By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
IT WAS THE TEETH, THE HORSEY ENGLISH CHOMPERS, that signaled the arrival of an alien culture in downtown Los Angeles. They belonged, respectively, to William Feaver, curator of the new Lucian Freud retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and David Dawson, Freud's assistant and occasional model, and they were well-suited to the paintings both men were in the process of installing on the museum's immaculate white walls. For they spoke of the imperfection of the body, and few men have captured the body's imperfections as precisely as Lucian Freud.
At first I thought that MOCA was an odd choice for a Freud show, because Freud, who is best known for his portraits and nudes, is seemingly the most traditional of artists. But a quick stroll through the museum's galleries changed my mind. Several rooms had been set aside for the work of Sam Durant, a conceptual artist who had created various installations (now closed) of vandalized miniature case-study houses — deliberately crude architectural models that had been bashed in, graffiti'd over and generally made to look like they'd been visited by a delegation of marauding thugs. On the walls were photographs of upended modernist chairs shot in the lurid style of cheap porn magazines, and arranged around the floor, small music speakers belted out songs by the Rolling Stones and Nirvana. On the afternoon I was there, something had gone wrong with the sound: A museum guard, looking rather like an electrician in hell, crawled around the concrete floor fiddling with a cluster of black wires while listening to "Gimme Shelter" for the umpteenth time that day.
The show left me feeling, after five minutes or so, as if I'd just experienced a kind of anti-epiphany, like Svidrigailov's vision of eternity in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment:
We're always thinking of eternity as an idea that cannot be understood, something immense. But why must it be? What if, instead of all this, you suddenly find just a little room there, something like a village bathhouse, grimy, and spiders in every corner, and that's all eternity is?
Or, in this case, that's all an art exhibition is. As for the permanent collection, the Lichtensteins and Johnses and Twomblys and Klines, those iconic paintings are now so overfamiliar and short on human content that many of them would look perfectly at home in a bank. No, it was a stroke of genius — on the part of the artist's representatives, anyway — to host the Freud retrospective at MOCA. Not only would it preserve a patina of hipness even the world's most fashionable 80-year-old figurative painter wouldn't want to give up, it would also, given the competition, make his work look even more interesting than it already was. Reflection With Two Children (Self-Portrait)1965 (did not travel to MOCA)
For Jeremy Strick, MOCA's director, the decision to bring an exhibition of what are in many ways extremely traditional paintings — nudes, portraits, still lifes — to a venue more readily associated with postmodern pranksters like Paul McCarthy and Charles Ray was utterly straightforward.
"I think that it is and has been our policy to present the most significant art of our time, and Freud is one of the most significant artists of our time, so it's fairly simple!" he told me when I asked him how the Freud exhibition fit in with his museum's mission. "MOCA expressed an interest in the show very early — '99 or early 2000. And I think that the Tate [where the exhibition originated] and perhaps the artist himself was intrigued by the notion of the show being in Los Angeles. He'd actually produced a print for MOCA and knew of the museum by reputation, and I think there was a mutual enthusiasm." Sleeping By the Lion Carpet 1996Photo by Elliott Shaffner
As for how a Freud show fits in alongside someone like Sam Durant, Strick seemed quite happy that they don't really fit together at all.
"I really think that's the beauty of it," he replied, smiling broadly. "Contemporary art encompasses those poles, and I think it's our purpose to show this. If the work is serious and of great quality and interest, I think it's wonderful you can do those things in close proximity."
"IT'S GREAT TO SEE SOME PAINTINGS OF PEOPLE," I overheard a woman whisper to her friend.
William Feaver, who not only curated the show but is also an old friend of Freud's, would probably be uneasy with that comment. "Sometimes the admirers of Freud admire him for the wrong reasons," he told me as we walked through the galleries, explaining that the painter's art wasn't about such basic skills as getting a likeness. "It's nothing to do with that," he said. "It's much more to do with the use of paint." And so it is — anyone with moderate talent can achieve a likeness. But later Feaver would point to Freud's portrait of Bruce Bernard, a close friend of his who died several years ago, and say, "That is Bruce." It was a likeness, but also more than that: an embodiment.
Self-Portrait, reflection 2002 Photo by Elliott Shaffner Feaver, who was the art critic for the London Observer for 20 years, is a tall, slender man with thick glasses, twinkling blue eyes and the aforementioned English teeth. Because Freud almost never gives interviews, and chose not to travel to Los Angeles for the opening of the show, Feaver is in effect the artist's representative. I was speaking to him about a week before the show opened to the public, and many of the paintings were still being taken out of their foam-lined crates. With more than 100 paintings in the exhibition, as well as numerous etchings, the aggregate worth of the assembled artworks was staggering. Freud's annual income is said to be about £12 million and he produces 12 to 15 paintings a year. The small ones start at around $300,000, with the largest going for as much as $4.5 million. Freud's career earnings are estimated at £150 million. Only a handful of artists, such as Gerhard Richter, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, are believed to have earned more.