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Maurice Tuchman: Still the Enfant Terrible : After 25 years, LACMA's fiery curator is not yet old news

October 22, 1989|WILLIAM WILSON

It was swinging '64.

Vietnam was boiling over again, there were riots in Harlem, Stanley Kubrick made "Dr. Strangelove" and Bob Dylan was singing "It Ain't Me, Babe." Maurice Tuchman--a 27-year-old research fellow at New York's Guggenheim Museum--was considering an offer to become the first full-time curator of modern art at the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Awesome LACMA board members Norton Simon and Taft Schreiber had interviewed him and he was impressed by their "sharp, shrewd ambition." Big job for a guy just out of the art history program at Columbia University, but for somebody bred in the Bronx the decision to leave New York was a tough one. He needed advice.

The critic Clement Greenberg, the reigning aesthetic guru of the time, was his logical counselor.

"He told me to turn it down," Tuchman recalls. Greenberg, it seems, was not so much against the West Coast as he was against intellectuals working for institutions. He told Tuchman that the system would eventually grind him down, compromise his independence and turn him into a gray bureaucrat.

Fat chance. Tuchman took the job anyway. Excitement crackled through La Cienega's gallery row and word was getting around that L.A. had spawned a school of major significance in the artists of the Ferus Gallery.

That was 25 years ago. Recently, Tuchman's supporters celebrated his first quarter-century at the museum, a remarkable feat of longevity. There was no sign of the graying of the senior curator of modern and contemporary art. At 52, he is still a dashing fellow and health buff who works out thrice weekly on Nautilus equipment. Weekly, not weakly. It is almost as if he has remained mindful of Greenberg's prediction and determined to prove it wrong. He has been nothing if not colorful with his dandy's designer duds, Buffalo Bill mustache, long auburn hair and habit of appearing in chic precincts with interchangeable leggy blondes half a head taller than he. Back in the beginning when the standard curatorial image was that of a scholarly mouse, Tuchman's style was anoffense to convention.

"He may look like a Wunderkind to the museum but he'll never last. He loves Hollywood glamour. He should be a movie producer," judged an influential critic of the day.

Today, museum professionals are all but required to be handsome and stylish--celebrities in their own right. When New York's Museum of Modern Art named Kirk Varnedoe its new curator of painting, his first public act was to pose for a fashion ad in the New York Times Magazine. By that standard, Tuchman was simply ahead of the game.

There remains, however, a large and aggravated contingent of artniks who wish Tuchman had stood in the Big A. The bill of particulars against him heads off with the eternal lament that he has not done enough for local artists--an accusation leveled at every curator in every major museum in the civilized world. Every serious observer hereabouts has two lists in his mental Maurice file. One sets out "Those Artists I Cannot Understand Why Maurice Has Not Shown," while the other chronicles "All Those Turkeys Maurice Has Put in the Museum."

A more refined complaint has it that he lacks the insight to spot unknown talent, and a less refined one just involves general suspicion of his motives and values. It says he is a social butterfly and an influence-broker. As a noted European artist remarked when Tuchman's name popped up in conversation, "Oh yes, he's the one who opens every conversation by asking 'Where is the party?' "

Asked about all this, Tuchman shrugs like a centaur shaking off familiar flies. He was born Nov. 30, 1936 in Jacksonville, Fla. "That makes me a Sagittarius," he says as if recalling the old "What's your sign?" pickup ploy.

Funny. The sign is known for its love of the good life, a thick skin and a straightforwardness that can appear downright insensitive. Astrology buffs say the archer symbolizes the human being's struggle to overcome its animal nature. One is reminded that it was playboy Maurice who organized "The Spiritual in Art," a landmark exhibition investigating the role of occult metaphysics in modern art. This is not an uncomplicated guy.

"Only time can tell whether or not I made the right choices," Tuchman said. "Being a curator is a long-haul job. You help collectors for years in the hope they'll finally leave their works to the museum. You don't know the outcome of your efforts for decades. You just keep at it every day like brushing your teeth. We've never had an endowment for acquiring art for the collection. I've had to raise every penny and solicit every donation. Have we done anything? Look at the permanent collection. It's respectable now. Sure, there are horrible lacunae like there is no Brancusi but if somebody comes from out of town they see it's something. It's solid.

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