William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Tale of Two Cities

Once upon a time Mexico had two cities named Los Angeles. Puebla de los Ángeles was a wealthy, populous center of the arts. Its poor sister, Pueblo de Nuestra Señor de los Angeles, was a cultural desert in the arid Mexican outback. It was the poor Los Angeles that grew up into the American metropolis of swimming pools, movie stars, and MFAs. To historians of Spanish colonial art, the “other” Los Angeles is associated with glazed earthenware pottery (maiolica). Long Beach collector Ronald A. Belkin has given LACMA two jars and a tile representing this production, now on view in the Spanish Colonial galleries.

Puebla de los Ángeles was the only New World city to produce maiolica. The two jars’ forms are based on those of the Italian Renaissance. The blue-and-white glaze imitates Chinese porcelain. Both jars date from the the early 1700s. To the right is an earlier, multi-color Tile with Hunter from about 1690.

Today Puebla de los Ángeles (generally known as Puebla) is Mexico’s fourth-largest city. It makes Volkswagens and mole poblano; but also prized maiolica, now in prismatic colors.

A Space Odyssey for Calif. Science Center

The California Science Center is to be the permanent home for a $6 million, NASA-co-organized space station exhibit now at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul. The most-buzzed-about feature simulates weightlessness. Visitors stand on a bridge as a mock-up of the International Space Station rotates around them. It looks and feels like you’re spinning in zero-gravity.

NASA used the illusion, known as vection, to train astronauts. Kubrick adopted it in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Victorian amusement parks used it in an attraction billed as the “haunted swing.” Those who get motion-sick are advised to close their eyes.

(Below, a still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Late Turner and the Dress That Broke the Internet

I walked through the Getty Museum’s “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free” thinking about a more recent picture. It was the digital photo of a dress that set the Internet buzzing last Thursday. Some saw the dress as white and gold, others as blue and black. It split couples—for Kim Kardashian it was #whiteandgold; for Kanye West it was #blueandblack. Kanye was right, it turned out, when less ambiguous photos of the dress turned up and themselves went viral. The dress came to mind in the Getty show with Turner’s Peace—Burial at Sea (1842), on loan from the Tate. Critics objected that Turner had painted the white sails black. Turner’s Twitter-worthy comeback: “I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”

The relativity of visual perception is the ultimate subject matter of Turner’s late years. Blue Rigi or Red Rigi?—it depends on the lighting. In the 1840s, as in the Tumblr age, ambiguity is a polarizing thing.

You’ve probably heard the psychophysical explanations for the dress. Its wearer was standing in front of a blazingly sunlit background, overexposed in the photo. The picture lacks the usual visual cues that would indicate whether the dress was itself brightly lit or in shadow. As a meme, the dress photo is fundamentally about glare and lack of visual cues. Both were fundamental to Turner’s late work. His painting Regulus looks straight into the sun, a gimmick he took from Claude Lorrain. No one can paint the sun in any “realistic” sense. What ought to be a point of white-hot incandescence must instead be represented by a blob of white pigment. Turner implies the sun’s brilliance by flooding much of his canvas with white and gold. Like the dress photo, Regulus is burnt out, subject to a finite dynamic range. The details establishing the subject and perspective are relegated to the margins.

Writing of Regulus, an 1837 Spectator critic found ”just the reverse of Claude; instead of the repose of beauty—the soft serenity and mellow light of an Italian scene—here all is glare, turbulence, and uneasiness. The only way to be reconciled to the picture is to look at it from as great a distance as the width of the gallery will allow of, and then you see nothing but a burst of sunlight.”

Turner was not an abstractionist, a misreading that the Tate-Getty-Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco-organized exhibition gently rebuts. The subject matter mattered, not just to his patrons but to Turner himself. (Regulus was the scheming Roman general whose punishment was to have his eyelids cut off and be blinded by the Tunisian sun.) But the mature Turner’s main visual interest was the aspects of a view—glare, gloom, masses of color—that are perceived a split second before the brain manages to make sense of it all. Watercolors such as Turner’s Bedroom in the Palazzo Giustinian and Venice: Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets (below) have been called “abstract” yet are essentially naturalistic. They are like what one sees when waking up in a dark room in an unfamiliar city: a reality in which dim forms momentarily resist interpretation.

