Last Monday was a public holiday in the US of A so I got that rarest of things on a Hollywood film schedule – a day off. To celebrate, I decided that I would make my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown LA and catch myself a little kulture. I have to confess: I am a little at sea with modern art. Some of it I think is beautiful and moving, but there are vasts rafts of it that to me just look like pretentious crap. I don’t know how you are supposed to tell the difference.

MOCA is currently showing a retrospective of an artist named Arshile Gorky whose work just seems to my eye like a semi-competent blend of Matisse, Miro and Tanguy, with none of the originality of any of those great painters. I am probably showing my colours as a Philistine of outstanding magnitude by saying that, but since I shoot my mouth off about everything else here on The Cow, why stop now? Here’s a Gorky that’s like something by Joan Miró painted (but never finished) by a blindfolded and inebriated Yves Tanguy:

It was probably undignified of me, but as I walked around the exhibition, I kept having the thought that Americans only embraced Gorky because they were jealous that they didn’t have any of the aforementioned European painters.1 I know that there is a lot of borrowing and re-borrowing in the art world, but this particular instance seems so close to plain plagiarism that it baffles me that Gorky has the reputation he has.

Wandering onward through the nicely laid-out MOCA galleries I was further perplexed by the work of Craig Kauffman – plexiglass creations in bright colours with attached artist statements that were as nonsensical as anything ever written by Edward Lear.

Reading the little cards next to each work, I had the overwhelming impression that Kauffman was pulling everybody’s legs. Which is not to say that he hasn’t actually made some good works,2 but rather (as is, in my experience often the case) that his justification for creating them seems predicated on convincing less intellectually-inclined people that he is doing something profound by using elliptical language and vague philosophical pontifications. Art waffle-speak is as abundant as political waffle-speak, and that’s saying something. I have yet to see an artist statement that says something along the lines of ‘Oh, I dunno – I just started painting something and this is how it came out…’ God forbid that an artist might be proceeding purely along the lines of intuition.3

Perhaps the work I liked the very least came from James Rosenquist:

Now I suppose there are many and varied reasons why this artist is considered worthy of being displayed in one of the premier art institutions of the USA, but frankly, buggered if I can see ’em. To me, this work, and most of the other Rosenquists on display just look like the kind of thing that a lazy high school art student with little talent would whip up the day before it was due for marking. I mean… can anyone explain to me what’s good about this? Anyone?

It has none of the majesty and gravitas of Mark Rothko:

…or the passion and power of Jackson Pollock:

…or even the wit and elegance of some of the lesser known artists also on display, like Antoni Tàpies:

…or Louise Nevelson:

…or Kenneth Price:

…whose works all show imagination and thought and originality and … well… skill.4 The thing I enjoyed most in the museum was its sizeable collection of the photographic works of Robert Frank. I have, of course, seen Frank’s work before, but seeing them here, in America, so beautifully presented, made them very moving indeed. My favourite work at MOCA? This Robert Frank portrait of a Jehovah’s Witness (it’s a bit hard to tell in this small jpeg, but the key to this image is the ‘Awake’ magazine that the man is holding):

  1. The fact that he had a miserable life and then an untimely and unpleasant death probably added to the cachet. []
  2. I have seen some Kauffman that I quite liked, but MOCA doesn’t have any of those ones. []
  3. The reason for this is plain to me – if you want someone to buy your work, then the pressure is on to convince them that its genesis is something more than just your artistic muse speaking to you in incomprehensible-to-the-common-person muse language. []
  4. One thing I noticed when making this post was that rendering all these works to small jpegs has a weird consequence: the ones I disliked in the gallery are improved by the process, and the ones I liked don’t seem quite as impressive. It is truly a case of ‘you had to be there!’ []