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Bohemia on the Bay

Long ago, when the 20th century was middle-aged and San Francisco real estate was a whole lot cheaper, an artist (Jess [Collins]) and his poet partner (Robert Duncan) lived in bohemian splendor, helped by Duncan’s trust fund of $275 a month. That bought a Mission District home with room for entertaining. The pair’s network of talented friends, skewing gay and female, defined the “San Francisco Renaissance.” That movement, nominally opposed to the better-known Beats, is now being celebrated at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle.” (Above, Jess’ collage Sent on the VIIth Wave, 1979).

Jess, "The Seven Deadly Virtues of Contemporary Art" The Jess Collins Trust

Curated by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff, “An Opening” begins as an overdue (for L.A.) Jess survey. Jess began as an abstract expressionist but came to question the Greenbergian virtues of spontaneity and immediacy (see his little manifesto at left). He evolved into an almost sculptural brand of Bay Area figure painting. Despite that Jess is best known for his collages. The New York establishment connected his cut-ups of Dick Tracy comic strips (“Tricky Cad”) to the Pop movement. But if ever an artist resisted categorization, it was Jess. One amusing group of  text collages (below) were created as film titles.

Though Jess is properly the star, his work comprises one-fifth of PMCA’s dense show. Otherwise “An Opening of the Field” is a tasting menu of Bay Area modernism, visual and literary. There are a few big names, like George Herms and Wallace Berman, and some surprising cameos, such as Pauline Kael, Jack Kerouac, and Robert de Niro Jr.’s mom, Virginia Admiral.

Paul Alexander, "Eakins as Pan" Collection of Ernesto Edwards, Salt Lake City

Paul Alexander, "Eakins as Pan" Collection of Ernesto Edwards, Salt Lake City

Mainly “An Opening” is about a couple dozen artists you’ve probably never heard of. One is Paul Alexander, a latter-day intimist. His Eakins as Pan (1974), based on a Thomas Eakins photographic self-portrait, is rendered in an elegiac Fairfield Porter style.

Quite a few of the people here are poets who did art only as a sideline. The surprise is how engaging their efforts can be. One reason is collage, a modernist medium with few barriers to entry. That’s not to say anyone can do it, but it doesn’t take a lot of training to produce interesting results. Jess’s example apparently inspired many friends to to take up scissors, paste, and Life magazine. Among them was the Scotland-born poet-prodigy Helen Adam. Below is Adam’s Where Are the Snows.

Virginia Admiral worked in the shadow of her painter husband, Robert DeNiro, and is now inevitably connected to her movie-star son. Admiral’s The Red Table (1944, below) is deeply indebted to Matisse, as was much of her husband’s work, but few Americans approached her level of tart chromatic lyricism.

Never-Built Malibu: The Getty Volcano

—from Stephen Garrett’s 1977 report on “Future Development” of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which was exploring options for using its founder’s billion-dollar bequest

Warhol’s Disco Rothko Chapel

MOCA got its disco show after all. Andy Warhol envisioned a hundred-panel abstraction, a “disco Rothko,” for Studio 54. The nightclub passed, and the work was instead commissioned by the precursor of the Dia Art Foundation. Dia’s former director, Phillippe Vergne, is now MOCA’s director, and he’s arranged a loan of the Dia Warhol, titled Shadows. It has converted MOCA Grand Avenue into a Disco Rothko Chapel.

Warhol’s late abstractions—Shadows, Oxidation/Piss, Rorschach, and Camouflage paintings—have been called difficult, self-indulgent, and just not that good. MOCA’s 2012 “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol” argued that the late abstractions were due for reappraisal. When The Broad opens across the street, its collection will hold large Camouflage and Rorschach paintings.

Factory assistant Ronnie Cutrone said the Shadows silkscreens were based on photographs of studio constructions that Warhol made to cast interesting shadows. That connects them to Constructivist and Dada precedents, such as Man Ray’s 1919 Integration of Shadows (right).

