Meet and Magritte

Los Angeles

Left: Artist Katherine Ross and Jorge Pardo with LACMA director Michael Govan. Right: Artist John Baldessari. (Photos: Howard Pasamanick)

The art world’s fawning seduction of young Hollywood employs a universal language: parties. From Tinseltown fantasy to Belgian Surrealism, my two-day jaunt through an odd swath of LA art began last Tuesday night at “pARTy 2006,” a New Yorker–sponsored event at Gemini GEL in West Hollywood, where young patrons of local cultural institutions gathered to rub elbows and hawk memberships. An army in well-cut suits and festive polyester shirts arrived to celebrate LA’s cultural capital, with well-wishers heralding from MoCA, LACMA, LAXART, LA Opera, and the Music Center, bearing names reminiscent of street gangs (“The MoCA Contemporaries” and “The LACMA Avant Garde”).

Greeted by a roomful of John Baldessari prints, I moved on to investigate the labyrinthine complex’s galleries and print shops before the party reached full swing. Gemini had some choice recent work on display, including pieces by Jonathan Borofsky and Elizabeth Murray, as well as four incredible prints by Bruce Nauman. When I remarked that Gemini GEL’s selection of artists was, while undeniably impressive, decidedly mature, Joni Moisant Weyl of Gemini replied, “We’re constantly courting younger artists, and in the next few years you’ll definitely see some changes.”

A Kiki Smith–designed carpet replaced the customary red one; it led to a nearby white tent in which the growing crowd gathered, cocktails and cell phones in hand. Lithe cochair Bettina Korek moved with grace and speed amid the peculiar mélange of thirtysomething entertainment bourgeoisie, gliding from Hollywood celeb to respected curator. The constant chatter was evidence that she had successfully melded disparate groups, though it also distracted from a plaintive performance by LA Opera–sponsored tenor David Lomeli. The New Yorker name drew out a number of LA’s usually reclusive writers, including Jori Finkel of the New York Times and Emma Gray of Art Review, whose husband, Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times, pointedly commented, “How ironic that the New Yorker is pushing for LA’s cultural legitimacy.”

Left: Gemini GEL's Sidney Felsen and Joni Moisant Weyl. Right: Artist Mike Kelley. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Such stature seems perpetually at stake for self-conscious Los Angeles, and it often hinges on ambitious museum shows, like the Baldessari-designed “Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images,” which opened the following night at LACMA. Recently, there’s been a spate of artist-curated and -designed shows, with variable results. But to excuse Baldessari from any curatorial malfeasance, he came on board the project just six months ago, at the invitation of Michael Govan, the museum’s universally admired new director. Everyone I talked to—especially women—regaled me with stories of Govan’s intelligence and charm. I found him chatting with MoCA director Jeremy Strick in the show’s main gallery, not far from Vija Celmins’s giant comb. “These things are in planning for years,” he explained. “I couldn’t change the show, but I could change the way it’s shown. Baldessari’s design is both wild and respectful.” A radical departure from largely sterile institutional presentations, the exhibition borders on the theatrical. Guards in bowler hats and suits stand throughout the gallery on floors thickly carpeted with a plush white-clouds-on-blue-sky pattern and beneath ceilings coated with photos of choked and knotted area freeways. The exhibition features sixty-eight works by Magritte alongside sixty-eight works by contemporary artists, including Charles Ray, Ed Ruscha, and Baldessari himself. It’s magnificent, really, and highlights the irreverence in the LA aesthetic, though a few individual works seem too literal or curiously misplaced.

Late in the evening, I found Baldessari sitting on the far edge of the white-marble plaza with dealer Emi Fontana and show contributor Mike Kelley. Kelley wasn’t convinced by the inclusion of certain artists, and at one point demanded to know, “What the fuck is Rauschenberg doing here?” Baldessari simply nodded his great white mane and laughed, saying in his deep, velvety voice, “The first thing I asked Stephanie Barron when I saw the show was, ‘What is a Rauschenberg doing here?’” A young, dark-haired girl in a bowler hat quietly interrupted Baldessari, then put her arm around him while a friend snapped a picture. I slipped away from the table, encountering French artist and provocateur Orlan (and her very surreal white-and-black hair) midway across the plaza. After snapping a quick photo, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a card emblazoned with—of course—a picture of her face. She leaned in close and pointed with a long fingernail to her website address. “You want to see some real work. You ought to go here.”

Left: Artist Orlan. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Actor Pierce Brosnan with Stephanie Barron, LACMA senior curator of modern art. (Photo: Howard Pasamanick)

Left: Security guards at LACMA's “Magritte and Contemporary Art.” Right: LACMA president Melody Kanschat with trustee Camilla Chandler-Frost. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Left: Musician Graham Nash. (Photo: Howard Pasamanick) Right: “pARTy 2006” event chairs Jim Deutch, Melanie Tusquellas, Bettina Korek, and David Nathanson. (Photo: Andrew Berardini)

Left: Curator Paul Schimmel. (Photo: Patrick McMullan) Right: LAXART curators Lauri Firstenberg and Jeffrey Uslip. (Photo: Andrew Berardini)

Left: LACMA curator Rita Gonzales with OCMA curator Aimee Chang. Right: Artist Nick Relph. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Left: UCLA Hammer director Ann Philbin. Right: Dealer Shaun Caley Regen. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Left: MoCA Focus artist Alexandra Grant and Stacen Berg, assistant curator of the CCA Wattis. Right: Dealer Honor Fraser. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)