William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

The Broad Buys Currin’s “The Storm”

The Broad Art Foundation continues to acquire in advance of its Grand Avenue museum’s opening, scheduled for 2015. One recent addition is John Currin’s The Storm (2013). Poised between a Bronzino/Veronese allegory and a porn shoot, Currin’s painting presents four figures oblivious to each other. The title invites comparison to Munch’s 1883 painting of women on the verge of a pre-deluge breakdown.

Tom of Finland Gets a Postage Stamp

Finland’s postal service will issue a Tom of Finland stamp this September 8. There is already a (serious) petition to block the stamps’ release as indecent and a (facetious) one to make the stamps lickable. It’s also said that Tom’s art has become popular with the ladies.

In 1930 Spain issued a stamp depicting Goya’s Nude Maja. The U.S. postal service considered the nudity indecent and refused to deliver mail stamped with it. That’s one reason why Physique Pictorial was mailed in a plain brown wrapper.

Tom spent much of his career in Echo Park. This caused me to wonder: How many other L.A. artists have been honored with a postage stamp?

There aren’t many, assuming you exclude film, animation, and recording artists. The most impressive tribute is the U.S. Postal Service’s 2008 sheet of Charles and Ray Eames stamps (still available on e-Bay for barely a premium on face value). So far, that is the high point of the very small field of L.A. artist philately.

There is a bit more. In 2002 the USPS issued a “Masters of American Photography” stamp set. Among the 20 artists featured was Edward Weston, who spent enough time in Tropico (now Glendale) to qualify as an L.A. artist. There was also a stamp for Man Ray, who’s almost never considered an L.A. artist despite having spent a decade here.

I’m not aware of any L.A. painters or sculptors who have gotten stamps. Most postal services require that the honoree be deceased, and L.A. painters and sculptors didn’t get much attention until the 1960s. However, Love Generation L.A. artist “Sister” Corita Kent designed a “Love” stamp for the U.S. Postal Service in 1985. Though she was a well-known printmaker (then living in Boston), her name doesn’t appear on the stamp.

UPDATE: International demand crashed the website selling the Tom of Finland stamp on the first day of sale. The address is www.posti.fi/goshopping, and a sheet of three stamps costs 3 Euros.

Getty Shows a Liotard Diva

The Getty Museum is showing Jean-Etienne Liotard’s pastel portrait of opera singer Louise Jacquet, c. 1750, on loan from a private L.A. collection. One of the portrait’s striking features is the letter. The text is legible or nearly so, despite being executed in the powdery medium of pastel. When the portrait was auctioned at Sotheby’s Paris two years ago (it went for $1.85 million, a record for the artist), the lot description said,

“It is not unusual to find letters in Liotard’s portraits, but this one in particular is unusually explicit, and the only one to be partly legible. We can make out a string of compliments addressed to the young lady, such as ‘You know how much I am interested in and admire you… and your perfections.’”

Can any reader translate further? Click on the detail below for a larger image, and feel free to post any findings in the comments.

Calder, Kick-Ass Mobiles & Fountains of Madness

LACMA’s “Calder and Abstraction” ends with a few objects relating to the museum’s 1964 fountain-mobile, forerunner of the institution’s other large public art commissions. For decades the Calder has gone by the handle Hello Girls. It was commissioned by a women’s support at in the 1960s, a long-ago time when grown-up alpha females were called “girls.” Research for the Calder exhibition has has uncovered the work’s original and long-forgotten title: Three Quintains.

Obvious question: What’s a quintain?

It’s an medieval mobile, or more exactly a pain- and humiliation-inflicting device for training jousters. The most famous surviving quintain is the one in Kent, England. The print records its appearance in 1798. It’s not too different from how it looks in the 21st century (below).

A horseback competitor rides past the quintain and attempts to insert a lance through one of the holes on the left-hand paddle. Success sets the cross-arm spinning. The pail drenches the rider with water or, in earlier versions, a bag of sand smacked the rider in the head. A knight who rides away fast enough can just escape punishment. It’s your basic Jackass high concept. A quintain is a pinata that hits back and tries to bust your head open.

Calder was on a chivalry kick in the mid 1960s. At about the same time as the LACMA commission, he made the two stabiles of Jousters in the Stark collection at the Getty Center.

