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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



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Comments () | Archives (36)

I think that the piece's execution is rather weak (to be generous), but it made up for it through its location. That, to me, add narrative thrust. The lame "neighbor" excuse shows that Deitch has the art sensibility of a buisnessman.

@Donald Frazell

"The general public never goes to MoCA anyway. Its irrelevant, as all contempt art is."

LOL. I guess not every artist can be Thomas Kinkade. But you, Donald, will always have "the Painter of Light™"

No different than Warhol, both just designer wannabe artistes who found success in marketing. Warhol to the effette elite, the Ayn Rand uberman way, and Kinkaide the populist Michener route.

Trash is trash, I will stick with Cezanne.

Save the spiritual Watts Towers(Nuestro Pueblo), tear down the passionless Ivory Bastilles

The museo/academic/galery complex exists for no other reason than to amuse the nouveau riche, and protect the status quo interests. And invest in as we do old postage stamps, though that took more skill.

Forget 9/11? it was an attack on our country. True not a serious threat as enemy taking over, but the number one purpose of any nation is to protect its citizens, it is illegitimate if it does not. Afghanistan was mishandled but necessary. Saddam an evil bastard I am glad to see gone, but its costs were predictably prohibitive in monies and human life, and not in the countries best interest.

I am proud of our military, in extraordinary circumstances it has behaved better than any other in history. One of my boys I looked afer went to Iraq and lost teeth in an explosion, lucky to have not lost much more. But thats the job, you think you gonna live forever? Then stay home in momma's basement. Suck it up, and become men and women instead of Peter Pan's forever. You can see where that leads with Michael Jackson. And the immature artscene.

And for the whiny girl, your friends never should have joined a instituion whose main purpose but not only one, is to kill in a moments notice. You really thought no one would fight back? Naive whiny babies.

Punishing artists for making us think - is that the message we want MOCA to send out to the world? MOCA's board should be ashamed. Los Angeles should be ashamed. Clearly Mr. Deitch is only sensitive to the status of his pocketbook ~ not to creating an environment that fosters a meaningful dialogue about art, about politics and about issues important to the people of Los Angeles. I am ceasing my support of MOCA here and now.

Mr. Deitch is acting not as a curator but as a self-appointed censor. His gutless reaction to Blu's mural should be reason enough to remove him from his duties. Until that time I can no longer support MOCA.

"Warhol to the effette elite, the Ayn Rand uberman way"

LOL. So let me guess, you've never looked at a Warhol nor read Ayn Rand.

They each got their fifteen seconds, couldnt possibly stretch it to minutes. Hare to miss either, great in magazines, and then into the circular file.

What mural?

It appears someone slipped MOCA a Jeffrey

Looks like MOCA just lost what little credibility it had. They should stick with an endless Norman Rockwell exhibition. It's boring, but safe. And many of his paintings advertised products. Perfect for MOCA.

L.A. street artists respond to MOCA. Saw it this morning:

Mr Deitch's brand of street art is one of self interest for monetary gain. As a curator he should have understood the artist concept and background before approving the project. Dissent is a part of street of many street street artists vocabulary.
The sea change for the Los Angeles Art scene that was promised is just Business as Usual.

"..Deitch also said he had intended to meet with the artist before the mural went up, but was unable to due to travel complications on Blu's end and the fact that Deitch had to leave town to attend a Miami art fair."

So he never saw the piece that was to go up because he never met the artist? Has Deitch heard of "jpegs" and the "internet"? I'm sure he spends some of the day looking at art on the internet...but not pieces he commissions for a huge wall at MOCA?? Very foolish behavior, if actually true, from a man that's just beginning to build his MOCA performance record.

What is art if it doesn't evoke an emotion? Could there be a more appropriate place for this piece adjacent to a war memorial at a time when our nation has made it clear that life is cheaper than oil? Perhaps it would upset families who have lost loved ones-- but shouldn't they be upset already? Would they not support the message that is behind the mural? Shame on MoCA for it's inability to see the beautiful irony of Blu's art.

Amateurville at MOCA. Deitch is a disaster and MOCA is soon becoming a joke. Seeing the image of that powerful Barbara Kruger reminded me of when MOCA was a REAL museum, pushing the boundaries, taking chances, showing us something truly new. Deitch is all about fad and fashion, and he'll soon be out of fashion himself. Let's hope the MOCA board gets wise, and soon.

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