Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The real loser in ‘Deitch v. Schimmel’ is us

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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.

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  1. Stephen says:

    The folks at LACMA and the Getty must be feeling pretty good. Schadenfreude, anyone?

  2. Grete Ring says:

    I am afraid all American art and the institutions that promote it are driven by money. To hide behind the ivory tower and spend years researching it doesn’t make it any more Art then “…a Dennis Hopper retrospective quickly thrown together by a friend…” Aren’t all those shows thrown together by friends? “…a critically panned, post-Warhol show.” That sounds par for the museum. Too commercial? Well, it’s all big business in the North American art market. You’re fooling yourself if you think it is anything but the crap and debris produced by post-modernism. It deserves Mercedes Benz and old antique shops. Long live the death of post-modernism and it’s special club, handshakes, in jokes, irony and heavy cynicism. I also think “historicizing” current work is a fools game. I guess you’re not getting any sympathy here!

  3. Stephan says:

    Since when do boards fire staff members other than the director? Usually there is quite a strong firewall between the two to protect the power of the director. Most directors would not tollorate this. There might be a governance issue….

  4. Diana Thater says:

    MOCA board flips off the LA art world.
    Beyond being a huge insult to Paul and to the LA art community, this a terrible blow to the concept of a great scholarly contemporary art museum of which MOCA was once a shining example. It’s a crime and the board and especially Eli Broad would be ashamed of themselves if they had the capacity to feel shame.
    BUT the upside is we have two hot museums on our hands – OCMA under Dan Cameron and Dennis Szakacs and Elsa Longhauser and the SMMOA.
    Thanks for this really good article.

  5. […] Schimmel Wednesday, and the outcry amongst critics has been loud and nearly universal. Art blogger Tyler Green says the museum’s decision is a loss for everyone, not just MoCA. He cites the Museum’s […]

  6. Paul says:

    Sad. And ArtInfo’s new story that Schimmel won’t be replaced–that Deitch himself will fill Schimmel’s shoes–is more than sad. It’s deplorable.

  7. Should an organisation that calls itself MOCA be happy with the label institution?
    Could it be that MOCA should struggle harder and take more risks- more than conservative,revivalist,retrospective institutions – to identify and experiment with strata that may ( in some alternate plain ) kick against,challenge and reflect the commercially saturated?
    Looking forward to seeing lots of fuck ups, mistakes and the odd stroke of genius? At least.

  8. Lisa says:

    MoCA will probably never come back from this as any kind of serious museum. Maybe that’s the plan — Eli Broad’s plan. Doesn’t the MoCA Board know they’ve become a laughingstock?

    The idea that they’re not going to replace Schimmel, but just have Deitch and various guest curators put together shows (since the three remaining staff curators have been pretty effectively sidelined already) suggests that now they’re just going to outsource their entire curatorial project.

  9. Dino Dinco says:

    This is a great piece, a sharp obituary on MOCA that also illuminates the clown show that COMA’s become in such a short time.

  10. Don says:

    This was obviously a coup- Paul must have some strong support on the board which was absent at this meeting. We’ve already heard from one of them elsewhere who’s perplexed this happened. Perhaps there’s a plan to re-balance the decimated curatorial department, but it doesn’t seem likely since this is presented as a cost-cutting measure (the group layoff). We can only hope that there is some vision on the board which will fight to return the institution to its former status as a real art museum. Right now it appears that they’re giving it to Deitch to program until his contract is up and the Broad museum opens across the street.

  11. Wilde says:

    Don’t worry, there’s always the Hammer. ;)


  12. This has nothing to do with art or art history or scholarship-this is about money. Art and most of it manifestations, sans the artist, is now about money. Creativity has been commodified and as such this kind of action is the obvious result. You would think by now, it would be understood that you can’t buy creativity, talent or passion.
    Paul obviously does not fit this model so “off with his head!” Just because the Emperor has no clothes does not mean that keeps him from his delusions.

  13. Don says:

    Now they’re claiming he wasn’t fired, but resigned. That’s common in these situations- it’s extremely likely it wasn’t his idea, but we might not know as the severance package typically comes with a non-disclosure agreement. The others staff let go at the same time were definitely fired- and not all for budgetary reasons. Jeffrey Deitch has a vision, and those who are perceived as being in the way are removed, as was their under-performing COO earlier this year.

  14. […] you skipped MAN on Friday — summer Fridays and all — here’s my take on what happened at MOCA. [Image: MOCA's Geffen Contemporary during that Mercedes marketing thing, via Flickr user […]

  15. Hyde says:

    @Wilde, there isn’t the hammer anymore though. Douglas Fogle was fired and not replaced. LA is hemorrhaging chief curators. I feel like we had gotten so far with PST only to just mess it all up and have the entire world focusing on us while pointing out that we just don’t know how to do this very well.

  16. […] Schimmel Wednesday, and the outcry amongst critics has been loud and nearly universal. Art blogger Tyler Green says the museum’s decision is a loss for everyone, not just MoCA. He cites the Museum’s […]

  17. […] Good lord, this one is a doozy. L.A.’s MOCA has canned its best curator — Paul Schimmel, the dude who pretty much put the museum on the map — in a series of telenovela-esque machinations that should be accompanied by bad organ music. After seemingly being caught totally flat-footed on the PR front, the museum said the firing (er, ‘resignation’) was the board’s decision — even though curator firings are typically the work of the museum’s director (who in this case is former gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who is remaining mum). Then, the one non-voting member of the board, who happens to be an incredibly powerful rich guy, writes a big op-ed about it, saying the museum just needs to be more populist. (‘Cuz what L.A. really needs is more barely-thought-out, mass market entertainment.) In the meantime, as Christopher Knight points out, the museum remains in the pooper financially and is now headed into the pooper aesthetically. The biggest loser in all of this? Us. […]

  18. […] and may just be a bit bolder than me! HERE TOO […]

  19. […] Kruger and Catherine Opie all resigned. None were specifically protesting the museum’s firing of chief curator Paul Schimmel, but Schimmel’s ouster was plainly the motivating event. As if that wasn’t enough, four […]

  20. […] the above work at the current solo exhibition at the ICA Boston, because it is actually owned by MOCA’s embattled director Jeffrey Deitch, currently the most hated man in the LA art world. Below is my article that appeared in the Sep. […]

  21. […] the above work at the current solo exhibition at the ICA Boston, because it is actually owned by MOCA’s embattled director Jeffrey Deitch, currently the most hated man in the LA art world. Below is my article that appeared in the Sep. […]

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