« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

MOCA's mural mess

December 14, 2010 | 11:36 am

Blu mural Casey Caplowe GOOD
The Museum of Contemporary Art just got a very expensive lesson, both in money and prestige, on the difference between being an art museum and a commercial gallery. Simply put: At a museum, planning counts.

Last week MOCA raised eyebrows, immediately lighting up the blogosphere, when the the Italian street artist Blu painted an immense mural on the north wall of the Geffen Contemporary warehouse in Little Tokyo and, within hours, the museum had the mural -- which it had also commissioned -- whitewashed. As the facts emerged, so did the fatal error: MOCA had no clear idea what the artist would paint before he painted it.

Once MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who was in Miami for an annual art fair, returned home and saw Blu's handiwork, he said no. Deitch later explained that he made the decision to remove the mural very quickly, unprompted by complaints -- presumably from outside or inside in the museum.

Deitch's explanation for the decision is entirely reasonable. He told The Times that the mural -- nearly three stories high and almost the length of a football field -- was "insensitive" to the local community. Depicting row upon row of coffins draped in dollar bills, it was adjacent to a war memorial.

Deitch Christina House For The Times "This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community," said Deitch, a former New York gallery owner with virtually no museum experience. In June he started work as the first art dealer to become director of a major American museum.

"Look at my gallery website — I have supported protest art more than just about any other mainstream gallery in the country," he added, clearly stung by comparisons to the Smithsonian Institution's recent blunder in censoring an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. "But as a steward of a public institution, I have to balance a different set of priorities — standing up for artists and also considering the sensitivities of the community."

True. But the appropriate time for the decision was before the mural went up, not after. After, the museum suffers a self-inflicted wound.

How? The difference between a commission from a public institution and one made for a private business is vast. A commercial gallery has wide latitude to be quick and dirty. An art museum is culture's thoughtful professional custodian. Now, a potentially offending museum mural has been replaced by a metaphoric public billboard that says, "Amateur Hour at MOCA."

Blu's mural was commissioned in advance of "Art in the Streets," a big survey of graffiti and street art being organized by the director and set to open in April. Ironically, the current situation recalls one from 21 years ago -- at MOCA, on the south rather than the north wall of the same Little Tokyo warehouse and in relation to a planned exhibition.

Only the outcome then was very different.

Kruger mural 2 Barbara Kruger was commissioned by MOCA to paint a mural for 1989's "A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation," a sprawling show that also included works by Barbara Bloom, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. But before the publicly prominent mural went up, curator Ann Goldstein presented the plan at a neighborhood meeting.

All hell broke loose.

Central to Kruger's design was the Pledge of Allegiance, written in white letters on a crimson field and evoking an American flag -- seemingly an innocuous, even patriotic element of a more complex wall-painting. But that wall happens to face the embarkation point from which Japanese Americans were shamefully carted off to internment camps during World War II, their allegiance as citizens shockingly questioned by their own government. Thus began 18 months of community meetings, sometimes contentious, in which the artist, MOCA and the local neighborhood grappled with art, issues of cultural sensitivity and mutual responsibilities.

"A Forest of Signs" came and went, ranking among a long string of exceptional exhibitions that made MOCA the nation's flagship museum for contemporary art. A full year after the show closed, Kruger's reconfigured mural finally went up for a two-year run. It was considerably altered from the earlier design. But it was also still politically trenchant and conceptually sophisticated. Although temporary, the painting remains among the finest commissions the museum has undertaken. 

Another irony: Today Kruger sits on the board of trustees at MOCA, one of four artist-members. Somehow, I expect the museum's next board meeting will be an unusually interesting gathering.

-- Christopher Knight


Photos: Blu mural being whitewashed; credit: Casey Caplowe/GOOD; Jeffrey Deitch; credit: Christina House/For The Times; Barbara Kruger, "Untitled (Questions)," 1989-90, in the 1999 MOCA exhibition catalog "Barbara Kruger;" credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times



Marsden Hartley Painting No. 47, Berlin 1914-15 recit AP NPG Are you ready to rumble? The Smithsonian vs. WWE

Issue of anti-gay bullying comes to the Smithsonian

Art museum directors issue stern Smithsonian rebuke

Is the censored Wojnarowicz video really 'anti-Christian'?

Art review: 'Imagining the Past in France: 1250-1500' at the Getty


Comments () | Archives (36)

What about the money it cost to paint, then paint over the BLU work? What about the people who were laid off because of money issues? What about the people who work there who have not had raises in many years and have had endured benefit cuts just to keep the place afloat? What about the money wasted and poor management? What about that is okay? Those question are all for your Jeffrey.


Further, what about all those "street" artists who have been (and are being) asked to be in a "street art" show by an invertebrate institution?

I expect the ones who have integrity will now reject MOCA's invitation if they haven't already.

Don't worry, POMM, Mr. Deitch has plenty of money he made by inflating the prices of "street" artists' works in NYC. I'm sure he'll be able to cover all of the costs, give workers some raises, & maybe even have some money left over to donate to efforts of free speech around the world. "Street" artists are just as much to blame for allowing their work to be institutionalized, commodified, & used by the same system they purport to reject. At least we can be thankful there will be no BLU-MoCA coffee cups.

As street art is always bound to piss of someone, its kinda its MO, why exactly would MoCA be having a show if it cant take it? This is as much censorship as siqueiros work on Olvera st. no matter the justification. Both were obviously stupid to commission them if they had paid attention to their works. And another example of how artists dont matter in contempt art, the wealthy patrons and their egos do.

art collegia delenda est

The root of the problem: Deitch's solipsistic arrogance. It's all about him.

