Holland Cotter- reprinted from the NY Times Sept. 12
LOS ANGELES — Traditional art museums are some of the most conservative and controlling institutions on earth. They are built as vaults to preserve the past, and as monuments to edited histories. In the Gilded Age America of a century or so ago, many new museums were also monuments to private collectors — Henry Clay Frick, J. P. Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner — who strove to shape and fix an image that history would have of them, as enlightened power brokers of their day and benefactors to the future.
In our present Gilded Age, private collection museums are again proliferating, but with a difference. Most are devoted to new art, art without a past. The stories they tell are not yet history, but exist in a state of flux. The very definition of collecting, in a time of speculative buying, is now up for grabs. Shouldn’t these changes radically alter the old museum model, loosen it up, make it more experimental, shift its identity from locked treasure house to clearinghouse for fresh ideas?
These questions arise as one of the most eagerly anticipated private museums of contemporary art in the country approaches its opening here on Sept. 20. Called The Broad (pronounced brode) and housed in a $140 million, three-story building by Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, it enshrines the collection of some 2,000 works owned by Eli and Edythe Broad, two of this city’s leading philanthropists.
Mr. Broad, a billionaire who made his fortune in home building, has arguably had more impact shaping this city’s cultural identity than anyone else in recent times. For nearly 50 years, he and his wife have been among the country’s most assiduous contemporary collectors. They began picking up work by hot young artists — Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman — in Manhattan in the early 1980s, later filling in historical blanks and doing some buying in their own California backyard.
The inaugural display is clearly intended to show the collection in representative form, and does. The museum’s founding director and chief curator, Joanne Heyler, has installed some 200 works more or less chronologically on the building’s skylighted third floor, beginning with a clutch of classic pieces by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. Mr. Johns’s 1964 “Watchman” is a star; a blood-red Rauschenberg abstraction from a decade earlier is less familiar, but the Broads cashed in a Van Gogh drawing to acquire it.
Andy Warhol, whose Campbell’s Soup Can pictures Ms. Broad first saw (but didn’t buy) as early as the 1960s, has a small gallery of his own; Roy Lichtenstein has a larger one. He is a Broad favorite; they own 34 pieces (there are 10 here), as is his successor in formally polished Pop, Jeff Koons, of whose works the Broads have the greatest number in private hands. Is this something to brag about? An argument can be made that Mr. Koons’s work usefully casts a cold eye on an American, and now global, addiction to bright, empty, throwaway things. But what happens when a presumably critical art is indistinguishable from its target, or is not critical after all? Then chances are good it’s headed for history’s scrap heap, eventually if not now.
Speaking of critical commentary, in an inspired compare-and-contrast move, Ms. Heyler has inserted a 1995 panoramic city painting by the Los Angeles artist Lari Pittman into the Koons gallery. Mr. Pittman’s work, too, comes out of a Pop corner and is formally airtight. It’s also conceptually razor-sharp. It deals with all the American subjects Mr. Koons does — sex, religion, celebrity, death — but with a focus and bite that he lacks.
The concentration of Los Angeles art is the most interesting aspect of the inaugural show, at least for this East Coast viewer. Ed Ruscha’s laconically meticulous word paintings and John Baldessari’s recycled film images may fit the collection’s clean-lined Pop proclivities, while the acidic zaniness of Mike Kelley’s work does not, but the Broads bought plenty of it over the years. I’m always glad to see it, and I’m even gladder to encounter things I’ve never seen, like the sculpture called “Bateau de Guerre” by the apocalypse-minded Chris Burden, who died in May. A whirring, blinking death star made of gas cans and toy guns, it wasn’t in the recent Burden retrospective that came to New York.
I wish there were more things like it here, under-known, offbeat, less than neat. And there could be. With a reported $200- million-plus endowment and additional funds for acquisitions — nearly that of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art combined — the Broad will be doing a lot more buying. And it would be good if this museum started to stray from the blue-chip-masterpiece path that winds its way from Mr. Koons on the third floor to a gallery on the first floor of big, bland, abstract pictures by Mark Grotjahn and Christopher Wool, artists who, because they cover walls with work that is indisputably “art,” have become universal collection staples. Their presence here makes the Broad feel ordinary, old-school, predictable. A tight, unadventurous building design doesn’t help. The exterior, with its sheets of perforated, biomorphic white cladding — the color and texture of gefilte fish — is eye-filling but unmagical, though there are nice touches inside. The cavern-like lobby sets up a mood of mystery. The third floor skylights are a pleasure, as are occasional breaks in the white-box gallery walls that give glimpses onto the street.
