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Spring 1998
Avant-Garde Academy

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UCLA’s department of art trains ambitious students to be thoughtful rabble-rousers

by William Hackman

The biennial exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art is invariably the object of intense criticism: one year it’s excoriated for being more concerned with political correctness than aesthetic significance; the next time around, it’s dismissed for lacking a challenging point of view. Yet surprisingly, no one seems to have protested that the 1997 Whitney show was too focused on UCLA.

That nearly a third of the UCLA art department’s faculty was included in last year’s exhibition is remarkable enough; more astonishing still is the number of recent UCLA graduates, including [tk: a few names], who also got the nod from the biennial’s co-curators, Lisa Phillips of the Whitney and Louise Neri, U.S. editor of the internationally respected journal Parkett.

As a barometer of the prevailing currents roiling the always-agitated American art scene, the Whitney Biennial, whatever its faults, is about as reliable as you can get. And Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight sums up the message of the most recent outing: “At any given moment in the art world, there’s a ‘buzz,’ and right now the buzz is about UCLA.”

Given the vigilance with which New York jealously guards its position as the center of the artistic universe, one might reasonably ask, How did UCLA become the hottest art school in the country? In the view of many informed observers, the evolution began when the department appointed Chris Burden in the late 1980s.

Burden, who garnered international prominence as a performance artist in the 1970s, quickly began to open doors in Westwood for other artists of his generation. “Chris, painter Roger Herman and multimedia artist Charles Ray were already here when I arrived in 1991,” recalls Henry Hopkins, director of the Armand Hammer Museum and the department’s chair during its rise to preeminence in the first half of this decade.

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