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The Getty's Link to the Living

Freelance curator Lisa Lyons connects contemporary artists to an institution known for its historical emphasis.

March 05, 2000|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | Susan Freudenheim is a Times staff writer

Lisa Lyons is an independent spirit working in a bureaucratic world.

A freelance curator of contemporary art who prizes the freewheeling ways of artists above institutional thinking, she likes art that pokes fun and makes you laugh, that questions the world and makes you see it in a new light. She likes art that provokes an uneasy feeling and makes you think. In short, she likes art.

For the past four years, Lyons has been bringing her vanguard sensibility to one of the most academic institutions in Los Angeles--the Getty Center in Brentwood, a place with virtually no history of exhibiting or caring for contemporary painting and sculpture. In the process she has helped the Getty commission major site-specific artworks by Ed Ruscha, Alexis Smith and Martin Puryear, three artists with very different sensibilities and styles. And last week, Lyons accomplished what might once have seemed impossible--the opening of a critically acclaimed exhibition of work by Los Angeles artists at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

"Departures: 11 Artists at the Getty," which Lyons organized at the encouragement of Getty Museum director John Walsh, is designed to celebrate the art of our time while linking it to historical work the Getty museum collects. The name is particularly well chosen, for the show represents departures from the routine working process by the institution and the artists.

Lyons is the bridge between the two. Former director of the art programs at the Lannan Foundation and before that a longtime, distinguished curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Lyons, 49, has organized significant exhibitions of artists as diverse as Chuck Close, William Wegman and Chris Burden. She knows how museums work, as well as how artists work.

In October 1998, at the Getty's invitation, Lyons proposed a show that would invite a group of L.A. artists to create work inspired by whatever part of the Getty holdings might interest them. She wanted to work with artists based in Los Angeles because they can get regular access to the collections and therefore are able to develop very personal reactions. Her concept was that art begets art, and that many artists today are drawn to--and find inspiration from--historical work not obviously related to their own. Lyons did not set limits on how or what might be used as a catalyst, and she says she began by visiting studios and galleries.

"My notion was to try and touch on as many parts of the Getty collection as possible," she says in an interview at the Los Feliz home she shares with her husband, author and businessman Richard Grossman.

"In talking with people, I would ask them, 'What kinds of things do you look at? What attracts your interest? Have you been to the Getty?' " In fact, she says, a lot of artists hadn't been to the Getty, but that didn't disqualify them. "I tried to invite people to go, just to look around."

Her list of participating artists is impressive. All are at least mid-career with significant track records--John Baldessari, Uta Barth, Sharon Ellis, Judy Fiskin, Martin Kersels, John M. Miller, Ruben Ortiz Torres, Lari Pittman, Stephen Prina, Alison Saar and Adrian Saxe.

Lyons approached some artists who did not want to stop what they were doing to accommodate the exhibition's program, even for a prominent institution like the Getty. And some who are on the list took persuading. Pittman says he never responds to commissions, and Lyons' invitation was not a given. "I was excited and intrigued," he recalls. "But if an institution that has a long history of showing contemporary art calls, I do have a different reaction.

"I've worked with a lot of institutions, but I've never had any conceptual guideline. It's, 'Do your Lari work.' And that's my forte, being Lari. So we had to discuss these things, and I think that Lisa was able to lay out a type of response to the Getty, but with a lot of amplitude on how this can come about.

"It's a constructed challenge."

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Pittman's contribution to the exhibition, a mural-sized canvas titled "Indebted to You, I Will Have Had Understood the Power of the Wand Over the Scepter," is a response, in part, to James Ensor's "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889," done in 1888, although the two works are similar more in their poignant spirit of defiance than in appearance.

Other artists were immediately responsive to Lyons' concept, she says.

"Baldessari is a very good example. Over the years he's done riffs on other artists' work or been very influenced by other artists. At the time I first chatted with him, he was working on a series having to do with Goya. So we talked about what Goya meant for him in his work."

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