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No Stranger to Praise--or Critique

As MOCA's chief curator, Paul Schimmel champions new and vintage art, often to surprising effect.

November 15, 1998|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

"I remember in 1992 when I was working on 'Helter Skelter,' it was absolutely clear to me that Chris Burden and Mike Kelley were internationally regarded as the artists from Los Angeles for the 1970s and '80s," said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "And I knew--as sure as I am sitting here--that Charley Ray was the artist who would move to the front of this pack in the '90s. I also knew that Charley would be the next one-person survey I did." The show opens today at MOCA.

Six years have passed since "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" created an art-world sensation with a sprawling onslaught of aggressively ominous art that catapulted Schimmel to fame as a champion of Los Angeles' dark side and aesthetic machismo. The huge, unruly exhibition was panned on both coasts by critics who objected to the title's reference to the Charles Manson murders and to the art, much of which was dismissed as adolescent grandstanding or chilling nihilism. Nonetheless, the exhibition was a landmark showcase for L.A.'s contemporary art that introduced Ray, among other artists, to a broad audience.

Ray has gone on to achieve international recognition, and Schimmel--a perpetually ambitious and creative curator who turns 44 Tuesday--has organized major exhibitions that have won critical accolades as well as complaints. He wins high marks for doing fresh research in historical shows, often making illuminating connections between disparate periods or bodies of work, but is sometimes faulted for falling short of his responsibility as head of MOCA's curatorial staff and for being too involved with a small claque of male artists.

Yet others contend that such criticism goes with the territory. "He's different from everybody else," dealer Patricia Faure said. "He's controversial, but he should be."

Schimmel takes on enormously complicated projects that involve many years of preparation, so his periods of being in the public eye are sporadic. But during the last 14 months he has overseen Robert Gober's spectacularly memorable installation involving a larger-than-life-size sculpture of a Madonna, subterranean tide pools and water rushing down a staircase, and he has presented "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979," a massive show stemming from many years of research on the evolution from gestural painting to object-oriented performances.

And now there's "Charles Ray." The 25-year survey is installed at MOCA's main building at California Plaza, following its inaugural run at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show presents Ray's best-known conceptual sculpture--including a huge steel cube filled with black ink, an 8-foot-tall female mannequin in a pink suit, a toy firetruck enlarged to the size of a real vehicle and an impeccable re-creation of a crashed car, painted a ghostly gray--within a body of work that ranges from early performance pieces to recent experiments with film.

Ray's exhibition is only the latest entry on a long list of projects Schimmel has realized during the past 23 years--at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston from 1975-78, the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) from 1981-90 and subsequently at MOCA. But the latest show is always the one that pleases him most, Schimmel said, and this one has special meaning because of his 12-year relationship with the artist.

"Charley is an exceptionally visionary artist," Schimmel said, in a interview at his office. "He makes very compelling objects. They are not aberrations that exist conceptually, and yet his work is immensely satisfying because of the restlessness of his mind. He really is an idea man steeped in the formalist tradition of sculpture."


Striking a balance between formal and conceptual concerns is familiar ground for the curator. "This kind of conflict is something I have had to wrestle with," Schimmel said. "Charley is, as I am, of this generation that has straddled Modernism and Postmodernism. As a curator, I go back and forth. I see in Charley an artist who is immensely interesting because of his struggle and what he does with it."

Schimmel has his own struggles, but he appears to have been born to his job--in New York City in 1954. Even as a kid, "I was always the art guy," he said, adding that he found his professional direction as a teenager. His high school art teacher took him to museums and artists' studios, while his English teacher assigned him a research project on Gertrude Stein, the writer and modern art collector.

"New York is an incredible place to do research," he said, recalling helpful librarians, curators and a magical period spent in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art, when an exhibition from Stein's collection was in the works. "I still have Instamatic photographs I took of works that were on the racks," he said.

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