William Poundstone
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Norton Simon’s Duveen Shopping Binge

In 1964 Norton Simon purchased New York’s Duveen Brothers Gallery for $4 million (about $30 million in today’s money). That bought almost 800 art objects plus a building, library, and archive. Corporate raider that he was, Simon downsized Duveen, selling off works that didn’t interest him. It’s said that he recouped much of the $4 million in the sales. Of the original Duveen stock, about 130 artworks remain in the Norton Simon Museum collection. Two dozen are usually on view. The NSM’s “Lock, Stock and Barrel: Norton Simon’s Purchase of Duveen Brothers Gallery” is largely about the hundred-some Duveen works that aren’t normally on view. Many are on display here for the first time.

As with every other working gallery, the 1964 Duveen stock was a quality pyramid. At the apex was Gerard David’s The Coronation of the Virgin, top of post. This remains a tentpole of the NSM collection, worthy of the greatest things that Simon would later acquire.

Below that were solid, representative pieces by important artists. At bottom was a foundation of studio copies, trivia, dreck, wrecks, forgeries and conundra. Simon didn’t sell off all the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. He may have hoped to find a prize in the Cracker Jacks.

Consider the painting that brought Simon to Duveen in the first place. It’s a Courtesan attributed to Giorgione (or Titian? or somebody not that famous?) Unfortunately Giorgione is at this point more a literary character (from Vasari) than an oeuvre. There are only about ten widely accepted Giorgiones on the planet. Even they involve some guesswork. The Simon Courtesan is at best on the fringes of that charmed circle. It lacks the magic of the atmospheric portrait in San Diego. Could it be established, once and for all, that the Courtesan was by Giorgione, it would be a coup for the Norton Simon Museum… less so for the artist. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Simon also got from Duveen a possible Carpaccio portrait and a threadbare Madonna that is likely to be an early work of Botticelli. These are regularly shown. Not so is a rogue’s gallery of Bellini, Titian, and Tintoretto wannabes. One is the alleged Tintoretto Venetian Nobelman. It appeared in the 1857 “Art Treasures of the United Kingdom Exhibition.” When it came into the Duveen collection, one connoisseur pronounced it “the most important portrait by Domenico Tintoretto.” To today’s eyes something about the face is suspiciously modern, and the gown and landscape are disappointing. No one has proven it’s not a Tintoretto, but so many scholars have given it thumbs down that it’s not been on view.

The middle tier of the Duveen pyramid includes paintings by Luini, Catena, Ribera, Rigaud, Largillière, and Fragonard; sculptures by Giambologna and Clodion; a group of Flemish Renaissance tapestries. There are also some surprising outliers. On view for the first time is a 14th-century fresco of Saint Anthony Abbot from Avignon; a Fontainebleau School painting of the Birth of Adonis; and a powder-blue silk Mantle of the Order of Carlos III of Spain dated c. 1804.

It’s possible to read the NSM show as a critique of connoisseurship. Look at how many ambitious attributions were wrong! Well, yes and no. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Duveen’s bargain basement had relatively few prizes. Connoisseurship and science come into play only in the undocumented and problematic cases. Not too many of these turn out to be diamonds in the rough.

New technologies have been successful in dating panel painting supports and terra-cotta sculptures. Above left is a fake Donatello scientifically dated to c. 1860 (the artist would have been 480 years young), and an intriguingly possible Luca della Robbia. The science says it’s from the mid-1400s. That would support Sir John Pope-Hennessy’s endorsement of it as a probable original. (The problem with connoisseurship is that the experts are usually right but you can’t tell when they’re wrong.)

The craziest conundrum of all must be a Crucifixion by… would you believe, Richard Parkes Bonington? It’s a Romantic-era reinvention of a Rubens oil sketch believed to have been owned by Delacroix. Bonington might have had a chance to copy it. It’s nothing like the landscape subjects Bonington is known for, precluding any confident attribution.

Another mystery guest, a c. 1770 Fête Champêtre, dominates the show’s third room. It’s four large and three smaller decorative panels of rococo-Chinoiserie tweeness. The Simon now identifies it as “Style of Jacques Lajoue,” and the label says the artist could have been French, Italian, Dutch, or German.

Were I to nominate one back-bench Duveen work worthy of regular display, I’d pick George Romney’s Lady Hamilton as “Medea,” c. 1786. Duveen pushed British portraits onto American collectors and was a primary supplier of Henry Huntington. It’s said that Huntington entertained friends with his hilarious imitation of Duveen. Simon sold off most of Duveen’s British stock because he saw little point in competing with the Huntington collection. He kept Medea, though. There are other Romney Hamiltons in greater Los Angeles, but nothing like this one. Almost as weird as a Fuseli, it looks forward to the wild hair of the Pre-Raphaelites.

MOCA’s New Schedule Is Smart and Sensible

MOCA’s 2015/2016 exhibition schedule is a return to real art for real art audiences. A Matthew Barney exhibition, focused on his new RIVER OF FUNDAMENT project, might be considered the flashiest attraction. Shows of William Pope.L, Elaine Sturtevant, and R.H. Quaytman ought to establish MOCA as the artist’s artist museum. (At top, Quaytman’s Point de Gaze, Chapter 23, 2011.)

