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Show and Tell 

L.A.'s museum curators on their favorite works of art

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999

MOCA'S Julie Lazar and Robert Irwin's Central Garden (1997) at the Getty LIVING WITH AN ARTWORK IS DIFFERENT FROM visiting one in a museum. The formality of the gallery setting prohibits intimacy: You can't sit down with the object of interest, you usually can't be alone with it, and you certainly can't touch it. Visiting an institutionalized artwork is frustrating: You can see it, but you can't know it.

The luxury of such knowledge is one of the privileges of working at a museum. Museum people have a backstage pass to high culture. They get to see great works as often as they like, on and off the walls, and in ever-changing contexts. "This is a great job," says David Zeidberg, Avery director of the Huntington Library. "When you're preparing an exhibition on George Washington and you hold in your hand a letter he actually wrote, and you know it was in his hand 220 years ago, you can't help but have an emotional response. You never get blasé about these things, and having contact with these materials is thrilling."

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It's a thrill, however, that comes with restrictions: "I'm very careful not to collect personally -- that's verboten for curators, because there are moral issues involved with collecting what you also collect for a museum," says Amy Meyers, the curator of American Art at the Huntington Museum. "I never want to find myself compromising what I do for my collection because I so desire something for myself personally. Generally, though, my work is so fulfilling that I don't find myself coveting things. As a curator, I'm constantly seeing works be redefined in relation to new works that enter the collection. I think a lot about the interrelationship between the works, and how they relate to the complex Anglo-American history which is so much a part of the Huntington."

The Getty's Weston Naef and Edward Weston's Pepper No. 30 (1930) All this begs a question: Do curators see art differently? Does the kind of intimacy they have with the works they oversee result in a qualitatively different relationship with art? "Yes and no," says Gloria Williams, a curator at the Norton Simon Museum. "I respond to the works at the Norton Simon as immediately as someone from any profession would, but there's another layer to my response, depending on how much I know about a particular work. To see a great work of art unframed, on an easel or a table, with a very good light and nothing between you and the work, is a phenomenal experience, and I think it does add another dimension to how I see the piece."

With good art, it seems, familiarity breeds respect. And so we asked some of the city's best-known curators and museum heads to talk about a favorite piece in their own collections. We also asked them to identify a work they loved somewhere else in town. This is what they had to say.

STEPHANIE BARRON SENIOR CURATOR OF MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART, LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART

Kurt Schwitters did a series of large collages, and LACMA has one called Construction for Noble Ladies, from 1919, that's arguably the best of the series. It's made from found materials, including the wheel of a child's carriage, wire netting, string and cotton, and a woman's face is painted in profile on the surface. It prefigures the work of Johns and Rauschenberg in key ways, and if you looked at the piece knowing nothing about it, you'd never guess it was done in 1919. I'm moved by the audacious modernity of its scale and materials, and for me it has a heroic quality.

Museum of Jurassic Technology's David Wilson and Hagop Sandaldjian's Napolean (Circa 1984) I've always been drawn to Francisco de Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, at the Norton Simon. Zurbarán painted it in 1633, yet it speaks to a modernist sensibility because of the astonishing confidence he showed in selecting these everyday objects. Even more astonishing is the monumental quality he imbued them â with. Zurbarán was a monastic painter who made most of his work for the church, and he made just a few nonreligious works. His incredible handling of color and light, however, transforms this secular painting into something mystical and transcendent. These lemons are larger than life-size, and you can really feel their skin and smell the fragrance of the blossoms.

CYNTHIA BURLINGHAM SENIOR CURATOR, THE GRUNWALD CENTER FOR THE GRAPHIC ARTS AT THE HAMMER MUSEUM

Foirades/Fizzles is an artist's book by Jasper Johns and Samuel Beckett that I love. It was published in 1976, in an edition of 250, and includes five texts by Beckett and 33 etchings and one lithograph by Johns. I love the book because it says so much about printmaking, which is by nature a collaborative medium. Johns takes printmaking to a whole new level, and this is a particularly beautiful and complex book. You can't experience it by looking at it in a case; you have to sit and go through it.

  • L.A.'s museum curators on their favorite works of art

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