Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years

Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years

originally published in ARTLIES Magazine Issue 66, June 2010

By Tucker Neel

Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years is an overwhelming and astonishing exhibition arranged according to a loose chronology, containing a treasure-trove assortment of over five hundred works by over two hundred artists,  from 1939 to the present. It’s a challenge just trying to see every work in the museum’s two cavernous Geffen and Grand Ave. buildings, but the remarkable amount of work guarantees something for everyone. It’s an amazing and commendable show. That said, this is not an exhibition without problems.

Aside from the inevitable questions of who gets included, whose work shares a gallery, and which collectors see their donations exhumed from storage, MOCA’s curators, led by Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, had to discern which work best exemplifies the institution itself. This last and most problematic question lingers heavily in the air, coloring how one sees each work as a representation of MOCA’s past, present, and future.

The last year and a half for MOCA was a perilous and controversial time, to say the least. In November of 2008, The LA Times revealed that the museum was running on fumes, its operating costs far outweighing its dwindling endowment. In response, Jeremy Strick, the museum’s Director, floated the idea of dissolving the museum, and merging its collection with LACMA just down the road. Then, all hell broke loose.

Letters were written to editors and angry crowds demanded answers. LA wouldn’t stand the idea of losing MOCA. Strick resigned, and Eli Broad, L.A.’s resident Medici, swooped in with $30-million to save the museum. Nearly a year later, the board announced that the art dealer / gallery owner Jeffery Deitch (a Broad chum) would become the museum’s next Director. The decision was met with restrained praise from the art world, though a palpable undercurrent of concern still lingers; many see the Deitch appointment as a harbinger of conflicts of interests to come. In between Broad’s cash injection and Deitch’s appointment, 30 Years opened to the public.

Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929, Stockholm; lives and works in New York) Work from The Store, 1961 Muslin soaked in plaster over wire frame, painted with enamel, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles The Panza Collection

When Pop Art asserts itself in the Grand Ave. building, in the same room as a powerful installation of Claus Oldenburg’s drippy plaster commodities from his groundbreaking 1961 installation, The Store, echoes of the museums very recent tumultuous near death experience come to the fore. Try taking a picture of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Can (Clam Chowder- Manhattan Style) and a museum guard will politely ask you not to photographs the work. Why? Just look at their wall labels. Both read: “The Edyth and Eli Broad Collection, Los Angeles,” next to a crossed-out camera ideogram. Both works, and at least three more, belong to the Broads and are not even promised gifts to MOCA.

My clandestine photo of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Can (Clam Chowder- Manhattan Style)

The Broad label telling me not to photograph the Warhol on loan. Notice the crossed out camera

While the Broad’s pieces fill a gaping hole in MOCA’s collection, which houses only one pivotal Warhol, his Telephone, a hand-painted work from 1961, their presence, as privately owned works on loan from the museum’s major creditor, is even more conspicuous, and compromises the exhibition’s stated goal: to show work the museum owns. If the Broad pieces are allowed into play, why not borrow more work, from other collectors, to mend another problem: the dearth of women artists, who make up about one fourth of the total artists represented?

The exhibition highlights a few undeniable touchstones. MOCA has impressive Rothko and Kline collections, and owns some of Rauschenberg’s best combine sculptures, which alone are worth the price of admission. Of the more contemporary artists represented, Paul McCarthy, Renee Green, and Mike Kelly, each stand out with large, complex, and engaging installations.

That said, the exhibition isn’t so kind to every piece. Louise Nevelson’s impressive but poorly lit Sky Cathedral/Southern Mountain from 1959 languishes like an afterthought against a chapel-like room designed specifically to highlight Jackson Pollock’s No. 1 from 1949. In the Geffen building, Andrea Zittel’s A to Z Breeding Unit: For Averaging Eight Breeds, from 1993, is easy to miss, hidden away in darkness just left of the entrance. And most astonishing of all, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (A Corner of Baci), 1990 is entirely missing. Replacing the 42 pound pile of chocolates every day is obviously too expensive for the cash-strapped museum.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (b. 1957, Guáimaro, Cuba; d. 1996, Miami) Untitled (A Corner of Baci), 1990 Baci chocolates individually wrapped in silver foil (endless supply) Dimensions vary with installation; ideal weight: 42 pounds The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Where Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Corner of Baci should have been.

Each piece in the exhibition is accompanied by a brief artist’s quotation, and some do sum up entire practices particularly well. Take, for example, On Kawara’s, poetic statement, which accompanies ninety of the his I Go Up At… postcards to John Baldessari from 1974-5:

We are the same, but different.

Things are the same, but different.

The days are the same, but different.

On Kawara (b. 1933, Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan; lives and works in New York) I Got Up At…, 1974–75 Ninety postcards with printed rubber stamps 3 1/2 x 4 in. each and 4 x 6 in. each The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Gift of John Baldessari and Denise Spampinato

But without proper contextualization, one is left to ask where, and when, these quotes come from. MOCA has provided a telephone number that visitors can call to get more information about select works on view. The phone-in info is quite good, but what is one without an unlimited calling plan or, GASP! no cell at all, to do?

When the show succeeds, which is does more often than not, it’s by creating unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated works that would otherwise remain anchored to well-worn art historical narratives. This happens in a room where The Americans, Robert Frank’s seminal photo series, encircles Rayvredd, a modest sculpture of crushed automotive oddments by John Chamberlain from 1962. Before this exhibition, I would have thought the two artists’ works couldn’t be farther apart, yet here they riff off each other with oscillating evocations. Moving through Frank’s America, rife with booming car culture, blinding optimism, bombastic politicians, and seething inequality, Chamberlain’s glistening conglomeration of twisted metal resonates as a physical and metaphorical reminder of the turbulence, violence, and crashes that also populate the American dream.

John Chamberlain's Rayvredd surrounded by Robert Frank's The Americans

When 30 Years closes after its nearly seven-month run, misgivings about poor budgeting decisions, questionable appointments, and overlooked artists will no doubt persist. Such critiques are vital, perhaps more than ever, and they surely will help to keep MOCA in check. But in the end, once the works return to their vaults, no one will doubt the museum’s indispensible place as a home for contemporary art, its position as an invaluable resource, housing some of the greatest works since World War II.

Tucker Neel is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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