Morgan Fisher’s Phi Phenomenon (1968) is an 11-minute film of a clock in real time, lacking even the high concept of a second hand. It’s more on the order of Warhol’s Empire than Christian Marclay’s crowd-pleasing Clock, yet it’s a rarely screened nexus connecting those two monuments of potential cinema. Very patient cinephiles will be pleased to know that MOCA is showing Phi Phenomenon this Thursday, May 9, as part of a Los Angeles Filmforum program, “Time as Material.”
MOCA is doing what every museum ought to do: mainstreaming the art of right now into permanent collection galleries. The latest reinstall of MOCA’s collection, at the Grand Avenue building, may be the most satisfying ever. As usual it starts with Giacometti and abstract expressionism. The chronology runs continuously all the way to 2013 and, yes, street art. The latest works are two RETNA murals commissioned for a corridor, Para mi gente, los pintores de mi alma (For My People, the Painters of Our Spirit) and The falcon, before and after.
The most topical surprise is a loan, Charles Ray’s monumental relief Two Boys (2010). Have effigies of Huck Finn youth ever been more controversial than Ray’s? Venice is removing his tourist-friendly Boy with a Frog because (according to which story you believe) the boy is nude and/or they want to replace an antique lamppost that used to be there. In the U.S. the ultra-conservative National Civic Art Society has damned Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial largely on the basis of a conversation Gehry had with Ray—in which Ray passed on the opportunity to sculpt Ike. Operating in Joe McCarthy insinuation mode, the NCAS report quotes from the MoMA catalogue entry for Ray’s Family Romance (the passage could just as well describe the viewer before Two Boys): ”Its manipulations of scale also imply a disruption of society’s balance of power: not only have the children grown, but the adults have shrunk.”
MOCA’s “A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California” is in jeopardy, reports Christopher Hawthorne in the L.A. Times. The much-anticipated survey of digital-LA’s swoopy architecture is/was to open June 2 as a linchpin of the Getty’s “PST Presents: Modern Architecture in Los Angeles.”
Explains Hawthorne, Frank Gehry “withdrew from the exhibition last month, despite what he described as entreaties from [guest curator Christopher] Mount, MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch and top officials from the Getty. ‘I didn’t feel comfortable in it,’ Gehry said. ‘It didn’t seem to be a scholarly, well-organized show… I’m subject to misunderstanding about the seriousness of my work. People assume I am just crumpling paper, and so forth. This was feeling a bit that way, a trivialization.”
“Crumpling paper” merits a sidebar. In 2011, CNN’s Fahreed Zakaria asked Gehry about “the famous story that you took a piece of paper and crumpled it and looked at it, and that was the Disney Hall in L.A.”
Rewind to 2005. Gehry was the first starchitect to do an animated guest shot on The Simpsons. Blue-haired homemaker Marge Simpson writes Gehry a letter, asking him to design a concert hall for Springfield. Gehry crumples up the letter. When he sees the tossed letter’s shape, he recognizes a work of genius.
The Simpsons gag has grown into an urban legend believed by otherwise well-informed journalists and clients. Gehry complained to CNN, “Clients come to me and say, ‘Crumple a piece of paper, we’ll give you $100 and then we’ll build it.’”
Anxiety of influence—what, me worry? Your estimation of Urs Fischer’s MOCA show will probably track with your opinion of the role of originality in art.
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” It’s now fairly well established that Picasso never said that, though that apocryphal wisdom helps account for the art world’s love-hate relationship with Fischer. To the haters, Fischer is a rip-off artist. To the supporters, Fischer’s borrowings are irrelevant or, alternatively, deep comments on the art history he appropriates.
Fischer’s practice (excuse my French) is a content farm. Like spammy websites, he borrows/steals intellectual property in mass quantities and changes it just enough to get away with it. He’s incredibly prolific and profitable.
Example: Fischer’s mirror boxes, a blend of Warhol and Pistoletto. The partial illusion of an object in space is diverting and not quite like the swinging sixties forebears.
Fisher inverts that premise to more original effect at the Geffen. He photographed the walls of the near-empty studio of artist Josh Smith and recreated the images as photo-mural wallpaper for similarly scaled rooms at the Geffen. Now you’re inside the box. This is a new twist on trompe l’oeil, the eternal gimmick that is almost always interesting and almost never great.
FWIW, the pseudo-Picasso line (a staple of content-farm “famous quotation” sites) has been connected to a T.S. Eliot quote that is equally unverifiable (“Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”) That is however a reasonable condensation of this documented Eliot (The Sacred Wood, 1921):
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead opens May 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. It’s a rolling recreation of Kelley’s childhood Michigan home, to be docked at MOCAD above a dungeon of basement rooms with no doors.