The street is Grand Avenue, which Mr. Broad, in consultation with the city government, has long planned to develop into a downtown cultural district. The Broad is part of that plan. So is the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall next door to it, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which Mr. Broad helped found and has generously supported, directly across the street. In a stretched-out, traffic-clogged city it takes a long time to travel anywhere. You need a good reason to go where you’re going. By offering free admission, Mr. Broad intends his museum to be a popular destination.
It surely will be while it’s new, and in the news, and could continue to be. The Broads have always viewed their holdings as a public asset that they make accessible through an active institutional loan program. They refer to their holdings as a lending library, with items regularly leaving for other museums and returning. This traffic flow, enhanced by the arrival of new acquisitions, should encourage people to make repeat visits, knowing they are likely to see new things each time.
But even with this mechanism for flexibility, the Broad is a museum of an old-fashioned kind. It’s been built to preserve a private collection conceived on a masterpiece ideal and consisting almost entirely of distinctive objects: paintings and sculptures; precious things. Apart from most of the objects being new, or at least not old, the Broad could have existed, pretty much as is, a century ago.
But, of course, art itself has changed. It is no longer only about things, hasn’t been for decades. Since the great surge of dematerialization introduced by conceptualism in the 1960s, art has been about, among other things, ideas, actions, sounds, performance, networks, communication. The Broad will have to catch up with this alternative history, a history that the audience it wants to attract and hold already knows. What better way to do so than through collaboration with an institution that has a stake in exploring the same history, meaning, of course, the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street.
The two could share, to their mutual benefit, space, expertise and personnel. What they already share is a tough time for museums and a history with Mr. Broad, who, over a tireless half-century, has done wonders for art in this city, and, with the opening of his museum, is about to do more.
reprinted from The New Yorker, September 28
The Broad, it’s called: a snazzy new museum of excellent contemporary art, which just opened in downtown Los Angeles, right across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art. If that sounds redundant, consider that, a few miles away, on Wilshire Boulevard, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art also features a contemporary collection, as does, a bit farther west, the Hammer Museum. Besides being no more than fifty years old, all these institutions—along with the wondrous Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, which stands next door to the Broad—have in common histories of the patronage and the aggressive, sometimes resented, influence of the billionaire philanthropist and collector Eli Broad.
Few individuals whose surnames aren’t Medici have had such dramatic effect on the art culture of an important city. The new museum crowns a particular passion of Broad’s: to create a cultural center for Los Angeles along a stretch of Grand Avenue, which also boasts the Music Center—home to the Disney hall and three other venues—and the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. The words “Los Angeles” and “center” consort oddly, especially since the city’s ever more apocalyptic traffic further dulls the local citizens’ never ardent yen to venture out of their usual ways. Nor does Grand Avenue feel like anybody’s idea of an agora. There are busy Latino and Asian neighborhoods nearby, but, after hours, you don’t encounter many people in the spottily gentrified downtown area (and a considerable number of those you do are homeless). At any time on the avenue, even cars are relatively sparse. Yet the dream of culture-craving throngs persists. The Broad offers free admission. Synergistically, MOCA has eased tense relations with its chief patron to grant free yearlong memberships to all who visit the Broad during the first two weeks. (Broad bailed out the foundering institution in 2008, but the director he selected departed under a cloud of acrimony, two years ago.)
The museum is well worth a visit now and periodic revisits later, as its exhibits cycle through a collection of some two thousand works by about two hundred artists. Around two hundred and fifty pieces are currently on display. Whomever Broad and his wife, Edythe, collect, they collect in depth. The show’s roughly chronological arrangement incorporates several rooms devoted to single artists, like pocket retrospectives. The building, by the New York firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, plays changes on a theme that the architects call “the veil and the vault”—masking what amounts to a storage facility for the collection. The façade is a slewed honeycomb of concrete modules: slitlike holes set in diagonal channels, which suggest the tidy claw marks of a very large cat. The building’s capacity to impress is muted by the material Ninth Symphony of the Gehry concert hall, but it’s pleasant enough.
