Commentary: ‘A train wreck’: CSULB’s new art exhibition is a disservice to students

I recently drove to Cal State Long Beach to see an exhibition of Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld’s paintings and drawings from the last 30 years on display at the Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Gallery in the newly expanded gallery renamed Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum.

If you think this nesting doll of names is odd, even in our day of bloated naming opportunities in cultural institutions, you’re right. I’ve never seen anything comparable. In Los Angeles, one in three art buildings seems to be named Geffen or Broad, while in San Diego the nickname Jacobs is emblazoned across many a front door. Fine. Rarely, however, do large raised letters of a naming opportunity in a museum space identify the same donor whose name also appears in large raised letters on the building outside. The art on display practically never comes from the patron of the same name.

Welcome to Long Beach. Here at Cal State University, Kleefelds im Kleefeld im Kleefeld are the new norm. disturbing. It’s a train wreck and the students are being done a disservice.

The exhibition, which features 10 canvases and 13 works on paper, is a small selection from a gift the artist made to the museum, including 74 of her paintings and 104 of her drawings. Kleefeld art now makes up about 6% of the museum’s permanent collection. (I am not aware that she is in any other museum’s collection.) Her own art will be rotating in her own gallery. Also donated were her library, a personal archive and copies of more than 20 inspirational books she has written.

Did I mention the $10 million check? That came too.

Cal State Long Beach raised $24 million to expand and renovate the university’s former art museum, which has been in operation since 1973, by 4,000 square feet. (It reopened in February.) There are now three exhibition galleries instead of two, an archive for works on paper, a classroom, an expanded collections store, and a spacious entrance hall. An anteroom features a painting and a large, inspirational wall text printed on Plexiglas—both by Kleefeld.

“The passion of my life has been to create art from an unconditional source of being and to inspire others to embark on such a journey,” reports the toothache-inducing signage, suggesting an artist occupy the realm of a spiritual aristocrat. “Our ultimate purpose in living is to thrive in our soul’s calling and mold ourselves into our highest ideal so that we can do our best.”

A selection of paintings on a white wall.

A dedicated gallery in the CSULB Art Museum is dedicated to the exhibition of the donor’s paintings.

(Tatyana Mata)

In the case of the Kleefeld paintings in the Kleefeld Gallery in the Kleefeld Museum, the ‘well-being’ is so peculiar that the art is frankly awful – by far the worst I’ve seen in any serious public or private exhibition, for profit or non-profit, in years. The creaking romantic imagination of the numinous artist, isolated from mundane works and turning his back on the modern world for touching higher truths, is on display. The fiction abounds with gift shop quality illustrations depicting cosmic consciousness. (The artist, who has long lived in Big Sur on the Central California coast, has exhibited most frequently at the nearby luxurious Ventana Inn and Spa.) Smeared rainbows, abstract faces locked in expressionist faces, and rough landscapes of mountains and forests are splattered random drops of paint, like Jackson Pollocks from the thrift store. Except not that good.

Despite an unevided press release from the university praising her “highly acclaimed paintings,” Kleefeld is a visual artist of no standing in the field. Her biography does not reflect an active participation in the larger cultural discourse of art. (Shows at an expensive resort and spa don’t count.) Kleefeld could figure prominently in the inspirational or new-age self-help industry – “The Alchemy of Possibilities: Reinventing Your Personal Mythology”, “Climate of the Mind: Poems and Philosophy Aphorisms and Soul Seeds: Revelations and Drawings are among her small-publishing titles—but her artistic contribution is virtually nil.

A 2007 painting shows a blue, melting female figure pressed against a splattered dark brown surface, her head framed by a gold crown. The title is Laura Huxley’s Departure. I can’t tell if writer Aldous Huxley’s widow, a well-known self-help author and friend of the painter, went out with an LSD blast at age 96, as she reported her husband had done before her. But Kleefeld’s blurry illustration of Huxley’s death suggests it is possible.

The 2010 painting hanging next to it, titled “Of Each Other,” is itself a nesting doll composition. Profile heads set in profile heads are clumsy adaptations of Picasso 70 or 80 years ago. Matryoshka by Marie-Thérèse Walter illustrates human connections or perhaps multiple personalities.

A 1993 drawing entitled “Living Space” is an indoor-outdoor aerial view of a table top, some potted plants, a few candle holders and two women in profile, all rendered in delicate lines. The label states that this greeting card-quality doodle was made with pastels and colored pencils on “imported paper,” which perhaps means the sheet floated in from an astral plane.

