William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Preview: The George Lucas Collection

“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 [1948], 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.

Rubens, Martin Luther, and the “Fat Monk” Meme

Martin Luther was a big guy, Chris Farley big. The founder of Protestantism makes a surprise guest shot in the Getty Center’s “Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist.” In Rubens’ newly restored oil sketch of The Victory of Truth Over Heresy, (above) Luther is the distinctly Rubenesque man clawing the ground at lower left. Above him is a leaner but also notorious Protestant, John Calvin. In the tapestry made from Rubens’ design (detail below right), Luther becomes more of a caricature. The tapestry presents Luther and Calvin as Disney villains being crushed by Time and Truth. A century after the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther remained an outlaw to good Catholics, including Rubens.

Wine, women, and wursts: It’s said that Germans related better to Luther than to the pencil-neck saints of Rome. Luther’s scandalous marriage—for he had been a Catholic priest—set the precedent for Protestant ministers to marry. Luther’s resolute features were well-known via the many painted and woodcut portraits produced by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his studio. Cranach portrayed Luther in youth, old age, and even on his deathbed.

Rubens’ small paintings and big tapestries in the Getty show were created in service of a doctrinal controversy that had split Christianity. The Roman church said that the communion wafers and wine at its services miraculously turned into the flesh and blood of Christ. This was based on Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, translated as Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body which is for you.”) The Latin words appear on the banderole at the top of Rubens’ painting and tapestry.

Ironically, Luther was one of the few Protestants who accepted Roman orthodoxy on the Eucharist. Unable to convince his own followers, Luther chalked words on the table. The words were Hoc est corpus meum.

Another irony is that Rubens’ Luther resembles the rotund, over-imbibing monks that later become a staple of anti-Catholic propaganda—and in our own time, of wine and spirit marketing.

Samurai and Starchitects

LACMA’s show of Samurai armor, opening this Sunday in the Resnick Pavilion, starts with three galloping equestrians under a Kurosawa-red “sky.” The cinematic installation, by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture and Design, is the antithesis of the white cube.

Below is the same show at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum last summer—also in a Renzo Piano building.

Blame Canada

Another Canadian museum has added a little pizzazz to the title of a scholarly, well-received L.A. exhibition. LACMA’s “Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky” has opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as “Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Impressionism to Expressionism, 1900-1914.” Note the changes—

• The bankable van Gogh gets first billing

• The MMFA works “Impressionism” into the title, even though the show isn’t about Impressionism

Sell the sizzle, not the Canadian bacon? Maybe the MMFA was figuring no one would notice. But Robert Everett-Green of The Globe and Mail wrote: ”Anyone expecting to see Impressionist paintings at this intriguing show is in for a big disappointment.”

The Getty’s 2012 exhibition “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350″ also got a Canadian makeover, opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario as “Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art.” As Tyler Green then noted, “The exhibition has nothing to do with secrets,” and an AGO web graphic was a rip-off of the cover of The Da Vinci Code (not that there were any da Vinci paintings in the show, either).

UPDATE: In the original version of this post, I mentioned that the MMFA website gave the title as “…Expressionism to Impression…,” inverting the chronology (see screen capture at top). This has now been changed to the more logical “…Impressionism to Expressionism…” Sophie Lynch points out that the title was given the latter way in the press release.

“Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman”

Few figures in the Los Angeles avant garde have such an intriguing life story as that of Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-1995). Known by one name, Cameron was artist, actor, mentor, muse, and sorceress to L.A.’s beat generation. Interest in Cameron has escalated in recent years, the more so after her inclusion in a couple of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. It’s been tough to disambiguate her too-colorful biography from her too-little-seen achievement as a visual artist. Is Cameron one of the great L.A. artists, or merely material for a future indie biopic? “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman,” at MOCA Pacific Design Center, is the first real attempt to answer that question.

Organized by guest curator Yael Lipschutz, “Cameron” downplays the sex, drugs, and social networks for the art itself. Cameron was above all a draughtsman. Fossil (1958, above), in white ink on black ground, is original, haunting, and unlike anything else in the show.

Cameron’s style was ever-mutating, and her retrospective might easily be mistaken for a group show. At left is Harpocrates, shown as part of a grid of 20 ink drawings of occult, freaky psychedelia. Harpocrates was the child-god of silence. The cropped face must be Cameron’s husband, Jack Parsons, a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and follower of Aleister Crowley.

“Cameron”’s most compelling pieces are assemblage-paintings of the late 1950s. Below is an untitled portrait of Crystal (the artist’s daughter, 1959) and Buried Doll (1955). These explore entropy, the universal tendency of everything to fall apart. That inconvenient truth is the nexus of mysticism, religion, and philosophy. In such works Cameron’s art connects most directly to that of her more-famous mentorees George Herms and Wallace Berman. If Berman was the father of California assemblage, Cameron was its godmother.

MOCA gives pride of place to a painting, Aleister Crowley’s Guardian Angel. The clean, illustrational style strikes me as rather dull. It is a reminder that, like Hilma af Klint, Cameron was often transcribing mystic visions more or less literally.

