Helen Molesworth Upends the Permanent Hang at MOCA LA

Ruth Asawa spent the summer of 1948 making buttermilk for her teachers, Josef and Anni Albers, in Asheville, North Carolina. She was enrolled at Black Mountain College, where Josef Albers headed the school’s painting program. She didn’t like the buttermilk, but the Europeans who visited the college relished it, which is why the Albers assigned her this job. That same summer, she went running down a hill, carrying a torch – to the strains of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – with the young artist Robert Rauschenberg, also a student. Asawa, who arrived at Black Mountain not long after leaving a World War II internment camp, could not recall much else about this performance, when prodded in a 2002 interview, except that nothing caught fire. She more clearly, and wryly, recalled acting as an “alarm clock” for Josef Albers so he could wake at 6 a.m., before the fog came up, to photograph the landscape and then return to bed. And she remembered how mean Buckminster Fuller, the architect on faculty, could be. School was not perfect or free from messy egotism, but Asawa stayed three years. She could do what she wanted there. “If it didn’t fit,” she said in 2002, “they’d make a category for you.”

The Art of Our Time, chief curator Helen Molesworth’s reinstallation of the permanent installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA LA) approximates that permissiveness. The wall text near the entrance explains that students or faculty at Black Mountain College, which taught “no single style,” made all the work in the show’s first gallery. This is one of few wall texts in the newly-opened reinstallation, and a helpful one at that because, in the past, MOCA visitors would have encountered familiar Modernist icons in this first room – de Kooning or Rothko.

Now they encounter an idiosyncratic mélange, where stranger, softer works temper the gusto of Modernist monuments, like John Chamberlain’s jagged metal towers. A 1965 lithograph by Asawa currently hangs in that gallery. It’s abstract and violently earthy at first glance, like an in-progress storm. Then you make out the image of an owl at dead center, and an unexpected cuteness interrupts the romanticism. It hangs with a crowd of smaller wall works next to a minimal, mostly white drawing by artist-composer John Cage, and a few yards from Rauschenberg’s Interview (1955), a combine with a door down its middle.

Moleworth’s reinstallation currently occupies the entirety of MOCA’s main Grand Avenue building (a bull-headed, ambitiously-produced Matthew Barney show fills the museum’s nearby Little Tokyo location). The exhibition exudes its art-historical savvy, but isn’t beholden to any canon. Women artists have an unusually pronounced presence, especially in the first few galleries, which sample from the stereotypically male Abstract Expressionist genre. But these heady facts aren’t the first things you notice. Because Molesworth has relied so deeply on intuitive visual affinities, or antagonisms, your gut often registers the effect of a pairing before your education catches up.

Visitors who turn from the first gallery to the second will immediately encounter a fuchsia-forward Lee Krasner painting rather than one by Jackson Pollock. It’ll be flanked by two tall, gangly bronze figures by sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Pollock’s familiar Number 1 (1949) is off to the side. Next to Betrothal I (1947), an abstraction by fêted Arshile Gorky, hangs a dark 1959 drawing titled Sketch by oft-overlooked Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow. Rarely even discussed together, Gorky and Szapocznikow share a lithe rhythm, their rounded lines and organismal shapes connecting them.

This kind of intuitive open-endedness bucks a fairly entrenched trend. Permanent-collection exhibitions too rarely revel in the possibilities of unexpected juxtaposition. Instead, they seem to anticipate audiences with predictable (and too low) expectations. Examples of this can be found in the galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, rarely rearranged; or the Hirshhorn Museum’s 40th-anniversary installation, At the Hub of Things: New Views of the Collection, where the thrill arrives with recognition: Brancusi! Oldenburg! Weiner! At the newly-reopened Whitney Museum, the collection show America is Hard to See makes “seeing” America a relatively straightforward task. Works are grouped according to theme, with wall labels explaining the connections. A grouping titled “Scotch Tape” includes assemblages by Noah Purifoy and Al Held, which, according to the wall text, “appear built up or perhaps excavated from the base stuff of the world.”

The permanent collection hasn’t taken up this much space at MOCA since the museum’s 30th-anniversary in 2010. The museum has undergone some very public upheavals since then. Molesworth, the museum’s first female chief curator, was only appointed a year ago. For two decades before that, the curator at the helm was Paul Schimmel, who championed experimenters and oddballs like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy but whose program skewed decidedly male. In 2013, Schimmel was reportedly summoned to the office of billionaire MOCA trustee and collector, Eli Broad, and instructed to resign. This followed MOCA’s depletion of its endowment, the controversial hiring of New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch as director, and an odd MOCA-Mercedes Benz collaboration wherein a car appeared in the galleries. Many of MOCA’s artist board members resigned (Ed Ruscha, Cathy Opie, John Baldessari), a few to return when French curator Philippe Vergne replaced Deitch as MOCA’s director.

The politics aren’t over. Molesworth’s collection show intentionally coincides with the opening of the Broad Museum across the street. Funded by Broad, the museum will showcase an impressive array of blue-chip, post-war work from his personal collection. Takashi Murakami, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons figure prominently, drawing attention away from even Cindy Sherman’s early film stills. “This is the art of our time,” the aging collector said at the press preview for his museum. Those standing at the right angle when he said this could have glimpsed the oversized banner hanging on MOCA’s nearby façade, announcing their version of The Art of Our Time. In that moment, the bland-sounding title of MOCA’s show took on a slightly contentious edge.

