Getting On the Map

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Q. What's the difference between Los Angeles and a bowl of yogurt?

A. Yogurt has a live culture.

Time to pension off that oldie, at least where the visual arts are concerned. The '80s have been growth years for new museums across America, and nowhere more so than in Los Angeles. The end of 1986 saw a variety of art institutions either up or growing amid the sprawl of freeways. The most newsy, which opened early in December to a white glare of publicity faintly shaded with apprehension, is the Museum of Contemporary Art, known by its acronym MOCA. It was closely preceded by the $35 million Robert O. Anderson building, a new wing intended to see the city's chief museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA, for short), into the 21st century.

In the background of all this was the quiet, planetary bulk of the J. Paul Getty Trust, endowed with an astronomical $2.8 billion for running five main entities: the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Getty Art History Information Program, the Getty Center for Education in the Arts and the Conservation Institute. The Getty trust Los Angeles headquarters, to be designed by Architect Richard Meier, is bound to shift the balance of art scholarship throughout the world, turning Los Angeles into one of its indispensable centers. More than any single museum, the Getty will alter the West Coast's sense of cultural identity.

There are good reasons why the growth of American museums has reached this temporary peak in Los Angeles. It is the second biggest city in the U.S., and determined to make itself felt. It teems with new money thirsting for status through art. In Los Angeles, city of therapies, one sees the great American illusion that art is socially therapeutic brought to its apex. Medicean longings inflate the breast of the lowliest junk-bond zillionaire. Whole busloads of fledgling collectors shuttle on regular tours, shepherded by docents, art-investment consultants and "educators" of every stamp, among the private collections of Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Malibu. What other commodity offers such a blend of transcendence and fiscal display? Buying is a spectator sport, and the art gallery the Nautilus center of the soul. But in Movieland, the heat of egotism creates a desire for equal screen credit. Where else would a museum herald a show of Picasso sculptures, as LACMA did a couple of years ago, with a crimson banner on its facade: THE WOLPER PICASSOS, as though the schlockmeister of the Statue of Liberty had helped make them by buying them?

El Lay, La-La Land -- this part of the West Coast, as its nicknames imply, has long been stuck with the reputation of a cultural slide area where not much is deep, permanent or altogether serious. This is the price of being the world's fantasy mill. Its origins lie in the fierce distrust of popular culture (which Los Angeles epitomizes) among New York City intellectuals of the '40s and '50s. In fact, one can make a most impressive list of contemporary Los Angeles artists, from Richard Diebenkorn to the young < sculptor Mark Lere. But what the city lacked was the sense of layering, of patronage and museum policy, of critical argument and institutional depth.

There are perhaps 1,000 art buyers in Los Angeles. Their passions invite, and to some extent deserve, a degree of skepticism. The visitor who wends his way from house to house, seeing the same work by the same fashionable names, trophies of an insecure herd instinct that relies too much on too few galleries, most of them in New York (Castelli, Pace, Blum Helman, Boone, Cooper, Gagosian), is bound to feel dyspeptic. Was ever so much money raked from such passive, anxious uniformity of taste? And did dealers ever have such an unbridled influence on museum trustees and, through trustees, on curators? The problem is not confined to Los Angeles, but it seems to show itself there more vividly than in any other major art center. Such lobbying is why MOCA's opening show, Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, presented as an account of world painting and sculpture since 1945, became a travesty of its subject, albeit one that contains some distinguished art.

Yet Los Angeles has some of the best private collections in America. These include the scholarly and fastidiously chosen group of 19th century American paintings assembled over the past two decades by Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr.; Robert Rifkind's superb conspectus of German expressionist paintings, sculpture, prints and posters, remarkable for its depth and its number of first-rate works by unfamiliar names as well as obvious greats; the collections of post-1945 American art put together by Robert Rowan, Marcia Weisman and her ex-husband Frederick Weisman; anthologies of big-ticket contemporary work bought in a few years by Douglas Cramer and Eli Broad; smaller and more concentrated collections owned by Steve Martin and Beatrice and Phil Gersh.

But over the past decade, the thinness of L.A.'s art institutions began to cause heartburn. There had been a contemporary museum in Pasadena, but it collapsed for lack of money in 1974 and was acquired by the industrialist Norton Simon; it now houses his magnificent collection of old-master and 19th century painting. This left LACMA as the main showplace for current art. But through the '70s its treatment of contemporary painting and sculpture had been sporadic. Some collectors and artists came to feel a new museum was needed.

