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ART : Exemplary Contemporary : Commentary: The Museum of Contemporary Art has perhaps the finest collection of post-World War II art in the country. At long last, it is finding the space to show it.

November 05, 1995|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic. and

Seeing the "greatest hits" in the Museum of Contemporary Art's permanent collection always takes me by surprise. It isn't just that a great work of art is a bottomless well, from which refreshing gulps can be taken again and again, or that so young a museum as MOCA claims an inordinate number of such deep swallows. Instead, I'm repeatedly startled that they're at the museum at all.

Why? Because presenting the collection to the public has never seemed a high priority.

An ambitious program of temporary exhibitions has been offered by the museum since it was launched 12 years ago this month. During that brief life, MOCA has also managed to assemble a permanent collection of unusual distinction. In fact, of American museums principally committed to art produced after World War II, none can claim a more important collection or a more enterprising exhibition program than MOCA.

Oddly for a museum, though, MOCA has always seemed to consider the permanent collection to be of secondary importance to the program of temporary shows. MOCA has sometimes even seemed to be more kunsthalle than museum. A museum collects, but a kunsthalle , or public art gallery, doesn't. It presents a roster of changing exhibitions.

MOCA has certainly been aggressive in acquiring significant works of art by classic figures of the postwar years, and it has made a point to gather work by young and newly emerging artists too. Visiting the museum, however, you could never be sure whether the great works in the collection would be installed for public view or whether they would be languishing in storage in order to make room for another traveling show.

Since a museum's collection is indisputably its anchor, giving substance and presence to any temporal activity it undertakes, MOCA's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't way with its holdings sometimes made the place seem lightweight and ephemeral. MOCA undercut its own success.

Now, however, change seems to be afoot. Three weeks ago, at the reopening of the Temporary Contemporary, MOCA's beautiful warehouse space in Little Tokyo, the museum unveiled an extensive selection of its major paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs, focusing principally on American art from the 1940s to the 1970s.

For the first time, MOCA has made a significant commitment to permanent gallery space for its permanent collection. And more is on the way. Space has also been designated for that purpose at the main building at California Plaza.

Chief curator Paul Schimmel says the smaller of the two adjoining warehous es that make up the TC will henceforth be given over to display of the permanent collection. At California Plaza, works from the collection will be installed in the north galleries, starting next summer, in a suite of flexible, beautifully proportioned, light-filled rooms originally designed for that purpose by the building's architect, Arata Isozaki. With 18,000 square feet at the TC and 8,000 square feet on Bunker Hill, MOCA has earmarked fully one-third of its exhibition space for full-time display of its remarkable collection.

One limitation of the industrially handsome TC space, with its uninsulated walls, wooden ceiling and clerestory windows, is that its temperature and humidity controls do not meet museum conservation standards. (To upgrade climate controls would cost, by some estimates, about $4 million, with a commensurate rise in annual operating costs.) The permanent collection therefore cannot be permanently installed; selections must be rotated, which MOCA plans to do every nine to 12 months.

Next summer, the TC will be reinstalled with works made in Southern California, either by artists who are based in L.A. or those who have worked here in the past. The selection will be made by curator Kerry Brougher.

No technical obstacles limit the Isozaki building at California Plaza. Next summer, Schimmel plans to install a relatively stable "core collection" of about 60 paintings and sculptures there. The work will focus on the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, including exceptional paintings and sculptures by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Sam Francis, Alberto Giacometti, Lee Krasner, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Edward Ruscha, Robert Irwin and other major artists of the period.

Many of those magnificent objects currently grace the TC, in a presentation of 167 paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs that span the years 1939 (Piet Mondrian's exquisite "Composition in Red, Blue, Yellow") to 1980 (Agnes Martin's spare, barely there abstraction and Richard Artschwager's incongruous, eye-scratching image of an imploding building). The installation is called "Images of an Era," and three-quarters of the works date from the end of World War II to the 1960s.

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