The Newcomer

(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

{mosimage}Gary Garrels is a sign, an omen. Two years ago, he was ensconced at the Museum of Modern Art as chief curator of drawings and a curator of painting and sculpture. Maybe, as you’ll hear, he wasn’t so happy there, but 10 years ago the person with that sort of job at MoMA wasn’t leaving New York for L.A., never mind how unhappy he was. No way. Not 10 years ago, maybe not even two years ago. But that’s what Garrels did, right in the middle of the Brice Marden retrospective he’d organized. Right in the middle of a bigtime New York art career. His reasons: the artists living and working in Los Angeles. And the Hammer Museum, where he is now chief curator, a limber, creative institution driven not quite so much by the numbers, or hindered by the weight of history or expectations, as MoMA is. And a thriving artistic ecosystem, not yet overwhelmed by the money interests — as, he says, it is in New York.

Two years ago, at the urging of Hammer director Ann Philbin, he made the leap, but it is only recently that his presence has been felt publicly. Museums have long lead times, and Garrels’ first move — to call the Pompidou Centre in Paris — did not reap benefits until early this year, with the opening here in Los Angeles of the Vija Celmins drawing retrospective (organized by the Pompidou). On that occasion he appeared onstage at the Hammer in conversation with Celmins — not a simple assignment — and impressed with his easy articulation. If anything, Garrels seems comfortable — in attire (dark suit, green shirt open at the collar, soft black shoes, bluish designer frames, discreet right-earlobe earring), in person (approachable, friendly, and he actually turns up at gallery openings) and in the city: Although a native Easterner, he spent six years in San Francisco — at SFMOMA — during the ’90s, long enough to feel at home in California, but not long enough to feel, or understand, the Bay Area enmity for all things Los Angelean. He lives in Silver Lake.

Garrels seems a man excited to be here, doing what he’s doing. His first real project, the annual Hammer Invitational, opened this past week. Called, somewhat unfortunately, “Eden’s Edge,” it features 15 L.A. artists, from the elder ceramist Ken Price to the younger collagist Elliott Hundley, and has to do with a certain “unsteadiness, a sense of open possibility of change, and transformation” that Garrels sees in the L.A. Zeitgeist. If that seems not terribly original (glad he’s getting that out of his system!), it’s nevertheless exciting to see Jim Shaw, Monica Majoli, Mark Bradford, Ginny Bishton, Rebecca Morales and Hundley in an L.A. museum show. (See critic Doug Harvey’s review below.) Garrels recently sat down at the Coffee Table in Silver Lake to discuss the show and his decision to leave MoMA and New York for the Hammer and L.A.

{mosimage}L.A. WEEKLY: You left a major position at MoMA to come out to the Hammer. Why?

GARY GARRELS: I was beginning to feel some discontentment at MoMA, and was out here having dinner with Annie Philbin, grumbling a little. And Annie literally kind of looked at me, turned on a dime and said, “Would you ever consider working at the Hammer?” And I said, “Let’s talk about it.” You know, I lived in San Francisco for years — I was chief curator at SFMOMA [1993–2000] and I came down to L.A. a lot. I liked the city, got to know some people here, and was interested in the art scene. And when I was at MoMA, I bought a lot of drawings by L.A. artists. A lot. Everything from Raymond Pettibon to Lari Pittman to Ingrid Calame to Jorge Pardo to Paul McCarthy to Mark Grotjahn . . .

Are you responsible for the surprising Grotjahn presence at MoMA?

Yeah, I am. I visited his studio several years ago and saw his first show at Blum & Poe. Here was a guy making really interesting abstract art — not so easy.

Were you unable to do as much as you wanted to do at MoMA?

No, I went to MoMA with two exhibitions that I cared about deeply — a Dieter Roth retrospective, and the Brice Marden retrospective — and was able to do both of them. My other goal had been to make the second half of the 20th-century drawings [collection] as important and solid as the first half, because MoMA has the best collection of the first half of the century. I feel like I made huge progress on that in five years. So I had accomplished the things I set out to do. But I think there are a lot of problems with the new [MoMA] building; I think there are a lot of problems with the curatorial structure. There are some very difficult personalities at MoMA. And I also think that New York is certainly the commercial center of the art world, but I’m not sure it’s the creative center. It’s a center. But the kind of creative dynamic atmosphere here in L.A., I think, is really better than New York at this point.

How so?

There’s an openness. I don’t think the art making has been completely overshadowed by the commercial world here. Artists are more willing to talk about art here. The gallerists are more open to talking, they’re not just selling. There’s just a very lively, spirited community here.

This is not to paint a black-and-white picture — it’s not either/or. The market isn’t great here: There aren’t hordes of collectors, you know, standing in front of the door before the show opens. In New York it’s just insane, the collecting frenzy, and the money is staggering. Artists in L.A. are certainly ambitious for their careers, and it’s not that they’re not competitive, but I just don’t think it totally overwhelms or subsumes the work in the same way.

I also think people here are more open to risk. New York has become a little more timid. Now when you go to galleries in New York, there are six to 10 shows that I want to see and they’re L.A. artists. Artists who are based here in L.A. are a hugely significant part of the art scene in New York, and sometimes you see their work there and you don’t see it here. Like Jason Rhoades I saw in New York, I didn’t see him here. Mark Bradford, Matt Monahan, there’s a lot of that.

What do you make of the gallery scene in Los Angeles?

I was just in Berlin, and I think the gallery scene here is every bit as good as Berlin. London is the second commercial hub after New York, and then you’ve got Berlin and L.A. Both Berlin and L.A. are being fueled by the community of artists.

