#Hashtags: The Art of Conquest

#institutions #race #jeffreydeitch #elibroad #lacma #moca #manifestdestiny #americanexpansionism

Los Angeles museums have recently demonstrated the old adage that “nothing endures but change.” Since 2006, Michael Govan has been in charge of transforming the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from a Victorian-style encyclopedic museum into a powerhouse for contemporary art. During his tenure, Govan has recruited top American curators, including Franklin Sirmans and Christine Y. Kim, from privately endowed museums to his massive public institution. More recently, in 2010 the Museum of Contemporary Art appointed celebrity gallerist Jeffrey Deitch its director following a very public declaration of bankruptcy and a sizeable bailout from trustee Eli Broad. Deitch and Broad wasted little time changing the MOCA guard, raising a furor over the departure of longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel. In July 2013, Deitch announced his resignation from MOCA, news of which was received by many contemporary art insiders as evidence of L.A.’s regressive tastes in art and institutional politics. However, it is neither the case that L.A. is too conservative for a “visionary” museum director such as Deitch, nor is it true that the presence of forward-thinking agents such as Sirmans and Govan proves the city’s progressive bona fides.  Rather, both museums continue to demonstrate the challenges of reconciling the underpinnings of contemporary museums in nineteenth-century ideologies with twenty-first-century concerns of artists and audiences.

Key Lime

James Turrell. Key Lime, 2004. Wedgework: fluorescent and LED light into space with fiber-optic light. Dimensions variable. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Renvy Graves Pittman, M.2013.3. © James Turrell. Photo © Florian Holzherr

At LACMA, the presence of leading curators of color on the museum staff has had its most visible impact by way of acquisitions to the permanent collection. Such acquisitions have their strongest effect in posterity, as new voices are incorporated into the canon that future historians will reference in writing the narrative of American art in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. However, the majority of permanent collection works remain in storage for the time being, accessible to few. Temporary exhibitions that showcase the career output of a single artist are the most visible way in which museums can have an immediate effect on artists’ profiles. Since 2009, when Sirmans joined the museum staff, Glenn Ligon is the only artist of color to receive a one-man retrospective at LACMA. Another retrospective, by Chicano collective ASCO, brings the number of retrospectives by artists of color since 2009 to two. Compare this with retrospectives for Franz WestBlinky PalermoMichael HeizerJohn BaldessariWilliam EgglestonDavid SmithTim BurtonStanley KubrickRobert AdamsKen Price, and Ellsworth Kelly in the same four-year period, and you start to see how slow change is to emerge from even the most proactive museum staff.

The current James Turrell retrospective underscores the necessity of greater representation of artists of color, notably Asian artists, who have thus far been absent from LACMA’s roster of retrospective exhibitions. Turrell is deeply influenced by Asian traditions from both the scientific and the spiritual realms. His exhibition makes reference to South Asian observatory architecture as well as to Hindu and Buddhist transcendental meditation, areas of inquiry that are fundamental to Turrell’s entire project as a Light and Space artist of the American West. Despite these nods, Turrell’s artistic lineage is wholly categorized as being of the European American canon. The term “transcendentalism” is used repeatedly to describe Turrell’s interest, but no examination has yet been made evident of the imperialist origins of this uniquely American synthesis of Christian mysticism, Manifest Destiny, and appropriation of Hindu spiritual traditions popularized by nineteenth-century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. This is vestigial evidence of a lingering nineteenth-century colonial mindset, which appreciates the contributions of non-Western cultural agents to science, spirituality, and the arts only as raw materials but never as conscious human creative acts worthy of artistic or intellectual recognition.

Installation view

Installation view. James Turrell: A Retrospective. May 26, 2013-April 6, 2014. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © James Turrell. Photo © Florian Holzherr

Lest one exit the Turrell show unclear on LACMA’s position with respect to American expansionism, look no further than the large plate-glass window at the far end of the Resnick Pavilion to be reminded of where the cards fall. Michael Heizer’s celebrated Levitated Mass (2012) looms large on the Resnick North Lawn. This sculpture consists of a large concrete trench carved into the landscape, atop which sits a 340-ton boulder that Heizer had trucked from a quarry in Riverside County through Los Angeles neighborhoods cleared of obstructions such as trees and traffic lights to the museum site. The boulder’s trajectory was a spectacle in its own right, accompanied by sizable crowds. Heizer’s body of work culls from anthropology, another discipline rooted in Victorian ideology of conquest and acquisition, in its methodology (excavation), imagery (monumental), and time frame (epic). The work’s $10 million price tag was entirely funded by private donations. Fittingly, it currently provides a backdrop to another show that campaigns for Peter Zumthor’s proposed architectural expansion of the museum. Property acquisition and development is very much the order of the day.

Heizer anticipates that his sculpture will remain for 3,500 years, but less than a year after its installation, its value as spectacle is already greatly diminished. The hot L.A. sun renders transversing of the artwork’s trench a hostile prospect on many days. The boulder doesn’t so much levitate as rest, supported by two all-too-visible metal brackets that diminish the illusion of this massive object floating in space. Levitated Mass stands not as a testament to timeless human achievement but as a trophy for a certain class of real estate developers and corporatists for whom the message of power over nature and landscape has changed little since the time of their forebears Leland Stanford and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Chief among these contemporary tycoons is insurance magnate Eli Broad, who is prone to throw his fiscal weight around at both LACMA and MOCA.

Levitated Mass

Michael Heizer. Levitated Mass, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Michael Heizer

Broad, whose Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA functions as a private museum inside a public institutional campus, is the 800-pound gorilla (or should I say, the 340-ton boulder) of Los Angeles museum donors. His influence was instrumental in recruiting Jeffrey Deitch to the Museum of Contemporary Art and in prolonging Deitch’s tenure after the controversial departure of Schimmel and the subsequent resignations of all four of the museum’s serving artist trustees. Broad’s influx of cash has floated MOCA during its financial downturn,while preserving his own dominance over other voices on the board. His foundation has been reported to have withheld promised funds from MOCA in 2012, thereby sabotaging Deitch’s already lackluster fundraising efforts and demonstrating a lack of confidence in the museum’s curatorial direction. This is ironic considering it was Broad himself who is reported to have dropped the axe on Paul Schimmel and who championed untested gallery director Deitch as the financially strapped MOCA’s potential savior. Deitch’s departure is no doubt connected to Broad’s loss of faith in the director’s Barnum-esque persona as a magnet for fiscal support from L.A.’s moneyed elites. Nowhere in the equation is any consideration of the interests of L.A.’s nearly four million residents, of whom almost 59 percent are people of color.

In this way, the travails of contemporary art museums mirror those of our nation as a whole. Dominated by a small cadre of the white and wealthy, our cultural institutions are diluting their authority through their ongoing absorption of investment criteria rather than historical and aesthetic concerns for art. Rather than updating the narratives of art’s conceptual, formal, and material interests to reflect today’s developments, the largest and most visible museums in the United States are increasingly being dragged back toward the values of the robber barons who founded them. Theirs was an era that history books tell us was instrumental to our nation’s amassing its great wealth of coin and cultural treasures but that postcolonial critique consistently reveals to have been built on the backs of the world’s most vulnerable and exploited citizens. We are already facing widespread economic collapseenvironmental ruin, and tragic civil wars as a result of such nineteenth-century legacies. We would do well to learn the lessons of the past and avoid their repetition in our present day.

James Turrell: A Retrospective is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 6, 2014.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.