Diane Arbus' Misfits at LACMA

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It feels like the L.A. museums decided to celebrate spring even before it officially started this weekend. The Hammer Museum has "The Last Picture Show", an excellent survey of artists using photography. And the Getty is presenting an ambitious exhibition, "The Photographers of Genius", culled from the Museum's own huge collection. But it's the Diane Arbus exhibition at LACMA and the Minimalism show at MOCA that are in a class by themselves.

A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, - 1971 Estate of Diane Arbus, LLCNothing, it seemed, could be added to our already substantial knowledge of Diane Arbus and her work. Her black and white photographs of misfits living on the margins of society became icons of American life in the late 50's and 60's. The images of a Jewish giant with his parents, smiling patients at mental institutions, and an assortment of lonely people frozen in their gloomy living rooms have made an indelible impression on our collective consciousness.

 Untitled (6) [three in a field] 1970-71, - Estate of Diane Arbus, LLCThis exhibition, beautifully installed in LACMA's galleries, allows us to see images that have never been shown publicly before. In a rather unusual departure from traditional retrospectives, the designers of this show recreated the artist's studio and library, filled with hundreds of her books, photographs and mementos. I don't know how faithful these recreations are, but I got the thrill of being allowed inside the artist's private world. The exhibition is so huge - more than 200 images - that I couldn't see it all on my first visit. The unique demand her photographs exert on the viewer is so great that halfway through the exhibition I was simply overwhelmed and emotionally drained.  A Young Brooklyn family going on a Sunday outing, N.T.C., 1966, - Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC And here lies the secret of Diane Arbus' art. There is absolutely no way to see and admire her photographs in a measured, polite way. They grab you, shake you by the collar and demand an emotional response. I've heard from more than a few people that they were troubled by the feelings these photographs stirred up. Come to think of it, can you give an artist a better compliment than that?

Going to MOCA to see a huge survey of the first decade of Minimalist Art from the late 50's through the late 60's, I was prepared to reacquaint myself with a number of important American artists who cooled down the dramatic excesses of the previous era, ruled by the Abstract Expressionists. What I was not prepared for, was to be seduced by the richness of the color of so many works in the exhibition. It was a revelation to discover the sensuality of the textures of so many of the works, running the gamut from rusty metal patinas to the shiny surfaces of lozenge-like, wall-mounted plastic sculptures that gave me improbable thoughts of trying to lick them off the walls.

It took Ann Goldstein, the curator of this exhibition, almost seven years to do research and secure the works from numerous private and public collections. There are a few artists whose work I had never encountered before. There are many juxtapositions which I would never have thought of, and therefore was grateful for the visual and intellectual surprises they provided. The only suggestion I might have is to reconsider describing this artistic movement as Minimalism. With all the dramatic effects and witty intellectual playfulness, wouldn't it be more appropriate to rename it Sensualism, or, even better, Maximalism? This excellent exhibition marks an important milestone in the history of MOCA, celebrating this year its 25th birthday.

(Images courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)

The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960-1982
February 8 - May 9
Hammer Museum
10899 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles
(310) 443-7000

The Photographers of Genius
March 16 - July 25
The Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Dr
Los Angeles
(310) 440-7300

Diane Arbus Revelations
February 29 - May 31
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles
(323) 857-6010

A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968
March 14-August 2, 2004
MOCA at California Plaza
250 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 626-6222