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MOCA acquires a Conceptualist treat

December 03, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Edward Ruscha's "Chocolate Room" -- a famously tasty artwork that covers walls of an entire room with 360 shingle-like sheets of chocolate-coated paper -- was created as a temporary installation for the 1970 Venice Biennale. Attacked by ants and damaged by human sweet freaks who licked their fingers and pressed them into the artwork's rich brown surfaces, it was demolished after the show. But "Chocolate Room" didn't die in Venice. It lives at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

The museum will announce today that it has purchased the artwork from the internationally renowned artist, who lives and works in Los Angeles. MOCA officials declined to state the price but said that funds were provided by the museum's acquisition and collection committee.

The unusual acquisition has three components. There's a stack of chocolate-coated pages, each 24- by 30-inches, produced in 1995 when "Chocolate Room" was re-created for MOCA's survey of Conceptual art, "1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art." There's also the artist's archive and documentation of the piece in Venice. But most important is the exclusive right to reconstitute the piece according to Ruscha's instructions, which include a recipe for the chocolate.

This isn't exactly what Ruscha had in mind when he and dealer Brooke Alexander scoured Venice for tubes of spreadable Nestle chocolate to create the original installation.

"It was a one-shot thing," Ruscha says. "I was real happy with it, but I knew that would be the end of it. I didn't dream it would ever come around again until 1995, when MOCA wanted to re-create it." The museum's recent offer to buy the piece was even more astonishing, he says.

"I would ordinarily be nervous about letting go of something so intangible," he says, "but MOCA is a very professional, prestigious organization. I feel very good that this thing has gone to them. Whenever they decide to re-create it, they are going to do a very good job of it."

The pursuit of "Chocolate Room" reflects the museum's commitment to acquiring large installations and to collecting Ruscha's work in depth, says MOCA director Jeremy Strick. The museum presented a survey of Ruscha's work in 1990, and it owns 20 other works by him: five paintings, one drawing, one photographic portfolio, two print portfolios and 11 individual prints.

Largely known as a Pop artist who marries text and images, Ruscha is also an influential Conceptualist. "Chocolate Room," his only installation, comes from a period when he was creating prints with organic materials.

"It's one of the most breathtakingly sensual environments you can experience," says chief curator Paul Schimmel. "It also addresses issues of nontraditional printmaking materials, serial art, Minimalism and Conceptualism. Ed has been associated with all these movements, but he never fits in neatly. This work seems to embrace all the wry intelligence and the wonderful visceral quality that is his hallmark."

Ruscha was invited to participate in the 1970 Venice Biennale by Henry Hopkins, a museum director who was charged with organizing a group exhibition of advanced printmaking for the American Pavilion.

"It was the tag end of the love-in era, so our residence there was conceived as a kind of commune, with presses and artists at work," Hopkins says. "But it was also a time of Vietnam protests. There was a great hue and cry in the United States about government involvement with the Venice Biennale. About half of the artists didn't want to participate, so we put up a sign listing their names and stating their objections."

Ruscha kept his commitment to work in Venice that summer, but only after sending Hopkins a note saying his mother had given her approval. Free to fill one room of the pavilion, he squeezed chocolate from tubes onto a silk screen and used a squeegee to spread the material on hundreds of sheets of paper.

"His idea was to completely cover the walls of the room, overlapping the sheets of paper like shingles, so the illusion was more or less like a California bungalow," Hopkins says.

The heat, the humidity and the smell of all that chocolate was nearly overwhelming, Hopkins says, but people came. Within a few days, some visitors discovered that they could draw or write messages on the chocolate. About halfway through the months-long run of the exhibition, the ants arrived.

In 1995, when MOCA re-created the piece, Ron McPherson, who fabricates work for many prominent artists, developed a chocolate recipe to replace the Nestle tubes. It may not be ant-proof, but no one expects a rerun of the Venice invasion.

For now, the 1995 chocolate sheets are in storage, safely sealed. Those sheets, or possibly newly printed ones, will be installed at MOCA in October to accompany a touring retrospective of Ruscha's drawings organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

The concept has a little room for change, Ruscha says. "The sheets might look somewhat different. There might be a slight variation in the room size, the placement of doors or the number of sheets used. The important thing is that it should be in a room that has four walls. I hope to be consulted in anything like that, and I will be."

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