Curatorial Ecstasy

Photo by Kevin ScanlonNot long after he arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990 to assume the post of chief curator, Paul Schimmel learned that what Angelenos now know as the Geffen Contemporary was to be closed for an extended period during a massive redevelopment in the surrounding area of Little Tokyo. The former hardware store and police garage, renovated by Frank Gehry and opened as the “Temporary Contemporary,” or “T.C.,” in 1983, was intended as temporary quarters while MOCA built its Grand Avenue location. It had been, throughout the ’80s, even well past the opening of MOCA on Grand Avenue in 1986, a major outpost of international contemporary art on the West Coast, known for the ambitiousness and edginess of the exhibition programming it offered in a space in which it seemed anything was possible. Working during the ’80s as chief curator and also curator of exhibitions and collections at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art), just a little more than an hour to the south, Schimmel had come to view the T.C. as his “cathedral,” and, when he took the MOCA job, saw it as a place where his most ambitious curatorial plans could unfold. Angered and inspired by news of the pending closure, Schimmel proposed going out with a bang by way of a massive exhibition of provocative art from a new generation of Los Angeles artists. He wanted to call it “The Last Show.” When then–MOCA director Richard Koshalek objected that the title was too hyperbolic, Schimmel came back with “Helter Skelter.” The 1992 exhibition that came with that title, a survey of expressions of L.A.’s noir side, seen through the work of 16 visual artists and 10 writers, was pure Schimmel — a coalescence of lessons and experiences he’d picked up along the way since, as a museum-studies undergraduate student at Syracuse University in 1974, he’d asked his mentor James Harithas if he could spend his final semester as an intern at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, where Harithas had taken the position of director. “Jim took me very quickly from the idea of art museums being places that just maintained a history to the museum as a place where you define culture at the moment,” recalls Schimmel, who was a staff curator at Houston by 1975 and chief curator by ’77. “It was a very activist, engaged approach, stemming from a belief that to begin to define what later will be understood as the history of your particular moment is one of the richest aspects of being a curator.”The merits of “Helter Skelter,” with its unabashed turn toward spectacle and packaging of diverse work under a heavy thematic overlay, were and still are much debated. Mention the show to anyone who was on the L.A. art scene then, and a decade and a half later, you’ll still get an emphatic response. But among detractors and supporters alike, the bigness and boldness of the exhibition are well-remembered, and you can see where this propensity for both came from when Schimmel’s eyes light up as he talks: “I didn’t really take the specifically activist part with me, and in fact I used to argue with Jim [Harithas] about pursuing social or political agendas, but certainly his interest in connecting different elements, and crossing boundaries through very large-scale thematic exhibitions that define a very specific aspect of who we are culturally, that rubbed off on me.” Of his early experiences working with Harithas, and being introduced to the work of artists like Yoko Ono and extreme performance artist Hermann Nitsch, Schimmel adds, “It was, like, wow. I got a taste of how art and music and contemporary culture and politics and social issues came together. I’m not saying I got it all, but I got a sense of this very broad palette.”“Helter Skelter” also carried over interests Schimmel developed during the ’80s, when, after working on a master’s degree at NYU, he got the job at Newport Harbor. There he undertook, through inaugurating a biennial exhibition that evolved into what now is the Orange County Museum of Art’s California Biennial, and through assorted one-artist shows, a personal project of championing a new generation of Los Angeles artists. In fact, artists Schimmel showed at Newport became headliners of “Helter Skelter.”“I think part of my success in Newport was about wanting to show what neither LACMA nor MOCA was doing,” says Schimmel, who doesn’t mind using the word speculative to describe his endorsement of emerging artists, whether at Newport Harbor or through the Focus series of emerging-artist exhibitions he inaugurated at MOCA. The comment also reveals a keen awareness of the relative positions of art institutions. “MOCA’s position was in part made possible by the collapse of the Pasadena Art Museum, which really was our antecedent,” he says, “and by the fact that most encyclopedic museums in the ’60s and ’70s weren’t comfortable making a commitment to contemporary art.” Such an understanding of MOCA as offering an edgier alternative to established museums was clearly a subtext of what Schimmel did with “Helter Skelter” — a reminder to the public that even while the Little Tokyo location was closing and Schimmel and his colleagues now were inhabiting window offices on Bunker Hill, the attitudinal heart of MOCA still emanated from the Temporary Contemporary. Fifteen years into his MOCA post, Schimmel is well aware of the shifting terrain, with the museum’s Geffen, Grand Avenue and Pacific Design Center locations now representing L.A.’s old guard of contemporary art, more empire than outpost, and other museums with old-guard roots, like the Hammer (as in Armand Hammer) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, remaking themselves as fresh faces in the contemporary art scene. “The Hammer has become focused and aggressively concerned with art made in the present, much of it made here,” Schimmel says of the museum that instigated a projects series, devoted primarily to emerging