PRINT May 1975

Pasadena, Like a Real Museum

I DON’T FEEL RIGHT TRYING to use my Artforum press card, and the old honorary membership probably isn’t good anymore . . . well, what the hell, it’s a buck to visit the Met, isn’t it? (Yeah, but there’s something about handing over 12 bits to Norton Simon . . .)

CHRIST! Lookit those floors, like glass! There must be $10,000 worth of urethane here. Sure looks expensive—official, deep brown and gold. Like a real museum, at last. (Omigod. What if I like the place? What if Simon’s corporate-raider know-how actually transforms the ol’ Pasadena? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing for all us bleeding hearts? Well, Mussolini made the trains run on time.)

Nolde, Soutine, Dix, Kirchner, and a Chinese sculpture. Except for that, admirable restraint, so far, in mixing the cultures.

Hey, this little McLaughlin, c. 1946. Acrylic on board? Did they have it then? It’s a tight little mother, ain’t it? Terrific—and the other one (1948), too. Funny how really good hard-edge paintings look good when they’re scuffed up a bit.

Here’s the big room (not the biggest). The David Smith is stupid: right—plop—in the center, so you can’t look back across at the paintings. And Simon’s new Ron Davis. Funny how grateful we are—in the age of “this is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”—for a little pedestrian illustrator’s skill. The guy can do a transparent box with a shadow on a big canvas, and we think it’s a knockout.

I like it a lot. It’s not just the box—lookit all that painting—gels, stains, lines, splashes. He can really put it together when he wants to.

The Stella doesn’t hold, though. Looks like department-store decoration. These days,it’s too corny, and it’s not old enough yet to be camp. I thought he’d last better.

You know, this whole deal isn’t bad. I’m not offended by it. Things are organized for a change. It looks permanent, not like they’re going to move everything out for the next extravaganza from Düsseldorf.

The gallery that used to be a luncheon room. Once, when the Ladies did a studio tour, they brought all the artists here beforehand for cold cuts and wine. Now it’s ful la that egg-type sculpture: Hepworth, Noguchi, Moore, Arp, Brancusi. I always forget how damned big that Bird is. Looks like the Eskimo room. Nice. The carpet smells good.

A Lipchitz next to Peter Alexander.

The bookshop’s in the old restaurant. Big windows open with a view of the new (world’s largest) freeway interchange and the R. M. Parsons building (got rich building military stuff in Viet Nam—that’s what “world-wide engineering company” means). Wonder if he and Simon know each other. No, he’s dead. Looks very secure, like a boardroom. And the merchandising is better. Anybody who’d have a stack of Sunshine Muse at the register can’t be all bad. Maybe I should reassess. Much better; the old bookshop was so cheesy. Why didn’t they have it here from the beginning? Simon knows his apples.

Maybe it’s OK to mix things like in a store and let people make their own cross-references, instead of having one curatorial exercise after another. Just hang ’em up with enough space and light and :let ’em do their things. Maybe curators have insinuated themselves too much: the right topic, right installation, right way of “working with the artist,” etc. That little Diebenkorn, Bottles, would look wonderful anywhere.

I’m afraid there’s going to be a retrenchment into precious objects. The artists who used to come here for adventure—what’re Coplans/Haskel I going to come up with. next, suicide notes from Cologne?—will now see gold frames, preciousness. People will say, “Hey, this is what art’s all about anyway, and it looks real nice, so what the hell was everybody so upset about?” I betcha the L.A. Times will say that.

(Here’s what the L.A. Times said: “Even though the days of primacy for experimental vanguard at PAM undoubtedly are over, the initial result of the museum’s reorganization under the aegis of Norton Simon and his staff has been to bring about that very balance between modern art and earlier epochs, between Occidental and Oriental works, that had been envisioned by many of those trustees who started raising funds for a grandiose new building on the present Carmel ita Park site over a decade ago,” Henry J. Seldis, “Pasadena Museum Gets It Together,” March 16, 1975.)

Diebenkorn, Altoon, Moses, on one wall. Looks a little funny here, facing those sour Expressionists.

This place is so slick people are going to like Simon for it no matter what his policies. The critic for the Free Press says he admires him.

I can’t shake the spectacle of those glossy floors. Seen too many installation “pieces.” Large room of tapestries. They’re OK, but tapestries bore me: tours de force, but they don’t really work. You can’t get a satisfying pictorial experience codified in threads anymore than those airport electronic ping-pong games can give you the real feel of whacking a ball right by your opponent. Moth balls.

Some Cambodian sculpture where the bookstore used to be. Why is it I’m curious, but not interested? Could I see the bills of sale for these objects, please? Just checking.

The north side is pretty good; the south side is cluttered. Granted, it’s mostly the old collection—all those gilded, lumpy frames protruding from the wall—but it shows how goddamned awful the building really is. Ladd was lucky they used to have all that weird stuff trundling in and out. Now the oppressive fiasco of, for instance, the light tracks is so very apparent. How the hell could anybody design a museum and fuck up the lighting so bad?

Howcum the gallery off the foyer is so empty and everything is jammed into the narrow halls—library display cases to stumble over?

The biggest room: Francis, McCracken, Valentine, Frankenthaler, Morris, Lichtenstein, Bengston, Andre. Big roundhouse swings of art. Lessee, the Lichtenstein was done for Expo ’67, and is a “gift of the artist and Leo Castelli.” Sure is dim in here, with soft spots for the large New Old Masters.

The little room off it has Léger paintings, Matisse prints and. . . . hold it, I can’t tell. . . . Maillol sculptures. Maybe I’m too dumb to be an art writer.

I think Simon wanted to placate his critics, but didn’t want to give the “major” side of the museum (south) over to contemporary stuff. The distribution isn’t bad, but that’s sure a strange lead-in to the roomful of biggies. What did you think?

I kinda liked it; it looks like a museum. There’s lotsa stuff I haven’t seen before. If that’s the collection, it’s a lot better than the old Pasadena used to show it.