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A Jurassic Technology Bestiary

Smithsonian magazine has a feature on “Los Angeles’s Strangest Museum.” You can probably guess that that’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology (in Culver City). Matt Blitz quotes MJT founder David Wilson:

“A lot of people actually dislike what we do and think we shouldn’t be doing it.”

“Gems and minerals oftentimes display or present an almost hidden, miraculous beauty in the seeming chaos, potential chaos, of creation.”

“People have on occasion said ‘Oh, this is like an art project.’ That is always so confusing. I don’t understand what that distinction is. When is something artistic?”

MJT’s latest project, planned for late 2015, is an exhibition on bestiaries.

(Photos via Brix Picks)

Meet the Broad’s Hipster Cousin

The construction of the Broad has revived interest in another building with a “veil.” That’s Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall’s American Cement Building (1964) at 2404 Wilshire Blvd. In form and function, American Cement is nothing like Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Grand Avenue museum. Yet the porous concrete surfaces present an undeniable parallel. Branden Klayko was the first to point out the similarity, back in 2011.

The American Cement Building has been converted to residential lofts and is used for fashion shoots and filming. It’s popular with architects—Wolf Prix and Tom Wiscombe have studios there.

Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall (DMJM, or “DimJim”) are about as far as they could be from DS+R. The venerable Los Angeles architecture and engineering firm are anti-starchitects, known for taking on some of the city’s least glamorous commissions. DMJM redid El Segundo’s Hyperion waste treatment plant as a modernist wonderland. It’s one of the best L.A. buildings that almost no one ever sees (or wants to go anywhere near). DMJM envisioned the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, Van Nuys, as a “feature” in a Japanese garden.

Want a room with an oculus? Well, the American Cement Building doesn’t have an oculus per se, but real estate photos demonstrate that its veil affords a better view of the city than will the Broad’s Oculus Room.

How Anna Whistler Became Norma Bates

Through June 22 the Norton Simon Museum is showing three magnificent paintings from the Musée d’Orsay. One of them—James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (“Whistler’s Mother,” a portrait of Anna Whistler)—already has a local history. In 1933 it became L.A.’s first blockbuster art attraction. It also has a unique connection to one of Hollywood’s signature takes on American motherhood: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

The story begins in 1931, when Lillie P. Bliss died childless. A co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art, she bequeathed her collection to that New York institution. The gift included such iconic works as Cézanne’s Bather, but it came with a condition. MoMA had to demonstrate its financial viability by raising a suitable endowment.

MoMA director Alfred Barr believed he could raise some of the cash with a  high-profile exhibition. The result was “Seventy Years of American Painting and Sculpture, 1862-1932,” with Whistler’s Mother as the star attraction. It was said to be the first time the Louvre had lent a painting to an American museum.

The Whistler was such a sensation in New York that museums across the county wanted to show it. It toured 12 U.S. cities, including four stops in Ohio alone—Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo. Eventually it made its way to the the very hinterlands of the art world, the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art in Exposition Park.

There it attracted close to 80,000 visitors. That’s incredible given that the MoMA showing had somewhat over 100,000, and the painting was on view in L.A. for only 18 days (Mar. 18-Apr. 5, 1933).

The L.A. Times called Whistler’s painting “a world symbol for the ideal of mother.” That was typical of the American reaction. It was read as an artist’s tribute to his mother, a woman whose stoic expression seemed to embody American values. Few realized that Anna was depicted in her expatriate son’s London studio.

The 1930s American press also fixated on money as the determinant of artistic value. (Not much has changed there.) Coverage marveled that the French state had purchased the painting for the equivalent of about $800 in 1891 and had insured it for $500,000 for the American tour.

In 1934 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested using Whistler’s Mother on a Mother’s Day postage stamp. FDR even sketched the design. Maybe Presidents had more free time back then.

Don’t blame FDR for the stamp’s most dubious feature. At lower left is a vase of flowers that Whistler neglected to include in his painting.

