C California Style

Whitney McVeigh’s Divine Rules, 2018, is flanked by Paul Chan’s Le Baigneur 1, 2016, and the circa-250 Head of Plato.

Strictly Platonic

by C California Style

Art meets Greek Philosophy at the Getty Villa

A marble bust of Plato.

One would never imagine that the world’s most famous (and expensive) living pop artist, Jeff Koons, the greatest (and most controversial) Greek thinker, Plato, and Jean Paul Getty’s lavish Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades would make any sense together. But the ambitious “Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Visions” marries the ancient and the modern, the serious and the humorous, with philosophy and pop art—making sense of it all.   


The exhibit is a complex, challenging show exploring the classical Greek philosopher’s often-contradictory, provocative observations, and the ways they have influenced and informed 11 of the most important contemporary artists of our time. But why is Plato—who conjures up memories of mind-boggling college term papers for many—relevant in 2018? As the art world tackles the country’s divisive, polarizing political climate, it is in fact an ideal time to revisit Platonic ideas on morality, humanity and politics. “Plato in L.A.” is not only a stunning collection of contemporary art, it’s a conversation starter.


Curator Donatien Grau and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s director Timothy Potts first started to plot the show three years ago, after Grau came forward with the idea. Potts agreed that the Getty Villa, which Getty created to be even more perfect than the Roman villa it was based on, was the ultimate locale. “The Getty Villa in itself is a very Platonic creation because it’s an imitation. It’s been recreated as the very ideal of itself,” Potts explains. “There is something very Platonic in creating something that is even more real than the real one.” Grau, who is the head of contemporary programs at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, began combing through the works of artists who have engaged in a productive, and sometimes contradictory, dialogue with Plato’s complex opinions on politics, love, idealism, God, poetics and, ultimately, the creation of art itself. After exhaustive research and countless studio visits, Grau assembled a group of contemporary artists who have always pushed buttons: Koons, Paul Chan, Rachel Harrison, Huang Yong Ping, Joseph Kosuth, Paul McCarthy, Whitney McVeigh, Raymond Pettibon, Adrian Piper, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Mike Kelley (the only non-living artist in the show). The never-before-staged exhibit encompasses a range of mediums: sculpture, paintings, drawings and large-scale installations, such as artist Huang’s grand piece Caverne 2009.


Potts recognized immediately that Grau was the one person who could pull off such an ambitious undertaking. “He brings a depth of experience and understanding in the depths of two opposite ends of the spectrum—the very early and the very recent, which is rare,” Potts explains. “He’s a youngish scholar [at 30 years old] with one foot in the ancient world as a scholar of ancient history and antiquity, and the other foot in the contemporary world.”


Grau explains, “When Jean Paul Getty would talk about the Villa, he would say that he wanted the audience to have the sensation of being able to converse with the great Greek philosophers. So there is the DNA.” The exhibit—which despite having a framework can be absorbed in any order one chooses, thus creating a different experience for each viewer—is expansive in both scope and ideas. Housed in the special exhibitions galleries on the second floor, the show plays host to a range of installations, including Koons’ famous Play-Doh, a monumental aluminum sculpture that depicts a mound of multicolored clay, and McVeigh’s Divine Rules—a library of found books she has formed over a 10-year period—which was realized on site. “There’s a book in the library entitled 1000 Best Poems in the World, and, in the preface, the writer talks about a ‘Future Library’ that consists of the 100 best books in the world of universal human knowledge: astronomy, geology, ship-building, telegraphy, history, chemistry, electricity, mathematics, mechanics,” McVeigh explains from London, where she lives. “I realized this is what I was doing by bringing the collection together, dedicated to ordinary subjects that connect us as humans. I’d read The Republic by Plato, and Donatien was informed of my influences in recent years. We had a studio visit where I proposed the library.”


Pettibon’s contribution is a mini retrospective of 35 years of his Platonic work in 15 pieces, which were mounted in the way he sees his work—as a cloud of drawings. Kosuth, who has created neon, word-based pieces for decades, devised an installation excerpting Allegory of the Cave that illuminates from a large wall. “It was a quote which reflected very well my ambivalence with the philosophy of Plato,” Kosuth says. “This quote was, not without irony, the most anti-Platonic quote I could find.”


“People say Plato is anti-art…the argument of the exhibition was to confront that.”

Koons has always had an ongoing creative dialogue with objects that pre-exist. His massive sculpture Play-Doh not only coincidentally is a wordplay with Plato, but also addresses Plato’s contemplation of banality and often-negative feelings about art as too perfect and beautified in itself. “I think when Plato talks about the good and talks about transcendence, that’s the experience art wants to give—really the essence of someone’s potential,” Koons says.


A seminal, collectible book accompanies the exhibit, and includes interviews with and writings by the 11 artists, exploring their work in relation to Platonic themes. “There was sort of a price to pay to be in the show,” Grau says. “[The book] is quite an extraordinary document which has never been done—a conversation and dialogue around Platonic thought and how it allows us to read our world today.”


Koons, who cites book seven of Plato’s The Republic as having a profound effect on his work, says: “There is a section that deals with the cave. And every day I think about the cave and walking out of the cave and how do you achieve that and how are you able to achieve transcendence to reach the highest level of consciousness,” he says. “And I believe the way to do that as a human being is to remove judgment and hierarchy, and if one practices complete acceptance of everything and finds everything perfect in its own being, that removes anxiety and fear. And when you remove anxiety and fear, you’re able to be open to everything and the realization that everything is here at your disposal and everything reveals its own being and its own energy. I think that’s how you walk out of the cave.”

Potts hopes that “Plato in L.A.” will not only ignite an open dialogue about the world’s pre-eminent philosopher, but also connect people to how Platonic thought continues to inform the contemporary art world today.

“What [Plato] railed against was art that just imitated the way something happens to look,” Potts concludes. “Whether it was a landscape or a picture—that mimetic art, as he calls it, was intrinsically a distraction and an illusion because it was just the way things appeared in the physical world that bore no relation to the ideal world of thoughts and concepts that we should be thinking about and trying to perfect our knowledge of, and the way we lead our lives.

“Often people say Plato is anti-art,” he adds. “He’s against art. He’s against artists. Part of the argument of the exhibition, if there is one, was to confront that. Because artists allow us to address the commonplace in a much more complex, interesting way…they really challenge us and invite us to think differently and have a more open vision of our world.” “Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Visions.” Through Sept. 3. Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades, 310-440-7300; getty.edu.

Written by PETER DAVIS.