A little more than a year ago in Kassel, Germany, artist group Critical Arts Ensemble set up a "free speech zone" in a small house with one big glass window, as part of dOCUMENTA (13), the 100-day exhibition that happens every five years. Lectures took place at lunchtime daily, and anyone could sign up to talk. At one point, dOCUMENTA (13)'s curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, went out to the zone and talked about the complications of fundraising for the festival, though the house was far enough off the beaten path that no one implicated could hear.
Christov-Bakargiev mentioned her visit to the free speech zone when she spoke in L.A. two months ago, and the issues it brought up — the urge for transparency and honesty, the difficulty of exposing the truth about things that are knotty and opaque, the safety of letting frustrations remain unheard for now — were the issues of the year in L.A. art. Opacity characterized the most compelling, often confounding, art-relevant stories, some about high-profile fumbling and resigning, head butting or costly proposal making.
Meanwhile, the artists' projects that felt exciting, even when flawed, tried to make the relationships among the money, institutions and art a little less murky.
The two lists that follow are better described as "most striking" than "best" of L.A. art in 2013. One is of headline-making stories and the other of artists' projects, because the two talk to one another.
1. The collector and the law: SAC Capital, founded by billionaire financier Steven A. Cohen, first was implicated in insider trading the same month Cohen joined MOCA's board, November 2012. Cohen owns Picassos and Warhols, but that he also owned Damien Hirst's sculpture of a stuffed shark in a formaldehyde-filled glass case (he bought it for $8 million in 2004) became something of a metaphor. It's a work that plays into the idea of contemporary art as an obscure game of high-priced one-upmanship. Now, eight Cohen employees have pleaded guilty, and he must pay a $1.2 million fine for allowing a culture that encouraged insider trading. Still, Cohen managed to give at least $1 million to MOCA this spring during its mad dash to restore its depleted endowment. Gary Sernovitz's smart essay about the saga for journal n+1 this year suggests a commonality between Cohen and the artists he collects: "The best of them ... are mercury, racing to be first to an edge before it disappears."
2. The resignation: MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, a former dealer known for bridging art and entertainment, stepped down in July, three of his five contracted years completed. This wasn't that surprising — MOCA's curatorial staff had dwindled, the artists on its board had resigned, upcoming exhibitions remained unannounced. But the problem all along, for art-invested people, has been a feeling of alienation and confusion over decisions by the museum's administrators. Why fire the chief curator? Why let the education program flounder? Why collaborate with Mercedes-Benz? Since no new director has been appointed, Deitch leaving didn't — and hasn't — changed the fact that we're all asking, "What's happening to MOCA?"
3. The proposal: LACMA proposed a $650 million building that would replace its older Art of the Americas and Ahmanson buildings, which will have to be razed. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, known for fairly elegant buildings, designed it. From the top, it's a curving, black thing with glass walls and solar panels: "The tar pit amoeba," a friend dubbed it. It looks like a tar pit, but it also curves to make room for the La Brea Tar Pits around the museum's campus. In an unusual move, the museum exhibited Zumthor's models before the plans have been finalized, approved by the board or funded. Visitors could have an opinion but not really any say — the exhibition seemed more like show-and-tell than open forum.
4. The architects-in-the-museum fiasco: First architect Frank Gehry was in, then he was out, then he was back in MOCA's "A New Sculpturalism" exhibition again. The show, curated by Christopher Mount, proposed that West Coast architects take something of a sculptural approach to building. The show first had to be delayed because of funding concerns, then controversy erupted over its framing — Gehry worried the term "sculpturalism" would make it sound like he cared only about formalism, or the shape and look of his buildings. Then architect Thom Mayne more or less took over, convincing Gehry to participate and helping to finalize funding and finish the installation. Despite the drama, the show itself was pretty staid, and the models and projects in it seemed more self-conscious than exciting.
5. The art train: Artist Doug Aitken's "Station to Station" project involved rented, vintage train cars full of artists. The train traveled from the East Coast to the West, stopping to stage events throughout, picking up new musicians and artists (Ariel Pink, Beck, etc.). Being on the train itself felt great — there was a kitchen, a bar, work spaces and a very American feeling of industriousness pervading every car. But you weren't ever quite sure which of the people passing through the cars with cameras belonged to Aitken's team and which belonged to the sponsor, Levi's. Plus, so many press people rode the train and write-ups came out in so many venues during the monthlong train trek that you could hardly tell where the promoting stopped and the project began, which made it seem of-the-moment but in a frustrating way, as if it were complicit in — or at least turning a blind eye to — its own blurriness.
1. The fountain saga: In Liz Glynn's April performance, The Myth of Getting it Right the First Time, dancers played the three triangular columns that make up Alexander Calder's fountain, built for LACMA before its opening in 1962. The columns have steel arms balancing colored paddles, so that they spin in the wind, and the performers held similarly colored paddles in their outstretched hands. They had to be carried multiple times on and off the stage in LACMA's Bing Theater, as Glynn's cast acted out the ups and downs of the fountain's life. Before Calder even built the work, titled Three Quintains (Hello, Girls), he had to deal with funders' reluctance to pay for things like plumbing. And then there was the wind damage, the years it spent in storage, the times the museum tried to sell it and Art Center borrowed it, all efficiently and elegantly portrayed.
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2. The privilege project: Artist William Kaminski and curator Eve Ruether wanted to talk about the weirdness of having and not having — of scraping by to do what you love while brushing up against the art world's glamorous, more moneyed side. They put together "The Privilege Show" to get at how this feels, including 10 artists. One of my favorites was Kaminski's video Pool Scene (Love Is...). He'd rented a house with a pool in Alhambra Heights for an afternoon and enlisted a few young actors. He wanted them to mimic ecstatic carefreeness such as you might see in a show like The Hills. In the final, not-at-all satirical edit, you can tell the kids on-screen aren't the born-with-a-silver-spoon types, but they've totally immersed themselves, for the moment at least, in the pool party vibe.
3. The French connection: Ceci N'est Pas, the multiple-month series of art collaborations between Paris and L.A., sponsored by the French Embassy, treated L.A.'s art scene like an entirely level playing field. You might see the French cultural attaché, Adelaide Barbier, at art fair afterparties and then again sitting on the floor at alternative spaces, like Machine Project in Echo Park, where, one night in January, artist Nicholas Boulard debuted a series of cheeses he'd made using molds inspired by minimalist sculptures.
4. The doughnut creature: David Snyder's sculpture Portrait of a Nugose, which appeared in his Michael Benevento show this fall, looked kind of like weeping willow covered in a thick coat of melted, burnt marshmallow. Machinery powered up inside when you got close, making clanging and radio noises, and if you looked through a peephole on its wall-facing side, you'd see a plate of doughnuts. It was an unwieldy, dysfunctional, opaque thing that wanted to invite people in but didn't know how.
5. The open storage: Liz Diller's firm's design for billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad's new art museum, rapidly rising on Grand Avenue across from MOCA, seems like it might just work. Diller has talked about wanting her building to announce itself as the home of just one man's collection, to be transparent about its subjectivity. It sounds impossibly idealistic, but that porous surface and the windows into the vault where the Broad Collection is stored might at least generate the right curiosity-piquing vibe.