William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Paul Schimmel, the Great Populist

Pin It

In the L.A. Times, Mary McNamara parses the MOCA unpleasantness as “Flash versus substance. Celebrity versus artistry. Popularity versus integrity.” That’s now the standard formulation, and it’s misleading.

For one thing, Jeffrey Deitch insists he is for substance, integrity, and all those good things. For another, few curators have been more “populist”—if you’ll excuse my Broadism—than Paul Schimmel.

Remember, Schimmel did a show on psychedelic drugs, “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States,” in 2005. (Imagine the furor if Deitch announced he was doing a cannabis show!) It was Schimmel who put the Louis Vuitton boutique in “©Takashi Murakami” (2007), and he got more flak for it than Deitch did for his Mercedes product placement this spring. From 1992, when Schimmel championed Robert Williams’ hot rod culture art in “Helter Skelter,” to 2011, when he had punk bands X, the Dead Kennedies, and the Avengers perform for “Under the Big Black Sun,” Schimmel’s exhibitions have regularly explored youth culture, celebrity, sex, commercialism, the low brow, and shock value. Now obviously Schimmel and Deitch don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but it’s not like they’re Superman and Bizarro. Their differences are more nuanced than the way that some are framing it. (Left, Carsten Höller’s Upside Down Mushroom Room from “Ecstasy.”)

What are the differences? One is payoff. It’s one thing to get people in the door—then what? Schimmel’s “Ecstasy” probably drew many visitors who were more interested in drugs than art. Once inside, they were exposed to significant art they could relate to and innovative thinking about it. In no way did that detract from the “populism.” Even the casual visitors left feeling they’d spent their time well and gained something they couldn’t have gotten from movies, video games, nightclubs—or drugs.

I would say the same of Deitch’s “Art in the Streets.” But that’s Deitch’s only big exhibition success for MOCA so far. I fear that many left the Dennis Hopper and James Franco shows feeling the way tourists do after seeing Hollywood Boulevard. Is that all there is?

The MOCA agita isn’t about whether populism is hot or not. It’s about losing the best populist in the business.

(At top, the “©Takashi Murakami” LV shop; right, installation view.)

Tags: , ,

Pin It


  1. Thanks for this reality check – well said.

  2. More like the Joker vs the Riddler.

    I was at the Murakami show having no idea who the fool is, then stuck my head in and saw the huge Mz Kitty on the wall, and said “Hell NO!”
    And left. only a huge line of artschool students there. No adults. they came at special times to buy at supposedly special discounts at the Vuitton store. Had no interest n teh rest, padding the turnstiles.

    That was about the time Lydia at LA Artcore promised me a show, then backed off and replaced me and another “untrained”(like lap puppies) artist in a two man show. All this tom foolery bloggin about the Contempt artscene I guess. Oh well, some of us do have the good pride of expecting the most of oneself, and being a Man(who you hang with, what you do, and your Word). Men don’t brown nose.
    The bad Pride is what goes before the fall, arrogance and hubris.
    See above.

  3. If you can take a “populist” theme and make intelligent points from it, fine. If the glitz is all there is, forget it. Schimmel has blundered at times, but his exhibitions are more substantive than Deitch’s appear to be.

  4. by Frank O'Brien

    bernard berenson and pt barnum

  5. Can you please link to all the bad press the Murakami show got and all the bashing Schimmel took for it? Oh no… you cannot because there nothing but praise for the worst show in the history of the museum. Schimmel was treated with totally uncritical acceptance and the myth that there was any controversy is a rewriting of how it actually happened to fit a contemporary narrative.

Add a Comment