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PERSPECTIVE

An L.A. Annual: Here's Why

What's unforgettable right now? The local art public has a need to know, and a fleet-footed, unpretentious survey can fill it.

October 22, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT

When the Museum of Contemporary Art was in its formative stages in the early 1980s, a topic of simmering debate among artists, curators, collectors, critics, dealers and assorted other art enthusiasts around town concerned the question of a biennial. Should MOCA organize a wide-ranging, regularly scheduled show to survey what, in the opinion of its informed staff, seemed to be the most significant or compelling new art made in the previous two years?

The question could be argued on its merits, but the argument also concealed a submerged sense of competitive zeal. A MOCA Biennial would automatically be seen as a rival to the Whitney Biennial, the big, unruly, aggressive exhibition in New York, which many used to chart the pulse of contemporary American art. In the booming '80s, MOCA was being touted as evidence of the emergence of Los Angeles into international prominence as a cultural powerhouse, and it was thought (by some) that an upstart biennial to rival the Whitney's would seal the deal.

Everybody knew that the Whitney Biennial was fiercely parochial. It was the museum exhibition that functioned like that famous New Yorker magazine cover by Saul Steinberg: Every two years, the Whitney's survey of American art showed the United States as a crabbed and distorted little cultural wilderness beyond the Hudson River, while Gotham loomed large and lovely in the foreground. Important art made in Los Angeles was regularly left out, and had been for decades, while inferior goods from south of Houston Street and east of Avenue A were given pride of place in the Whitney's Upper Eastside digs. A MOCA Biennial would fix that--and show them, to boot.

We know which side won the argument. There has never been a MOCA Biennial--and boy, let's be grateful for that! It was truly an awful idea. Nothing demonstrates a provincial mind-set more clearly than an overweening nervousness Out Here about what is thought Back East. What is thought--anywhere--is only important if it's compelling, beguiling and convincing. Beyond that, who cares? L.A. was indeed coming into international prominence as a cultural powerhouse in the 1980s, but the phenomenon had nothing to do with getting a permission slip from the principal's office. MOCA's levelheaded refusal to entertain the lame idea of establishing a "rival" to the Whitney Biennial was part of the proof.

Now, however, the proof lies elsewhere.

Times have changed, and the time has come for the museum to establish a regular survey exhibition. Not a biennial, either, but an annual. As the millennium dawns, what the art public in Los Angeles needs is a MOCA Annual.

If you hear a loud groan right about now, it's probably echoing from the canyons of Grand Avenue, where MOCA's curatorial staff would no doubt rather have bamboo shoots slid underneath their collective fingernails than entertain this particular conversation. I can't say I entirely blame them. No exhibition is simple to organize, and a survey of very recent art would up the already considerable curatorial pressure applied by collectors, dealers, artists and others. A regularly scheduled survey would also fill an annual slot that would automatically push other pet projects further into the future, making curatorial competition for gallery space more acute.

But them's the breaks. There are pressing reasons why we need an annual survey. They start to come into focus when you think about such a show.

First, banish from your brain the current models from among the numerous survey shows that turn up regularly from Cuba to Korea, Sao Paolo to Istanbul. Making L.A. a stop on the Grand Tour is not the object.

The MOCA Annual should simply bring together whatever, in the estimation of the museum's director and several curators, was the most significant, unforgettable new art they had encountered in the previous year. No limits should be placed on nationality, age or medium. The show should make no effort to detect "trends," chronicle "movements" or argue "big themes" in art. It should only restrict itself to whatever has been on public display anywhere in the previous 12 months.

The MOCA Annual should be small. Twenty artists or 25 artists would be plenty. A boisterous extravaganza is not the point. The art world keeps growing exponentially, and the bigger it gets, the less past fictions about surveying "trends" or comprehensive "developments" can be sustained. The MOCA Annual should emphasize individual enthusiasms on the part of knowledgeable observers, which is where art always finds its most authentic power.

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