FDR’s own mother posed in front of the painting at MoMA in a proto-selfie. (The Norton Simon Museum is allowing non-flash photos, presumably including selfies. All three Musée d’Orsay loans are framed behind glass, as is much of the permanent collection.)

Alfred Barr was not the only coastal intellectual to sense that Whistler’s Mother had turned into a populist Frankenstein’s monster. Barr’s 1943 book What Is Abstract Painting? attempted to set the record straight.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, Barr insisted, is not a celebration of mothers everywhere. It is “a composition of rectangles… not very different from the abstract Composition in White, Black, and Red by Mondrian.”

Barr supplied a diagram proving that, after Anna was “omitted,” Whistler’s Mother is this close to being a work of Neo-Plasticism.

Most Americans continued to see mom, not modern. Whistler’s Mother was of the scale of the WPA murals of the late 1930s, espousing shared patriotic values. In fact, the WPA commissioned a bronze statue of Whistler’s Mother for Ashland, Penna. Its inscription reads, “A MOTHER IS THE HOLIEST THING ALIVE.”

The truly nuance-blind read Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 as a Norman Rockwell magazine cover writ large. (Below, Rockwell’s painting for the Saturday Evening Post’s Thanksgiving 1945 issue.)

The re-Americanization of Anna culminated in a 1954 Disney cartoon. In Donald’s Diary, Donald Duck meets meets the prospective in-laws. Girlfriend Daisy’s mother is Anna with a bill and an ear trumpet.

The June 1963 Mad magazine cover conceived Alfred E. Neuman as a matricidal, or manslaughter-liable, maniac. It’s by Norman Mingo, an illustrator who worked in the Norman Rockwell mode until being hired by Mad late in his career.

Norman Rockwell, Norman Mingo, and… Norman-or-Norma Bates?

Alfred Hitchcock based the Psycho home, behind the Bates Motel, on Edward Hopper’s 1925 House by the Railroad. He commissioned the famed title designer Saul Bass to produce storyboards for key scenes of Psycho, including the shower sequence and the ending. In Joseph Stefano’s script, the latter has Norman Bates, reverted to the personality of mother Norma, in a cell.

“The walls are white and plain. There is no furniture except the straight-back chair… the room has a quality of no-whereness…”

Bass’ storyboard re-envisioned this as a tableaux vivant of Whistler’s Mother. Explained Bass:

“I devised a small idea for that, which I call the ‘Whistler’s Mother’ thing. In [the painting], the mother sits in a rocker and there’s a framed painting [a Whistler etching] on the wall. So I set up the thing based on that where Tony Perkins is wrapped in his blanket and there’s a wall vent in the ceiling where the frame is in ‘Whistler’s Mother.’”

Hitchcock dialed down Bass’ conception. He may have felt that an obvious sight gag would be inappropriate; also that he wanted to show his anti-hero’s breakdown frontally, not in profile. In any case the film ends with Norman wrapped in a blanket, next to a significantly cropped rectangle.

Splish Splash

Last night Christopher Hawthorne hosted “A Debate Over the New LACMA” at Occidental College. There was some discussion of the merits (or lack thereof) of William Pereira’s 1965 LACMA complex, which would be razed for Peter Zumthor’s new building. The most memorable analogy was supplied by architect Mark Lee.

“For me Pereira is a bit like the Bobby Darin of architecture. He’ll do something that is really great, like ‘Up a Lazy River’ and ‘Mack the Knife,’ and something really bad like ‘Splish Splash.’ The great ones are like Transamerica Tower and Marineland. LACMA, I have to say, is closest to ‘Splish Splash.’ I think we have to be strategic in terms of what to preserve.”

The debate is archived on the Oxy site.

Huntington Installs a Big Western Landscape

Millard Sheets, Mural for the Home of Fred H. and Bessie Ranke. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Larry McFarland and M. Todd Williamson. Photo: Tim Street-Porter.

