Paul Schimmel, the Museum of Contemporary Art's (MOCA) chief curator, wants us to spend our summer looking back -- 50 or so years to around the time of his birth, and to the city where he grew up, New York, to focus on the remarkable work of a young, poor and not-yet-famous Robert Rauschenberg, who was gathering junk and detritus from his life (clothes, family photos, fabric) and incorporating them into paintings that then became three-dimensional constructs, which Rauschenberg called "Combines."
Although the Combines are well-known to art lovers, and certainly Rauschenberg's "Monogram" (or "That work with the stuffed goat," as most people know it) has achieved iconic status, no previous show has ever focused exclusively on the Combines.
Schimmel believes that the Combines are among the most important and influential works of the second half of the 20th century -- that they operate not only as a bridge between the abstract expressionists and the pop artists, but also contain the seeds of many art movements that followed. He also argues that the Combines are even more culturally relevant today in the age of sampling and in a culture that cannibalizes itself at an unprecedented rate.
Schimmel believes that this exhibition of Rauschenberg's work, "Robert Rauschenberg: Combines," which he organized for MOCA and which had its first showing last winter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will have a major influence on other artists' work over the next 10 to 15 years. And this kind of thinking -- the long-view historical perspective, the focus on artists, the pop cultural references and this sort of grandiose pronouncement (which could very well be dead on) -- is all typical of Schimmel.
Schimmel is toastmaster and host at the hippest party in town, the L.A. contemporary art scene. He has been chief curator at MOCA since 1990, and during his tenure the contemporary art world and the L.A. art scene have exploded -- never have so many collectors been so globally active in the acquisition of recently made art. Never have so many Los Angeles-based artists been so well regarded by the art establishment. MOCA has garnered serious consideration, in part, by virtue of Schimmel's major exhibitions, which have tried to give both historical context to contemporary work as well as to focus on the output of many individual artists.
So how did Paul Schimmel get to be Paul Schimmel? Turns out, strange as it may seem, that he has always been Paul Schimmel.
"Even in high school," Schimmel recalled recently, "I wanted to be a curator."
He credits the influence of his Manhattan private school art teacher, Betty Tompkins, an artist he describes as a "photo-realist with a strong feminist bent" and whose work has recently been receiving renewed attention. He also points to his high school English teacher, Paul Schwager, who suggested that Schimmel do his 11th-grade project on Gertrude Stein. For that project, Schimmel began spending time at the library of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), where the librarian, impressed that a 15-year-old was so passionate about art, introduced him to some of the associate curators. They, in turn, learning that his project was on Stein, took him to see original works in the museum's collection that, by coincidence, they just happened to be in the process of organizing for a landmark show on the Stein and Cone collections. "I felt this was the coolest," Schimmel said.
As a teenager, Schimmel would walk friends through MOMA and the Met.
"I had these different tours that I would do," he said. "I always felt museums were an extension of my house."
He realized that he did not need to own the artworks to feel that they were his own: "By looking at something, spending time with it, talking about it, it became my work."
Or, more to the point, Schimmel realized that looking and talking about artworks could become his life's work.
"In some ways," Schimmel now says, "nothing has changed since then. To this day, [this approach] continues to inform what I do as a curator."
He attended Syracuse University, where he was allowed to take some of the graduate-level museum studies program courses, and did an internship at the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM) in Houston. Upon graduation, he joined the curatorial staff of CAM, spending several years in Texas before returning to New York to the Institute of Fine Arts, an art history program at New York University, to work toward a master's degree. After leaving NYU in 1981, he was offered a job as a curator at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (which is now the Orange County Museum of Art).
Schimmel admitted that the first day he arrived in Orange County from New York "was a shock." At first he felt "like I was in a satellite -- removed."
Yet he found that the expectations of what he could accomplish there were such that when he exhibited edgy and ground-breaking contemporary Los Angeles artists like Mike Kelly, Chris Burden or Charlie Ray, the reaction was: "How did you do that in Newport?"
From the start, Schimmel realized that "you need to engage a younger audience." What he also learned is that if you do a show and get people to write about it, audiences will come, and you get a following. Equally important, you can have a big success with modest numbers. As long as the museum leaders feel the museum is making a contribution to its community, you have the support of the museum. In the just under a decade that he was at the Newport Harbor museum, Schimmel organized a series of major exhibitions including ones on emerging California artists; a reassessment of figurative art from the 1950s, an Edvard Munch show that was hugely successful and a local artists' biennial.
