Stealing Glances

“People here pretend to care about art, but they don’t really give a damn,” an old L.A. hand told me over a lunch of Yemenite chicken soup at a small restaurant on Fairfax. His evidence? In New York, the “Cézanne and Pissarro” exhibition was shown at the redesigned MoMA before overflowing crowds a few months back, but the identical exhibition at the as-yet-unredesigned, post-Tut LACMA is conspicuously underattended.

“There’s nobody there,” my friend said. “You’ll practically have the place to yourself.”

Having witnessed the throngs that besieged LACMA during the van Gogh exhibition in 1999, I found this hard to believe. Nonetheless, since I’d seen “Cézanne and Pissarro” in New York, I decided to put my friend’s claim to the test. In its MoMA incarnation, “Cézanne and Pissarro” was a fabulous show, though I can’t actually say I really got to “look” at any of the paintings. I was able to glimpse some of them, certainly. I spied little bits and pieces of them — Pissarro’s earthiness, Cézanne’s geometrically reordered landscapes — over the shoulders and between the heads (and buzzing headsets) of hundreds, perhaps thousands of New Yorkers and tourists. You could tell it was a great exhibition. You just couldn’t see it.

My friend was right about LACMA. At 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday earlier this month, there were about 10 people in the “Cézanne and Pissarro” exhibition, excluding guards, and almost no one in the rest of the museum. Unlike in New York, I could actually observe, study and generally dwell on whatever painting I chose to for as long as I liked until the 8 p.m. closing time.

After my hectic New York experience, it was delightful, but also eerie, to find myself the sole visitor in a room staring, say, at a glazed, wintry Pissarro landscape of a snow-bound French farmhouse. Because the place was so empty, my mind (as it tends to on these occasions) instantly turned to thoughts of theft. I have no idea how to pilfer a painting as carefully protected as these must have been, but I sensed that the small female Asian security guard in the corner of the room was reading my thoughts as if they were being directly transmitted to a BlackBerry nestled in the palm of her hand. The lack of other people pressing around me made the notion of owning one of these pictures — if only on a fantasy level — conceivable. When 10 other people are jostling for position in front of a scrap of 19th-century canvas like starving refugees for food rations, the thought that in some alternative universe you could hang the thing in your living room just doesn’t come up. It’s too obviously public, all too clearly theirs at least as much as it is yours.

The glow of near-ownership lingered as I wandered through some of LACMA’s other galleries, with their impressive proliferation of European, Asian and American paintings, furniture, glassware, sculpture and so on. Since it was a Thursday evening, entrance to the museum, except for the “Cézanne and Pissarro” exhibition, was free. But no one was there to take advantage of it. “Everyone’s at the mall doing their Christmas shopping,” a guard explained. I felt like doing a bit of “Christmas shopping” myself — i.e., ransacking the place. In fact, I merely felt like an object of extreme suspicion — a man who, for the price of $15, was now wandering alone through room after room filled with sumptuous artifacts valued in the millions of dollars, trailed by guards, vibration sensors, motion-detection devices, electronic tripwires, closed-circuit TV cameras and infrared rays.

Outside, the December chill had transformed the pompously designated “Los Angeles Times Courtyard” into a serene, virtually people-less artwork all its own. A handful of tourists hung around clutching LACMA bags laden with gift-shop goodies, ready to return to their hotels. Otherwise it was all blank walls, glass surfaces, planted shrubbery, advertisements for upcoming exhibitions, dark gray metal chairs and tables formally grouped, along with the inevitable lumpy Henry Moore sculpture. In the distance, you could hear the traffic on Wilshire Boulevard rush indifferently by. The museum was deserted, forgotten by the city, and I almost expected some masked men — people who do know how to steal a painting — to step out of the shadows and head for those shimmering Cézannes and Pissarros. It was a night for a heist, if ever there was one.

Read Doug Harvey's review of the Cézanne and Pissarro show here.


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