The Huntington has installed Millard Sheets’ 1934 Mural for the Home of Fred H. and Bessie Ranke in its new Stewart R. Smith Board Room. Originally the panels covered four walls of a Hollywood Hills dining room (below). The Huntington has reconfigured them as a panorama. That meant omitting sections over doors and windows. Fortunately these showed only blank sky, and the sections stitched together almost seamlessly.

The 46-foot-wide mural represents an idealized Southern California without a trace of human presence. It’s probably the largest painting of local landscape you’re likely to find. (David Hockney’s Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, at LACMA, is 20 feet wide.) Poised between art deco and regionalism, it must also reflect Sheets’ interest in Chinese art (the “unrolling” emphasizes a parallel to Chinese scroll painting).

Huntington visitors will have access to the mural. A set of six Calder tapestries have recently been installed too, and Calder’s Jerusalem Stabile and Doyle Lane’s Mural are expected to be on view for the April 4th opening of the Huntington’s new Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center.

U.K. Curbs Its Enthusiasm for L.A. Art

The Spectator (U.K.)’s weekly e-mail promises a feature on “the greatest American painter you’ve never heard of.” Turns out that’s… Richard DiebenkornMartin Gayford’s review of the Diebenkorn show at the Royal Academy offers measured enthusiasm for Diebenkorn, a “lower-voltage talent” who lived in Venice Beach (“a sort of Californian Brighton”).

“During his final decades he was based in southern California, which is in US terms — for painting, rather than movies — a bit provincial. Nonetheless, there were some marvellous artists on the West Coast in the 1960s and 70s. Among these were Ed Ruscha — who once published a photo essay depicting 34 LA parking lots — and James Turrell, who makes art out of nothing but light and coloured air…

“The Ocean Park pictures look splendid in the Sackler Wing, even if, like so much abstract painting, they are repetitions of a single idea. But you don’t yearn to see a larger exhibition of Diebenkorn…  a little goes a long way…”

Sturtevant’s Blurred Lines

Sturtevant was the first and most relentless appropriationist, making a career out of making close copies of other artists’ work. What are we to make of her art? You won’t find any easy answers in MOCA’s “Sturtevant: Double Trouble,” and Sturtevant herself wasn’t one to supply them. (Above, Elastic Tango, 2010.)

Some Sturtevant facts that may or may not be helpful:

• Sturtevant hated the word “copies.” She insisted her works were “replications.” (Left, her version of Jasper JohnsTarget With Four Faces.)

• Sturtevant did a full-size painting of a Roy Lichtenstein print, Crying Girl. It’s like the painting Lichtenstein would have made of the image, except that he never did.

• The level of verisimilitude ranges from that of the Basquiat pastiches to the licensed Kehinde Wileys seen in Empire. There are those who marvel at the exactitude of Sturtevant’s simulacra, and the lengths she went to to make them accurate. Others insist that every copy is subtly “off” and that the experience of Sturtevant’s art requires knowing the models well enough to appreciate the off-ness.

• Sturtevant had an good eye. For the most part, she replicated brand-new works by peers who were only beginning to achieve recognition. This is one difference between her art and that of Sherrie Levine, who mostly mined the textbook art of previous generations. (Both Sturtevant and Levine had a thing for Duchamp and Man Ray, though.)

• There is some analogy between Sturtevant and Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939). The fictional Menard is a 20th-century French writer who “re-creates” Don Quixote, not as an act of plagiarism but of conceptualism. One interpretation of Sturtevant is that she is a Borgesian character defined by the act of replicating other artists’ art.

• Sturtevant asked Andy Warhol for his silk screen used to print Flowers. Warhol said, sure. This is held as evidence that Warhol “got” Sturtevant. Sturtevant downplayed that reading in an W magazine interview shortly before her death: ““Everyone says, ‘So, Andy really understood!’ Well I don’t think so. I think he didn’t give a fuck. Which is a very big difference, isn’t it?”

