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Just How Contemporary?

ART | Commentary

For 40 years, Los Angeles has been one of the world's great centers for contemporary artists. Its two leading museums ought to mirror that fact.

December 15, 1996|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

Los Angeles is one of only a small handful of cities internationally that can claim to be a major player in the discourse of contemporary art. The reason is simple: Since the late 1950s, a critical mass of important artists has flourished here.

It is because of those artists that an influential institutional matrix representing 20th century art has also emerged. Museums require the challenging and disruptive inquiries of artists; otherwise, they're just static cultural bank vaults.

Today, it's impossible to imagine this city's art life without the Museum of Contemporary Art or the programs in 20th century art offered by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. So embedded are they in the civic warp and weft of our cultural fabric that it's hard to remember a time when they didn't exist.

In reality, though, that time wasn't so very long ago. What a difference a mere decade makes.

Ten years ago this month, Los Angeles was lolling in the afterglow of two back-to-back extravaganzas that forever changed the cultural life of the city. On Nov. 23, 1986, LACMA opened its $35-million Robert O. Anderson Building for 20th Century Art, a massive structure fronting Wilshire Boulevard that gave the weight of bricks and mortar to the museum's bid for prominence in the presentation and interpretation of the art of our time.

Seventeen days later, on Dec. 10, MOCA opened its $22-million building on Grand Avenue, establishing a permanent downtown home for the display of current art that joined the museum's makeshift warehouse space in Little Tokyo. (The warehouse, dubbed the Temporary Contemporary in anticipation of its abandonment after the opening of the Grand Avenue building, has since become a permanent fixture of MOCA.)

L.A. hasn't been the same since. And if the programs offered by these two institutions have frequently reached stellar heights, energizing a sense of civilized cosmopolitanism in our otherwise often brutish daily lives, there is still a sense of something not quite right--something out of kilter or lacking. MOCA and LACMA have settled on a plateau, elevated high above the drab and ordinary landscape but not yet representative of the kind of dramatic change in cultural outlook that has been the lifeblood of this city's artistic legacy.

Our museums are lagging way behind our art.

*

MOCA, the Anderson Building and the programs they were designed to accommodate couldn't have been more different from one another. Their relationships to current art are likewise distinct.

LACMA's Anderson Building is just one component of a much larger complex, an encyclopedic museum spanning thousands of years and scores of historical cultures. MOCA, by sharp contrast, regards only the art of the last 50 years or so, seen in splendid isolation and focused mostly on Western cultures.

MOCA occupies a more bustling urban location than LACMA, which was built on the old-fashioned, 19th century contemplative ideal of the museum in a park. And as works of contemporary architecture, the Anderson Building, clunkily designed by Norman Pfeiffer of the firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, is almost universally deplored, while MOCA, elegantly designed by Arata Isozaki, has been more widely praised.

In bureaucratic organization, MOCA makes few distinctions based on artistic medium. LACMA is more compartmentalized, with separate departments of photography, decorative arts and prints and drawings distinct from its department of 20th century art. As a result, those specialized mediums aren't often granted the high visibility of shows in the Anderson Building.

LACMA has also always had an aura of establishment old money, while MOCA capitalizes on the sizzle of younger flash with Hollywood connections. Because the Anderson Building and MOCA were being planned and built at roughly the same time, it was only natural that a certain rivalry would bubble up between them. And even though both institutions have downplayed it, a competitive spirit is unmistakable--and beneficial.

So what has been the effect during the past decade of these two exhibition spaces for Modern and contemporary art? Most critical has been the creation of significant permanent collections--the bedrock of any museum. The top three floors of Anderson are devoted to the collection, and if MOCA still cannot boast any galleries solely for display of the permanent collection at either of its two locations, it has nonetheless assembled a steady diet of more than 45 special exhibitions drawn solely from its remarkable holdings.

Neither museum, however, does a very good job of integrating L.A. into the larger history of postwar art. The failure is disheartening, especially as you can be sure that no museum outside California is going to do it.

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