Paris Confidential


Left: Gallerist Emi Fontana, artist Mike Kelley, and Rosamund Felsen. Right: Artist Lari Pittman, gallerist Margo Leavin, artist Roy Dowell, and MoCA director Jeremy Strick.

“Who is Steven Arnold?” was the question heard most frequently at last week’s opening of “Los Angeles 1955–1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital” at the Centre Pompidou. The LA art world descended upon a freezing Paris expecting to see works by the usual suspects but was surprised at the inclusion of the late gay genre photographer that they’d never heard of—one of Mike Kelley’s curatorial suggestions. With only eighty-five artists and 350 works representing thirty years of art history, literally dozens of visiting art-world heavies debated who should maybe have had his coveted spot: Charles Garabedian, Karen Carson, Kim MacConnel, James Hayward? Or, God forbid, the pre–Ferus Gallery Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, or Rico LeBrun? “It would be impossible to do this show in LA,” said MOCA’s Jeremy Strick. “Who do you include and how do you leave people out?”

Los Angeles is the flavor of the moment in Paris, with a concurrent show of projects by the Angeleno architecture firm Morphosis installed on the same floor of the museum, Allen Ruppersberg and Guy de Cointet at Galerie Air de Paris, and Mike Kelley at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot (the last sold out by the time of the vernissage). The Parisian gallerists Bruno Delavallade and René Praz threw a stylish party to honor the artist-nurturing career of legendary LA dealer Rosamund Felsen at their tony Square de l’Avenue Foch apartment. On the walls was a small survey of their own collection of LA art—including Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance, and Sam Durant—set among midcentury furniture by Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, and Verner Panton. “We picked the furniture up years ago for nothing at flea markets,” said Delavallade. Kelley recognized his early-’80s performance prop in a corner of the room. “Jim Isermann sold this to help buy his house in Palm Springs. That was so long ago it looks like a piece of ancient history!”

Left: Artist George Herms with The Librarian. Right: Gallerists René Julien Praz, Rosamund Felsen, and Bruno Delavallade.

At the opening Tuesday night, with four thousand invited guests, the enormous Los Angeles contingent of artists, collectors, dealers, and museum officials was in for a surprise: VIP entry tickets were meaningless. “This is France,” snarled the burly security guard. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité—you VIPs can wait like the rest of the people.” In the freezing, rainy darkness, groups of Angelenos reenacted the storming of the Bastille, with pushing, threatening, begging, and outrunning to try to get past not one but three successive guard points to the exhibition. “We couldn’t get in—so we had to become ‘ugly Americans’!” said Santa Monica Museum of Art Director Elsa Longhauser. Another museum director pronounced it, “The most disorganized opening I’ve ever been to in my life.” Many artists in the show—and heavyweight collectors like Blake Byrne—were forced to wait up to two hours.

Once inside, the war-weary brigade expressed relief at how solid the show looked. “It is definitely a French point of view, but it looks terrific,” said LA fixture Margo Leavin. The consensus was that it is more thorough and better curated than Lars Nittve’s 1997 survey, “Sunshine & Noir”. But there were caveats. The Light and Space artist Douglas Wheeler pulled out of the show because he wasn’t granted enough installation space. “Shouldn’t they have a wait-list for inclusion—like the airlines?” asked one collector.

Left: Centre Pompidou. Right: Norton Simon curator Michelle Deziel.

With curator Catherine Grenier giving greater space to the more established LA art stars—Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Lari Pittman, George Herms, and Mike Kelley among them—there was a refined scramble to fit everyone else in. The result is nooks and crannies of video, film, and ephemera that work primarily because of chic French design. “This is really thoughtfully arranged—and it was not an easy show to install,” approved LACMA curator Stephanie Barron.

At the reception for four hundred at Restaurant Le Georges on the Pompidou roof, all eyes watched the clock, for the next day was the last chance for the LA contingent to catch a plane for New York in time for the Armory opening—and the new LA Art Fair at the Altman Building, the destination of choice for those who intended to pick the Los Angeles art stars for the next museum survey.

Over dessert, one cheeky museum curator asked me if it wasn’t a conflict, writing this piece when I’m a lender to the exhibition. “Pas du tout,” I replied, glancing at my watch…

Barry Sloane