MOCA Celebrates the Big 4-0

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Portrait of MOCA), 1996
It's 40 years since Marcia Weisman lobbied Mayor Tom Bradley to establish a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles. The Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in Little Tokyo in November 1983. At the time Weisman boasted: "Where else do you go to see an Orr, a Flavin, a Wheeler, along with a Newman, a Smith, a Schnabel?"

Those wouldn't be the names you'd pick to define MOCA today. Yet Frank Gehry's 1983 update of two Little Tokyo warehouse has transcended its original billing as "temporary." It's now housing a sprawling 40th-anniversary show titled "The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA's Collection."

The exhibition is not a greatest-hits survey of the collection, for the Rothkos and Oldenburgs and such remain at Grand Ave. It is rather a selection of works featuring artists who've been the subject of MOCA exhibitions, L.A. artists, and others who aren't too conventionally canonical. Many of the works are new acquisitions that have never been displayed; others haven't been displayed at MOCA in decades.
Jessica Stockholder, White Light Laid Frozen, 2005
The exhibition title refers to Chris Burden's Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, first shown in 1986. Institutional critique as an open grave, it was among the newest and rawest works on view in 1986. Now it's art history.
Chris Burden, Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 2019 installation of 1986 work
MOCA has been a troubled museum almost as long as it's been an artists' museum. The past four decades' headlines have often been about firings and hirings, dwindling endowments and bailouts with strings attached. Lately the news has turned positive, with a plan to offer free admission and an impressively ambitious (and full) exhibition schedule through 2020. "The Foundation of the Museum" offers further cause for optimism. Many of the works on view are shockingly good—shocking, for they've been acquired without the publicity they'd get almost anywhere else.

Where else do you go to see Llyn Foulkes, Andrea Zittel, and Tom of Finland, along with Christina Quarles, Jim Shaw, and Anicka Yi?
Christina Quarles, Bad Air/Yer Grievances, 2018
Small detail of Jim Shaw's Long Scroll Drawing, 2007
Albert Oehlen, Untitled (Baum 5), 2014. A gift of Laura Owens
Mike Kelley, Pay for Your Pleasure, 1988
MOCA Geffen entrance with Diana Thater's RGB Windows for MOCA, 2001
Laura Owens, untitled, 2000
Tom of Finland, Untitled (Study), c. 1968
Charles Ray, Silver, 2015
Installation view with Uuu Mee by Raúl De Nieves, 2013-16 (foreground sculpture); Rodney McMillian's Representation of a Landscape as a Wall, 2012 (large painting); Belkis Ayón's Resurrección, 1998, (collograph print in far background)