MoCA’s current exhibition of its permanent collection proves that the museum isn’t just a vital institution for the city in its relationship to this place and its artists, but also to the history of art. A bold statement to be sure, but when the Centre Pompidou did its landmark exhibition of art in Los Angeles, Birth of an Art Capital, it ended in 1980, just as MoCA was suffering birth pangs and the LA was truly coming into its own. Still a bold proposal, the artists and the community we have here now, from the art school's to the outsiders, to the commercial galleries to the alternative spaces, all of them would have a hard time coming into existence, nevertheless surviving without a contemporary museum as the gravitational center of this small solar system.
The show that proves the historical importance of the museum is a big one, over 500 works in almost 50,000 feet of space. Rather than attempt to make it all the way through, I’ll save the second half of the exhibition for a later post; here I’ll concentrate on the first installment of Collection: MoCA’s First Thirty Years housed at California Plaza, which dates loosely up to the founding of the museum. I’ve been to the museum three times to see the exhibition in a week and I still don’t feel like I’ve been able to absorb all of it. It’s one of those rare exhibitions (and I feel like I’m gushingly writing PR copy now) that really does grow and change with multiple viewings.
There are two kind of histories on view in the galleries. The first is the roughly chronological history of contemporary art in MoCA’s collection starting with Piet Mondrian’s 1939 Composition of Red, Blue, Yellow, and White. The second is the history of the patrons who, through their gifts of money and art, formed the core of the museum's collection and its identity. The first few rooms take us from Mondrian’s composition to stunning works by Jackson Pollock to a room of Franz Kline paintings and another of Robert Rauschenberg's Combines. A lot of credit for these are due to a few patrons: Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Marcia Simon Weissman, and Rita and Taft Schreiber. As the art history goes on (and finds itself increasingly in LA), so do the patrons: Michael Asher, Laura-Lee and Robert Woods, and the Lannan Foundation.
Following the collection into California Plaza, the work moves chronologically up to the late ‘70s (although a few later works by artists active in the ‘70s were slipped in), and the way in which the work was acquired also changes. Though gifts still form an important part of the later collection, the big gifts give way largely to acquisitions with "funds provided by" and then the names of the companies and individuals who donated money, showing a faith in the instituion and its curators to choose the collection and its identity.
It is easiest to collect history as it is passing, as Count Panza knew only so well., but to start in 1979 makes for some catching up in the Post-War period. And, as evidenced by this exhibition, certainly MoCA, through the astuteness of its curators, succeeded at this too. Though it’s silly to think about, the room of Rothkos would be unspeakably expensive to acquire in any other way or any other time than the way MoCA picked them up from Count Panza. And though some critics have argued over the years, that MoCA is missing a chunk of art history coming from New York (from Robert Motherwell to Eve Hesse) it does so perhaps by chance, or perhaps because the focus grew increasingly closer to the major artists emerging near home. The museum grew and changed with the times, and became what it is importantly today (though their recent financial crisis may have changed the game some) - a curator-driven museum.
Through the galleries at California Plaza the art history of Los Angeles and beyond slowly merge and come together. Sam Francis and Emerson Woelfer have ceremonial positions in the exhibition, but Ed Ruscha with Lisp, 1968, and the Chocolate Room, 1970 -1994, has an importance that goes beyond any nod to local history. And at first, the parade of art history on view is largely dominated by New York (though a work by Atsuko Tanaka as well as two pieces by Antonio Tapies from the Panza Collection show important artists working outside the center.) But LA, not just with Ruscha, begins to take shape for the present. One of the LA origin legends is when Mike Kelley, rather than following his predecessors and peers to New York after graduating from CalArts. stayed in Los Angeles instead. Though in 1979 there were only a handful of galleries and LA had lost quite a bit of street cred with the catastrophic closing of the Pasadena Art Museum (followed not long after by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemproary Art) there was something about LA for Kelley that was worth sticking around for, I’m glad he did, and that year is represented in the MoCA collection with The Monitor and the Merrimac, 1979, which is from about the same time as his first solo show at Foundation for Art Resources, here in LA.
Though the levels and layers of storied continue, one room, maybe my current favorite in the museum, mixes works by Barry Le Va, Bruce Nauman, Guy de Cointet, Stanley Brouwn, Lewis Baltz, Daniel Buren, and Tony Conrad. Each work, in a deft curatorial concoction by Paul Schimmel responds to the next, making subtle connections to each other and to the history of the museum, not all of which I think I can begin to unlock. Le Va and Cointet deal with a kind of construction of language as a visual trope. Cointet’s piece, Halved Painting, 1976, was involved in his performances here in LA and Le Va’s are marks that only vaguely reference language through its shapes, another impossibility of understanding, but an aspect of performance is definitely involved with his huge pile of smashed glass in the center of the room. (Language and performance are things that Brouwn is subtly working with as well). Furthermore, Brouwn, Nauman, and Buren all appeared in Ann Goldstein’s landmark MoCA exhibition Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975. Le Va and Nauman were in MoCA's 1991 exhibition The New Sculpture 1965-75. Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movie 2/27 – 28/73, 1973, which is a yellow screen made of paint that changes and fades over time, and Nauman’s Four Corner Piece, 1971, in which four cameras chase you around four corners, uare both works that unlock the possibilities of what a moving picture can be in the context of art exhibition. Something Buren is attempting to do with painting with his interminable stripes. And all moving pictures come back to LA itself and its cinematic mythos.
And on the back wall, there’s Lewis Baltz (subject of a MoCA Focus show with Connie Butler in 1998), whose series The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, 1974, show the hideous aftermath of rapid suburban expansion with little thought of aesthetics going on in LA, a deft retort to the cinematic fantasy of LA that became liuder under punk rock and its artists, like Raymond Pettibon. This was what was going in the streets of the city that houses the museum, and the experiments of someone like expat De Cointet. Baltz, in my favorite quote I may have ever read in reference to my hometown, said, “I always believed that God would destroy L.A. for its sins. Finally, I realized that He had already destroyed it, and then left it around as a warning."
This is only one room, and I’m sure I’m missing other threads, other stories.
I don’t believe that any god has left LA around as an example, but unlike Ruscha’s famous Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-68, despite all the troubles with the museum, I’m glad it hasn’t burned down from a fire real or financial just yet. I certainly hope it never does.
Of serious interest is the website the museum has put up for the exhibition available here.
(Images: Piet Mondrian, Composition of Red, Blue, Yellow, and White: Nom II, 1939, Oil on canvas, 17 5/8 x 15 in., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Rita and Taft Schreiber Collection, given in loving memory of her husband, Taft Schreiber, by Rita Schreiber. Edward Ruscha, Chocolate Room, 1970, Chocolate on paper, 256 sheets, each: 27 1/2 x 17 7/8 in.; installation dimensions variable, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Purchased with funds provided by the Acquisition and Collection Committee. Bruce Nauman, Four Corner Piece, 1970, Installation with four cameras and four monitors, Dimensions variable, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Purchased with funds provided by the Collectors Committee)