This interest in the subjectivity of vision may be Turner’s most authentic connection to modernism. It recalls the tale of Kandinsky being enraptured by an indecipherable painting he saw from a distance (a Monet Haystacks, it turned out). It is in the spirit of André Breton’s surrealist decree: “Anything that can delay the categorization of beings or ideas—that can, in a word, maintain ambiguity—has my full approval.”

Quote of the Day: Charles Gaines

“[I] didn’t rely on Fresno as an art resource. I kept a New York base, which was a good thing because otherwise I would have been dragged into oblivion.’”

—Charles Gaines, in a 1990 feature in The Fresno Bee, “Is Fresno Any Place for an Artist?” The article is on view in the UCLA Hammer Museum’s “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989″

Washington & Napoleon, Under the Dome

Earlier this month, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced the acquisition of an 1822 Gilbert Stuart George Washington that was once in the collection of L.A.’s Hammer Museum. The Stuart was among the 92 objects that the UCLA-run museum returned to the Armand Hammer Foundation in 2007, in order to get out of an inconvenient clause in the founder’s will demanding near-continuous display of Hammer’s uneven collection.

It’s anyone’s guess how well the mild-mannered Stuart portrait will hold up in its new home. The Louvre Abu Dhabi plans to show it next to Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps—on loan from Versailles—and even Napoleon may have trouble competing with architect Jean Nouvel’s numinous dome.

Antonio Mancini, the Last Realist

LACMA has put on view a work by the artist that John Singer Sargent considered “the greatest living painter.” That wasn’t Cézanne, nor even John Singer Sargent. It was Antonio Mancini (1852-1930). The painting at LACMA, Dolce melodia (“Sweet Melody”, 1900), was auctioned at Christies last May and is on loan from an unidentified private collection. It is unusual in subject, paint handling, and format (6.5 feet wide by 20 inches high).

It shows a nude boy reclining on a table or mantle as an elderly violinist plays. There’s a hint of Degas in the violinist’s cropping. Mancini met Degas and Manet in 1870s Paris, and his early, realist works of starving waifs were considered akin the better-known Parisians’ ballerinas and beggars. For later works such as this, Mancini used a self-invented variant of Dürer’s perspective machine. He viewed his subjects though a frame with strings stretched in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal directions. Mancini then painted onto a similar string framework pressed flat against his canvas. The strings left a grid pattern in the sculptural paint surface, proof of the artist’s devotion to absolute realism in paintings that verge on illegibility.

The Superbad Art, and School, of Robert Williams

Robert Williams was the outlier of Paul Schimmel’s “Helter Skelter” (MOCA, 1991)—the only artist for whom low-brow was more than a pose. Williams came out of the hard-knock school of custom automotive grotesquerie. Schimmel’s MOCA exhibition invited reflection on how Williams’ art was or wasn’t akin to art-schoolers like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is revisiting Williams’ oeuvre in “Slang Aesthetics!: Robt. Williams.” (Above, Death by Exasperation, 2010).

Nominally a one-artist show, “Slang” effectively explores the circle of Robert Williams. It shares gallery space with “20 Years Under the Influence of Juxtapoz.”

That would be Juxtapoz magazine, long a champion of the art of Williams and fellow travelers. The large roster spans Mark Ryman, Shag, Shepard Fairey, Odd Nerdrum—and, yes, Margaret Keane (Flower Heads, 2011, at right). Jon Swihart has portraits, in a magic-realist-Flemish primitive mode, of Williams and Juxtapoz publisher Greg Escalante. Like Williams, many of the artists have a passionate claque that does not usually include the curators of major art museums.

The shows have only a few sculptures, but they’re often among the most memorable pieces. Kazuhiro Tsuji has two hyperreal portraits of Dali and Warhol. They were at the L.A. Art Show, displayed together. They work better at LAMAG, in separate pitch-dark alcoves.

