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LETTER TO
NEW YORK, 1999

PETER FRANK


Julius Shulman, “May Company
Department Store,” photograph, 1948.
The Miracle Mile during its heyday,
now the home of L.A. County Museum
of Art’s new addition, LACMA West--host
to the exhibition “Van Gogh’s Van
Goghs” as well as the Southwest
Museum’s satellite space.

Hail Fellows. . . .

It’s been five months since we met up at MOMA, and that Jackson Pollock show is still rattling ‘round my brain. Seems like it’s rattling around everyone’s brain, even those who haven’t seen it. Every third artist I talk to here speaks to me in rhapsodic terms about being in roomsful of Pollocks or planning to get on a plane and fly to such roomsful. This was the show that delivered what it promised. Then, again, that Chaim Soutine show the Jewish Museum sent LACMA was the show that delivered what nobody expected. And now we get Vincent van Gogh, which I just saw. The installation is glossy as sin, but perfectly lit, and you don’t have to breathe on the paintings for them to jump out of their picture-postcard existence into real life. Of course, not every item’s a gem--same as with the Pollocks--but that’s what gives a show of a larger than life figure the depth; that’s what turns an artist back into an artist (What becomes a legend least?).

You didn’t go to the van Gogh when it was in D.C., didja? Well, why don’t you head out while it’s here? What better time to dig out from under the snowdrifts--okay, slushpiles--and check out L.A.? We’ve already had several 80-degree days since winter began, and less rain even than usual (la niña likes us better than el niño did), and. . . .but I’m not pitching a resort, I’m pitching an art scene.


We’re hummin’. The museums have some pretty nifty shows up, the galleries are fairly effervescent with younger (and older) talent, and--and and and I know you’ve heard this all before, over and over again, not only from me. I just get enthsiastic about this town once Christmas and the rains are past and spring waits in the wings. This was the time of year I would usually come out to visit when I was a Gothamite, and I always found magic out here, not just for the climatic contrast. Nowadays though, with all this art to see--and with a trip, say up to the Getty providing multiple viewing pleasures (the El Lissitzky show at the Research Institute, the panorama of the L.A. basin from behind the Museum, maybe even something blooming in Robert Irwin’s garden)--this town is an aesthetomane’s winter paradise.

I have an idea. Your membership in the College Art Association is still in good standing, right? With all the studio and history teaching you do in Queens and New Jersey, and wherever else you can find a bus to, I can’t imagine you pretending not to be an academic. And I know you enjoy attending the CAA conferences when they meet in New York. Well, need I remind you where this year’s--er, this month’s--confab is taking place? So fly your artsy butt out here and we’ll hang out downtown, along with all the other hungry, befuddled junior professors and job applicants.

We can shanghai some old friends into going where they’d never think to go otherwise, we can party like it’s 1848 (or 1912, or 30 B.C.), we can even attend some of the sessions. Yeah, yeah, I can practically hear your eyes rolling. But take a look at the program for once! For this once in particular. As CAA Conference programs go, it’s pretty dynamic. The jargon is minimal, and the French philosophers appear infrequently. The politically correct positions are no longer being argued, they’re being assumed. I don’t recall seeing the word “deconstruction” once in the program (“Destruction” at least once, “construction” maybe more often, but those aren’t buzzwords. Yet.). Yes, it’s a post-post-modernist CAA Conference! The buzz is around electronics and digital imaging and the World Wide Web. It’s around cross-oceanic, not just cross-town, influences. It’s around the crisis (crises?) in institutions. It’s around the millenium (sure, talking about millenial stuff is trendy but, trust me, it won’t be after next year).

Of course, what would an academic conference be without a few discussions of liminality, acculturation, territoriality, and otherness? But they are more the exception than the rule. Indeed, except for the predominance of discussions about Asian and Latin American art (which makes geographic sense), there are no “rules.” There are discussions about everything from “Subliminal Reference in Abstract Painting” to “Fridomania and Fridismo: Migrating Imagery of Frida Kahlo,” to “Artists and the I.R.S.” (!), to--gird your loins--”Porn Queens, Perverts, Jailbirds, and Bad Mommies: Cultural Confrontation with the Law and Academia.” In L.A. we do show you a good time.

I haven’t looked over the Women’s Caucus for Art program yet--that gathering takes place immediately preceding the CAA event. But I’d wager that, with the WCA conference honoring such agitateuses as Linda Frye Burnham and Judy Chicago, their panels--feminars?--will be lively.

Maybe it all seems so juicy because this is the first time in fourteen years the CAA has met here. And because when it has in the past--in 1985, and especially in 1977, a conference whose memory I cherish, not least for its hellzapoppin’ outrageousness (24-hour-a-day artists’ video piped into the hotel rooms, performances in the hallways, etc.)--it’s been a blast. We take fun seriously in this town, and nothing is funner than art.

Need I aver that “fun” does not equal “superficial?” Granted, the two conditions are not mutually exclusive, either, but what I’m saying is that art in these parts is regarded not just as a pleasant diversion, but as a highly enjoyable necessity. By ‘most everyone, not just insiders. And art is also now regarded all over Los Angeles as it is in most other civilizations: the residue of a people’s soul, the sensibility of cultures, the pearl the oyster makes around ever-present stimulants. I’m not going to stretch these metaphors any farther, you get the picture. Art isn’t just fashionable here (anymore), it isn’t just important, it’s as vital as gasoline and as ever-present as air (or vice versa).

If you come for CAA, the Japanese American National Museum’s stunning new space will be open, right next to the Geffen Contemporary (né Temporary Contemporary, remember?). No, it’s not a MOCA-Dreamworks production. But don’t think such a collaboration isn’t down the line. Let’s first see who the new MOCA director will be (Koshalek is still in town, and nothing has been announced as yet. . . .).

Oh, there will also be a killer show up in Pasadena, documenting that town’s glory days--1960-1974--as an avant-hotbed. Those dates approximate those of the late, lamented Pasadena Art Museum, the place that gave shows to folks like Allan Kaprow, Andy Warhol, Ed Kienholz, John McLaughlin, Roy Lichtenstein, and (drumroll, please) Marcel Duchamp, whose first museum retrospective did indeed occur down the block from the Rose Bowl back in 1963.

Such late-modernist masters rear their heads, soupcans and urinals once again in the sleek, curvaceous building that once housed the Pasadena, and which now houses the Norton Simon Museum. This repository of Ol’ Masters --some damned fine ones, at that--is bringing the ‘60s stuff up out of storage, most of it, I believe, for the first time since anything-but-simple Simon (see Suzanne Muchnic’s new bio) ate the institution that collected it all. It’s a pan-Pasadena show, however, occupying not just a room at the Simon, but other key local art venues--the Armory Center (celebrating its tenth anniversary with this show), and Art Center’s Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery--as well.

And so forth, there are plenty other art-things to see in this, the entertainment capital o’ the world. New galleries and even gallery neighborhoods are emerging. Venice, for instance, is seeing a resurgence of commercial spaces, and there’s a cluster beginning to form (finally!) in Silver Lake and Echo Park. The museums seem to be on a roll, and not just by virtue of blockbusters. And artist-initiated displays, fly-by-night and quasi-permanent, are as frequent as ever.

I should warn you, though, traffic is heavy again. Remember how light it got during the recession, when former collectors with cautious accountants were too embarassed to show their faces? Well, busy is as busy drives. But don’t let that dissuade you, there are always ways around--especially for New York drivers, you know what I mean? Dust off your driver’s license (no, you don’t need to show it to customs at LAX, you just need it to get anywhere else in town), and come on out. Bad Mommies are beckoning. . . .
PF