Not in the mix: the Magdalena Fernandez exhibition that MOCA had scheduled and rescheduled. There’s no budget-busting Jeff Koons, no disco, no Devo.

There is Kendrick Lamar, sort of. MOCA will present Kahlil Joseph’s m.A.A.d, a two-screen hip-hop Fantasia scored to Lamar’s beats (a still at left). True believers in the Deitchian fusion of art and fashion can look forward to Bernhard Willhelm and Jutta Kraus’ “sculptural installation with a fashion sensibility” at MOCA Pacific Design Center.

Has there ever been an major museum’s exhibition schedule not worthy of Guerrilla Girls shaming? MOCA 2015/6 might merit a pass. Of the four single-artist and multiple-object shows, two involve women, and one an African-American. There are no Latinas, but Magdalena Fernandez must have been on the bubble? The L.A. Times reports that exhibitions of Kerry James Marshall and Zoe Leonard are planned for 2017.

The elephant in the calendar is a one-year permanent collection install that will occupy the entire Grand Avenue building from fall 2015 to fall 2016. That must have been motivated by the Deitch-Vergne hairpin turn and a renewed commitment to fiscal discipline. The year-long event will lay out Chief Curator Helen Molesworth’s take on MOCA’s historic collection and its newest art. Above is an untitled Lari Pittman, gift of Peter Morton.

MOCA’s permanent collection display will coincide with the opening of the Broad. Roughly this time next year Grand Avenue will highlight the contemporary wing of the “Greater Museum of Los Angeles”—that museum with too many walls.

The Dog With the Pink Leg

Move over Wegman Weimaraners and Koons pups. The dog of the moment is skinny and has a hot pink leg. She’s a living conceptual art piece called Human, part of the Pierre Huyghe retrospective that opens Sunday in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion. “Human” was a sensation of Documenta 13 and the subject of countless selfies at the Pompidou and Museum Ludwig. The dog is one reason the museum requires timed tickets to see the show. Here’s all you need to know about Human.

What kind of dog is Human?

Human is an Ibizan hound, bred in ancient Egypt and said to be one of the oldest of surviving breeds. The dog became extinct in Egypt, however, and modern specimens descend from dogs on the Western Mediterranean island of Ibiza. Ibizan (or Pharaoh) hounds have a respected place in art history. They were the presumptive model for depictions of Anubis, jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife. (Shown, a recumbent Anubis from Late or Ptolemaic period, Metropolitan Museum.)

How is Human around large swarms of bees?

Cool. (Another Huyghe installation involves thousands of bees.) Ibizan hounds are friendly, inquisitive, and intelligent. Videos show visitors petting Human. In previous showings, and probably at LACMA, Human had a sheltered place to go when she needed some quiet time.

What makes Human’s leg pink?

Red food coloring.

Why is Human’s leg pink?

Huyghe said it “breaks the form of ‘dog,’ makes you look at it as something else.” The color “makes me think of the Sex Pistols. It’s very punk, that color.”

What if I want my own Ibizan hound?

Well, be prepared for the lecture on how you shouldn’t get a dog just because you saw it in a relational aesthetics piece. Ibizan hounds require lots of exercise. It’s advised that they need plenty of space to run and an owner who can devote an hour a day to exercising them. There is an Ibizan Hound Club of the United States.

Are there any pictures of Human resting on a mink stole?


La Tour’s “Louis XV” at the Getty

The Getty Center is showing three 18th-century French pastel portraits on loan from unidentified collector(s). They include works by Coypel and Perronneau; plus King Louis XV in Armor Before Tournai Cathedral by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. This is apparently the portrait shown at the Salon of 1745, which led to other court commissions. La Tour did a second Louis XV portrait (1748) at the Louvre—three years older, heavier, more dissipated.

Is Mr. Turner Classy Enough for San Diego?

Last summer the Timken Museum’s visiting director, conservator David Bull, canceled one of the three major painting loans that had been organized for the Timken’s 50th anniversary in 2015. According to Bull, J.M.W. Turner’s famous Valley of Aosta—Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm wasn’t “world class” enough for the small Balboa Park institution. It was unclear whether that was to be taken as a thumbs down on Turner, the preservation of Valley of Aosta, or the appeal of a very abstract landscape.

The Timken’s Facebook page recently posted this photo of Bull… who happens to be shown working on Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights.

Ghana’s Culture-Clash Cloths at the Fowler

The sleeper show of this fall is the UCLA Fowler Museum’s one-room “Yards of Style: African-Print Cloths of Ghana.” Museum displays of African textiles usually chase the chimera called authenticity. “Yards of Style” is deliriously inauthentic. Everything you see is mass-produced, much of it in China for African tastes. Those tastes embrace Eurotrash bling, World Cup soccer, Madison Avenue illustration, Silicon Valley tech gear (not the latest), and above all a jazzy discord of color and pattern.

