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Chief Curator Helen Molesworth on the Legacy of MOCA

Since its inception in 1979, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles has sought to provide a space for "the art of our time." Founded by artists, the institution has had a main role in shaping the way art is interpreted and understood through its robust collection of works in the disciplines of assemblage, Abstract Expressionism, photography and more.

For Artbound's new episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time," MOCA's chief curator Helen Molesworth takes viewers on a visual tour of the museum's vast archive showcasing works by George Herms, Betye Saar, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Gabriel Orozco, Senga Nengudi and Matthew Barney.

In a recent interview for our upcoming special, Molesworth said she is working to show "a much more democratic version of art." As she narrates the episode, Molesworth discusses what sets MOCA apart from other contemporary art museums; assemblage and its connection to the civil rights movement; and the future of the institution.

On the creation of MOCA

MOCA really benefitted from the early days with a couple of things. One is -- and this is really deep in its DNA -- it was founded by artists. Sam Francis and a bunch of artists in Los Angeles said: "This is crazy that we don't have a museum of the art of our time. We need to rectify that situation." So at the very inception of the museum is the need for artists to have a museum where they can see one another's work and begin to tell the story of what was happening in art after World War II. The other thing that happened at MOCA was -- we often talk about MOCA being a collection of collections -- a handful of people decided to commit their entire collection to MOCA. You have the Taft Schreiber gift, you have the Barry Lowen gift, big gifts that come from the Gersh family, you had a group of people bonding together to help buy the Panza collection. So instead of having one person's idea about what art was, you already had several different visions of the story coming together -- and that kind of diversity, I think, makes the collection so strong.

On what sets MOCA apart from other contemporary art museums

What differentiates the MOCA collection from other collections is -- if I think about it in relation to MoMA -- MoMA always begins its story of modern, contemporary art with Cézanne and Picasso and we begin our story with Robert Rauschenberg. That is such a huge conceptual difference on where you start to tell the tale. I think Rauschenberg is the great artist of the second half of the century. He literally takes painting and sculpture, marries them, and creates a new type of "combine." He had to make up a word to describe the thing that he made and that's basically our jumping off point.

Robert Rauschenberg. Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."
Robert Rauschenberg. Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."

On the depth of MOCA's collections

The depth of the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art is even deeper than I thought it was, and I thought I knew the collection fairly well before I arrived. I think a lot of people might know that we own large holdings of Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline. We have extraordinary, deep holdings of these artists. But what I didn't know is how much social documentary photography we have. We own all of Robert Frank's "The Americans." We have a huge stash of Diane Arbus photographs, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon. We have an extraordinary collection of drawings that run the gamut from Jackson Pollock to the most contemporary artists working today. We have an incredible collection of installations that are actually really difficult works of art because they actually have hundreds of pieces and they take up a whole room. They are the kind of things that other museums didn't collect. So we own Ed Ruscha's "Chocolate Room." We own magical, amazing things.

On the Panza Collection

The Panza Collection is named from Giuseppe Panza di Biumo who was an Italian count and also an art collector. He was in love with American post-World War II art. So he amassed an extraordinary collection of American art. He fell into hard financial times and needed some cash and offered this group of works to this new museum in Los Angeles that needed that kind of foundation for its collection. A group of trustees banded together and bought this entire collection, by today's standard, [for] pennies on the dollar. This couldn't have happened today with the explosion of the art market. Basically, just like that, MOCA had one of the foremost collections of post-World War II art in the country in one fell swoop. The Panza Collection includes all the of Robert Rauschenberg combines, all of the Franz Kline paintings, all of the Mark Rothko paintings, the Claes Oldenburg material from the store, [a] huge cache of paintings from Roy Lichtenstein -- it just kind of ticks off like that on-and-on-and-on. We got basically an art history textbook.

Robert Rauschenberg, "Monogram." Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."
Robert Rauschenberg, "Monogram." Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."

On MOCA's Abstract Expressionism holdings

MOCA has really deep holdings in Abstract Expressionism. We have one of the best Pollock's in the country, an extraordinary classic drip painting. You see it, you look at it, and you know that's a great Jackson Pollock immediately. We have great work by Lee Krasner, an early work by Arshile Gorky, we have a huge collection of Franz Kline. An important collection of Mark Rothko. So we can really tell a full story of what Abstract Expressionism is and what the works look like.

On political, assemblage artists

Artists can't help but be part of their time, of the politics and social movements of their time. So, one of the most important social movements of the post-World War II period is of course the civil rights movement. And one of the things that the civil rights movement is demanding is equality for all. One of the things that assemblage or combine does is it actually takes a very diverse and heterogenous group of objects and images and says they're all actually equal; that any hierarchy you're making among those things, it's your hierarchy, it's not in the objects themselves. And so there's a way that you can see Rauschenberg's interest in the equality of images as sort of running parallel with a nation that is struggling to figure out how it's going to actually treat its citizens equally. The assemblage or collage collection at MOCA is actually quite deep. Again, we have this really foundational group of objects by Robert Rauschenberg -- these combines. But we also have really important combine or assemblage works by California-based artists like Bruce Conner. We have his seminal work, "Senorita." We have a really great, early 1970s work by Betye Saar. We have George Herms, Betye Saar, Bruce Conner. These are the kind of foundational assemblage, California funk artists.

Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."
Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."

