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5 Inspired Art Acquisitions of 2005

For most of 2005, two of Los Angeles’ top museums have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art rented gallery space to private corporations (the King Tut show), sold major paintings out of its “permanent” collection, and destroyed art (the Barry McGees and Margaret Kilgallens in its parking garage). Its director resigned, and the museum doesn’t seem close to naming a successor.

At least none of LACMA’s curators was indicted in foreign countries, forced to resign amid ethical scandal or charged with acquiring and displaying looted artworks. All that happened at the J. Paul Getty Museum, where new director Michael Brand has some messes to clean up.

Given all the focus on what two local museums have done wrong this year, here’s a nod to art museums doing what museums do best — collecting — and my Top 5 favorite acquisitions made by L.A. museums the past year:

5. Museum of Contemporary Art: John Baldessari, This Is Not To Be Looked At, 1966-68
In the 1960s, John Baldessari juxtaposed photos with text in jarringly entertaining ways. The work followed in the tradition of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, but with less literalism. (“This is not a pipe,” Magritte painted under a representation of . . . a pipe.) In This Is Not To Be Looked At, Baldessari pairs the titular phrase with an image of the cover of a 1966 issue of Artforum, which features Frank Stella’s Union III (1966). Is the painting not to be looked at? The magazine ignored? Both? Why? MOCA also owns Union III, and I look forward to seeing the two works hung together. (Of course, I also look forward to MOCA having somewhere to hang its excellent permanent collection . . . but this isn’t a wish list.)

4. J. Paul Getty Museum: The Julius Shulman archive
Julius Shulman is one of the most influential photographers in America, but not for his influence on other artists. His photographs of midcentury modern California homes emphasize their clear glass walls, their basic right angles, and their stunning views of canyons, valleys and the Pacific Ocean. Shulman’s photographs have so completely defined what it means to live in California that it’s impossible to know if he captured California as the people in his photographs lived it, or if his photographs helped create the postwar lifestyle he showed. The Shulman archive acquired by the Getty includes 260,000 images and is on view until January 22.

3. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Jasper Johns, Figure 7, 1955
In the mid-1950s, when abstract painting dominated the art world, Jasper Johns tried something different. He kept the gestural language of the Abstract Expressionists, but fit it into strict, recognizable constructs: flags, targets, numbers. Figure 7, an encaustic and collage work from a series of numbers Johns made in 1955, is such a piece. Encaustic, a mixing of pigment with beeswax sealed with heat, is an extremely old painting technique dating back at least 2,000 years. Collage is one of the newest, and Johns’ pairing of the two is as mesmerizing as was his break from the norms of the day.

2. UCLA Hammer Museum: Ed Ruscha, Course of Empire, 2005
Ed Ruscha represented the United States at this year’s Venice Biennale with a series of paintings titled Course of Empire. They featured classic Ruscha landscapes with an industrial twist, chronicled the success of industry (in America and, apparently, in China) and hinted at the end of industry (U.S. only). In addition to the paintings – several of which were smartly snatched up by the Whitney – Ruscha produced a 21-color lithograph showing eight images in two rows of four. On the left-hand side is industry in its heyday, on the right is industry decayed in the future. The future looks a lot like the present.

1. Museum of Contemporary Art: Lari Pittman, Untitled #12, 2003
I first saw this painting at Regen Projects in 2003. The electrical power was out, but Pittman’s work was so full of energy, intensity and post-9/11 fear that it didn’t really matter. Untitled #12 is dominated by an ax blade that hovers at the top of the painting, threatening the landscape below. To the viewer, it is never clear if the implied violence here is from a terrorist threat or from American popular culture — which is exactly the point. At the time, it was the best work of Pittman’s career. The Weekly’s Doug Harvey got it right on Pittman’s 2003 work, its timeliness and the overwhelmingly positive critical response that greeted the work: “Sometimes you just have to wait until everyone is as paranoid as you.”

Tyler Green edits and writes Modern Art Notes at http://artsjournal.com/man.

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