William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Free Zurbarán in San Diego

This Superbowl weekend the San Diego Museum of Art will offer free admission to celebrate the acquisition of Francisco Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in Prayer in a Grotto (c. 1655). It becomes SDMA’s fourth painting by the artist. The others are Agnus Dei (1635-40), Saint Jerome (1640-45), and Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1658).

The Norton Simon Museum also has four Zurbaráns. Between San Diego and Pasadena, there are eight Zurbaráns in So. Cal.—not counting a questionable case in Santa Barbara.

Jay Ward at the Paley

Through Jan. 31, the Paley Center Bevery Hills has a small show of 1960s animator Jay Ward (Rocky and Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle, breakfast cereal mascot Cap’n Crunch). Ward’s cartoons are mostly remembered for their subversive verbal humor. The Paley puts the focus on Ward’s drawings, considered “minimal animation” by prevailing Disney standards. Despite that label, Ward’s backgrounds are often exercises in horror vacui. Character designs draw on the American gothicism of Charles Addams, and it may be relevant that Ward had a prized collection of African masks.

Looted Art Beef Is All About Stroganoff

Last week the Supreme Court refused to review a lower-court ruling on Marei von Saher’s long-running restitution case against the Norton Simon Museum. At issue is the fate of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings of Adam and Eve, looted by the Nazis from von Saher’s father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker, in 1940 and in the Norton Simon collection since 1971. After years of procedural foot-dragging, the SCOTUS action opens the way for the case to be decided on its merits.

That means you can expect to hear a lot more about George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff. In 1931 the Soviet government auctioned the Cranch paintings in Berlin, the catalog identifying them as part of the Stroganoff collection. Jewish Dutch dealer Jacques Goudstikker bought them, entering them as Nos. 2721 and 2722 in his famous notebook.

Goudstikker died accidentally in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. His inventory was subject to forced sale, and the Cranach paintings went to Hermann Goering’s country estate. It was there that U.S. Monuments Men recovered them after the war. Adam and Eve were delivered to the Dutch government for return to their proper owner. The Dutch retained the paintings for nearly two decades. Then in 1966 the Netherlands returned—or sold?—the paintings to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, who claimed to be their rightful owner.

Stroganoff-Scherbatoff was a Navy man, a military translator, a tennis player, a Palm Beach socialite, and a filer of lawsuits. Like von Saher, he lived in Connecticut and spent years fighting for the restitution of his once-wealthy family’s art collection. He was a Stroganoff on his mother’s side, and the Bolsheviks had confiscated his family’s famous art collection. (Russian proverb: “Richer than a Stroganoff you’ll never be.”)

In 1970-71 Stroganoff-Scherbatoff sold Adam and Eve to Norton Simon for $800,000. For many years the museum’s gallery label mentioned the paintings’ colorful history, including their stint in Goering’s larcenous collection. It was, as I read it, a point of pride that a work seized by the Nazis had come into the collection of a Jewish-American businessman to be shared with the public.

That idyll ended around 2000, when Goudstikker heir Marei von Saher learned that the Cranach paintings were in the Simon museum. She demanded their return, leading to years of fruitless negotiations and legal maneuvering.

Were it not for Stroganoff-Scherbatoff claim, the case probably would have been decided in von Saher’s favor long ago. The Dutch government returned 200+ paintings to the Goudstikker heirs in 2006, and the Getty Museum returned a Goudstikker-owned Pieter Molijn to von Saher in 2011. But the fact that there were two claimants to the Cranach paintings, and they may have already been restituted once, makes for a legal catch-22.

One puzzle is this: Is Nazi Germany an unique historical case, as far as restitutions go, or can its example be generalized to any more-or-less evil regime? Historians estimate that the Stalinist Soviet Union was responsible for anywhere from 20 to 60 million deaths of political enemies. Those numbers out-Hitler Hitler. Though the Bolshevik revolution was chaotic and bloody, it was nominally guided by Marxist idealism. We are left to ponder whether Soviet confiscations of art collections merit higher legal standing than the Nazis’.

