LA's Art Wave

Upgraded spaces, secondary spaces and new galleries, Jonathan Griffin reports on Los Angeles’s growing contemporary art scene

By Jonathan Griffin

Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Rebel Dabble Babble (detail), 2012.  Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the artists and the Box, Los Angeles Mike Kelley, Switching Marys, 2004–5.  Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.  Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles MOCA board cochairs Maurice Marciano and  Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, MOCA curator Bennett Simpson  and MOCA director Philippe Vergne (left to right).  Photo: Rachel Murray/WireImage Henry Codax at Michael Thibault, Los Angeles, 2014, curated by Shoot the Lobster. Photo: Laura Schawelka. Courtesy Michael Thibault, Los Angeles Laura Owens, 12 Paintings by Laura Owens and Ooga Booga #2, 2013 (installation view).  Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, 356 S. Mission Road,  Los Angeles, and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York

Things move fast in Los Angeles. Enterprises bloom, seemingly overnight, and then wither without warning. Careers too. The city is in a perpetual state of emergence and disintegration; a young settlement that is already older than people imagined it would ever be when they perched their stilted wooden homes on dusty hillsides in the early decades of the twentieth century. Someone recently told me that the hundreds of towering Washingtonia palm trees that were planted to prettify the city for the 1932 Olympics are now at the end of their natural lifespans, and will start keeling over any minute. A compelling image; also totally untrue, it turns out. LA was built on imaginative fictions, and they continue to be the city’s major export.

Los Angeles’s art community is eyeing the eastern horizon with a mixture of anticipation and scepticism. We are witnessing an influx of commercial galleries and midcareer artists, many arriving from New York. Two significant new institutional hires – Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, and Philippe Vergne, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art – relocated from the East Coast. (Butler has ties to the city, having served as curator at MOCA from 1996 to 2006.) The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.

The idea that LA’s artworld needs fixing from outside is not a popular one, although most would concede that in order to resist stagnation and complacency, a continuous supply of fresh personnel is vital.

Plenty is happening from within, too. Three of LA’s prominent galleries – David Kordansky GalleryMichael Kohn and Various Small Fires – have chosen 2014 as the year to upgrade to bigger – and/or better-placed – buildings, adding to the gallery district that has emerged in Mid-City around Highland and La Brea Avenues. Across Grand Avenue from MOCA, in Downtown, the distinctive latticed ‘veil’ designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro for philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad’s museum is now mostly in place; the porous structure will provide a foil to its brash and shiny neighbour, the Frank Gehry-designed 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall, when the Broad opens in 2015. Fans of the city’s irreverent new art fair, Paramount Ranch, organised by newbie gallerists Alex Freedman and Robbie Fitzpatrick with artists Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen, are waiting to see whether it will become a regular fixture in the art calendar.

To equate Los Angeles’s short-term, mercurial dynamic with the abundance of chutzpah among its creative and entrepreneurial classes would be to see only half the picture. Rarely has a city developed with such scant regard for its own future. The institutions that flourish here – and I include certain successful commercial galleries alongside art schools and major museums such as LACMA and the Hammer – do so because of their farsighted commitment to the ongoing cultural life of their community. It was not always thus. LACMA’s atrocious Art of the Americas building was completed in 1986 in a half-baked attempt to augment its existing galleries; it is already in a state of dilapidation. The museum recently unveiled a proposal by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to bulldoze most of its campus and replace it with an elevated black building whose liquiform footprint rhymes with the site’s prehistoric tar pits.

Drivers are still confused by signs around Downtown pointing to the Temporary Contemporary – the huge warehouse space adopted by MOCA in 1983 and renamed the Geffen Contemporary in 1996, after it proved too popular among artists and visitors to relinquish. Hopes are high – though cautious – that Vergne will shore up the museum’s financial and scholarly foundations after they eroded under previous directors Jeremy Strick and Jeffrey Deitch. Both discovered, to their grave cost, that LA’s philanthropic class is not easy to mobilise in the service of high culture. At the lowest point of Deitch’s leadership, commentators looked on in anguish as even the museum’s own board hesitated to part with the necessary funds to save the institution. Following desperate discussions about the possibility of subsuming MOCA within another, more solvent institution, the endowment soared, passing $100 million in January this year.

Noncollecting, kunsthalle-style nonprofits have traditionally been LA’s weakness. In January of this year, attempting to redress this deficit, curator Cesar Garcia opened the Mistake Room, an exhibition space in a warehouse south of Downtown that pledges to focus on underexposed artists working outside the United States. Hearts sank when Oscar Murillo was announced as the first artist to get a show. Such slavish adherence to current market trends has been the failure of other nonprofits, such as LAXART (where Garcia used to work). The Santa Monica Museum of Art, the region’s foremost kunsthalle, will move into a new and expanded building when a light-rail station, connecting the east and west sides of the city, opens at the redeveloping Bergamot Station Arts Center in 2016.

Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city

Despite this instability, there are votes of confidence in LA’s institutions from the art market. A host of new commercial galleries are coming to the city, many of them secondary spaces for galleries established elsewhere. Sprüth Magers, of Berlin and London, will open an LA gallery helmed by Sarah Watson – formerly director of the defunct L&M gallery that opened in Venice, California, in 2010 – towards the end of this year. Alongside local hero John Baldessari, who is unrepresented in his hometown, the gallery already boasts a range of West Coast artists, including Thomas Demand, who recently relocated here from Berlin. This spring, Martos Gallery will complement their current New York programme by opening a gallery on LA’s Washington Boulevard, next to Michael Thibault Gallery – where Jose Martos’s project Shoot the Lobster presented monochromes by the fictional artist Henry Codax in January.

Gavlak Gallery, which has operated from Palm Beach, Florida, since 2005, will move in June to a building on Highland Avenue, directly between Regen Projects, Redling Fine Art and Hannah Hoffman Gallery. Founder Sarah Gavlak will return to her Palm Beach space during the busy Florida winters, but will benefit, for the rest of the year, from being nearer to the numerous Angeleno artists on her roster, Lisa Anne Auerbach and Mungo Thomson among them.

Construction is already under way on Michele Maccarone’s LA outpost, a large warehouse next to 356 S. Mission Rd, the gallery opened by Gavin Brown specially for Laura Owens’s blockbuster solo show in January 2013, now operated jointly by Brown and Owens. (Maccarone’s choice of location echoes her decision, in 2007, to move next door to Brown in the West Village.) She is following two of her artists, Oscar Tuazon and Alex Hubbard, who recently moved to California, and aims to open in spring 2015. Team, also from New York, plans to open an LA space in September 2015 with shows by Cory Arcangel, Ryan McGinley and Gert & Uwe Tobias.

The really big news, of course, is that the widely respected Paul Schimmel – chief curator at MOCA until he was unceremoniously ousted by Deitch and Broad in 2012 – will himself be partnering with Zürich-based gallery Hauser & Wirth in 2015. Although details have yet to be announced, Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel is expected to set up shop in the district of Downtown close to the Box, the gallery owned by Paul McCarthy and run by his daughter, Mara. McCarthy is thought to be a major reason for Hauser & Wirth’s expansion westwards, alongside other locally unrepresented gallery artists Thomas Houseago, Rachel Khedoori and Sterling Ruby (the last of whom also happens to be affiliated with Sprüth Magers).

Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise

Before we get carried away with hyperbolic proclamations about LA’s cultural efflorescence, it may be worth remembering that the city’s history is littered with futures that failed to materialise. One could even cast as far back as 1948, when artist William Copley and his brother-in-law opened a gallery in Beverly Hills showing surrealist art by Man Ray, Max Ernst and René Magritte. Due to the indifference of the local customer base, it closed the following year, as did the nearby Modern Institute of Art – an underresourced, proto-MOCA that lasted only two years and makes the latter-day museum look like a financial triumph. During the late 1980s, Luhring Augustine had a short-lived foothold in Los Angeles, in partnership with Max Hetzler. Between 2005 and 2007, New York dealer Zach Feuer ran an LA outpost, partnered with local gallerist Niels Kantor. Last summer, L&M closed its Venice space after just three years in the city. Most recently Perry Rubenstein, who moved his entire New York gallery to a large, handsomely renovated space on Highland Avenue in 2011, filed for bankruptcy in March this year. These enterprises all failed for subtly different reasons, but the moral remains: LA’s promise of boundless opportunity may simply be another one of those fictions that it is so successful at exporting.

None of the gallerists I spoke to claimed to be moving for commercial reasons; although there are serious collectors in California, there are not enough to support even a fraction of the businesses located here. Galleries sell their wares far and wide in order to maintain bricks-and-mortar programmes under the SoCal sunshine. Meanwhile, their clients also travel far and wide in order to build international-quality collections. There is nothing chic about provincialism.

Rather, galleries want to be close to their artists. Inexpensive real estate, skilled fabricators and a low-key (though intellectually serious) social scene provide near-perfect conditions for artistic production. Not to mention the magnificent landscape and great food. Those artists who move here – whether to study or teach, to step into the limelight or out of it – rarely seem to leave. Made in LA 2014, the second of the Hammer’s biennial exhibitions, this time curated by Michael Ned Holte and Connie Butler, will open in June. It promises to reveal what Dave Hickey, reflecting on the California Minimalism of the 1960s and 70s, describes as ‘a flowing stream of interests, passions, proclivities, and occasions – a fluid micro-chronicle of the artist-as-citizen, coping with paradise [… with] a sequence of tactile, visual solutions to specific visible occasions that take place at the blurred interface of the artist and the world.’ That flowing stream, today, seems more like a river delta. 

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.