Two paintings hang on a gallery wall

Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld, Laura Huxley’s Departure, 2007 (left), and Of Each Other, 2010.

(Tatyana Mata)

A CSULB professor, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter, said of the exhibit: “If that was a college applicant’s portfolio, he would not be admitted to the program.” The university’s prestigious School of Art has around 2,000 students in graduate and undergraduate programs and a faculty of more than 30.

In the early 1960s, Kleefeld’s late father was a major cultural benefactor in LA. If the name S. Mark Taper sounds familiar, it’s because his donations helped build the Music Center, where a theater bears his name, and the recently demolished Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Adjusted for inflation, those two gifts would total over $22 million today.

Taper’s philanthropy did not spring from a well-known passion for theatre, music or the arts. The Polish-born British home builder and banker, who died in 1994 at the age of 92, immigrated to Southern California in the 1930s and his existing wealth exploded, as did the region after World War II. Taper came from a generation of patricians who believed that if you had the financial means to be a good citizen, you had to get involved with your peers to improve the quality of civic life – so luckily he did.

The artistic interest shows in his two daughters. Kleefeld’s sister and late brother-in-law, Janice and Henri Lazarof, donated their impressive, deeply personal collection of 130 modern European paintings and sculptures to LACMA 15 years ago. The remarkable estate included 20 Picasso paintings, seven Alberto Giacometti sculptures, two versions of Constantin Brancusi’s signature “Bird in Space” sculptures, and works by Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and many more. Whether or not sibling rivalry played a role in the subsequent CSULB donation, the difference in the relative importance of the art is stark.

A gift business that involves the ongoing maintenance of a large collection and archive of the donor’s bad art, and a gallery to display theirs, all in exchange for millions of dollars, makes it impossible not to think of “pay to play.” According to Paul Baker Prindle, director of Kleefeld Contemporary, who was not on staff at the time the contract was signed, the artist approached the university to donate the paintings and the school responded positively, along with a request for a cash gift. The $10 million helped build the museum extension; Approximately $7 million went into construction, while other funds fund operations and grants.

Repeated public inquiries by email and phone to the university regarding the donation have been acknowledged but have remained unanswered as of press time.

The interior of an art gallery.

Installation view of the Kleefeld Gallery.

(Tatyana Mata)

Both uses for the gift are potentially beneficial. But the deal is badly flawed — perhaps irreparable. A permanent part of a public university’s tax-subsidized museum facility and arts program has been effectively privatized to further the personal interests of a wealthy patron. CSULB has now made a significant commitment to perpetuating a worthless but high-profile art project.

What is the university teaching students by such an arrangement?

Nizan Shaked is Director of the School’s Museum Studies programme. Her recent book Museums and Wealth: The Politics of Contemporary Art Collections is a scholarly analysis of similar dilemmas. While not dealing with CSULB, its topic is particularly acute given the increasing number of museums focusing on art by living artists. Reached by phone, Shaked declined to comment on the specific Kleefeld arrangement, but described the situation succinctly: “This presents me with a problem in terms of teaching best practices.”

I bet. The dilemma is inevitable. It’s like a university science department setting up a lab to study fad diets created by Dr. Oz and funded by the pseudoscience-spitting celebrity.

Art museums today profess a cultural commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and CSULB has one of the most diverse student bodies of any public university in the country. According to College Factual, an education data website, four out of five students identify as BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and Colored. (The enrollment is almost half Latino.) But the children, both BIPOC and white, are shown that private wealth will prevail in the public sphere even if no actual achievements are made. Cultural philanthropy that perpetuates the privileged status quo rolls on.

How did the incriminating deal come about? A 10-month window opened in late 2018, when the school’s then-University Art Museum was without a director. Kimberli Meyer was fired in September, while Baker Prindle, the new director, didn’t come on board until the following July (from the University of Nevada, Reno). The Kleefeld regulation announced in April 2019 was negotiated by the university in the absence of the museum management.

The deal was a colossal mistake. A public museum – particularly at a public university with an admired art college that also trains future museum professionals – should focus its primary collection and exhibition resources on two things: established artistic excellence and art, whether brand new or old and overlooked, that it believes is promises to achieve this rank. If Cal State Long Beach believes that’s the case, then the difficulty in communicating best practices isn’t half of it. Commentary: ‘A train wreck’: CSULB’s new art exhibition is a disservice to students

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