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MOCA Rising 

Exhibitions, lectures and a concert signal the maturing of Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art

The setting: Upstate New York, in the chilly winter of 1962-63, in the snowbound studio Terminal Iron Works.

The characters: Famous sculptor David Smith, age 56, of the New York School, friend of the Abstract Expressionists, maker of big metal sculpture that is surprisingly delicate for its size; "three-dimensional metal calligraphy," one critic calls it.

Dan Budnik, age 29, a Magnum photographer who would become best known for his civil rights work. Budnik has traveled up to the wintry Adirondacks, cameras in hand, to take pictures of the master at work.

Smith has invited the younger man, but he's at first dubious of his intentions.

The dialogue:

Smith: "What do you want to do?"

Budnik: "Well, David, it depends on what you are doing."

Smith: "I just work."

Budnik: "All right. I'll do the same."

The conversation, later described by Budnik, was the starting-off point for a series of fine photographs documenting Smith at work on some of the last pieces he would ever make. Unlike some photojournalists--notably Hans Namuth, who apparently stage-managed Jackson Pollock through their famous photo sessions--Budnik simply followed Smith around, indoors and out.

He took fine black and whites of Smith as the sculptor sat, lost in thought, contemplating the pieces of "Voltri Bolton X" on the floor--its triangular metal cutouts roughly arranged in a circle, topped by long, slender poles. He captured the sculptor as he made a final adjustment of "Cubi I," metal cubes lined up vertically, at angles, one atop the others. And he trailed him to the snowy field outside, where Smith kicked apart "Cubi IV" and "Cubi V," against a backdrop of bare winter trees.

Smith would die two years later in a car accident, so Budnik's publication of the work in Life in 1963 became a kind of visual epitaph. Eleven of the photographs, collectively called David Smith at Work, are included in a two-part show at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown.

Budnik, who now lives in Tucson, lent the pictures to the museum, along with a rare early oil painting by Smith, "Still Life With Mannequin Head," a 1930s work that bears the painterly trademarks of that era--thick, dry matte paint, and wide bands of black outlining the head, the pink plate, the patterned lamp. Local collector Claude Bailey lent another Smith, a 1952 "Don Quixote" lithograph, that abstracts the idealistic knight and his horse into strokes of black.

The companion exhibition, State Furniture, by Tucsonan Dave Lewis, offers up contemporary welded metal sculpture. With its gallows, lecterns and inquisition booths, Lewis' work apes the official security apparatus of our contemporary government. A metal welder who moved to Tucson to train at Pima Community College, Lewis has created a creepy mélange of interrogation tools that are unfortunately not in the realm of fantasy.

In a period poisoned by Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and attorneys general Ashcroft and Gonzales, Lewis has crafted a metal cabinet filled with neatly arranged police batons and shields; a white booth with windows all around, the better to conduct surveillance; and a ski mask handy for hiding torturers' identities. A double-decker interrogation booth comes complete with the seemingly innocuous trappings of an ordinary office: fluorescent lights, gray linoleum floors and office chairs.

To bring matters home to the Old Pueblo, Lewis has thoughtfully included two thick binders full of pictures of the security cameras that document our every move here in Tucson, in places as varied as street intersections and Mexican restaurants.

The connection between the two shows seems tenuous; they're linked only by the fact that both Smith and Lewis made (make) finely welded metal sculpture. But by juxtaposing the two--one a loving tribute to a master of abstraction, the other an angry denunciation of the new security state--the curators hope to link historical art and the sometimes-difficult art of our own times, says MOCA director Anne-Marie Russell.

Russell adds that the local connections of the two shows are central to what the downtown museum is all about: showcasing Tucson's art strengths.

"Dan and Claude both live in Tucson and have important collections of an important sculptor of the 20th century," she says. "This show is born of Tucson, but it's a significant show anywhere in the world." The Tate Gallery in London, she adds, contacted MOCA for more information on the rare Smith painting.

She's equally proud that the museum is exhibiting the work of Tucsonans like Lewis.

"This stuff would be high-quality anywhere, but people are committed to this place."

Still located in a ramshackle Toole Avenue warehouse owned by the state, MOCA was founded on a shoestring by artists Julia Latané, James Graham and David Wright. The floorboards still creak, but the roof no longer leaks. And nowadays, the museum employs several paid staff members, routinely stages lectures by visiting artists and scholars, publishes slick catalogues and has a paid membership of about 400 and an operating budget of $200,000. A committee of local real estate pros and architects is searching for a permanent home downtown for the museum.

"We're mirroring the revitalization of downtown," Russell says.

The lineup of events this month, she says, is typical of the new MOCA. Wednesday night, a quartet of innovative architects was scheduled to lead a symposium, tackling contemporary topics from light pollution to the tyranny of the automobile. Thursday night at 6 p.m., Janaina Tschape, a Brazilian-German artist who does body art, gives a lecture on her work. April 28 at 6 p.m., writer Joan Juliet Buck comes to town to have a public conversation with artist Dave Lewis, reprising live the interview printed in the exhibition catalog.

This Saturday night, hotshot Brazilian artist Vik Muniz will do a fundraiser for MOCA with the help of homegrown band Calexico. Muniz, a Brooklyn-based photographer whose work has been exhibited at the Center for Creative Photography and other venues around the country, "draws" images out of sugar and chocolate, and photographs them. His daredevil pictures include everything from a spaghetti sauce portrait to a chocolate "Last Supper."

Russell made a documentary about Muniz that aired nationally on PBS in October 2003, using Calexico's music for her soundtrack. The Saturday fundraiser at Leo Rich Theater will include a screening of the movie, Worst Possible Illusion: The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz, a Q&A with Muniz, dinner and a sit-down concert by Calexico.

All the activities are "a turning point for us," Russell says. "They show the quality and caliber we're trying to achieve."

More by Margaret Regan

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