William Poundstone
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Southwest Museum Gets a Bittersweet Distinction

The Southwest Museum is now officially a “national treasure.” That’s a booby prize. The National Trust for Historic Preservation so designates only those revered monuments slipping into obsolescence or financial embarrassment. (Shown, the SWM’s main exhibition hall c. 1914 and in 2013.)

The Trust has 55 national treasures, a quirky selection that includes few if any predictable tourist attractions. They embrace Nashville’s Music Row, the Manhattan Project site, and—the only other “treasure” in L.A.—a complex of vintage industrial buildings at the Port of Los Angeles. That’s a treasure only Lewis Baltz could love.

Will the designation help the SWM? It can’t hurt. The problem remains money. Everybody wants the SWM to be preserved and to retain a public function, ideally as a museum. No one—not the Autry Center, the Highland Park community, city and county government, or Westside billionaires—seems ready to write a check. It’s said that it would cost $26 to $41 million to renovate the building—and more for programming it, for course.

The language of Tierra del Fuego contains the word mamihlapinatapai, meaning “looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something that both parties desire but are unwilling to do.”

LACMA Reveals Resnick, Nathanson Gifts

LACMA has announced major gifts of art from the Resnicks and Nathansons, in honor of the museum’s 50th anniversary. Jane and Marc Nathanson are promising eight blue-chip contemporary works (above right, Warhol’s Double Marilyn, 1962). Lynda and Stewart Resnick will be giving four European pieces, including the Hans Memling Christ Blessing that was a latecomer to the Huntington’s 2013 show of Renaissance portraits. These gifts, along with many others, will be on view in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion April 26 to Sept. 7.

The Nathanson gifts focus on Pop art and its legacy. They include James Rosenquist’s Portrait of the Scull Family (1962, above), George Segal’s Laundromat (1967-67, below) and Roy Lichtenstein’s Interior with Three Hanging Lamps (1991); plus works by Frank Stella, Gilbert & George, Julian Schnabel, and Damien Hirst. The Rosenquist, Schnabel, and Hirst are the first major works by the artists in the LACMA collection.

The Resnicks are giving Boucher’s Leda and the Swan and Ingres’s The Virgin with the Host. Boucher is not much to contemporary taste, and you may think that L.A. already has plenty. LACMA alone has six Boucher paintings. None are like this one, though. LACMA’s Bouchers are split between oil sketches and irregularly shaped over-doors meant to be viewed from a distance. Leda and the Swan is a finished cabinet painting intended to be inspected closely. The palette is darker and moodier than usual, and the paint handling is worthy of Chardin. If Boucher’s art is treacle, this is its richest, most caramelized reduction.

Until last year, LACMA had no Ingres at all; with the Resnick gift it will have two. The Virgin with the Host, an homage to Raphael, was originally commissioned by czar-to-be Alexander II. Ingres thought it so successful that he regretted it going to Russia, which he regarded as Art Siberia. Ingres ended up making several variations for other patrons (much as he did for his Odalisque). A related painting, without the green curtains and with saints instead of putti, is in the Metropolitan Museum.

Last December I commented on a report that Michael Govan, given his pick of the Resnicks’ sculpture collection, chose “the single-most important thing we have, which is what he should have done.” I speculated that that would be Houdon’s marble  of The Kiss (wrong!) It was a two-foot bronze of Giambologna’s Flying Mercury, his most famous image and also featured in LACMA’s 2010 show of the Resnick collection, “Eye for the Sensual.” My first thought was that the Resnicks own Teleflora, and its competitor, FTD, uses an amusingly bastardized version of Flying Mercury as its logo. I wondered whether they might have bought a Flying Mercury as a joke. Copies of Flying Mercury are legion. They were produced by Giambologna, his studio, and some very talented followers. It is hard for the greatest connoisseurs to tell what’s what—Henry Clay Frick was fooled. “Eye for the Sensual” was a single-collection show, an exercise intended to encourage the sort of donations that have just been announced. In such situations, you have to wonder whether curators tactfully avoid challenging a collector’s cherished attributions. Connoisseurship always offers the cover of ambiguity.