Warhol described Shadows as “disco decor.” But he also blew up when poet René Ricard used the term”decorative.” “That got me really mad,” Warhol told his diary, “and I’m so embarrassed, everybody saw the real me.”

Rothko is decorative (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Warhol’s Day-Glo acrylics seem intentionally garish. They are fundamentally experiments in monochrome. Shadows has more profitably been compared to Franz Kline’s B&W abstractions. (Several  are on view in MOCA’s permanent collection galleries. Left, Buttress.)

The installation in MOCA’s biggest gallery does however pose parallels to the Rothko Chapel and the perception that certain abstractions are worthy of extended philosophic contemplation. That can’t have been a realistic prospect for Studio 54. Yet there is a melancholic tone to much of late Warhol. Shadows is often connected the Skull series of 1977. In those memento mori, Warhol gave equal weight to shadow and substance, and sometimes upset the figure-ground applecart by screening negative images. The vibe of Shadows is similarly sepulchral. “Even in the disco, there am I.”

A Houdon in a Hoodie

The Brooklyn Museum has acquired this Kehinde Wiley bronze bust, Houdon Paul-Louis (2011), in advance of its 2015 Wiley show. The title and composition refer to Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1777 marble portrait at the Huntington, Madame Paul-Louis Girardot de Vermenoux (right). Like Robert Rauschenberg, L.A.-born Wiley credited the Huntington’s old masters with sparking his interest in art.

Why Online Museum Ratings Fail

Which is the better Hammer Museum—the one in L.A. that shows art, or the one in Haines, Alaska, that shows actual hammers? There’s an app for that. Several, in fact. Google and TripAdvisor give higher ratings to the Alaska museum, and Yelp! calls it a tie.

That in a nutshell is the problem with crowdsourced museum ratings. Or consider a TripAdvisor press release that was widely reported as news last week. A TripAdvisor algorithm had determined that the best museum in the whole wide world is… the Art Institute of Chicago. The Getty Center came in #4 (#2 in the U.S.), beating the Met, the Musee d’Orsay, and the Prado.

Before anybody gets too excited, the #8 American museum on TripAdvisor’s list was Chilhuly Garden and Glass, Seattle.

TripAdvisor's #4 American art museum presents the art of Dale Chihuly

Okay, right: never mind.

Here are some TripAdvisor reviews of the Louvre: “Huge disappointment and waste of time”…  ”Never want to go back to that place”… “It sucks.”

Whether you think online ratings are worthwhile or not, they’re getting harder to shrug off—especially for museums hoping to court younger audiences.

A couple of issues with online ratings have received much attention. You must have heard that Yelp! is running what some call an extortion racket and that a recent court ruling supported its right to do just that. (“It’s Mafia on the Internet,” griped one of the plaintiffs.) Review sites are also subject to businesses gaming the ratings by encouraging friends and customers to post good reviews (or bad reviews of competitors).

I don’t think either issue is too much of a factor with museums. But from the end-user perspective, the biggest problem with museum ratings may be that every significant museum gets almost the same rating: 4.5 out of 5, plus or minus 0.5.

TripAdvisor gives LACMA is 4.5 stars, same as the Louvre and Perez Art Museum Miami. MOCA is a 4. The Huntington, Norton Simon, and Getty are perfect 5s, as are the Met, the Frick, the National Gallery, Crystal Bridges, and the Kimbell.

It should be apparent that most reviewers aren’t trying to compare quantity and quality of art from an global perspective. Probably they shouldn’t: There’s little point in downgrading a Santa Monica restaurant because you think there’s a better one in Tuscany.

Many raters are comparing the experience as much as the collection or exhibitions. That means things like amenities, gardens, admission cost, and not being too crowded. This isn’t unreasonable, and I imagine that it helps L.A.’s sybartic, indoor-outdoor museums.

But… Florence’s Uffizi, being only a palace, gets downgraded for lacking the coffee kiosks and comfy seats Americans expect. Only a few art museums get higher ratings than Disneyland.

