The ‘Human Nature’ of tastes in art

The title “Human Nature” could sound like an odd name for an eclectic display of contemporary works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Here’s a big brass abstract sculpture, polished to the nines, by Donald Judd; there’s a video self-portrait of Rodney McMillian dancing to “I Loves You Porgy”; and over there, an elaborately staged color photograph by Yinka Shonibare, who’s posing as a Victorian dandy.

But the organizers of the show -- Franklin Sirmans, head of contemporary art, and associate curator Christine Y. Kim -- didn’t choose the title lightly.

“We gave the nod to Bruce Nauman by calling the exhibition ‘Human Nature’ after his neon,” Sirmans says, strolling into a gallery where a dazzling wall piece, “Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know,” flashes contrary couplings of words and phrases. Some of these mixed messages follow a circular path at the center of the work; others fan out like off-kilter spokes of a wheel.


The “nod” acknowledges Nauman’s 1968 work as a keystone of the collection. But the title also reflects a collective take on human nature. “With these artists, you get many views, which is why we love contemporary art,” Sirmans says. “The ambiguity of human nature corresponds to the ambiguity of art post-1968, when you have a plurality of modes and styles of working in different media.”

The exhibition itself is a many-layered thing. Meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Modern and Contemporary Art Council, it includes about 20 works -- including the Nauman, Judd, McMillian and Shonibare -- acquired through the private support group. The show also tracks the evolution of the collection and the tastes of previous curators.

As relative newcomers to LACMA -- Sirmans arrived in January 2010, Kim about four months earlier -- the “Human Nature” team had to get acquainted with the museum’s 2,000-piece holding of contemporary art before it could make selections.

“We kept printing out different checklists and looking at them over and over to see what stuck. That helped us make connections,” Sirmans says. “We could have done three or four different shows, and there’s a bunch of really good stuff that got left out. This is an iteration. It’s one way of looking at post-'68 contemporary art, as well as a bridge to what’s happening in the modern galleries.”


The show, which fills the second floor of the Broad building, doesn’t adhere to a strict chronology. Although the year 1968 is the museum’s dividing line between modern and contemporary art, a few works in “Human Nature” were made before 1968 and the installation intentionally “mixes things up,” as Sirmans says.

Nonetheless, the exhibition progresses thematically from body and performance work to Minimalism, and then to works that incorporate text. Next come a room of assemblage and another of video. The last half of the show heralds the arrival of globalism, while taking note of L.A.'s rise as a major production center of contemporary art.

“This is a big, cosmopolitan city,” Sirmans says. “We could show the same representation that you could see anywhere. But why? We have all this great work here and we should be able to tell that story, our take on being here. It’s natural to be in conversation with artists here and to acknowledge the fact that Los Angeles has changed a lot over time.”

Veterans of the art scene may recall that an exhibited work by Sol LeWitt, “Wall Drawing #295: Six Super-Imposed Geometric Figures,” was inaugurated at L.A.'s Claire Copley Gallery in 1976. It soon entered LACMA’s collection, thanks to the council, in the form of precise instructions on how to re-create the work by drawing white chalk lines on a black wall.

“Pieces like that give you an idea of what curators here were thinking about,” Sirmans says. Nearby, he points out a 1966 vacuum-coated glass cube by Los Angeles artist Larry Bell and notes, “That’s super important for L.A. and super important for us.”

“The Last Supper,” a 1988 assemblage by the late Noah Purifoy featuring empty sardine cans as dinner plates, hasn’t entered the collection yet. But it’s on Sirmans’ wish list, and he has reason to hope. The owner is Terri Smooke, a long-time council member whose husband is a LACMA trustee. She spotted the piece in the museum’s rental gallery, took it home and later bought it. Sirmans’ full title is the Terri and Michael Smooke curator and department head of contemporary art.

The Modern and Contemporary Art Council was born in 1961, four years before the museum left a multipurpose institution in Exposition Park and opened its own space on Wilshire Boulevard. The council claims to be the longest-running museum support group of its kind in the country. At LACMA, it’s one of 10 such groups devoted to curatorial departments. The council known as the MCAC has about 200 members, who pay $40 to $3,000 in annual dues to build the permanent collection and participate in special programs.

As wall labels in “Human Nature” attest, LACMA receives occasional gifts of contemporary art from many sources, but the council is one that can be counted on year after year. About 800 artworks in the collection have been purchased in part or in full by the group.


“The pieces they have brought to LACMA are integral to any means of understanding and looking at contemporary art here,” Sirmans says.

“It would be hard to imagine not having those acquisitions,” he continues. “We are fortunate to have people who are passionate about what we do, who actually pay money to demonstrate their support -- which is pretty cool.”