What if Blu had depicted oil drums draped in American flags?

my friends were lured into the military by promise of financial security. some of them were injured and nearly killed. blu's artwork was the truth. i've talked to ex military who are decades older than me, they say they would never ever go through what they went through in times like this, they tell me to stay away from the military, so i do.

Deitch is not worried because he's got God (Eli Broad) on his side. This man can do no wrong in Eli's eyes. Just ask Charles Young. He knows.

Dont be absurd. two of my boys are in the military, you wouldnt have any freedom for anything without it. my eldest graduated Annapolis and now being put through med school by them, one of the best schools in th country.

artistes are naive and take life for granted. And so lured into teh false promises of teh art academies. Artists dont truly matter, art does, for it defines who we are, explores nature, and searches for meaning in life. God. Contempt art is therapy, absurdist entertainment, and self expression of children, mature adults explore our world and attempt to find what makes us One. This splinters, and so, not art at all.

Artists, like entertainers only make themselves appear stupid, well, actually reveal how ignorant they are when venturing into politics. like you know more than everyone else. Riiiiiigght.

Quoting Knight: "Deitch's explanation for the decision is entirely reasonable. He told The Times that the mural -- nearly three stories high and almost the length of a football field -- was "insensitive" to the local community. Depicting row upon row of coffins draped in dollar bills, it was adjacent to a war memorial." Your apology for Deitch's political imposition of censorship takes the place of what should have been your call for Deitch's resignation. Given your previous writing, if Blu had a gay-theme up, wouldn't you call for resignation? In the long run, Mr. Knight, this story is less about another act of local censorship than it is about L.A. based writers and artists who think they can just cherry-pick when censorship is ok and when it is not, with no discernible criteria available for explanation. Which means: its not the art that counts, but the overall toadyism toward institutions. Artists and the famous 'general public' ought to boycott moca. And you should resign today, Mr. Knight for such a lame apology.

The general public never goes to MoCA anyway. Its irrelevant, as all contempt art is.
Its all about the party. Absurdist entertainment for the nouveau riche.

...the deafening silence by the Los Angeles art school faculties....and people continue to wonder why artists and intellectuals are held in such "esteem"? The indifference grows....

"Deitch's explanation for the decision is entirely reasonable. "

You're joking, right? Deitch said the problem was that he was out of the country and therefore not around for the final decisions or the actual painting of the mural.

To Mr. Deitch: I believe they invented the telephone some time ago. And by now we are way past the phone wires with things like texting and Skype. Are we seriously supposed to believe that you were not able to keep in touch with this project every day, every step of the way, no matter where in the world you were?

Give me a break. And relieve this man of his duties, which he is obviously not performing.

That mural was simply a terrible artwork. Sorry Blu, but it was awful. Loved the image of Barbara Kruger's INCREDIBLE complex, thoughtful, insightful, culturally relevant, biting mural. That is where the money should go--not for garbage that dumbs-down the voices of artists. C'mon JD--there are plenty of incredible smart artists who would love to dig into that space. Set the bar high!

This mural sucked & so did Barbara Kruger's. At least Blu's mural exposed this Deitch guy for a putz, so at least it's relevant, which can't be said of Kruger's nonsense.

Arrogance indeed. Since when does a Director of a major non-profit museum speak only about what HE wants, what HIS plans are, what shows HE is going to curate (and when was he named a MOCA Curator?). Where is the institutional voice in the recent articles about the museum?
Was Deitch really out of the country, or just hung over in Miami, where he reportedly threw one of HIS scandelous pool parties during the Miami Basel fair? Please...send this guy back to New York.

Deitch is a fool. His "street art" is a joke.

I am a bit confused. As this is, or was, painted on the north side of the Temp Contemp, how does this offend the Japanese museum and war memorial as they are south of it?
It has been awhile since going there, since Lydia screwed me out of a show at LA ArtCore she promised with two others as a non academic group, she bought several of my prints. For a couple of stereotypical wimpy Japanese girl stuff? Please. Your guess why is as good as mine. All these typos I suppose.

I dont even have any hostility towards street art, though i got jumped by one such illustrator of twisted adolescent fantasies, and while putting him down got my finger bit off and stabbed in the back by two of his midget homies. Norm is such a manly man. Punkasz beeeatch..

Seriously, art collegia delenda est
The playpen of dishonorable, perverted Peter Pans

Please, whatever you do, do not fire Mr. Deitch. We do not want him back in NY. Didn't anyone see the red flags - gallery dealer becomes contemporary museum curator? Read between the lines, folks: private collector works to inflate the prices of his own collection! No wonder the general public mistrusts contemporary art. And, Blu, not your best work, your message was good, but stay out of the art capitalists' game, friend. They are working in their best interests, not yours. Keep it guerilla! Barbara Kruger - where were you on this? LAME. The Art World economics make Wall St. look like Sesame St. Talk about economic divides! It needs to end. Artists: take charge!

@Donald Frazell

"two of my boys are in the military, you wouldnt have any freedom for anything without it"

What a load of crap. The United States military has not defended American freedom since 1989, and even before that it was as much as mitigating blowback from America's mistakes as any true external threat. The military-industrial complex exists for no reason other than to protect the profits of USA, Inc. Anyone who doubts that is a fool.

1 2 | »


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.