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Paul Schimmel: Contemporary art's ideas man

MOCA chief curator Schimmel, the mastermind of ambitious thematic shows, leaves the L.A. art museum with another one of his signature exhibits — 'Destroy the Picture.'

January 12, 2013|By Suzanne Muchnic
  • Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Ninety-six works by 26 artists from the United States, Europe and Asia, brought together to illuminate a big — but overlooked — idea.

"Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962" is vintage MOCA. A boldly thoughtful, revisionist exhibition that focuses on destruction as a creative force, it's the sort of show that has long distinguished Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

The project is also vintage Paul Schimmel, who organized "Destroy the Picture" and edited its substantial catalog. But the exhibition's closing on Monday will mark the end of his 22-year tenure as the museum's chief curator.

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times

"I was surprised there had never been a show that dealt with this visually coherent phenomenon," Schimmel said in an interview at the L.A. museum in the last weeks of its run. "It runs parallel to a lot of things we know about art in the '50s, but it hadn't been brought together in one exhibition."

Schimmel was forced to resign from the museum as chief curator in June, which set in motion a series of events that shook the stability and reputation of MOCA — including the resignation of all four of its artist trustees, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie.

Schimmel is strongly identified with the museum and the rise of Los Angeles as an international art center. Over the years, as MOCA's art holdings have grown enormously, he has overseen more than 350 exhibitions, including more than 100 devoted to the permanent collection. He is a scholar of the art of the 1950s; the mastermind of ambitious thematic exhibitions; and the organizer of retrospectives for major artists such as Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy and Takashi Murakami.

"Schimmel was the face of MOCA to people in the art world, even though the directors seemed to get more press," New York art critic Peter Plagens wrote in an email exchange. "The best thing about MOCA was its exhibition program: more contemporary than MOMA's and better than other museums of contemporary art, in Chicago and Houston. Schimmel gets most of the credit since he was there for two decades and was the person who kept thebar high."

Schimmel won't discuss the circumstances of his resignation, or why he thinks the MOCA board leadership ousted him. However, trustee emeritus Eli Broad told The Times that Schimmel and MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch did not get along.

But it's clearly not a black and white relationship: When the museum announced the chief curator's departure, a press release praised his contributions and stated that the exhibition space at the Geffen Contemporary would be named in his honor.

Final MOCA exhibit

Schimmel, who began working on "Destroy the Picture" in 2008, stayed on to open it in October. And he has continued to work with Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, where the exhibition will appear from Feb. 16 to June 2.

Schimmel said that letting go of his long and deep attachment to MOCA was difficult. But he was feeling great about critical acclaim for "Destroy the Picture" and the audience's response.

"It's been a show that artists have really loved, in that it introduced them to a kind of history that they weren't aware of," he says. "It's also very interesting to see the show as part of a broad reconsideration of this period," he adds, ticking off related exhibitions coming up at American museums, and "L'art en guerre (Art at War), France 1938-1947," currently at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Now 58, the stocky, dark-haired curator has grown up alongside MOCA. His perpetually youthful curiosity about forgotten aspects of art history is his calling card.

The antithesis of the cool, standoffish aesthete, he comes on strong about the art he loves. He's a showman with gravitas, a blustery guy with a heart as big as his ambitions. But his exhibitions have hefty price tags and his drive and passionate determination to fulfill personal and institutional goals can make him difficult to work with. Brimming with art historical facts and stories about artists, he sometimes looks as if he's about to explode as he struggles to find the right words.

"This generation of artists represents a destructive mode of production that had global implications," he says of "Destroy the Picture's" artists, who slashed and burned their canvases, attached charred books and machine parts to their paintings, and created art from bandages or tattered burlap bags.

Reacting to the horrors of World War II, they filled an existential void with emotionally loaded alternatives to modernist purity.

"Artists from the United States, Europe and Asia were affected by the same political and social upheaval in the postwar era," he says. "Wars may break people apart, but they also make the world a lot smaller. Some experiences transcend culture."

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