Retrospective in brown

Oswaldo Guayasamín's I returned the other day to the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach (where I'm a member). And I was reminded of some comments I made here in 2009. They still seem appropriately unsuitable, so I've updated them:

When Dr. Robert Gumbiner died in 2009, John Rabe at KPPC's Off Ramp eulogized with mild snark that the doctor was the Eli Broad of Long Beach. Of course, he wasn't. He wasn't that sort of player in the dealer/curator industrial art complex that conveys works from atelier to gallery to museum wall by way of some billionaire's dining room.

Although Dr. Gumbiner was a collector of art and benefactor of a museum and rich enough, Dr. Gumbiner wasn't at all suitable, like Eli Broad. Which made him, you might think, the Dr. Armand Hammer of Long Beach. But no, Dr. Gumbiner wasn't like the calculating Dr. Hammer either.

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An art critic in the Los Angeles Times, with offhand dismissal, said that Dr. Gumbiner had assembled "a very conservative collection." So, was he the J Paul Getty of Long Beach? No, he wasn't a late-in-the-game buyer of pretty things, either.

(To be fair, the Times later named MOLAA's retrospective of landscapes by muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros as one of the best art exhibitions of 2010.)

Billionaires like Broad pull down pieces from an art market suspended in midair over Basel, Hong Kong, London, Moscow, and New York. Dr. Gumbiner looked and bought elsewhere. He looked south, actually, to Mexico, Central America, Cuba, and South America - an unsuitable continent of art.

The odor of purchased taste clings to all art museums, partly masked by the humidity controlled air that's pumped in. Dr. Gumbiner's Museum of Latin American Art isn't an exception. But I find myself drawn back to MOLAA on a rough patch of Alamitos Avenue in an unsuitable part of Long Beach, just to re-see pieces from the permanent collection even if no new exhibition of loaned works is on show.

The art that Dr. Gumbiner acquired is - broadly speaking - representational, appropriate for art from a continent of believers in bodies and what happens when they are crucified, gunned down, sweated, clubbed, or in the throes of some desire. A continent of earth, not of the air. A continent where the memory of history has run differently, where saints and liquor still foretell, where dreaming has not been altogether exhausted. Where the beaten and those who beat them couple and bear generations. It is an unsuitably brown continent, to use Richard Rodriguez's potent word for the complexity of history, heritages, and bodies. Not a timeless, white continent of abstractions.

And I confess that it's my own defective sensibility that prevents me from dismissing art that reflects political conflict, that's aware of poverty, that thinks in terms other than the abstract, the timeless, and the conceptual. Art that recognizes bodies and what might become of them. Unsuitable me.

You should go and see what Dr. Gumbiner put in his 20,000-square-foot former roller skating rink in Long Beach. You should to step off the little island of suitable art and enter, Columbus-like, into a new world.

Museum of Latin American Art

628 Alamitos Avenue, Long Beach

(562) 437-1689

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user maveric2003. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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