Is LACMA curator Virginia Fields speechless over Jorge Pardo's redesign of the Arts of Ancient America rooms? Tyler Green detected that subtext in a June Los Angeles Times piece. Said the Times, "LACMA spokeswomen declined to make pre-Columbian curator Virginia Fields available or discuss details of the Pardo work until just before the opening of the new galleries, which is set for late July." Hmm. Well the Times did another write-up Saturday, and Fields was still mysteriously AWOL. Usual for Times arts coverage is a profound disinterest in follow-up questions.
Whatever. The top floor of the Art of Americas building is now open, installed with a survey of south-of-the-Rio-Grande American art, from c. 1500 BC to 2007 AD. Compared to the Broad fiasco and the underpowered Lazarof collection, this is an triumph. Does Pardo's exuberantly polychrome installation overwhelm the art? It sure as hell does. The three rooms Pardo has designed show smallish terracotta works. So sure, your first reaction is going to be to the Pardo Gesamtkunstwerk. You get past it. Anyone who visits the Uffizi, or the Getty Villa, gapes first at the building, then at the art.
The above-eye-level taffeta curtains evoke those in the old exhibition gallery at the Morgan Library. That's not such a bad frisson. The only downside I can see is that it may inspire other museums to try something "similar." (John Buchanan must already be plotting the Dale Chihuly makeover of the de Young.) The fact is, there aren't many artists as interesting as Pardo who know how to make furnishings.
The best news about the new galleries isn't the installation, however. It's the quality and quantity of newly acquired art. There are certainly museums with more and better Latin American art, but I am not aware of any that show the ancient-to-contemporary timeline as coherently as this.
The largest group of recent accessions is the Stephan and Claudia Munoz Kramer collection of Columbian antiquities ("pre-Columbian" artifacts from the country called Columbia...) This adds balance to a collection that is otherwise largely Mexican. There is now a surprisingly substantial group of Spanish colonial painting and decorative arts. I say "surprising" because the museum has hardly displayed any such material, aside from a silver chalice donated long, long ago by Citizen Hearst. I liked a tiny Madonna and child on copper, attributed to the Cuzco school, and a set of six seasonal landscapes by Antonio de Espinosa. They are hybrid in the most puzzling sense, Flemish seasons transliterated to near-seasonless tropics.
Deaccessioning is at least as controversial as installations-that-overshadow-the-art. Let me praise that vice while I'm at it. Much of what's on view here would not be here, were it not for the 1997 gift-purchase of the masterpiece-deficient collection of Palm Springs art dealers Bernard and Edith Lewin. The museum has been selling off the Lewins' Mexican modernist pieces right and left. If ever a collection merited such treatment, it was that of those sainted Lewins. How could anyone assemble what was said to be the largest private holding of Rufino Tamayo's work -- without snagging a single Tamayo that anyone breathing would actually want to look at?
The best thing among the Lewin works is a small, late Frida Kahlo still life. It's still here, and it has never looked better. But Frida, move over. Your Weeping Coconuts is no longer the best Latin-modern painting in Los Angeles. That is now Wifredo Lam's Tropic (or Tropico, as in the Edward Weston-era name of Glendale). Purchased with Lewin deaccession funds, this one painting is not only better than any single work in the Lewin collection. It's better than the whole damn collection. Whoever bought this deserves the Nobel Prize in deaccessioning.
Next to the Lam are two smallish though good paintings by Matta, both on loan from private collections. How's this for surrealism? The larger was lent by cheese-and-summer-sausage gift-basket tycoon Todd Figi.
The only real misstep in the whole installation is the folkloric Mexican music playing from speakers nearby. This is intended to complement a group of politically-themed Mexican prints. That may be a defensible gesture, but second-hand mariachi is an odd soundtrack for two notably cosmopolitan Cuban and Chilean modernists.
The room of contemporary art (the space that once held Motherwell and Frankenheimer and Still) is exemplary. It includes a selection of geometric abstraction: Carlos Merida (from the Lewins), Jesus Raphael Sota, Sergio Camargo, Helio Oticica, Mathias Goeritz. The museum has a hard-on for Francis Alys. They're showing two conceptual paintings, a couple of drawings, and the big video-installation SOMETIMES DOING SOMETHING POETIC CAN BECOME POLITICAL AND SOMETIMES DOING SOMETHING POLITICAL CAN BECOME POETIC. That title says something about why I'm not all that crazy about Alys. Still, it was bought with Lewin (and Blankfort collection) funds, meaning it's almost a guaranteed step up.