In the LACMA Three Quintains jets of water keep the mobile in motion. This fit in with the William Pereira conception of LACMA as a pseudo-modern, pseudo-Venetian palazzo rising up out of water. But Calder wasn’t crazy about the site he was given, and Three Quintains soon fell victim to the curse of the tar pits. Tar seeped into the water, and the mobile’s bearings proved inadequate to the constant rotation. Eventually the sculpture was moved onto dry land, where the blades kept getting caught in the landscaping. Exasperated conservators immobilized the mobile to prevent further damage.

The Calder went into storage, then on loan to Art Center College of Design. There was even talk of selling it. In 2009 the restored sculpture was reinstalled in a new fountain, complete with water jets, to the southeast of the Bing Theater. The out-of-the-way site is pleasant enough, but many of those visiting Urban Light or Levitated Mass probably don’t know there’s a major Calder mobile on campus.

The fountain element might seem a departure for Calder. Actually, he did a Water Ballet (1956) fountain for a General Motors building in Warren, Michigan. Two decades earlier is Calder’s most  celebrated fountain, created for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris (where it was shown alongside Picasso’s Guernica). Mercury Fountain is just that, a pool of the toxic liquid metal surmounted by a classic mobile. Like Guernica, it was a protest against Fascism. Franco had been quick to seize Almadén’s profitable mercury mines.

The Caliphs of Islamic Spain contemplated their reflections in still pools of mercury and marveled at the funhouse distortions of quicksilver fountains. It’s said that one Caliph slept on a mercury bed. No one knew how toxic mercury vapor is.

One theory of Mozart’s death is that he was poisoned not by Salieri but by the groupies he loved too much. Mercury was an 18th-century remedy for sexually-transmitted diseases.

The Victorian coinage “mad as a hatter” refers to an occupational hazard we now credit to the use of mercury compounds in forming felt. The phrase lives on via Lewis Carroll and generations of filmmakers.

Today Calder’s Mercury Fountain is sealed behind glass at Barcelona’s Miró Museum. For the al fresco Calder fountain experience, you’ll have to try LACMA. By the way—a whiff of tar in the air won’t bother you, right?

LACMA to Show Sam Doyle

In coming weeks, the American Folk Art Museum’s 53rd street building will be demolished and its copper-bronze facade put into storage for unspecified future use. On the opposite coast LACMA will be showing an American folk artist who made a career out of repurposing metal from wrecked buildings. “Sam Doyle: The Mind’s Eye” will survey the South Carolina artist’s paintings of Gullah culture and celebrities, many of them executed on corrugated tin roofing.

As I wrote earlier this year,

Jean-Michel Basquiat admired Doyle’s work so much that he traded an entire show of his own art for two Doyle paintings. (Go figure the valuation with today’s Basquiat prices.) Another big fan is Ed Ruscha. After Doyle’s 1985 death, he did a tribute painting, Where Are You Going Man? Now in the Broad collection, it’s an L.A. street grid with text in Gullah dialect.”

“Sam Doyle” runs May 3 to August 17 in LACMA’s Art of the Americas Building. Pictured is Doyle’s Dr. Crow (1970-83) from the Gordon W. Bailey collection. More of Doyle’s art is on view in “Soul Stirring: African-American Self-Taught Artists from the South” at the California African American Museum through June 8.

Planetarium Gobbling Death Carpet

Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali’s design for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures keeps inspiring choice turns of phrase. Internet commentators first dubbed the spheroid theater/folly the “Death Star.” For a while Piano preferred “soap bubble” and “planetarium of cinema.” He now favors “spaceship.” Live-tweeters to the 2014 Academy Awards thought “nuclear reactor.” Christopher Hawthorne calls the latest rendering “a sleek, giant albino Pac-Man gobbling up the red carpet.”

Above is a word cloud of Piano-Pali building descriptions generated via Wordle.

“Heaven and Earth” at the Getty Villa

Archangel Michael, early 14th century. Image courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958

The elevator pitch for MOCA’s “Mike Kelley” is “what American society has repressed.” That might equally apply to the Getty Villa’s “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.” The Byzantine empire has been minimized, if not written out of history books, and its art is barely represented in most American museum collections. The Getty Villa’s permanent collection ends with the sack(s) of Rome in the 5th century. By then Rome’s emperors had moved to Constantinople, where they kept calm and carried on for another thousand years.

