Michael Govan: To Understand L.A. Art, I Went to Italy

Maria Nordman's 1967 Filmroom: Smoke, now at LACMA, depicted two actors who showed up to a beach in Malibu and were given a cigarette lighter, a box of cigarettes and a chair, but no script.

Very early on, I became interested in artists of the '60s and '70s — paying no attention to where they were from. I encountered a lot of the work through the Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, whose Panza Collection is at MOCA. One of my most formative experiences was going to his villa in Varese.

You were in a Northern Italian city near the lakes and he takes you into this dark room and he gives you instructions to stay there for 10 minutes. And in that space emerges this dark vertical column, kind of like in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It emerges out of darkness — there's sort of two sides of light and this column in the center. And this is, in fact, a work by Maria Nordman. And it's the first work Panza always showed, one of the works he was most proud of, and it was the cornerstone of the installations at the former stables that he turned into his museum.

What was interesting is that this is Count Panza, an Italian, who's collecting from Italy and his occasional trips to New York and some to L.A., and unlike museums on the East Coast in the United States, the Californians played an equal role.

So Maria Nordman's was the first piece, and two stables down was Bruce Nauman with a Jud. And in the upper rooms, the first thing you encountered was Robert Irwin, as well as Dan Flavin and then the extraordinary James Turrells.

Panza had no prejudice, and as he went to collect works in that next generation past Rothko and Rauschenberg, he found L.A. before critics in the United States found L.A. It was a very powerful thing. It's one of the reasons why we made a special effort to include a work by Maria Nordman in LACMA's Pacific Standard Time show — because she was not in any other shows.

Pacific Standard Time is not a one-time deal. I've been trying to get people to think about this — it's not about, "Now, we're going to focus on L.A. artists." It's not that we're "bestowing" this honor. Pacific Standard Time is happening because the artists are becoming so powerfully recognized in the world. And the institutions are taking advantage of this growing recognition. Yes, adding some scholarship and some history to it, but I always want to emphasize this — it's the artists that are making L.A. famous, and not the museums.

—As told to Tibby Rothman

Michael Govan is the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"it's the artists that are making L.A. famous — not the museums."

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