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COVER STORY

Presenting a State of Mind (and Then Some)

'Made in California,' LACMA curator Stephanie Barron's latest endeavor, is a really big show. And that's just the way she likes it.

October 22, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

"That looks enormous, way out of proportion. It dwarfs everything else in the gallery."

Stephanie Barron is gazing unhappily at a mannequin in a zoot suit standing on a central platform in a room of 1940s artworks at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It's a month before the exhibition "Made in California" will open, but the countdown is on for the museum's senior curator of modern and contemporary art and vice president of education and public programs.

Slightly shifting the position of the dramatically costumed figure doesn't help, but when Barron asks an assistant to move it next to a soaring side wall, to her eye the zoot suiter suddenly assumes its rightful place as one of many essential characters in a story told by hundreds of objects.

With that settled, Barron and two of her colleagues, exhibition associate Sheri Bernstein and curator Carol Eliel, proceed through gallery after gallery. Along the way, they check sight lines, rearrange artworks and indulge in a little self-congratulation for landing juicy bits of ephemera, such as a 1945 magazine ad for a yellow two-piece Cole of California "Swoon-glo" bathing suit, along with the real thing, which adorns another mannequin in the show.

This is business as usual for a head curator--except that "Made in California" is anything but a traditional art show. The biggest exhibition ever produced or presented at the museum, it's a huge collaborative venture that examines California's changing image over the past century. Working with a team of curators, designers and consultants, Barron has masterminded the display of more than 800 artworks and about 400 related objects--from orange-crate labels to postcards, freeway murals to Hollywood beefcake photos. True to the form of her trademark projects, the show presents art not as an isolated phenomenon but as the heart of a cultural, social and historical milieu.

Beginning with "The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives," the 1980 exhibition that she organized with then-senior LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman, and continuing with shows of German Expressionist art in 1983 and 1988, followed by "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" in 1991 and "Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler" in 1997, Barron has made a reputation not just as a highly accomplished curator, but a remarkably enterprising one--a curator who goes to unprecedented lengths to look at art in a very big picture.

"She has transformed our awareness of how exhibitions and art can be perceived within the social forces they represent," says Patterson Sims, deputy director for education and research at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"What we have in Stephanie is someone who cares about art as art and then has the breadth to think about its conceptual context. That's very rare," says Steven Lavine, president of CalArts. "We've learned to take for granted her pushing of the limit, but her shows--which combine art and non-art and archival things and environments--are really quite radical museum practice."

For Barron, it's all about a passion to communicate.

"Exhibitions can be very powerful tools for people to get information, not only a beautiful experience, and I really like it when those two things come together," she says. "I wouldn't be interested in a show that didn't contain beautiful, powerful, important works of art. It has to have that, but I want to build that with something else to tell a meaningful story."

*

Sitting behind her desk in her glass-front office, where shelves are crammed with art books and counters are filled with neat stacks of paper, Barron, 49, can cite a number of key people and moments that made her the kind of curator she is today.

She starts with her schools and teachers. As a student at Barnard College, Columbia University and the City University of New York, she studied with an array of influential art historians, Modernist Meyer Schapiro, American art scholar Barbara Novak, Dutch specialist Julius Held and French Impressionist authority John Rewald.

She took their teaching to heart--and then some. In the summer of 1972--while enjoying a college graduation gift, a cooking course at the Cordon Bleu in Paris--Barron took a side trip inspired by a class with Novak, her advisor at Barnard. Carrying a copy of Vincent van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, Barron boarded a train to Pontoise, then walked along the Oise River to Auvers, where the artist spent his final days. She visited his house, walked to the wheat field where he fatally shot himself and went to the cemetery where he is buried.

A few years later, after she had moved to Los Angeles, Barron accepted an invitation to visit Rewald at his home in Provence. With his former student at the wheel of a rental car, the scholar pointed out sites painted by Paul Cezanne, walked with her on Mont Sainte Victoire and accompanied her to the artist's studio.

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