"Christ as Orpheus." Image courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, inv. no BXM 1

Americans nonetheless regard the Byzantines as peripheral to the imagined timeline of Western culture. In fact it was Byzantium that preserved the texts of Homer and Euclid, the Greek playwrights and scientists, the Roman orators and lawgivers. These survived to the Renaissance precisely because the Byzantine empire itself did. Had there been no Byzantium, there were would have been many fewer Wikipedia entries on classical topics. (A case in point is the Archimedes Palimpsest, a Byzantine manuscript that is the subject of a current Huntington show.) For much of the middle ages, Byzantium was smart, sophisticated, and successful, while the post-Roman West was an underachieving, Game of Thrones-uncouth, poor relation. Aspersions were cast both ways. Today, when we say Byzantine we usually mean “complicated.”

The Getty Villa’s “Heaven and Earth” is the first large Byzantine exhibition on the West Coast. It surveys a panorama of Greek culture, high and low, in almost every medium prior to oil paint: marble sculpture and reliefs; mosaic, panel, and manuscript paintings; jewelry, textiles, ivories, coins, and glass.

10th-century "Four Gospels." Image courtesy of the National Library of Greece, Athens, cod. 56

The earliest works, fitting most directly into the Getty Villa’s usual offerings, are marble sculptures. Above is a 4th-century Christ as Orpheus. It’s an earnest blend of pagan and Christian subjects. The Byzantines came to favor relief formats, and the flattening trend is already visible in Christ as Orpheus. The superflat braids and lions of Byzantium resonated throughout the medieval West.

The naturalism of a 10th-century manuscript of The Four Gospels (left) connects us to Pliny’s tall tales of ancient trompe l’oeil. The gold ground was typically Byzantine, and was also widely emulated in the West.

The best-known Byzantine artworks are icons, those devotional paintings and mosaics that have lent their name to clickable computer interface elements. A 14th-century Archangel Michael (top of post) is otherworldly, focused on the eyes.

With its emphasis on spirit, Byzantine painting is sometimes indifferent to anatomy. Byzantine heads can be pear-shaped, like a brainy, Mars Attacks alien. There is a poetry of furrowed brows. You may be reminded of Lisa Yuskavage, comic books, and street art.

Plate with a lion (cheetah?) killing a deer. Image courtesy of the 7th EBA, no. N.A. 18 (1406)

A surprising high point is a case of folksy ceramics. A 12th-century plate may represent a goateed cheetah killing a deer. Textual sources record that Byzantine emperors used the speedy African felines in their hunts.

Andreas Pavias, "Crucifixion." Image courtesy of the National Gallery, Athens, no. 144

One of the show’s few paintings by a known artist is a 15th century Crucifixion by Andreas Pavias of Crete. The energetic horror vacui recalls works by van Eyck, Signorelli, and many other Westerners.

The Getty Center has a companion show of Byzantine and related manuscripts. It includes six Greek loans alongside works from the Getty’s manuscript collection. Appearing for the last time is the 1133 New Testament that the Getty is restituting to Greece (right). It was recently discovered that this manuscript, purchased as part of the Ludwig collection in 1983 and widely exhibited, had been stolen from the Greek Monastery of Dionysiou in 1960. The 1133 manuscript’s four gold-ground Evangelist portraits were the most important Byzantine paintings in a Los Angeles collection.

Does Byzantine art matter in our busy, material world? Art history is like the butterfly flapping its wings and creating a hurricane. It’s chaos, and the first rule of chaos is everything makes a difference.

El Greco trained in the Byzantine icon painting tradition of his native Crete. Like “Byzantine,” El Greco’s nickname speaks to the Greek otherness that influenced the Renaissance schools of Venice and Spain.

Five centuries later, a modern El Greco revival inspired Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Mike Kelley reimagined Pollock’s drips as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid. Another generation of L.A. artists will respond to that or already has—and so it goes. We are all Byzantines.

The Norton Simon Rule

The New York Times has an article on the “Norton Simon rule.” California does not collect a “use tax”—a sales tax on artworks purchased out of state—provided the works are first displayed in a museum elsewhere. This saves the collector money provided the museum is in one of the few states that wouldn’t slap on its own sales tax. That’s why the Francis Bacon triptych of Lucian Freud was first shown at the Portland (Oregon) Museum of Art. The “rule” is named for Norton Simon, whose talent for spotting loopholes was as formidable as his eye for spotting masterpieces.

In Simon’s time, only the very wealthy bought much out of state. In the Internet age, everyone does. Now that Amazon collects sales tax from California customers, it’s hard to argue that billionaires should be exempt.

