Column: 9 ways in which Helen Molesworth’s permanent collection show at MOCA is upending the story of art

MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth stands next to a sculpture by Liz Larner in the exhibition “The Art of Our Time,” which shakes up the nature of the permanent collection show.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Enter the permanent collection galleries of any museum of modern and contemporary art in the United States and it’s likely you’ll lay eyes on a familiar story: the muscular narrative of the Abstract Expressionists — Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, et al. — attacking their canvases in their 1940s cold water flats, creating a distinctly American art out of drips and splashy brushstrokes, continuing through the pathways of ’60s Pop (Andy Warhol) and ’70s Minimalism (the metallic stacks of Donald Judd) before landing at the Neo-Expressionism of the ’80s (Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel). It’s an arc that generally features a lot of dudes doing genre-busting stuff — taking on the establishment like a wild bunch of MFA-armed cowboys.

Pay a visit to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, however, and you will see that story turned on its head. The museum’s chief curator, Helen Molesworth, who joined MOCA in 2014, has gotten hold of the museum’s permanent collection and rearranged it in a way that not only makes the story of 20th century art seem fresh, it positively crackles. “The Art of Our Time,” at the museum’s Grand Avenue location through April, weaves in countless other stories into this familiar narrative.

“This historical story that we tell, it begins with this idea that New York stole the art world after World War II, and that there’s a certain kind of Modernist described by critic Clement Greenberg and everything proceeds apace,” Molesworth says. “For many, many years, we were very comfortable with that story. But then, as a result of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, gay liberation, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the rocking of our geopolitical boundaries and the rise of the Internet, we come to realize that the story we used to tell doesn’t begin to encompass the fullness of the world as we know it.”


Molesworth’s rehang has drawn raves from the critics. The Times’ Christopher Knight named it one of the 10 best L.A. museum exhibitions of 2015. It is also a sprawling show, featuring almost 170 objects from throughout the 20th century and the early parts of the new millennium. Here, she gives us a tour of some of the exhibition’s most captivating corners:

Rather than beginning with New York, Molesworth opens the show in North Carolina. Specifically, with a look at the work of the students and faculty of the highly influential Black Mountain College, which operated from 1933 to ’57 near Asheville, and whose program was run by seminal Modernist Josef Albers. As a result, the first gallery offers fascinating juxtapositions of artists — from California sculptor Ruth Asawa, known for her elaborate woven pieces, to Abstract Expressionist master Willem de Kooning to pioneering video artist Charles Atlas.

“I wanted to make a gesture about how important art schools are for the ecosystem of the art world,” Molesworth says. “If you start looking at the history of art schools, you don’t have that classic narrative of master names. ... It gets us away from this idea that artists are radically unique individuals who work alone and have a vision that is theirs entirely. ... So all of a sudden you can just be looking at what influences an artist had and how an artist comes into being.”

The work of Armenian-born painter Arshile Gorky (1904-48), who landed in the U.S. in the wake of the Armenian genocide of 1915, is generally shown with the Surrealists and the Abstract Expressionists, figures for whom the canvas represented a space in which to pour out their subconscious. As a result, Gorky generally hangs near well-established figures such as Roberto Matta or Jackson Pollock. Molesworth, however, puts him right next to a drawing by Alina Szapocznikow (1926-73), the Polish artist who produced ethereal-looking sculptures of disembodied female body parts.

“We know Gorky, we revere him,” Molesworth says. “But Szapocznikow none of us knew about until relatively recently. ... She too like Gorky, had a very intense personal story: She lives through World War II, members of her family are killed, she’s in a camp.”

Together, both of the artists’ works explore the biomorphic, undulating lines that evoke internal organs. “One of the things that Szapocznikow also lets us see,” adds Molesworth, “is that drawing can be as powerful as painting.”


A room devoted to the clean lines of Pop (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) surprisingly includes gritty assemblage, including pieces by California artists Bruce Conner (1933-2008) and Betye Saar (b. 1926). “I think that assemblage and Pop are two halves of the same coin,” Molesworth says. “Pop is all about the commodity good on the shelf. Assemblage is really dirty and is about the commodity good in the trash.”

It also pairs assemblage works by a white male artist with a black female one. “For Bruce Conner, the discarded has a bit of romance about it — it’s about seeing the beautiful in the degraded,” she explains. Saar’s piece, however, offers a different view.

“In the use of this black rag doll, which has a strong evocation of the mammy figure, assemblage shows its political hand,” Molesworth says. “It shows that what we throw away are ideas we don’t want to deal with. Objects, even benign objects like a doll, are saturated with ideological meaning.”

If architecture could have ghosts, artists Robert Overby (1935-93) and Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-78) could be said to have captured their spirits in art: Overby with a latex mold of a degraded building, Matta-Clark with a cutout of a chunk of floor from a New York City building.

“I liked this idea of a conversation across coasts,” Molesworth says. “Gordon Matta-Clark was a super East Coast artist, a super New York artist. And Overby was super West Coast. Matta-Clark is interested in gentrification, and Overby is interested in process and materials. And yet these two objects had a kind of interesting way of getting us to think about Ars longa vita brevis — you know, the inevitable nature of decay, even in this space that’s dedicated to preservation.”