You enter through a dim lobby with dark-gray, Surrealistically curved walls and ceiling. The lobby leads to shapely ground-floor galleries and offers the choice of a cylindrical glass elevator or a hundred-and-five-foot escalator—low-impact thrill rides—to the vast, columnless third floor, which is beautifully illuminated by automatically adjusted blends of natural and artificial light. The interior walls stop short of the skylight-riddled ceiling, conveying a temporary and flexible character. The vault portion of the building occupies the second floor. You catch sight of it through glass walls when you descend a hushed, snaking, umbilical-like stairwell: a cavernous space of racks and equipment, yielding glimpses of art works at rest between shows. It’s a nice touch, like a backstage pass at the opera.
Broad, now eighty-two, and Edythe arrived in L.A. in 1963, from their home town of Detroit. The son of a union organizer who came to own dime stores, Broad started a home-building firm that ascended to the Fortune 500, as did a subsequent startup in financial services. (A how-to-succeed memoir, published in 2012, shares his secret in its title, “The Art of Being Unreasonable.” His friend Michael Bloomberg wrote the introduction.) Edythe introduced him to art, hesitantly. She wanted an Andy Warhol soup-can print, but worried that her husband would be appalled by the price: a hundred dollars. (They later parted with $11.7 million for a soup-can painting.) In 1972, they bought a van Gogh drawing, but Broad tired of it and arranged a swap for a rugged early painting by Robert Rauschenberg. The couple’s taste gravitated to Pop art—they own thirty-four works by Roy Lichtenstein—and to socially conscious, left-liberal sensibilities. (“I’m not as liberal as I used to be,” Broad told me, when I spoke with him at the museum, but he remains a Democrat.) He is rare among collectors in possessing abundant terrific works by the late Leon Golub, a painter of white-mercenary criminality in developing-world locales. The museum’s inaugural show presents a large charcoal drawing, by Robert Longo, from a photograph taken last year in Ferguson, Missouri, in which police advance, at night, in a fog of tear gas.
Once committed to collecting, the Broads anchored their holdings with canonical works by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Ellsworth Kelly. Twombly and Kelly aside—and excepting a more recent fondness for Albert Oehlen and Mark Grotjahn—they shied from abstraction, and skated lightly over Conceptualist art of the nineteen-seventies. In the eighties, the Broads went in big for neo-expressionist and Pictures Generation artists, notably Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cindy Sherman. (They own a hundred and twenty-four pictures by Sherman.) The German artists Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, and Thomas Struth are also strongly represented, and recent New York stars in the collection include Christopher Wool, John Currin, Glenn Ligon, and Kara Walker. But, with the prominent exceptions of Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, Charles Ray, Robert Therrien, and Lari Pittman, the Broads have braved local exasperation by not going out of their way to boost L.A. artists.
There’s not much installation art on view, but there is one gem: “The Visitors” (2012), by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The piece consists of nine gorgeous, hour-long video projections, placed at odd angles in a dark room, of as many musicians, sitting in separate rooms in a dilapidated mansion, and noodling with a love song. The exquisiteness of sight and sound and the pathos of the musicians’ shared loneliness brought tears to my eyes when I first saw the piece, at the Luhring Augustine Gallery, two years ago. Would that happen again, during a note-taking tour of a jam-packed museum? It did.
Broad’s favorite contemporary artist seems to be Jeff Koons, whose works he owns in profusion—from encased vacuum cleaners, floating basketballs, and a stainless-steel inflated bunny to a huge, color-tinted, stainless-steel rendering of tulips and the inevitable balloon dog. Broad came to Koons’s rescue in the nineties, at a tough time—financially and personally—for the artist, and paid a million dollars for several future works that he waited years to receive. He calls Koons’s output “bold and theatrical,” words that could well be engraved on a cornerstone of the museum; Broad adores punch. The sometimes bitterly voiced controversies that surround Koons seem to concern him not at all. It’s in Broad’s nature, when crossed or confronted, to plow forward with undeterred aplomb. He appears immune to grudges, seldom keeping for long the enemies he can’t help but make. (A history of scraps with Frank Gehry, in particular, has not obviated expressions, at least in public, of amity on both sides.) Koons’s sunny disposition and shame-free panache suit Broad, as does his work’s insouciant symbolizing of oligarchic noblesse oblige. Why would anyone gainsay immense wealth when looking at the delightful things that may be done with it?