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MOCA's Double Standard

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A little more than a year ago, MOCA, LA's Museum of Contemporary Art, was on its deathbed. After years of living beyond its means by illegally dipping into its endowment, the museum finally came to a breaking point: the director had to resign, the museum board was revamped, and at the eleventh hour, Los Angeles mega-philanthropist Eli Broad came to the rescue, to the tune of $30 million. Thus, the museum was saved, and one could hear sighs of relief all across our City of Angels and well beyond.

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After all this tumult, no one expected MOCA to conduct business as usual, and indeed, the museum went back to its roots by reinstalling - to maximum effect and much acclaim - its superb collection of modern and contemporary art. Then came the announcement of the unconventional choice made by Eli Broad and MOCA's trustees: the successful and well-known New York-based art dealer Jeffrey Deitch would become the museum's new director. Plenty of eyebrows were raised, of course, but eventually the dust settled. When Jeffrey Deitch announced plans for his first exhibition - the tribute to filmmaker and artist Dennis Hopper - it was met with some disappointment, as this choice was perceived as an all-too-obvious attempt to get into Hollywood's good graces.

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However, asking Julian Schnabel - whose reputation as a painter has been in decline, while his second career as a maverick filmmaker is thriving - to curate the exhibition was an interesting departure from business as usual. Come to think of it, Hopper started in film and later ventured into visual art, while Schnabel's career took the opposite turn. All that made for a very intriguing pairing, and one hoped it would result in an interesting, challenging exhibition. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

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The exhibition's title, "Double Standard", refers to Hopper's famous black and white photograph from 1961, shot through the windshield of a moving car and showing a gas station at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard with Melrose Avenue. In recent years, this image has become almost iconic; in 2006, it was chosen for the banner greeting visitors approaching the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with its groundbreaking exhibition celebrating thirty years of Los Angeles art, from 1955-1985. French curators deserve credit for being coolly objective in assessing Hopper's artistic career as an interesting photographer, while passing on his derivative paintings and sculptures. They showed only Hopper's black and white photos capturing the rebellious spirit of a new generation of Hollywood filmmakers as well as up-and-coming stars of LA's burgeoning art scene.

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One could only wish that here at MOCA, Dennis Hopper was honored as an artist and not as a celebrity. Julian Schnabel created an imaginative installation, dramatically juxtaposing Hopper's photography, sculpture, and paintings, as if equally worthy of attention. What's desperately missing in the MOCA exhibition is one crucial role that Hopper played -- the role of a passionate art collector and friend of so many Los Angeles artists. Just imagine the best of his photography played against smartly chosen works by all these good artists. Yes, it would be a different show, and it would treat Dennis Hopper - the artist - with the respect he deserves. Instead, he's treated uncritically as a celebrity whose every step is of importance, and in that, the museum reveals, unwittingly, its own double standard.

Dennis Hopper Double Standard
On view at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through September 26

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM.

To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, visit Art Talk on KCRW.

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