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Cracked Egg: BCAM's Inaugural Show

Jeff Koons, Cracked Egg (Red) (1994-2006)
Images courtesy LACMA/Broad Art Foundation

I'm so happy. Among a selection of generally enjoyable, often impressive works by artists including Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Serra, Leon Golub, Susan Rothenberg, Jack Goldstein and others, two of my favorite works by two of my favorite artists are on view in the inaugural show at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), which opens to the public this Sunday on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Unlike the vast majority of works in this exhibition, neither is on loan from either the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection or the Broad Art Foundation; both belong to LACMA.

Images courtesy LACMA/Broad Art Foundation

(Click to enlarge)

Jeff Koons, Cracked Egg (Red) (1994-2006)

Images courtesy LACMA/Broad Art Foundation

(Click to enlarge)

Roy Lichtenstein, Cold Shoulder (1963)

The first is Roy Lichtenstein's painting Cold Shoulder from 1963. Stylistically, it's a signature Lichtenstein, but it's a quieter, more nagging image than is typical. A blond-locked lass in a cocktail dress and pearls turns away from the viewer and utters one word in a comic book speech bubble: "HELLO ..." The second work, produced by John Baldessari between 1966 and 1968, is a photo-emulsion print of the artist standing in front of a palm tree so that it looks as if the tree is growing out of his head. Beneath the image is the one-word cautionary declaration that is also the work's title: WRONG. It's a classic of California's goofy-foot version of Conceptual Art. It's also a one-image, one-word comedy about !@#$ing up when putting forth an image. In both age and sentiment, these two works could serve as mascots for this exhibition.

There are many terrific and important works at BCAM. But as an icebreaker exhibition for this museum, the selection of works is baffling. Speaking to the press last week, Eli Broad made it clear that he let the LACMA folks display whatever they wanted in BCAM's first outing, joking that the museum's director, Michael Govan, had taken everything in Broad's house. This only makes the selection stranger. There are a few possibilities here. One is that the exhibition represents a kind of wish list of what LACMA's leadership hoped might be coming their way in gifts. A second possibility is that the show reflects a new understanding of the Broad collections' destiny. If there is an upshot for L.A. and LACMA in the disclosure of this destiny, it is that LACMA already has been handed the keys to one of the largest contemporary-art spaces in the country, along with a housewarming gift of a major work by Serra. Meanwhile, one of the most important collections of late-20th- and early-21st-century art will continue to grow and to reside in Los Angeles, with works only temporarily loaned to institutions around the world, and with LACMA having something of a platinum-card membership in the lending library Broad has outlined.

If we're lucky, Broad, who has said he doesn't intend to build a personal museum, will replace or augment the Broad Art Foundation's four-story Santa Monica showcase building — which can display only a small glimpse of the collection for by-appointment viewing by arts professionals, scholars and groups of college students — with something in the vein of the Basel-based Schaulager. Home to the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation Collection, Schaulager's relatively small public exhibition space fronts a massive open storage facility where, without necessity of the extra infrastructure and real estate demanded by public access, all works in the collection are installed for the access of curators, scholars and conservators. BCAM's inaugural exhibition could show off the power and potential of what in one form or another will be a major house of culture in Los Angeles, and a reminder of LACMA's special relationship to it.

A third possibility is that the exhibition is intended as a tribute to the collecting savvy and commitment of the Broads, who, as the selection does reflect, have often bought well, and bought deep. The exhibition essentially includes a small, spotty survey of paintings from the '80s, most of it from New York, and a series of cherry-picked boutique shows and mini retrospectives.

But while any of these three options could logically explain how the show on view at BCAM took shape, none of them can sensibly explain an exhibition that reminds us that the two Broad collections, like their founders, are rich, powerful and influential, but that also makes them look dated, narrow, Americentric and oddly provincial. This exhibition would have made a nice wish list in terms of the value and historical importance of much of the work, but not for a museum looking toward the future and aiming for even greater status as an institution guided by a multicultural and international vision. Combined, the two Broad collections total around 2,000 works by more than 140 artists (both numbers are subject to change because the collections continue to evolve). The BCAM checklist totals 178 works by 28 artists, which doesn't include the wonderfully inventive grove of palm trees Robert Irwin has installed behind the building but does include an elevator-shaft installation by Barbara Kruger and Chris Burden's outdoor Urban Light installation, a work so brilliant that it just makes you want to forgive everything else.

