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Legendary curator Paul Schimmel opens last art show before leaving MOCA

Paul Schimmel curated the current MOCA exhibit "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949 - 1962." It's his last show as the museum's chief curator for the last 22 years.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
Paul Schimmel curated the current MOCA exhibit "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962." It's his last show as the museum's chief curator for the last 22 years.

Southland art patrons observed the end of an era recently. After 22 years, Paul Schimmel opened his last exhibit as chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

Schimmel left the museum in June. Depending on who is talking, he was fired after clashes with the museum’s new director or he left to pursue other opportunities. Whatever his reason for going, the curator led a members-only preview.

A great art curator also has to be a great storyteller. Schimmel employs both talents as he tells two MOCA patrons about artist John Latham in front of a massive canvas flecked with burnt, open books.

"He was thrown out as teacher at St. Martin’s College for taking out a copy of Clement Greenberg’s 'Art and Culture,'" said Schimmel. "And he had all of his students chew, masticate, and spit into a bottle, every page of Greenberg and so, it’s in MOMA’s collection, a masticated copy of the book."

In one sweep, Schimmel can take viewers on a contemporary art joyride that includes Mike Kelley’s disturbing yarn dolls, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s bone and flesh graffiti paintings and the dense, textured drips of MOCA’s treasured “Number 1, 1949” by Jackson Pollock.

The period just after World War II - in which the upheaval of the art world mirrored the violence between nations - is the basis for Schimmel’s final show as MOCA’s chief curator: “Destroy the Picture: Painting the void 1949–1962.”

"I started with a very kind of, a revelation at the time of the “Out of Action” show and I saw Fontana working in Milan, and Shimamoto working in Osaka and realizing that at the same time, 1950, they were both doing these remarkable works, that involved piercing the picture plane, a physical, defiant act," he said.

Schimmel declines to talk in public about why he and MOCA parted ways. He says he will continue to do his work. He will not say where – although he doesn’t rule out curating an occasional show for the institution he just left.

He even regards his most difficult show with something like nostalgia. It was the now legendary survey of Southern California art called “Helter Skelter” 20 years ago. Critics at the time pronounced it disturbing, messy, dark and very un-Los Angeles.

"I got like three months of my ass getting kicked day in and day out by the press," said Schimmel. "And I thought: 'Oh well, gee, I have worked so hard to get this job at MOCA, and they’re going to can me, for all these terrible reviews.' And who knew it would become a legacy builder both for me and the institution."

As he zig-zags the galleries, museum patrons walk up to Schimmel. Some offer him warm hugs. Christopher Walker says he is sad to see this curator go.

"He has an ability to connect with the artist and collectors, it’s probably unparalleled, he has a fantastic eye, he has a fantastic intellect, he’s one of the smartest guys in the art business," Walker said.

Current MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch stands nearby. On this evening, he’s not talking about Schimmel. In the exhibit catalogue, Deitch praises the chief curator’s legacy of landmark shows. That echoes a consensus.

"Paul Schimmel is kind of a mythic presence for us in Los Angeles," said Selma Holo, director of USC’s International Museum Institute. "I think the role that Paul has played is one of being an intellectual powerhouse. And he’s defined intellectuality in a way that is actually quite accessible to people who love art and who come to his exhibitions."

Holo said museum professionals around the world monitor the way MOCA’s become a battleground over the role of the curator in public museums. The current director – hired after a fiscal crisis four years ago - ran private art galleries that didn’t focus on scholarship as MOCA does. Some observers say that is what led to Schimmel’s ouster. Others blame the institution and its management.

Despite these conflicts, colleges continue to turn out aspiring curators year after year, Holo said. She describes the job as glamorous and rigorous – like a high-profile professorship at an elite university.

Paul Schimmel’s lectures don’t put listeners to sleep. About a 100 people crowd into MOCA’s lobby to hear Schimmel talk about “Destroy the Picture.”

"And it was his symposium that in some way – as many times they do – it is the end of something that really defines what it was," Holo said.

The crowd applauds and the cheers continue for more than a minute. Artist Cindy Bernard says people are aware this is a concluding chapter at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"I hope it’s not the last time we hear (Schimmel) speak at MOCA, I hope that as a guest curator he comes back and does other shows. It’s very nice to give (Schimmel) the equivalent of a standing ovation at this time," Bernard said.

She and others are pushing for the museum to fill this man’s position, if not his shoes.

The museum’s making it hard to forget his 22 years as chief curator. MOCA is naming an exhibition space at its Little Tokyo gallery in Schimmel’s honor.