September 30, 2021 through January 8, 2022
By PETER FRANK, October 2021
The significance of an art collection lies not on who or what is in it, but why. The character of the whole certainly derives from its contents, but it also derives from the spirit driving the acquisition of those contents. What are the collectors, individual or institutional, thinking as they collect? What is their vision? How do they connect the dots – and add to them?
A collection, especially a private one, should have a cohesion to it, a reason, articulated or at least inferred, for being beyond simple possession, or simply showing off. Accordingly, the act of collecting should be one of passion tempered by design, in which the love of objects gets turned into a concept or story bigger than any object. Most collectors have a great ear for art, collecting what they feel they should; the great collectors, acquiring what builds out their vision, have a great nose.
“On The Edge” inspires such musings the way a visit to the Barnes Foundation or Marfa does: it reveals the something-larger that has driven the Beverly Hills-based Joan and Jack Quinn Family Collection for a good half-century and made it one of the most important collections of Southern California art in private hands. It’s a huge collection – the ca. 150 artworks on view are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg – but it’s also filled with especially good, and often prescient, examples; and it toggles constantly and provocatively between worldwide and local reputations, works of all styles, and works of all sizes and shapes and materials and meanings. The selection on view is by no means exhaustive as far as Southland late- and post-modernism goes, but it’s not supposed to be. The show feels not so much comprehensive as comprehending. These things set before us capture the Zeitgeist, the moment of Los Angeles art’s coming of age, its self-awareness as a “scene,” and its graduation from the mereness of “not-New-York” status.
Joan Agajanian Quinn herself is a galvanizing presence in the art scene she champions – not as a provincial booster, but as an international artster whose stint in the ‘80s as Interview Magazine’s West Coast Editor solidified the role she plays as a bridge between her LA and Warhol’s New York, and beyond. (For instance, honoring her heritage, she has been a longtime supporter of cultural and social initiatives in Armenia. Armenian-American artists such as John Altoon and Charles Garabedian are also a favored cause.) Quinn’s late husband was as avid and judicious an acquirer as she is, so the collection is informed by intimate dialogue, not public role-playing.
A tip-of-iceberg representation can easily skew toward the collector’s, or the curator’s, taste. But in Rachel McCullah Wainwright, decade-long curator at the Bakersfield Museum, Quinn found a similarly well-informed and enthusiastic teammate, someone else who wanted the show to transcend the sum of its parts and be first of all about the time and place and creative minds those parts represent. The selection does not seem dated, but it does feel deftly managed, crafted to convey a mindset --- or a cluster of mindsets – with its best foot forward. You feel Quinn’s love in most every work, and you feel equally Wainwright’s guidance.
Of course, what you should and do feel most of all is the individual wit and invention of the artists themselves. It’s inevitably a mixed bag, ranging from Light & Space (Lita Albuquerque, Larry Bell, Peter Alexander) to California Pop (Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Tony Berlant) to material abstraction (Charles Arnoldi, Laddie John Dill) to various representational approaches (Gwynn Murrill, Don Bachardy, Robert Graham) to gestural painting (Ed Moses, Gregory Wiley Edwards). Lynda Benglis and Jean-Michel Basquiat, of all people, show up here, but justifiably, as both spent considerable and crucial time in LA in the period covered. Their presence alone indicates that, however easy it may be to call Ruscha a Pop artist or Albuquerque Light & Space, such rubrics are confining, even misleading. Sure, you can say that about any art or artist, but Southern California artists in the late 20th century were as restless and ornery as they were skilled and imaginative, and went to great lengths to avoid being pigeonholed.
Thus, the fresh eclecticism of “On The Edge,” its element of constant surprise keeping viewers on their toes. However well you know these artists, seeing them assembled in all their variety is a heady, appetite-spurring experience. They don’t exactly make a fetish of individualism, but they do make art out of it.
Joan Quinn is an individual who successfully gathered all these other individuals around her. She even got them to do individual takes on her. The show’s side gig brings together dozens of portraits rendered of Joan by various of her artist friends, famous and obscure, young and old, pictorial and conceptual, and the stylistic disparity here is even more overwhelming than in the show’s core. This hoard of Joans is no mere self-indulgence; it’s an ongoing project in perception, her own and the artists’ (and here, the curator’s and ours), a Rashomon exercise in aesthetics that allows her friends to play with Quinn at least as much as pay her homage. Quinn’s real ego investment is in the larger collection, the serious legacy she is compiling as tribute to her milieu, and it’s exhilarating to witness that compilation from the iceberg’s tip. WM
PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues. (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson)
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