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Peter Frank

LETTER TO NEW YORK, 2002


Hello back there,

It was awfully good, not to mention reassuring, to see so much of you in the past few months. Sorry to get lugubrious on you--I’ll try to muster the usual snarkiness, but in the wake of what you’ve been through, and we with you, it’s hard to stay totally post-modern. I don’t agree with all those insta-assessments that filled the airwaves and weeklies for the latter half of September, pronouncing the death of irony. (I’d be more credulous were anyone to pinpoint the exact birth of irony.) But almost a year after the Event, it’s clear our society has turned a corner. Irony hasn’t left; feeling has returned. Maybe this direct grasp of the tragic, this confrontation with the unthinkable, and even this direct witness of the (negative) sublime--watching television on September 11, I finally shared in Kant’s, and his contemporaries’ sense of the sublime as an immediate condition--is what ushers us into the neo-modern, you know, that historical moment when purpose, urgency, and (dare I say it?) at least a modicum of idealism returns to artistic, and social, discourse. Irony hasn’t been suspended; entropy has--or so I’d like to think.

Well how’s that for heavy? Not that you’re not used to heavy. I mean, your having to abandon your loft for almost two weeks was heavy. What you saw and heard and breathed doing the volunteer work near ground zero, that was heavy. And what New York was like until quite recently was nothing if not heavy. When I visited in October the shock was wearing off and the self-pity was thicker than chocolate, but I still encountered the hundred-yard stare in the eyes of so many friends, especially those downtowners who witnessed. (As you all said, living not a half-mile from the Trade Center, you took its destruction as an attack not just on your nation, but on your neighborhood.)

As soon as I got off the plane last fall I noticed a new politeness, even graciousness among New Yorkers. It had not worn off when I came back in the spring; the difference was that, where before people said “excuse me” with genuine, if distracted, emotion when they bumped into you on the subway, now they said it with a slightly exaggerated, self-conscious theatricality, not sure if they still mean it or not, but figuring, hey, it can’t hurt and it still feels good to say it. (Actually, that’s kinda how they say it here in L.A.)

Then, this pose of civility has been New York behavior ever since the mid-90s. I don’t know if the long bull market made people kinder and gentler or if it was Mayor Rudy’s threat to bust everyone for jaywalking if they didn’t start being nicer to one another and (especially) to visitors. Or maybe someone spiked the water supply with ecstasy. I know that the art scene in New York had become a lot more tolerable back then than it was when I’d left in the late 80s. You remember there was that quasi-golden moment around the spring of 1995, the Chelsea scene was just starting, it was mostly small, adventuresome galleries, a reasonable facsimile of the East Village, and a lot of artists were doing shows and events on their own, there and elsewhere. Then the big boys and girls moved out of SoHo, took over the far West 20s, and told everybody they couldn’t be open on Sundays.

At least the DIY spirit survives in Williamsburgh. And now Long Island City is museum-hip. For my money it always was, with P.S.1 and the Noguchi Museum. But when MOMA relocates to Western Queens, even temporarily, well, there goes the neighborhood. Now I’m told those nabes are getting pricy and artists are getting pushed up into Astoria. Where next, the Bronx? (Again?)

The same thing is happening here. Silver Lake’s chic quotient is reaching endgame, and artists are decamping north, to Eagle Rock and Mt. Washington and even Altadena. Remember last year I took you up above Pasadena and told you it was still affordable and I knew some very unlikely folks who had blown off the Westside and Downtown for that almost-rustic living? You wondered how anybody could make art in such an environment. But, hey, that’s exactly what I wondered when I first visited Venice in the 1970s. Scruffy as it was, it seemed as if all those finish/fetish painters and process sculptors and performance artists had set up shop in so many amusement park stalls and beachfront cabanas. (Say, how about Coney Island as the next Williamsburgh?) But they had a dynamite scene going--like SoHo without the cutthroat competitiveness--and were making amazing stuff. Same thing is happening now up the mountainside.

