One Fine Show: ‘Mapping an Art World’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened show at a museum outside New York City, a place we know and love that already receives plenty of press.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles is an important institution. It has historically put on great and influential shows, like 1992’s “Helter Skelter”, and continues to do so today with exhibitions like this year’s Henry Taylor retrospective. It is, however, a museum at a crossroads, as it has been for at least the last decade. If you really want the inside baseball details the Los Angeles Times put together a timeline that explores the “flux”, though that was back in 2018 so it doesn’t even get into the Klaus Biesenbach years.

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Barbara Kasten, Architectural Site 10, December 22, 1986, 1986, C-print, frame (black painted wood): 75 7/8 x 59 7/8 x 1 3/4 in. (192.72 x 152.08 x 4.45 cm), image: 60 5/8 x 48 in. (153.99 x 121.92 cm). Gift of William H. Bigelow III. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Late last month, the museum opened Mapping an Art World: Los Angeles in the 1970s-80s a show that features more than 200 artworks and seeks to recreate the circumstances that led to the museum’s founding, part of a general campaign to take the artist-founded museum past the flux and back to its fundamentals.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding it, the show is really good. It features the work of Eleanor Antin, John Baldessari, David Hammons, Arata Isozaki, Mike Kelley, Claes Oldenburg, Reynaldo Rivera, Ed Ruscha, Betye Saar and Barbara T. Smith alongside more rarely-exhibited works and new acquisitions by Carole Caroompas, Alonzo Davis, Ilene Segalove and Joey Terrill, among others. The works are paired with pieces of archival ephemera like a flier from a 1975 symposium at the influential Brockman Gallery on “The Role and Responsibility of the Visual Urban Artist.”

The works, too, seem to explain the need for such a museum. Take James Welling’s chilling black-and-white photographs of Los Angeles buildings from 1977, which are so noir and eccentric that they conjure the sets of German expressionist films. These cry out for appropriation and appreciation in some other context. Pair these with Barbara Kasten’s stunning Architectural Site 10, December 22 (1986), outside the MOCA building the same year it opened and it feels like a prophecy fulfilled. Here is an installation that is in conversation with a building that is, philosophically, in conversation with everything else in the city.

Several pieces play with the city’s aggressive consumerism and remind us that this is the place where Andy Warhol’s soup cans made their debut. New Yorkers can make a splash there. There are some nice works by Claes Oldenberg from the early 60s, among them Hamburger with Pickle and Olive and White Gym Shoes. Then there are some excellent James Rosenquists from the same period, for the city of billboards.

You get the sense that the show knows you’re expecting Ed Ruscha, Paul McCarthy and chris burden, so there actually aren’t many of them, which is almost a shame. Gagosian just closed a show where they were able to do a lot with Burden in a tiny room on Park Avenue! Still, people in Los Angeles are probably sick of those artists. There’s even a hilarious Ed Kienholz from 1969 that just reads “A Baldessari Painting,” written on canvas, in that artist’s style. Don’t worry, though; there are some awesome Mike Kelleys.

The show was organized by Clara Kim, Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs and Rebecca Lowery, Associate Curator, with Emilia Nicholson-Fajardo, Curatorial Assistant. Kudos to them for doing the difficult work of putting together that turns the page while still celebrating the book.

Mapping an Art World: Los Angeles in the 1970s-80s is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles through March 10 of 2024.

One Fine Show: ‘Mapping an Art World’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles