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Bruce Kurtz was dressed in screaming yellow bell bottoms and a vest covered with pennies at the Phoenix Art Museum's opening July 6. Beatles music was blaring through loudspeakers and the hors d'oeuvres were Twinkies, Wonder bread, cheese puffs and celery sticks.
Kurtz's outfit was a tribute to the show that opened that night, "L.A. Pop in the Sixties." In addition to being the cynosure of all eyes opening night, Kurtz, the curator of twentieth-century art at the museum, is also the eye of the latest storm swirling around the exhibition.
The brouhaha he's started has to do with, of all things, wall labels, those usually innocuous and often ignored bits of text providing information about the show. If that seems odd, consider this label copy, describing work by Phillip Hefferton and Robert Dowd:
"Finally, there's a selection of large and cheerfully counterfeit dollar bills painted by Robert Dowd and Phillip Hefferton, of which the less said the better. Dowd's `Van Gogh Dollar' of 1965 was indeed prophetic, but it doesn't prevent it from being stupid."
Although this is a quote from Seattle art critic Lyn Smallwood, Kurtz's own words show he goes along with its sentiment. For example, Kurtz himself wrote, "The easy-to-understand one-liner visual jokes of Dowd's and Hefferton's paintings may be more along the lines of humorous greeting cards than paintings." And he goes on to compare Dowd unfavorably with others in the show: "Ruscha is not a one-liner artist. How could anyone fail to get the jokes of Dowd's and Hefferton's paintings, and once you get them, what more do they have to offer?"
Kurtz took a final swipe: "There may be too many borrowings and not enough originality in Dowd and Hefferton to place their art on the same plane as Ruscha, Goode, Baldessari, and Bengston."
Kurtz is referring here to the other artists in the exhibition, which features 72 works by Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, Wallace Berman, Joe Goode, Llyn Foulkes, Robert Dowd, Phillip Hefferton, and Billy Al Bengston. Robert Dowd was present at the opening and was so enraged that he went to Kurtz and demanded that the panel be removed. Kurtz refused. Then Dowd's publicist Veet Mano, who appeared at the opening complete with ponytail, white gauze California guru outfit and New Age vocabulary, confronted museum director James Ballinger with the same demand. Ballinger also refused.
"We agreed to disagree," Ballinger said of his conversation with Mano. "I clarified basic museum policy to him--that we had the right to install any kind of text panels we wished. This one may be a little harder-hitting than people are used to, but I'm not uncomfortable with it."
Although written by Kurtz, the text panels were sanctioned by the museum's executive staff. And, copies of the text were sent to the artists before the opening.
Dowd isn't letting the matter rest. "Robert is writing a letter of protest to the National Association of Museums," Mano said in a phone call from Los Angeles. "He's also going to talk to his collectors to see about removing his work from the show. I mean, if you were the owner of one these pieces, it would make you look stupid if you believed what Kurtz wrote. You know, like `What kind of idiot would own this stuff?' Would you want that?"
While it is not unheard of for museums to write their own labels for traveling exhibitions, slamming the very work they refer to is more than out of the ordinary.
When asked about that, Kurtz responded with innocuous generalities about involving the public: "Museums have found that about 75 percent of museum visitors are novices. They're interested and curious, but they don't have any formal art education or background. Already they're a little bit intimidated as soon as they walk in. Now, a lot of times these panels give you historical information which has nothing to do with the work hanging on the wall, or it's some kind of statement that this is the greatest artist since Rembrandt. The person looks at the work and says, `Hey, I don't agree, so I must be stupid. This guy's an expert, after all. I'm getting out of here.'
"What we tried to do here was show people that these artworks are subject to a number of interpretations and opinions, and that their opinions were just as valid as anyone else's." Dowd's publicist Mano claims that Kurtz has gone far beyond that. By acting like an art critic in the panels, Kurtz in effect has "recurated" the show and subverted what the show's organizer Anne Ayres had intended.
"That's not his job; he's just supposed to put the art on the walls and let the people decide what they think. It wasn't even his show," Mano complained.
Organized by Ayres at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Los Angeles, "L.A. Pop in the Sixties" was three years in the making. After Newport, it traveled to Palm Springs and Seattle. Phoenix is its final venue.
Despite Mano's contention, Anne Ayres does not believe her show has been recurated. "I've read copies of the text panels," she said by phone from Los Angeles, "and I don't have any problem with them."