Chief among these was Marcia Weisman, Norton Simon's sister and a formidable < presence on the cultural horizon of the West Coast. In 1979 she began to lobby L.A.'s mayor, Tom Bradley, for a building -- or at least a site -- for a contemporary art museum, and helped form an ad hoc museum committee. This came to the ears of the community redevelopment agency which was getting ready to let a final eleven-acre parcel of land in Los Angeles' seedy downtown Bunker Hill district. Gradually a deal was hammered out that is unique in the civic relations of American museums.

Developing this piece of Bunker Hill would cost about $1 billion. The law said that 1.5% of the construction costs of new buildings had to be spent on fine-arts embellishments. Such a percentage of a billion might build a whole museum -- just. (In the end the cost of the new museum was $23 million.) So the CRA made the construction of a free museum incumbent on any developer who submitted a proposal. The city of Los Angeles gave the land, and the developer the building; total operating responsibility was reserved to MOCA. After 1983, while the Bunker Hill site was in construction, MOCA began its operations in the Temporary Contemporary, or T.C., a former police warehouse renovated to remarkable effect by Los Angeles Architect Frank Gehry.

Thus MOCA is the red cherry atop a huge and ugly sundae of realty speculation. But the building itself, designed by Tokyo-based Arata Isozaki, is a triumph, perhaps the most thoroughly felt new museum to rise in an American city since Louis Kahn's 1972 Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Its chief exhibition spaces are under the courtyard level, lit from above by beautifully proportioned groups of pyramidal skylights. In this way Isozaki has made the subtlest possible use of Los Angeles' main natural asset, its clear and candid light. No architect in America, not even Kahn himself, has reflected more sensitively on space and natural light in their relation to works of art. Isozaki's use of materials, especially the white, curved, fused- glass paneling and the rugose red skin of Indian sandstone with which the declarative cube-and-arch geometries of the entrance block are sheathed, is wonderfully precise and just offbeat enough to keep the eye alert.

Isozaki's design did not fare smoothly at first. It fell afoul of a small group of trustees headed by Industrialist Max Palevsky, who, along with Eli Broad, put up the initial seed money for the museum -- $1 million each, spread over four years. Palevsky wanted a plain hangar of a building, as little ) "architecture" as possible. But after a two-day slugfest of a meeting, the board voted 17-3 for Isozaki, at which Palevsky resigned in a huff and sued for half his money back. But by then other key grants were in line. The "major breakthrough," according to Director Richard Koshalek, was getting Security Pacific Banker Carl Hartnack on the MOCA board. This gave MOCA real standing with the downtown business establishment, which came to see the museum's success as a necessary emblem of the economic rebirth of Bunker Hill.

But emblem or not, MOCA has had its share of troubles. It is lucky in its director: Koshalek, 45, formerly curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and director of the Fort Worth Art Museum, is a man of intelligence and voracious enthusiasm. However, not much in the way of bequests and gifts has yet reached MOCA. Some of its trustees, notably Robert Rowan, have given it good individual works. But so far only one collection has been donated: 64 works owned by the late Barry Lowen, a TV production executive whose tastes for minimal art, neoexpressionism and media-based "appropriation" imagery were much copied by new Los Angeles collectors before his death in 1985. There are few collectors of note among MOCA's 39 trustees, and none have promised their holdings to the museum -- not even Marcia Weisman, despite her role as founding mother. But Koshalek is convinced that MOCA's collections will fill out, and that his target of funding acquisitions with $10 million a year in gifts and raised money will be met. "Doing the Temporary Contemporary and Bunker Hill in four years left nothing over," he says. "But now that the museum is up, we can put the same push into building the collection -- and we will."

In 1984 MOCA announced with much fanfare that it had agreed to buy, for $11 million spread interest-free over six years, a group of works by Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Rothko and others from Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, the Italian industrialist who was one of its trustees. Though it seems odd that a trustee could make a fortune by selling to his own institution, the deal was perfectly legal in California. "There's good self-dealing and bad self-dealing," says Director Koshalek philosophically. Then last November word leaked out that Count Panza's fellow trustees had discussed selling some of the works to raise the next $2 million installment. This too would have been legal -- there was no agreement to keep the collection intact -- but when the indignant count blew the story to the press, MOCA was seen as a museum that could sell part of its collection to pay for the rest before it had even opened. Such gestures make potential donors wary.

