No, this is not another story about the Getty Center.
OK, so it is about the Getty, but only in part and only because it's not possible to review the art year now ending without paying attention to the newly opened behemoth on a Brentwood hilltop and all that it represents. Which brings up a question.
Just what is it that the Getty Center does represent, specifically for the art life of Los Angeles?
At a jam-packed museum opening in another part of town earlier in the fall, I was chatting with an artist who's but one among scores from L.A. who now enjoy national and international reputations, and I asked if he was looking forward to visiting the new Getty complex. "Not really," came the considered but immediate reply; "there's nothing much for me up there."
Call me crazy, but when a critically important artist, based in a community whose international artistic stature ranks high, confesses relative detachment from a local cultural institution of the Getty's magnitude, something is out of whack.
Of course, there is in fact a lot up there at the Getty Center for artists--and anyone else interested in art. But, since 1982, when its multibillion-dollar endowment was assured, the Getty has maintained an odd degree of anonymity locally.
Its museum in Malibu was certainly popular, although not necessarily with Angelenos: On average, three out of four visitors have been out-of-town tourists. The sporadic spectacular purchases of art for the museum's collection would periodically generate a ruffle of publicity, but the Getty's other mainline activities--a great research library and programs in art education, conservation, computer information systems, occasional small grants and such--almost never register in the local consciousness. ("There's nothing much for me up there.")
Now that its offices have been consolidated in a highly visible location, giving the Getty a routine public presence it's never really had before, any lingering disjunction is likely to chafe.
As an institution, the Getty is a global force, with research and conservation activities making a significant difference in cities around the world, including this one. But, like a multinational corporation, it sometimes leaves you wondering how much of a there is really there.
The relationship between the Getty and L.A. is important because, in a microcosmic way, it reflects the peculiarity of the on-going globalization of just about everything these days--including culture. The deaths this year of two pivotal artists--Willem de Kooning (born 1904) and Roy Lichtenstein (born 1923)--suggest part of the trajectory of the change.
De Kooning was a European emigre who, in the 1940s and '50s, helped make New York into the leading city for new art; Lichtenstein was a native New Yorker who, in the 1960s and '70s, was instrumental in exporting that primacy around the world. By the 1980s and 1990s, though, the grip of a single city was loosened, probably for good and certainly for the better.
Postwar American avant-garde practice has been the primary bellwether for art's global metamorphoses. Lately, though, it's become plain that an equally powerful force has been postwar American popular culture. Visit the big international art shows that have mushroomed on various continents--in Brazil, Germany, Korea, Italy, Cuba, South Africa; the dialects may differ, but an international art language is now being spoken with relative fluency.
Partly that explains the ascendancy of Los Angeles--ground zero for what could be called pop cult avant-gardism--into inescapable prominence among centers for the production of new art. In early summer, a show called "Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A., 1960-1997" began an international tour at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark (it comes to UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum in September); whatever the show's curatorial flaws, it's instructive that this first-ever museum survey of postwar art made in Los Angeles was organized in Europe, not in the United States.
Because art is something most Americans tend to think happens someplace else, it's often more difficult to see the merits of what is right in front of your face. (Distance, as the Victorians were fond of saying, also lends enchantment to the view.) Except for three provocative commissions to L.A.-based artists Robert Irwin, Edward Ruscha and Alexis Smith, so far the folks at the Getty have given scant indication of having a clue about the unprecedented phenomenon for art that has unfolded in their own hometown.