The inferiority complex thing isn’t working anymore. For as long as anyone can remember, the Los Angeles art world had cultivated a second-city mentality. It was a story of surviving against all odds. Of imagination flourishing in the desert (or on the beach). Of artists scraping by in the absence of institutional support. Local artists even made a virtue out of their hardships. “When New Yorkers tell me what’s wrong with L.A.,” said Robert Irwin to Lawrence Weschler, “everything they say is wrong – no tradition, no history, no sense of a city, no system of support, no core, no sense of urgency – they’re absolutely right, and that’s why I like it.”
Well, that was then. During a whirlwind tour of galleries, collections, and museums, I still heard plenty of griping, especially about the lack of a committed local collector base and the difficulty of fund-raising from the Hollywood crowd. But such chatter aside, it’s impossible to miss the flowering of contemporary art that’s going on here. And in contrast to New York, the people behind this burst of energy are deliberately boosting the local talent.
The museums are having a day in the sun. Ann Philbin is soaring high at the Hammer and Michael Govan is revving his jets at LACMA. Over at MOCA, the giant feminist art show, WACK!, is an impressive display of curatorial muscle flexing, while Andrea Zittel’s mid-career retrospective is the very embodiment of L.A. art’s indefatigable “I can survive” spirit. Meanwhile, the Getty, singed by fallout from its forays into the antiquities markets, has discovered the safe haven of contemporary art. Richard Meier’s antiseptic entrance hall rotunda has received a heart transplant in the shape of Tim Hawkinson’s giant Uberorgan (see photo). Sculpture by living artists dots the emerald lawns. Inside the museum, Sigmar Polke’s photos are on view in the photography gallery and an exquisite gem of an exhibition sets up a face-off between two Dresden masters: Caspar David Friedrich and Gerhard Richter. Genius.
A walk through Bergamot Station felt like a visit to Madame Tussauds after all the tourists had left. But Chinatown and Culver City are pulsing with life. New York dealers are setting up West Coast outposts here, and you can bet that at this very minute, galleries are sprouting up in neighborhoods nobody has heard of – that’s the L.A. way.
What left the deepest impression, however, were the private collections. After years of hand-wringing over “regionalism,” local patriotism is clearly in fashion. High up in a canyon in Brentwood, the curator of a clever private collection is refocusing acquisitions on L.A. art. The deep and impressive survey of L.A. art stars at the Broad Foundation, in Venice, is proof positive that local patrons are besotted with artists in their own backyard.
At least for the moment. But a word of caution: The history of L.A. art is a succession of exuberant outbursts that were followed by swooning meltdowns. Will it last this time?