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Seeing LA in a Mirror held by Paris: Part I

Going to Paris is, and always has been, an adventure. In the 20th century, for many Americans, it was a way to escape the past and often reinvent themselves. Gertrude Stein famously pronounced, "America is my country and Paris is my hometown."

For the first part of the century Paris undeniably was the cultural capital of the world. Even after World War II, for awhile, French intellectuals could still claim the upper hand in literature, philosophy and cinema but not any longer in the visual arts. American artists stole the thunder from the French and the center of the art world moved to New York. Bearing no grudges, our French cousins, with their customary intellectual vigor, studied American art and organized prestigious exhibitions that explored in-depth connections between the School of Paris and its New York counterpart. And all of a sudden, a few months ago, came news that the Pompidou Center in Paris was organizing an exhibition solely devoted to the Los Angeles art scene. Never before has this famous museum honored another city's art and culture by singling it out for an exhibition.

I just returned from the opening of this head-spinning extravaganza that French curators titled Los Angeles 1955-85: Birth of an Art Capital." More than 300 artworks by more than 80 artists fill the galleries on the top floor of the futuristic building of the Pompidou Center. Bursting at its seams, the energy of so many artworks by Angeleno artists is tightly held with typical French intellectual vigor and discipline to the point of feeling corralled.

Concentrating on the formative years of the contemporary Los Angeles art scene, the exhibition diligently follows its ebbs and flows. However, while trying to be impartial, the curator succeeded in presenting a scholarly history of the movement but fell short in capturing much of its sensuality and rebellious spirit. One wants to admire the hard work that went into making the tough decisions of whom among the artists to include and which of their works would be the best example. I've heard a lot of disgruntled voices about the choices that were made and even I have questions about why some wonderful artists such as Peter Voulkos or Charles Garabedian were excluded while others, whom I honestly had hardly heard about, were chosen. Still, I believe we should be grateful for a chance to see ourselves reflected in a friendly mirror held by a foreign observer.

But if I have a bone to pick, it will be because most of the artists are not presented by their absolute best work from this period. It is as if the curator was afraid that the combined energy of such works would overwhelm her curatorial thesis. For example, Sam Francis is represented by two similar and rather aloof paintings from the late sixties, one belonging to the Pompidou Center itself. I wonder if the curator knows about the Norton Simon Museum's spectacular Basel Mural by Sam Francis with its storm of paint splashed across the vast field of canvas. Why was the most famous work by Ed Kienholz, The Back Seat Dodge, with its lovers making out among empty beer bottles, not brought to Paris?! This is a seminal piece in Los Angeles art history, our own "Mona Lisa". This iconic artwork scandalized the public and provoked the police to close down the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on an indecency charge.

Let's hope that someday, someone, and hopefully soon, will have the power of conviction to present the history of this nascent period of Los Angeles art with all the necessary passion that this impressive but rather academic exhibition was not willing or able to muster.

Los Angeles 1955-85: Birth of an Art Capital
On view until July 17
Pompidou Center
Paris, France

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