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An L.A. showcase for iconoclasts

Joni Gordon is closing Newspace, a gallery that has nurtured local talent for 34 years.

October 27, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Newspace is closing?

It isn't quite the end of an era. Other contemporary art galleries of the same vintage are still in business in Los Angeles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Newspace gallery: A caption with an article in the Oct. 27 Calendar section about the closing of Newspace failed to name the artist of the sculpture pictured. The geometric sculpture shown from the gallery's final exhibit was by Peter Zecher.

But Joni Gordon's Melrose Avenue showcase has been a major fixture of the local art scene for three decades. Which is to say, since the days when a novice could take over a foundering gallery, buy the key for a few cents, rent the space for $200 a month and develop an exhibition program that mattered to young artists.

"There were such possibilities," she says, sucking in her breath as she recalls the gallery's beginnings. "This was something I had to do. It was so compelling."

Gordon, who recently celebrated her 70th birthday, isn't retiring. But she will close the gallery Dec. 16 and work privately in the resale market. Until then, there's plenty to see at Newspace. Instead of the usual selection of works by a single artist, the final exhibition, "Good to Go," is a salon-style installation of works by 114 artists surveying the gallery's history. The catalog is a slim booklet with poetic snippets of gallery lore and a complete list of exhibitions from Newspace's inception in 1972 to the present.

Visitors find one of Jeff Price's first bronze sculptures, Mike Kelley's early ink drawings of the past and the future, Astrid Preston's colored-pencil composition of horizontal lines and Martha Alf's paintings that transform toilet paper rolls into stately cylinders. There are also visionary landscapes by Frederick Wight, sketches of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art by architect Arata Isozaki and a model of a "Bum Shelter," designed for homeless people by Jon Peterson.

"The exhibition puts the work in a frame," Gordon says. "I didn't want to pick out highlights or stars. I wanted everyone who was ever here accounted for. The work reflects my interests at the time, what I felt was really essential."

For old-timers, the show is a dizzying trip through memory lane. For newcomers, it's a revelation.

Who knew that a gallery mainly known for doing its own thing in an out-of-the-way place provided early exposure for artists such as photographer Judy Fiskin, conceptualist Robert Cumming and painters Preston, John Sonsini, Lisa Adams and Dan McCleary? Or that Newspace showed the work of Betty Parsons, who blossomed as an artist after she gave up the New York gallery where she championed giants of Abstract Expressionism? Or that Susanne Vielmetter, an L.A. dealer with a hot gallery in Culver City, got her start as Newspace's assistant director?

No one who came to town yesterday. But many artists praise Gordon's contributions.

"She has a wonderful eye," Preston says. "She's like an artist, and she loves to support young people and really follow their work. Very few galleries do that."

Adams, who also worked with Gordon at the beginning of her career, credits Gordon with teaching her about the gallery system while giving her freedom to develop naturally. But seeing "Good to Go" heightened her understanding of the veteran dealer and her place in the L.A. art scene.

"Her choices were personal, authentic and unique," Adams says. "She seemed to show artists that were, for the most part, not supported by the party-line art world. When you see a collection of 33 years of iconoclastic artists rather than mainstream artists, it establishes a very different view of those years in Los Angeles. The work in the exhibition tends not to look dated and has really held up in ways that much mainstream work often does not."

Gordon, born in Cleveland, arrived in Los Angeles in 1945 with her mother and stepfather, who died a couple of years later. Early on, she had an affinity for art but no idea that it could be a career path. She recalls her discovery of the art department at UCLA, where she majored in English and anthropology, as an epiphany. She became acquainted with artist instructors and graduate students, including Richard Diebenkorn, Tony Berlant, Charles Garabedian and Vija Celmins, and began working part time in galleries on La Cienega Boulevard.

But it took a couple of decades for Gordon to establish her gallery. While raising two children with her husband, attorney Monte Gordon, she intensified her involvement in contemporary art, by forming a group that visited artists' studios and joining a support group at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Gordons also helped found the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, a nonprofit space that operated from 1975 to 1988.

One day in 1975 when Joni Gordon was organizing artists' books at LAICA, she made a phone call to borrow some by Chris Burden. The next afternoon, she went to Newspace, a gallery run by artist Jean St. Pierre that had opened in Newport Beach in 1972 and had moved to 5015 Melrose Ave. in 1973. She found the artist at his wit's end, mired in debt. Several hours later, she left with the books and the key to the gallery.

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