In any case, a recurrent dream of L.A.'s contemporary collectors is a museum of one's own. One could get much the same tax benefits by giving the stuff to LACMA or MOCA, but then the museum might choose to sell some off, suggesting that one's taste was . . . well, imperfect. Douglas Cramer, the TV producer who gave a grateful world Dynasty and The Love Boat, has turned his ranch and vineyard at Santa Ynes into an art foundation (even the bottles carry chaste line drawings of vine leaves by Ellsworth Kelly on their white labels; the artist made a special trip to draw Cramer's leaves in situ).

Eli Broad, the construction and insurance magnate who was founding chairman of MOCA, has three distinct collections (one corporate, one private and the third, the Eli Broad Family Foundation, specializing in loans to museums) and retains a public relations firm to keep them, and him, as visible as can be. There is a persistent rumor in Los Angeles art circles that Broad is waiting for MOCA's operating funds for the T.C. to run out so that he can take it over as his own museum. Koshalek flatly denies that this is in the cards. "The leadership of this board, let alone the city, will never let the Temporary Contemporary go," he says. Nor should they: the discourse between MOCA's two buildings, the spare, rather grand abruptness of Gehry's renovated warehouse contrasted with the hyperrefinement of Isozaki's sunken museum, gives the museum a special flexibility of response to the display needs of today's art. The T.C. should be kept at all costs.

The new wing of LACMA comes nowhere near MOCA's ensemble in architectural quality. It is hampered by its relationship -- or lack of one -- to the existing buildings. These were probably the worst of any large museum in America, a mincing trio of pseudomodernist boxes completed in 1964 by Los Angeles Architect William Pereira. When the time came, in 1981, to expand LACMA, the proper response to them would have been the bulldozer. But that would have meant closing the museum. So its trustees engaged Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, a New York firm with a name for brash, virile signature buildings heavily layered with industrial metaphor, to design a new wing. The goals were to house LACMA's modern and contemporary collections and shows, separating them from its other collections; to provide 50,000 sq. ft. of new exhibition space, more storage room and new offices; and, if possible, to mask Pereira's unloved buildings.

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer did not merely rise to this challenge. The new wing, named for its principal donor, Robert O. Anderson, former chairman of the board and CEO of Arco, has obliterated the old museum like the giant foot in Monty Python. What was once the museum's forecourt is now filled with a stepped facade some 300 feet long and, at its highest, 100 feet tall: a blind screen of yellow limestone, horizontal bands of green ceramic and patches of glass block, with a gargantuan rectangular entrance portal. The architects have so overdone their contextual homage to Hollywood Deco-Babylon that the effect verges on camp. Once inside, things recover: the galleries are large, well proportioned and properly lit, and LACMA's collection of 20th century art -- already the best on the West Coast -- has been enlarged in the past few years with some distinguished purchases and gifts, particularly in the areas of cubism and German expressionism. Furthermore, the first show in the Anderson building, an extensive anthology by LACMA's senior curator of 20th century art, Maurice Tuchman, titled The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (see box), breaks new ground in the study of abstract art.

The fact that LACMA has made a new wing for modern and contemporary art its main sign of growth suggests that it falls in direct competition with MOCA. But LACMA's director, Earl ("Rusty") Powell III, brushes this aside. Robert Anderson, he points out, urged Arco to give $1 million to MOCA as well as $3.6 million to LACMA. And in any case, LACMA's master plan for expansion was mostly drawn up before the 1980 announcement of MOCA's founding. "The record has already proved that we haven't detracted from each other in the search for funds," says Powell. Few doubt that Los Angeles can manage to support two museums of modern and contemporary art, and Powell dismisses the idea that LACMA and MOCA will end up cutting each other's throats. "Will the Met's new wing of modern art detract from the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney or the Guggenheim?" he asks. "No -- it just creates a more fertile environment." So it will, and the indications are that Los Angeles is the place where the old reflexive assumptions about the provincialism of the rest of America vis- a-vis New York are fated to be broken down at last. But not tomorrow.