Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 2017
Don’t Look Back: The 1990s at MOCA
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, March 12–July 11, 2016
Don’t Look Back: The 1990s at MOCA. Installation view. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo by Brian Forrest.

“When you join an institution, you join its history as much as you work to create its future,” explained Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), Chief Curator Helen Molesworth shortly after accepting the position in 2014. Since then, Molesworth has reinstalled the museum’s Grand Avenue galleries as The Art of Our Time (August 15, 2015–September 12, 2016). A revision of postwar art history, it began with the experimentalism of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College instead of the familiar crucible of New York City. Winding toward the present, Molesworth similarly articulated formal and conceptual sympathies between the familiar and the more obscure, as in a pairing of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Office Baroque (1977) with Robert Overby’s East Hall Wall, Third Floor (Grey Wall) (1971). Concurrent with The Art of Our Time, Molesworth curated a temporary exhibition, Don’t Look Back: The 1990s at MOCA, which focused on a decade with particular relevance to contemporary art in Los Angeles. Inevitably, the objects assembled indexed the long tenure of Paul Schimmel, who served as MOCA’s chief curator from 1990 to 2012. Between 2013 and early 2017, Schimmel charted a strange, new art-world order as partner and vice president at the for-profit hybrid Hauser Wirth and Schimmel just down the street from MOCA. As MOCA’s legacy still takes shape around it, Don’t Look Back narrated a version of the institution’s past that wove local triumphs into the global geography of art at the close of the last century.

Don’t Look Back continued the excellent historical work Molesworth began with This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s, which first appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 2012. It follows other curatorial efforts to periodize the 1990s, such as the New Museum’s NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star in 2013. But Don’t Look Back lacked the irreverent juxtapositions of This Will Have Been as well as the energizing onslaught of NYC 1993. Instead, a kind of fin-de-siècle ennui permeated works including Jennifer Bolande’s bleak Footprint of Man (1992), a stack of projector carousels in front of a blank retractable screen, and Phillip-Lorca diCorcia’s Eric Hutsell, 27 Years Old, Southern California, $20 (1994), a Kodachrome photograph of a gas station hustler who looks wooden and waxy. Taken together, the show evidenced much political progressivism, though little provocation. It was, instead, something closer to contemplative.

Molesworth connected these images of Angelenos to works from elsewhere to chart a shaken sense of the significance of both site and self. At the Geffen, the poetic potential of this sitelessness within the increasingly homogenous post-industrial or white-box spaces of contemporary art crystallized in Do Ho Suh’s elegant Seoul Home/L.A. Home/New York Home/Baltimore Home/London Home/Seattle Home/L.A. Home (1999). Suspended at the heart of the exhibition, its powder-blue architectural facade stitched in silk hung like a sculptural manifesto pointing to both elective and involuntary diaspora. It disclosed the irony of the exhibition—that although works like Catherine Opie’s freeway pictures, Untitled #1–18, #20–31, #33–42 (1994–95), and Sam Durant’s Proposal for the Monument at Altamont Raceway, Tracy, California (1999) may promise the specificity of place, they are in fact nondescript. Below Suh’s empty home, Toba Khedoori’s Untitled (Seats) (1996), a monumental drawing of a depressing fleet of unoccupied theater seats, and Julie Becker’s Interior Corner #7 and #8 (1993), photographs of empty domestic corners faked by the artist in her studio, reinforced this reading of place as a series of constructed fictions. They remind the viewer that places are essentially unconcerned with our need for emotional investment, and that the 1990s marked and mourned this. Mona Hatoum’s Map (1999), a geography where every point on the globe is just another transparent glass marble, literalizes this egalitarian evacuation, while Jim Hodge’s A Diary of Flowers—Above the Clouds (1995), one hundred floral ink drawings on napkins, sweetly captures the human impulse to make marks anyway, even in the face of international obscurity or terrorist annihilation.

Many who would likely be deemed essential to another institution’s narrative of the 1990s were not represented in Don’t Look Back—read: no Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons. There was also no Glenn Ligon, Kiki Smith, Robert Gober, Kara Walker, or William Kentridge (one could go on), even though MOCA owns work by them all (except Hirst). While installations elsewhere echo clichés, Molesworth deserves applause for an idiosyncratic narrative that moved beyond the usual suspects to claim a version of the decade unique to MOCA. In Don’t Look Back, one saw evidence that MOCA is consciously articulating an ethics and agenda of its own, something urgent for an institution increasingly surrounded by a downtown more and more crowded by the “contemporary.” Sensational lines of people still wait in the hot sun outside the Broad. Hauser and Wirth promises museum-quality exhibitions. In the fall of 2017, the Santa Monica Museum of Art will open in the Arts District as the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. And then there is the non-collecting Main Museum, programming alongside a renovation to be completed by 2020. Don’t Look Back indeed.

