“Human Nature” at LACMA

A couple move in together with no strings attached. The romance fizzles, and one moves out, leaving the other with an awkward surplus of real estate. That too-familiar tale describes the post-Eli Broad LACMA, owner of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum but not the Broad collection for which it was built. “Human Nature: Contemporary Art from the Collection,” is billed as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of LACMA’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council. It will be remembered as the first exploration of how well LACMA’s own collection can fill BCAM’s big, empty spaces. Over 70 works from the museum collection, plus a few non-Broad loans, fill the second of three floors. As the first floor is occupied by two big Richard Serras, one owned by LACMA (a Broad gift), this is the first time that half of BCAM is displaying LACMA’s permanent collection. It fills the space well and—the better for moving forward—looks almost nothing like the ex.

Bruce Nauman is a pivotal artist better represented at LACMA than in the Broad collection. His 1983 neon piece supplies the show’s title. The show’s chronology ranges from 1968 (about where the Ahmanson modern galleries fade out) to the present. It omits some of the museum’s blue-chip names from that period and practically all of Broad’s market-darling faves.

It’s been several years since LACMA has had much space to show new acquisitions of contemporary art. Who knew the museum had a Fred Sandback? Or a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, or a Paul Pfeiffer video?

The representation of African-Americans is stronger than you’ve ever seen in a museum’s contemporary survey. They’re showing the David Hammons Injustice Case alongside a lesser-known watercolor. New acquisitions include three small Robert Colescotts, not so jokey as you’d think; an Old Master-y Kehinde Wiley oil study of hands and a rosary; and a Henry Taylor that riffs on LACMA’s most famous modern painting.

Ditto for Korean-Americans, if only for the resurrected Nam June Paik Video Flag and gallery-scaled pieces by Do-Ho Suh and Haegue Yang. (Pictured, Suh’s Gate, 2005). Video Flag, once on permanent display, has had aging-analog hardware issues. Whatever they did to get it working again, it looks fantastic.

Actually, “Human Nature” does deliver on its 50th anniversary premise. It demonstrates that the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council bought early masterworks by some of today’s buzziest names, especially local ones. There’s a 2002 Mark Bradford and a 2006 Elliott Hundley. Above, the Bradford Biggie, Biggie, Biggie—it has to be the first Bradford in a big museum?—collaged with the permanent weave end papers the artist had been using in his mom’s salon the year before.

Amanda Ross-Ho’s Inbox (2007) must rank near the top of that difficult sculptural genre of small-thing-made-really-big. It’s a giant cat litter tray, filled with real and thus weirdly under-scale cat litter. Eli Broad has an affection for this sort of thing too, with his Charles Ray Firetruck and Robert Therrien Under the Table. Ross-Ho refuses to take the meme more seriously than it deserves. Her title downplays it as a Dilbert gag, even though important art is never funny. Right?

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