Yelp! citizen-reviewer on MOCA: “Who is the guy who thinks this shit is art? I’d like to meet him, shake his hand and then punch him in the face."

An American “Louvre” Is Coming to San Marino

Samuel F.B. Morse invented the 19th-century’s Internet and its Google Art Project. Best known for devising the telegraph, Morse was also an artist. His most ambitious painting, Gallery of the Louvre, was intended to educate Americans back home on the glories of European art. In the 9-foot-wide Gallery of the Louvre Morse reproduced masterworks by Leonardo, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Caravaggio, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Watteau. Showings of Gallery of the Louvre in New York and New Haven (1833 and 1834) failed to flush out a hoped-for American Medici. Morse abandoned his art career for electrical engineering, and the rest is history.

Gallery of the Louvre, now owned by the Terra Foundation, will be lent to the Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art early next year (Jan. 24 to May 4, 2015). It kicks off a national tour of nine American museums.

Zoltan Pali Unfriends the Sphere

The Architect’s Newspaper has an interview with Zoltan Pali, the architect dismissed from his collaboration with Renzo Piano on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Says Pali of the museum’s spherical theater:

“I’m not a fan of it. I’m not a fan of the sphere. I think that there was a moment when it made sense, but then after more and more time it made less sense. It’s an odd shape for a theater. Difficult at best. You have a programmatic requirement and an element that was not asked for. If I could put it in the best way, I think that that element was making the rest of the project suffer. I think this still wants to be a museum of film, with a theater. As opposed to now, I think, it’s a theater with a museum attached to it.”

Other sphere critics include Christopher Hawthorne and—in an unscientific May 2014 poll—70 percent of the readers of this blog.

How Much Does Free Admission Boost Attendance?

“We’ve noticed a 25 percent increase in attendance since going free,” whispers an unnamed UCLA Hammer Museum source in The Hollywood Reporter. That echoes a July report credited to the Hammer’s Samuel Vasquez, director of events and visitor experience. The Hammer instituted free admission this February. (Above, a Barbara Kruger staircase install at the Hammer).

Those following the free v. fee debate know that a few museums in the U.S. and U.K. have claimed doubled or better attendance after eliminating admission fees. But the effect of going free clearly depends on how high the admission was before. As a university museum the Hammer had already been free to its core audience of UCLA students and faculty. Its $10 admission for others was relatively cheap by L.A. standards.

The Indianapolis Museum is often cited as the great free admission success story. Its attendance doubled after director Maxwell Anderson dropped a $7 admission in January 2007. That factoid merits an asterisk. The IMA had been free from 1941 until 2006, when it began charging $7. Attendance sagged, then rebounded when the admission was eliminated.

I’d bet that the Hammer is a better model than the IMA for shaping realistic expectations about visitor counts following free admission. For those who know how hard it is to move the needle on attendance, 25 percent is a lot.

The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett

Morton Bartlett (1909-1992) is an artist’s outsider artist. His photographs have been admired by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and Mike Kelley. Think of them as film stills, or yearbook photos, in which the figures are dolls sculpted, painted, and dressed by the artist.

One of the smallest, most powerful museum shows in Los Angeles currently is “Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett” at LACMA. It features a dozen posthumous color prints (donated to the museum in recent years by L.A. collector Barry Sloane), as well as several black-and-white prints and documents that provide clues to the Bartlett puzzle.

Bartlett was a Boston graphic artist and photographer. In 1936 he began creating a series of half-size polychrome “dolls”/sculptures  of children, mostly girls. He photographed them in clothes he made for them. A few photographs are nude, revealing that the dolls have genitals.

Bartlett never exhibited his photographs (or the dolls) in his lifetime. He did publish them, once, in the unlikely pages of Yankee magazine. A 1962 feature, “The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett,” reproduced nine of his photographs of dolls in ethnic costumes.

The other key text of the Bartlett canon is a status update he wrote for a 1957 Harvard alumni publication. “My hobby is sculpting in plaster,” said Bartlett. “Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies—to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”

There are few biographical facts about Bartlett but many theories. The three most popular are:

(1) Bartlett was a sublimated pedophile, like Lewis Carroll and Henry Darger are presumed to have been.

