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ART REVIEW : A bright pairing : MOCA exhibit shows the rise of American art -- and of L.A.

November 17, 2009|Christopher Knight | TIMES ART CRITIC

It resonated like a huge stone dropped into a big pond: A year ago, as reports surfaced that the Museum of Contemporary Art had dug itself into a deep financial hole from which it might not be able to emerge, a shudder rippled outward from Los Angeles to the international art world. Since its fledgling days of 1979, MOCA had grown -- in terms of facility, program and collection -- into the nation's museum-flagship for art after World War II.

MOCA has not yet fully climbed out of the financial crater, although the balance sheet is far better now than it was then. And this week, the museum opened a remarkable 30th anniversary exhibition of its remarkable permanent collection -- the ultimate reason any museum finally matters. About 500 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos and installations by more than 200 international artists fill the Grand Avenue building and the Geffen Contemporary warehouse in Little Tokyo. The show's title urges forward-looking optimism: "Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years" implies there will, in fact, be a second 30 years.

But this is not just a promotional treasure-house show. Installed chronologically by chief curator Paul Schimmel, it also tells a story -- although one that's rarely heard. The postwar rise of American art is paired with the simultaneous rise of Los Angeles, from shallow backwater to cultural powerhouse.

At the Grand Avenue building, which spans 1939 to 1979, the distinctive emergence of a mature L.A. art is embedded within the larger postwar prominence of the United States, artistically dominated by New York. At the Geffen -- the story picks up in the year MOCA was born.

Two telling works flank the Grand Avenue entry. At the left, a lovely little 1939 abstraction by Piet Mondrian signals Modernism's shift from Europe to America as war loomed. At the right is Sam Francis' luminous cloud of gray-white color, painted in postwar Paris in 1951 as an atmospheric evocation of urban light. Francis later moved to Santa Monica and served as a founding MOCA trustee.

Andy Warhol offers an early narrative clue. Warhol is the most influential artist of the last 40 years, but overall he's a modest presence in the show. MOCA's pivotal 1961 painting of an old-fashioned telephone is here, wittily asserting that in our mass-media world, painting is an outmoded communication form. Also on view, however, is a 1962 Campbell's soup can painting -- one of just five loans to the show.

Its inclusion is a pointed reminder that the New York artist's career-breakout took place not in Manhattan but in an L.A. gallery show. It featured the now-classic soup can paintings.

The Grand Avenue display is rich in implications such as these. MOCA's astounding depth in certain New York artists -- Rothko, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Kline, etc. -- is vividly displayed, but so is the incomparable extent of its Southern California holdings. Crucial are the Beat Generation assemblages of Wallace Berman, the painted cosmologies of Lee Mullican, the gestural sign-language of Emerson Woelffer and the Japanese-inspired geometric abstractions of John McLaughlin.

One great moment juxtaposes three pristine McLaughlin paintings with three geometric abstractions by Ellsworth Kelly. L.A.'s McLaughlin is the artist for whom the term "hard-edge painting" was first coined, a designation now typically assigned to Kelly, the far better-known New Yorker.

The clear light and open space of McLaughlin's Zen-inflected paintings resonates with the profound L.A. emergence of Light and Space art. A large selection of Robert Irwin's work, charting his transition from a traditional painter, joins Doug Wheeler's walk-in 1969 perceptual environment of diffused neon light.

Language-based Conceptual art also looms large. Ed Ruscha's word-painting, "Lisp," John Baldessari's photo-painting of Artforum magazine and Alexis Smith's narrative collage, spinning a story from bits of found trash, are joined by a big Guy de Cointet painting. Titled "Halved Painting," the French-born expatriate's little-known work splits open the text of a made-up language.

At the Geffen the show's tone sharply changes, becoming more raucous and hurly-burly. Chris Burden's two-ton, 8-foot cast-iron flywheel, "The Big Wheel" spins with ferocious silent power, driven by an attached motorcycle. It's an industrial-strength, easy-rider remake of Marcel Duchamp's genteel 1913 mounting of a bicycle wheel atop a stool, Modern art's first kinetic sculpture.

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