William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

The Broad’s Oculus Unveiled

The Broad’s “veil” is almost free of scaffolding, with the construction cam now giving a fairly good idea of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro building’s appearance. Just revealed is the “oculus,” a  window in a second-floor meeting room. Writing in Glasstire, Matt Stromberg described it as a portal “through which Broad can survey City Hall and the MOCA across the street, like Emperor Palpatine in the Death Star.” (Yes, that makes two L.A. museums that pundits have likened to the Death Star. And we didn’t even get the Lucas Museum.)

“Oculus” is a word of the moment. Besides the virtual reality start-up, it’s being applied to the skylight in New York’s new Fulton Center subway station.

Indianapolis Cites Huntington as “Model” for $18 Fee

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is taking flack on social media for imposing a new $18 admission fee. An article in the Indianapolis Business Journal quotes IMA board chairman Thomas Hiatt: “We expect significant increase in membership and no fallout at all in visitors.”

This is an interesting economic theory. Raise the price of something that was free, and demand stays the same. Where did the IMA get this idea? The Journal piece continues,

“A model for the change was The Huntington, a museum, library and gardens in Pasadena, California. Hiatt said that museum tripled its attendance and endowment after adding an admission fee. The Huntington charges $20 for an adult on weekdays and $23 on weekends.”

Left unsaid: The Huntington instituted its admission charge way back in March 1996. The tripled attendance and endowment took place “after” 1996, that is, over an 18-year period.

A lot happened in those 18 years. The Los Angeles region added 3 million additional residents. The Consumer Price Index rose 51 percent (a “tripled” endowment is a doubled endowment, in real terms).

The Huntington added a Chinese garden, a children’s garden, a conservatory, and a wing devoted to the history of science. It tripled the size of its American art gallery. Perhaps most relevant, it added the Boone Gallery for temporary exhibitions, which are normally a big factor in repeat visits. Back in 1996, the Huntington didn’t have space for large shows.

Any reasonable observer would agree that (a) the Huntington’s attendance would be even greater, were it free, and (b) in no way do admission fees go to build the institution’s endowment.

No, the endowment is built by philanthropic gifts. In 2010 Frances Brody bequeathed over $100 million to the Huntington’s endowment, most of it from the auction of Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. Obviously this was an exceptional event. It’s another reason why instituting an $18 entrance fee isn’t a quick path to tripling metrics.

To imply that the Huntington’s admission fee had anything to do with increasing attendance or endowment gifts is like saying the Obama administration is responsible for beards, food trucks, and Iggy Azalea. Correlation doesn’t prove causation.

Raymond Roussel, Godfather of Conceptualism

Pierre Huyghe, now subject of a LACMA show, has credited Raymond Roussel (above, 1877-1933) as a key influence on his work. Roussel was an eccentric poet, novelist, and playwright who was much admired by Duchamp and the Surrealists. That connection has received much attention; not so his relevance to conceptualism. Yet it’s easy to see why Huyghe finds him interesting: Roussel’s books are largely descriptions of imagined artworks incorporating living beings.

It was Roussel who conceived (in print) a giant earthworm that plays Hungarian waltzes by hurling droplets of water at the strings of a zither; a wind-powered machine that constructs a mosaic out of human teeth; an aquarium containing the animated head of French revolutionary Georges Danton. Compare that to what you’ll find in LACMA’s Resnick Pavillion: a statue whose head is an active beehive; a film of a monkey, wearing a human mask and wig, acting as a waiter in a post-apocalyptic Japanese restaurant; an aquarium in which a hermit crab inhabits a reproduction of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse.

“Raymond Roussel is the most fortunate young millionaire of Paris,” reported the Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 1910. “He’s so rich he doesn’t know what to do with his money.”

One way to look at it: Roussel was the J. Seward Johnson of French literature. Like Johnson he used his inheritance to pursue his creative ambitions. Unlike Johnson, Roussel was despised by the masses and celebrated by the avant garde.

Roussel’s self-financed 1912 theatrical production of Impressions of Africa provoked riots (the year before Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). One of the attendees was Marcel Duchamp, who later declared: “Roussel showed me the way.”

