“I remember in 1992 when I was working on ‘Helter Skelter,’ it was absolutely clear to me that Chris Burden and Mike Kelley were internationally regarded as the artists from Los Angeles for the 1970s and ‘80s,” said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “And I knew--as sure as I am sitting here--that Charley Ray was the artist who would move to the front of this pack in the ‘90s. I also knew that Charley would be the next one-person survey I did.” The show opens today at MOCA.
Six years have passed since “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” created an art-world sensation with a sprawling onslaught of aggressively ominous art that catapulted Schimmel to fame as a champion of Los Angeles’ dark side and aesthetic machismo. The huge, unruly exhibition was panned on both coasts by critics who objected to the title’s reference to the Charles Manson murders and to the art, much of which was dismissed as adolescent grandstanding or chilling nihilism. Nonetheless, the exhibition was a landmark showcase for L.A.'s contemporary art that introduced Ray, among other artists, to a broad audience.
Ray has gone on to achieve international recognition, and Schimmel--a perpetually ambitious and creative curator who turns 44 Tuesday--has organized major exhibitions that have won critical accolades as well as complaints. He wins high marks for doing fresh research in historical shows, often making illuminating connections between disparate periods or bodies of work, but is sometimes faulted for falling short of his responsibility as head of MOCA’s curatorial staff and for being too involved with a small claque of male artists.
Yet others contend that such criticism goes with the territory. “He’s different from everybody else,” dealer Patricia Faure said. “He’s controversial, but he should be.”
Schimmel takes on enormously complicated projects that involve many years of preparation, so his periods of being in the public eye are sporadic. But during the last 14 months he has overseen Robert Gober’s spectacularly memorable installation involving a larger-than-life-size sculpture of a Madonna, subterranean tide pools and water rushing down a staircase, and he has presented “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979,” a massive show stemming from many years of research on the evolution from gestural painting to object-oriented performances.
And now there’s “Charles Ray.” The 25-year survey is installed at MOCA’s main building at California Plaza, following its inaugural run at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show presents Ray’s best-known conceptual sculpture--including a huge steel cube filled with black ink, an 8-foot-tall female mannequin in a pink suit, a toy firetruck enlarged to the size of a real vehicle and an impeccable re-creation of a crashed car, painted a ghostly gray--within a body of work that ranges from early performance pieces to recent experiments with film.
Ray’s exhibition is only the latest entry on a long list of projects Schimmel has realized during the past 23 years--at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston from 1975-78, the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) from 1981-90 and subsequently at MOCA. But the latest show is always the one that pleases him most, Schimmel said, and this one has special meaning because of his 12-year relationship with the artist.
“Charley is an exceptionally visionary artist,” Schimmel said, in a interview at his office. “He makes very compelling objects. They are not aberrations that exist conceptually, and yet his work is immensely satisfying because of the restlessness of his mind. He really is an idea man steeped in the formalist tradition of sculpture.”
Striking a balance between formal and conceptual concerns is familiar ground for the curator. “This kind of conflict is something I have had to wrestle with,” Schimmel said. “Charley is, as I am, of this generation that has straddled Modernism and Postmodernism. As a curator, I go back and forth. I see in Charley an artist who is immensely interesting because of his struggle and what he does with it.”
Schimmel has his own struggles, but he appears to have been born to his job--in New York City in 1954. Even as a kid, “I was always the art guy,” he said, adding that he found his professional direction as a teenager. His high school art teacher took him to museums and artists’ studios, while his English teacher assigned him a research project on Gertrude Stein, the writer and modern art collector.
“New York is an incredible place to do research,” he said, recalling helpful librarians, curators and a magical period spent in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art, when an exhibition from Stein’s collection was in the works. “I still have Instamatic photographs I took of works that were on the racks,” he said.
“The people who helped me thought it was great that a 15-year-old was messing around with this material. I thought, ‘This is a great job.’ And I was right; it is. There’s nothing better than to be alone with the art object itself. The moment you own that exhibition, the night before it opens, before everyone comes in, it’s yours. That intimacy is a privilege.”
Schimmel did his undergraduate work at Syracuse University, serving as an intern at the Whitney Museum in New York and--more significantly--at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, where then-director James Harithas became his mentor. Harithas organized adventurous exhibitions of the work of Yoko Ono, Hermann Nitsch and Nam June Paik, among other artists, during the early ‘70s, but also started a video program and worked with inmates in New York prisons.
He moved to Houston to direct the Contemporary Arts Museum while Schimmel was a student, but Schimmel followed him, working as an intern before receiving his bachelor’s degree from Syracuse in 1974, and then becoming a curator. Almost immediately he began organizing two kinds of exhibitions that characterize his entire career: solo shows for contemporary artists he particularly admires and thematic group exhibitions that explore new territory, often in the cracks of recorded art history.
Schimmel’s first one-person show featured works by Terry Allen, a multifaceted artist and musician whose aesthetic is rooted in Texas. The young curator also organized a show of John Chamberlain’s sculpture in Houston, but his biggest splash was a traveling group show, “American Narrative Story Art, 1967-77,” including works by Alexis Smith, John Baldessari, Vernon Fisher, Laurie Anderson and Duane Michals.
“This was an amazing opportunity for someone in his early 20s,” Schimmel said, looking back on his curatorial debut.
