Art Review: Pacific Asia Museum goes modern, for the time being

One of the unexpected dividends of the Getty’s far-reaching “Pacific Standard Time” series is the cross-pollination of audiences and institutions; another is focused historic perspective. The Pacific Asia Museum, not known for modern-art exhibitions, is playing host to a modest retrospective of the influential Pasadena Art Museum. The former was initially housed in the Pacific Asia’s building, hence the title of the show: “46 N. Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum.” It’s a nifty piece of site-specific heritage in the form of a mixed media art survey.

Long before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art debut in the 1960s, the Pasadena Art Museum mounted important modern-art surveys. From the late 1920s, downtown L.A. had a modernist cell centered on the Jake Zeitlin bookstore, and the Westside was where many of the European intellectual exiles lived. Pasadena was seen as a culturally sleepy bedroom community, albeit one with wealthy families. In 1942, the Pasadena Art Institute combined with the one-year-old Pasadena Museum of Art and took over 46 N. Los Robles Ave., keeping the name Pasadena Art Institute. The name changed to the Pasadena Art Museum in 1954.

Innovative community arts programs for schoolchildren and shows by photographer/artist Man Ray followed. An infusion of more than 450 modernist works from collector Galka Scheyer in 1953 was a watershed acquisition for the museum. The German emigre was the U.S. representative of “Blue Four” artists Wassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee. A geometric watercolor by Kandinsky is notable for its precise draftsmanship and characteristic colorful harmony.

The Pasadena Art Museum hosted the first California Design show in 1955, which featured the forward-looking work of Charles and Ray Eames, so why no mention of them? Solo Pasadena Art Museum shows for SoCal surrealist Helen Lundeberg and hard-edge pioneer John McLaughlin were rare museum endorsements for the emerging artists who would be the object of “Pacific Standard Time” these many years later.

Walter Hopps, the brilliant curator who championed the Ferus Gallery rebels, began organizing Pasadena Art Museum shows in 1960, and the museum quickly became as important to L.A.’s late-century modern art as it earlier had to European modernism. Career surveys of Ocean Park painter Richard Diebenkorn and German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters preceded Hopps’ epochal Marcel Duchamp retrospective of 1963. This world-class gathering of the seminal works of the grandfather of conceptual art capped Duchamp’s activity. A poster for the show, designed by the artist, shows Duchamp in mug shots, identified by aliases, last seen working in a New York butcher shop called Hooke, Lyon and Cinquer.

It is curious that the Duchamp display doesn’t use the iconic image to come from the show: Julian Wasser’s black-and-white photo of the old man serenely sharing a game of chess with a nude woman, the future writer Eve Babitz.

Work from subsequent Pasadena Art Museum shows hint at an important era: a rarely seen Ed Kienholtz painted construction, Joseph Cornell’s sweet little “Hotel du Nord” box, Larry Bell’s reflective glass box, Robert Irwin’s sublime light disc, Craig Kaufman’s sleekly sensual orange vacuum-formed plastic, a surprisingly lyrical John Chamberlain miniature metal sculpture, the vibrating colors of Ken Price’s Figurine Cup III, a stack of Warhol Brillo boxes, a collapsed giant ketchup bottle by Claes Oldenburg, among others.

The Pasadena Art Museum left the building in 1969, and Norton Simon oversaw the institution beginning in 1974. When the organization was absorbed into the Norton Simon Museum, a cutting-edge institution that balanced local modernists and gray eminences with ties to Europe vanished. It’s worth a trip to Pacific Asia to reconnect with that fascinating era.

KIRK SILSBEE is a veteran writer and critic on jazz and culture and is a frequent contributor to Marquee.


What: “46 N. Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum”

Where: Pacific Asia Museum, 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena.

When: Through April 8. Open Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Contact: (626) 449-2742 and

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