Then, in 1990, Schimmel was offered the MOCA post.
"It was a surprise," he said. "It's not that likely for a major institution of international stature to look so locally."
But Schimmel had the support of a few museum trustees, including the respected collector Marcia Weisman, who liked him for his commitment not only to the California and L.A. art scene, but for his wide-ranging historical approach to shows.
Schimmel has now been at MOCA for 16 years, an unusually stable career in a world where art institutions and curators regularly engage in musical chairs.
In many ways he has been at the right place at the right time. He presides over a significant collection of contemporary art at a moment when, as Schimmel put it, "the role of contemporary art has become more central, more visible, more financially significant than anyone can imagine."
In the 1960s, contemporary art was a "very small, highly rarified world." Although there was an explosion of artists and collectors in the 1980s, museums of modern art were uncomfortable with contemporary art. Today the scene is completely different.
"The growth of contemporary art museums in the post-war period in this country was a direct result of the larger more encyclopedic museums keeping two things out," Schimmel said: "Contemporary art and Jews."
"So if you look at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the number of contemporary art museums in Los Angeles, younger Jewish collections were at the root." Schimmel defines these collectors as creating a counter culture -- meaning a culture counter to the mainstream old master collections. On an international level, the most famous exemplar is Charles Saatchi, an Iraqi-born Jew who made his fortune in advertising and who, despite having advised Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party on its successful election campaign, is an outsider to the English establishment, and who has had an enormous impact on the contemporary art scene.
In Los Angeles, a similar phenomenon led to the formation of MOCA. Although for most of the 20th century the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), founded in 1910, was the pre-eminent repository for modern art in Los Angeles, the now-defunct Pasadena Art Museum was once thought to be the place for contemporary art (particularly under Walter Hopps). However, the Pasadena museum foundered financially, and in 1974 Norton Simon took it over and transformed it into his eponymous showcase of impressionist, old master, and Asian art.
In 1979, seeking a home in Los Angeles for contemporary art, Norton Simon's sister, Marcia Weisman, along with her husband Frederick Weisman (they later divorced) and other major contemporary art collectors such as Phil and Beatrice Gersh, Lenore Greenberg, Max Palevsky and Eli Broad, broke away from LACMA, founding MOCA in 1983, after Mayor Tom Bradley suggested creating a museum of contemporary art as part of California Plaza, a downtown Los Angeles hotel and office development. While they awaited construction of the Arata Isozaki building (which opened in 1986), MOCA's first home became a former police garage in Little Tokyo, renovated by Frank Gehry.
The Temporary Contemporary (TC) was always a place where expectations were different -- it didn't have the imprimatur of a "museum." But it also afforded the opportunity to exhibit work that didn't fit in the normal confines of traditional museum galleries. This freewheeling openness proved liberating for the curators, the artists, and for the audiences. At the TC you could expect to see avant-garde work, and you were free to hate it, ridicule it or even enjoy it.
The TC proved so popular that it turned out to defy its "temporary" name; it was expanded to include an additional exhibition space, and in 1996 David Geffen contributed $5 million to renovate the space -- which resulted in it being renamed the Geffen Contemporary. The space housed the recent successful "Ecstacy: In and About Altered States" show, curated by Schimmel, which is now closed for renovation but will reopen in September.
Schimmel sees the Geffen space as keeping alive the connection between the "studio and the factory." If the Arata Isozaki building is the heart of MOCA, Schimmel said, then the Geffen Contemporary remains "the soul of MOCA."
Was necessity the mother of invention, or was MOCA prescient? In recent years, a number of major art institutions, most notably the Tate in London, have felt a need to renovate industrial space to showcase contemporary work. Could one be so bold as to say they owe a debt to MOCA?
Schimmel feels that one of the reasons that Los Angeles has become home to so many contemporary artists is CalArts -- a school that is itself very much artist-led (a case he made persuasively with the exhibition "Public Offerings"). Similarly, Schimmel feels that what distinguishes MOCA as an institution is the involvement of artists, such as the late Sam Francis and the always innovative Robert Irwin as early trustees, as well as architect Frank Gehry, who was once a board member and is still an active supporter.
In some ways, Schimmel said, artists are the audience that matters most to the museum's growth and future.
"Who is our audience?" Schimmel asks. " Tourists? Collectors? Our audience is the artists themselves."
