Category: Eli Broad

Chicano Artists Need Not Apply

The Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, California, is celebrating its grand reopening with a month long series of events that focus on Latino culture. Agustin Gurza of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the new MOLAA in his article, Latin American Art museum reopens with new look, attitude, but regrettably Gurza’s revealing dialog with MOLAA’s executive director Gregorio Luke, divulges not a new attitude - but the same old one. The Latin American Art museum still maintains a protracted refusal to exhibit or otherwise collaborate with Chicano/Mexican American artists.

Mr. Gurza’s article is peppered with accolades for MOLAA and Luke, who was the former cultural attaché for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Gurza writes: “You could call MOLAA the little museum that could, totally upstaging the massive metropolis to the north. It’s almost a scandal that L.A. has no comparable Latino-themed museum — not yet anyway.” The unnamed institution Gurza refers to is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which has had an abysmal track record when it comes to exhibiting works by Chicano/Latino artists - but to say it’s “almost a scandal” that L.A.’s galleries and museums ignore Chicano/Latino artists is the understatement of the year.

Having long been intimately involved with L.A.’s Chicano art circles, I can personally attest to the hurt, confusion, feelings of dejection, indignation and outright anger expressed by Mexican American artists over MOLAA’s unshakable insistence on exclusively showing only Latino artists from south of the U.S.-Mexican border - as if Latino artists born within the borders of the U.S. were completely invisible and irrelevant. It is one thing to have mainstream cultural institutions in the U.S. ignore the indigenous Chicano arts movement and artists of Latin American heritage - but it is quite another to be totally disregarded by an institution claiming to speak for Latin American artists.

MOLAA’s unjustifiable stance is a slap in the face to the many talented Chicano and Latino artists who for decades have struggled within the United States to maintain and expand a distinctive cultural heritage and set of unique aesthetics. The Chicano school of art for one, is well established and recognized internationally, and it’s high time for MOLAA to acknowledge the movement as having a well deserved place in the wider family of Latin American artists.

In a March 25th, 2007 article for the New York Times titled, The Art’s Here, Where’s the Crowd?, Edward Wyatt examined Los Angeles as “the nation’s second art capital,” and he scrutinized the big players who pull the strings, particularly Eli Broad and his backing of LACMA:

“Mr. Broad (whose name rhymes with road) has generated a fair amount of resentment in some corners here for his outsized presence on the art scene. His devotion to the downtown projects have been criticized as ignoring pockets of the city that have less access to the arts, like the largely Hispanic sections of East Los Angeles and the areas south of downtown that have large African-American populations.”

It is no exaggeration to say that Chicano and Latino artists have come to expect being overlooked by the likes of Broad, LACMA - and now MOLAA. But the cultural gulf widened significantly when news spread that the new Museo Alameda Smithsonian (or MAS, “More” in Spanish) officially opened its doors on April 12th, 2007, in San Antonio, Texas. The question arises - If there is a mainstream museum dedicated to Chicano/Latino art in Texas, why is there no similar arts institution in California with its enormous Chicano/Latino population and vibrant Chicano/Latino arts community?

Gurza’s L.A. Times article quotes Gregorio Luke as saying: “I used to think only in terms of Mexico and Mexican culture, but for me, these years at MOLAA have suddenly made me appreciate the art of Peru and Ecuador, the music of Brazil, the pupusas of El Salvador and the mate of Argentina. I think the museum is going to be able to inspire this expanded sense of identity for everybody that comes to it.” But the MOLAA director’s alleged “vision of a pan-Latin American culture that crosses national boundaries” inexplicably stops short of embracing those Latinos who happen to live within the United States. Gregorio Luke takes the deplorable posture of extending consideration to Mexican artists, while absolutely denying any attention to their gifted Mexican American counterparts.

Gurza’s article makes a single oblique remark concerning MOLAA’s graceless and blinkered policy, “One important element is missing from the artistic mission of MOLAA - the art made in its own backyard.” As long as that observation remains true, the Museum of Latin American Art will remain a stunted and unfulfilled institution in contention with America’s Latino population.

UPDATE: The Museo Alameda Smithsonian closed its doors in Sept. of 2012 due to financial difficulties.

Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New

On February 1st, 2007, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art CEO Michael Govan and postmodernist “King of Kitsch” Jeff Koons, were featured speakers at a LACMA public event billed as a conversation on “the role of artists in shaping the museum of the future.” At the event the duo publicly announced plans to erect Koons’ Train, an enormous structure made of an actual 70-foot fabricated steam locomotive hanging from a massive 161-foot heavy construction crane.

