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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

Comments () | Archives (14)

I think that phone is calling David Geffen and asking him to step up and fix the building he put his name on. Eli and others did, your turn.

Chritopher, This is a brilliant idea, but it should be followed up by a commitment from the leading newspaper to cover permanent collection exhibitions. Our community doesn't know what treasures "lurk" in our museums---from Rembrants to Warhols--- because they are also less sexy to write about.

MOCA's getting a climate controlled environment in the other half of its exhibition space is indeed basic to moving ahead. It is hard to understand why that did not get done under past directors Koshalek and Strick, and their boards.

Knight is correct about putting forward its permanent collection, and prominently. And this will encourage further donations to the PC. Contemporary art collectors, especially the more recent ones, have gotten more savvy about their philanthropic legacy. You won't excite their interest in a permanent collection that translates virtually into "permanent storage."

From that issue to a collections plan is another next step. Many readers of my posting can cite the names of many important post-WW2 California artists (with national reputations) who aren't in MOCA's collection, and within the narrow interests of the current chief curator, never will be. Getting him to think more broadly about who and what comes into the collection is another important direction to open up to open up at this juncture.

Dear Mr. Knight,
I couldn't agree with you more. Temporary exhibitions bring attention to museums with important collections. What you didn't address is the proper mix between traveling exhibitions; temporary exhibitions that highlight the permanent collections, and "permanent galleries." I'd be interested in knowing what you think about that.

If I recall wasn't the Warhol painting up in the Collecting Collections show earlier this Spring?

Brilliant article and quite important LA unfortunately has a horrible reputation for being an art wasteland with little to offer other than the silver screen so it's rather tragic to discover one of LA's finest museums have become as desperate as US banks and automakers. Hopefully your article smacks some sense into those in charge of such an important part of LA's culture. While i love all of LA's museums MOCA is one of my most favorite and i would hate to never be able to visit it again. Kudos to you sir.

There is something intimidating and unpleasant about the design of the Grand Ave. building. Its an underground bunker that effectivly removes itself from the surrounding neighborhood. It would work better as a sealed time capsule.


Actually, it was on display when I went in March this year!

I have to say, this is the first sensible breath from MOCA that I've read in months. All this nonsense about merging, along with all the other noise surrounding the museum, Its great to see someone at the top is paying attention to the principles that made the museum great to begin with.

Bring back a standing collection, its what makes the Warhol museum great in Pittsburgh, lets see some of what makes MOCA great!

At last we are getting somewhere! Contemporary art venues really have little use for permanent collections, all enegies being directed as they are towards the most recent art. Once shown, and often acquired, the goods get shoved to the back of storage, only brought out again or the humiliating role of providing "context" for the main act. Museums aren't doing anyone any favors by storing but not showing their art, which should probably be farmed out to venues that will show it. The 6000 objects in the MOCA collection might as well be in a silo in Kansas as in LA for all the good it does the members of the public. Not that the curatorial staff probably cares much about them!

I couldnt read this article. Once I saw the word "cheekily" i figured I tuned onto logo and a show about Truman Capote, not an art column. Start writing like an intelligent normal well ba;llanced human being CK, "cheekily' is not a descriptive word about anything worth reading, or certainly traveling to see.

art colegia delenda est

plus there is not contemporary art worthwhile outside of a magazine ad.

Excellent article, and MOCA could produce some truly illuminating exhibitions without looking beyond its own storage rooms. MoMA in NY has focused on presenting focused shows from its collection in the last few years. The current such show, "Here is Every" contains a lot of work I had never seen before, with its focus on conceptual approaches and the use of new media in contemporary art. This should be a responsibility and challenge for MOCA's curators. I wish them much luck.

The Warhol "Telephone" painting has been in three PC shows since '03, in fact it is one of the most visible paintings in the collection alongside the Mondrian, the Giacomettis, and the Lichtenstein "Gaugin".

I agree with the premise of the article, but your bluster over this work in particular is misplaced.


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