In addition to giving him that opportunity, Harithas taught him about professional survival in the provinces. “A more important lesson I have never learned, truly,” Schimmel said. “It’s that you have historic responsibilities in terms of writing and rewriting history, and you have international responsibilities, but there is no more important responsibility than defining the culture in which you live--both generationally and regionally. Jim emphasized the notion of a regional identity that’s not provincial.”
That’s more difficult to do in Houston than in L.A., he said. “Los Angeles is among a handful of cities that fit into a global matrix of major world-class art centers that does not have a single city as the hub. And that has changed in our lifetime. Back in the ‘70s, everything seemed to have to go through New York. Now we know the impact L.A. has is global.”
Schimmel had intended to go to graduate school after completing his internship in Houston. Although his plan was delayed, he returned home in 1978 to do graduate work at the Institute of Fine Art at New York University. Immersed in a classical art history education, he studied Old Masters and took an eye-opening class in conservation, but also managed to pursue his personal interest in Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s--laying the groundwork for future exhibitions by taking a course with Modernist Sam Hunter at Princeton University.
“Unfortunately, the one thing I didn’t learn was my German,” Schimmel said. “I never passed that exam, so I have a master’s degree minus German.”
He left New York in 1981 to become chief curator of the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Schimmel was only 26, but the director, Cathleen Gallander, had met Schimmel in Texas while she was founding director of the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi.
“He was young, but so brilliant. He always brought an original point of view to things and he cared so much about what he was doing,” said Gallander, who has been an art consultant in New York for the past 15 years. “I thought he would be the perfect creative professional person for the job, and I still think hiring him is the best thing I did for Newport.” During his tenure there, Schimmel organized exhibitions on postwar American painting, including “Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955-60,” “The Interpretive Link: Abstract Surrealism Into Abstract Expressionism, Works on Paper 1938-48" and “The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism.”
Among many exhibitions of works by California artists, Schimmel’s best-remembered show, presented in 1988, was “Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey.” Burden, who has become a close friend of the curator, introduced him to Ray and was also featured in “Helter Skelter.” Schimmel also spearheaded the Newport museum’s acquisition of major works by Burden, Ray and video artist Bill Viola.
“Being here in Los Angeles at this time, when such extraordinary artists are coming of age--my age--has been absolutely empowering,” Schimmel said. “I don’t think you can do historical shows well if you don’t somehow understand the responsibility you have as a historian from relationships with artists who inform you how to see and represent their work.
“I’ve been really lucky to be able to go back and forth from one generation to another. You can get completely overwhelmed in the details of the contemporary experience. But when you are doing a historical show, you can also yearn for the directness you can have with an artist.”
Schimmel left Newport in 1990, moving to the much more prominent position of chief curator of MOCA, where he has continued to organize solo exhibitions, including those for Gober and Ray, and historical theme shows, including “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-1962,” which appeared in 1992. He has played a leading role in the museum’s acquisition of individual artworks, as well as the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection and large holdings from the estate of Marcia Weisman and the Lannan Foundation. And his star has risen in the art world. In the November issue of Art in America, a major New York-based art magazine, three of the eight major articles are about exhibitions organized by Schimmel--two on Ray and one on “Out of Actions.”
Still, he isn’t exactly the darling of L.A.'s art scene, and even some of his fans think he hasn’t lived up to his potential.
“I’ve always thought his historical shows were terrific,” said dealer Rosamund Felsen. “I lobbied twice for him to be chief curator at MOCA, and finally it happened.” But Felsen said she is disappointed that in recent years he has focused so tightly on L.A.'s “machismo art,” instead of exhibiting a wider variety of art from Southern California.
L.A. does not have a strong support system for its artists, so local museum exhibitions are crucial, she said. And because of Schimmel’s talent and high profile, his endorsement can make a big difference in an artist’s career. “Paul is a remarkable curator,” but his viewpoint has become “particularly narrow,” she said. “That’s too bad. We count on Paul.”
Gary Kornblau, editor of Art issues., a contemporary art magazine, also has a conflicted view of Schimmel. “I think he has been extremely inventive in pulling together exhibitions. But as chief curator he hasn’t shaped a curatorial overview or a cohesive conceptual framework. When he was at Newport, you knew there would be something special there. You can’t say that about MOCA. He’s an inventive curator; MOCA needs an inventive chief curator.”
Another sore point is Schimmel’s failure to organize major solo shows for women. He defends himself by pointing out that many of his group shows include a high percentage of women, and that women have had increased prominence at MOCA during his tenure, in exhibitions organized by other curators.
Because of his prominence, Schimmel has been seen as a possible candidate for the spot MOCA director Richard Koshalek will leave next summer. But Schimmel says he doesn’t want the job.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for someone who really has the vision and the resources and the dedication to move this two-facility machine into the future,” he said. “But you cannot do that and sweat the details of the curatorial stuff--working with artists, collectors and objects simultaneously. It’s not possible. And I love being a curator.”
As for leaving MOCA, he said that won’t happen soon. “I’m absolutely confident that there will be a time when I will go back to New York, but I am just beginning to feel I really know how MOCA works. I know my best work at MOCA is ahead of me.
“Working in a museum is not a guerrilla operation,” he said. “These curators who think you can just come in and change an institution on a dime are terribly mistaken. It’s really about building a relationship with staff and trustees and the community and artists. If you build those relationships and then just fritter them away by going on to the next opportunity, you really never will get to do your best work as a curator.”
“Charles Ray” opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 14. (213) 626-6222.