Perhaps in that category is a tiny portrait of an E.T.-unicorn. The title, Alien Assemblage, seems to tweak the California Assemblage movement that Cameron helped foster. In its vintage frame it is poised between a very weird Cornell box and decor for a hipster hotel. Another artist might have made a series of such things; with Cameron it was one-off.

Actually, it’s hard to make sweeping statements about Cameron’s oeuvre. Much of her work is lost or at least misplaced. The MOCA exhibition begins with Curtis Harrington’s 1955 film portrait of Cameron and her art, The Wormwood Star. All the artworks in the film are lost except for Buried Doll. It’s said that acquaintances and fans took much of her art and memorabilia after the artist’s death.

Had Cameron attended art school in this century, she would have been told to promote, promote, promote her career. She had but one single-artist exhibition in her lifetime, at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1989 (the year she turned 67).

It’s all the more notable then that MOCA director Philippe Vergne is a Cameron fanboy. He’s written a foreword to the show’s forthcoming slim (88-page) catalog. A Vergne quote in the MOCA press release puts the pro-Cameron case well:

“Cameron has opened many doors that continue to intrigue and inspire generations of artists. Her hallucinated vision, at the edge of surrealism and psychedelia embodies an aspect of modernity that deeply doubts and defies cartesian logic at a moment in history when these values have shown their own limitations. Her work demonstrates that the space in the mind is without limit.”

“Home” in El Segundo

For its new exhibition “Home,” the El Segundo Museum of Art has been sub-divided into a designer show house. A series of model rooms display mid-century modern design and ESMoA’s typically recherché selection of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Above, an unfinished bathroom has a Joseph Cornell collage in lieu of a mirror. The sink is by Henry Dreyfuss and the towel rack is an untitled 2012 sculpture by Taka Kagitomi. Partly visible through the corner gap is a copy of van Ruisdael’s The Jewish Cemetery by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, the genius of the Austrian Biedermeier.

The room below combines a Eero Aarnio Bubble Chair with a Dreyfuss refrigerator that’s seen plenty of use. Framed, domestic-themed photographs are by Bernd and Hilla Becher and Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai.

There are interesting small paintings by Corot, Maurice Denis, and Henri Le Sidanier; a Joseph Cornell box and collages; photorealism on paper by Richard Estes and Ralph Goings.

Worth a trip to El Segundo itself is a classic Jan van Goyen monochrome, Dune Landscape with Travelers Near an Inn, a Church in Distance. It was auctioned at Christie’s Amsterdam last year.

As usual for ESMoA, there’s a Teutonic accent. Witness a Landscape in Hessen (1868, below) by Andreas Achenbach, a near-abstract nocturne by Fritz Overbeck, and an 1849 Arnold Böcklin Ruins in Moonlight (Böcklin was a favorite of both Hitler and Duchamp).

Like motorcycles in museums? Check. They’ve got a 1972 Honda CB750. Burnt out by iterations of Duchamp’s urinal? ESMoA presents a toilet for what it is, a modern design object. It’s Henry Dreyfuss’ Crane “Criterion” model, 1951.

But the toilet can’t compete with Egmont Arens’ Streamliner Meat Slicer, or the rustic den dressed up with aqua floor and drawings by Edouard Vuilllard and Lyonel Feininger.

James Franco Is “Only 5% of What I Did”

Jeffrey Deitch has two new books out. One can double as a place setting, and the other is about MOCA. The MOCA Index is not a tell-all—it’s a self-published collection of photographs of Deitch’s MOCA exhibitions. For words, you’ll have to settle for some recent interviews.

On MOCA: “I walked into a hornet’s nest.” That quote appears in ArtNews (Sept. 23) and in The New York Times (Oct. 2),  which repeats “Hornet’s Nest” in the article’s title.

On celebrity shows: “… from reading press reports, people would think the only thing I did there was a show with James Franco. And the show we did with James Franco was in fact very interesting! But it’s only five percent of what I did.” (ArtNews)

On disco: “The disco show is still a show I’d like to do. I wish I could have done it then, but I think it’s OK for me to wait a while.” (ArtNews)

On Deitch Projects L.A.(?!): “If I had continued the gallery into the next decade… I would have had to have a London gallery, and a Los Angeles gallery. Rather than making this massive investment, I decided to go in a different direction. I can do business with a big collector in London without having a building that cost me millions in overhead.” (NYT)

(Above left: Martin Kippenberger’s Disco Bomb [1989] in the MOCA collection, gift of Christopher Wool.)

Fuseli’s Weird Sisters to the Huntington

The Huntingon has acquired its first Henry Fuseli painting, The Three Witches (or The Weird Sisters), c. 1782. It represents the fortune-telling witches in Macbeth. At 30 inches across, it’s one of three versions of the composition, the others at the Kunsthaus Zurich and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Despite the Shakespearean subject, the gilded frame quotes Aeschylus, roughly: “These are women but I call them Gorgons.” The Huntington believes that inscription was supplied by the erudite Fuseli.

