“Did you hear about the George Lucas collection? Everyone who knows the slightest thing about art says it’s JUNK!”
That chatter was the backdrop to Lucas’ search for a home for his planned museum of narrative art. After San Francisco rejected an initial building proposal, the leaders of Los Angeles and Chicago began lobbying for it. Mayor Eric Garcetti had a hashtag (#WhyLucasInLA). The local art community was less enthusiastic, feeling that L.A. needed another pop culture attraction like Las Vegas needed another hooker (to paraphrase Dave Hickey). But no one knew much about the collection beyond from the fact that Lucas collected Norman Rockwell and intended to juxtapose magazine illustrators with today’s CGI and prop movie magicians. (Above, Rockwell’s The Gossips , auctioned last December for $8.5 million. The anonymous buyer was George Lucas, it turns out.)
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art ultimately chose Chicago as its future home. It now has a new website with much information on the collection. Based on that, I’d say the skepticism was misplaced.
Let me begin by saying that the three things I can’t stand are (a) intolerance, (b) Norman Rockwell, and (c) Star Wars. I’m not the Lucas museum’s target audience.
Sure, there are numerous works by Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, and N.C. Wyeth; Gibson Girls and Vargas Girls. There is also Kelley Freas. At left is a Freas painting made for a 1960 cover of Mad magazine. Free of text, it becomes something else again. Imagine (if you need to imagine) that you know nothing of Mad or Alfred E. Newman. How many outsiders or thrift shop artists can rival Freas? That’s a good way of appreciating the Lucas collection: vernacular art, only better. And if you like that sort of thing, there’s plenty more where it came from, most by artists few have heard of. (Below, illustrations by Richard Sargent and Norman Saunders.)
One of the more interesting artists is Walter Tandy Murch, a steampunk Chardin who specialized in still-lifes of obsolete machines. Canadian-born, Murch studied under Arshile Gorky and had a show at Betty Parsons’ New York Gallery in 1941. His works appeared on the covers of Scientific American and Fortune magazines. Below is The Clock. Murch was the father of sound editor Walter Murch, who worked on several Lucas films.
The Lucas is also collecting comic strip and comic book art, an area generally underserved by museums. The LMNA website has a broad and smart sampling, from Al Capp to Robert Crumb; Walt Kelly (bottom of post), Charles Schultz, Winsor McCay, Basil Wolverton, and David Levine. The quality is first-rate—though it’s impossible to judge the quantity from a selection on a website.
There is also a trove of children’s book art (John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Beatrix Potter) of a quality worthy of the Morgan library’s collection.
The anchor of the film collection is material from Lucas’ own movies and the Industrial Light & Magic effects firm. Going by the website, however, it lags when it comes to the history of non-Lucas cinema. There are Cinema 101 stills and animation cels (Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, Battleship Potemkin, Oswald the Rabbit, Citizen Kane), but these are not all that hard to come by on a high-end fanboy budget. One of the prizes, outside the Star Wars franchise, is Syd Mead’s gouache sketches for Blade Runner.
There’s also a fair of amount of so-called fine art: painting, sculpture, photography, and architecture from the 19th century to just about now. But that’s where the mission gets confused.
The roster of big names is eclectic to say the least: an Ingres wash drawing of Napoleon; watercolors by Winslow Homer and Degas; paintings by Renoir, Frederic Remington, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Thomas Hart Benton, and Guy Pene Du Bois; photos by Bernice Abbott, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith, and Alfred Steiglitz; documentation of the architecture of Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas; Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roxy Paine, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Above is the Renoir, Les Enfants au Bord de la Mer (c. 1894), no better than something Armand Hammer would have bought. Is it “narrative”? Obviously narrative art covers a lot of territory, and almost anything this side of a Judd might qualify. What’s missing is a sense of why these artists and works have been collected and not others.
That paradox multiplies with the collection of “digital art.” The thesis must be that movie CGI deserves to be shown next to every other kind of art made digitally. But the latter embraces an ever-expanding share of contemporary art, from David Hockney’s iPad drawings (shown, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011-5 May) to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 3D-printed Mathematical Model 009, Surface of Revolution With Constant Negative Curvature (2006).
The Lucas collection doesn’t need “serious” art to lend legitimacy. Judging from the website, it has already carved out an important and counter-intuitive mission: to champion the many phases of our visual culture that art museums ignore.