Returning to LA from a ten-day trip to Holland, I jumped head first into the thick of things, trying to catch up with the new exhibitions in museums and galleries. First I drove downtown to the USC Fisher Museum, which has become the happy recipient of a generous gift from the Andy Warhol Foundation: 100 Polaroid portraits and 50 black and white photographs done by Warhol between 1972 and 1985. The Foundation, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, made similar donations to 185 American institutions, making sure that a wide range of people across the country would be able to view and study this important body of Warhol’s work. Imaginatively installed at the Fisher Museum, these photographs are paired with witty and wicked quotations from the artist himself, such as this quintessential Warholian statement: "I love L.A. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic -- but I love plastic. I want to be plastic."
It’s a short ride from USC to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s main building on Grand Avenue. I went there to see the reinstallation of part of their permanent collection and to check out the traveling exhibition of the influential American artist Dan Graham, whose forty-year career is traced in this exhibition. As usual with shows focusing on artists who devoted themselves to conceptual art with an emphasis on performances and happenings, this show relies heavily on the documentation of such events, and though it provides plenty of intellectual information, it offers very little chance to experience Graham’s art first hand. To get the full sense of the importance and impact of his art, one should turn to the exhibition catalog, which gives the reader a much deeper insight into his artistic process.
In the adjacent galleries, I saw the highlights of MOCA’s permanent collection, which reminded me how splendid this collection is, and how sad that it’s shown only intermittently and never in its entirety. The real showstopper is the presentation of MOCA’s impressive holding of Mark Rothko paintings, one of the best in the country. You definitely don’t want to miss the chance to see this Rothko gallery and to meditate there with your eyes wide open – in other words, to discover a sort of secular chapel inside a museum.
Across the city at the LA County Museum of Art, there is another retrospective, this one devoted to Franz West, the important contemporary Austrian artist whose large scale, abstract public sculptures are rather ubiquitous in various European cities. I remember seeing them on the streets of Rotterdam and at the last Venice Biennale, and every time I encountered them, they stopped me in my tracks. Describing them, writers and critics often talk about their awkward beauty, and I have to agree with that – intriguingly awkward they are indeed. The artist insists that we sit on these sculptures resembling sections of intestinal tract presented on a gigantic scale. In a departure from strict museum protocol forbidding visitors to touch any of the artwork, we are encouraged here in this exhibition to touch and literally play with some of his sculptures, while watching old videos of the original performances of the artist and his friends interacting with these very works of art. I probably would be more affected by his art if another concurrent exhibition in the same museum, Art of Two Germanys, didn’t cast such a long shadow. There, works by East and West German artists of the Cold War era – among them numerous abstract sculptures – possess such a level of intensity and ingenuity that Franz West’s art simply pales in comparison.
It’s ironic that both of the exhibitions – Dan Graham at MOCA and Franz West at LACMA – supposedly explore the complex social issues of our time, but I would be hard pressed to see the relevance of their art to the economic and political convulsions that consume us these days. It’s a self-portrait by Rembrandt, painted at the end of his life – the one I saw recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – that I find to be surprisingly relevant. Relevant, because of the way the very old and very wise artist acknowledges and accepts the uncertainties, regrets, and imperfections that have been and always will be part of our lives.
Looking Into Andy Warhol’s Photographic Practice
On view at the USC Fisher Museum of Art through April 18
Dan Graham: Beyond
On view at MOCA Grand Avenue through May 25
A Changing Ratio: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection
On view at MOCA Grand Avenue through June 29
Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof: Work, 1972–2008
On view at LACMA through June 7
Banner image is a composite of three Andy Warhol photographs, the two at left are Polaroids from the USC Fisher Museum exhibit. (L) Muhammad Ali, 1977; (C) Bianca Jagger, 1979; (R) untitled photo of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, right, and her confidante, sculptor Juan Hamilton