On a Tuesday in late February, the Cologne-founded gallery Sprüth Magers opened its L.A. location with an exhibition of paintings by iconic L.A. artist John Baldessari. Known for his comic conceptualism ("I will not make any more boring art," he wrote over and over in a 1971 lithograph, presumably until it became boring), Baldessari had made a series of clean, lightly ironic paintings to help the gallery debut its new space on Wilshire Boulevard. At around 6:30 p.m., a few art advisers, artists and museum staffers milled about, while 84-year-old Baldessari rested in the upstairs office. The scene stayed quiet, at least until I left.
The next morning, however, both The Hollywood Reporter and Artforum reported lines around the corner and parties raging into the wee hours. Had I left too early to see the fanfare? Or were these stories part of the overinflated boom narrative that people love to tell about L.A. art right now?
Until Zurich-based Hauser Wirth & Schimmel opened its massive space downtown two months later, Sprüth Magers was the most revered international gallery to set up shop in L.A. In the Artforum piece about the Zurich gallery's opening in the Arts District, New York–based writer Linda Yablonsky asked: "Is Los Angeles on fire?" She described seeing Baldessari, icon though he is, turned away from a VIP dinner as Eli and Edythe Broad, the billionaires behind the new museum on Grand Avenue, glided in.
"It's not for us," says artist and curator Lisa Jugert, after telling me she has yet to visit Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and doesn't plan to. Jugert and I are strolling around Echo Park Lake, talking about how these new, international additions to the local scene affect the environment for working artists. The assumption has long been that galleries come here because artists work here, but it's hard to tell what this latest wave of blue-chip growth will mean for emerging and midcareer artists who stay in L.A. for its accessibility and openness.
Sprüth Magers' directors, Anna Helwing and Sarah Watson, said via email that the "No. 1 reason for coming to L.A." was that "a large percentage of our artists live and work here." They add, "And now that we're here, we look forward to deepening our connection to artists in this city, both young and old." They opened with a show by Baldessari, an established figurehead — but one from L.A., at least. On the other hand, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel has opened with a museum-style show that spans half a century of sculpture by international women.
Jugert, who moved to the United States from Berlin, attended Frankfurt's Städelschule, a school where young artists learned to talk about their work strategically. "You strain to be recognized as an artist," she says. "If you don't have exhibitions, you feel like you're mute." Gallerists can rescue artists from anonymity, so artists long for their attention. "We're all waiting for the prince on the white horse to save us and carry us into wealth," Jugert says wryly.
She often makes her living in the commercial art world, but as an artist, she tries to subsist in a parallel world that's more about alternative venues and experiments. "A voluntary exclusion," she calls it. When we spoke, she had only recently resigned from her post as director of MaRS (Museum as Retail Space) on Anderson Street. That gallery, run by Robert Zin Stark, opened in Boyle Heights right before the neighborhood's gallery boom.
Last November, a group of Boyle Heights–based artists staged a protest outside the newly opened Maccarone gallery, located about a half-mile from MaRS on Mission. A New York Times article had quoted gallerist Michele Maccarone, who is based in New York, saying the area "still has a dangerous quality." She'd added, "I like that we spent a fortune on security." Locals resented the notion that their "dangerous" home had only just been discovered by an established, outside art world. They also worried about displacement. Rents were rising.
MaRS had planned for more than a year to show the work of painter Michael Alvarez, who grew up in Northeast Los Angeles, but Alvarez worried showing at one of these new galleries would alienate his community. Jugert and an intern went out to try to invite the community — including organizations like Self-Help Graphics — to MaRS in advance of Alvarez's show, which opened April 30. "The interesting discourse is always with the disenfranchised," Jugert says.
Artist Farrah Karapetian grew up in Highland Park and, after graduating from Yale, returned to L.A. and studied at UCLA. She's seen booms here before, and doesn't give them too much credence. "The issue is the super-sized respect paid to certain ventures that purport to change the game," she says, mentioning the Broad museum.
"It doesn't change the game. It complicates the game," she adds, noting that the Broad is a private collection framing itself as a contemporary museum on par with MOCA or the Hammer, while the work housed within represents one collector's perspective. "It's not necessarily a more important venture" than others, Karapetian says.
In February she exhibited a seductive series of photograms at Von Lintel Gallery in Mid-City, and she currently has a show up at Culver City's Cold War–focused Wende Museum, an unusual institution. Different kinds of institutions support different kinds of projects, she says, adding: "Los Angeles enables that kind of compartmentalizing." One compartment can't meet all your needs, and a wealth of more offbeat spaces means more chances to thrive, and in different ways.
On a recent evening just before sunset, I meet with artist Barak Zemer at the Hermosillo in Highland Park. Zemer moved from Israel to Los Angeles almost five years ago. "The reason I wanted Los Angeles was that it wasn't New York," he says. In New York he saw an "impulse to be so international." He wanted to make art in a place where local identity mattered. But already the city and its art scene have shifted drastically. "You feel some kind of change and you're not sure if you're part of it or if it's flooding you," he says. He mentions that, even as someone starting out, he has always found support and interest in his work here. Is that because the scene is growing?
My meeting with Zemer takes place right before the opening of a show at the nearby alt-space Chin's Push, a collaborative installation of ceramic sculptures by Roni Shneior, Zemer's wife, and artist Orr Herz, also from Israel. As we talk, Herz wanders in and joins the conversation.
Zemer has just seen Hauser Wirth & Schimmel's inaugural show, and feels confused by it. Clearly commercial, it includes staggeringly impressive work, like the gnarly steel-and-canvas contraptions Lee Bontecou made in the 1960s. Zemer tells Herz he should see it.
Herz wonders about the "patriarchal problem" of a gallery with a mostly male roster staging an all-female show. "They are giving women the stage in a supposedly liberal manner, but claiming the narrative or zeitgeist for themselves to conduct," he says.
"The show's going to confuse you," Zemer says.
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"I experience this confusing reality whenever I go to Chelsea [in New York]," Herz says. "I'm not sure if I want to see it here."
"I feel weird wishing this wasn't happening," Zemer says. "I just want artists and communities to feel they still have a say."
In the backyard at Chin's Push, Shneior has hung craggy ceramic arms from a tree. Some of them hold cigarettes, which Shneior has to keep relighting. Others hold homemade pickles. She and Herz titled their show "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want," after The Smiths' song, and together they crafted a ceramic fountain. Herz's twisted, folded forms hold up one of Shneior's hands, which shoots water from long fingers. People keep climbing in and out of a worn Airstream trailer that doubles as a poetry library.
Whatever pricey, white-walled complexes may be opening elsewhere, they're not tamping the energy here now.