William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

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“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.

Ensor and “The Burning of Los Angeles”

“My response was sadness,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Brenson. He was speaking of the news that the J. Paul Getty Museum had bought James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (detail above). Brenson felt that Ensor’s masterpiece belonged in Europe. It was an outlier in J. Paul Getty’s fussy collection of minor Old Masters. Ensor’s subversive, ironic painting was the antithesis of East Coast stereotypes of L.A. as bourgeois and irony-free.

Los Angeles Times critic William Wilson observed that the purchase contradicted a 1980s Getty directive to avoid buying modern art. Museum director John Walsh defended the opportunity as “too good to pass up” and declared the Ensor to be the Getty’s most important painting.

This summer the Getty is presenting “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor,” built around Christ’s Entry of course. It remains the conventional wisdom that the opportunity was indeed too good to pass up, though the prize had no more connection to Los Angeles than Seurat’s Grande Jatte had had to Chicago. Overlooked is that, half a century before the Getty bought it, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 was the inspiration for the first L.A. painting of global significance.

I speak of The Burning of Los Angeles. If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because it’s a fictional painting. It’s the pivot of Nathanael West’s classic L.A. novel, The Day of the Locust (1939).

West’s tale concerns Tod Hackett, a Hollywood set painter who dreams of a career as a serious artist. He envisions a magnum opus titled The Burning of Los Angeles. West said that he modeled the painting on Ensor’s Christ’s Entry. That was an extraordinary point of reference for the 1930s. The Depression had pummeled whatever curiosity Americans had about the European avant garde. Though painted in 1888, Christ’s Entry had not been exhibited until 1929, and then in Brussels. West couldn’t have dreamed that the painting would one day end up in Los Angeles.

The novel describes The Burning of Los Angeles in some detail. The paperback cover above, by British-born illustrator Charles Ashford Binger, represents part of Tod Hackett’s painting. The motley crowd almost spills out of the picture, as they do in the Ensor. Hackett depicts himself (as does Ensor) along with the novel’s other characters. Among them is the bumbling everyman who triggers pandemonium, named Homer Simpson. Matt Groening named his cartoon dad after him.

West wrote,

“Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches.… No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

With The Burning of Los Angeles West invented a (potential) genre of apocalyptic L.A. landscapes. The novel was also prophetic. In August 1965 a DUI arrest in Watts quickly escalated to arson and looting. Watts burned for six days, resulting in 34 deaths.

Another Nathaniel, spelled the usual way and known as the “Magnificent” Montague, was a dejay for R&B station KGFJ. His radio catchphrase was “burn, baby, burn!” It became the anarchic motto. The Watts rebellion was fought as West’s was, with fists, rocks, and the most subversive weapon of all—the elemental power of fire in the real estate boosters’ “Mediterranean climate.”

The masses of West’s novel feel cheated by the American (L.A.) dream. They find solace in chaos. But West missed the nexus of the 1965 reality, race.

Andy Warhol’s Race Riot series used 1963 press photos of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors. The most memorable images of Watts are of another kind. Insurgents are in control. They pose for the camera, their eyes confronting the viewer’s as do those of some of Ensor’s masqueraders. The people in Watts press photos are not literal actors like West’s Hollywood rejects, but they are media-aware in the way we all are now. They are ready for their group-selfie in the reality show that constitutes our so-called reality. That may be the most terrifying thing about 1965 Watts or right now—or about Day of the Locust, or Christ’s Entry.

The burning of Watts occurred just as Los Angeles was becoming an important art center. The fires were pivotal to such artists such as Noah Purifoy (who has a LACMA retrospective coming in 2015). Purifoy wrote,

“While the debris was still smoldering, we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching.… Despite the involvement of running an art school, we gave much thought to the oddity of our found things.… The junk we had collected… had begun to haunt our dreams.”

Purifoy and Judson Powell organized a group show, 66 Signs of Neon, of works made from post-riot debris. It travelled to nine cities from 1966-69 and was a nexus of California Assemblage. Purifoy was an alchemist who mixed Duchampian ready-mades with entropy and politics. His salvaged-wood Watts Riot (1966, below) could be called the Mona Lisa of the California African-American Museum’s collection.

Watts’ influence went worldwide. Chilean/cosmopolitan surrealist Roberto Matta recycled the Magnificent Montague’s phrase, producing a 32-foot-wide painting of that title (1965-6). Burn Baby Burn is a highly abstracted Burning of Los Angeles and is now at LACMA.

In weird synchronicity, Ed Ruscha’s first fire paintings predated Watts. The famous pictures of Los Angeles architecture ablaze were created afterward. Among them is this blog’s namesake, the Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-8). It’s not in Los Angeles but in Washington DC at the Hirshhorn. (That’s Homer Simpson saying “D’oh!”)

In 2006 Ruscha said of the fire paintings: “It’s a way of attaching an additional meaning to the painting that would otherwise not have fire.”

Judy Chicago almost literally set the pre-Norton Simon Pasadena Museum on fire in a 1972 Atmospheres performance. Her autumn-hued smoke bombs were intended “to soften and feminize the environment, one that… was not particularly hospitable to women artists.”

Watts was eventually sublimated into the Hollywood dream/nightmare machine. The Towering Inferno (1974) was a big-budget melodrama about a group of people trapped inside a burning L.A. skyscraper. The credibility-defying cast included Steve McQueen (the white one), Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, and Mrs. Norton Simon, Jennifer Jones, in her final screen role.

Carlos Almaraz invented another kind of disaster picture. His paintings of L.A. fires reference not only the uncertainty of urban life but the most overworked of screenwriter clichés. (Shown, Sunset Crash; Trash Burning on Venice Beach.) LACMA is organizing an Almaraz retrospective for 2017.

W.H. Auden coined the term “West’s Disease.” He was referring to Nathanael West, not longitude, and to a free-floating American malaise, “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of turning wishes into desires.”

West described his writing as “a sweeping rejection of political causes, religious faith, artistic redemption and romantic love.”

That’s an encapsulation of what has fascinated and repulsed later generations about Los Angeles. In Spike Jonze’s Her, a meditation on romantic love, the Los Angeles of the near future has become a city of madding and lonely crowds. Jonze’s protagonist, martyr and narcissist, is in the spirit of Ensor’s.