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COVER STORY : The Art of the Dealer : Rosamund Felsen's singular style has made international names for some of the best and edgiert of a new generation of L.A. artists

September 12, 1993|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is chair, department of liberal arts and sciences, Otis School of Art and Design. and

Los Angeles artists, collectors and dealers meet September with a sense of anticipation. In L.A., the evening air turns slightly cooler, the populace regains a sense of urgency and by mid-month, there are smart turnouts at museum and gallery receptions. The season has begun.

Many of the artists, at least, can talk about their summer shows in Europe at the Venice Biennale, the Basel art fair, the Vienna art museum. Over the last decade, there has been an internationalization of the world of contemporary art, and Los Angeles, to the astonishment of many, is smack in the center.

Never before has there been such lively interest in Southern California artists among museums and collectors in the major cities of Europe. Los Angeles art dealers have developed relationships with their peers in London, Cologne, Vienna and Milan.

But there is one dealer, in particular, who represents the L.A. artists who have most transformed the image of the city and its artists: Rosamund Felsen.

Felsen is known for representing art with challenging ideologies, art that can be difficult to sell. The Rosamund Felsen Gallery, a capacious yellow brick building at 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., one block west of La Cienega, has gained a reputation over the last decade for its roster of tough-minded artists who consider issues of sex and death, religion and politics to be their inevitable fodder.

Last month, for example, Felsen artist Paul McCarthy organized a show for the gallery of work by artists known for their involvement with performance and process art. He included his own sculpture of twin stuffed skunk toys, each about six feet tall and sporting rubber dildos with sizable erections. A few months before, Jeffrey Vallance showed pseudo-religious shrouds simulating the sacred cloth of Turin, some with the features of Jesus, others with the sweat stains of Elvis.

Lari Pittman's paintings are decorated with effusive displays of sex organs meant to conflate the ecstasy and pain of love and loss. Mike Kelley, who consistently transforms debased subject matter ranging from garbage to cast-off toys, is about to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art that will come to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next summer.

All of these artists now have established careers in Europe. All but Vallance were included in the 1992 controversial "Helter Skelter" exhibition at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, who organized the show, saw those artists as challenging the historic image of L.A. as the source of easy-going sunset-hued art for beachfront houses.

Schimmel observed: "Rosamund Felsen provides an extraordinarily significant platform for the support and nurturing of some of the best and brightest artists who've come out of L.A. She has dedicated her program to bringing an international perspective to the art of this region."

Other L.A. art galleries--Margo Leavin, L.A. Louver and Burnett Miller, to name a few--also have propelled their artists into the international market, but none have been as exclusively supportive of L.A. artists as Felsen. At one point in the early '80s, Peter Goulds of L.A. Louver says he proposed a partnership with Felsen. "She has an excellent eye," he said. But he wanted to represent artists from Europe and elsewhere. No deal was struck; she was committed to her L.A. artists, period.

In an art world beleaguered by recession and attempted censorship, art dealers everywhere have tended to be cautious. Exhibitions these days often include works that are scaled to fit an apartment and priced to sell. Felsen, however, has dug in on the front lines in support of the art that she believes in, regardless of its ready appeal to the market. It is a strategy of preposterous idealism, but it seems to work.

New York art critic Peter Schjeldahl has been a regular visitor to the gallery since its opening in the late 1970s. "At Rosamund's there is complete concentration on the art, the art is why you are there and it can't be anything else. I think she is legendary for her faithfulness to her artists. Her virtues are liveliness and the long haul. Only good galleries have that long-haul stuff, but they tend to be stuffy. Lively (galleries) tend to be gone a week from Saturday. (To have both) qualities is rare anywhere, really."

In the tortoise-and-hare race among art dealers cashing in on the '80s, Felsen refused to buy into the hype and flash. It was a position that often drove her artists and others wild with frustration. Yet in L.A., more than two dozen galleries, many of which benefited from soaring art prices and investment-oriented collectors, are now out of business. Only a score or so remain to show serious commitment to important art.

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