(2) Bartlett, being an orphan, sought to recreate the family he never had. It’s said that the boy dolls resemble him as a child.

(3) Commercial artist Bartlett aspired to be a “serious” artist. The dolls and photos were a personal project he intend to exhibit one day (but didn’t). Bartlett’s doll project might show awareness of Hans Bellmer’s dolls and the staged color photography of Paul Outerbridge.

These theories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Barlett’s recent fame in the outsider art community has elicited some new information. One woman came forward to report that her mother was engaged to Bartlett (who never married).

Most intriguingly, Bartlett’s longtime friend Jean Gilbran spoke with critic Ken Johnson. ”He used to come with us to art openings” Gilbran said. “He knew all about art and artists—he couldn’t have been an outsider. He was a well-educated, well-rounded man, and there was nothing primitive or strange about him.”

As to the dolls: “He wanted to get a toy company to manufacture them. He thought they could become big sellers like the Barbie doll.”

A Barbie with a vagina? It’s worth remembering that Barbie was considered pretty radical back in 1959—for having breasts. Had Ruth Handler died before getting Mattel off the ground, leaving behind prototypes for a super-sexualized teenager and a genital-free boyfriend, maybe the outsider art market would have “theories” about her.

Bartlett was discovered, after his death, by Connecticut dealer Marion Harris. She bought a cache of  small black-and-white photographs and the dolls themselves. Harris introduced Bartlett to the art world at New York’s 1995 Outsider Art Fair.

Later, L.A. real estate agent Barry Sloane found and bought a set of 17 of Barton’s color slides on eBay.

“I remember Mike Kelley saying that the color was extraordinary,” said Sloane, “and asking me how anyone was going to know how great Morton Bartlett was in color if the images weren’t bigger.”

Sloane made editioned color prints of the slides, large but not too large. In recent gallery showings these color prints have upstaged the much smaller B&W ones Bartlett printed.

The color prints raise two questions. The less interesting one is “are they authentic?” There is no evidence that Bartlett ever intended the slides to be enlarged. In this regard they bear comparison to the posthumous bronzes after Degas’ wax sculptures.

The more interesting question is, “What if an artist’s best work is ‘inauthentic’?” This isn’t an issue with Degas. It is most likely to be with outsiders, or quasi-outsiders like Bartlett. A better parallel is E.J. Bellocq’s negatives of New Orleans prostitutes, discovered and printed by Lee Friedlander. These are accepted as too important to sweat the authenticity.

There is the separate matter of whether the dolls or the photographs are to be considered Bartlett’s main achievement. Note that Bartlett himself described his “hobby” as sculpting, not photography. The dolls have been exhibited in gallery shows, and the American Folk Art Museum acquired one in 1998. My sense is that Bartlett’s vision comes together most completely in the photographs, where he controls pose, lighting, and camera angle. It is the photos that seem especially contemporary.

Bartlett’s friend Gilbran said that she never saw a child model in Bartlett’s studio. Apparently, though, Bartlett did photograph children as part of his commercial work. “Playthings” has a model release and several such photos. Furthermore, a black-and-white photo of a girl reading Grimm’s fairy tales was clearly a point of reference for one of the color photo of a girl reading Reader’s Digest.

(Below is a work not in the show but in LACMA’s collection. It’s a B&W image that Sloane printed in 2006. For the c. 1955 negative, Bartlett assembled his repertory company in front of a cyclorama.)

Quote of the Day: Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand, "Los Angeles," 1964 (c) The Estate of Garry Winogrand

“The people of Los Angeles don’t give a shit. They’re the way they are. It’s much more interesting.”

—Garry Winogrand on why he preferred Los Angeles to San Francisco for street photography

Winogrand would run into vehicle or pedestrian traffic and shoot an entire roll of film. He found that smiling and nodding while shooting minimized complaints.