This is a variation on the lesson Schimmel learned in Newport. Put together shows that matter -- shows that you are willing to stake your reputation on, shows that artists find interesting and people will write about -- and the audience will follow.
"This is not the movie business," Schimmel said, "we don't need millions.... We had close to 100,000 visitors for the 'Ecstasy' show, and that's huge by museum standards."
Over the last 16 years at MOCA, Schimmel has curated numerous thought-provoking shows, including "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" (1992), "Hand-painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62" (1992), "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979" (1998), "Public Offerings" (2001) and "Ecstasy," as well as solo shows of artists including Sigmar Polke, Robert Gober and Charles Ray.
"I am always mixing historical and contemporary shows." Schimmel said.
Postmodernism has often been critiqued for inserting us into a world without context, into a PC world in which art history is no longer relevant -- into a world where the references are only inside jokes or appropriations from other work. Yet Schimmel stands at odds with this point of view.
"I still believe there is a history of art," Schimmel said. "There's a story to be told, and exhibitions that don't attempt to define that history have lost a huge opportunity."
To some extent, MOCA and Paul Schimmel's success lie in seizing that opportunity. Many contemporary art museums have become institutions saddled with demands -- large boards, large bureaucracies, the desire for huge shows and large attendance. As a result, increasingly we have witnessed more and more "mega shows" or career retrospectives but fewer historical, conceptual shows. Fewer shows that challenge us to see an artist or an era in a new light.
"MOCA is one of the few museums that consistently takes on large-scale thematic exhibitions." Schimmel said.
He believes MOCA, in this way, is living up to the standard set by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in his teenage years.
"MOCA has done more to embrace and further the legacy of complex theoretical thematic exhibitions than MOMA has done over the last 15 years," Schimmel said.
Today, MOMA, in the wake of its successful renovation, is an encyclopedia of modern art come to life -- the number of major recognizable masterworks in its collection is mind boggling. It is almost overwhelming. One can't fault MOMA for the wealth of its collection. But one can still pine, as Schimmel does, for the clarity that the MOMA of Schimmel's high-school years afforded.
Like Schimmel, I spent a great deal of time at New York's Museum of Modern Art during my high school years (When Schimmel was looking in the basement at their collection, I was probably sitting in the garden staring at Rodin's statue of Balzac and at Picasso's goat). MOMA's then-curator William Rubin had created a museum where one room followed the next, the artworks were all at eye level, accessible. You didn't need an audio tour: the works in each room made the argument that this follows this -- allowing the connections to be made in your head.
Rubin taught at NYU when Schimmel was a graduate student -- but my guess is it is more the museum than the man that influenced him. When you visit the Combines at MOCA, you are seeing an exhibition that could have been shown at Rubin's MOMA.
I was reminded of this when visiting Schimmel's stunning installation of Rauschenberg's work. The groupings are done in a way that states the importance of each work but allows the viewer space to interact with the art. There is a flow, an art historical progression that allows you to make the connections between abstract expressionism -- the messiness, the found objects (while rejecting its emotional quality) -- and the coolness of pop art to follow, with its similar interest in newspaper comics and the everyday. At the same time, there is bridge between the work Rauschenberg did before, the red paintings, and what would follow. Finally, the show allows us to consider the importance of the Combines unto themselves, as presaging the work of a wide variety of contemporary artists -- from John Baldessari to Robert Gober, just to name a few -- and as being uniquely relevant to today (some of the Combines look like they could have been made last week, not 50 years ago).
The Combines show would be reason enough to visit MOCA this summer, but as long as we are there, Schimmel has a few more tours he wants to take us on.
There is a 20-year survey of the work of Lorna Simpson, an artist whose photographs and video installations, combining images and text, challenge us to consider issues of narrative and gender; as well as a small show titled "After Cézanne," which is an exquisite selection of works from MOCA's collection that features artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Roy Lichtenstein, Diane Arbus and Arshile Gorky all in conversation with each other -- pondering the 20th century by referencing Cézanne -- just as the Combines nearby engage in a dialogue about art in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.
So this summer, Paul Schimmel is sending us all back to the future. Summer school is in session at MOCA. Schimmel wants to inspire artists and make them see Rauschenberg's work and their own in a new light. To the collectors and connoisseurs of contemporary art, he wants to reveal the context from which to regard the works that came before and those that will follow. Finally, for the general public he has a special offer: He want us to make these remarkable art works that most of us can never afford our own.
Very, very Paul Schimmel.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week in The Journal.