On Second Thought: Rubins' sculpture more memorable than he said it would be
Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar's critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.
When "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art shortly after New Year's in 1992, the show marked a cultural turning point. An unprecedented boom in the art market had hit the skids, and suddenly the conflation of vital new artists and a strong institutional base, both of which had been building in the city throughout the 1980s, galvanized attention around art's value, rather than its price. Something crystallized in the zeitgeist. Los Angeles, long a second city, moved squarely into the international top tier for contemporary art.
I was enthusiastic in print. "Perhaps the greatest achievement of this large and ambitious show is simply the vigor with which it acknowledges important art being made here," I wrote. That feeling was widespread -- not least among the more than 5,000 people who jammed the opening night party at Little Tokyo's Geffen Contemporary but also among the generally favorable reviews the show garnered. Word traveled fast that something big was up.
The glaring exception was the New York Times. The Manhattan art world had been coming to terms with the 1980s' return to prominence of European contemporary art, headquartered in Germany, a full generation after the ruination brought by World War II. For nearly half a century, New York pretty much had the territory to itself. Perhaps sensing that its postwar rank as America's sole major center for new art was also at an end, the New York Times huffed, "The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging." "Helter Skelter" got slammed.
Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
I didn't like everything about the show either -- didn't like all the art in it and did complain about some things I thought should not have been left out. But there was an obvious abundance of terrific work, and most of its 16 artists are now important international figures.
For years after, whenever I recall "Helter Skelter" in my mind's eye, the first image that usually pops into my head is Nancy Rubins' monumental sculpture, "Trailers, Drawings and Hot Water Heaters." A "tower of power" composed from industrial junk stacked in a rickety, Brancusi-like endless column and plastered with sheets of paper covered in a silvery skin of dense graphite marks, it reached into the rafters. The precarious pile was held together with what seemed like miles of baling wire.
The primacy of this memory is odd, given all the competition from other strong work in the show. Perhaps that's because of what I wrote in my review. "The shabby, domestic crack-up of hearth and home in [Rubin's] mountainous pile of wrecked mobile homes and ruined water heaters startles with blunt force, but little resonance follows the initial, gee-whiz impact." The "yes-but" observation came in a section of the review describing disappointments. A sculpture I can't forget is one I criticized as unmemorable.
Six years ago, MOCA acquired a monumental Rubins sculpture, this one wired together like an improbable industrial tree and now "planted" on the museum's main plaza. Its eccentric, branching form had taken shape according to the available spatial dimensions of the gallery that first showed it, adding the intangible space of its construction to its heady accumulation of commanding physical materials. Descriptively titled -- hang on -- "Chas' Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson's Airplane Parts, About 1,000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian's Beverly Hills Space at MOCA" -- it is a powerful amalgam of rusted and rust-proof metal shards, clinging to a central post yet resting lightly in space. A strange and formally beautiful force-field, it gives me a thrill every time I walk by.
I do think the newer piece is better and more resolved than the "Helter Skelter" work. But the lesson from 1992 is fundamental: No prognostication allowed. Art is experience, which needs to be trusted as it unfolds. The better part of criticism is in understanding that.