Category: Broad Contemp. Art Museum

Broad Contemporary Art Museum Soirée

Tables at the elite soirée cost $25,000 (silver), $50,000 (gold) or $100,000 (platinum). Guests included Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger and California’s first lady Maria Shriver, as well as Tom Cruise, Christina Aguilera and a bevy of Hollywood stars. And what was the occasion? - the ostentatious debut party for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), which houses the modern art collection of billionaire Eli Broad at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art.

Some 1,000 high-falootin’ bigwigs swarmed the grounds at LACMA on the evening of Feb. 9th, rubbing elbows with museum directors like Sir Nicholas Serota of Britain’s Tate Gallery, and a number of postmodernist art stars like Chris Burden, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst. LACMA director Michael Govan (Shhh!… don’t mention BP funding or the Feds raiding LACMA!), was on hand to talk about the museum’s “rebirth”.

In his evaluation of the BCAM collection, Big names, big works… big checkbook, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote: “mostly the exhibition just looks expensive. Really, really expensive. In deciding what to exhibit, art museums everywhere now strongly favor wealthy collectors over artists and art professionals, and slashed government spending at every level (except defense) keeps contemporary cultural institutions hostage to private interests. Ours is an era of supply-side aesthetics, trickling down on the public. BCAM’s loan-show debut is emblematic of the economic elitism humming loudly this presidential election year.”

And where was I during this tedious evening of art world ballyhoo? - at home reading Mark the Music, the wonderful biography of American composer Marc Blitzstein, written by friend and associate, Eric A. Gordon. A passage from Gordon’s book made me think of the raffish fête thrown for BCAM, and how much I’d like to read a few paragraphs of Mark the Music to the celebrity superstars and pin-ups who attended the BCAM gala party. During the height of McCarthyism, Blitzstein gave a 1956 public address that was broadcast on a Boston radio station, in which the composer lambasted the complacency of the American art scene. “A little adventure, please, a little air, a little gut.”

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: 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.”

LACMA: The Oil Museum

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), after receiving $25 million dollars from the multinational oil company BP (British Petroleum), plans to dedicate a new entry gate and pavilion to the energy Goliath. To be christened the “BP Grand Entrance”, the construction is nothing more than an edifice to big oil and the clearest example yet of the increasing corporatization of the arts in America.

Historically, the largesse of wealthy benefactors has always played a role in the arts, with the names of well-heeled patrons gracing museum wings and collections. But there is something unseemly about naming part of an art museum after a transnational oil conglomerate - especially when considering the increasingly toxic role of oil companies in today’s world. President of BP America, Bob Malone, said the donation represents the energy giant’s “commitment to the arts” - but scrutiny of the oil-smeared endowment reveals a public relations campaign designed to erase public memory of BP’s dirty doings.

Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop

[ Aerial view of the model for a proposed new LACMA. Artwork by: Renzo Piano and Building Workshop. Red dot: LACMA West - the former May Company building at Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. Yellow dot: Location for the so-called "BP Grand Entrance" - a massive entry pavilion devoted to the power and glory of big oil. Blue dot: Japanese Pavillion. Green dot: La Brea Tar Pits. In between the yellow and blue dots, current museum facilities are to be completely renovated. ]

BP’s contribution will go towards a costly three-part expansion and renovation of LACMA’s facilities. The oil leviathan’s cash has swollen the money available for the first phase construction to $191 million. Italian architect Renzo Piano has won the commission to redesign and unify LACMA’s expansive site. Billionaire Eli Broad and his wife Edythe gave $60 million to the overhaul project. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, to be built just west of the “BP Grand Entrance”, will connect to LACMA’s existing main wing and will house Eli Broad’s collection of modern art. The new LACMA and its edifice to the petroleum industry, is scheduled to open February of 2008.

In a March 6th article on the oil company’s “gift” to LACMA, the Los Angeles Times noted that, “Putting an oil company’s name on LACMA’s doorway brings an unusually high potential for controversy.” Indeed - and here comes the controversy! Despite the endless and well-financed public relations spin concerning BP’s alleged “commitment to sustainable energy”, the fact of the matter is that BP is part of the “OILigarchy” - the rapacious fossil fuel industry responsible for global warming and massive environmental destruction. BP reported profits of $22 billion in 2006, and the company currently has an ongoing commitment to increase its oil production by 5% - a policy that must be linked to the very real crisis of fossil fuel-induced climate change.

Photo by Gary Leonard

[ The "BP Grand Entrance" under construction. Photo by Gary Leonard. ]

BP invests less than 1% of its annual budget in solar and other renewable energy sources - a smaller amount than it spends yearly on public relations and advertising. That fact must be kept in mind, as the “BP Grand Entrance” pavilion will be topped by solar panels allegedly there to help fill LACMA’s energy needs. However, the real task of the solar panels is a propagandistic one. BP wishes to pawn itself off as a green energy company, and LACMA - for a price - is only too happy to collude.

As the L.A. Times noted in its March 6th article, BP has paid more than $125 million in legal settlements in the State of California since 2002. Quoting the L.A. Times article, “BP paid the state $45.8 million to settle a suit over pollution from leaking gasoline storage tanks. Later, air quality regulators sued over leakage of smog-forming chemicals at BP’s Carson refinery. BP settled for $81 million.”

