William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

An American “Louvre” Is Coming to San Marino

Samuel F.B. Morse invented the 19th-century’s Internet and its Google Art Project. Best known for devising the telegraph, Morse was also an artist. His most ambitious painting, Gallery of the Louvre, was intended to educate Americans back home on the glories of European art. In the 9-foot-wide Gallery of the Louvre Morse reproduced masterworks by Leonardo, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Caravaggio, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Watteau. Showings of Gallery of the Louvre in New York and New Haven (1833 and 1834) failed to flush out a hoped-for American Medici. Morse abandoned his art career for electrical engineering, and the rest is history.

Gallery of the Louvre, now owned by the Terra Foundation, will be lent to the Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art early next year (Jan. 24 to May 4, 2015). It kicks off a national tour of nine American museums.

Zoltan Pali Unfriends the Sphere

The Architect’s Newspaper has an interview with Zoltan Pali, the architect dismissed from his collaboration with Renzo Piano on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Says Pali of the museum’s spherical theater:

“I’m not a fan of it. I’m not a fan of the sphere. I think that there was a moment when it made sense, but then after more and more time it made less sense. It’s an odd shape for a theater. Difficult at best. You have a programmatic requirement and an element that was not asked for. If I could put it in the best way, I think that that element was making the rest of the project suffer. I think this still wants to be a museum of film, with a theater. As opposed to now, I think, it’s a theater with a museum attached to it.”

Other sphere critics include Christopher Hawthorne and—in an unscientific May 2014 poll—70 percent of the readers of this blog.

How Much Does Free Admission Boost Attendance?

“We’ve noticed a 25 percent increase in attendance since going free,” whispers an unnamed UCLA Hammer Museum source in The Hollywood Reporter. That echoes a July report credited to the Hammer’s Samuel Vasquez, director of events and visitor experience. The Hammer instituted free admission this February. (Above, a Barbara Kruger staircase install at the Hammer).

Those following the free v. fee debate know that a few museums in the U.S. and U.K. have claimed doubled or better attendance after eliminating admission fees. But the effect of going free clearly depends on how high the admission was before. As a university museum the Hammer had already been free to its core audience of UCLA students and faculty. Its $10 admission for others was relatively cheap by L.A. standards.

The Indianapolis Museum is often cited as the great free admission success story. Its attendance doubled after director Maxwell Anderson dropped a $7 admission in January 2007. That factoid merits an asterisk. The IMA had been free from 1941 until 2006, when it began charging $7. Attendance sagged, then rebounded when the admission was eliminated.

I’d bet that the Hammer is a better model than the IMA for shaping realistic expectations about visitor counts following free admission. For those who know how hard it is to move the needle on attendance, 25 percent is a lot.

The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett

Morton Bartlett (1909-1992) is an artist’s outsider artist. His photographs have been admired by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and Mike Kelley. Think of them as film stills, or yearbook photos, in which the figures are dolls sculpted, painted, and dressed by the artist.

One of the smallest, most powerful museum shows in Los Angeles currently is “Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett” at LACMA. It features a dozen posthumous color prints (donated to the museum in recent years by L.A. collector Barry Sloane), as well as several black-and-white prints and documents that provide clues to the Bartlett puzzle.

Bartlett was a Boston graphic artist and photographer. In 1936 he began creating a series of half-size polychrome “dolls”/sculptures  of children, mostly girls. He photographed them in clothes he made for them. A few photographs are nude, revealing that the dolls have genitals.

Bartlett never exhibited his photographs (or the dolls) in his lifetime. He did publish them, once, in the unlikely pages of Yankee magazine. A 1962 feature, “The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett,” reproduced nine of his photographs of dolls in ethnic costumes.

The other key text of the Bartlett canon is a status update he wrote for a 1957 Harvard alumni publication. “My hobby is sculpting in plaster,” said Bartlett. “Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies—to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”

There are few biographical facts about Bartlett but many theories. The three most popular are:

(1) Bartlett was a sublimated pedophile, like Lewis Carroll and Henry Darger are presumed to have been.

(2) Bartlett, being an orphan, sought to recreate the family he never had. It’s said that the boy dolls resemble him as a child.

(3) Commercial artist Bartlett aspired to be a “serious” artist. The dolls and photos were a personal project he intend to exhibit one day (but didn’t). Bartlett’s doll project might show awareness of Hans Bellmer’s dolls and the staged color photography of Paul Outerbridge.

These theories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Barlett’s recent fame in the outsider art community has elicited some new information. One woman came forward to report that her mother was engaged to Bartlett (who never married).