The Huntington painting is an oil study preparatory to the other two versions. The Zurich version (left) is somewhat larger and more polished in technique. It does not crop the pointing fingers and includes a death’s head moth. But the intense faces of the Huntington painting are more disturbing, and the lighting is more spectral.

By 1791 the composition was familiar enough to be fodder for one of James Gillray’s political cartoons (below). The three “Wierd Sisters” represent Lord Dundas, William Pitt, and Lord Thurlow. Rather than point out the future, they ponder an indecisive present. The moon’s faces are those of “lunatic” King George III and Queen Charlotte.

The Huntington painting was in British private collections for most of its existence. It was last auctioned at Christie’s in 2003 (for $361,500). The Huntington bought it from dealer Jean-Luc Baroni using a fund set up by George R. and Patricia Geary Johnson.

There aren’t many Fuseli paintings in America. LACMA has one, and Paul Mellon gave four to the Yale Center for British Art and one to the National Gallery of Art. The Met has another, also a witchy subject. The Huntington press release rates The Three Witches “second in impact only” to The Nightmare at the Detroit Institute of Art. Swiss-born, but active in Britain, Fuseli was just about the only major painter of the Georgian age not represented in the Huntington collection.

The Three Witches goes on view Oct. 11 (in time for Halloween). A small exhibition of drawings by Fuseli, William Blake, and their contemporaries will run Nov. 22 through March 16, 2015.

A Short History of Broken Mirrors

The Hammer Museum’s “Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take” include several works made from fractured mirrors. In Hodge’s Movements series, a semi-circular mirror-mosaic produces a numinous play of light on an adjacent wall. The treated mirror reflects its own off-kilter reflections, and reflections of its reflections, ad infinitum. It’s a light-and-space fractal.

From Jan van Eyck to Roy Lichtenstein, painters have occasionally taken up the challenge of representing a mirror. Luis Camnitzer’s This is a Mirror (1966-8) was a linchpin of early conceptualism. Camnitzer’s vacuum-formed plastic “mirror” is as bogus as the oil-on-canvas one in Las Meninas.

Mirrors have lately become a material for contemporary artists. Broken or fragmented mirrors are less often encountered. Tradition connects broken mirrors to bad luck—or to cubism, which has been likened to reflections in a shattered mirror. Florence Henri’s photography of the 1920s deployed multiple small mirrors to achieve a cubist effect.

In the 1960s, Michelangelo Pistoletto came to attention for figure paintings and collages on large mirrors. At the 2009 Venice Biennale, Pistoletto smashed a series of framed mirrors with a mallet.

Alberto Pellaschiar’s press photo of the smashing is a modern history painting rivaling anything by Struth. Recalling Apple’s 1984 SuperBowl ad, it presents the mirror as a metaphor for our selfie-centric media-verse.

The mirrored rooms of Lucas Samaras and Yayoi Kusama exploit the barbershop mirrors effect of infinite reflection. Hodges’s Movements use two imperfect reflectors: the fractured mirror and a white wall. The imperfection conjures theatrical magic out of the white cube—symbol of contemporary art, that mirror to society. Explained Hodges: “I’m a destroyer as much as I’m a maker.”

(Below, René Magritte’s Evening Falls, 1964)

“Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Art”

LACMA is debuting a couple dozen newly acquired pieces in “Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Art.” Gerhard Richter’s St. Andrew (1988) is the frontispiece, but almost everything else was made in the past few years. (At top is an Aaron Curry next to paintings by Christopher Wool and Mary Weatherford.)

Rachel Lachowicz’s Cell: Interlocking Construction (2010) is an assemblage of plastic polyhedra containing blue powders—cosmetic eye shadows. This experiment in feminist chiaroscuro is shown next to Lachowicz’s Lipstick Urinals, 1992, that LACMA bought in 1995. The pairing makes a concise introduction to Lachowicz. You can say the same for groupings by Sterling Ruby, Mark Grotjahn, and Mark Bradford.

LACMA must have been one of the first museums to acquire a Bradford (in 2003). This year it added two large recent works. Shoot the Coin is one of the best in any museum. Carta (above) has a faux basketball that might recall Joe Goode’s milk bottles.

Speaking of bottles, Amy Sillman’s Untitled/Purple Bottle recapitulates a history of postmodern bottle painting, from Giorgio Morandi to Mike Kelley.

Rashid Johnson’s Afro-futurist psychoanalytic couch, Four for the Talking Cure (left), is from a series shown in London in 2012 “inspired by… an imagined society in which psychotherapy is a freely available drop-in service.”

Think contemporary art is an exclusive club? Dianna Molzan’s Untitled (2012) conjoins a frame with a velvet rope.

A downside of the global art market’s feeding frenzy for contemporary art is that even mid-career artists may be unaffordable by the biggest museums. Going by the quality and quantity of what’s on view, LACMA has moved to the forefront of institutional collectors of art here and now.

Nearly all the work in “Variations” was donated by private collectors, and no single name dominates. LACMA is collecting the old-fashioned way, by persuading wealthy citizens to buy top-of-the-line art and donate it to their city’s museum for the good of all. That’s a “variation” from the L.A. model of even a few years ago. Amen to that.