The auditorium used to fit some 2,000 Freemasons. They’d perform their elaborate plays and operas there, on the first floor of the monumental Scottish Rite Masonic Temple they built on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1961. Paul and Maurice Marciano, the Guess Jeans co-founders who bought the temple in 2013 to house their contemporary art foundation, initially planned to cover the auditorium with white drywall, install a drop ceiling, and turn it into a typically pristine exhibition space. Instead, once they’d gutted the building and seen how majestic the trusses and infrastructure were, they and their architect, art world darling Kulapat Yantrasast, decided to leave the first-floor space relatively bare.
Now, the week of the Marciano Art Foundation’s public debut, the cavernous former auditorium contains some of the over-the-top theatrical backdrops the Masons left behind in its rafters when they left in the mid-1990s. One of these backdrops depicts a fiery hell of falling bodies. Artist Jim Shaw suspended it from the ceiling as part of his dystopian inaugural installation, The Wig Museum. He also suspended his own mural-sized paintings of superheroes, shopping centers, goblins, moguls, and Barbara Bush waving from inside a burning bush.
Underneath a neon marquee that says “Wig Museum,” Shaw has installed a number of ornate wigs on simple mannequins. Some of these he made, while others he found in the temple’s basement—early on, the Marcianos invited him and other artists to rummage through their accidentally acquired archive. “So, you’re combining all these convoluted narratives into a bigger entity,” curator Philipp Kaiser says to Shaw in an interview in the foundation’s inaugural catalogue. “Well, it’s manic thinking,” Shaw replies. “Magic thinking, manic thinking, to me they are the same. Just replace the g with an n.”
“He’s never had a big exhibition in L.A.,” said Maurice Marciano, the foundation’s co-founder, of Shaw, speaking by phone and still recovering from a weekend of opening parties. “I could not understand that, him being such a big artist here.” When Kaiser, the former L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art curator who was brought on to organize the foundation’s initial exhibitions, suggested it, the Marcianos quickly agreed to unveil their space with a large Shaw installation, even though they only owned two of the works that are included in it. “I really hope that this is going to be a catalyst for him,” Marciano said.
He’d been nervous about the opening, Marciano admitted. “You show a new collection, you hope everyone is going to like it,” he said, comparing the launch of his foundation to a new denim line. Art worlders did like his massive new art space, he told me; the weekend had been “amazing.”
Back in 2013, when the Marcianos first bought the temple, Jeffrey Deitch, then the director of MOCA L.A., told the New York Times, “I think this will become one of the most important spaces for contemporary art in the whole country.” At that point, billionaire Eli Broad’s museum on Grand Avenue remained under construction and Alice Walton had recently opened Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, George Lucas was still looking for a home for his spaceship-shaped Museum of Narrative Art. All three of these ego-seums were or would be built from the ground up, designed by starchitects to house collections that could have easily gone to existing major institutions. The Marciano brothers, in contrast, acquired a very strange historical monument designed by a quirky artist-architect named Millard Sheets, because a young artist in their collection, cliché-trafficking Alex Israel, suggested they do so. Then they opened up the building to artists they liked.
Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch used it for a frantically dark, Blair Witch–inspired video shoot pre-renovation, and Jim Shaw borrowed Masonic cast-offs for his New Museum show, not yet knowing he’d have his largest-ever L.A. exhibition at the temple. The brothers also only began collecting contemporary art in earnest in 2006. Their 1,500-artwork collection is less strategic and canonical than the Broad’s 2,000 artworks, and not as museum-ready.
“The Marciano collection is very eclectic,” said Kaiser, who also curated the Broad’s first monographic show, a Cindy Sherman retrospective mostly sourced from the museum’s own holdings. “It needs to be an open framework,” Kaiser said of his curatorial approach for the Marcianos. He pointed out the skepticism some art types feel toward collectors opening museums, but he considers this venture different. “He really is adding something new,” Kaiser said of Maurice Marciano.
Marciano enlisted Kaiser because he couldn’t imagine curating his first show himself, having to make decisions about which works to show and which to leave in storage. “It’s like when you have a lot of children,” he said. “You can’t choose between your children.”
Visitors to the foundation first encounter a mural by Sherman in which the artist wears a ceremonial tunic that both Marciano and Kaiser compared to Freemason get-up (though it’s worth noting that women were never Freemasons). Then they can linger in Shaw’s dystopian wonderland or take vintage elevators up to the second and third floors, where the exhibition “Unpacking” features collection works selected by Kaiser.
The galleries are all still named after their former Masonic function. The second-floor lounge galleries reprise the project that Trecartin and Fitch filmed in the space four years ago. In a sizable black box off of the ballroom galleries, Yael Bartana’s film Inferno (2013) plays on a loop, a replica of Solomon’s Temple crashing apart inside this newly repurposed temple. The trio of lodge galleries, which Kaiser refers to as the “spine” of the show, pair male icons: Sterling Ruby and Mike Kelley, Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool, and Takashi Murakami and Paul McCarthy. Murakami’s grinning Mickey Mouse paintings hang behind Paul McCarthy’s “White Snow” sculptures, two perverse riffs on the Disney mythology. A stretched-out photograph by Louise Lawler of works by Murakami and Warhol covers the entire wall behind these Disney riffs, the only woman in the show’s “spine” caricaturing and distorting the plastic indulgences of her male peers.
By nature of their business, the Marciano brothers have had a complicated relationship to gender stereotypes from the start. “The idea was to create psychological desire,” said the stylist who turned Claudia Schiffer, the first Guess Girl, into a Bridget Bardot lookalike back in 1990.
No women were allowed to attend rituals in the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple during its heyday. The National Guard holed up in the building during the Rodney King rebellions, reupping on supplies and resting. Police memorials took place in the auditorium. Carved sculptures of larger-than-life men still stand on the corners of the exterior (Freemason and Confederate soldier Albert Pike; George Washington, who achieved the title of master mason). The red-carpeted relic room on the museum’s mezzanine, perhaps the most compelling installation in the building, includes objects left unclaimed by the Masons. Among them are a series of discomfiting busts found in a basement “makeup room” and used to demonstrate how certain kinds of faces (African, Native American, etc.) should be made up for performances.
“The arts have always been an important means of communication within Scottish Rite Masonry,” the art historian Susan Aberth writes in a catalogue essay that is surprisingly tame given that the all-male group privileged patriarchal power and apparently enacted racial stereotypes. “[A]nd now the Maurice and Paul Marciano Art Foundation can continue this tradition in their own fashion, housed in their beautiful temple.” Thankfully, Maurice Marciano does not refer to the building as his temple, or, even, his museum.
“What I’m not calling it is a museum,” he said. He’s the chair of MOCA’s board and he doesn’t want to compete with the institutions the city already has. Nor does he want it to be as formal or unwieldy as established institutions. He wants to tell artists, “This is your space; it’s your forum,” he told me. “Just express.”