On photography and the Parson's Collection

When we're talking of MOCA being a collection of collections one of the most important of those collections is the Ralph Parsons Foundation Collection because it's through the Parsons' collection that we have these huge holdings in social documentary photography, such as people like Bill Owens, Friedlander, Winogrand, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus.

Photography plays an interesting role in MOCA's collection. Photography, of course, is a watershed development in the human history of making pictures. Once the camera's invented all bets are off. MOCA has what I would call two pillars of strength in its collection when it comes to photography. One is this very classic, social documentary tradition: black-and-white, where the photographer goes out into the world to take pictures of the world as he or she sees it, in the tradition of reportage. So you have people like Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Bill Owens, Lee Friedlander -- classical, American photography where you get in a car, you hit the road, and you follow your own idiosyncratic interests, and you're really a journalist but you're not using words, you're using pictures. The other photographic tradition in the collection is the artists who go into the studio with the camera. They're not particularly interested in the camera's ability to take a picture of the world as we know it, what they're really interested in is the camera as a machine, what makes a certain kind of picture -- abstract photography, studio photography, photography where the photographer is really interested in manipulating light, exposure, colors in the developing tray. So it's a much more formal practice that kind of expands what a camera can do. So for me, we have the perfect photography collection because we have the two things the camera can do, this very straight forward documentation of the world as we can see it -- the photograph as a historical image, and the photograph as the source of endless artistic exploration.

Gabriel Orozco, "Ping Pond Table." Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."
Gabriel Orozco, "Ping Pond Table." Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."

On expanding a traditional cultural institution

One of the things that MOCA was a pioneer in was looking outside of the traditional canon of Western art history. Alma Ruiz worked at MOCA for 30 years, she dedicated her entire adult life and professional career to MOCA. She was at the forefront of a group of curators across the country who were basically saying: "Hello, hello. There's all this work going on in Latin America." America is not the only place where art is being made. [MOCA] was one of the first institutions to start seriously collecting modern and contemporary art from Latin America. It was the only institution that committed itself to large-scale exhibitions that told the history of non-painting movements. It did the history of conceptual art, the history of minimalist sculpture, the history of feminism, and the history of performance. These four exhibitions were legendary and remain legendary because they were the exhibitions that broke from the normal ways we've been telling art history.

On the historical legacy of MOCA's collection

The historical legacy or the historical importance of a museum having a collection is two-fold. On one hand it's the ballast of the ship -- your collection is the story you tell, your collection defines who you are. But that's about the present, the real legacy. The real meaning of a collection is actually never in the present, it's always in the future. So what we're building right now is a message in a bottle for people 100 years from now. For people we won't know, we won't know what they look like or what kind of clothes they will wear, but what we're leaving them is a record of who we were, and what we thought was important, and how we came to understand our time. So when you go to the Louvre or the Prado, that's what you're doing -- it's time travel. You're going to the past and you have that awesome feeling when you're in those museums. And you try and think of what you believe in relation to these images of what someone else thought and believed in hundreds of years ago. So that's actually what we're doing right now. We're trying to leave for the future the most complicated and nuanced story about who we are, that we can possibly imagine.

Matthew Barney installation. Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."
Matthew Barney installation. Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: The Art of Our Time."

On the untraditional physical structure of MOCA Geffen

The Geffen at MOCA is a 50,000 square-foot old, warehouse building at the corner of Alameda and Central. So basically at the edge of Little Tokyo. I think more than any other building, it shapes what made MOCA possible. If you have a traditional museum space with nice marble floors or cement floors or pristine white walls, it's like walking into someone's fancy living room: you act all fancy because everyone's in a fancy room. Nothing's fancy at the Geffen; the Geffen is a free for all. It's an enormous amount of space and basically for artists and curators it's Shangri-La because there are no rules in the Geffen. There are all kinds of rules in a typical museum space. So a space with no rules is really exciting because it means you can make up your own rules; you can make up the game, you can decide what game you want to play. It has afforded MOCA a capacity to make these big, historical shows about art history. It let those shows be huge, messy and unconventional.

We were able to give an artist like Matthew Barney or Mike Kelley 50,000 square feet of space so that you could see the entirety of their vision. That's not typical and it's that kind of experimentation that I think is one of the reasons MOCA became known as "The Artist's Museum" because we, the museum, understood that artists are people who break rules, so let's try and give them a space that has as few rules as possible.


On their permanent collection, "The Art of Our Time"

"The Art of Our Time" is the first installation of the permanent collection at MOCA that I was able to do. The first half is historical. It begins in the '40s and chronologically walks a viewer up to the '80s and it enumerates art historical styles: Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Conceptual art. But one of the things that was really important to me as a curator was that in every room there is work from the East Coast and the West Coast: Is there work from America and Europe? Is there work from Latin America? Is there as close to a gender parity as you can get based on the time period you're in? Are there people of color in the room? So I am trying never to make one of those traditional museum rooms where almost all of the work on the walls is made by White men. [I'm] trying to sort of turn the ship in the night to tell a much more democratic version of art.

The second half is really the art of our time: almost every room has a work in it that was made in 2014 or 2015, really to show people the activeness of what's happening in contemporary art and to put it into context -- like this kind of work was made in France, this kind of work is being made in Brazil, and they actually have this really strong relationship to each other.

And "The Art of Our Time" as an exhibition is only possible because the collection at MOCA is already so good and so diverse.

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