William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Don’t Try This at Home

In the first edition of the Getty Museum’s guidebook (1954), now online, director W. R. Valentiner gently warns visitors not to copy J. Paul Getty’s decorating tastes at home.

“French art of the 18th century resulted in an endless stream of imitations throughout the epochs which followed… its copies—especially in the field of furniture…—can still be found abundantly in many American homes…. Here, then, they are invited to see originals of superb quality, and to perceive that it is impossible to bring to real life again a style of the past which was created as an expression of a conception of the world utterly different from the one of today. It should teach us that, since every period forms an art expression of its own, it is better to be satisfied with what our time can produce than to imitate that which cannot be imitated, even if a few are in a position to surround themselves with originals of the past.”

(Below, a faux Louis XVI room at the Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo.)

Wende Gets a Secret Police Guardhouse

Culver City’s Wende Museum is to add a Stasi (East German secret police) guardhouse to its collection of Cold War artifacts. Salvaged by Berlin artist Christof Zweiner, it has been used as a “Los Angeles Museum of Art”-style venue for nano-installations. At two meters long, the guardhouse is half of the size of Eagle Rock’s LAMOA (founded by German-born Alice Köntiz).

It is to be displayed at four L.A. locations starting this September and then will arrive at the Wende Museum in November. Said Wende founder Justinian Jampol: “The guardhouse is about parking lots and media and L.A. is about two things: parking lots and media.”

Altoon, Naughty and Nice

The July 1957 issue of Escapade magazine had John Altoon’s illustrations for a short story by (fellow Armenian-American) William Saroyan. For a look at how Altoon’s work for stag magazines may have influenced his art, see the Laguna Art Museum’s “John Altoon: Drawings and Prints”  (through Sept. 21 and coinciding with the larger LACMA retrospective). In 1950s pin-up magazines women were often only half-exposed and unaware of their nudity: a premise that Altoon caricatured in 1960s works like F-8, in the LACMA show.

American Modern at the Huntington

When the Huntington opened its Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art in 1984, it had barely ten 20th-century paintings. All were figurative; the most recent was Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg (1935).

This weekend, the Scott Galleries opened five new rooms, presenting 116 additional objects from the 20th century. Carved out of storage space in Frederick Fisher’s 2005 Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, the new rooms inherit the stately proportions of the original Erburu, lacking only the skylights. (Shown, Warhol’s Small Crushed Campbell’s Soup Can, 1962, and a c. 1915 silver vase and tray by Shreve & Co.)

In total the Scott now has 21,500 sq. ft. of exhibition space. That’s more than twice that of LACMA’s American department in its Art of the Americas building and, believe it or not, two-thirds the square footage of the Met American Wing’s painting and sculpture rooms (reopened in 2012 with 30,000 square feet). Unlike LACMA or the Met, the Huntington’s American survey runs from colonial times to minimalism in one contiguous set of rooms. Over the past three decades, the Huntington has inched its American chronology up by 45+ years, to about 1980.

A turning point for the collection was 2010. That year Robert Shapazian’s estate gave the Huntington its two early 1960s Warhols. An anonymous donor also gave a $1.75 million fund for post-1945 American art, in Shapazian’s honor.

Given that the institution has been collecting postwar art for only about five years, you’d expect the collection to be stretched thin in all that new space. It doesn’t feel that way due to twenty or so important loans from private and museum collections. Loans debuting include good-to-superlative pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe (below, Ghost Ranch Cliffs), Henrietta Shore (Cactus, praised by Edward Weston), Lee Mullican, Emerson Woelffer, and Frank Stella.

The best of all the loans might be Alma Thomas’ Autumn Leaves Fluttering in the Breeze, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Thomas is one of the greatest American artists least represented on the West Coast. The Smithsonian has a dozen of her paintings, but rarely is more than one or two on view. This sort of loan ought to be more common.

I’m no fan of California Impressionism. But the Huntington display makes the strongest case I’ve seen for California plein air landscapes as not totally boring. Five of the most important practitioners are represented with a single painting each, all at the top of the respective artists’  form (and all on loan from private collectors). The standout is Edgar Payne’s San Gabriel Valley (c. 1916), depicting the Huntington-adjacent scenery as a Magic Mountain.