In some museum spaces it becomes possible to forget that the curator is an author, that a particular presentation is not automatic, transparent, or inevitable. Here, Molesworth’s deft editorial hand rightly announced itself by dividing the decade into thematic sections: Installation; The Outmoded; Noir America; Place and Identity; Touch, Intimacy, and Queerness; and Space, Place, and Scale. Across them all, the exhibition’s specific history began to split into two groups. One is known: figures like Sarah Sze, Opie, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres have been vetted, promoted, and consecrated by the international art world. Their works have crisscrossed the auction block and the biennial circuit, even entered art-history textbooks. Twenty years ago, Paul McCarthy may have shocked viewers with Tokyo Santa, Santa’s Trees (1996/1999), a thicket of fake trees, drawing tables, condiment bottles, and costumes surrounded by photographs of McCarthy performing a manic, messy, scribbling, dripping, genital-exposing Santa act. Today, the work appears softened by time’s patina. Indeed, The Outmoded section of the show self-consciously tracked this shift into the key of antiquity. Filled with images of rotary phones, paper files, and film cartridges, it underscored the decade as a node in the historical transition from analog to digital technologies.

With the early work of Sze, Roni Horn, and Mark Dion, the Installation passage offered the most satisfying hagiography. Such recollections allow one to measure the difference between past and present practice: who has grown, who has changed? Sze’s Many a Slip (1999), an obsessively detailed sculptural constellation of thousands of found objects, bits and pieces of wood, string, plastic, lights, plants, and more looked so very “contemporary,” still kin to her more recent work. For Sze and her installation, this is a credit, suggesting the continued relevance of her practice for a world still poised on the schizophrenic knife’s edge between actual and digital details. Differently, Dion’s anthropological period room, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Toys ‘R’ U.S.) (1994), is a portrait of 1990s childhood as a project wrought by adults: a kid’s bedroom decorated exclusively with dinosaur paraphernalia as a primal scene before time and before puberty.

There is possibly more at stake with the unknown or lesser-known artists. Whereas the first group arguably represents a “look back” to the moment in which big names were “discovered,” this group promises a “back to the future” opportunity to foster new or greater interest. This is well-represented by works like Russell Crotty’s precious and lyrical ink drawing of a comet, Hale-Bopp After Perihelion (1997), or Cindy Bernard’s Ask the Dust (1989–91), photographic quotations of iconic cinematic landscapes like the dry riverbed in Chinatown (1974). Crotty’s low-fi mysticism is still cool for twenty-somethings talking longingly of communes, crystals, and skeleton-key patterns in the sky. Meanwhile, on the ground, Bernard’s photographs tease the scale of L.A.’s art scene, perennially dwarfed by the film industry and its images.

Now that “Love Wins,” maybe it makes sense that the most tempting opportunities for communion between humans in this show were queer ones. Indeed, not only analog technology but also twentieth-century codes of gender and sexuality are outmoded. After the identity critiques of the 1980s, after civil rights, feminism, and black power, 1990s gender theorists deconstructed white masculinity itself, examining its own repressions as well as the fortifications that stabilize and empower it. Such a deconstruction lurks beside a group of WASPy young men that gazes out from Amy Adler’s Crew (1997). They are the scrubbed, G-rated pin-ups made available to both men and women in Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, and Abercrombie campaigns and catalogues, texts that picture an easy-going, upwardly mobile white leisure class in order to sell upmarket sportswear. In the glow of Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Last Light) (1993), just steps from his Untitled (A Corner of Baci) (1990) and Jack Pierson’s You Are Allowed to Touch Things (1991), Molesworth pushed viewers to imagine the potential for homoerotic desire between these All-American teammates—an urge to touch, taste, celebrate, cherish, and memorialize. But even in Crew, the human is more cardboard cutout than beautiful truth.

Around the corner, we are revealed to be cold, dangerous, simple, and steely, like Cady Noland’s SLA Group Shot #4 (1990) of Patty Hearst and her captors. In fact, Noland’s bleak junk assemblies, like Basket of Nothing or Misc. Spill (1990), are the most perfect and terrifying things in the exhibition, with their bits of blight, shopping carts, metal fencing, trash, and dust still familiar more than a quarter of a century later. Like a millennial Gustave Courbet, they offer a twenty-first-century Realism and remind us that much late capitalist urban stuff has not really changed at all. Noland’s work holds us in that awkward question of time, specifically, what makes the past different from the present that Molesworth also invoked and channeled in Don’t Look Back? William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Are we moving forward into a new future? Or are we simply moving around, rearranging like so many cars shuttling through the same freeways year after year after year?

Grant Klarich Johnson
Dornsife Doctoral Fellow, Department of Art History, University of Southern California