Here's why you can't. If you do the math, you find that the average date of creation for a work in this exhibition is on the cusp between 1982 and 1983, which, painful as it is for all of us to accept, was a quarter-century ago. Less than 20 percent of the works were produced in the past decade, and only one of the artists (Damien Hirst) has a career that got going after the 1980s. So even the newest of work isn't exactly news. You don't have to love all of the fresher faces in the Broad Foundation collection to at least wonder why a few of them aren't here. How about Doug Aitken, Cecily Brown, Gregory Crewdson, Pierre Huyghe, Ron Mueck or Sue Williams?

No doubt the Broad collections could still catch up a bit on their gender balance, with about 24 percent of the artists included being of the XX-chromosome pairing, but the BCAM exhibition takes a big step backward to 14 percent — a fact you just can't make up for, no matter how many Cindy Sherman photographs you hang on one wall. Hello ... Where are the likes of Vanessa Beecroft, Sue Coe and Kiki Smith, among others? And if LACMA really felt it necessary to open its new contemporary-art building with an assortment of Ellsworth Kelly paintings (which are handsome), might it not have found room for the Broads' 1965 Agnes Martin painting Desert? And how about paying a bit of respect to Elizabeth Murray, who just passed last August, and who warranted a Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 2006?

The BCAM inaugural is also as white as its walls, despite the fact that some of our foremost artists of color are represented in the Broad collection. Where are works by Ellen Gallagher, Toba Khedoori, Glenn Ligon (whose absence might be explained by the loan of works from the Broad Foundation to a currently traveling survey), Paul Pfeiffer and Kara Walker? And what about Mark Bradford, from whom the Broads just acquired a huge new work?

Moving from ethnicity to nationality, the show comprises works by one Brit; all the rest are Americans. It's just flat-out shocking that an exhibition announcing the opening of BCAM to the world, and for which organizers had at their fingertips works by major artists from Europe and other continents, several of those in large enough quantities to pull off the same sort of mini surveys on view now, fails to acknowledge an art world that lies beyond the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific. Where are works by such international artists as Stephan Balkenhol, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joseph Beuys, Andreas Gursky, William Kentridge, Sigmar Polke, Neo Rauch, Gerhard Richter, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Thomas Struth? And at a moment when a museum might want to demonstrate some relevance and resonance amid a global moment that has been described with phrases like "clash of cultures" and titles like "Jihad vs. McWorld," where in the world are the Broads' holdings of works by the New York–based Iranian artist Shirin Neshat?

Though the exhibition actually does better with its percentage of Southern California-based artists than the Broad collections themselves, there are again surprising omissions: Amy Adler, Peter Alexander, Jill Giegerich, Tim Ebner, Adrian Saxe and John Sonsini. Where is Sharon Lockhart, who was included in the 2001 Broad exhibition at LACMA, and how about Lari Pittman, whose absence from the 2001 exhibition was justifiable (perhaps) in the wake of his LACMA-organized retrospective five years earlier, but whose absence here is beyond explanation considering the Broad Foundation owns possibly the single most impressive sampling of Pittman's works on the planet? The exhibition reveals one of the odd paradoxes of provincialism that continues to be repeated by Los Angeles institutions — that in continually leaning heavily toward New York imports in a quest for cosmopolitan standing, the institutions discount as second-rate and regional the international-caliber work produced here.

It is, of course, always easy to quibble about inclusions and omissions in an exhibition, and given finite space and the laws of physics, adding some in necessitates taking others out. But knowing what's in the Broad collections, it's worth arguing that at least some works by some of the omitted artists noted are worthy of wall or floor space somewhere in BCAM's 58,000 square feet of galleries. The truth is that any of the artists enjoying large groupings in this exhibition would look better with some editing, including Jeff Koons, who lays some golden eggs but also a few gilded turds. The Pop Art offerings could have done with a serious trim. And as for Christopher Wool's 1990 untitled installation that stutters "RUN DOG RUN" across multiple panels in giant stenciled letters, the words should have been taken by the curators as an imperative as much as they are by viewers.

Visiting BCAM, you might as well be looking at some of the more expected offerings in a MOCA permanent-collection show, like "Collecting Collections," which just opened with clearly calculated timing. But the MOCA show, in part by including works from artists who are represented in the Broad collections but aren't included in the BCAM inaugural, turns out to have a more forward-thinking and international feel.

There could be reasons many of the works that should be at BCAM aren't. Perhaps LACMA and/or the Broads have future plans for them. Oddly enough, much of what seems missing in action at BCAM has just been installed at the Broad Foundation in Santa Monica — and celebrated in conjunction with the BCAM opening.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about all the reasons I see promise in LACMA's future, and I still see all that promise despite this exhibition. Perhaps the silver lining here is that with the entirety of the Broad collections staying in town and ready for loan, LACMA will get to try, try again.