U.S. courts have declined to second-guess the Soviet proletariat’s revolution. For instance, in 1976 Stroganoff-Scherbatoff sued Charles and Jayne Wrightsman and the Metropolitan Museum over Houdon’s bust of Denis Diderot. This had been in the Stroganoff family’s collection and confiscated. The judge ruled that the Act of State Doctrine precluded restitution. The doctrine says that U.S. courts must defer to the official policies of foreign governments.

That’s ironic because the same doctrine figures in the NSM case, though possibly in the opposite way. If the Dutch government truly decided that Stroganoff-Scherbatoff was the proper owner (something that von Saher’s legal team disputes), then the U.S. would presumably have to accept it, whether or not a U.S. court would have made the same call.

The law pretends that ownership is a black-and-white matter. In this case there are ambiguities and uncertainties aplenty. Von Saher contests every part of Stroganoff-Scherbatoff’s story, including the claim that his family owned Adam and Eve. Her petition says that the paintings came from the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kiev. There seems to be little evidence for (or against) Stroganoff-Scherbatoff’s story beyond the 1931 action catalog. I suspect that, if either side had much more to bolster its case, we would have heard it already.

Museum restitutions risk righting one wrong while creating another. A good-faith institutional buyer may forfeit art worth tens of millions of dollars, and the public may be deprived of access to the art.

There are few notable exceptions. One is the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth) and its J.M.W. Turner painting Glaucus and Scylla (below). The Kimbell restituted it to Holocaust-era heirs in 2006. It was auctioned the following year—and bought by the Kimbell, where it still hangs.

The Getty Museum ceded its Molijn to von Saher, but it also acquired its Claude Lorrain landscape from her, after it was restituted by the Dutch government. (The Claude painting, naturally, is The Rape of Europa…)

It’s no coincidence that these happy endings concern the Getty and Kimbell. They are among the few American museums with the resources to buy back Old Masters at today’s market value.

Perhaps successful claimants should consider making it a little easier for museums that acquired in good faith to retain restituted works. After all, in the vast majority of high-profile restitution cases, the family has no interest in keeping the art. After 70 years, there are often many heirs, and the value of one major painting may easily exceed the net worth of an average mortal. That makes it unlikely that anyone is going to hang a restituted Hals over the fireplace. Most successful claimants break out the champagne, then call the auction house.

Owners could voluntarily give the museum a right of first refusal, at a price set by an independent appraiser. Or, if the owner is set on an auction as the only index of market value, they could delay the auction a while, to give the museum time to raise funds for a bid.

The Norton Simon Museum has no acquisition funds to speak of, nor much of a fund-raising department. But if it someday needed to buy back Adam and Eve it’s not inconceivable that a few wealthy friends of the museum could make it happen. This is roughly what Britain tries to do every time a foreign buyer tries to export a manor house masterpiece. As the British example shows, a museum without much cash can sometimes rally support. Should the museum succeed, it would be a win-win.

Southwest Museum Gets a Bittersweet Distinction

The Southwest Museum is now officially a “national treasure.” That’s a booby prize. The National Trust for Historic Preservation so designates only those revered monuments slipping into obsolescence or financial embarrassment. (Shown, the SWM’s main exhibition hall c. 1914 and in 2013.)

The Trust has 55 national treasures, a quirky selection that includes few if any predictable tourist attractions. They embrace Nashville’s Music Row, the Manhattan Project site, and—the only other “treasure” in L.A.—a complex of vintage industrial buildings at the Port of Los Angeles. That’s a treasure only Lewis Baltz could love.

Will the designation help the SWM? It can’t hurt. The problem remains money. Everybody wants the SWM to be preserved and to retain a public function, ideally as a museum. No one—not the Autry Center, the Highland Park community, city and county government, or Westside billionaires—seems ready to write a check. It’s said that it would cost $26 to $41 million to renovate the building—and more for programming it, for course.

The language of Tierra del Fuego contains the word mamihlapinatapai, meaning “looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something that both parties desire but are unwilling to do.”

