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A Statement That’s Broad but Not Bold

TIMES ART CRITIC

Between the end of World War II and the end of the 1970s, New York was the single authoritative force in contemporary art. Individual artists elsewhere might occasionally break through, but they were few and far between. Besides, as one influential critic put it at the time, virtually any artist, anywhere, who developed a vital reputation automatically became “a New York artist.”

The 1980s changed that dynamic.

The decade witnessed the beginning stages of an authentic shift in art, an internationalization that today is taken for granted. Two phenomena heralded the transformation.

One was the sweeping return of European art and artists to a stature they held before the continental devastation of the war.

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Art had never gone away in Europe. But in the ‘80s the new British sculptors, the so-called “trans-avant-garde” in Italy and, especially, the German Neo-Expressionists came roaring to the cultural foreground.

The other signal phenomenon was the rise of Los Angeles artists into widely accepted prominence. The ascent had begun in the 1960s, but deep recession in the 1970s put an abrupt stop to that.

By the end of the 1980s, though, L.A. had matured into an internationally significant center for the production of new art, a role it fulfills today.

For the first time since the early 19th century, when Boston, Philadelphia and New York were rivals, the United States could claim more than one urban artistic powerhouse.

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At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a new exhibition organized by curators Stephanie Barron and Lynn Zelevansky pivots around the transformative decade of the 1980s.

“Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections” assembles 106 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 25 artists, culled from the enormous personal and foundation holdings of local businessman Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe.

Legitimate questions can be raised about the propriety of LACMA showing the collection of one of its trustees, without having already secured it as an actual or promised gift.

Many (though not all) major American museums forbid the practice, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Washington’s National Gallery and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.

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A platform is given to a narrow conversation between the museum and a collector, leaving the public with its nose uncomfortably pressed up against the window.

This overcrowded show is just a curatorial wish list for donations, and thus not engaging as an exhibition.

But it is here, the quality of individual works is often high, and something useful to know emerges from the enterprise.

Broad, a multibillionaire, is perhaps the wealthiest collector of contemporary art in the nation. The possibility for influential leadership inherent in that singular status is incalculable.

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The show demonstrates that it has largely been unrealized. The Broad collection has been mostly irrelevant to shaping the discourse of contemporary art during the past 25 years.

It represents lots of established artists but largely follows the more adventurous leads of others.

The show reveals a deep insecurity at the highest echelon of the city’s cultural life--in both its most powerful contemporary art collector and its largest civic museum.

That disappointing reality becomes painfully obvious in the collection’s presentation of the pivotal 1980s.

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The show includes some exceptional paintings by German Neo-Expressionists Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and especially Anselm Kiefer.

The show also looks back to the 1960s and 1970s, when Baselitz was painting disjunctive works based on torn pictures of heroic subjects, while Kiefer was painting monumental, roughhewn images. Both express the anxiety of German history, where intellectual grandeur mingles freely with unspeakable horror.

The New York variant of Neo-Expressionism is also well served. Excellent examples by Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl, Susan Rothenberg, David Salle and especially Jean-Michel Basquiat are on view. “The Walk Home” (1984-85), Julian Schnabel’s monumental assemblage of smashed and paint-slathered crockery and copper gargoyles, which bob in the roiling miasma, is among that erratic artist’s more powerful works.

The return of European art and the effulgence of painting in New York in the 1980s are given careful consideration.

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What’s missing entirely, however, is the other critically significant development of the period--the rise to prominence of Los Angeles artists. About that pivotal phenomenon this Los Angeles collection is silent. History confirms an outlook that was speculative but widely felt at the end of the 1980s.

The two indispensable American artists to emerge early in that decade were Cindy Sherman, working in New York, and Mike Kelley, working in L.A.

Both artists have been hugely influential, here and abroad.

The Broad show features 18 exceptional examples of Sherman’s photographic masquerades, culled from more than 100 in the collection. Kelley’s work is absent.

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“Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons” does include remarkably strong examples by both major artists in its title--and, as with Sherman and others, in exceptional depth.

