MOCA’s First Thirty Years

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) is displaying “Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years” for its 30th birthday. According to the MOCA, the exhibit “contains more than 500 artworks by over 200 artists.” Armed with only moderate knowledge and interest, I attended the exhibit not expecting to fully comprehend or appreciate its contents.

One of the first rooms has nothing but the formless, mostly monochromatic works by Mark Rothko. Instead of the underwhelming effect contemporary art usually has on me, this area and its bold works startled me into the mood necessary to appreciate this sort of art. The rooms were big, white, and sparse, and the floors wooden and clean. The tour guide pointed out that there was only “a rare bench” throughout the exhibit.

The managed to round up a few impressive pieces for the exhibit: one of Andy Warhol’s plainer soup cans, the comic-style “I…I’m Sorry” by Roy Lichtenstein, and Jackson Pollock’s anti-philosophical “Number 1”—the first painting he ever created in his signature splattering method. Seeing these works in person really helps one realize the validity and stunning nature of contemporary art. Instead of secretly thinking my little brother could draw them, something about seeing these works up close reveals how intentional and well thought-out they are.

The exhibit also contains photographic sets by Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Having never heard of either artist before, I was impressed by the astuteness of their photos. Frank’s set has about 55 pictures in it, selected from about 67,000 he took from across the United States. The black and white works portray “all parts of the United States as equally somber,” the guide said. And the pictures do serve to equalize the subjects. A funeral, a man at a jukebox, and a landscape of Los Angeles all felt equally medial and, in an odd way, equally hollow. Similarly, Arbus’ portraits present an interesting and unsaturated angle on humanity.

One of the more fun pieces is “Drawing After Electric Dress” by Atsuko Tanaka, drawn with colored pencils on construction paper. Also, James Rosenquist’s crisp stream-of-consciousness billboards are attractive and easy to enjoy.

This part of the exhibit is contained in the main MOCA building, MOCA Grand Avenue. I took a free transit bus to a satellite building, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, where the exhibit continued. Upon entering the building, I was greeted by a huge, 10-foot wooden wheel on an axle erected just off the ground and planted next to a motorcycle. In a few minutes, a man came in and attached a hose to the motorcycle for the exhaust, positioned the back tire of the bike parallel to the giant wheel, and took four or five revs to start the bike.

Mounting the bike, he set it against the wheel and began to spin the wheel. After about five minutes and several attempts, the wheel was spinning fast. A new guide informed us that the last time it had started, Chris Burden’s “The Big Wheel” had not stopped spinning for more than two hours. The whole process is avant-garde and genuinely feels dangerous: the driver’s back was just inches from the wheel itself. The piece is indicative of performance art from the 1970s, when artists wanted to show a “transfer of energy” and give from their person to an inanimate object, taking the medium so far as to drag themselves through glass or even kill themselves. In this area, the exhibit moves away from introspective minimalism and toward social commentary. Most explicitly, Anselm Kiefer’s monstrous “Departure from Egypt” presents a particularly muddy apocalypse intended to indicate civilization gone wrong.

The star of this more interactive section was sculptor Charles Ray. At first glance, “Tabletop” and “Rotating Circle” present nothing more than mediocre, contemporary arbitrariness. Upon closer inspection, the viewer can see that all the items on the tabletop are rotating so slowly that you can only tell by following an irregularity on one of the items. Similarly, the circle seems motionless but actually rotates so fast it appears still and perfectly smooth, toying with believability. Eye-catching and thought-provoking, these pieces made me grateful for our guide’s presence.

The commercial carelessness depicted by Jason Rhoades, along with the tortured Santa Clauses that fill an upstairs room, add to the inescapable theme of social critique. But the art is still engaging and often requires participation. The 1979-onward portion of the exhibit feels worldlier than 1939 to 1979. Maybe it was no accident that this second building has the layout of a warehouse and a design style featuring unfinished metal. The floors are cement as opposed to wood, and the multi-tiered layout makes the room feel quite industrial.

As I left the exhibit, I found myself thinking a little bit harder than usual about myself and my physical and social environment. This exhibit has a lot going on, and almost subliminally overwhelms you into being contemplative—something I am sure the represented artists would love to hear. More than anything else, this exhibit helped me understand the personality and depth of contemporary art. Seeing these works first-hand really brings out ideas that are difficult to convey otherwise. Each is an exciting little puzzle of sorts, donating all it can so the viewer can extract meaning from it.

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