LACMA Reveals Resnick, Nathanson Gifts

LACMA has announced major gifts of art from the Resnicks and Nathansons, in honor of the museum’s 50th anniversary. Jane and Marc Nathanson are promising eight blue-chip contemporary works (above right, Warhol’s Double Marilyn, 1962). Lynda and Stewart Resnick will be giving four European pieces, including the Hans Memling Christ Blessing that was a latecomer to the Huntington’s 2013 show of Renaissance portraits. These gifts, along with many others, will be on view in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion April 26 to Sept. 7.

The Nathanson gifts focus on Pop art and its legacy. They include James Rosenquist’s Portrait of the Scull Family (1962, above), George Segal’s Laundromat (1967-67, below) and Roy Lichtenstein’s Interior with Three Hanging Lamps (1991); plus works by Frank Stella, Gilbert & George, Julian Schnabel, and Damien Hirst. The Rosenquist, Schnabel, and Hirst are the first major works by the artists in the LACMA collection.

The Resnicks are giving Boucher’s Leda and the Swan and Ingres’s The Virgin with the Host. Boucher is not much to contemporary taste, and you may think that L.A. already has plenty. LACMA alone has six Boucher paintings. None are like this one, though. LACMA’s Bouchers are split between oil sketches and irregularly shaped over-doors meant to be viewed from a distance. Leda and the Swan is a finished cabinet painting intended to be inspected closely. The palette is darker and moodier than usual, and the paint handling is worthy of Chardin. If Boucher’s art is treacle, this is its richest, most caramelized reduction.

Until last year, LACMA had no Ingres at all; with the Resnick gift it will have two. The Virgin with the Host, an homage to Raphael, was originally commissioned by czar-to-be Alexander II. Ingres thought it so successful that he regretted it going to Russia, which he regarded as Art Siberia. Ingres ended up making several variations for other patrons (much as he did for his Odalisque). A related painting, without the green curtains and with saints instead of putti, is in the Metropolitan Museum.

Last December I commented on a report that Michael Govan, given his pick of the Resnicks’ sculpture collection, chose “the single-most important thing we have, which is what he should have done.” I speculated that that would be Houdon’s marble  of The Kiss (wrong!) It was a two-foot bronze of Giambologna’s Flying Mercury, his most famous image and also featured in LACMA’s 2010 show of the Resnick collection, “Eye for the Sensual.” My first thought was that the Resnicks own Teleflora, and its competitor, FTD, uses an amusingly bastardized version of Flying Mercury as its logo. I wondered whether they might have bought a Flying Mercury as a joke. Copies of Flying Mercury are legion. They were produced by Giambologna, his studio, and some very talented followers. It is hard for the greatest connoisseurs to tell what’s what—Henry Clay Frick was fooled. “Eye for the Sensual” was a single-collection show, an exercise intended to encourage the sort of donations that have just been announced. In such situations, you have to wonder whether curators tactfully avoid challenging a collector’s cherished attributions. Connoisseurship always offers the cover of ambiguity.

But if Govan is convinced that this is an authentic Giambologna, then that’s prima facie evidence that current scholarship says it is. Flying Mercury is poised to become the museum’s star Renaissance sculpture.

Cinema in a Cold Climate

This Thursday, Jan. 22 at 7:30, the Velaslavasay Panorama’s newly organized Polar Film Club will screen two indispensible documents of Antarctic cinema: Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1912; Kristian Prestrud credited as cinematographer) and 90 Degrees South: With Scott to the Antarctic (1933, by Herbert Ponting). Tickets are $10.

Doyle Lane’s “Orange Wall”

Last summer an L.A. Times review mentioned that Doyle Lane’s Orange Wall—a 1964 tile mural commissioned for Mutual Savings and Loan, Pasadena—had been donated to “an as-yet-unnamed Southern California museum.” That museum, it turns out, is the Huntington. The institution says that the Lane mural will be among several works of American mid-century modernism to be installed in and around its new entrance complex, the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitors Center. The Lane is a gift from the MS Property Company and will be displayed in the courtyard of the June and Merle Banta Education Center.

Doyle Lane (1925-2002) has a cult following among modern design collectors and postmodern artists. His admirers include Ricky Swallow and Takashi Murakami. Lane was African-American, though there is often a Japanese/Zen flavor to his work. He is best known for weed pots, barely big enough to hold a sprig.