Among the six paintings and one collage by Johns are the exquisite “Untitled” (1975), the first of an important series of hatched paintings in red, yellow and blue encaustic; “Flag” (1967), a signature work that epitomizes Johns’ declared intention to paint things “the mind already knows,” thus altering our ordinary relationship to artistic subject matter; and “Watchman” (1964), painted during a stay in Tokyo and recently acquired in anticipation of this show (for a reported $17 million).

Koons is represented by a remarkable group of seven sculptures.

Especially notable is the New Yorker’s newly completed “Balloon Dog,” seven years in the making.

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Twelve feet long, 10 feet tall and crafted from dazzling blue stainless steel, the gleaming sculpture displays a monumentally improbable buoyancy. You can’t help but feel giddy in its presence.

Still, the title of LACMA’s show is initially hard to fathom.

Citing Johns and Koons doesn’t represent the oldest and newest pieces in the show, which actually starts with Robert Rauschenberg. Nor does the show culminate in Koons’ aesthetic--commercially sleek, post-Pop sculpture, which matured around 1985 as a wry antidote to the painterly enthusiasms of Neo-Expressionism.

The show actually extends to another crucial artist--L.A. sculptor Charles Ray, represented by six works.

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Ray’s sculpture creates psychologically disorienting perceptual conundrums. It came into its own in 1986 and was central to art in the 1990s.

Broad recently acquired (from British collector Charles Saatchi) numerous examples, including Ray’s great mannequin sculpture, “Fall ’91"--an 8-foot-tall high-fashion Amazon dressed in hot pink.

The commanding, hand-on-hip presence of this Vogue Athena reduces a hapless viewer to a giggling state of infantile yearning, mixed with awe and trepidation.

Calling the show “From Jasper Johns to Charles Ray” would more accurately represent both its contents and the complex cultural shifts that actually occurred in the 1980s.

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Instead, about L.A. we get bewilderment. LACMA director Andrea Rich, writing in the catalog, says the show concludes “with works by younger Los Angeles artists Charles Ray and Sharon Lockhart.” Ray, who is Lockhart’s senior by a decade, is not a younger artist; at 48, he’s in fact two years older than Koons.

In addition to Neo-Expressionism, the collection’s other main focus is Pop art, including its deep roots in the work of Johns and Rauschenberg and its continuing resonance in Koons and Ray.

There’s only one Rauschenberg, but it’s his drop-dead 1954 collage on canvas, “Untitled-Red Painting.”

The 10 screened pictures by Andy Warhol are of haphazard quality, as are the four paintings by Edward Ruscha. The unmistakable Pop star here is Roy Lichtenstein.

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Ten of Broad’s 27 paintings by the artist are on view, and five are classic comic-book works from the 1960s. They critically dismantle earlier styles of painting, ranging from French Impressionism to Color-field, by embodying their unique intentions in the unexpected visual language of mass media.

The collection’s dual focus on Pop and Neo-Expressionism is telling.

Both are movements that were fueled by aggressive commerce. Today it’s easy to forget how puny the American market for new art was before the 1960s.

The market’s collapse amid waves of recession that began at the end of that decade was not reversed until the 1980s. First Pop, then Neo-Expressionism were its principal beneficiaries.

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The show’s title doesn’t reflect the spread of art on view or the artistic shift of the 1980s, but what it does pinpoint is the show’s span of artists who work in New York, at the epicenter of the international marketplace.

Broad might be insecure about art, but he didn’t get to be the 53rd richest man in the world (according to Forbes) by being insecure about business. You leave LACMA’s Broad exhibition with a head full of if-only’s: if only the collector had paid commensurate attention to L.A. art in the 1980s; if only he had done so in the 1990s. Broad mostly relegated new art from L.A. to the corporate collections of his former businesses.

If only Broad displayed the cultural confidence of a Saatchi, who likewise plunged into major collecting with the 1980s Neo-Expressionists, but who later switched to an emphasis on the hitherto unknown, unheralded young artists of his own city and--almost single-handedly, and with far more limited fiscal resources--shone a spotlight on London as a vital center for new art. If only LACMA weren’t so willing to go along for the ride.

If wishes were horses, of course, art critics would ride. While we wait for the valet to bring the chariot around, we’ll just have to console ourselves with the chance to peruse several dozen masterpieces.

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“Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Jan. 6. Closed Wednesdays.


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