L.A. Consequential

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2002


"L.A. is the new New York." That's the equivalent, in art-world terms, of "It's not the heat so much as the humidity," or maybe, "Taxes aren't the problem -- it's that the money's wasted." Unlike cliches that are self-evidently true, however, the one about L.A. as an artistic rival to New York is worthy of some longer thought.

In terms of worldwide prestige and exposure, there's no denying it. People have been looking to Los Angeles as an alternative art center for at least a decade. (Some L.A. locals say as long as 40 years.)

Last fall, a trip to London turned up four celebrated L.A. artists having shows in some of the British capital's most important venues -- the Whitechapel Gallery advertised L.A. as having "one of the most dynamic art scenes in the world" -- vs. a strikeout for New York. Right now in Washington, two commercial exhibitions in Northwest -- a solo show at Seventh Street's Numark Gallery and a group show at Fusebox, on 14th -- have works up by younger Angelenos.

In the spring, the Corcoran will present a look at L.A.'s nonprofit Broad Foundation, whose mandate is to spread the news about contemporary art by lending out its works around the world. And there's hardly an L.A. artist who's made it big -- many of them are the art world's very biggest talents -- who isn't being represented by a New York gallery. (A number of Manhattan dealers, including kingpin Larry Gagosian, have also opened L.A. spaces.)

But when it comes to totting up the larger score, things get more complex.

To face off against New York's mighty Metropolitan Museum, L.A. has the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Center in suburban Brentwood and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena -- a trio that may someday rival the Met but not for many decades yet.

For recent art, Los Angeles has its young Museum of Contemporary Art, a respectable institution by any measure, and several ambitious art-school galleries -- but they're no match for a fearsome New York roster that includes MoMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, P.S. 1, the New Museum and the Dia Center for the Arts.

L.A. has several commercial scenes of note for blue-chip artists (at a few galleries in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, especially), for well-known local names (at a dozen or so spaces scattered around Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica and Venice) and for the young and restless (in the new Chinatown and warehouse galleries), but nothing on the scale of New York's teaming SoHo, Chelsea and Upper East Side gallery districts, not to mention Brooklyn and what's left of the moribund East Village scene.

But rather than being simply a second-best bet -- just like Manhattan, only smaller, sunnier and with the advantage of playing out as a novel alternative to Old New York -- L.A., you might argue, actually has its own special qualities that make it quite different from anywhere else. Or that, at least, was the proposition put to six local lights during a recent reconnoiter of the city's art scene. Here are choice morsels from that lively evening's conversation, held last month amid the clatter of dishes at Mimosa, a popular French bistro near Melrose Avenue.

The Diners

Anne Ayres is director of the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design, where she has curated exhibitions by a broad range of area artists.

John Baldessari, a major figure in American conceptual art, is also the Grand Old Man of the Los Angeles scene, respected as much for his long career teaching in local art programs -- he's now at UCLA -- as for his generous mentoring of younger artists.

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