Giacometti said that his early work, The Palace at 4 A.M. particularly, was directly inspired by Roussel’s novel Locus Solus. For Jean Cocteau, Roussel was “genius in its pure state.”

Roussel didn’t return the affection, complaining, “People say I’m a Dadaist, but I don’t even know what Dadaism is!”

It’s said that literature lags  the visual arts by 20 years. Roussel might have been 20 years ahead—though his appreciation by other authors peaked well after WWII. Roussel was celebrated by Foucault, Robbe-Grillet, and Perec. John Ashbery learned French just to read Roussel.

There is a literary component to Huyghe’s LACMA show. The attentive visitor will encounter books by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Philip K. Dick (all of whom might be connected to Roussel, though there is no book by Roussel himself, unless I missed it.)

Roussel created words, not objects. Of course, well into the 1970s, conception art was typewritten words on paper, to be realized if and when. Wrote Sol LeWitt, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Roussel’s posthumously published essay, “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” could be considered the first manifesto of conceptualism. In it he revealed the secret formula behind his literary production. Roussel would select two sound-alike words or phrases (like maybe grandfather’s clock and grandfather’s claw) and free-associate a suitably bizarre way of juxtaposing the two. In hindsight, the method evokes the games of  John Cage and Charles Gaines. Roussel’s “novels” are little more than catalogs of wunderkammers of objects inspired by this method. Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus are all description and no plot, and barely even involve the passage of time (an anti-narrative vision that Warhol was to realize in film with Empire).

For his New Impressions of Africa (1928)—a poem having nothing to do with the similarly named novel and play—Roussel hired a detective agency to find a suitable artist to supply illustrations. The agency found Henri-a. Zo, an otherwise forgotten Salon artist and illustrator. Zo was commissioned to create illustrations from Roussel’s cryptic instructions.

The methodology is close to that of John Baldessari’s commissioned paintings of the 1960s. Below is Zo’s response to Roussel’s demand for “A waterskin in the desert, with water gushing from a hole seemingly deliberately made by a traitor’s sword. No people.”

Larry Ellison Goes Victorian

Database mogul Larry Ellison is known as the highest-paid CEO in the solar system; an outspoken acquisitor of yachts, planes, Malibu beachfront, and a Hawaiian island. In 2013 Ellison surprised the art world by revealing himself to be a major collector of Japanese art (in a show of his collection at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum). This past September Ellison surprised the tech world by announcing his retirement as CEO of Oracle.

The Huntington has quietly put on view an Ellison loan, John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Golden Glory. Grimshaw was a sort of Luminist/Pre-Raphaelite best known for nocturnal landscapes. The title of the undated Golden Glory must relate to Autumn Glory: The Old Mill, dated 1869, in the Leeds Art Gallery. Each has hallucinatory fractal-silhouettes of foliage against a U.K. sky.

As far as I can tell, Ellison was not heretofore known as a collector of British art. Christie’s London auctioned Golden Glory in December 2013 for 302,500 pounds. In American terms, that’s $495,193, or 0.000986 percent of Forbes‘ latest estimate of Ellison’s net worth.

Zumthor on Black and White

“It might not be black. It might even be white. In fact it was white—all last week it was white. But then I woke up one morning, and it was black again. And now I’m pretty sure that’s right.”

—Peter Zumthor on his LACMA building, in a Sarah Williams Goldhagen article in the Architectural Record (behind pay wall)

Millard Sheets Mural to the Huntington

A Millard Sheets mural, created for the dining room of a 1934 Hollywood Hills home, has been donated to the Huntington by Larry McFarland and M. Todd Williamson. (Above, Tim Street-Porter’s photo of the mural in its original setting.) The Huntington will install the mural in the board room of its new Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center that is to open next April. The board room, adjacent to a new garden and entrance, will have public viewing hours.

A Sheets fresco of Industry, commissioned for a downtown Bullock’s department store, is on view at the Natural History Museum.

My Visit With “Big Eyes” Walter Keane

I have met only one real-life villain from a Tim Burton movie. That was Walter Keane, the antihero of Burton’s upcoming Big Eyes. (Above, Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as Walter and Margaret Keane.)

