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Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons

Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
by George Melrod

Attending a museum show celebrating a famous collector is a bit like watching a woman you like parading around her rich new boyfriend. No matter how good they look together in public, you know the real action's going on behind the scenes. That said, the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection (or rather, collections since there are three distinct groups) is deemed one of the top ten private art troves in the world. It includes numerous Pop Art icons, such as Jasper Johns's Flag, Warhol's Self-Portrait, and Lichtenstein's Live Ammo (Blang!) and I...I'm Sorry, which Broad bought at auction in 1994 for $2.5 million (a sum that he charged on his AmEx card for the frequent flyer miles, which he then donated to Cal Arts for student travel). It also features some of the most prominent works of the 1980s and '90s by such provocateurs as Jeff Koons and Charles Ray.

While some of the works from the Broad collections have previously been loaned to museums other than the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which hosted this blockbuster, many of them have never been exhibited on the west coast until now. So it's a treat to have them put on view in their adopted city, even if this show marks an attempt to woo these works to a permanent home. Broad, who made his fortune in tract housing, helped found L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and is a trustee of LACMA, so one can guess they will end up here one way or another.

Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections, as curated by LACMA's Stephanie Barron and Lynn Zelevansky, is a thoughtful survey of the past 45 years from the artwork in Broad's inventory. The show, building from a 1954 Rauschenberg combine painting to the work of contemporary L.A. photographer Sharon Lockhart, has many high points, even if it doesn't always quite gel. Walking through it feels like sifting through a greatest hits collection with some sections dazzlingly complete and gaping voids in between. Those missing links are frustrating but also perversely inspiring, forcing the viewer to work a little harder. Or one could simply enjoy the show by luxuriating in the individual works and getting requainted with old standards.

One of the pillars of Broad's approach is that once he and his curator, Joanne Heyler, commit to an artist, they tend to buy in depth. So this show is far from the usual collector's grab bag. In fact, it boasts ten Warhols, ten Lichtensteins, and seven Johns, including several of the artists' signature works. So in a sense, the collection provides its own context. This method has its pitfalls: for instance, the abrupt juxtaposition of the early, classic Johns with the introspective later work is unnerving, especially since the studious Johns is paired with the frenetic Cy Twombly. The Lichtensteins, plucked from Broad's extraordinary stable of nearly thirty, get their own room, and give good idea of the broad scope of art history the artist appropriated for his work. If he started out cribbing from comics, he soon traded upward to Picasso, Monet, and Mondrian. The Warhols, including the silkscreened homages to Elvis, Marilyn, Jackie, and the FBI's most wanted criminals, resonate throughout the show in their canny embrace of the cult of celebrity.

California Pop Art is epitomized by Ed Ruscha, including his darkly cheerful Norms, La Cienega, On Fire from 1964, but poor John Baldessari is left to form the link between American and German conceptualism. It's an unfair burden that the work can't really bear. Still, if the curators had to choose just over a hundred works, they chose fine examples. German photography is represented by three sets of water-tower portraits by the Bechers, and Hans Haacke's subversive political theater is exemplified by a spooky Reagan-era installation. Major German painters typified by one exuberant artwork each include Jorg Immendorff and Sigmar Polke; Georg Baselitz gets two. (Four paintings by American Jean-Michel Basquiat are tucked into a room of their own off this Deutsche bank, and aptly illustrate the artist's jewellike, scratchy elegance.)

The German artist given fullest voice is Anselm Kiefer, represented by three monumental canvases (one each from the 1970s, '80s, and '90s), including Nürnberg, with its grim, straw-caked, post-war landscape. The works are complemented by two huge, deceptively casual carved wood figures of a contemporary male and female by Stephan Balkenhol from 1996 that guard the gallery's doorway like temple pillars. The room, blurring allusions to neo-classicism, nazism, communism, and postmodernism, suggests a solemn elegy to the 20th century, and evokes extra historical resonance post-September 11. It's a profound, even sublime space, and a testimony to the depth of Broad's collecting that it could be culled from one private trove.

On the other hand, the curators are clearly also bound by the limits of their mandate: their pocket survey of post-war German art has no Beuys or Gerhard Richter, whose blurred headshots of the Baader-Meinhoff terrorists would have provided a crucial connective strand in a more conventionally curated show. Presumably such works were simply not available.

Nonetheless, several big themes waft through these halls, foremost among them the influence of mass media on identity; the tug of war between personal expression and consumer commodification; the counterpoint of high and low culture; and the construction of cultural icons. Two artists tilling those themes, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons, are especially well represented. Sherman's 18 photographs (out of over a hundred in the collection) amply document her voyage from the noirish film stills of the late 1970s to the more art historical and often grotesque images of recent years. Koons has seven of his strongest works on display, including one of his floating basketball pieces; his hilarious, wicked ceramic portrait, Michael Jackson and Bubbles; and his classic stainless steel balloon, Rabbit, of 1986. His giant blue Balloon Dog guards the entrance to the exhibit like an Assyrian griffin enlisted as a circus barker. Nobody doesn't like a clown (okay, some people hate clowns), but in the context of their Pop Art roots, Koons's gaudy one-liners are highly amusing.

New York painting of the 1980s is handsomely represented in the half-dozen dreamy, eroticized works by Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Ross Bleckner. Julian Schnabel gets one vast cracked-plate canvas, and Susan Rothenberg has two beautiful pieces. The final star of the show is L.A. sculptor and teacher Charles Ray. Among his contributions are two figurative works: Fall '91, a towering female mannequin; and a nude male mannequin equipped with a disconcertingly realistic cast of genitals (Ray's own). Ray's works, with their sly perceptual conundrums, exude a deadpan solemnity, making him Steven Wright to Koons's Carrot Top. Yet the installation here is off: Ray and Rothenberg are each significant, but it would be hard to pick two living artists whose work has less to say to each other. The juxtaposition is just plain weird. In fact, the Rays were purchased from the Saatchi Collection, a much more edgy enterprise. By contrast, Broad's choice of artists seems to derive from identifying future blue chip cultural stocks, with a healthy blend of growth and value options. As a result, the tone of his collection feels only safely dangerous, and actually quite elegant. (Which makes it a perfect fit for some lucky museum's permanent collection; cue saliva.)

The exhibit ends with a set of three photographs from 1999 by Sharon Lockhart depicting a maintenance worker at a Mexican archeology museum. Crouched behind a translucent barrier, he becomes one of the displays. Likewise, one could say that this exhibit itself, at its broadest, is about the process of constructing cultural narratives, on a range of levels: by the artists who forge them, the collectors who endorse them, and finally, by the museums and curators who enshrine them as archetypes of art history. There's an irony in having so many artworks that examine the process of commodification being flaunted as booty to be bought and donated.

It is worth noting that Koons's metallic bunny balloon has become the de facto symbol of the show. (The other half of the logo, Johns's Flag, seems almost like wallpaper in the wake of September 11.) The original Rabbit, experienced in person, is reflective, so it tacitly includes the viewer's own image, a satirical update, perhaps, of Brancusi's stately Blond Negress. That reflectivity is absent from the museum's advertising banners. But the bunny makes a catchy icon and aptly suggests the two-way traffic of commodification in the art world. Most discussion of Pop Art centers on the introduction of popular culture into the temple of fine art, but Flag and Rabbit are also being sent back out into the world to sell high art to the general public. For all its goofy humor, Koons's Rabbit is now part of the branding of the museum and the Broad collection. Like its cousin the Energizer bunny, it keeps going, and going, and going.... Give them credit for truth in advertising: despite its glaring oversimplifications, the Broad show is bright and shiny, and very entertaining.

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