To be located at LACMA’s “BP Grand Entrance” on Wilshire Boulevard, the suspended train will spin its wheels, whistle and blow-out steam three times a day; and according to Govan, “The beautiful thing is that we would see it from the 10 freeway and from downtown” - which to those not familiar with L.A. means the structure will be visible from most points in the sprawling metropolis. New York Arts Magazine reported that Govan compared the project to the Eiffel Tower, “expressing hope that the piece would become a landmark for Los Angeles.”

Train - by Koons

[ Train - Model by Jeff Koons Production / Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane, is to be placed in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." ]

If Train reminds you of the works created by the Dadaists or Surrealists, or perhaps the readymades constructed by Marcel Duchamp - think again. The aforementioned were outsiders who used art to blow-up the traditions and power centers of the elite art world. Koons on the other hand is an insider who is wedded to privilege, as is evident from the $1 million given to LACMA by the Annenberg Foundation, funds to be used in conducting engineering studies on the feasibility of Koons’ proposed construction. Train also has the backing of billionaire and LACMA trustee Eli Broad, who has donated $60 million to LACMA for the construction of The Broad Contemporary Art Museum - which by the way will house Broad’s collection of twenty Jeff Koons originals.

Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, “A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.” There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think! However, there is great irony in Train - though certainly Koons, Govan, Broad, and their supporters are hopelessly unaware of this. The U.S. passenger train and light-rail industry was effectively destroyed through the combined rise of private automobiles, diesel buses, the development of an Interstate Highway System, and the use of trucks and planes for freight transport. Naturally, oil companies and their supporting industries benefited enormously from this shift. The irony is that in order to see Koons’ ludicrous steam locomotive one must first pass through the “BP Grand Entrance” - LACMA’s paean to the power and glory of big oil. Though unintentional, Koons’ Train gives us a representation of the U.S. passenger train industry crucified by the might of the petroleum empire.

More than 25 years ago, art critic Robert Hughes helped to change the way people thought about modern art through his TV series, The Shock of the New. The series was revised by Hughes in 2004 to reflect current realities, and broadcast on the BBC that same year as, The New Shock of the New. Here’s what Hughes had to say about Koons:

“We decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush’s America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan’s. There may be worse things waiting in the wings (never forget that morose observation of Milton’s on the topography of Hell: “And in the lowest depth, a lower depth”) but for the moment they aren’t apparent, which isn’t to say that they won’t crawl, glistening like Paris Hilton’s lip-gloss, out of some gallery next month. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art.”

Condemnation of Koons abounds, but one of the finest critiques made of him and what he represents, can be find in D.S. Baker’s February 1993 article, Jeff Koons And The Paradox Of A Superstar’s Phenomenon, a must read for anyone interested contemporary art:

“As Superstar, as real capitalist (a former stockbroker), as real playboy with sex object (see Koons’ series Made in Heaven), Koons inverts Warhol’s position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes an authentic reified creation, a Superstar. In doing so, he negates any distance from celebrity and the culture industry. Where Warhol could merely declare that he was all surface, it is Koons who officially becomes homogeneous with commodity society - pure surface. Rather than making art from some as-yet-unincorporated enclave, Koons is making art from within the structures of institutional art, as part and parcel of the culture industry.”

The above excerpt from Baker’s article mentioned the series, Made in Heaven, which in my opinion is the best introduction to a vapid artist steeped in narcissism and shallowness. In 1991 Koons married Italian porn-star turned politician, Ilona Staller. Being a shameless self-publicist, Koons had himself photographed naked with his wife engaged in uninhibited sex - the stills becoming the basis for the artist’s Made in Heaven suite of paintings and sculptures. Koons’ had the photos printed in oil based inks on canvas, and insists these abominations are “paintings.” No doubt Billionaire tycoons Eli Broad and François Pinault - who have made the works of Koons a cornerstone of their collections - would agree (You can see the Made in Heaven series here - but be careful, adults only!) In a 1986 interview conducted with the Journal of Contemporary Art, Koons was asked what he thought of advertising, since his works are largely based upon corporate media images, Koons responded:

“It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: ‘Here’s to good friends!’ It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media (…) I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it.”

