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Awaiting the welcome return of performance to art museums’ mission

originally posted by the Los Angeles Times
April, 2014

Shortly after assuming the helm as the fourth director of the Museum of Contemporary Art last month, Philippe Vergne visited the Los Angeles Times to meet with editors and writers. Still in the beginning stage of absorbing MOCA’s history and formulating his mission, he didn’t have a great deal to share about his plans.

But when asked whether he thought performance, a currently disregarded part of the museum’s founding mission, was important, Vergne answered that he wouldn’t call it important.

“It is essential,” he said reassuringly, after theatrically skipping a beat. Vergne has headed the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Dia:Beacon in New York — places that put a premium on performance — and he explained that you simply cannot understand the contemporary art world without considering performance.

Nor can you appreciate the history of modern music without acknowledging its support from the art world. There have been a number of recent reminders, mostly overlooked, of the role that art museums in Los Angeles and elsewhere once played in fostering music’s more progressive inclinations.

One of those inclinations is Minimalism, the musical corollary to the art movement of the ’60s. So with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox festival turning up the volume this week, it is worth dwelling on the synergy between the art and music worlds, which could use a boost at the moment.

The art world took an earlier interest in such pioneering Minimalist composers as Philip Glass and Steve Reich than did the vast majority of musical and academic institutions, which were downright dismissive of the movement. Both composers and their ensembles found the welcome in galleries and museums missing from concert halls or even on college campuses. Artists themselves came to the rescue as well. The sculptor Richard Serra once hired his like-minded SoHo neighbor, Glass, as a studio assistant.

MOCA opened in 1983 two decades after Minimalism’s founding, and even then the museum was far ahead of the music establishment when it commissioned composer John Adams, choreographer Lucinda Childs and architect Frank Gehry to create a performance piece as the first public event of the Temporary Contemporary (now the Geffen Contemporary). Gehry had fashioned gallery space out of a former police garage downtown where MOCA could be based until its building on Grand Avenue was built.

At the time, Adams, curator of the L.A. Phil’s Minimalist Jukebox, was a 36-year-old second-generation Minimalist coming into his own. Childs had collaborated with Glass and director Robert Wilson on “Einstein on the Beach.”

The project was the brainchild of one of MOCA’s founding curators, Julie Lazar, who spearheaded the museum’s groundbreaking early media projects. She began by brokering an arranged artistic marriage.

None of the artists even knew one another. A photo of their first meeting in L.A. shows an enthusiastically baby-faced Adams seated at one end of a table. At the other end was Gehry, sporting long hair, oversized aviator glasses and a mustache, and staring straight into the camera with an I-can-do-anything confidence. Childs rested her head on her hand with an expression that read, “Oh, brother.”

By launching itself with a performance, MOCA had signaled its multimedia and cross-disciplinary intentions from the start, and there was considerable skepticism from the music establishment, the art establishment and especially the critical establishment.

“Available Light” featured emotionally cool, high-speed choreography bathed in a drone-imbued electronic score. The audience sat in bleachers, surrounded by chain-link fence. If this was all the light available to MOCA, let there be darkness, was one memorable verdict in this newspaper.

We’ll soon have a chance to see just how much light “Available Light” might generate after 31 years. The Music Center has just announced that it will revive the work next year as part of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s 50th-anniversary season. My guess is that it will now seem visionary. Adams’ score, in which Sibelius-style brass chords penetrate Terry Riley-style synthesizer patterning, is a key transitional piece in his melding the repetitive obsessiveness of Minimalism with wider musical influences.

Moreover, the marriage took. Not only have the “Available Light” collaborators gone on to become leaders in their fields, they have continued to work together. Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall is an obvious inspiration for Minimalist Jukebox. Childs will direct a new production of Adams’ opera, “Doctor Atomic,” for Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg, France, next month.

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