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2008.02.15 15:23

Works by Ellsworth Kelly & Lichtenstein on display at the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum in L.A


http://video.on.nytimes.com/?fr_story=f0db3285a57ef07ae1c83366dc492ae0c4de32cd

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects
Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Works by Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein on display at the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles.

 
Published: February 15, 2008

LOS ANGELES — The inaugural exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s spanking new Broad Contemporary Art Museum has no title, because it isn’t really an exhibition.

All but 30 of the nearly 180 works on view come from the private collection and art foundation of Eli Broad, the Los Angeles entrepreneur who gave $56 million toward the new museum’s construction, and his wife, Edythe. The works are intended to reflect the Broads’ penchant for collecting in depth. But the accumulation reads foremost as a display of pricey trophies, greatest hits of the present and recent past. It’s a sign that you are deep in the land of known quantities when a room of paintings by an artist of the stature of Leon Golub feels like a surprise.

I don’t mean to disparage the many impressive works of art here. They represent artists of some or much importance, among them Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Ellsworth Kelly, with a richness that will be both entertaining and informative to the general public. The problem is what they add up to.

The ensemble conveys very little in the way of curatorial shape or imagination, or historical perspective. And the museum should be ashamed of the dominance of white male artists here. (Of the 29 artists, only Jean-Michel Basquiat is not white; only 4 are women.) It should also be embarrassed by the dominance of New York artists (21 out of 30) at a point when Los Angeles has one of the liveliest art scenes on the planet. How many museum exhibitions and collections look like this? Too many to count.

With the new Broad building, the museum, traditionally encyclopedic, announces an increased emphasis on contemporary art. (Its role model, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has developed a similar fixation on the new.) In addition, it represents a healthy shift in the balance of power between Los Angeles and New York.

It was hoped that Mr. Broad might mark the completion of the new building with a gift of some art. (His total holdings number around 2,000 modern, postwar and contemporary works.) But that hasn’t happened; much to the consternation of many in the art world, he and his wife, or their foundation, retain ownership of the work.

Excluding the ground floor, where two large works by Richard Serra are parked beneath ceilings that are a bit low for them, the largest spaces in this three-story building go to market-hardy perennials of the moment: Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Damien Hirst. Also extremely prominent is a three-story mélange of words and pictures in red, white and black by Barbara Kruger: it lines the large glass-fronted elevator shaft.

The Koons display would make a nice miniretrospective spread out among several smaller galleries, but in one open space it looks chaotic, like a one-artist sculpture park crossed with a don’t-touch playground. The assembled works span from an eerily sarcophaguslike stack of Hoover floor polishers (1981-87) to a hyperrealist painting dated 2008. In it four images of a stunningly beautiful, scantily clad blonde are set against a wallpaperlike expanse of the splintery images of H. C. Westermann — an excellent artist who is not on many collectors’ must-have lists these days. The standout here is Mr. Koons’s taut, gleaming “Balloon Dog (Blue),” which seamlessly unites the erotic and innocent tendencies in his work.

The several postwar masters on view — Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein, for example — are often represented by selections that are motley or unbalanced, even when they include wonderful things. Thankfully, John Baldessari’s slyly ironic early paintings convey the show’s main hint of the Conceptual Art revolution. But do we need four of them, and not much from recent years?

The Johns display includes “Watchman,” a haunting painting from 1964, but also a so-so 1967 flag painting from the Broads and a weaker double flag from 1973, lent by the writer Michael Crichton. It seems included here as backup, the flag of last resort.

Five paintings by Cy Twombly create a rare moment of cohesion and serenity. The Broads’ great 1955 Rauschenberg — mostly red with newspaper collage and a peach-colored line across it deeply fringed with drips — keeps company with four other early paintings lent by the Sonnabend Collection. And five works by Ellsworth Kelly look at home as almost nothing else in the building does. In the natural light of the Broad building’s third floor, their saturated colors and sharp shapes balance delicately between the physical and the visual. It is the show’s one moment of perfection.

One floor down, Mr. Hirst takes up a lot of room with glittery cabinet sculptures, butterfly paintings and “The Collector,” a room-size glass vitrine. Inside a life-size animatronic scientist bends (repeatedly) over a microscope at a desk surrounded by plants and stacked with butterfly specimens, while live ones flutter overhead. A presentation of 49 works by Ms. Sherman forms another miniretrospective that, like the Koons display, could use several galleries. But a striking triple hanging of around 20 works, predominantly from Ms. Sherman’s History Portraits series, gives it focus.

From here galleries devoted to installation works by Robert Therrien, Christopher Wool, Jenny Holzer and Chris Burden pass in a lackluster blur. They emphasize the absence of Los Angeles artists like Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades, whom the Broads don’t collect, but whose works, if borrowed from elsewhere, would have added strength. Then comes the only departure from the one artist-one space pattern.

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