I understand why MOCA’s firing of Paul Schimmel may be reduced to a five word headline — ‘Jeffrey Deitch fires Paul Schimmel.’ It’s mano-a-mano, the sexy white-hat-versus-black-hat stuff that generates web traffic and re-tweets.
It’s also easy to understand how the Deitch v. Schimmel meme perpetuated: With the news out, no one from the museum — not the board, not the director and not even a spokesperson — would discuss or explain MOCA’s decision to fire America’s most admired and most respected curator of contemporary art. Amateur hour at MOCA, again.
But Deitch v. Schimmel is not the most important part of the story. By firing Schimmel, Deitch and his enabling trustees have effectively rejected — or “completely destroyed” in the words of LA-based artist Joe Goode — a well-tested model of what a contemporary art museum can be. In the Los Angeles Times, a concerned John Baldessari said that this could be a “tipping point” for MOCA.
That’s a big deal — and not just for MOCA. For decades MOCA has been America’s most historicizing museum of contemporary art. Under the leadership of Schimmel and previous directors, including Jeremy Strick, Richard Koshalek and Pontus Hulten, MOCA became the contemporary art museum that treated the art of our time as a subject for serious scholarship. Schimmel and a team of curators launched exhibition after exhibition that challenged and often re-oriented our understanding of art history.
You could always tell when Schimmel was particularly fond of an exhibition he was putting together or that someone on his curatorial staff was working on: He’d call it a “revisionist show.” It was Schimmel’s highest praise. And more than any other contemporary art museum in America, MOCA challenged dominant, often ossified art historical narratives and revised the history of contemporary art.
Take “Ends of the Earth,” a Philipp Kaiser-curated show now at MOCA. The exhibition, green-lighted under Strick, punctures the myth that earth art was largely a movement that took place in the open West. Kaiser’s show reveals that it was land art was every bit as urban as it was rural. MOCA was the museum that most often launched important historical surveys that built our understanding of art movements, shows such as curator Connie Butler’s “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution.” With exhibitions such as Ann Goldstein’s “A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-68″ or its outstanding Eugenie Tsai-curated Robert Smithson retrospective, MOCA shows often rescued artists from the dustbin of polemics and re-focused our attention on the art itself.
And, of course, many of these exhibitions and related scholarship were Schimmel’s. His exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg‘s combines is one of the most important shows of the last 20 years. It excavated the single most influential body of work in contemporary art. Schimmel’s 1992 “Helter Skelter” chronicled the emergence of Los Angeles as one of the world’s two or three most important centers for the creation of new art. “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” argued that mind-expanding drugs fueled artistic creativity.
Schimmel’s MOCA didn’t just do group shows. It presented serious, important surveys of John Baldessari, Ad Reinhardt, Jeff Wall, Barbara Kruger and more.
MOCA may not have exactly created the idea that an art museum should create serious, historicizing exhibitions about the art of its time, but in making them its raison d’etre, MOCA became the best example of what a contemporary art museum could and should be. The old MOCA — yes, it’s gone now, completely gone — demonstrated that contemporary art was as worthy of intensive examination as any other art. In recent years contemporary museums such as the MCA Chicago and the ICA Boston have upgraded their programs in an effort to be more intellectually hefty. They’re following MOCA’s — and Schimmel’s — template.
By firing Schimmel, Deitch and the MOCA board reject all that. They don’t value it. We saw proof of that earlier this year, when MOCA postponed “Ends of the Earth” and made room to host a Mercedes Benz marketing spectacle, a ‘cultural festival’ organized by Mike D of the Beastie Boys which just coincidentally took over the space in which the exhibition was slated to be. Deitch’s priority wasn’t the scholarly exhibition, it was the schmoozy car ad-cum-event.
On one hand, Deitch and MOCA’s trustees deserve every bit of the public humiliation they’ve created for themselves, first with the Deitch hiring, then by presiding over a flimsy, Deitch-built exhibition schedule, one that has also included a show curated by a B-list film and soap opera actor and staged in a furniture dealer’s gallery, a Dennis Hopper retrospective quickly thrown together by a friend of the actor’s, and a critically panned, post-Warhol show. Those last two examples are especially notable: They were not the years-long, field-inclusive, intensive scholarly examinations for which MOCA was long known, instead they were thrown together, made to happen on a timeline more familiar to a commercial art gallery than a serious, scholarship-generating institution.
Deitch & Co.’s firing of Paul Schimmel is certainly a major loss for MOCA. But it’s a bigger blow to people who value the critical, scholarly investigation of contempoary art over a slap-dash, flim-flammery-first approach.