Paul Schimmel, the Great Populist

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.)

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of