The most surprising (and flawed) of the new rooms is the one devoted to minimalism and pop. It’s got Warhol and Ruscha; Frank Stella, John McLaughlin, and Frederick Hammersley. The art is excellent, but one piece doesn’t play well with others. That’s the recently acquired Tony Smith sculpture, For W.A. (1969). It is a subtle thing, two black boxes that are actually rhombus-shaped in cross section. They are human-scaled—the top is little below eye level—and demand inspection from all sides.

The Smith is presented with several black or black-and-white abstractions. Though the grouping is clever, the feng shui is a little off. As you walk around the Smith, brightly colored pop art and a day-glo Stella protractor peep above its glossy upper surfaces. From no vantage point can you look at just the Smith, without distraction. Furthermore, the 20-foot-wide Stella painting (Hiraqla Varation III, lent by the Norton Simon) is so big that you want to step back, but the two-part Smith commands much of the center of the room. I guess Time magazine had a point: The art has outgrown the museum.

The Scott’s small temporary exhibition space, the Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing, is presenting “Highlights of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Huntington’s Art Collections.” Among the most modern watercolors is a 1939 New York Street Scene by the reluctant American George Grosz. A 1906-ish Mary Cassatt pastel, Françoise Holding a Little Dog, was purchased by Arabella Huntington not so long after it was made. Rarely shown, it was one of the Huntington family’s first works of American art.

Biennial of the Apes, and Unicorns

Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has announced the line-up for its big contemporary survey, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.” It includes two L.A. artists, Adonna Khare and Danial Nord. Khare does large, storybook-style drawings of anthropomorphized apes, elephants, unicorns, and other beasts. In 2012 she won the Art Prize, the Grand Rapids-based $200,000 award given on the basis of a public vote. It’s not hard to believe that a real-people poll would rate Khare’s winsome creations higher than Julie Mehretu’s, say. In contrast Nord, featured in the Orange County Museum of Art’s California Pacific Triennial, makes the kind of video art that Khare’s audience probably doesn’t get.

Last year the New York Times called the Crystal Bridges exhibition “a traditionalist alternative to a show like the Whitney Biennial.” If Khare is any indication, the operative word is traditionalist.

Biberman on the Beach

LACMA’s one-room “Edward Biberman, Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice” celebrates the restoration of the artist’s 1941 mural for the Venice post office. Though the mural is the main attraction, the most engaging works are small paintings showing Biberman at his unclassifiable best. There are echoes of Precisionism and Walker Evans; Biberman breaks all the rules of composition and avoids painting anything that might be considered a worthy subject.

Shown are Subdivision and Flying Fish.

Kickstarter Potato Salad Museum… Anybody?

You’ve probably heard about that guy who’s using Kickstarter to fund potato salad. I was reminded of him while reading Los Angeles Downtown News article on the Old Bank District Museum that real estate developers Tom Gilmore and Jerri Perrone are planning for Fourth and Main. Gilmore puts the “early price tag” at $25-$35 million and foresees a nonprofit to raise that and “additional funds.”

The article doesn’t do much to explain why we need another contemporary art museum downtown, or to counter a perception of flakiness. It says the museum would focus on downtown L.A. artists. Gilmore “anticipates showing” Robert Reynolds and Tod Lychkoff. “This is going to be one wacky museum,” he says. He also describes it as a “non-museum museum.”

Don’t get me wrong: I like wacky non-museums. Alice Könitz’s Los Angeles Museum of Art is a star of the Hammer’s “Made in L.A. 2014.” Everybody loves the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the El Segundo Museum of Art, etc. But the Fourth and Main project is sounding more like a Kickstarter vanity museum, an idea its promoters are tossing out in the hope that viral mobs, or one kindly gazillionaire, will fund.

“Basically I’m just making potato salad,” runs Potato Salad Guy’s Kickstarter plea. ”I haven’t decided what kind yet.” He asked for $10. So far he’s raised $50,053.

Ensor and “The Burning of Los Angeles”

“My response was sadness,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Brenson. He was speaking of the news that the J. Paul Getty Museum had bought James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (detail above). Brenson felt that Ensor’s masterpiece belonged in Europe. It was an outlier in J. Paul Getty’s fussy collection of minor Old Masters. Ensor’s subversive, ironic painting was the antithesis of East Coast stereotypes of L.A. as bourgeois and irony-free.

Los Angeles Times critic William Wilson observed that the purchase contradicted a 1980s Getty directive to avoid buying modern art. Museum director John Walsh defended the opportunity as “too good to pass up” and declared the Ensor to be the Getty’s most important painting.

