Los Angeles

What’s Going on at MOCA?

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

An installation view of "Helter Skelter", curated by Paul Schimmel at MOCA in 1992. Photo by Paula Goldman.

Paul Schimmel, who has been at the helm of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art’s curatorial department for twenty years, was let go on Wednesday. The board voted on the decision, and the story is that billionaire philanthropist and MOCA board member Eli Broad asked Schimmel to his office to tell him of the decision.  I heard about the firing early evening on Wednesday, through renegade journalist Matt Gleason’s facebook page and then through New York bloggers. The news was confirmed in the L.A. Times Thursday morning. As of last night, there’s been no explanation and no comment from Schimmel. “I think this is a potential tipping point for MOCA,” artist John Baldessari told the Times. “First I want to know the reasons for him being fired and if they were sufficient.”

Another view of "Helter Skelter." Photo by Paula Goldman.

Schimmel had been at the Newport Harbor Art Museum before coming to MOCA in 1990. There, he curated the first California biennial, originally called the Newport Harbor Biennial. But it’s the show Helter Skelter, which he curated at MOCA in 1992, that people still ask me if I’ve seen (I hadn’t even started middle school then). That’s the one that gave L.A. artists and art supporters more pride than I imagine even Pacific Standard Time, the six-month, Getty-funded push to document L.A. art history, ever will. I’ve seen enough photos to know the show, held at the museum’s Geffen Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo back when people really thought the Geffen was a temporary building, was visceral and bright and yet heavily political. It also made L.A. artists seem deep in pop culture, not above it. “One of the main things that drew this group of artists together initially,” said Mike Kelley, talking about the artists who, like him, had been featured in Helter Skelter, “was that our work was busier, more maximal than what was in fashion in ’80s New York.”  Kelley didn’t necessarily like the box Helter Skelter put him in — he was tied to a “negative” aesthetic — but the show emblazoned work by him and others into people’s memory. It also emblazoned Paul Schimmel into memory.

Installation view of Mike Kelley's "Silver Ball" at MOCA.

In the years that followed he’s done some smartly researched shows, some over-researched shows, some flashy, controversial shows (remember the Murakami show, where the Louis Vuitton store was in the galleries?). But whether you like his work or not, here’s what’s certain: Schimmel knows L.A., it’s art and it’s art history like none other and he believes in those artists and that history. In February, right after Mike Kelley died, he organized a small memorial at MOCA on Grand Avenue. It was perfectly thoughtful, and made me trust MOCA as a keeper of this city’s seminal artworks and very recent history. It included the  Silver Ball installation, one of my favorite Kelley works, a hanging round mass of aluminum with holes on the back through you can peek through. It also included work Kelley donated to MOCA, including work by an artist Kelley loved and wrote about at length, Douglas Huebler. Kelley once said Huebler proved “art is forward-looking.” Hopefully, MOCA is looking forward to something worth looking to.