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COMMENTARY : A Blue-Chip Gallery Sees Blue Skies in L.A. : When New York heavy hitter PaceWildenstein lands next month, what will that mean for its competitors here?

August 13, 1995|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic. and

The planned opening of a PaceWildenstein Gallery branch in Los Angeles has generated much curiosity since being formally announced more than 18 months ago. A 1993 merger between Wildenstein & Co., the venerable dealer of Old Master and Impressionist art, and New York's Pace Gallery, whose stable includes some of the most important artists of our time, had created a formidable partnership.

With plans to open branches in L.A. and London, as well as a formal business arrangement with the Ho Gallery in Hong Kong, PaceWildenstein has aggressively positioned itself as the first art gallery to attempt to maximize its potential in the globalizing marketplace. Clearly, much is at stake in its West Coast expansion, which is scheduled to open late next month in Beverly Hills at 9540 Wilshire Blvd. with an exhibition of recent paintings by the remarkable Chuck Close.

Rest assured, however, that much is also riding on this venture for the art scene in L.A. If success in Los Angeles can be assumed to be critical to Pace-Wildenstein, its significance for the city must also be recognized.

To understand why, it's necessary to be aware that, artistically speaking, PaceWildenstein is profoundly conservative. Forget cutting-edge. This is the last place to look for developments in recent art by younger artists.

An absence of progressive, risk-taking bravado goes without saying on the Old Master and Impressionist side of its high-powered equation. And conservatism also marks the Modern and contemporary art shown by the gallery.

Among deceased artists who established Modern art in the 20th Century, Pace represents painting and sculpture by some of the biggest names. Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko--the roster includes a variety of American and European artists. Call them Old Master Moderns, sort of a latter-day equivalent to pre-20th-Century artists on the Wildenstein side.

Likewise, the gallery's stable of 21 living artists features a number who have been pivotal to the life of art since the 1960s. In addition to Close, they include Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, Agnes Martin, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra and Joel Shapiro.

Scattered among these influential, long-established artists are a few quirkier figures, such as Lucas Samaras, whose wide-ranging, sometimes psychologically disturbing drawings, assemblages and photographs are uncategorizable, and Robert Whitman, one of the youngest of the Happenings artists who emerged from Rutgers University around 1960.

Esteemed painters and sculptors all. In every case, however, it has been 20 years and more since they began the mature work that first drew attention to them.

It's worth noting that the average age of PaceWildenstein's artists is about 60. (The oldest are Martin and Saul Steinberg, at 83 and 81, respectively.) The stable would not, with certain exceptions, be described as representing a post-Pop generation. The majority were born in the 1920s and 1930s; artistically they came of age in the wake of the first generation of postwar artists.

The general sense of cautious conservatism that marks PaceWildenstein artistically even extends to the most recent addition to the gallery lineup. Forty-one-year-old Kiki Smith has drawn considerable notice in the last half-dozen years or so for her fragile figurative sculptures made from paper, wax and glass; both ravishing and ravished, these conceptions of the human body are characterized by a mix of haunting beauty and terrible delicacy.

Much comment accompanied Smith's joining the roster of PaceWildenstein artists last year, in part because any such addition is a rare event but largely because she became only the third woman among a group of 18 men. Interestingly, though, the fact that Smith is the daughter of an important sculptor--the late Tony Smith--brings to mind the old dilemma women faced for centuries after the Middle Ages: A woman had almost no chance for an artistic career in a field dominated by men, unless her father (or uncle) had been an artist before her.

The pronounced conservatism of the gallery's profile is inescapable--and understandable. The need for security and assurance among gallery clients generally goes up or down with the price list. Conservatism, or the tendency to oppose change or alteration, extends to the historical reputation of artists. That's to be expected when a dealer is regularly asking five-, six- and seven-figure prices for works of art.

In fact, as staid a decision as can be imagined was the one to promote awareness of the impending opening of its space in Los Angeles by mounting an outdoor exhibition of sculptures by the late British master Henry Moore. Moore is synonymous with the institutionalization of Modern art in the 1960s. At the dawn of a new and controversial artistic period, the universal embrace of his sculpture meshed with the passing of an era, which it came to emblematize.

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