This summer the Getty is presenting “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor,” built around Christ’s Entry of course. It remains the conventional wisdom that the opportunity was indeed too good to pass up, though the prize had no more connection to Los Angeles than Seurat’s Grande Jatte had had to Chicago. Overlooked is that, half a century before the Getty bought it, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 was the inspiration for the first L.A. painting of global significance.

I speak of The Burning of Los Angeles. If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because it’s a fictional painting. It’s the pivot of Nathanael West’s classic L.A. novel, The Day of the Locust (1939).

West’s tale concerns Tod Hackett, a Hollywood set painter who dreams of a career as a serious artist. He envisions a magnum opus titled The Burning of Los Angeles. West said that he modeled the painting on Ensor’s Christ’s Entry. That was an extraordinary point of reference for the 1930s. The Depression had pummeled whatever curiosity Americans had about the European avant garde. Though painted in 1888, Christ’s Entry had not been exhibited until 1929, and then in Brussels. West couldn’t have dreamed that the painting would one day end up in Los Angeles.

The novel describes The Burning of Los Angeles in some detail. The paperback cover above, by British-born illustrator Charles Ashford Binger, represents part of Tod Hackett’s painting. The motley crowd almost spills out of the picture, as they do in the Ensor. Hackett depicts himself (as does Ensor) along with the novel’s other characters. Among them is the bumbling everyman who triggers pandemonium, named Homer Simpson. Matt Groening named his cartoon dad after him.

West wrote,

“Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches.… No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

With The Burning of Los Angeles West invented a (potential) genre of apocalyptic L.A. landscapes. The novel was also prophetic. In August 1965 a DUI arrest in Watts quickly escalated to arson and looting. Watts burned for six days, resulting in 34 deaths.

Another Nathaniel, spelled the usual way and known as the “Magnificent” Montague, was a dejay for R&B station KGFJ. His radio catchphrase was “burn, baby, burn!” It became the anarchic motto. The Watts rebellion was fought as West’s was, with fists, rocks, and the most subversive weapon of all—the elemental power of fire in the real estate boosters’ “Mediterranean climate.”

The masses of West’s novel feel cheated by the American (L.A.) dream. They find solace in chaos. But West missed the nexus of the 1965 reality, race.

Andy Warhol’s Race Riot series used 1963 press photos of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors. The most memorable images of Watts are of another kind. Insurgents are in control. They pose for the camera, their eyes confronting the viewer’s as do those of some of Ensor’s masqueraders. The people in Watts press photos are not literal actors like West’s Hollywood rejects, but they are media-aware in the way we all are now. They are ready for their group-selfie in the reality show that constitutes our so-called reality. That may be the most terrifying thing about 1965 Watts or right now—or about Day of the Locust, or Christ’s Entry.

The burning of Watts occurred just as Los Angeles was becoming an important art center. The fires were pivotal to such artists such as Noah Purifoy (who has a LACMA retrospective coming in 2015). Purifoy wrote,

“While the debris was still smoldering, we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching.… Despite the involvement of running an art school, we gave much thought to the oddity of our found things.… The junk we had collected… had begun to haunt our dreams.”

Purifoy and Judson Powell organized a group show, 66 Signs of Neon, of works made from post-riot debris. It travelled to nine cities from 1966-69 and was a nexus of California Assemblage. Purifoy was an alchemist who mixed Duchampian ready-mades with entropy and politics. His salvaged-wood Watts Riot (1966, below) could be called the Mona Lisa of the California African-American Museum’s collection.

Watts’ influence went worldwide. Chilean/cosmopolitan surrealist Roberto Matta recycled the Magnificent Montague’s phrase, producing a 32-foot-wide painting of that title (1965-6). Burn Baby Burn is a highly abstracted Burning of Los Angeles and is now at LACMA.

In weird synchronicity, Ed Ruscha’s first fire paintings predated Watts. The famous pictures of Los Angeles architecture ablaze were created afterward. Among them is this blog’s namesake, the Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-8). It’s not in Los Angeles but in Washington DC at the Hirshhorn. (That’s Homer Simpson saying “D’oh!”)

In 2006 Ruscha said of the fire paintings: “It’s a way of attaching an additional meaning to the painting that would otherwise not have fire.”

