As the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles prepares a major exhibition of its collection, I’ve been thinking about how museums with significant commitments to contemporary art determine what are the best works from the recent past, what should always be on view at their museums and how/where. For example: No one questions that Caravaggio is a biggie. If Museum X has a Caravaggio it will be on view and it will get its own stop on the collection audio tour and so on. But what about an Ed Ruscha? Or a David Hammons?
This idea stems from a conversation I had with MoMA curator Ann Temkin a couple years ago. I complained to Temkin that museums do a poor job of saying what early contemporary works are ‘masterpieces,’ that is, which are the works that are important to them, that they want their visitors to take home with them as being particularly relevant and even current. Temkin agreed.
Of course, that could run into the dozens of works. So herewith a parlor game inspired by what many a museum staffer has told me is a frequently-asked visitor question: Where does ‘modern art’ end and where does ‘contemporary art’ begin? And why?
The game: With what work should major museums start their contemporary collections. The paintings/sculptures/etc. need not be the oldest ‘contemporary’ work or the most famous, just what seems like a good starting point for both art of the last 50 or so years and for their collection. Given that I’m using MOCA’s upcoming, much-anticipated collection installation as the peg for this, we’ll start there.
Last year, as MOCA was teetering on the brink, Christopher Knight argued that MOCA should make a particular commitment to Andy Warhol’s Telephone (1961, above; related 1960 work-on-paper). That’s how I’d ’start’ MOCA’s contemporary collection. I can’t improve on what Knight said last December.
My runners-up: In the mid-1950s Robert Rauschenberg executed numerous works that specifically sought to puncture abstract expressionism and other late-modern painting. MOCA’s Factum I (1957) is among the best of those works. It’s currently on view at MoMA, hanging next to Factum II (1957). Much the same applies to MOCA’s Small Rebus (1956). (Unrelated: How in the name of Alfred Barr does MoMA not have images of Rebus and Factum II on its website?!?!?!) Antoni Tapies‘ Grey and Black Cross, No. XXVI (1955, left). The cross seems to be falling, descending out of view. The work seems to portend a period during which belief and blind faith gives way to cynicism and unrest.
In the little-known Mother and Child (1951), Roy Lichtenstein takes a 600-year-old religious-art standard and updates it for the post-war era by taking the child out of Mary’s/his mother’s arms and putting him/her in a stroller. Rotating selections from Robert Frank’s The Americans. Something about this 1956 Clyfford Still work on paper suggests a moment of transition between the past and the future. I can’t imagine Still himself thought that — he was more likely to consider himself both — but…
James Rosenquist’s eroto-mechanical Push Button (1961). Richard Artschwager’s Chair (1965) asks viewers to re-visit assumptions about what they see and what they’re told. It encourages us to embrace ambiguity. Ed Ruscha’s Chocolate Room (1970).
Comments: I’m also going to try something with this series of posts: The comments will be on. Feel free to agree, disagree, propose alternate ’starting points’ and so on. (Link help: MOCA’s collection. MOCA’s fascinating exhibition archive also includes installation shots from previous collection shows/installations.) AJ’s software also allows you to link to particular comments, so you may also Tweet your selections!