Ghana’s printed cloths may be made into clothing, wrapped or tailored; they are also prized as prestige collectables and given as gifts. It’s said that an affluent woman may own over 150 wax-print cloths. That means that an Accra fashionista might have what you see at the Fowler several times over.

Popular designs are given names that carry prestige and may encode multiple levels of meaning. “Cinderella” (above) ought to keep diligent Africanists busy for a while. It’s a Chinese interpretation of a Franco-German-Disney fairy tale. The wand owes something to those in magic kits hawked to American youth. The perfume bottle, not part of the Cinderella or pre-teen magic canon, is out of a luxury ad. The op art ribbon, or whatever it is, must be indebted to Victor Vasarely. Or is the whole thing an atavistic echo of the top hat, magic stars, and trippy patterns of Paul Signac’s Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon?

There is a strictly Afrocentric side to the show. That’s the most outrageous travesty of all. One of the display racks (loosely modeled on those in Ghana’s markets) presents mechanically printed simulacra of handmade Kente and Adinkra cloths. American parallels would be Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans and plastic flooring made of laminated photographs of hardwood floors.

The faux-traditional cloths were at least made in Africa, as many of the show’s textiles were not. The globalizing nature of the printed cloth business, and every business, gets retro-infographic treatment in “Handshake.”

Many cloths are political. One 1984 design memorializes Liberia’s 3rd National Redemption Day. It lionizes, within a circle of hippopotami, Samuel K. Doe, the nation’s U.S.-supported (for a while) military dictator.

President and Mrs. Obama made a state visit to Ghana in 2009. Whatever his approval ratings here, Obama remains a hero in the Ghana cloth markets, with many photo-based likenesses on offer. An understated tribute is the enduringly popular pattern known as “Michelle’s Handbag” (made first in Ghana and, in the example below, knocked off in China).

Sturtevant, Barney Coming to MOCA

Though it’s still unofficial, two upcoming MOCA exhibitions have been disclosed. Curator Bennett Simpson’s Facebook page and today’s New York Times are saying that MoMA’s “Sturtevant: Double Trouble” will travel to MOCA March 21 to July 27, 2015. And in a New York Observer piece last month collector and former MOCA board member Maria Arena Bell mentioned an upcoming Matthew Barney show. Finally, it may or may not be meaningful that the Magdalena Fernandez exhibition, planned for 2014, then bumped for Warhol’s Shadows and moved up to 2015, is no longer listed on the MOCA site.

(Tyler Green tweeted the Sturtevant news. Above, Sturtevant’s Haring Tag July 15 1981.)

Sunday in the Park with Phil

Orange County collectors Mark and Janet Hilbert have promised their collection of California Scene paintings and watercolors to Chapman University, along with $3 million to build an 18,000-sq.-ft. eponymous museum to house it. Chapman is in the city and county of Orange, but the gift includes many early views of Los Angeles in both sunshine and noir modes.

At top is Phil Dike’s Sunday Afternoon in the Plaza de Los Angeles (1939). Dike imagines the city’s Garden of Eden as a Depression-era paradise. But most of Dike’s flâneurs have nowhere else to go.

Fletcher Martin’s A Lad from the Fleet (1935) represents a ring on the waterfronts of Long Beach or San Pedro. Below is James Patrick’s Red Cap Gossip, a 1939 watercolor of Union Station, and Millard Sheets’ San Dimas Train Station (1933).

War and Peach

European armor is a decorated shed; Japanese armor is a duck. That’s one takeaway of LACMA’s “Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection.” The decoration on European armor is usually a two-dimensional skin on a functional form. In Japan, helmets take on exuberant sculptural forms crafted of papier-mâché, leather, and lacquer. The helmets in “Samurai: Japanese Armor” comprise a wunderkammer of natural forms: a peach, a shell, bamboo, the moon and stars.

Above are helmets shaped like an eggplant and a scallop shell. The scallop is a visual pun. Viewed from the side, it resembles a fish.

This helmet adopts the delicate spiral of a paper nautilus. This is not the chambered nautilus that Edward Weston photographed but the fragile egg case of a mollusk found in Japan (and California).

This helmet has a schematic diagram of the Big Dipper (Hokuto Shichisei, the “Northern Ladle”).

The supernatural imagery of Samurai helmets also has its roots in the natural world. This helmet decoration is a fish-bird hybrid.

One Western parallel might be nose art, which takes the readymade sculptural form of military aircraft fuselages as support for ferocious naturalia. Nose art originated with Italian and German pilots in the first World War and remains an active folk medium.

How the Rat Pack Went Modern

The Palm Springs Art Museum is opening its new Architecture and Design Center with “An Eloquent Modernist: E. Stewart Williams.” Williams’ first Palm Springs commission was a home for Frank Sinatra. Sinatra walked into the office eating an ice cream cone and demanding a Georgian mansion built in time for Christmas (it was May). Williams drew up two designs, one Georgian and the other buoyantly modern. Sinatra chose the modern design, launching Williams’ career as a Desert Modernist.

(Above, a bedroom in Sinatra’s home. Below, an exterior view with piano-shaped swimming pool.)