Judy Chicago almost literally set the pre-Norton Simon Pasadena Museum on fire in a 1972 Atmospheres performance. Her autumn-hued smoke bombs were intended “to soften and feminize the environment, one that… was not particularly hospitable to women artists.”

Watts was eventually sublimated into the Hollywood dream/nightmare machine. The Towering Inferno (1974) was a big-budget melodrama about a group of people trapped inside a burning L.A. skyscraper. The credibility-defying cast included Steve McQueen (the white one), Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, and Mrs. Norton Simon, Jennifer Jones, in her final screen role.

Carlos Almaraz invented another kind of disaster picture. His paintings of L.A. fires reference not only the uncertainty of urban life but the most overworked of screenwriter clichés. (Shown, Sunset Crash; Trash Burning on Venice Beach.) LACMA is organizing an Almaraz retrospective for 2017.

W.H. Auden coined the term “West’s Disease.” He was referring to Nathanael West, not longitude, and to a free-floating American malaise, “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of turning wishes into desires.”

West described his writing as “a sweeping rejection of political causes, religious faith, artistic redemption and romantic love.”

That’s an encapsulation of what has fascinated and repulsed later generations about Los Angeles. In Spike Jonze’s Her, a meditation on romantic love, the Los Angeles of the near future has become a city of madding and lonely crowds. Jonze’s protagonist, martyr and narcissist, is in the spirit of Ensor’s.

Raphael, Vermeer to Visit San Diego’s Troubled “Frick”

Judith H. Dobrzynski has the fullest story I’ve yet seen on John Wilson’s sudden resignation as director of San Diego’s Timken Museum of Art, the small institution once billed as “the Frick of the Pacific.” Dobrzynski also reveals that London’s National Gallery will be lending a Raphael and a Vermeer to the Timken for its 50th anniversary in 2015. (Shown, one of the National Gallery’s two comparably fine Vermeers, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal.)

It will be interesting to see how they handle the crowds. When Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring was shown at the Frick Collection (a.k.a. the Timken of the East), crowds waited three hours in 5-degree weather to pay $20 a head. The Timken is free, and it’s always sunny in San Diego.

Is Gehry’s Museum Luck Changing?

Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Bilbao, the most acclaimed museum of our time. Yet he’s never had a worthy museum commission in his home city. That could be changing. The L.A. Times reports on discussions about Gehry designing a skyscraper on land partly owned by LACMA. The site is just south of BCAM, and just above the subway-station-to-be. Michael Govan proposes that the ground floor could be an architecture and design wing for LACMA.

A run-down of Gehry’s checkered history with L.A. museum commissions:

• He’s best known for the California Aerospace Museum—long closed. The paint is peeling, it creaks in the wind, and it gives off the vibe of a bypassed mall. Any chance of the California Science Center reopening it seems to have been squashed by the arrival of the Endeavour space shuttle, which is way too big to fit in the old aerospace building. Gehry’s structure would be a challenge to repurpose, for it’s got a Lockheed fighter jet thrusting off the facade.

• Gehry designed the original Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. His work has been overshadowed by another architect’s expansion and by Long Beach’s larger, flashier Aquarium of the Pacific, which opened just a few miles away.

• Mainly Gehry is known for renovating spaces for museums in L.A. He converted two police warehouses to MOCA Geffen. That project is now revered, but at the time it was considered a temporary structure (the “Temporary Contemporary”) to be used until the real museum opened on Grand Avenue. Gehry was not asked to design the main museum. He was however asked to repeat his Temporary Contemporary magic with an industrial site in Santa Monica, turning an industrial complex into the Edgemar shopping center and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The latter turned out to be a temporary contemporary, for after just six years, SMMoA moved to Bergamot Station.

• Gehry was asked to square the curvy interior walls of the Norton Simon Museum. This intervention too was highly praised, but Gehry was not given license to change the exterior of the Ladd + Kelsey building that was called “grotesque” (Walter Hopps), “crackpot” (John Coplans), and “ridiculous” (Leo Castelli).

• Gehry was apparently not considered as a serious candidate for the Getty Center, the “commission of the century.” Instead he served on the Architect Selection Committee that chose Richard Meier.

• Eli Broad hired Gehry to design his home, and it wasn’t a life-affirming experience for either party. “Eli is a control freak,” Gehry said. “I won’t do a project for him” again. It’s no surprise that BCAM and the Broad went to other architects.