LACMA Buys a Bernini at TEFAF

The Art Tribune is reporting that LACMA has bought a major Gian Lorenzo Bernini portait bust at TEFAF.

Ursula Schlegel first identified the bust as a Bernini in 1992. It appeared in the Getty’s 2008 Bernini portraiture show. The bust measures 21.5 inches high and is believed to be a late work, dated 1670-75. That would make it roughly contemporary with the hyperreal Bust of Gabriele Fonseca and the (rejected) model for an equestrian statue of Louis XIV.

The Art Tribune’s Didier Rykner praises the bust’s “vivacity of expression and movement.” The sculpture is less finished on the back, implying that it was intended for a niche or tomb monument.

The acquisition promises to be another coup for LACMA’s European art curator J. Patrice Marandel. How many curators in this day and age can brag of adding Bernini, Watteau, David, and Ingres to a collection that didn’t have them? The bust will add star power to an under-appreciated set of Italian baroque sculptures and paintings assembled over the past few decades. As far as I can tell, it will become the only securely attributed Bernini sculpture west of the Kimbell. The Getty’s Boy with a Dragon, bought as a youthful work by G.L. Bernini, is now assigned to his father, Pietro Bernini—presumably in collaboration with his teen-age genius son.

It has been speculated that the LACMA bust is a posthumous portrait of Pietro Bernini. There is no consensus about the sitter, though, and for now it’s being called Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman.

UPDATE. The Los Angeles Times says the bust is a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation, in honor of the museum’s 50th anniversary.

LACMA Is #4, on Instagram

LACMA is  the 4th-most Instagrammed museum in the world. Michael Govan has lately adopted this as a talking point, crediting the public artworks Urban Light and Levitated Mass for the ranking. The Instagram list, based on the most geotagged locations for the photo-sharing app’s images in 2014, runs:

1. Louvre
2. Museum of Modern Art
3. Metropolitan Museum
5. Hermitage
6. Centre Pompidou
7. British Museum
8. Victoria & Albert Museum
9. Tate Modern
10. Art Institute of Chicago

Most of these institutions have big public artworks or architectural icons, like Pei’s Louvre Pyramid. The current LACMA campus may be a little deficient in Instagram-worthy architecture, but its public artworks result in hundreds of posts each month. Urban Light draws crowds who don’t necessarily know who Chris Burden is but understand it well enough, as a free public stage for enacting dramas of their own devising. Photos of Levitated Mass, on the other hand, tend toward the ridiculous. A large proportion of #levitatedmass shots are goofy images of people holding up the boulder. It’s your call whether that’s a travesty of Heizer’s austere intentions or whether the vernacular photos complete the piece.

In a recent panel of museum leaders at the Music Center, Govan argued that museums’ “digital strategy” need not be limited to apps and websites.  ”When I first came to LACMA… a trustee raised their hand and said, ‘So why then are you spending millions of dollars planting street lamps and trees and moving 350 ton rocks when you can be on digital media?’ I said, ‘Well, you have to take your Facebook picture from somewhere.’”

Hammer to Premiere Mary Reid Kelley Trilogy

This summer the UCLA Hammer Museum will showcase three Mary Reid Kelley videosPriapus Agonistes (2013), Swinburne’s Pasiphae (2014) and, making its world premiere, The Thong of Dionysus. All riff on antique myth as a B&W feminist cartoon. Last year, when Swinburne’s Pasiphae was shown in London, Kelley explained,

“I’m drawn to what I think of as ‘terminal’ artists: artists who carry a style or idea to a point beyond which seems (at least for a while) impossible to go: like Stanley Kubrick or the Ramones or Agnes Martin. Swinburne consumed all of the oxygen in English poetry for a while. And he was, by all accounts, a superbly eccentric character: a red-haired dandy, alcoholic masochist, who read and was influenced by Sade and Baudelaire while the former was illegal and the latter was unknown in England.”