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Critic’s Notebook: A tale of 2 planned McLaughlin retrospectives

Here’s one tangible sign of the beneficial effect of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-sponsored initiative to exhume the mostly under-recognized history of important Los Angeles art in the first generation after World War II: Southern California museums are now competing over the legacy.

How high have the stakes quickly become? Let’s just say the competition is so eager that it doesn’t always mean a fair fight.

One museum has publicly announced plans to organize a retrospective of a major but under-sung L.A. painter — even though officials knew that another museum already had the same show in the works for several months.

On Wednesday, I noted in a column that the Orange County Museum of Art had revealed plans to organize a full retrospective of paintings by John McLaughlin (1898-1976). OCMA director Dennis Szakacs and the museum’s new chief curator, Dan Cameron, who joined the staff in January, unveiled the exciting news at lunch three weeks ago. McLaughlin, a brilliant self-taught artist, ranks among the great American painters of the 20th century — and the first to have emerged in L.A.

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By 1952 his rapidly developing paintings began to seriously fuel a distinctive merger of European abstraction and Asian aesthetic philosophy. The fusion unfolded over the next two decades in an unprecedented body of influential work.

McLaughlin’s art was featured in group and solo museum shows during and after his lifetime — including one at the Pasadena Art Museum organized in 1963 by legendary curator Walter Hopps. The Pasadena show immediately followed the landmark retrospective of Dada iconoclast Marcel Duchamp. McLaughlin’s cross-cultural abstractions were iconoclastic in a wholly different way; yet, nearly four decades after the artist’s death, no museum has mounted the essential retrospective study such a major figure warrants.

In the column I described the OCMA plan as “very good news indeed.” That surprised the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — and rightly so.

Why? Because LACMA is already in the midst of planning a McLaughlin retrospective of its own.

Oops.

LACMA hasn’t formally announced the exhibition — not unusual for a major show several years down the road, an undertaking that requires extensive preparation. But their planning for a McLaughlin retrospective preceded OCMA’s, which hasn’t actively begun. I spoke with LACMA senior curator Stephanie Barron, who told me some prospective private and public lenders were contacted by LACMA several months ago. Formal offers have already been made to two prominent American museums where the show might travel.

Worse, OCMA officials knew what LACMA was doing. In early February, a month before my lunch with Szakacs and Cameron, they were notified by LACMA of advance planning for its McLaughlin show.

So what was up with OCMA? Why did the museum announce an exhibition that it knew another, more prominent museum already had in the works?

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I wanted to put that question to Szakacs, OCMA’s director, but he was unavailable by telephone. By e-mail, he reaffirmed his museum’s intentions: “We are, indeed, working on a major retrospective of John McLaughlin. His work was featured prominently in our 2008 exhibition ‘Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury,’ which led us to begin working on the project. McLaughlin was a major presence in our community and many of our collectors have significant holdings of his work. Since April 2011 we have been in discussions with museums about an exhibition tour.”

It’s true that McLaughlin lived in Orange County (Dana Point), although his exhibition history and critical exposure took place 60 miles away in the burgeoning artistic center of L.A. But the assignment of an exhibition curator who arrived at the museum in January for a project ostensibly in the works for four years is odd.

Whatever arguments the two institutions might have with each other going forward, it’s pretty clear that the essential McLaughlin retrospective will be at LACMA. (Expect it in three to four years.) Not only is its actual planning already underway, but the venue is more prestigious, which will appeal to lenders and touring partners. The museum also has highly regarded conservation capacities that can handle the often-fragile paintings the artist made, their delicate surfaces demanding pristine care. A well-known issue any retrospective will need to address is the conservation status of many McLaughlin paintings.

The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time emphasized theme shows to encompass swaths of Southern California art history, large and small, rather than individual artists. It unearthed a lot. Again and again, however, encountering examples of the work of one artist or another whetted the appetite to see it in greater depth. So this much is certain: Given all the exceptional art that has gotten a passing PST spotlight in recent months, OCMA still has lots of tantalizing retrospective possibilities to choose from.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com


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