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Critic's Notebook: MOCA should show its own

December 28, 2008 |  3:45 pm

PhonelargeLast week, L.A.’s fiscally teetering Museum of Contemporary Art bought some time. In accepting a $30-million aid package from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, MOCA pushed back imminent collapse and got some necessary breathing room. Now it has a bit of leeway to get its house in order.

Where should the museum start? Let me give a heretical answer.

Do not start with a management reorganization. Do not start with the design of a capital campaign. Do not start with plans to increase the general public profile of the specialty museum, which is commonly regarded as the nation’s finest in the field of art since World War II.

Now is not the moment to tinker. Now is the moment to recommit to first principles.

To get the house in order, start with the reason MOCA — or, for that matter, any art museum — exists: Start with the permanent collection.

Every decision MOCA’s staff and trustees make over the coming months to deal with leadership and financial issues should grow from that remarkable assembly. The museum has acquired some 6,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and drawings over the last three decades. In the big picture, they are what matter, for the city and the future.

MOCA has long demonstrated its commitment to building the permanent collection, which begins chronologically with a lovely abstract grid in red, yellow and blue, painted in 1939 by Piet Mondrian just before the Dutch artist fled Hitler’s army and came to the United States. During the nine-year tenure of director Jeremy Strick, who resigned last week, the collection reportedly grew by a third.

MOCA’s commitment to building a collection, however, has not been matched by a commitment to showing it.

Take Andy Warhol’s foundational 1961 painting “Telephone,” made just before the famous Campbell’s soup cans. The last time it was in the museum’s galleries was October 2006. That’s a shame.

“Telephone” is one of those exciting works that tremble on the brink of a revolution in art. Just over 6 feet tall, the size of a standing person, it shows an old-fashioned two-piece phone — the so-called candlestick design, with a bell-shaped mouthpiece and a hand-held earpiece.

The instrument is rendered in passion-free commercial style, as if copied straight from a newspaper or other machine-printed source. Expressively, it’s as mute as the wide black stripe running down the right side of the canvas.

This ain’t no hip, sleek Princess phone, then newly on the market. Painting, the deadpan image of an outdated telephone cheekily declares, is an obsolete form of communication. Charming, perhaps, in a nostalgic sort of way, but incapable of competing with mass culture’s razzle-dazzle.

That Warhol made an astute painting to deliver this anti-painting declaration is ironic. It’s one of many taunts with which he and other Pop artists wryly reinvented art in the 1960s. That “Telephone” is not on view at MOCA every single day the museum is open is one sad reason MOCA has fallen into disarray.
I’m not exaggerating. The effect multiplies.

Maybe it isn’t Warhol who floats your boat. Maybe it’s Agnes Martin, John McLaughlin, Craig Kauffman, Vija Celmins or Jasper Johns. Or maybe you don’t know who it is, because you’re new to the specialized realm of contemporary art.

Either way, this much is certain: You cannot develop an intimate relationship with a work of art if you cannot count on seeing it often. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but when you rush to see your beloved or show him off to friends and he’s not there, eventually you move on.

Exhibitions come and go. They’re one-night stands. Falling in love in the permanent collection is how the public makes a long-term commitment to the museum that houses those works. Love is a mystery, but desire must be stoked.

If I were to walk into New York’s Museum of Modern Art right now, I would know exactly where to go to see Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” plus an incomparable roomful of Matisses. Ditto at the Art Institute of Chicago with Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte — 1884” and a roomful of great Impressionists. And the same with Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and a glorious retinue of full-length Grand Manner portraits at the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino.

But if I go to MOCA to see Jackson Pollock’s pellucid 1949 drip painting “Number 1,” plus the breathtaking suite of 11 hybrid Robert Rauschenberg works known as combines — a group unmatched anywhere in the world — I wouldn’t begin to know where to look. In fact, odds are pretty good it wouldn’t matter. They’d all be in storage, as they are right now.

It’s hard to fall in love when your date keeps standing you up.

Problem areas

Two apparent reasons explain MOCA’s miserable failure to establish permanent galleries for its permanent collection. One is timing, the other careerism.

First, MOCA began to grow into prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, right when the once seemingly settled history of important Modern and postwar art was being vigorously challenged. For curators, galleries for permanent collections seemed counterintuitive.

MOCA began — and has continued to this day — to present its growing collection as shuffled theme-exhibitions. The most recent was “Index: Conceptualism in California From the Permanent Collection,” which closed at the glorious Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo just two weeks ago.

Second, curators want to do temporary shows. It’s fun, challenging and how a career advances.

It’s also how museums juice attendance, which doesn’t happen with a more static permanent collection.

And unlike at any general museum and most specialized ones, curators at contemporary art museums are not principally engaged in scholarly collection-research. When they publish, usually it’s in a temporary-exhibition catalog.

Nothing is wrong with either motive — especially when the results are first-rate, as they’ve often been. But MOCA threw the museum baby out with the exhibition bathwater. It has come at the cost of a committed, expanding constituency.

You’ll notice I have not said the reason for slighting permanent collection galleries is that MOCA doesn’t have enough space. That’s a dodge. It does have enough space — 75,000 square feet in two venues, which is more than just about any comparable American institution you can name.

The problem is that two-thirds of it — the Geffen building — doesn’t have the climate controls essential to protect permanent displays. This problem has been noted, ad nauseam, for 20 years, yet remains unfixed. MOCA has the space but not the will to use that space — to make it suitable for permanent display of the cream of its astonishing collection.

For nearly a generation, that should have been a top priority. It must be one now. Otherwise, the bailout won’t much matter.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Andy Warhol's "Telephone" from 1961. Credit: Paula Goldman

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