Koons supposedly represents the “best and brightest” from the national cultural scene - a sad “fact” I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; “Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’” In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano

[ An architectural drawing showing Koons‘ Train in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." The Broad Contemporary Art Museum is on the left, with the LACMA Ahmanson on the right. Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano. ]

Another troubling aspect to Koons being placed front and center at the new LACMA is the effect Train will have on the overall look of the museum, giving it the aura of a commercial entertainment theme park like Hollywood’s Universal Citywalk, confirming the clichés people have about culture in a place like Los Angeles. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was initially selected to redesign the museum, but when his plans proved too costly, he was fired and replaced by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. As Piano drew up plans for the renovated museum, LACMA’s director Michael Govan began to interject his own ideas for the look and feel of the revamped institution - bringing the wretched Koons into the picture. L.A. Times staff writer Christopher Hawthorne correctly but politely referred to this as “pulling focus” from Piano’s graceful designs. Hawthorne wrote that Koons’ Train carries:

“…heavy symbolic weight and a sensibility that couldn’t be more different from Piano’s work. The architect’s recent projects stress rationality, the careful manipulation of light and a seamless, elegant marriage of technology and design. The train, which hangs perpendicular to the ground, seems to be hurtling straight at the pavement, ready to smash all those ideas to bits. In part - and there is really no getting around this fact - the new elements also serve to camouflage Piano’s architecture.”

Koons is deficient in his capacity to draw, paint, or sculpt - and like many other postmodernists, he contracts others to actually create his artworks. The manufacture of his objects is handled by a small army of studio assistants at his outfit, Jeff Koons Productions. In the previously mentioned Journal of Contemporary Art interview, he admitted that “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities.” Apologists for this type of art production say that its no different than the medieval or renaissance art workshops where apprentices labored under the direction of a master artist; but while the masters of old delegated certain tasks to other artists or assistants, they were more than mere directors, they were intimately involved in the actual work. That could even be said for a modern like Andy Warhol and his factory. The lowliest paint mixer in a renaissance workshop would have been a better draftsman than Koons - but these days, not having the “necessary abilities” is no impediment to becoming an art star with a lucrative career. Nevertheless, Koons is no master artist, and it is an embarrassment that LACMA actively promotes him.

LACMA: Director Govan & BP Oil

Interesting revelations concerning energy giant BP and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) were made in a March 6th, 2007, article by the Los Angeles Times. The paper revealed that sometime in 2006 the chairman and president of BP America, Bob Malone, asked billionaire Eli Broad - who is heavily financing LACMA’s reconstruction - to recommend causes in L.A. where the oil company “could make a difference.” It was Mr. Broad who first suggested LACMA as a recipient of funds from BP. From then on, Michael Govan, the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of LACMA, enthusiastically cozied up to BP’s top executive officers in London. One can only imagine the exchanges that went on behind those closed doors - but the result was a $25 million “gift” from BP to LACMA and Govan’s pledge to name the museum’s new entry way, “The BP Grand Entrance.” The Times quoted Govan as saying “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy…. We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Mr. Govan is undeniably a sophisticated fellow who appreciates the mechanisms of wealth and power in our globalized society, but it is entirely out of the question that he is ignorant of the controversies surrounding BP - one of the world’s most rapacious oil companies. Even the briefest exploration of BP’s dismal record will turn up enough facts so as to throw serious doubt upon Govan’s sincerity and credibility - yet he persists in singing the praises of BP, the “sustainable energy” giant. Here we must consider the likelihood that a high-powered PR firm is coaching Govan’s public statements. In the meantime, read what some critics have to say about BP - Mr. Govan’s new found friends in the oil industry.

LACMA - BP logo

[ LACMA - BP logo. Published in an official March 6, 2007, LACMA press release announcing the oil giant’s "gift" to the museum. ]

Green Logo, but BP Is Old Oil. - By Joe Nocera. August 12, 2006. (New York Times) “Yet at its core, BP remains an oil company, and no matter how much it says it wants to create more environmentally sensitive sources of energy, its basic task is still to stick holes in the ground in search of hydrocarbons.”

Behind the spin, the oil giants are more dangerous than ever. - By George Monbiot. Tuesday June 13, 2006. (The Guardian) “The green rebranding of Shell and BP is a fraud. Far from switching to biofuels, it’s drilling and devastation as usual (…) BP’s rebranding, like Shell’s, has been so effective that you could be forgiven for believing that it had become an environmental pressure group. These companies have used the vast profits from their petroleum business to create the impression that they are abandoning it.”

Oil Slicks: BP’s new eco-friendly ad campaign makes no sense. - By Daniel Gross. Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2002. ( “If our kids should be so fortunate as to live in a world beyond petroleum, one in which cars, factories, and electricity plants are powered by an alternative power source-hydrogen, fuel cells, electric batteries, ethanol, fission, or fairy dust-it’s a virtual certainty BP won’t be the one to get us there.”

