An African Madonna & More for LACMA

This year’s LACMA’s Collectors Committee was the richest ever, financially and artistically. Museum supporters raised $3.2 million to buy nine objects ardently desired by curators. Polly Nooter Roberts, the museum’s first curator of African art, made the case for a Bamana Mother and Child. It becomes LACMA’s first world-class African sculpture.

The Collectors Committee is an annual event going back to 1986. It was inspired by the similarly named Collectors Committee of the National Gallery of Art, established in 1975 to purchase modern art for that DC museum’s gaping East Building. NGA pioneered a democratic-republican approach in which museum supporters vote as equals on works to acquire from pooled funds. The LACMA committee expands that Kickstarter premise across cultures and centuries.

LACMA curators have five minutes each to pitch nominated artworks with a slide show. Committee members, who have paid dues of $15,000 and up, fill out a ranked ballot. Tabulation determines which works are purchased, only it’s not quite that simple. As in regular politics, the wealthy can “buy” an election—benignly—by contributing additional funds to put a desired object over the top.

The 38-inch high Bamana Mother and Child for the Gwan Association benefited from that kind of deal-making, for it was the most expensive work on offer at $1 million. Kelvin Davis and Bobby Kotick kicked in extra funds. The Gwan fertility figure is an already famous object, having been exhibited and published extensively. The seller, San Francisco dealer and collector James Willis, vowed to part with it only to fund his retirement. The figure’s importance rests in both the quality of its carving and its age. Most “old” African sculptures in wood are vaguely assigned to the late 19th to early 20th century. Carbon 14 dating has assigned the Willis figure to the early 1500s, give or take a century. (It could be contemporary with Veit Stoss.) The Bamana live in a dry part of Mali where the climate is relatively kind to wood. Figures like this are conserved in annual rituals of cleansing and rubbing with oil.

The Metropolitan Museum has a well-known Bamana Mother and Child (head at left). In the past, it’s been assigned it to the boilerplate 19th to 20th century. The Met website now dates it “15th-20th century.” I’d guess from that wide range that it hasn’t been carbon dated and that the Met is hopefully piggybacking on the carbon 14 datings of objects such as the Willis figure. The Met’s Mother and Child is more completely preserved—which makes a prima facie case for a more recent date.

The face of the Met sculpture is as blank as a Modigliani. The LACMA figure’s heavy-lidded eyes are grave with the mystery of birth and life and death. The Mother and Child will be displayed at the entrance to LACMA’s new, dedicated gallery of African art that opens this July with a loan show of Luba sculpture.

The actor’s nightmare is to follow a child or dog. For presenting curators the nightmare is to follow Japanese art head Robert Singer. He was scheduled last at Saturday morning’s presentations. Singer introduced an 18.5-inch high Mountain Avatar (Zao Gongen) of late Heian Japan, c. 1180, in a funny/crazy Joe Frank monologue ending with a dream-sequence encounter between Singer and the Avatar himself.

Singer identifies the Mountain Avatar as “the oldest and finest sculpture of its kind, with its original colors and surface intact… the announcement of its discovery will literally necessitate the rewriting of the history of Japanese sculpture.” Doubt it? Singer has video of Japan’s greatest expert agreeing with him. The only comparable work is a National Treasure in Nyoirinji temple, dated 1226 and, in Singer’s estimation, a bit less “refined.”

The Committee acquisitions also included a 10th-century cast-iron Seated Buddha, unique in an American collection,  that becomes the earliest important Korean sculpture at LACMA; a 27-foot long model of Roden Crater by James Turrell (to be shown in the upcoming show); and two large photos—a Thomas Demand meditation on the Fukushima emergency and Susan Hefuna’s Woman Behind Mashrabiya I. Separately JPMorgan Chase donated Ed Ruscha‘s Stains portfolio and a Robert Frank photo of Los Angeles from its corporate collection. Two offered works did not get funding, a major Sam Durant installation, Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, and a Gaetano Gandolfi oil sketch for a ceiling painting.

The most truly populist of the acquired pieces may be Julio Le Parc’s Mural: Virtual Circles. Le Parc, the Argentinian Pope of Op Art, isn’t terribly well known in America, but his 14-foot-wide mural—modernism as funhouse mirror—will be the tent pole of LACMA’s representation of Latin American abstraction.

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