William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

L.A.’s Big Fall Season

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For a few charmed weeks, Los Angeles has the strongest set of museum shows in the nation.

The Metropolitan Museum website lists 21 exhibitions, including the just-opened “George Bellows.” LACMA’s site has 22 (10 “Featured Exhibitions” plus 12 “More Exhibitions.”)

L.A. now has two Old Master blockbusters, Caravaggio and Co. (LACMA) and Giotto-plus (Getty). New York has one, the Met’s “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay.” (Left, Caravaggio’s Portrait of Maffio Barberini at LACMA.)

In more recent art, New York has market-friendly efforts built around Picasso (Guggenheim) and Warhol (Met). They’re delighting touristic masses starved for yet another Picasso or Warhol show in New York.

Meanwhile Los Angeles institutions are writing the next chapter of art history. LACMA has “Ken Price Sculpture,” MOCA has “Destroy the Picture” and “Blues for Smoke,” and the Fowler has “In Extremis.”

The only comparably paradigm-challenging shows in New York are PS1’s “Now Dig This!”—organized by the Hammer for PST—and MoMA’s “Tokyo 1955-1950: A New Avant-Garde,” opening this weekend.

“Ken Price” will travel to the Met, and the Whitney’s Richard Artschwager retro will land at the Hammer next summer. The Brooklyn Museum is hosting the Mickalene Thomas survey that debuted at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. All this demonstrates that, for market-valued or trendy contemporary art, there’s no longer much of a difference between the coasts at the museum level.

Ken Price, "Hawaiian" (1980) Photo (c) Fredrik Nil

Movies? Well LACMA has Stanley Kubrick, and MoMA has the Quay Brothers.

MoMA’s marquee draw of the moment is Munch’s expensive pastel of The Scream, timed tickets required. The Frick’s painting loan is van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant, from Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum of course.

A Nate Silver would properly conclude that L.A.’s momentary surge is noise, not signal. It so happens that some New York museums are at a trough in their schedule, while some Los Angeles institutions are cresting. A reversion to the mean is on the books for December, when promising shows of early Euro abstraction (MoMA) and Matisse (Met) open in Manhattan, and nothing much happens on the Left Coast.

That said, L.A.’s perfect storm is the sort of thing that didn’t happen until recently. The main reason is the 2 acres of new exhibition space that LACMA has opened since 2008. Many an American museum has discovered that it’s easy to raise funds for a glamorous building that will put the city on a mythic circuit of “world-class” exhibitions. The ongoing challenge is to raise the money to program the space and to draw the audiences that will make it worthwhile. For the past couple of years, Los Angeles has been doing just that, and that’s worthy of mention.

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