BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 11 SEP 95
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Issue 25

25 Years: An Exhibition of Selected Works

BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 11 SEP 95

Anniversary shows at commercial galleries don't make for interesting reviews. Most are self-congratulatory and nostalgic, sometimes crassly, commercially so ­ an excuse to sell off the 'history' that's been collecting dust in the back-room for a decade. Such exhibitions hardly ever include new work; the art's arrangement and selection adhere not to a scholarly, curatorial theme but are pressed into service in order to mythologise the gallery and its stable. Best-sellers are privileged, and the dogs ­ budding talents who died on the vine, stars who moved on to bigger or flashier galleries ­ relegated to the back of the catalogue.

In some ways, the exhibition fits this mould; but in more significant ways it does not. Firstly, the celebration of anything that remains in business in Los Angeles for 25 years ­ sans merger, corporate takeover, or far-east buyout ­ is an accomplishment as impressive as it is rare in a city where a quarter-century will see the birth and brilliant, burning fall of any number of young Hollywood stars. Of course, overdoses and box-office bombs underlie that florid metaphor, but the fact remains that this is a tough town, a place of legendary flux which only rewards perseverance and quality in its own backhanded way (just ask any 45 year-old 'overnight success').

The Leavin show takes up the West Hollywood gallery's main space, storage and office areas, as well as a large auxiliary building next door, which was acquired in 1984. In a loft above the back-room storage, its carpet smelling of countless catered gallery openings, a Jonathan Borofsky 'flying man' hovers with a surveillance-video camera embedded in his chest. Nearby is a suspiciously makeshift bench, with four cushions placed atop a stack of flat wooden crates. It's an uncredited piece by Stephen Prina, an orphan from one of his years-long, paradigm-shifting series.

Downstairs is another Prina, a watercolour wash of creamy nothingness from his deadpan cataloguing of the shapes of Manet's oeuvre. Flanking it is a Jasper Johns number-painting from 1955, similarly blank and beige, and maybe just as self-aware. Such juxtapositions abound, less coy than insightful in making a case for the gallery's aesthetic: a sharp Larry Johnson word-jumble and a looping Twombly scrawl; a delicate Matisse drawing of a woman next to a crude Scott Grieger riff on De Kooning; a late Joseph Cornell collage near a remarkably similar Rauschenberg. Some who got away, like Claes Oldenburg and Donald Judd, are among the 80 artists shown, as are those who stayed, including Sherrie Levine and LA artists Alexis Smith and John Baldessari. The latter is represented by an obscure, and most remarkable, artwork entitled How to Make a Good Movie (David and Ilene) (1973 ), an 18-panel, proto-photo-text piece starring two young art students named Salle and Segalove.

Margo Leavin got her start, so the story goes, selling prints which she stored under her bed, before she had a proper space in which to show them. The tale is familiar, for it is also how another dealer named Larry Gagosian, began in Los Angeles, before moving on to the New York big time a decade ago. Now, Gagosian's coming back home to capitalise on a booming L.A. art scene and a new breed of Hollywood collector. He'll join the new Pace/Wildenstein gallery in Beverly Hills, recently opened by Pace director and movie producer Arne Glimcher. If you believe the buzz, Glimcher opened this outpost of his New York powerhouse primarily to service his best customer, super-agent Michael Ovitz ­ and hopefully Ovitz' Creative Artists Agency minions, who, like many in Hollywood, tend to emulate the tastes and habits of those in power.

'Pace in Los Angeles' was, ironically enough, Leavin's first gallery exhibition in 1970. 25 years later, with its copious financial resources and prestige ­ and with primary representation of some of Leavin's (former) artists ­ Pace has arrived to compete. But irony tends not to work in Los Angeles. Angelenos have short memories and attention spans for a reason: wait five minutes and something other than the weather ­ usually the business climate ­ will change. To wit: the white-hot LA art scene has cooled considerably. And Mike Ovitz left CAA for Disney a few months ago. He'll not be walking past the new Pace on his lunch hour to schmooze and window-shop, but will instead commute to Burbank, where he can drive over to Ikea. With junior executives fighting for the top CAA slot, who's to say what the new head guy will take to. Jet-skis maybe.

To eschew irony's implied moralism and understand that shit happens isn't as easy as it sounds, but is the key to being happy ­ if not successful ­ in Los Angeles. Leavin knows this, which is why her wacky style works: show good artists whom you like and develop relationships with the local art community, even if the only notion of community they have is that they all come to your openings. Furthermore, history is recognised in LA only when its disappearance is safely guaranteed: the endpapers of the 'The 25 Years' catalogue, designed by Larry Johnson, feature dingbat icons of the Nickodell, a landmark 50s restaurant which closed a couple of years ago. Once located outside the gates of Paramount Studios, the Nickodell suddenly developed an impressive list of weepy life-long customers about a week before it shut down. Margo Leavin is having her own party now, as shrewd a business decision as it is a heartfelt thank-you to her clientele.