Most intriguingly, Bartlett’s longtime friend Jean Gilbran spoke with critic Ken Johnson. ”He used to come with us to art openings” Gilbran said. “He knew all about art and artists—he couldn’t have been an outsider. He was a well-educated, well-rounded man, and there was nothing primitive or strange about him.”

As to the dolls: “He wanted to get a toy company to manufacture them. He thought they could become big sellers like the Barbie doll.”

A Barbie with a vagina? It’s worth remembering that Barbie was considered pretty radical back in 1959—for having breasts. Had Ruth Handler died before getting Mattel off the ground, leaving behind prototypes for a super-sexualized teenager and a genital-free boyfriend, maybe the outsider art market would have “theories” about her.

Bartlett was discovered, after his death, by Connecticut dealer Marion Harris. She bought a cache of  small black-and-white photographs and the dolls themselves. Harris introduced Bartlett to the art world at New York’s 1995 Outsider Art Fair.

Later, L.A. real estate agent Barry Sloane found and bought a set of 17 of Barton’s color slides on eBay.

“I remember Mike Kelley saying that the color was extraordinary,” said Sloane, “and asking me how anyone was going to know how great Morton Bartlett was in color if the images weren’t bigger.”

Sloane made editioned color prints of the slides, large but not too large. In recent gallery showings these color prints have upstaged the much smaller B&W ones Bartlett printed.

The color prints raise two questions. The less interesting one is “are they authentic?” There is no evidence that Bartlett ever intended the slides to be enlarged. In this regard they bear comparison to the posthumous bronzes after Degas’ wax sculptures.

The more interesting question is, “What if an artist’s best work is ‘inauthentic’?” This isn’t an issue with Degas. It is most likely to be with outsiders, or quasi-outsiders like Bartlett. A better parallel is E.J. Bellocq’s negatives of New Orleans prostitutes, discovered and printed by Lee Friedlander. These are accepted as too important to sweat the authenticity.

There is the separate matter of whether the dolls or the photographs are to be considered Bartlett’s main achievement. Note that Bartlett himself described his “hobby” as sculpting, not photography. The dolls have been exhibited in gallery shows, and the American Folk Art Museum acquired one in 1998. My sense is that Bartlett’s vision comes together most completely in the photographs, where he controls pose, lighting, and camera angle. It is the photos that seem especially contemporary.

Bartlett’s friend Gilbran said that she never saw a child model in Bartlett’s studio. Apparently, though, Bartlett did photograph children as part of his commercial work. “Playthings” has a model release and several such photos. Furthermore, a black-and-white photo of a girl reading Grimm’s fairy tales was clearly a point of reference for one of the color photo of a girl reading Reader’s Digest.

(Below is a work not in the show but in LACMA’s collection. It’s a B&W image that Sloane printed in 2006. For the c. 1955 negative, Bartlett assembled his repertory company in front of a cyclorama.)

Quote of the Day: Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand, "Los Angeles," 1964 (c) The Estate of Garry Winogrand

“The people of Los Angeles don’t give a shit. They’re the way they are. It’s much more interesting.”

—Garry Winogrand on why he preferred Los Angeles to San Francisco for street photography

Winogrand would run into vehicle or pedestrian traffic and shoot an entire roll of film. He found that smiling and nodding while shooting minimized complaints.

Duck and Cover

The Daily Bulletin reports that the Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War has acquired an air raid siren that had long been installed at Claremont McKenna College. Such sirens were intended to provide civilians with notice of an impending nuclear attack. It augments a small group of American artifacts in the Wende collection, mostly focused on Eastern Europe.

The Claremont siren is the so-called birdhouse model, looking more like a honey dripper and capable of pumping out 113 decibels at a frequency slightly below an F note. The Wende intends to install it in the sculpture garden planned for its forthcoming Culver City Armory home.

Urban Light, the Sequel

This week Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum is debuting Chris Burden’s Light of Reason, a permanent installation on the museum’s Waltham, Mass. campus. Made from salvaged L.A. street lights, it will of course invite comparison to Urban Light at LACMA. The new piece has 24 near-identical street lamps arranged in three converging lines. (The LACMA sculpture has 202 lamps of various designs.) Burden, a Boston native, said the tripartite form echoes the three torches, three hills, and three Hebrew letters on the Brandeis University seal. The Rose is using the ambitious commission to advertise that it is alive and well after nearly being dissolved by the university in 2009.

This fall the Rose will be L.A. East. The John Altoon exhibition now at LACMA opens at the Rose Oct. 8. A Mark Bradford show, “Sea Monsters opens this Thursday. It features a new 100-foot-long mural, The King’s Mirror, inspired by L.A.’s subprime mortgage posters advertising “SEXY CA$H.”

