Lady in Waiting

Los Angeles

Left: Collectors Eli and Edythe Broad. Right: Artist Francesco Vezzoli. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

THE FIRST SURPRISE of last Saturday’s thirtieth-anniversary gala for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was the discovery of Frank Gehry as a milliner. The second was Lady Gaga: The well-packaged “Paparazzi” pop star actually can sing better than Madonna; what’s more, she can do it like a lady. And Francesco Vezzoli can create a work of performance art that transcends mere celebrity to give a town that rarely looks anywhere but its own navel a promising blank slate.

Rewriting history was the theme of the benefit, which began with a gray, clothbound blank book sent to donors who paid a whopping five thousand dollars for individual tickets and up to one hundred thousand for tables––ouch-worthy prices that appalled some boycotting LA collectors, who were still grumbling about the mishandling of the museum’s endowment that nearly closed its doors for good last year. Designed (and signed) by Ed Ruscha, the gift book has one of each of the words MAKE NEW HISTORY stenciled on three sides and would look great on a shelf full of fake volumes with impressive spines, the kind that are so good for stashing cash and love letters––only fitting for Hollywood.

Chaired by trustees Eli Broad and Maria Bell, the event drew nearly one thousand expertly coiffed, self-adoring adults. The serious collectors among them (Wallis Annenberg, Victor Pinchuk, Maja Hoffman, Irving Blum, Laurence Graff, Benedikt Taschen, Billie Milan Weisman, Douglas Cramer, Hugh Bush) left the bar early in the evening for a preview of “Collection: MoCA’s First Thirty Years” at the Grand Avenue building––one of the most impressive surveys of contemporary art I have ever seen anywhere and a high-water mark for curator Paul Schimmel, who outdid himself with the hang. (Clearly, this museum would not exist without Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who donated the core of the collection when the place was new.) But the big attraction for the mostly B-list celebs who attended the dinner (catered by Wolfgang Puck) was Vezzoli’s one-night-only performance, Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again), produced by MoCA with honorary cochairs Larry Gagosian and Dasha Zhukova and starring Gaga and Vezzoli with twelve wide-eyed dancers imported from the Bolshoi Ballet.

Left: Artist Jeff Koons with Koons studio manager Gary McCraw. Right: Collector Maria Bell.

The performance (about which, more tomorrow) culminated a driving week that began for me at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where an almost shockingly good show of Joseph Beuys’s multiples at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum makes the New Museum’s plan to exhibit trustee Dakis Joannou’s collection next March seem less controversial and convenient, and more a spin on the zeitgeist of the moment. (Ditto the BCAM show of self-portrait artist photographs, which came not from the Broad Foundation but from collectors Audrey and Sydney Irmas.)

Following a trip to the Hammer to see Robert Gober’s exhilarating installation of paintings by the unsung artist Charles Burchfield and R. Crumb’s oddly tame exegesis of the Book of Genesis, I had my first view of Blum and Poe’s new two-story space in Culver City, where large-scale works by gallery artists (Takashi Murakami, Dirk Skreber, Matt Johnson, Mark Grotjahn, and others) seem almost lost in it. Still, it is unlikely to give Gagosian, who is adding a new Richard Meier–designed building next to his Beverly Hills outpost, reason to fear any grandstanding competition. For contrast, the nonprofit LAXART was putting up a benefit auction of work donated by scads of artists and hung willy-nilly throughout. (Not to be outdone by the big boys, the benefit was advertised by a Mungo Thomson billboard above the building.)

Left: Dealer Tim Blum with Maria Blum. Right: Artist Takashi Murakami.

On Friday night, it was the Broad Foundation’s turn to throw a party for its twenty-fifth year, with a show of acquisitions that juxtaposed Kiefers with Immendorfs and Rauches and featured Wools and Bradfords, among others, before shuttling air-kissing collector pals to Michael’s for dinner. And lest anyone be left with time to fill to no purpose, there was a private party in Hollywood for MoCA guests needing a social transition to the opening Saturday afternoon of Jeff Koons’s new show of gesturally enhanced, benday-dotted, Courbet-nude-on-landscape paintings at Gagosian. Hefty Hulk Elvis catalogues were flying into the hands of eager visitors hankering for an autograph. “Jeff’s not signing any books,” a receptionist kept saying, though the genial, fan-fueling artist was more than accommodating for guests at a separate reception in the back of the gallery, where Koons sketched a personal note and a sexy landscape drawing for each comer on the title page. (I got a labial sailboat; a friend got a spread-legged country road.) “They don’t look it,” Koons let on about the scribbles on the paintings. “But those big gestures were actually done with tiny brushes.” Guess he must have been watching when they were made.

Finally it was time for the caravan to head downtown for the black-tie, red-carpet glamour fest at MoCA. “I want to see the art,” said Beyeler Foundation director Sam Keller, interrupting cocktails in the lobby with Germano Celant and Klaus Biesenbach to make a beeline for the galleries, where I found Pierce Brosnan circulating quickly past collector Eileen Norton, artist Barbara Kruger, curator Ann Goldstein, and Warhol Foundation director Joel Wachs. Brosnan, it turns out, is not a newbie to art. “I do collect,” he said. “And I paint. And I don’t give up the day job.”

Left: Pierce Brosnan. Right: Curator Germano Celant with Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller and MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach.

The five-hundred-plus-piece show (featuring two hundred artists) begins with the oldest work in the collection, a 1939 Mondrian, and ends at 1979 (and continues to the present with the “MoCA Years” at the Geffen Contemporary), and includes stunning displays of Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, and Oldenbergs as well as the re-creation of an aromatic, 1970 chocolate room by favorite son Ruscha and a kissing-tits pink Plexi sculpture by the obscure DeWain Valentine that would make Anish Kapoor eat his heart out. With a Pollock drip here, an early Tony Smith there, and primo Judds, Irwins, Sam Francises, etc., there was no going wrong at any step. “It’s perfect,” said Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison, rumored to be on the short list of candidates for MoCA director. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Even the artists were pleased. “The best frocks in the closet are on display,” observed pithy Lari Pittman. “And it’s wonderful.” And it is.

So wonderful it suggested that the best way to make MoCA into the world-class destination it hankers to become would be to keep the show in place permanently and use the Geffen for temporary exhibitions. “I agree,” said Broad, when I mentioned it. “I’d love to do that,” Schimmel said. “Just give me another building! You have no idea how deep this collection goes.” (Nearly six thousand works and counting, actually.)

Another building seems out of the question when MoCA can hardly keep the lights on in the two it has. And it remains to be seen how well it will spend the nearly four million dollars that the gala raised, when it needs four times that amount to meet its annual operating expenses. If the party brings new funding (possible) and creates new revenue streams (doubtful) that will revitalize its impact on LA’s forever-burgeoning cultural scene, it was worth the $1.1 million that the gala purportedly cost. But this institution has yet to convince everyone in the LA art world that it can administer itself with the panache its curatorial staff brings to its art. A visionary for a new director could make a difference—if there is one available with extraordinarily thick skin.

Linda Yablonsky


Left: James Franco with Ed Ruscha. (Photo: WireImage) Right: Artists Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell.