William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Alexandre Hogue’s “Mother Earth Laid Bare”

California’s drought finds resonance in the Autry National Center’s “Route 66: The Road and the Romance.” One section of the exhibition documents the Dust Bowl, the 1930s drought that sent many Plains States residents to fertile California (where police often turned them back at the state border). The best known artwork is Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother). From the same year is Alexandre Hogue’s painting Erosion 2: Mother Earth Laid Bare. Both use imperiled motherhood as an image of the drought. The Lange is authentic and anguished; the Hogue is goofy and surreal.

Hogue was one of the Dallas Nine group of regionalists. Mother Earth Laid Bare was created just a few years after the Surrealists discovered anthropomorphic landscapes. Dali and company were themselves inspired by mannerist examples from 16th-century Europe.

Hogue said his mother spoke to him of “Mother Earth,” a term that “conjured up visions of a great female figure under the ground everywhere—so I would tread easy on the ground.”

“Competing Utopias” at Neutra-VDL House

The great trope of Cold War fiction was the looking glass. What if the East-West dichotomy was a shell game? What if the two sides were in some deep sense identical? That is the subtext of John le Carré and TV’s The Prisoner and The Americans. It is central to “Competing Utopias,” a new installation at the Neutra-VDL Research House, Silverlake. The home’s mid-century modern furnishings have temporarily been replaced with equally modern artifacts from East Germany and Hungary, lent by the Wende Museum. “Competing Utopias” is not an exhibition so much as a koan. (Above, Richard Neutra’s austere dining area, fitted with bougie table settings and shagadelic phonograph albums from the Eastern Bloc.)

Both East and West claimed modernism as a house style. Witness the most famous example of East German design, the Garden Egg Chair of Peter Ghyczy (1967/8). Made of space-age polyurethane, it resembles a UFO, or the Pill. Ghyczy was a refugee from Hungarian communism who worked in West Germany. It proved too expensive to manufacture the Egg Chair in the West. Production was quietly moved to East Germany, though such outsourcing couldn’t be acknowledged by either side. Despite that, the Egg Chair eventually became a source of national pride for East Germany. It was also a status symbol way too expensive for any but the highest-ranking Communists to afford.

Ghyczy’s plastic egg folds up and was said to be waterproof when closed. Few dared to risk its glossy surface outdoors. Inside, it was uncomfortably bulky for tiny East German apartments—or for the Neutra house, scaled to a small architect with a plus-size ego.

“Competing Utopias” has no labels. That may remind you of  a Gilded Age capitalist’s house museum, the kind that doesn’t want to break the fourth wall and admit it’s a museum. “Competing Utopias” functions more like interactive theater. A guide escorts small groups through Neutra’s house, explaining that the installation was planned around the conceit that the home was occupied by an Interflug airline pilot, his homemaker wife (moonlighting as a spy), and their child. In one bedroom you happen upon an Interflug uniform and open suitcase on a bed. The Frigidaire has a photo of the couple’s wedding. A tiny penthouse space is packed with Stasi surveillance equipment.

As part of the fiction, you are handed a packet of postcards that may or may not be coded dispatches to a handler. One note is a blend of Marxist and libertarian doublespeak, with a nod to Hitchcock’s Bodega Bay:

“Local culture: The superstition here is that if you feed seagulls your breadcrumbs, they’ll fly away with your self-restraint. Seagulls benefit from a person lacking discipline: He’s more likely to throw salami and canned peaches, too. Law enforcement benefits because people throwing salami also throw caution to the wind and commit lucrative petty crimes.… So law enforcement looks the other way when birds attack. Sometimes birds attack people who forget to take their peaches out of cans before throwing. ‘Forgetfulness’ can be a petty offense, and it’ll cost you. Hence the saying that ‘a good vacation begins with a good butcher.’ Try not to misinterpret it.”

“Gimme Gimme Octopus” in Pasadena

This Sunday at 7:30 the Armory Center for the Arts is screening one of the freakiest children’s TV shows ever made. Gimme Gimme Octopus ran on Japanese television from 1973 to 1974. The title character is a covetous, claymation cephalopod whose catchphrase is Kure! Kure! (I want it! I want it!)

Should your attention span be too short to accommodate that Thomas Piketty tome, Gimme Gimme Octopus might be a decent crib. Each episode runs 2 minutes and 41 seconds. Gimme Gimme Octopus anticipates the CalArts bizarrerie of Tim Burton’s Hansel and GretelPeeWee’s Playhouse, and SpongeBob Squarepants.

From Wikipedia:

“Kure Kure Takora is a red octopus. He uses a type of Ninjitsu where he can transform anything from a dopey iguana to a vacuum cleaner to a guitar. His best friend is the weak-willed peanut-inspired Chonbo. While he has friends, he seems to have no problems leaving them for dead if he has to make a fast getaway. Like all other characters in the show, Kure Kure is in love with the fickle pink walrus Monro. His greatest fear is being soaked with vinegar and being served as Sudako (pickled octopus).”

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.