artists, that took off just as MOCA’s Focus series was going dormant. “And I think the Hammer has picked up the same position vis-à-vis MOCA and LACMA that I saw for Newport when I was there.” And, as for LACMA, which in the last 15 years has given retrospective exhibitions to artists Schimmel touted early on, which has its own series rivaling MOCA’s Focus, and which soon will be home to selections from Eli Broad’s collection (housed in a building funded by Broad himself), Schimmel doesn’t mind saying he’s impressed: “With the Broad coming to LACMA, 65,000 square feet of contemporary art within an encyclopedic institution, that’s huge.”Schimmel is also quick to point out the contemporary-art programming at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Orange County Museum of Art and other venues. “There’s probably no city in the world, maybe London, maybe Berlin, that rivals L.A. in terms of real estate in the public domain devoted to contemporary art,” says the curator, who admits to being competitive. But if the competition’s got him worried, he isn’t showing it. “It is, of course, the right thing to say, but I really believe the more the merrier,” he grins. “As other institutions succeed in areas where we’ve done things or should be doing things, it raises the profile of what all of us are doing, it keeps us on our toes, and it requires us to up our commitment. When we see our playbook being played out elsewhere, we have to ask if we just want to give that away, or continue to improve upon it.”Holding on to the playbook might precisely describe MOCA’s reintroduction of its Focus series, which once gave early exposure to artists like Toba Khedoori and Cathy Opie, but faded away, in part because the Focus exhibitions, which were never limited to designated spaces within the museum and which came with individual catalogs, devoted coveted space and significant resources to artists who weren’t well-known when MOCA showed them. “During the several years when we didn’t do the Focus series, everyone on the staff felt it was missing,” says Schimmel, who saw competition from other museums as both cause and rationale for reinvesting in the series. “When we began talking about bringing back the Focus series, we did so with the insistence that it stay within the way MOCA does things,” he asserts, with a tone likely similar to the one he used in the boardroom. “The Focus shows will move from space to space within the museum, because you have to find the right space to fit the art, and we’ll do a special publication tailored to each show. This is more costly, and it’s more difficult from the standpoint of branding, but I’ve never been a big branding sort of guy.”Of course, there is a sort of Schimmel brand, which perhaps is less distinct in a field now filled with the sort of large thematic contemporary-art exhibitions the curator has offered up in “Helter Skelter,” as well as the exhibitions “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955–62”; “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979,” an exhibition Schimmel describes as the “biggest bite” he ever tried to take out of art history; and “Public Offerings,” a survey of art-school prodigies who became art-world darlings in the 1990s. But when he offers up such sweeping grandeur, especially at his “cathedral,” the only thing missing from the package is the Schimmel logo. His latest outing at the Geffen, “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States,” which samples artistic forays into the terrain of perception under assorted influences, falls right in line — oddly scholarly, populist, part crowd-pleaser, part provocation. Add to “Ecstasy” Schimmel’s upcoming “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” the most complete survey ever mounted of the artist’s Combines — art objects straddling between painting and sculpture, collage and assemblage, built of objects and images from everyday mid-20th-century America — and one might wonder if the curator isn’t beginning to play to his audience a bit. But for Schimmel, there’s a big difference between pandering and “turning on” — a phrase that has a particular ring to it as visitors of “Ecstasy” stroll through experiences like Carsten Höller’s Upside Down Mushroom Room. “I don’t think artists are sitting in their studios making things for critics and collectors. I think they’re making things they hope, if the museums do their job, can open an experience to a lot of different people,” he insists, adding, “I’m most proud when someone comes along and says to me, ‘Your exhibition turned me on to art, got me excited about it, made it relevant to me, made it part of my life.’ That’s huge. That’s audience, but it’s not necessarily numbers.” “We could never have a contemporary show that could beat the numbers of even a third-rate Monet show,” insists Schimmel, who thinks consensus is overrated, whether among a curatorial staff (he believes the strength of MOCA’s is its diversity of views) or between an institution and its patrons. “When you’re working without the safety net of consensus, inevitably patrons question the speculative nature of curating, and so you hear a comment like, ‘That’s a curatorial-driven initiative,’ often delivered with a disdainful tone,” he lowers his voice, mimicking the tone he inevitably will face from some regarding the far-outness of “Ecstasy” and the return of the Focus series, “but that’s how it should be. Some curatorial work should be speculative. Curators should be able to say that they believe in something, they think it’s important, and they’re going to show it without waiting for a consensus.”Schimmel isn’t shy about expressing pleasure with where his push-ahead attitude has taken him. “When I first started working at MOCA, I had a list of all the shows I wanted to do, and I still haven’t done a lot of things on the list, but I’ve done quite a few,” he grins. “And I’m still writing my list.”

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