The artist described Mobile Homestead as “simultaneously geared toward community service and anti-social private sub-cultural activities.” Completed posthumously, it’s billed as Kelley’s only public artwork.
The Kelley retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum drew record crowds. It travels to L.A.’s MOCA in 2014.
Below is Kelley’s 1978 Catholic Birdhouse.
It looks like the MOCA miracle is really happening. The Museum has just announced commitments raising its endowment to $75 million, and for the first time it’s naming names.
“Commitments ranging from $1 million to $10 million have been received from the following donors, including current or former trustees: Paul and Herta Amir, Wallis Annenberg, Maria and Bill Bell, Edye and Eli Broad, Blake Byrne, Alexandra and Steven Cohen, Mandy and Cliff Einstein, Lenore and Bernard Greenberg, Suzanne and David Johnson, Lilly Tartikoff Karatz and Bruce Karatz, Margaret Munzer Loeb and Daniel S. Loeb, Eugenio Lopez, Lillian Lovelace, Maurice Marciano, Julie and Edward J. Minskoff, Dallas Price-Van Breda, Carla and Fred Sands, Catharine and Jeffrey Soros, Darren Star, Eva and Marc Stern and Sutton Stracke.”
The goal is $100 million—er, make that “an initial $100 million,” according to the press release.
MOCA turmoil hasn’t taken a toll on the museum’s visitors. Stefan Sagmeister’s “The Happy Show,” at MOCA Pacific Design Center, contains this gumball machine histogram asking visitors to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. So far the most popular choice has been a rapturous 10. Most of the rest settled for 7 to 9.
Organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, “The Happy Show” is not a design retrospective but rather an avatar of Charles and Ray Eames’ revered 1961 “Mathematica” exhibit, commissioned by IBM for a precursor of Exhibition Park’s California Science Center. Treating another very abstract subject—happiness—Sagmeister is more self-indulgent than the Eameses would have chosen to be, but just as ingenious.
A Tumblr photo of the gumball machine in the original ICA venue finds dispositions a bit less sunny in Philadelphia.
“MOCA Independence,” the new fund-raising drive, aims to raise the museum’s endowment to $100 million. In the press release MOCA says it has obtained recent commitments that would “nearly triple” the endowment to “more than $60 million.” The language disclaims overtures from LACMA and the National Gallery (“the board’s commitment to keep MOCA as a museum dedicated solely to contemporary art”), no matter that those overtures were reportedly solicited by MOCA’s own board members. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. (Above, Barbara Kruger’s 1990 Untitled [Questions] on MOCA’s Temporary [Geffen] Contemporary.)
How much would it take for MOCA to declare financial independence?
The museum’s peak endowment value was $38.2 million, back in 2000. That’s about $51 million in today’s dollars. Even when you allow for inflation, the current commitments substantially surpass the record.
MOCA Independence has set a goal of $100 million. It’s a nice round number matching the amount that LACMA recently proposed to raise in a takeover deal. Were MOCA to reach that figure and draw off a typical 5 percent, it would generate $5 million a year.
MOCA’s latest reported budget, for fiscal 2011, was $14.3 million. But that’s a Paul Ryan austerity budget. In the Paul Schimmel glory days—back when MOCA had 2+ curators—annual spending had been as high as $24 million.
Split the difference. Take $20 million as a realistic guesstimate of what MOCA’s budget could and should be in the foreseeable future. It would take a $400 million endowment to throw off $20 million in income.
Don’t gasp. Museums almost never expect endowment drawdown to cover their expenses. They need to raise operating funds every year, and that’s okay. The role of the endowment is to provide stability. It permits long-term planning through tough times. When the stock market has a lost decade, the museum carries on.
Is $100 million enough for MOCA? I offer two comparatives.
Eli Broad has spoken of committing a $200 million endowment to his vanity museum, The Broad, and of drawing $12 million a year (an optimistic 6 percent) to run it. As far as I can surmise, the Broad’s programs will hew closely to its own collection. It will have no expensive loan exhibitions to research and organize, and one building to run, versus MOCA’s three. Broad properly projects that outside fund-raising will be difficult-to-impossible for a long, long time. The last thing L.A. needs is another contemporary museum on Grand Avenue with its hand out.
A more instructive parallel might be the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (above left). Globally renowned for its innovative shows, it’s practically MOCA’s Midwestern soulmate. The Walker’s endowment is about $165 million. Its 2012 cost of operations was $18.2 million. The Walker drew 5 percent of its endowment to cover about a third of the budget.
One difference is that the Walker’s annual attendance is 154,000, v. about 400,000 for MOCA.
That MOCA’s board has raised $40 million in a couple of weeks is the most delightfully unexpected museum news of the season. At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth: MOCA merits a lot more than $100 million.