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Here And Over There, A Year Of The Big

December 29, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON

The year was a little disorienting, like a slight lapse of memory, like the time I got on a sleeper train for Venice and woke up in Vienna. In 1985, something amorphous and climactic happened in the art world, but it is not yet possible to get a look at it. We are not outside it. We are inside something that contains us, so we cannot see what it looks like. Could Geppetto see the whale?

The beginning was ordinary enough, like getting the '69 Ghia with the top down for a Saturday trip to the supermarket. The young year was swathed in an aura of cozy predictability, the blue cardboard box containing your freshly laundered shirts. 1984 had been hectic and magical, with the Olympic Games and the international arts festival. We were all a little wrung out, so '85 would be pleasantly ordinary, a hiatus in the hardware store buying something redundantly useful. A large new yellow plastic flashlight in case a fuse blows.

After all, Los Angeles would remain productively incomplete all year. The County Museum of Art's Anderson Building would not be finished. Arata Isozaki's building for the Museum of Contemporary Art would not be open. Richard Meier's design for the new J. Paul Getty Museum and think-tank would not be started.

Nobody needed a crystal ball to see it all coming, just the advance gallery schedules and a little horse sense. The Getty would make a fabulous purchase in England that would inspire national indignation and accusation that the work was fake. The museum would deny all charges. Right. The Getty paid $10.5 million for a Mantegna and the rest came in proper rank and order.

A prominent gallery director would resign and an institution would be in financial straits. One always does and they always are. The surprise was that it was Robert Smith, who had directed the L.A. Institute of Contemporary Art forever. It was not a surprise that LAICA was in financial straits.

Museums and galleries would hold exhibitions that would be respectable more often than terrible and terrible more often than superb. Almost everything that mesmerized in the museums had the quality of connoisseur's fare, a little refined, a trifle offbeat. The Southwest Museum quietly unveiled a slew of pots from the Mimbres people of the ancient American Southwest and we learned that the vocabulary of children's drawings could be used to evoke the most sophisticated emotional and perceptual shadings. It was a little spooky.

County Museum of Art--our cultural Clydesdale--turned 20 and as usual shouldered the main weight of special exhibitions. Different as they all were, they shared a certain appeal to rarefied sensibilities. A two-part survey of Japanese ink painting was nothing if not delicate. A summer show of paintings by American landscapist John Frederick Kensett was as solid and subtle as a quiet summer day on a New England beach. A certain appreciation for the understated work is required both for their current display of classic modernist art from the Baltimore Museum's Cone Collection and a superb spread of master drawings from Budapest.

The Museum of Contemporary Art continued to lurch awkwardly toward maturity amid worries that it is more concerned about art politics and public image than with serious exhibitions. A gaggle of fuzzily incoherent presentations did give good looks at artists as interesting as Bill Viola and James Turrell. Personal tragedy mixed with public nobility when the untimely death of television executive Barry Lowen brought his collection to the museum.

Fare in commercial galleries tended to alternate between slick and schlock, but there were moments when contemporary artists at widely varied junctures in their careers unlocked new levels of clarity or wisdom. There were John Chamberlain and Peter Alexander and Leland Rice and J. de Feo, not to mention Jill Giegerich, Jim Lawrence and Allen Ruppersberg, to mention not everybody by any means.

All the same, this year that was supposed to be like a busman's holiday was beginning to feel a bit unaccented, a bit like a year lacking definitive and climactic events--but then a funny thing happened. Grocery bags transformed into a garment bag with a portable word processor therein and the Ghia transmogrified into a 747 and there I was, off looking around at art in far-flung precincts from Montreal to Monchengladbach without having made any particular decision to do so. It just happened.

There was a lot of stuff to see, from Caravaggio at the Met to Francis Bacon in Stuttgart's Neue Staadtsgalerie and from Christo wrapping Paris' Pont Neuf like so much fromage to America's National Gallery importing half of England's greatest objects for "Treasure Houses of Great Britain." Whether it was as contemporary as Jonathan Borofsky or Red Grooms, modern as Paris' new Musee Picasso, exotic as Indian Sculpture in D.C. or as aristocratic as the Met's "Liechtenstein, the Princely Collections," it all had one thing in common.

It was BIG.

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