Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant, Los Angeles, Grinstein/Daniels Architects

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more tumultuous at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which has been buffeted by a string of financial and personnel crises in recent years, a new brouhaha has surfaced. And this time it concerns architecture—to be precise, a significant controversy surrounding a planned MOCA exhibition called A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California.

The show is a major component of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. (see page 59), a series of exhibitions running through the summer in venues across Southern California, organized and largely funded by the Getty Trust. MOCA’s contribution was put together by a guest curator, Christopher Mount, as a survey of architecture in Los Angeles over the past 25 years.

Its central figures were to be Frank Gehry and, to a slightly lesser extent, Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss. Its main story line was to be the complex influence they and other members of the “L.A. school” have had on more than two dozen younger architects, including Michael Maltzan, Barbara Bestor, Hagy Belzberg, Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues, Patrick Tighe, and Lorcan O’Herlihy. Mount settled on the notion of “sculpturalism”—bold and ex­per­i­men­tal­ly minded form-making, essentially—as a way to trace that influence from the late 1980s to the present day.

In May, just a few weeks before the show’s planned June 2 opening, Gehry told the museum that he no longer intended to participate, and the show faced possible cancellation. He was unhappy with the direction Mount was taking with the show, saying it lacked scholarly heft and might trivialize or caricature his work. Gehry told me that despite pleas from Mount, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, and top officials at the Getty, he will not have his work in the show.

Mount, who worked for many years as a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and was briefly executive director of the small Pasadena Museum of California Art, suddenly faced the challenge of rethinking A New Sculpturalism without its protagonist and star attraction. Gehry wouldn’t be entirely absent; the MOCA show was planned for the museum’s Geffen Contemporary wing, a hulking former warehouse in L.A.’s Little Tokyo district that he had converted into gallery space in the 1980s.

Gehry’s unhappiness was far from the only problem. Several other architects featured in the exhibition also had growing doubts about Mount’s curatorial approach. The main concern, according to several architects I’ve spoken with, seemed to be that he was merely assembling a tremendously wide range of recent work rather than shaping it into a coherent whole.

On top of that, the show began to be hit by worries that it would slip into the red, though it was awarded a grant of $450,000 by the Getty. After Gehry’s withdrawal, according to several sources, Deitch ordered preparation of the exhibition halted, though the catalogue had already been published. Some of the architects hired to design freestanding pavilions for the show reported that they had not been paid or even reimbursed for the cost of materials and other expenses.

For his part, Mount maintained that the problems with the show were strictly financial. His relationship with Deitch, a highly successful New York art dealer who moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to take over the position as director of MOCA, is strained at best.

MOCA ultimately confirmed that the show would go ahead (though likely without Gehry’s drawings and models). Gehry did agree, however, “to support the show as best I can,” he told RECORD, and said he would participate in a symposium or other program during the run of the exhibition, now opening June 16. That’s where things stood in mid-May as this article went to press.

After all the flap, one thing seems clear: Los Angeles and its cultural institutions are still struggling to make sense of the past two or three decades, a period in which a few of the city’s leading architects have achieved worldwide fame. So are a number of the architects in question, for that matter. Who gets to tell that story, and how it is told, are at the heart of the controversy surrounding the MOCA show.

In the end, I’m not sure “sculpturalism” is the best way to frame recent architecture in Los Angeles. The danger is that the approach might produce an awfully narrow and outdated focus on form. But a show about the clashes among Gehry, Deitch, and Mount? Now, that I would be excited to see.