Also, there has been a whole shift in the institutional ecology over the last 10 years. The Hammer didn’t open until 1990 and it didn’t become a really vital place until Annie arrived about eight years ago. The new Getty opened in ’97, and already the GRI [Getty Research Institute] has had an amazing impact — there’s nothing like that in New York. What’s going on at LACMA now will push the whole art scene up. MOCA has always been important and continues to be. Orange County has new life in it, and Santa Monica Museum continues to do some really interesting things. LACE is probably more viable than it’s been for a while. REDCAT is new. LAX just opened. Chinatown, Culver City — so there’s been a lot happening here in the last five to 10 years.

Artists no longer need to even think about going to New York or Europe. L.A. is not only viable, it’s a nurturing place to be. You can get a really decent studio and a decent place to live and have a community of artists around you, and curators and gallerists and collectors from around the world are just constantly coming through here now. If you’re serious, you have to come to L.A. to do the galleries and museums and visit studios, and that wasn’t the case 10 years ago. There’s a critical mass here.

Since the Hammer began competing with MOCA, things really began looking up.

Well, there’s a lot of energy. And I think it’s because we do these projects with young artists. They can do what they want. We’re very flexible. We don’t have to worry about the box office. We’re not a wealthy institution, but we’re not a poor institution. We can try to be ambitious sometimes and stretch ourselves, and then we can also do very modest [shows]. Our model is really the Walker [in Minneapolis], where I was a curator from 1991 to 1993. The Walker is a very artist-centered institution where, again, the artists can come in and use the place as their platform, their laboratory. It doesn’t have to worry as much about the number of people coming through the door.

Monica Majoli, Hanging Rubber Man #3 (2004)

Does MoMA?

Not ostensibly, but there’s an expectation that MoMA’s going to provide things other institutions can’t — like a Brice Marden show or a Richard Serra or Dada show. These kinds of things require the power to get the loans, the financial commitment, the kinds of things that few institutions can match. And that’s what they do really, really well. It’s difficult there to do smaller projects — they just kind of get lost. Also, at MoMA the tendency is to always want to do the definitive exhibition. So you wouldn’t do a Vija Celmins drawing show, because you’d want to do the Vija Celmins full retrospective. It’s also the texture of the Hammer that’s appealing. It wasn’t a big stretch for us to do [something unusual like] the comics show [“Masters of American Comics”]. It didn’t feel like we were breaking down the Berlin Wall to open up the art world.

The Hammer is for the art world what Donald Rumsfeld wanted the U.S. military to be.

Yeah, lean and flexible and effective. [Laughs.] It takes a lot of pressure off. We can nose around in slightly more obscure corners. We can also give an artist their first show and they don’t feel this huge pressure. To have a single first-person show at MoMA, a small show for a young artist, I think can be paralyzing. It’s difficult to have that spirit of just go for it. And I think that’s just part of the whole spirit of L.A. — that the institution does not see itself as the ultimate arbiter. And that’s the problem with New York, that it places itself in this role of being arbiter, and it forecloses creativity. You have to have the right to try something and it’s maybe not totally great. Otherwise, art goes dead.

That’s part of the problem with the way the collection is treated at MoMA. It’s like a frozen specimen of great masterpieces. You cannot get a better collection. But that is not what art is really about, it’s not what makes it exciting to artists. So the people who come get a very, you know, textbook version of art. But it’s not art.

Tell me about “Eden’s Edge,” the title and the concept.

It started because Annie asked me to do this show, the Hammer Invitational, as we call it. And it was a great opportunity to assess what’s going on here in art making. I realized that I had a sense of L.A. as being much more conceptually driven. Out of Baldessari, Huebler, Ruscha and the more performative aspects of Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, you know, the whole “Helter Skelter” thing. And I realized there were artists I was interested in that didn’t sort of fit that mold — there was this incredible interest in craft, in handmade things, in a sensuality of materials, and very charged imagistic work — a lot of body, a lot of landscape, a fusion between the two. And that a lot of images and forms were essentially unstable. They’re on the edge of transformation, of fracturing, of slipping. For a while, “Slipping” was the title. Annie said, “I think people could take that the wrong way.” [Laughs.]

But [it’s about] this notion that there’s an unsteadiness, a sense of open possibility of change, transformation. And I think that is very much part of the L.A. Zeitgeist right now. So I began noticing some young artists. We were working with Elliott Hundley — he just fit dead center on the whole thing. I talked to a lot of the artists and got positive feedback, that this wasn’t a totally crazy idea.

Curatorial themes often don’t make a lot of sense, of course.

Right, and the last thing you want to do is have the museum become what I call the Procrustean bed. You know the great Greek story about a highway robber, Procrustes? When people traveled, he would invite them to spend the night, and if they were too tall, he cut off their feet to fit in the bed, and if they were too short, he stretched them. And I don’t want the museum to be this Procrustean bed for artists where they get shaped and molded into what the museum wants them to be. And whenever you do a group show, that’s always a danger.

I also think there’s been such emphasis on seeing who is going to be the next hot young artist out of the art schools here. And I just felt the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction, that there are artists who have been working three, five, 10 years who are great. And some of them haven’t been showing in L.A. — I think Monica Majoli is just an amazing, amazing artist, and she’s barely shown here. Or like Matt Monahan, he’s been working for almost 12 years and has had almost no presence in L.A. whatsoever. And then finding some artists who were totally unknown to me, like Rebecca Morales, who turned her garage into her studio in Santa Ana, and she’s totally off doing her own thing. She went to Otis, but she’s not part of a whole art-school mafia.

So I guess in being a newcomer it was easier for me to cross different boundaries. There are critical segments that are pretty enclosed here. And sometimes it takes somebody from outside to just kind of amble across DMZs.

Doug Harvey's review of Eden's Edge

More images from the Hammer Museum's show, Eden's Edge

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