L.A.'s new shrine to modern art. Museum of Contemporary Art opens today on surge of support

Los Angeles is closing out 1986 with its third major cultural unveiling in three months. On the heels of the October debut of a performing arts complex in Orange County and the November opening of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new $35 million building, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) opens its $23 million downtown California Plaza Complex today.

Critics here and as far away as New York are heralding the event as burgeoning evidence of the city's achievement of world-class status as a forum for contemporary art. Behind the hoopla, others are asking: When the opening parties are over, will L.A. continue to fund the art programs needed to fill its new buildings and will the new museums support California and local artists?

The latest bevy of galas-for-the-glitterati have focused the klieg lights on three separate facets of the new MOCA:

The building itself, a 98,000-square-foot complex of simple geometric shapes in low profile against the towering business district.

The inaugural exhibition, ``Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945-1986.''

And a multimedia performance of poetry, visual art, and music entitled ``Zangezi: A Supersaga in Twenty Planes.'' Written in 1923 by the visionary Russian poet Velemir Khlebnikov, and directed here by Peter Sellars, the work also introduces the complex's Ahmanson Auditorium.

The building has been the center of attention, so far. Eminent Japanese architect Arata Isozaki designed the complex, already lauded by local and national critics for its simplicity, imagination, and style. Two low buildings of rough-cut, burnt-auburn sandstone and smooth, avocado-green aluminum siding provide a welcome visual counterpoint to the standard, mirror-skin construction of surrounding skyscrapers. ``It's an important breakthrough in getting away from the Bauhaus box,'' says Edmund Penney, an award-winning cultural documentarist based in Los Angeles. ``It puts us architecturally on the map.''

The profile includes cubes and rooftop pyramids, curves and barrel vault shapes surrounding a sunken courtyard. The structure is the result of seven years of planning and construction. ``The symbolism of the building is not related to its volume,'' says Mr. Isozaki. ``It is surrounded by gigantic buildings and is, in a sense, in the middle of a valley of skyscrapers. So the building has to be a small object that attracts people's attention with its materials and forms.''

The inside contains some seven levels and the main level has seven interconnecting galleries (24,500 square feet of exhibition space). In addition to the auditorium, it houses a bookstore, caf'e, sculpture court, staff offices, a library, and storage spaces for MOCA's permanent collection.

It was in the spring of 1979 that a small group of collectors, artists, and curators got together under Mayor Tom Bradley to spearhead the planning. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) offered the 11.2 acre site. When MOCA - backed by $14.5 million in pledges - did not open in time for the 1984 Olympic Games, as was hoped, organizers leased two single-story warehouses and named the facility the Temporary Contemporary (TC). MOCA has used the TC - renovated under the direction of architect Frank Gehry - for shows of living artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Dan Flavin, Red Grooms, and James Turrell. Because of its popularity, trustees recently renewed the lease on the TC for 50 years, and the facility will be used in tandem with the new, permanent building.

For that building, the trustees announced the acquisition, in 1984, of 80 major Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art pieces from the collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo of Italy. In the fall of 1985, MOCA received a collection of 64 works of the late Barry Lowen - paintings, sculptures, photographs, and drawings by 38 artists from Minimalist to Neo-Expressionist, New Image to Post-Modernist.

Other gifts have pushed MOCA's permanent collection to 425 paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, drawings, and at least one ``uncollectible'' - a 1,500-foot groove cut into a mesa in the Nevada desert 80 miles east of Las Vegas, entitled ``Double Negative'' by Michael Heizer. This acquisition was heralded as evidence that MOCA has taken the lead nationally by becoming the first institution to ``collect'' such works.

``Why should artist's work have to fit into four walls?'' asks director Richard Koshalek. ``Certainly many people will find the work difficult, but one of the purposes of a museum is to educate.''

As evidence that MOCA will continue to prosper with an ongoing commitment to new art, founders cite its unprecedented 25,000 charter members, a capital endowment that is already halfway to its $35-million goal, and a roster of 39 trustees representing an international cross section of arts, business, and community leaders.

The inaugural exhibition, ``Individuals,'' will be on view through Jan. 10, 1988. With over 420 works from the permanent collection as well as from 79 private and 28 museum collections worldwide, the exhibit represents 77 artists - 23 from California and the West. Director Koshalek and curator Jelia Brown Turrell wanted to do a survey exhibition of the era MOCA is committed to. ``Rather than reiterating art-historical categories or demarcating decades,'' writes Miss Turrell, ``[the works] establish a broad framework for considering the period, pointing to the conjunctions of ideas and means that span the postwar period.''

Exhibition highlights include the later works of Mark Rothko; Frank Stella's black, silver, and copper paintings; crosshatch paintings of Jasper Johns; and Louise Nevelson's wall assemblages.

``It's got many of the `important' contemporary pieces in the collection, but I'd like to see them stress local artists more in the future,'' says one lifelong observer of the L.A. arts scene.

To help keep MOCA in line with the wishes of the local arts community, director Koshalek and the board of trustees at this early date are promising periodic public review of policies and acquisitions.

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