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Museum of Contemporary Art commissions, then paints over, artwork

An antiwar mural by street artist Blu on the side of the museum was deemed inappropriate by MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch. Critics say it's censorship.

December 14, 2010|By Jori Finkel, Times Staff Writer

Street art is fugitive by nature — and vulnerable to being destroyed by angry shopkeepers who just don't appreciate the creativity. But in the strange case of a massive antiwar mural that made a brief appearance downtown last week, it was the Museum of Contemporary Art that both commissioned and removed the work.

The mural, by the Italian street artist known as Blu, had a strong antiwar and anti-capitalist bent. It featured a field of military-style coffins draped by large dollar bills instead of flags.

The museum originally commissioned the piece for the north wall of the Geffen Contemporary as part of its "Art in the Streets" exhibition, set to open in April. Last week, upon the mural's completion, the museum had a crew whitewash it.

Several art bloggers denounced the museum's act as censorship, comparing it to the recent removal of David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" video from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Daniel Lahoda, founder of LA Freewalls Project downtown and one of the few people to photograph the work as it was being removed, said that the street art community is "really upset by this — everyone is talking about it."

"If you're planning on mounting the largest graffiti show in a major institution, you've got to give the artists the freedom to do the movement justice — so there's a big failure in what just happened," he says. "The last thing we want is an art institution, someone supposed to support creativity, to destroy it."

MOCA's official statement on the issue explains that the mural was removed because it was "inappropriate."

"The Geffen Contemporary building is located on a special, historic site," the statement said. "Directly in front of the north wall is the Go For Broke Monument, which commemorates the heroic roles of Japanese American soldiers...." The statement goes on to mention the nearby Veterans Affairs building.

Reached by phone while traveling, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch confirmed that he made the decision because the mural was "insensitive" to the community.

"This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community," Deitch said. "Out of respect for someone who is suffering from lung cancer, you don't sit in front of them and start chain smoking.

"Look at my gallery website — I have supported protest art more than just about any other mainstream gallery in the country," he added. "But as a steward of a public institution, I have to balance a different set of priorities — standing up for artists and also considering the sensitivities of the community."

He rejects the talk of censorship. "This doesn't compare to David Wojnarowicz. This shouldn't be blown up into something larger than it is," he says, describing a curator's prerogative to pick and choose what goes into a show. "Every aspect of the show involves a very considered discussion."

The unfortunate thing, he acknowledges, was the timing, as the artist began the mural while Deitch was out of town earlier this month for the art fair in Miami. "Blu was supposed to fly out the second-to-last week in November, so we could have conversations about it in advance," Deitch said. "But he said he had to change his flights, so he ended up working in isolation without any input."

When he returned from Miami and saw the mural, then more than halfway completed, Deitch said he made the decision to remove it very quickly, unprompted by complaints. "There were zero complaints, because I took care of it right away." He asked Blu to finish the work so it could be documented as part of the exhibition and appear in the accompanying catalog.

Deitch, who worked with the artist once before on a mural for his gallery's Long Island City branch, says the two remain "on friendly terms."

"Blu stayed at my house when he was here, and we talked about it over dinner. I said I'm holding the wall for him," Deitch said. But, he added, "He's not sure he wants to do the same wall again."

The artist, who has since returned to Europe, could not be reached for comment. But a picture of MOCA's pristine, whitewashed wall now appears on his website with the following caption — or perhaps invitation to fellow street artists: "a really nice, big wall, in downtown L.A."

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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