“Wherever I go, L.A. is always there ahead of me,” poet Wanda Coleman said last Tuesday as she popped into the Centre Pompidou in Paris on her way to a writing residency in Lille, France. Coleman had happened upon the largest assembly of Los Angeles artists ever convened in one show, “Los Angeles 1955–’85: Birth of an Artistic Capital,” which opened last week at the Pompidou and sets out to document the first 30 years of L.A.’s contemporary art scene with close to 90 artists and more than 350 works.

On a rainy Tuesday night, hundreds of Parisians and several members of the Los Angeles artistic community, including some of those in the show, waited in lines that lasted close to an hour. Inside, Coleman gave an impromptu poetry reading from her book Bath Water Wine, which she performed exuberantly, dressed head-to-toe in black velvet. As she read lines like “footloose in dystopia” and practically sang “here in L.A., here in L.A. — it’s just like that,” one felt for a brief moment the bold ethos of Los Angeles fill the 17 rooms of mazelike gallery space.

Afterward, artists from the show huddled in groups. Subdued, well-dressed Frenchies milled around, the occasional amused grin running over their faces in front of the John Baldessari video I Am Making Art, followed by a look of discomfort as they came across Bruce Nauman’s 1969 16mm film Black Balls, in which a male figure spreads black paint very slowly up and down his testicles. As a Paul McCarthy sculpture, constructed with ketchup and glass slates, filled the air with the vinegary smell of America’s most famed condiment, two teenage American girls scoffed at a video documenting the works of Chris Burden, the artist who famously had a friend shoot him in the arm for a performance piece: “He’s like Johnny Knoxville, only crazier.”

Exhibition curator Catherine Grenier, a slim, elegant Frenchwoman with chin-length brown hair and a slight tick in one eye, described Los Angeles as “in the mood” for a sweeping retrospective and the attention it will bring. “People already have the feeling they know Los Angeles through the TV. Los Angeles is like a theater.” The one thing that people — especially French people — don’t know about though, or so Grenier’s thesis goes, is the work that has given way to such contemporary Los Angeles artists as video installationist Doug Aitken, whose show here in Paris last year was a big success. “Artists now want to go to L.A. to do their studies. European artists want to go there.”

Nathalie Broizat, a French performance artist now living in Los Angeles, seemed to confirm Grenier’s thesis. “The performance work I’m doing in Los Angeles — there is no format for it here in France,” said Broizat, who was attending the opening in support of her mentor and collaborator Rachel Rosenthal. Saying that she also spent three years studying movement in New York, Broizat agreed that there was little in the current L.A. art scene that matched the conceptual and political dedication of many of the works found in the Pompidou’s exhibition. But it has its own style, definitely. “Now in L.A. art,” said Broizat, “there is a sense of ‘I have no future, so I have to create my own happiness.’ It is really about enjoyment.”

As with any extensive retrospective claiming to encapsulate multiple eras (“C’est trop installé,” whispered one French girl to another), there were sure to be discrepancies between what actually was and what was included. “It’s what it is,” said artist Larry Bell. But no one seemed to feel the sense of big retrospective as death to the adversarial function of the artist as much as Bell’s pal, the painter Ed Moses, who, at almost 80 years old, seems ready to hit the replay button and start life all over again. “Where is James Dean now that we need him?” he asked. “Ninety-eight percent of the people here are just playing artist; they’re not really shamans.” Moses said he hadn’t even had an interest in participating in the show, but the curators had their own access to his included painting. Why, then, had he chosen to attend? “I’m a hypocrite,” he said. “I want entertainment like everyone else.”

Rachel Rosenthal, who remembers Los Angeles as a “big desert” when she first arrived in 1956, was feeling it a little more directly: “To have not been chosen — it would have hurt my stomach.”

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