In 2005, BP’s Texas City Refinery exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. U.S. government agencies investigating the blast found that BP’s excessive safety and budget cuts had led to the tragedy. More than 1,700 lawsuits have been filed by injured workers, with some 1,200 claims being settled out of court by BP in order to avoid bad publicity. The oil company has set aside $1.6 billion dollars to settle cases out of court. In the wake of the explosion in Texas, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), opened investigations into two of BP’s Midwestern refineries, finding the oil giant guilty of violating 39 safety regulations. OSHA issued penalty citations totaling $2.4 million dollars - BP hopes to settle out of court.

In 2006 BP was forced to shut down half of its oil operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, when the company’s worn-out, corroded pipelines began to leak - dumping an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude oil onto Alaskan tundra. On March 6th, 2007, Reuters reported that “Oil major BP’s failure to maintain pipelines properly at its giant Prudhoe Bay field was a major factor behind Alaska’s worst-ever onshore crude spill last year.” In that same report Reuters interviewed Thomas Barret, the head of the U.S. Department of Transport (one of the U.S. government agencies investigating the spill), who said; “What was most unusual was to have an operator like BP not maintaining these pipelines to the standards we typically see in the industry.”

BP is behind the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline - the second longest pipeline in the world - transporting crude oil from fields in the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline runs across the countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, all of which are conflict zones with notorious human rights records. BP has signed “production-sharing agreements” with the three host governments, neo-colonial contracts that bypass respective national environmental and social laws and place the overwhelming majority of profits in the hands of BP and its partners.

And speaking of oil pipelines in conflict zones, in 2006 BP secretively paid out a multi-million dollar settlement to Columbian farmers who were terrorized by right-wing death squads “protecting” BP’s 500-mile long Ocensa oil pipeline. A thousand poor Columbian farmers filed a human rights challenge in the High Court of London, charging BP with benefiting from the bullying and persecution meted out by the rightist militias. A Columbian lawyer attempting to assist the farmers discovered she was on a paramilitary death list, and fled to Britain where she was granted political asylum. While the total compensation paid to the farmers is unknown, it is believed to have totaled in the tens of millions of dollars. Part of the settlement stipulated BP would bear “no admission of liability” for the beatings, death threats, and property damage suffered by the farmers.

Of course BP has a long history in the Middle East, where seventy percent of the world’s oil reserves are found. Western powers thirsty for petroleum and a need to control the region’s black gold have historically resorted to colonialism, the backing of dictatorships, the proliferation of weapons, and as we see today in Iraq - outright war and occupation.

During the first week of March, 2007, the Anglo-American backed government of Iraq, approved a draft law that will essentially turn over Iraq’s oil wealth to American and British companies. The Iraqi oil legislation bill promotes a “production-sharing agreement” that would guarantee foreign companies up to 70 percent of the revenues obtained from exploiting Iraqi oil, giving U.S. and British oil companies the unrestricted right to take oil profits out of the country, rather than reinvesting them in Iraq. The lion’s share of Iraq oil profits will therefore go to Shell, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and yes - BP. The draft law still needs final Iraqi government approval before it can be enacted, but with U.S. and British military might keeping the Iraqi government in power - passage is sure to be a “done deal.”

The roots of BP’s meddling in the Middle East go back to 1909. In that year, through an agreement with the Shah of Iran, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) began to exploit the oil resources of Persia, obtaining petroleum that fed the British war machine during World War 1. In 1936 Persia was renamed Iran, and APOC became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). In 1951 the Iranian parliament passed a bill that nationalized the oil industry, effectively barring British exploitation of Iranian petroleum and causing the Shah - and AIOC - to flee the country. The British then colluded with the U.S. and the C.I.A. to organize the infamous coup that overthrew Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and his democratically elected government. On August 19th, 1953, Mossadeq was driven from power, the pro-Western Shah was restored, and in 1954 AIOC became known as The British Petroleum Company (BP) - which of course immediately resumed pumping oil out of Iran.

Credited with such a laundry list of misdeeds, it is not surprising that others have taken notice of BP’s destructive schemes, and have called for resistance to big oil’s sponsorship of the arts. The National Portrait Gallery of London, England, was established in 1856, and it’s the repository for some of that nation’s greatest historic portraits. The gallery holds an annual portrait competition that has launched the careers of several portrait artists. Since 2004 the celebrated competition has been sponsored by none other than BP, and the competition is now known as the “BP Portrait Award.”

In response, English artists and environmental activists started a group called, Art Not Oil, which seeks to end oil industry sponsorship of the arts. The group’s mission statement encourages “artists to create work that explores the damage that companies like BP and Shell are doing to the planet, and the role art can play in counteracting that damage.” The misconduct of BP and other oil companies is continually and determinedly exposed through the art exhibits, educational forums and public protests mounted by the artist activists of Art Not Oil. It is unquestionably time to establish a similar organization in Los Angeles - either that or get used to calling LACMA - The Oil Museum.

[ UPDATE: Art critic Walter Robinson at picked up the LACMA/BP story in a March 16th, 2007, Artnet News article titled Stink over BP deal with LACMA.]