By Michael Aushenker
Back in April, a small clutch of journalists on a press preview of artist Gary Baseman’s career-encompassing Skirball Cultural Center exhibit The Door is Always Open witnessed firsthand a character-defining moment for one of local news radio’s most recognizable personalities.
As Baseman wrapped up a tour of the paintings, sculptures, fixtures and dolls bearing his signature cartoon character creation, Toby, in which participants drank in Baseman’s words with polite smiles, a voice of constructive criticism, if not exactly dissent, came from Baseman’s peripheral. Suddenly emerging into the fore: a middle-aged man, bald with handbroom mustache, stood face to face with Baseman and, in a foreign accent, he pushed him, challenged him –maybe even dared him – to break from his money-making visual vocabulary and try something different.
Perhaps only KCRW’s Edward Goldman could have gotten away with such a moment with an Emmy Award-winning Disney animated series creator without being asked to leave.
“Many artists become almost unconsciously to themselves unwitting illustrators,” Goldman told The Argonaut of artists who rely too heavily on a repeated riff or motif. “They don’t have the courage to fail. Being a great artist means to always keep taking another step into the unknown.”
Goldman, who hosts his own show at the Santa Monica-based radio station, knows why some artists rest on their lucrative laurels: “Now they’re successful, now it’s expected, there is money involved.”
If anything, Goldman chided Baseman out of love – a love for the arts. One of Goldman’s personal slogans, he said, goes: “You can’t be too thin, too rich or have too many museums.”
Some very talented artists, Goldman insists, have fallen prey to such a trap – Sam Francis, Roy Lichtenstein, Renoir, whose oeuvre, Goldman believes, curdled into something “embarrassing.”
And then there’s the other side of the equation: the underrated, such as California artist Charles Garabedian, a man in his 90s showcased by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art a couple of years ago.
“He’s not a famous artist yet,” Goldman said. “He’s one of the most original painters in Southern California. He continues doing figurative painting. He’s getting stronger and stronger.”
As the quizzical, quirky host of NPR affiliate KCRW’s “Art Talk,” Goldman has grappled with L.A.’s art scene for decades. His dry humor comes dripping in a trademark thick-Russian accent that has made him instantly recognizable. Once considered a detriment to his career aspirations back in the 1980s, the accent has been embraced by Goldman.
“People wanted to hear my message,” he said. “They were kind enough to ignore imperfection.”
Twenty-five years later, he still hosts KCRW’s weekly art review show. In 1998, Goldman served as arts and culture editor for “Life & Times Tonight” on KCET, L.A.’s public television station, and two valuable elements have fueled his success: passion and curiosity.
“I just feel that I’m connected in the most essential way with the spirit of Los Angeles, the spirit of this country,” said the West Los Angeles resident, who could not emphasize enough the importance of retaining one’s curiosity, and how directly it is connected to a youth of spirit.
Formerly employed by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Goldman, in 1978, was among the thousands of Jews who fled the former Soviet Union for a better life in America. Arriving in Los Angeles, he originally intended to stay here with his family as a pit stop before moving to New York City.
“I thought, I will go to the East Coast and find some culture,” Goldman said. “From day one, I became enamored by this city – the weather, the kindness of these people I met. It didn’t remind me of anywhere (I had been); L.A. was a totally different animal.”
That animal, to be exact, Goldman said, is a giraffe (“unique, exotic, fantastic”). And he admonishes anyone who compares the giraffe that is L.A.’s art scene to those of horses such as New York, Paris and London.
One of Goldman’s most lucrative side gigs began after he was asked to teach a seminar on art collecting at Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester. The gig has led to his seasonal private art tours of Los Angeles’ art scene which, like the city of Angels itself, has changed several times over in the past 25 years.
“I’m missing the old times when you can go to Chinatown 10 years ago,” Goldman said. “It’s not the same energy. “
Goldman considers some of the new galleries in the area between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue “cold and corporate” while he says Bergamot Station in Santa Monica “continues to be the longest thriving art district in Los Angeles.” In fact, just a couple weeks ago, Goldman found himself at one of Bergamot’s most prominent venues, TAG Gallery, where he reveled in the reception for California Open 2013, a juried art show featuring 50 artists personally selected among 500 submissions in which the juror was Goldman.
“I didn’t want to give anyone third prize,” he revealed, instead re-jiggering the awards to include two runner-ups.
Having judged that show based on some flat digital images sent to his computer, Goldman delighted in witnessing those works he selected in person among a packed room that included the artists.
“They’re sense of craftsmanship, sense of humor, level of complexity,” he said. “It surprised me even more. I’m looking forward to visiting the studios of some of these artists.”
Goldman worries a bit whether the current Expo Line light rail project in Santa Monica will threaten “the integrity of Bergamot Station.”
“It’s a wonderful one-of-a-kind island of culture,” Goldman continued of Bergamot. “A great relief for us locals to be able to go there, park your car (without hassle), have some wonderful coffee (and take in the art).”
On the Venice side, he commended L.A. Louver and sees great promise in the neighborhood’s Shulamit Gallery, a recently opened art house in which its owner, an Iranian-Jewish architect, even designed the building. Goldman called Shulamit “so ambitious, so interesting,” and even offering a new way to view the panorama of Venice Beach.
He has equal praise for the Wende Museum, a converted armory building “hiding in plain sight” in the middle of downtown Culver City in which he says “the very ambitious director” has transformed an otherwise pedestrian World War II museum into something sublime.
Recently, when Goldman asked gallery owner Perry Rubenstein why he left his acclaimed gallery in New York’s Chelsea district to reopen it on Highland Avenue near Melrose, Rubenstein retorted, “Let me tell you, Edward: Los Angeles today is what New York used to be for Paris after World War II.” Translation: New York may be the heart of the art world, but L.A. is its cutting edge.
“Southern California,” Goldman said, “has the largest concentration of the most famous and best American art schools. Artists come here to study, to teach, to live here (and the great weather doesn’t hurt),” he said.
And what of the spiritual descendents of painters Robert Williams and Mark Ryden and filmmaker Tim Burton, whose art styles have seemingly launched 1,000 lowbrow artists feeding their candy-coated takes on pop culture to galleries such as Hollywood’s La Luz de Jesus and Culver City’s WWA Gallery? Goldman is not so quick to dismiss this very Californian pop art movement.
“There’s a market and need for them,” Goldman said. “It’s far from the best art or something of importance or something that inspires me personally, (however) it’s part of the artistic stew. It’s easily accessible. Is it demanding? Not too much.”
While some have expressed concerns on gentrification in Venice, Goldman doesn’t see the spark leaving Venice or neighboring Santa Monica anytime soon. Take, for instance, that TAG Gallery show he judged, or “Ted talk,” an event he will take part in at the tech company ZEFR in Venice on Sept. 15.
“Los Angeles and Hollywood created a new mythology, not just for America, for the whole world,” Goldman said of cinema, another reason he is proud to live in L.A. and why he believes the city is a chief exporter of the power of art. “This is a common language for everyone on the planet.”
The critic, in fact, is looking forward to when the other shoe comes down on L.A.’s art scene: the museum being built in downtown L.A. by billionaire Eli Broad, who created a home for theater and opera with Santa Monica’s Broad Stage. Likewise, the conversion of what was the shuttered Masonic Temple on Wilshire at Crenshaw Boulevard by the Marciano Brothers, scions of the Guess Jeans fortune, into a museum 18 months from now housing their extensive private collection of contemporary art.
“Yes, I look forward to that,” Goldman said. “In 20 or 30 years, it will be greatly appreciated.”