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No Blank Walls

In Richard Koshalek's World, You Gotta Have Art

September 24, 2000|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to The Times. Her oral history, "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," will be published by William Morrow in October

Richard Koshalek, president of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, counts himself a lucky man. His passion for art has led him to a lifelong career working with artists and architects. Koshalek first arrived in Los Angeles in 1980 as deputy director of the city's fledgling Museum of Contemporary Art. Named director two years later, he made players of artists and donors in shaping the two downtown MOCA facilities that today host upward of 300,000 visitors a year. Even before arriving at MOCA, Koshalek, 59, was tapping artists for ideas. As director of the Hudson River Museum in New York's Westchester County in the 1970s, the innovative museum executive brought in artist Red Grooms to craft the museum bookstore and neon artist Dan Flavin to do the museum's lighting.

Like architect Frank Gehry, who designed MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, Koshalek tries to bridge art and architecture. He holds a degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota, and among the many exhibitions he's curated or co-curated is "At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture," which closes today at the Geffen.

At Art Center, Koshalek's office is furnished with pieces by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. The strong connections between these artists' clean lines and the building's striking steel-and-glass design by architect Craig Ellwood are not coincidental, Koshalek says. Writer Barbara Isenberg asked Koshalek about art, aesthetics and the visual dynamics that occur when living and work spaces intersect.

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Barbara Isenberg: What are some of the things you see that shape the environments where we live and work? How does what we do inform how we live?

Richard Koshalek: There are usually unspoken laws of conformity. An architect dresses like an architect, lawyer like a lawyer and rock star like a rock star. The same is true of the office you occupy, whether it's a result of architectural, corporate or governmental philosophy. The home is the one place in which an individual can be an individual.

BI: So the home really is the castle?

RK: The vast majority of your experiences in the physical world are determined by other people. At home you can make your own decisions and express your individuality, whether it's through the space you live in, the furniture you select or what you collect. If you want to read somebody's psyche and decide who that person is, what he or she believes in and what his or her level of aesthetic judgment is, you can only do that in the home.

BI: Is that particularly true for artists?

RK: It's true of everyone, but particularly for artists, because they usually produce the work where they live. Most people produce the work somewhere else. I've studied residential architecture all over the world--Caracas, Paris, Tokyo--and the most extraordinary spaces I visited have been the live-work spaces of people like Joan Miro, Dan Flavin, Louise Nevelson and Donald Judd. In most cases, the studio and the home are synonymous, and there's an extraordinary connection between that live-work space and the character of the work produced there.

BI: Can you give me an example?

RK: Louise Nevelson created these wonderful wall structures, always painted black, white or gold and made up of wood and other found objects. Before she died, I visited where she made them, and you could see very clearly what her thinking and direction were. Her house and an attached structure where she worked were totally in sync with what she did there in terms of character and detail. They were dark, partitioned and had a mysterious silence about them. If you wanted to have the perfect place to install her work, it would be there.

BI: Have you ever visited an artist whose home or studio totally surprised you, given the work he or she produced?

RK: No, I haven't. Artists spend a lot of time creating workplaces where they feel creatively secure. The attention they pay to their environment many times has to come first, because for the work to be produced, they have to have this resolved. I think it gives them a certain amount of comfort with their ideas.

BI: Do the artists you've visited usually have much art in their homes?

RK: Very seldom. It's usually their own work, which is just recently finished or currently being produced.

BI: Do you have much art in your home?

RK: Yes, but nothing that I have is attached to the wall. The art is in every room of the house, and it's all

propped up against the walls instead.

BI: Why is that?

RK: For flexibility, and to be able to experience the work in different contexts and in different relationships to other work with great ease.

BI: Can you name a few artists you collect?

RK: In our study right now we have works on paper by Richard Serra, Mario Merz and Rebecca Horn. In the same room, against another wall, are pen-and-ink portrait sketches of my wife, Betty, and myself by Dan Flavin, and a very esoteric drawing done by Marcel Broodthaers.

BI: How often do you move the art?

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