As you’ve probably heard, Margaret Keane produced kitschy paintings of big-eyed waifs that were incredibly popular in the 1960s. Her husband, Walter, took credit for them on the grounds that a woman artist would never be taken seriously. I knew about the big-eyed waif genre, though not about Walter’s imposture, in December 1993, when an ad appeared in the Los Angeles Times announcing a book signing for Walter Keane’s autobiography, The World of Keane. I thought it might be an interesting thing to do on a weekend.

The signing was held not at a bookstore or gallery but at Long’s Drugs in Brentwood.Walter was seated at a card table with a small line waiting to have books signed. It wasn’t an art crowd, more like a comic convention. A few dedicated fans had emerged from their lairs to meet the object of their obsession. A particularly frail man standing in front of me turned out to be Don Defore, a comic actor (he played “Mr. Baxter” on a 60s sitcom, Hazel).

This was long before cell phones, so there’s no selfie of me with Keane. Of the photos I could find on the web, the one at right best matches my memory. There was something used-car salesman about him.

The line moved slowly because Keane was extremely conscientious about writing a little note for each person.

While we were waiting, another customer was snapping (analog) photos of Keane. She took one just of his hands—as if to make a fetish of these hands that had created such art.

As this woman was leaving, she told Keane that she was an artist and hoped to have her work exhibited soon, although nothing was definite yet. She hoped he would come see her work. I remember Keane struggled to make this gruff, noncommital answer: yea, lady, how nice, um, I’m real busy…

I shook Keane’s hand and said that I’d admired his [Margaret's!] work since I was a child. (I had actually found the paintings deeply disturbing.) I still have the book, of course. Despite the celebratory title (“The World of Keane”), it’s mainly about what an untalented fraud Margaret was. Here’s the inscription—more interesting are the printed comments above.

Palmer Hayden’s Harlem (in L.A.)

LACMA’s Archibald Motley show is accompanied by an installation of related works (“LACMA Collects: Scenes from the Great Migration”). Among them is Young Girl Reading, a late (1960) painting by Harlem Renaissance artist Palmer C. Hayden. Bequeathed by Joan Palevsky in 2006, and shown for the first time, it becomes the museum’s first painting by Hayden.

Hayden was just a year older than Motley and, like him, made an early Paris sojourn into a moveable feast. Hayden and Motley’s most famous self-portraits, from 1930 and 1933, share a similar composition (and berets). Young Girl Reading looks back to the color of Matisse and the slouch of Balthus. LACMA also has a 1968 Hayden watercolor (not on view), another Palevsky gift.

That makes two Haydens at LACMA. Would you believe that another L.A. institution has 40 Haydens, most dating from the apex of the Harlem Renaissance?

They’re at the Museum of African American Art. Disambiguation: not the California African American Museum in Exposition Park. The Museum of African American Art operates on a nano-budget in a Macy’s department store in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The artist’s widow, Miriam, bequeathed 40 Haydens, several iconic (Below, Midsummer Night in Harlem, 1938, and His Hammer in his Hand, 1944-7.)

That was a vote of confidence to an institution founded in 1976 and so-far dependent on a retailer’s largesse. It must have also been a reflection on the disinterest of larger museums in art by blacks. For the most part MAAA shows local artists. Its Haydens deserve to be better known.

Quote of the Day: James Ensor

“In our house, all you hear is groaning.”

James Ensor

The Chicago venue of the Getty co-organized James Ensor show includes selections from a newly discovered group of 350 of the artist’s letters. They describe Ensor’s home life, involving much blood, a straitjacket, and a “frighteningly large” tapeworm.

(Shown, Skeleton Musicians, 1888)

Petersen’s Bulldog Sent to a Good Home

Since its opening the Petersen Automotive Museum has had a replica of the Bulldog Cafe that once sold tamales and ice cream at 1153 Washington Blvd, Culver City. The real Bulldog Cafe, a prime example of programmatic architecture, was torn down in 1955. The Petersen’s ongoing makeover has left no room for the doubly fake bulldog, so it was relocated to the Idle Hour, a venerable North Hollywood bar set to reopen in February. Los Angeles magazine has an amusing slide show by Forest Casey of the bulldog being transported, like Heizer’s rock, through the city.

Photo by Forest Casey for Los Angeles Magazine