Secret to a Great Exhibition

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Good museum exhibitions come in all shapes and sizes. The best of them linger in our memory because of the deep satisfaction that comes from making new artistic discoveries or seeing our old favorites in a new light. Sometimes we remember these exhibitions not only because of the great art, but also for the unusual, innovative way the works were displayed in a specially designed gallery space. Traditionally, major museums rely on a team of in-house designers for the installation of the artworks, but on occasion, they take a risk and invite someone else to design the exhibition.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has an excellent record of such artistic collaboration. I will never forget the groundbreaking exhibition of Russian Avant-Garde Art and the way it was designed by the then little-known architect Frank Gehry –- we are talking here about the late 70's. Another unforgettable LACMA exhibition, Purism in Paris, 1918-1925, explored the origins of Modernism in art and architecture, and not only do I remember the joy of seeing wonderful works of art, but I still recall the intriguing way the works were installed thanks to the collaboration with well-known Los Angeles architect Brenda Levin. And who can forget last year's Magritte exhibition there designed purposefully and deliciously over-the-top by John Baldessari?

at080729a.jpg However, all these exhibitions, with their witty, off-kilter displays of art, were temporary. Now, LACMA has decided to raise the bar and reintroduce its permanent collection of pre-Colombian ceramics with a highly theatrical, eye-popping presentation, due to the unique vision of another well-known Los Angeles artist, Jorge Pardo. You need to see it to believe it; there is not a straight line in sight – walls and pedestals undulate, pleated curtains decorate the upper portions of the walls. I'm not sure what to make of it; I was thoroughly entertained by the energy of the space, but I will probably need to make another trip to these galleries to pay proper attention to the priceless artifacts exhibited there.

at080729b.jpg When I think about the ideal installation of the permanent collection, I go back to LACMA's recently reinstalled galleries of 20th century art, with all their surprising juxtapositions of the works of art. In the recent installation of its permanent collection of 20th century sculpture at the Getty Center, one cannot help but admire the brilliant outdoor display of the monumental sculpture by Aristide Maillol on the steps leading up to the museum. But upon entering the museum rotunda, one encounters the tall bronze sculpture by Giacometti that is totally lost in the vast space. Like artists themselves, the museum curators and designers who display the works of art have good days and bad days.

at080729d.jpg There are two traveling exhibitions right now at the feisty Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, which you definitely don't want to miss, because the art is so good and the display is sophisticated and surprisingly elegant. One is by a young Cuban-born artist, Carlos Luna, whose paintings sizzle with drama, mysticism and erotic mischief.

at080729c.jpgAnother one is by Wifredo Lam, the most celebrated Cuban artist, associated with both Picasso and Andre Breton. Before seeing this exhibition, I had no idea of the complexity of his ethnic and religious background; his mother was African, indigenous Cuban, and Spanish, and as if that's not enough, his father was a Cantonese Chinese businessman. All that makes sense when you see his paintings, gouaches and drawings so smartly installed in this remarkable exhibition.

Carlos Luna: El Gran Mambo
On view at the Museum of Latin American Art
Through August 31

Wifredo Lam in North America
On view at the Museum of Latin American Art
Through August 31

Banner image: New installation of the Modern Art Galleries at LACMA, featuring works by Robert Motherwell (left) and David Smith (right), Copyright 2008 Museum Associates/LACMA