Williams has lately turned to sculpture. I know… doesn’t sound good. René Magritte, another popular punster, sought critical and economic refuge in bronze sculpture late in his career. The two Williams fiberglass sculptures are either the LAMAG show’s best things or worst things. For Williams, that might be the sweet spot.

Artists Support MOCA With $10 Million Auction

The New York Times is reporting that 35 artists will be donating a single artwork each for an auction to support MOCA’s endowment. The sale, to be held at Sotheby’s New York May 12-13, is to include pieces by board members John Baldessari, Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, Barbara Kruger (above, Untitled [Provenance]), and Catherine Opie; former board member Ed Ruscha; and Sam Durant, Elliott Hundley, Jeff Koons, and Liz Larner. The auction house expects to raise about $10 million minus fees. That would add about 10 percent to the current endowment of $100 million — and take it 1/10 of the way to Philippe Vergne’s goal of $200 million.

“The Clock” to Run Overtime

LACMA is planning to show Christian Marclay’s The Clock for two months this summer. The world’s most accessible conceptual video has mostly been shown for its 24-hour running length only. But the Museum of Modern Art had The Clock on display for a month in Dec. 2012 to Jan. 2013. At LACMA The Clock will be on view during regular museum hours in the Art of Americas Building, July 5 to Sept. 7, 2015. Additional screenings will run the full 24 hours.

The Broad, First Impressions

The Broad opened Sunday for a one-day preview, using the raw Diller Scofidio + Renfro space for sound and light installations by BJ Nilsen and Yann Novak. As far as I can tell, everyone adores the interior and its lighting.

The buzz killer for some was the exterior. There have been complaints that the “veil” is less fluid, airy, and open than the early renderings. DS+R now says the veil’s openings were made smaller on the client’s request, to protect the art from direct sunlight (i.e., not because the digital design was physically impossible, or that the fabricator screwed up, or that “Unreasonable Eli” was too impatient to allow everyone to get it right).

From the inside, side views of the city are small and cropped. I’ve no problem with that. The croppings are interesting in their own right.

“Porous” is a word that describes SpongeBob SquarePants better than the Broad’s north side.

My main misgiving is with the Grand Avenue-facing “oculus.” This is a depression that supplies a window feature in a meeting room. The oculus was hard to understand in the renderings and in recent construction photos. It now appears that they are adding veil elements inside the glass, to create the illusion that the depression penetrates the glass skin. So far it looks less magical than anticipated.

OK: Not many people look as good as their Tinder photo, and not many buildings live up to the rendering. In the long run, everyone will forget the rendering. They won’t forget Disney Hall. The real question is how the Broad’s exterior relates to Gehry’s masterpiece. The Broad was pitched as a less flamboyant neighbor whose virtues are on the inside. I doubt the difference between the renderings and reality will matter much in the grand scheme of Grand Avenue.

There are many interesting details that haven’t got much attention, both inside and out. On two Grand Avenue corners the veil lifts up to create entrances. The diagonals are dramatic, and a gap between the veil and the building creates a sheltered space for expected lines of visitors. One entrance points to Disney Hall, the other to MOCA.

The entrances lead to a lobby that Christopher Hawthorne called “a strikingly unusual room, unlike any other in Los Angeles.” It’s almost a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set, a reading that will be enhanced when the trippy escalator and staircase are open (they weren’t for the preview).

Below is the staircase as seen from the main gallery floor.

I’ve noticed that whenever an architectually ambitious building is constructed, comment boards will talk about bird poop. Example, from the L.A. Times:

“I am sure the pigeons will make good use of the many alcoves. . . . I propose a new name, the Pigeon Loft!” (lynnke)

This is evidently how some people articulate their distaste for new architecture. There were similar comments about Disney Hall. Twelve years after opening, Disney Hall gleams like it’s brand new. Seven months before opening, the Broad could use a good scrubbing. A small bird perched with ease on a slanting groove. Obviously some of the grime is due to construction. Still, all buildings get dirty, and cleaning the squeegee-proof veil can’t be a piece of cake. The next-door neighbor sets a high standard.