Old-guard star power -- but little coherence

Times Staff Writer

An old stereotype says that Hollywood is not hostile to Los Angeles art museums, just indifferent. So call it at least unconventional for a new museum building to open with a prominently displayed painting by a movie director currently nominated for an Academy Award.

Julian Schnabel has directed three first-rate movies since 1996, culminating in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” But since he exploded onto the New York art scene 17 years before making his first film, he’s been a terribly erratic painter. Schnabel’s monumental agglomeration of broken dishes slathered with paint, “The Walk Home” (1984-85), is among his better works, and it’s installed on the second floor at the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum. BCAM opens to the general public Feb. 16, with previews starting today, as the seventh building on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus.

This Oscar-meets-art-museum aberration turns out to be one of the few unconventional features of BCAM, a boxy travertine barn designed by Italy’s Renzo Piano, today’s favorite architect for American art museum trustees. Seven Piano-designed museums have already opened or will soon, and he was recently awarded the commission to expand Louis Kahn’s iconic Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Like Schnabel, the architect is an establishment art world celebrity.


Old-guard star power characterizes the inaugural BCAM show, largely composed of loans from the private and foundation collections of Eli and Edythe Broad. (LACMA owns just 15 of the 176 displayed works.) Yes, there’s a lot of great material. How could there not be, given stellar examples by an artist roster that includes John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Charles Ray, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol?

Yet, mostly the exhibition just looks expensive. Really, really expensive. In deciding what to exhibit, art museums everywhere now strongly favor wealthy collectors over artists and art professionals, and slashed government spending at every level (except defense) keeps contemporary cultural institutions hostage to private interests. Ours is an era of supply-side aesthetics, trickling down on the public. BCAM’s loan-show debut is emblematic of the economic elitism humming loudly this presidential election year.

The show has three focal points. First is 1960s Pop art, with roots in Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. (The thin Rauschenberg holdings are bolstered by critical loans from New York’s Sonnabend Collection.) Next are 1980s Neo-Expressionist paintings and works from related movements, as well as precursors.

Eighties art is as diverse as Susan Rothenberg’s reintroduction of representational imagery into gestural abstraction, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti-fueled canvases and Sherman’s self-portrait photographs pitting individual identity against media-driven cliche. Jeff Koons’ life-size souvenir portrait of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee, is rendered in gilt-edged white porcelain, making for a colossal cultural knickknack worthy of the decadent Sun King, Louis XIV.

Last comes the post-movement era of the last 15 years, when art’s rising cost seems to guide so much activity. Damien Hirst is one bloated example. The only artist in the show who is not American, he is also the only new artist whose work the Broads have added in depth.

Hirst was a cornerstone of the Young British Artists, who exploded onto the recession-tossed international art scene in 1992, fueled by collector Charles Saatchi’s smartly wielded checkbook. Like Schnabel, he is notoriously overrated. Nothing has quite matched Hirst’s infamous 1991 sculpture made from an actual shark embalmed in a tank of formaldehyde, which made his reputation.


Among the Broads’ recent buys is a similarly pickled lamb, bought at auction in 2006 for $3.38 million. But none of the nine Hirst works is especially compelling. The newest -- a commissioned triptych imitating a Gothic stained-glass window made from thousands of butterfly wings, like a Martha Stewart craft project on steroids -- is frankly embarrassing.

For the statistically minded, three of the 28 selected artists are women, and six are Angelenos. (They were chosen from the Broads’ roughly 2,000 works by more than 140 artists.) Seen in multicultural Los Angeles, the general ethnic whiteness is blinding.

That failing has not been helped in additional works that LACMA commissioned or bought for the site, including sculptures and wall-works by Baldessari, Chris Burden, Michael Heizer, Robert Irwin, Barbara Kruger and James Turrell. (Not all these works are yet completed or installed.) Still, another statistic is the one that startles most.

Of 176 works on three floors, 139 are by artists who have shown with the same gallery -- Gagosian, commonly considered today’s leading commercial powerhouse. That’s nearly 80%. BCAM turns out to be GCAM. Such a narrow vision feels insecure, more investment deal than adventure.

As an exhibition, it’s incoherent -- a counterfeit permanent collection that is actually a temporary loan, on view for a year. The only prominent link between Leon Golub’s flayed Expressionist paintings of chilling Third World torturers, Roy Lichtenstein’s cheeky high-style cartoons and Ellsworth Kelly’s shaped abstractions made from pure color is that the Broads bought them all. The collectors’ taste is the show’s subject, not the art. The misdirection of visitor attention is a primary reason that major museums, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, maintain a commendable policy of not showing private collections.

The exception is when the collection, or a significant portion of it, is already pledged as a gift. LACMA organized a similar Broad show in 2001, hoping to get a donation. Two years later, the collectors instead pledged a new building ($56 million) and modest purchase funds ($10 million, mostly spent on Serra’s fine, room-filling steel sculpture, “Band”). Eli Broad told The Times he wouldn’t be paying for a new building if he didn’t intend to donate a portion of his collection. But last month he decided his private collection would instead be given to his foundation, and no art would be given to LACMA.


There is profound irony in this discouraging about-face. Before World War II, virtually no market existed for contemporary American art and most museums were apathetic. Today, market sanction can be nearly instantaneous. The big cultural narrative of the last quarter-century has been the rapid institutionalization of new art. More than anything, BCAM tells the transformation’s story.

The show’s three distinctive focal moments -- the Pop ‘60s, the Neo-Ex ‘80s and today -- represent art’s three most robust market spikes, each larger than the last (and the first two followed by collapse). In LACMA’s new entry pavilion, Koons’ massive bouquet of colorful, reflective stainless steel, “Tulips” (1995-2004), acknowledges that commercial history.

A typical floral greeting, the savvy work is also an industrial-strength evocation of the art market’s birth in 17th century Holland. The mirrored flowers recall the human vanity symbolized in Dutch still-life painting and the disastrous economic bubble of the epoch’s tulip-mania.

Because construction of the building wasn’t completed until immediately before the opening, LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky and Director Michael Govan had no chance to get to know the six loft-like gallery spaces they had to install with art. So the installation has some problems, such as temporary walls creating narrow, hallway-like rooms on the light-filled top floor.

But one installation is inspired. Three dozen of Sherman’s photographic self-portraits, in which she dresses up as a wide variety of art-inspired personalities, are installed in the 19th century Victorian manner -- floor-to-ceiling and edge-to-edge -- like pictorial wallpaper. The Gilded Age attraction to buying art in bulk to provide a refined pedigree for the super-rich is devastatingly lampooned.

In one Sherman self-portrait, she’s a grotesque painted clown, the artist as culture’s jester, who has twisted balloons into a dog for the kiddies. Upstairs, Koons’ monumental sculpture “Balloon Dog (Blue)” holds court over a main room. As our own period of opulent self-indulgence unravels, her work offers a welcome sense of refuge.