Early on in the 1940-1980 portion of the MOCA installation (an exhibition essentially divided into two temporal parts), a small Roy Lichtenstein painting titled Standing Rib hangs beside a slightly larger drawing by Lee Lozano, Untitled (Jason Crum). Lichtenstein’s painting, made in 1962 and acquired by the museum in 1986, has his characteristic clean concision. Lozano’s drawing, made in 1968 and acquired in 2005 after she began, posthumously, to emerge from obscurity, features messy graphite with crayon marks and a toothy, leering grin. Lozano was about to begin her gradual drop-out from the artworld when she made this drawing, and Lichtenstein was about to have a show at the Tate Gallery in London. While his fame was being cemented, she was rejecting what little fame she had. Yet next to Lozano’s work, Lichtenstein’s slab of meat resembles an upside-down frown, and appears seedier than it would if placed beside something like a Warhol silkscreen. Lozano infects Lichtenstein’s pop precision more than he’s infecting her.

The same month Molesworth accepted the job at MOCA, Artforum published her review of the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York. The review functioned more memorably as an injunction against the slackness of current curatorial approaches than it did a critique of the biennial’s particularities. The show had been organized by three curators – Michelle Grabner, Stuart Comer, and Anthony Elms – who installed work by different artists on three different floors. These floors explored, in Molesworth’s words, “nominally different sets of aesthetic and/or political concerns.” She continues, “I say nominally because, in truth, I came away from the exhibition thinking that it privileged similarity over difference – an experience that confirmed my nagging sense of the paucity of, dare I say, ‘rigor’ within the contemporary curatorial field.” She sensed an insider feeling, that the artists had been pulled together as you might gather artists for a fair, or guests for a party, hoping they would socialize well. Molesworth notes that A.L. Steiner’s explorations of casual photography and sexuality had been placed in proximity to Morgan Fisher’s minimalism on Comer’s floor, and wonders what, if anything, this association is supposed to mean. As her review winds down, she proposes that, even if contemporary curators feel an aversion to the master narratives and linearity promoted by traditional art history, they needn’t throw out the “compare and contrast” method that art historian Heinrich Wölfflin promoted early in the 20th century. “However it was deployed,” she writes, “the underlying idea was that meaning is built through syntax, that syntax requires difference, and that difference is something to be staged or spatialized or, at the very least, invoked through the act of adjacency.”

Molesworth’s critique resonated, coming up repeatedly in news bits and interviews about her new MOCA job and making critic Ben Davis’s “best art writing of 2014” list. It’s easier to say than do, of course, and those who criticize their own fields don’t always offer viable alternatives in practice. But Molesworth did employ a compare-and-contrast method in The Art of Our Time, and used it to convey immediacy. The groupings and pairings are meant to be experience now, together.

One room near the end of the show’s 1940-1980 half includes only three artists. Dan Flavin’s Monument for V. Tatlin (1969), a pyramid of fluorescents, stands against a back wall. Robert Smithson’s Mirage No. 1 (1967), a series of mirrors leaning against the floor and descending in size, is against a side wall. A series of black-and-white photographs of prisoners, taken by Danny Lyon in the late 1960s in cooperation with the Texas Department of Corrections, completes the set. In Lyon’s photos, inmates are seen in a shower or out on the prison yard. Molesworth, during a walkthrough she gave in the second week of September (absorbing some of the press in town to cover the Broad Museum’s debut), noted that Flavin wants to be on his own; that Smithson’s mirrors make it difficult for viewers to see their own reflections; and that Lyon has special access to something outsiders – non-prisoners – rarely see. “Who gets to see what when,” is how Molesworth described the feeling of this room. But it’s also an unusual triangle of masculine tropes. Smithson plays the trickster, while Flavin’s sculpture aloofly shine across from Lyon’s pictures of tough men made vulnerable.

The second half of the show, filled primarily with post-1980s work, is not as consistently incisive as the first. Maybe it’s harder to make unexpected, convincing pairings with work that’s not so tightly tied to histories we already know. Or perhaps Molesworth has a less-developed relationship with some of these newer objects, and so there’s less discernible mastery in their arrangement. The first room in this second half manages to communicate a “greatest hits” feeling, despite including artists like Manny Farber and Sam Durant (not well-known enough to have “greatest hits”). Another room, with seductive work by Elliot Hundley and Wangetchi Mutu, feels surprisingly matchy-matchy, like a designated space for the queerly decorative. Yet some rooms still have that virtuosity that grabs at the gut, then climbs toward the head.

The gallery in which John Waters, Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas, and Cady Noland share the same wall pits punk portraiture against tenderness. Next to Dumas’s watery, fleshy figure, Noland’s photographic cut-out of Lee Harvey Oswald shot full of golf-ball-sized holes reads as particularly punk and unapologetic. A version of this work, Oozewald Prototype (1989), sold at Sotheby’s for $6.6 million in 2012, making Noland the most expensive living female artist. This was not a designation she liked, and in the years since, the notoriously reclusive artist has made it a point to monitor her auction sales. When she gave a rare interview to Sarah Thornton for her book 33 Artists in 3 Acts, she arrived at a Pan Quotidian café in black hat and sunglasses, and discussed the Oozewald sale. Rumor has it the art consultant Philippe Segalot bought the work for Qatar’s royal family. Noland told Thornton she doubted the royals could display the work properly, or that they would know what to pair it with. “Only certain works look good together,” she said, implying that, always, artworks hung in proximity converse with one another, and that the kind of conversation they have matters.

I wonder if Noland would be pleased by the context Molesworth arranged for her. But regardless, it’s an intentional one that suggests curatorial expertise can be a conduit for change. In a market-driven era, institutional expertise so often seems synonymous with sameness. A show that so shrewdly switches up the conversation feels delightfully defiant.

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