Report slams BP, cites organization, safety deficiencies. - By Edward Iwata. Tue, March 20th, 2007. (USA TODAY) “A federal report Tuesday blasted energy giant BP for sweeping ‘organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels’ that led to the 2005 fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 and injured 180. In its largest investigation ever, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found in a 335-page report that 25% budget cuts at BP’s plants, including Texas City, ‘left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastrophe.’ (….) ‘After the 2005 disaster, OSHA fined BP $21 million - its largest penalty in history - for 300 safety violations.

BP chief fields barrage of questions on ethics. - By Andrew Clark. Friday April 20, 2001. (The Guardian) “5% of investors voted for BP to withdraw from its shareholding in Beijing-controlled PetroChina (….) PetroChina is planning to build an oil pipeline through Tibet. Opponents, including the Dalai Lama, say this threatens local culture and will lead to large-scale population transfer (….) The International Campaign for Tibet, suggested BP’s new slogan ‘Beyond Petroleum’ should be changed to ‘Beijing’s Partners’or ‘Backing Persecution’. He said BP was ‘utilizing every arcane and legalistic tool to stifle debate on the matter.’”

LACMA: Broad, Beuys, & BP

Eli Broad is ranked by FORBES as number 42 on its list of 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of over $5.8 billion dollars. Touted as a philanthropist interested in raising the cultural profile of Los Angeles, Mr. Broad (whose name rhymes with “load”), has been busy putting his stamp on L.A. He was the founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and is currently a powerful trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where his $60 million “gift” will build The Broad Contemporary Art Museum to house his massive collection of modern art.

The Broad Art Foundation has made known its unparalleled acquisition of 570 artworks by German artist, Joseph Beuys (pronounced “boyz”). The huge collection was procured for an undisclosed sum, and comprises the most complete body of work by the deceased artist now held in the United States. Eli Broad said of his purchase, “We consider this an opportunity to make a real difference in Los Angeles’ emergence as a world capital for contemporary art. An artist as significant as Beuys should be strongly represented here.” LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, has promised that the works of Beuys will be placed on exhibit when the museum unveils its new multi-million dollar facilities in early February, 2008. Govan said “Beuys is one of the most important artists of the post-war era,” and “therefore ideal to present at the opening of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum.”

I must admit that I’m not a devotee of German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). He is credited by enthusiasts of postmodernism as one of the most influential figures in contemporary art, but to me his performances or “actions” as he called them, were obscurantist affairs at best - and his installation works were equally baffling. For example, in his infamous 1965 performance/action, How To Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, Beuys covered his head in honey and gold leaf and moped before a live audience while carrying a dead hare through an exhibit of pictures - all the while talking to the lifeless animal. However, unlike many of today’s conceptualists, Beuys believed in art as a catalyst for revolutionary change. This dedication to a transformative social art was a primary force behind the artist’s performances and artistic activities. In his 1973 statement, Art into Society, Society into Art, Beuys wrote;

“Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art, to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A Social Organism as a work of art’… every human being is an artist, who - from his state of freedom – the position of freedom that he experiences at first-hand - learns to determine the other positions of the total art work of the future social order.”

In 1979 his intense interest in radical democracy led Beuys to found the Green Party along with Petra Kelly and Heinrich Böll. That same year Beuys ran for election as a Green Party European Parliament candidate - an election that the left-wing environmentalist party failed to win. In 1980 Beuys was the leading candidate for the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia, but again the party failed to get enough votes to enter parliament. Those setbacks notwithstanding, Beuys continued to support the Green Party and the vision of a “free democratic socialism.” In 1982 Beuys began his 7000 Oaks project for the Documenta 7 international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. The endeavor involved the planting of seven thousand trees across the city of Kassel, a deed aimed at implementing social and environmental change. Beuys fervently believed in art as the key to creating a better world, and he viewed society itself as a constantly evolving work of art where everyone played a creative role - hence his famous statement, “Everyone is an artist.”

Green Party election poster designed by Joseph Beuys

[ Election Poster for the Green Party - Designed by Joseph Beuys, 1979-1980. The legend reads: "With this choice, the Green Party." ]

You just have to marvel over the contradiction of an elite art institution flaunting the artworks of an anti-capitalist, radical environmentalist artist. Beuys once said, “We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism.” Once the new LACMA opens in 2008, in order to see the Beuys collection in The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, you’ll have to walk through that damned “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion - constructed with the $25 million the oil company gave LACMA. It’s not difficult to imagine what the former Green Party candidate would think of this folly - and what he might do if still alive today. In 1985, just a year before his death, Beuys wrote the words that should be emblazoned on the walls of the BP pavilion;

“Art that can not shape society and therefore also can not penetrate the heart questions of society - and in the end influence the question of capital - is no art.”