About halfway through the exhibition, Molesworth has a room devoted to the body — a subject that pops up regularly in museum group shows but isn’t always accorded oodles of real estate in permanent collection exhibitions, especially when that art is made by women. In this space, the curator includes images of Ana Mendieta’s (1948-85) silhouette series from the 1970s, one of Senga Nengudi’s (b. 1943) taut pantyhose sculptures and Barbara T. Smith’s (b. 1931) glittery depictions of body parts.


“The only way we can change the story in the museum is by buying and preserving and displaying this work,” Molesworth says. “So it was important to me to not have this work only be in those group shows about the body but to actually put it out there and get people used to it as the new canon. The new canon includes Senga Nengudi and Ana Mendieta. It includes women who were exploring form and material aesthetics through a highly articulate way of thinking about the fact that half of the world has a female body — and that means something.”

On the north side of the museum are works made mostly over the last 20 years. Greeting museum-goers as they land in this area is a massive bridge sculpture by L.A. artist Chris Burden (1946-2015), a cardboard box painting by Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros, and a light-up sign by L.A.’s Sam Durant (b. 1961), which reads, quite hopefully, “We Are the People.”

Each piece casts a gaze on post-industrial society. “I was interested in that quality of art that concerns itself with the made work — particularly at a time when ‘making’ is under pressure,” Molesworth says. “We’re no longer a manufacturing society, but we still act as if we are. So how do we value labor in the new world order that we live under?”

Burden’s sculpture is a paean to engineering that is its own work of engineering. The Durant sign hearkens to workers — and “as much to democracy as it does to communism,” says Molesworth. The box by Los Carpinteros, upon closer inspection, looks downright Escher-esque. “It’s the most inefficient box ever made, which is what I think they were interested in,” Molesworth says, “the ludicrous quality of our cut-up and assembled world.”

“I know there are institutions that would not let me do this, but that is the joy of working at MOCA,” Molesworth says with a laugh. “We are a museum of contemporary art, we are about the now. And being about the now is taking risks.”

In a single gallery deep on the north side, Molesworth has brought together a suite of works that take on the issue of sex and sexuality in weird and funny ways — from a cigar sculpture by Robert Gober (b. 1954) to portraits of de-sexed androgynes by Matthew Barney (b. 1967) to a cartoonishly provocative painting of a blond by Lisa Yuskavage (b. 1962).


“It’s OK to laugh in this room,” says Molesworth. “I don’t think anyone is going to come into this room and say, ‘Hey, let’s go home and make love.’ The room is funny. [It’s] about the futility of desire, the ludicrous nature of desire ... the way that it’s sold to us and we think it’s ours but it isn’t.”

At the center of a gallery stands a sculpture by David Altmejd (b. 1974), a bright, shining tower of mirrors and birds and reflective shards. “It’s only on second glance that you realize that part of what you’re looking at is a tableau or diorama where there’s a dead and rotting male figure who is in a kind of sadomasochistic gear,” says Molesworth. “You’re looking at this macabre scene where fantasy has led to death and decay.”

Molesworth surrounds this with pieces that aren’t quite what they seem. A glittery apparition of a monkey by Chris Ofili (b.1968), a sprightly figure by Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972) made of densely collaged bits, and a placid landscape by Fred Tomaselli (b. 1956) composed of diligently arranged pills.

“This is all about artists where [the work] is greater than the sum of its parts,” Molesworth explains. “Whether it’s the drugs in Fred’s work or the cutouts in Wangechi’s or the glitter in Chris Ofili’s. In all of these, somehow these small things come together to form a picture.”

The first thing you see is a flickering neon sign by Glenn Ligon (b. 1960) that reads “America, America” face down on the floor. On the wall is a joyous video by A.L. Steiner (b. 1967) and the dance duo robbinschilds, showing two female dancers cavorting around various U.S. landscapes. On the wall hangs a self-portrait by L.A. photographer Catherine Opie (b. 1961), depicting a happy family scene bloodily carved into her back, and a Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) painting of a custodian figure, who seems ready to sweep the place up.

Together, the pieces play with established notions of America and the American landscape. Steiner’s video, says Molesworth, counters the widely held view of the Southwest as a place “filled with cowboys and men.” Opie’s and Basquiat’s pieces question the inclusivity of our democracy. And Ligon’s mysterious installation pokes at ideas of American might and exceptionalism.


“You can’t tell for sure whether the sign has fallen or is about to go up,” Molesworth says. “And you can’t tell with the flickering light whether the project of America is over and dying or if it’s on a kind of life support or that no matter how hard things get, this dream, this promise of America has the tenacity to keep on working.... I think that sculpture is about what it feels like to be in that place, where you can’t really tell which America you live in.”

The Opener

The story of American art generally begins in Manhattan; Molesworth heads South:

A man and a woman

A famous Armenian American painter and a lesser known Polish one bring out the best in each other’s sinuous lines:

Black and white


Two works of assemblage offer different perspectives on the power of old objects:

Art and architecture

Artists on opposite coasts obsessed with the nature of structures:

All about the body

Art that examines our physical selves — in particular, women:

After the factory


Art in the wake of the Industrial Revolution:

The sexy room

Sexuality and desire get picked apart and examined (quite humorously):

Magically unreal

A series of works that play with perception:

America reconsidered


An alternative look at the area between the shining seas:

“The Art of Our Time,” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Grand Avenue location through April 30. 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles,

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

Twitter: @cmonstah