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An Outsider's L.A. Story

Europe liked Lars Nittve's 'Sunshine & Noir.' Now Southern California can decide.

October 04, 1998|Marjorie Miller | Marjorie Miller is The Times' London bureau chief

LONDON — Like so many other things, time isn't what it used to be. At least not in the judgment of Lars Nittve, a youngish 45-year-old who organized the contemporary art exhibition "Sunshine & Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997," and who has taken up the post of director of the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art that is to open here in the year 2000.

"The modern person's concept of time is changing with exposure to modern technologies," Nittve said. "For my 9-year-old son, who watches a VCR and satellite TV, time is all mixed up. Or, there is not a big difference between real and recorded time. With satellite broadcasts, he might be watching something that is happening tomorrow, because it is happening in Japan. More and more, time is relative."

One of the criticisms of the "Sunshine & Noir" exhibition, which showed in Denmark, Germany and Italy before arriving at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum for Wednesday's opening, was that it did not strictly adhere to a timeline. It steps out of chronology.

"Chronology is something we should rethink," Nittve said, referring to his past as well as future work.

Themes, he said, may be a better means of organizing art exhibitions. As in "Sunshine & Noir."

The Swedish-born Nittve is an ambitious curator with an active curiosity and aspirations to make the new Tate into the contemporary art museum of its time. He was selected from a list of 20 candidates earlier this year--the first outsider to head a major British museum--largely because of his success as director of Denmark's highly respected Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, where he organized the first historical survey of postwar Southern California art ever to appear in Europe.

The exhibition of 49 artists focuses on the period 1960-1997, but is organized around the theme of the light and dark sides of Los Angeles. Nittve said he and his Louisiana Museum co-curator Helle Crenzien tried to avoid the cliched paradise-hell dichotomy often used to describe Los Angeles by stressing the interplay between the two. "Sunshine usually has an underbelly, and it is the other way around too," he said.

Nittve, whose own sunny personality masked a bad cold and a serious scholarship in art history, stressed that the show was organized by Europeans for Europe, where it was well received.

Torben Weirup, art critic of the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, called the Los Angeles exhibition "genuine" and said it was "very well laid out, with a good logic to it." He thought the title was well chosen, as were such contrasting works as David Hockney's "A Bigger Splash" and Edward Kienholz's "The Beanery."

The Italian daily La Stampa described the "historic quality" of the show, which demonstrated that Los Angeles art "explodes, ferocious and infantile, polymorphic, without boundaries."

The harshest criticism of "Sunshine & Noir" came out of Los Angeles, a fact that did not surprise Nittve in the least.

"If you come from Scandinavia and you are telling people on the other side of the globe what their history is, you're bound to be criticized," Nittve said. "But I am happy to bring it to L.A. And also I am curious what the reactions from the public will be."

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight and others faulted Nittve's selection of works and, in some cases, even his selection of artists. Knight said Nittve omitted several key figures in the Los Angeles art scene, while many of those included were represented by works that were not their strongest or were not signature pieces.

Writing in the magazine Art in America, critic Michael Duncan complained that "the absence of art-historical rigor often created misleading associations between artists and reduced groupings of works to curatorial one-liners."

Nittve says he makes it a policy never to argue with critics. But then in an affable, Scandinavian sort of way, he does. With a smile.

"Always, when you make an exhibit there are things you could have done differently. I can't say I regret anything, though. You can always discuss what is the right work, what is the best work by an artist. Ultimately these judgments have to be personal. There is no right or wrong answer, really," Nittve said.

"In most cases here, our choices were made in discussion with the artists, if the artist was alive. That doesn't mean the artist is always right, but there was this dialogue."

Although Nittve studied Los Angeles art for at least 10 years before completing "Sunshine & Noir," according to a former colleague at the Louisiana Museum, he remains an outsider looking in the window and telling others outside what he sees.

"This was conceived and made to be shown in Europe. I took that as a starting point in my choices of works. Certain artists were underlined for different reasons," he said.

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