Lane also produced flat, wall-mounted works in abstract expressionist and hard-edged styles. The latter aesthetic recalls those of fellow Japanophile John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley.

New Orleans-born, Lane studied at Los Angeles City College and USC. He lived in El Sereno, sold pots door-to-door, and showed at the Davis brothers’ Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park. Lane never did political art, though he was once restrained by police while working on a residential commission in Pasadena. He donated his archive, and a set of works, to the California African American Museum.

L.A. architects championed Lane more than dealers of the time did. Some offered his pots for sale in their offices. Beginning in 1958 Lane was shown in three consecutive “California Design” shows at the Pasadena Museum. LACMA’s similarly titled 2011-12 show also included him, and LACMA bought a small vase. As far as I can tell, no museum anywhere has a Lane of the ambition of the Huntington’s mural.

It came about when Welton Becket (Capitol Records Building, Cinerama Dome, Music Center, etc.) designed the Pasadena offices for Mutual Savings and Loan at 301 E. Colorado Blvd. This was the era when Millard Sheets and company were cranking out kitschy mosaic murals for Home Savings and Loan branches. Becket trusted Lane to supply something more adventurous. The result, one of Lane’s supreme works, is neither figurative, nor abstract, nor monochrome. It is more an ambient wash of color and texture. Dealer Gerard O’Brien, who arranged a Lane show last year, likened it to “a three-dimensional painting by Mark Rothko.”

Ricky Swallow wrote of the mural,

“This phenomenal field of tiles is the largest realization and endorsement for Lane’s methodology—the medium is the message. The buzzing field of literally hundreds of rectangular clay tiles in burnt orange to red is beautifully overwhelming as a physical passage of information—a thing as solid in its intention as the building it was housed in. The prominent signature scribed into the lower right side of the piece, one letter per tile is an endearingly simple tag. It floats a little high rather than resigning itself to the bottom corner of the piece, as if to say DOYLE LANE was here.”

Lane said he conceived his 2D ceramic pieces as a way of having a painting that could be displayed outdoors. “Why not take paintings out of doors?” he asked. The Huntington will realize that better than Mutual Savings did, by showing the mural in a courtyard. It will be displayed not far from a super-retro interior mural, also newly acquired, by Lane’s onetime building-and-loan rival Millard Sheets. It’s a wonderful life!

L.A. Catches Up to East Lansing (or Not)

“Los Angeles is finally catching up to East Lansing,” begins a story in the Lansing State Journal. The piece refers to the Broad, understood (in East Lansing) to be a me-too response to the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, designed by Zaha Hadid. The article includes an online poll asking “Which Broad Museum design is superior?” The “East Lansing original” is winning by a large margin—not surprising for a Lansing newspaper.

Not mentioned is the context: Some L.A. critics have lately come down hard on Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s veil, claiming the final result compares unfavorably to the digital renderings. Also not mentioned: The one and only original Broad museum, the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA.

Corita Kent Gets a Retrospective

In the mid 1960s, the most famous L.A. artist just might have been Corita Kent. Pegged by the media as the Pop Art-making nun, “Sister Mary Corita” [Kent] is due for reappraisal. Her method was to fold, spindle, and mutilate advertising graphics, then photograph the results to produce screen prints commenting on consumerism, war, and other mysteries of life. This summer the Pasadena Museum of California Art will present “Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent” (June 14-Nov. 1, 2015), billed as Kent’s first full retrospective.

Below, Kent’s The Sure One, 1966.

A Maynard Dixon Cloudscape to Huntington

The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art is showing a 1931 Maynard Dixon, New Mexico, September. It’s a recent gift from Marcia F. McMahon and John W. Fish.

Dixon is often pigeonholed as a “Western” artist, i.e. beyond the pale of serious art. Some of his most modern works are cloud studies in the mode of Constable and Stieglitz. Dixon’s modestly sized, unpicturesque landscape bears some comparison to the big land art of Turrell, Heizer, and de Maria. Nearby is a larger Dixon on loan, of a Southwestern graveyard against a looming sky. No major museum makes a better case for Dixon’s arguable seriousness than the Huntington does, in this one room.