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Art Review

A Statement That's Broad but Not Bold

October 09, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Between the end of World War II and the end of the 1970s, New York was the single authoritative force in contemporary art. Individual artists elsewhere might occasionally break through, but they were few and far between. Besides, as one influential critic put it at the time, virtually any artist, anywhere, who developed a vital reputation automatically became "a New York artist."

The 1980s changed that dynamic.

The decade witnessed the beginning stages of an authentic shift in art, an internationalization that today is taken for granted. Two phenomena heralded the transformation.

One was the sweeping return of European art and artists to a stature they held before the continental devastation of the war.

Art had never gone away in Europe. But in the '80s the new British sculptors, the so-called "trans-avant-garde" in Italy and, especially, the German Neo-Expressionists came roaring to the cultural foreground.

The other signal phenomenon was the rise of Los Angeles artists into widely accepted prominence. The ascent had begun in the 1960s, but deep recession in the 1970s put an abrupt stop to that.

By the end of the 1980s, though, L.A. had matured into an internationally significant center for the production of new art, a role it fulfills today.

For the first time since the early 19th century, when Boston, Philadelphia and New York were rivals, the United States could claim more than one urban artistic powerhouse.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a new exhibition organized by curators Stephanie Barron and Lynn Zelevansky pivots around the transformative decade of the 1980s.

"Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections" assembles 106 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 25 artists, culled from the enormous personal and foundation holdings of local businessman Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe.

Legitimate questions can be raised about the propriety of LACMA showing the collection of one of its trustees, without having already secured it as an actual or promised gift.

Many (though not all) major American museums forbid the practice, including New York's Museum of Modern Art, Washington's National Gallery and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.

A platform is given to a narrow conversation between the museum and a collector, leaving the public with its nose uncomfortably pressed up against the window.

This overcrowded show is just a curatorial wish list for donations, and thus not engaging as an exhibition.

But it is here, the quality of individual works is often high, and something useful to know emerges from the enterprise.

Broad, a multibillionaire, is perhaps the wealthiest collector of contemporary art in the nation. The possibility for influential leadership inherent in that singular status is incalculable.

The show demonstrates that it has largely been unrealized. The Broad collection has been mostly irrelevant to shaping the discourse of contemporary art during the past 25 years.

It represents lots of established artists but largely follows the more adventurous leads of others.

The show reveals a deep insecurity at the highest echelon of the city's cultural life--in both its most powerful contemporary art collector and its largest civic museum.

That disappointing reality becomes painfully obvious in the collection's presentation of the pivotal 1980s.

The show includes some exceptional paintings by German Neo-Expressionists Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and especially Anselm Kiefer.

The show also looks back to the 1960s and 1970s, when Baselitz was painting disjunctive works based on torn pictures of heroic subjects, while Kiefer was painting monumental, roughhewn images. Both express the anxiety of German history, where intellectual grandeur mingles freely with unspeakable horror.

The New York variant of Neo-Expressionism is also well served. Excellent examples by Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl, Susan Rothenberg, David Salle and especially Jean-Michel Basquiat are on view. "The Walk Home" (1984-85), Julian Schnabel's monumental assemblage of smashed and paint-slathered crockery and copper gargoyles, which bob in the roiling miasma, is among that erratic artist's more powerful works.

The return of European art and the effulgence of painting in New York in the 1980s are given careful consideration.

What's missing entirely, however, is the other critically significant development of the period--the rise to prominence of Los Angeles artists. About that pivotal phenomenon this Los Angeles collection is silent. History confirms an outlook that was speculative but widely felt at the end of the 1980s.

The two indispensable American artists to emerge early in that decade were Cindy Sherman, working in New York, and Mike Kelley, working in L.A.

Both artists have been hugely influential, here and abroad.

The Broad show features 18 exceptional examples of Sherman's photographic masquerades, culled from more than 100 in the collection. Kelley's work is absent.

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