna followed through on two outstanding shows--”The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism” and “John McLaughlin: Western Modernism, Eastern Thought”--both initiated by a prior administration.

6. FONDEST FAREWELL. The Otis Art Gallery ended a 39-year stint at its MacArthur Park location, as the school with which it’s affiliated prepared to relocate to Westchester. The gallery will reopen in February at 9045 Lincoln Blvd., but the future of the MacArthur Park space has yet to be determined.

7. BEST HAUL. The L.A. County Museum acquired a dramatic 17th century Italian painting by Carlo Saraceni, one of Caravaggio’s most gifted disciples, and unveiled an important theatrical landscape by the eccentric 18th century French painter Hubert Robert. The Museum of Contemporary Art snared 83 postwar works on paper from the estate of Marcia Simon Weisman, including exceptional examples by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and others. But--surprise!--it was the J. Paul Getty Museum that kept making news, first with a rare High Renaissance masterpiece by Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517), then with one of the greatest still lifes by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and, finally, with a trove of 300 ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities from the incomparable Fleischman collection.


8. SHARPEST U-TURN. A wealthy foundation seeks to raise funds from cash-strapped art museums. That’s the backward scenario sadly unveiled by the Lannan Foundation, which is attempting to sell--rather than give--to American art museums nearly three dozen important works in its collection. Why the startling ethical lapse? Despite an existing endowment of $170 million, Lannan wants to turn some of its art into yet more cash to directly fund social charities.

9. BEST MAKEOVER. At LACMA, curator of European painting and sculpture J. Patrice Marandel completed a deft redesign and reinstallation of rooms for 17th and 18th century French and Italian art, transforming our perceptions of the museum’s increasingly fine holdings in those areas. The galleries never looked better.

10. BEST MISSED SHOW. One nice thing about L.A.’s cultural life is that it’s far too big for any one person to be able to see everything, thus fueling that helpful nervousness about having to make choices, distinctions and refinements of judgment. The show I most wanted to see--but didn’t--was “Eakins and the Photograph” at the Huntington Library in February, a display of 30 vintage prints by the great 19th century American painter. Everyone I know who saw it loved it. Sigh.