"…To my way of thinking, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has offered a different model, one worth serious examination (making it possible that the free-floating quality noted in the questionnaire is indeed one of “merely local perception”). Founded in 1979, LA MOCA is a polygamous marriage of Kunsthalle, city museum, and modern art museum, and, while being a university museum is not part of its explicit mission, it is that as well. The permanent collection begins with a sampling of extraordinary Combines by Robert Rauschenberg. There are earlier objects, to be sure — they have a good collection of Abstract Expressionism and an interesting assortment of postwar European material (Giacometti, Fautrier, and Tàpies were on view not too long ago) — but it’s telling that the messy, corporeal, and conceptual Combines of Rauschenberg seem to form the conceptual and psychic core of the collection. True to the Kunsthalle model, MOCA continually rotates its permanent collection, but, importantly, its temporary exhibitions of the permanent collection almost always begin with material from the 1940s. This means that MOCA does not imagine the contemporary as perpetually new and hence ahistorical; rather, the force of the newness of the contemporary acts as a lever to rethink the origin of the postwar story, or, because different curators get a crack at these reinstallations, at the very least the retrospective emphasis placed on different versions of the origins at any given moment can be acknowledged as such.
This commitment to the rootedness of contemporary practices in a historical framework has been dramatically highlighted by MOCA’s unique role in the field of consistently producing temporary exhibitions on a grand scale that have attempted to map the most innovative, challenging, and paradigm-shifting art movements of the postwar period, starting with Conceptual art (Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer’s Reconsidering the Object of Art), followed by performance (Paul Schimmel’s Out of Actions), Minimalism (Ann Goldstein’s A Minimal Future), and, most recently, feminism (Connie Butler’s WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution). These exhibitions, each dedicated to the profound challenges made by artists to the traditional object-based definition of art, have been large in scale and strongly authored by their individual curators. Ironically, the privileging of curatorial authorship has permitted more idiosyncratic and less iconic versions of these histories than typically offered by other museums (or the academy, for that matter). To wit, each exhibition was predicated on a kind of democratic inclusivity, which frequently sacrificed older ideas of “the best” for the presentation of unknown, or lesser-known, artists or works in an attempt to map a field with the simultaneous impulses of critical acumen and inclusivity. (For example, the Minimalism exhibition included the California-based light and space artists, and both the performance and the feminism exhibitions showed videos by multiple artists on one monitor, creating a kind of continual refusal of privileging one artist over another.) I think this fundamentally generous impulse stems from the relatively simple fact that many of the artists being historicized are still alive. And rather than fear the heckling and dissent this might imply, the curators of MOCA took it as an opportunity to foreground two radically important formulations. First, the history of the present is sloppy, contentious, fluid, and decidedly not definitive, but that’s no reason not to try it out. Second, if the museum’s historical focus on the object of art has given way to a focus on audience, then it is crucial to remember that artists constitute a major part of that audience.
MOCA’s historical exhibitions tend to be conceptually fluid, marked by a strong sense of provisional open-endedness. Odd juxtapositions (Ree Morton next to Mary Kelly in WACK!) and atypical choices (Yvonne Rainer in the Conceptual art show, John Chamberlain’s monochromatic sculptures in the Minimalism exhibition) served to open up possibilities of how one might come to terms with what had happened, permitting both the heterogeneous messiness of any given moment and the odd temporality of what becomes important when. So too the scale of the exhibitions permitted a kind of excess that continually erred on the side of the complicated and heterogeneous as opposed to the highly selective and focused. Some critics may have found these attributes detrimental; indeed, early on I found these exhibitions confounding in their refusal to behave within the conventions of “proper” historical timeline, art-historical compare-and-contrast, or canon-building and affirmation. Ironically, MOCA’s deployment of the very authored format of the exhibition ultimately undermined any kind of institutional claim to definitive authority over the practice of historicization. Permitting the idiosyncratic interests of individual curators — curators, it’s worth noting, whose research often involved in-depth interviews with artists — meant that the exhibitions were less concerned with the streamlining of history than its sprawling intangibility. In both affect and actuality, MOCA’s inclusivity made it feel that its major, if not primary, audience was artists. For isn’t it often artists who complicate the too-neat stories told by art historians and critics? And isn’t it artists who have continually tried to open the space of the museum to meet their concerns?
Considered in this light, it is neither a mistake nor an accident that Los Angeles witnessed — from the early 1980s through to the present — its rise as a dominant art center, one largely fueled by its numerous and increasingly desirable art schools. These schools (Art Center, Otis, Cal Arts, UCLA, UC Irvine) all have made, and continue to make, enormous use of MOCA, and in doing so they and MOCA have restored to the museum one of its earliest functions, that of serving as an extended and public atelier for artists. While this has made for a dynamic museum, one as committed to the past and the mettlesome work of historicization as it has been to the emergent and the new, it also was part and parcel of MOCA’s recent financial and leadership crisis. The privileging of an artist-based audience and an artist-centered program apparently runs counter to the tourist economy and is not necessarily always in keeping with the aims and ambitions of the collector class. MOCA’s great success in one arena led to its precarious state in another. What remains troubling, however, was the overwhelming silence on the part of the universities and art schools in the area. Their lack of public advocacy was an indication of their apparent misrecognition of the symbiotic nature of their achievement and its relation to MOCA’s (understated) program. To address the language of the questionnaire, it was the city of Los Angeles and its universities that adopted a neoliberal position in relation to MOCA, imagining their successes to be exclusively their own and not seeing them as being intimately connected to and interdependent with the grand experiment that was its sister public-sphere institution. It’s true that the landscape of contemporary art has shifted, the market is more dominant than ever, the collector more powerful, but the end of grand narratives doesn’t only provoke crisis and the inevitability of a neoliberal domination. LA MOCA, steadily and quietly and, tellingly, without the approbation of the powerful East Coast institutions of culture and learning, has, for the last fifteen years, been willing to mount historical exhibitions of contemporary art and has been seemingly unafraid of the failure implicit in such an activity. That they did so with an ambivalent, if not downright lapidary, relation to the authority of their authorship, deferring neither to the object nor to the audience as each has been generally conceived, but rather always with the category of artist in mind, not in a way that fetishized this subject position, but in a fashion that suggested that no writing of history can ethically leave behind the subjectivities of its participants, is likely the answer to and benefit of our new current lightness of being.”
[“Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October 130, Fall 2009]