So ditch the Norton Simon rule? Before you say yes, consider that “tax dodges” are the backdoor route by which America funds its art museums. In Europe, national governments pay for museums. Here the private sector does, helped along with tax breaks. In today’s political climate, it’s easier to continue a tax loophole for billionaires than to boost government support for the arts.

That said… the Norton Simon rule is so horrendously inefficient at doing what it does that there’s a strong case for scrapping it.

Take Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud. Elaine Wynn, a Nevada resident, bought it for a record $142 million. She would have owed Nevada $11 million in sales tax. But Nevada also uses the Norton Simon rule, so Wynn lent the triptych to the Portland Museum of Art for three months. In effect, Nevada taxpayers were paying $11 million to put a B+ Bacon on public display in another state.

Compare that to this: In 2004 the Bellagio Casino, Las Vegas, paid “only” $1 million and a cut of the box office to rent 21 Monets from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. That loan ran for 16 months. As controversial as it was, it looks like a genius deal next to $11 million for one Bacon for three months—in Portlandia.

Nevada and California would do better by collecting the sales tax and channeling it into arts funding. In fact, even if you believe that government art funding is always intrinsically inefficient, it’s likely to be more effective at increasing public access to art than the Norton Simon rule is.

Wait—won’t billionaires simply move somewhere else rather than the pay the tax? Well, New York collects sales tax on artworks, whether they’re first shown in Oregon or not. There are still plenty of collectors in New York.

P.S. Were you aware that the Getty’s Victorious Youth made its 1977 American debut in Denver, not Malibu?

A Monster Roster at the Underground Museum

The Underground Museum is a 6,000-sq. ft. alternative space-gallery adjacent to Noah Davis’ studio in the Crenshaw district. Its current show, “Veils,” is the most ambitious yet. Curators Jhordan Dahl and Ariana Papademetropoulos have pulled together a mix of emerging artists and cult-fave historical figures. Foremost among the latter is beat artist and philosophic scenester Marjorie Cameron. At top is a trippy Cameron self-portrait, apparently little-known even to the inner circle. It’s accompanied by a suite of eroto-cosmic drawings. The most ardent of Cameron’s growing cult will want to visit the UM for this alone.

Chris Burden's "Urban Guerrilla"—post Jeffrey Vallance's aggressive intervention

Also on the roster: Wallace Berman, Robert Heinecken, Jeffrey Vallance, Marnie Weber, and—the unexpected pièce de résistance—a collaborative work by Chris Burden and Vallance.

That would be Urban Guerrilla, a modest Burden sculpted head shown at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 1981’s “The Fix-It-Up Show.” The premise was that Vallance and Michael Uhlenkott modified works by other artists: “Modification techniques included banging against and dragging over concrete, glueing on hair, and similar broad, gestural treatments.”

Below is a “Veils” installation view with Eric Yahnker’s Long-Banged Angel, a large pastel of Farrah Fawcett. The reference is to Charlie’s Angels, but there is a rhyme with the Cameron self-portrait. Yahnker transmutes Cameron’s wispy, vegetal proto-feminism into the big hair of retro-TV T&A.

The Underground Museum is open Wednesdays to Saturdays, noon to 6, at 3508 West Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles. By the way, Jeffrey Vallance will be holding a seance to contact Andy Warhol at the UM on May 3rd.

Mike Kelley, Silence & Death

Jori Finkel has an article in The Art Newspaper on the politics of talking, or not talking, about Mike Kelley’s suicide. She writes of the Kelley retrospective, now at MOCA Geffen,

“I’m relieved that art historians assessing Kelley’s legacy are not sensationalising his death or letting it overshadow his art, which has happened in some press coverage.… Nevertheless, the failure to acknowledge that Kelley died by his own hand, alongside the omission of his depression and drinking, smacks of wishful thinking.… Does the Stedelijk’s 400-page catalogue, billed as the ‘most comprehensive book on the iconoclastic American artist’, really have no room for a basic account of Kelley’s death and depression? Does art history as practiced today need to be blind to an artist’s biography? There must be some middle ground between people worshipping Van Gogh as the ear-slicing genius-madman and academics interpreting the work of Mike Kelley without mentioning his suicide.

“Above all, it seems highly ironic that an artist who brilliantly mined the realm of suppressed memory and subterranean imagery, who was fascinated by the Freudian mechanisms of repression, would become subject to these sorts of public denials and evasions.”

(Pictured, Kelley’s Personality Crisis, 1982.)