And, may I remind you, the same kind of DIY gallery scene is happening in Chinatown--galleries popping up in about as incongruous a quarter as they could find. That’s what they do here. It’s almost a tradition in L.A., galleries appearing in the least likely places--rarely in inaccessible locations (in this car culture, actually, hardly anything is inaccessible), but so often in odd, even absurd ones. Warehouses off alleys. Storefronts on all-but-abandoned commercial blocks. Industrial parks. Mini-malls. Living rooms. Basements of grungy apartment houses. And now shop spaces along quasi-touristy pedestrian thoroughfares. Where next, underneath freeways? (Why not? Many overpasses have large storage spaces built into them.)


Janos Mattis-Teutsch, “Dark Landscape
with Trees,” 1918, oil on cardboard,
from the recent “Central European
Avant-Gardes” exhibition at L.A.
County Museum of Art.

This summer, however, the real action is above ground, in the museums--even though the best museum show in a long time, LACMA’s Central European Avant-Gardes, has already decamped for, well, Central Europe. Too bad it’s not going to New York, you’d love its carefully researched, but pell-mell-feeling, cascade of characters and movements and times and places. It’s always fascinating to see how Big Ideas play out in the provinces--and how unprovincial the provinces really are, as demonstrated (here, certainly) by the brilliance with which “provincials” expand, transform, and thoroughly inhabit imported ideas and practices (and how, as a result, they manage to export at least some of their own). In L.A. we could relate.



Facades that speak volumes (from top to bottom):
• Model of the entrance to the just opened
Museum of Modern Art’s Queens facility, while the
mid-Manhattan building undergoes major renovation.
• Long Beach Museum’s addition
of its new exhibition pavilion.
• Acuna-Hansen Gallery storefront in the
improbable Chinatown neighborhood.
• Crew preparing the entrance to a private opening
party for MOCA’s Andy Warhol Retrospective.











But, then, how provincial are we anymore? Los Angeles has been a World Art Capital at least since the 1984 Olympics. The latest attestation to our hotshot status is the Warhol retrospective making its only American stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Given the show’s importance--and the extent to which people think it’s important, which may count for more--it was a coup for MOCA to bring it here. The logistics alone were imposing, and the show didn’t get here entirely unscathed (the Campbells Soup Can suite, which made up Warhol’s first gallery exhibition in 1962--in L.A.--now hangs not in MOCA/LA but in MOMA/QNS). But that daunting deed is done.

Actually, MOCA has a rep for taking on imposing curatorial problems and working them through. Witness their massive thematic shows of the past few years, such as Art & Film and Out of Actions, as well as that immense history of 20th century architecture, etc. For that matter, LACMA’s no slouch in this department. The Central European show itself is a model of scholarship, as well as of exhibition design--and as such is quite in keeping with the curatorial approach that’s given us surveys such as The Spiritual in Abstraction and Degenerate Art. This is a damned good museum town, has been since well before I got here, and promises to get better.

Maybe I should say it’s a good museum county. Pasadena is waking up impressively, with the Norton Simon remodeled and recharging its exhibition policy; the Pasadena Museum of California Art emerged from its chrysalis; and the Armory Center, also done with its makeover and keeping its temporary space going (hey, it worked for MOCA). Santa Monica, of course, still boasts the largest concentration of galleries in the area (including the ever more avant Santa Monica Museum). Even Long Beach has its city museum in new digs and its Cal State University Art Museum plugged into the international art pulse. And who knows? If the Valley succeeds in seceding, maybe it’ll want its own art museum.

I’m not going to bore you with my thoughts on the secession issue, save to advocate New Jersey’s annexation of Staten Island. I am going to bore you by closing with more sentimental thoughts towards your well-being and the continued healing of my native burg. The air has cleared (at least literally) and there have been acts of closure, but life has changed irredeemably for all of us (now that the scales have dropped from our eyes), but for you most viscerally. Those photos you took of Ground Zero two weeks after drove it all home. They weren’t horrific or spookily elegant, like those newswire shots taken soon after the towers collapsed; but they were real, palpable, taken from vantages I recognized as places where I’d walked countless times. I’ve quite deliberately avoided visiting Ground Zero, out of a desire not to gawk--and, I realize, also not to fear. The void came to me in those photographs; the hope comes to me all the time in the stories I hear and the continuing respect the country pays to New York (and its Finest). That seems sufficient.

P.