Mr. & Mrs. Jesus H. Christ

I guess I can skip the SPOILER ALERT. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is built around the premise that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. Brown didn’t invent that high concept, not even within the context of pop fiction. It was a meme of late 19th-century French literature and art. The most important visual expression of it might be the Auguste Rodin sculpture the Getty Museum recently bought, Christ and Mary Magdalene.

The apocryphal gospel of Philip reports that Jesus kissed Mary often on her (blank). The last word is missing.

So is any indication of which Mary Philip meant. The New Testament names five Marys, among them the mother of Jesus. The guess, among those who take this seriously, is that Philip meant Mary Magdalene. (Right, Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, c. 1640, at LACMA.)

Incidentally, the Bible doesn’t describe her as a prostitute. Mary Magdalene has long been confused with the unnamed adulteress in the “Let he who is without sin…” episode.

In an 1886 book French socialist Louis Martin proposed that Jesus became an atheist, married M.M., and moved to the South of France, where they had a son.

Two years later Symbolist poet Rodolphe Darzens’  L’Amante du Christ explored a similar theme in verse. Félicien Rops supplied a frontispiece showing an androgynous Christ bleeding over a nude and muscular Mary Magdalene. Rodin must have played off the edginess of such antecedents in creating his more nuanced and modern image.

Rodin’s first version, a plaster Christ and Mary Magdalene, was probably modeled in 1894 and is in the Musée Rodin, Paris. Not until the following decade was it executed in two marbles, commissioned by rival steel tycoons.

The first (1905) went to German steel man August Thyssen. Thyssen rated it his favorite work by Rodin and insisted that it be placed at the head of his coffin (below right). This marble is now in the collection of Thyssen’s daughter-in-law and is displayed at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

The other (1908) marble was carved for Austrian industrialist Karl Wittgenstein, father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Wittgenstein marble, in a Dutch collection from 1964 to 2012, is the one now at the Getty.

It is a bit larger than Thyssen’s version. It also incorporates some changes. Rodin’s 1894 plaster (detail below) has an indisputable cross and open space between the figures. In the marbles, the bodies melt into each other and a mass of unfinished stone that is only vaguely cruciform. Judging from online photographs, the Getty marble is cut less less deeply on the left side than the Thyssen version is, making it less cross-like, more abstract.

Rodin gave the sculpture other titles: “The Genius and the Pity” and “Prometheus and an Oceanid.” Perhaps he worried that the Jesus and Magdalene story, so popular in the 1890s, had run its course. A great work of art need not be nailed down, but “nailed down” is a fair description of Rodin’s male figure. Nailheads are visible in the palms.

Rodin need not have worried. The Magdalene legend had legs. In the 20th century it was proposed that the Merovingian kings of France were descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This gave several pretenders basis for claiming a European throne. The Belgian Michel Roger Lafosse thought his alleged Nazarene ancestry qualified him to be king of Scotland. Pierre Plantard, a former Nazi sympathizer, came forward in the 1960s as France’s long-lost and not particularly sought-for dauphin. Plantard cited not only his Jesus and Mary ancestry but the authority of Nostrodamus, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, and General de Gaulle in an all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Dan Brown was well aware of Plantard and drew on his claims in his novel.

The success of The Da Vinci Code inspired polemics, rip-offs, and debunkings in every medium. The Jesus bloodline idea must be more globally known today than it was in Rodin’s time. It got a bump in 2012 with the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. That is a 2nd-century scrap of papyrus with the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife…” Again we’re left hanging.

Royal claimants like Plantard presumed that a Jesus bloodline would be a rare distinction. Recently, computer analysis has shown that it would be all but impossible for a first-century A.D. couple to have a small group of 21st-century descendants. Genealogist Steve Olsen concluded, “If anyone living today is descended from Jesus, so are most of us on the planet.”

That’s a sobering thought, not just because of Ferguson and ISIS. What if God was all of us?

A Noisy, Belligerent Koons for the Broad

The Whitney Museum’s Jeff Koons retrospective is showing a bronze sculpture recently acquired by the Broad Art Foundation: Hulk (Organ), dated 2004-2014. Reports the gallery label: “when the organ is played, this sculpture emits a deafening, belligerent sound.”

When Mayberry Had an Arts School

From 1933 to 1957 Black Mountain, North Carolina, had the nations’ most advanced interdisciplinary arts school. Faculty and students of Black Mountain College included Joseph Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Peter Voulkos, and Emerson Woelffer. The UCLA Hammer Museum is to present a show built around Black Mountain’s artistic legacy. Organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston, and opening there in fall 2015, it will travel to the Hammer and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.