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MOCA's new chief curator gets crowd laughing in first L.A. appearance

MOCA's new chief curator gets crowd laughing in first L.A. appearance
The Museum of Contemporary Art's new chief curator, Helen Molesworth. (John Kennard / Los Angeles Times)

The Museum of Contemporary Art's new chief curator, Helen Molesworth, is an esteemed scholar, art writer and former chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston for four years before taking her Los Angeles post in September.

On Thursday night, in Molesworth's first public appearance here, many learned that she's also very funny.

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During an art talk moderated by the museum's director of education, Catherine Arias, Molesworth showed slides of some of her favorite artworks, all the while careening between absurdist observations, wry asides and the occasional Dennis Hopper impression.

The crowd of 100 or so was quiet at first as Molesworth introduced herself at the podium in a silky, black pantsuit. To the bout of soft, scattered clapping, she quipped: "Thank you, I like a terse response."

The room loosened up.

"There's a lot of reasons to take a job in Los Angeles," Molesworth continued. "Doc Rivers is now the coach of the Clippers."

More laughter.

On a more serious note, Molesworth said that one of the attractions of the job at MOCA was its permanent collection.

"It's always thrilled me; I'll be honored to add to it," she said. "When I walk through the permanent collection I'm overwhelmed."

One sign of art's greatness is that you can't get it out of your head, she said, before then inviting the audience into her head by way of showing slides of some of her favorite artworks that, in one way or another, all seemed to wind their way back to Robert Rauschenberg.

Molesworth opened with an installation view of Rauschenberg's "wildly three-dimensional" work "Untitled Combine, 1954," also known as "The Man in the White Suit," currently on view at the museum. She followed it with an image of a Rachel Harrison sculpture, "I'm No Monkey, 2005," also on view at the museum, adding that the artist's work is "difficult, sticky, craggy" and, demonstrating the tone of the piece, she jokingly flipped off the audience.

Molesworth anchored her slide show with references to artist Marcel Duchamp and sculptor Constantin Brancusi. "Brancusi and Duchamp, for me, are twins, they are fraternal in a horizontal brotherly dialogue," she said.

Duchamp's 1917 porcelain urinal, "Fountain," epitomizes context, she said, something that's of the utmost importance to the curator. "It's the context that gives art its value," Molesworth said. "A urinal in a bathroom is one thing; a urinal amended and signed on a pedestal in a museum, something else."

During the Q&A with Arias after the slideshow, Molesworth talked about driving to Los Angeles when she was an undergrad at UC San Diego, to see MOCA's 1992 "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" exhibition. "I in no way understood it, but I thought: 'Whoa, OK, that's a thing!'" she said.

She also named former MOCA curators who had influenced her early in her career, including Anne Goldstein and Paul Schimmel. "'Schimmel,' as he's called in the trade, was a kind of model," she said.

To Arias' question about how she'd like to see the evolving downtown L.A. scene reflected at MOCA, Molesworth was 100% candid: "I have nooo idea," she joked.

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"I know that Downtown L.A. is changing, I can feel it, I can see it, it's really exciting. But I don't know what it means!"

When the laughter quieted down, Molesworth added: "L.A.'s a 21st century city; but, you know, the 21st century is only 14 years old, man, and I just got here 30 days ago!"

Twitter: @debvankin

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