But if Govan is convinced that this is an authentic Giambologna, then that’s prima facie evidence that current scholarship says it is. Flying Mercury is poised to become the museum’s star Renaissance sculpture.

Cinema in a Cold Climate

This Thursday, Jan. 22 at 7:30, the Velaslavasay Panorama’s newly organized Polar Film Club will screen two indispensible documents of Antarctic cinema: Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1912; Kristian Prestrud credited as cinematographer) and 90 Degrees South: With Scott to the Antarctic (1933, by Herbert Ponting). Tickets are $10.

Doyle Lane’s “Orange Wall”

Last summer an L.A. Times review mentioned that Doyle Lane’s Orange Wall—a 1964 tile mural commissioned for Mutual Savings and Loan, Pasadena—had been donated to “an as-yet-unnamed Southern California museum.” That museum, it turns out, is the Huntington. The institution says that the Lane mural will be among several works of American mid-century modernism to be installed in and around its new entrance complex, the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitors Center. The Lane is a gift from the MS Property Company and will be displayed in the courtyard of the June and Merle Banta Education Center.

Doyle Lane (1925-2002) has a cult following among modern design collectors and postmodern artists. His admirers include Ricky Swallow and Takashi Murakami. Lane was African-American, though there is often a Japanese/Zen flavor to his work. He is best known for weed pots, barely big enough to hold a sprig.

Lane also produced flat, wall-mounted works in abstract expressionist and hard-edged styles. The latter aesthetic recalls those of fellow Japanophile John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley.

New Orleans-born, Lane studied at Los Angeles City College and USC. He lived in El Sereno, sold pots door-to-door, and showed at the Davis brothers’ Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park. Lane never did political art, though he was once restrained by police while working on a residential commission in Pasadena. He donated his archive, and a set of works, to the California African American Museum.

L.A. architects championed Lane more than dealers of the time did. Some offered his pots for sale in their offices. Beginning in 1958 Lane was shown in three consecutive “California Design” shows at the Pasadena Museum. LACMA’s similarly titled 2011-12 show also included him, and LACMA bought a small vase. As far as I can tell, no museum anywhere has a Lane of the ambition of the Huntington’s mural.

It came about when Welton Becket (Capitol Records Building, Cinerama Dome, Music Center, etc.) designed the Pasadena offices for Mutual Savings and Loan at 301 E. Colorado Blvd. This was the era when Millard Sheets and company were cranking out kitschy mosaic murals for Home Savings and Loan branches. Becket trusted Lane to supply something more adventurous. The result, one of Lane’s supreme works, is neither figurative, nor abstract, nor monochrome. It is more an ambient wash of color and texture. Dealer Gerard O’Brien, who arranged a Lane show last year, likened it to “a three-dimensional painting by Mark Rothko.”

Ricky Swallow wrote of the mural,

“This phenomenal field of tiles is the largest realization and endorsement for Lane’s methodology—the medium is the message. The buzzing field of literally hundreds of rectangular clay tiles in burnt orange to red is beautifully overwhelming as a physical passage of information—a thing as solid in its intention as the building it was housed in. The prominent signature scribed into the lower right side of the piece, one letter per tile is an endearingly simple tag. It floats a little high rather than resigning itself to the bottom corner of the piece, as if to say DOYLE LANE was here.”

Lane said he conceived his 2D ceramic pieces as a way of having a painting that could be displayed outdoors. “Why not take paintings out of doors?” he asked. The Huntington will realize that better than Mutual Savings did, by showing the mural in a courtyard. It will be displayed not far from a super-retro interior mural, also newly acquired, by Lane’s onetime building-and-loan rival Millard Sheets. It’s a wonderful life!

L.A. Catches Up to East Lansing (or Not)

“Los Angeles is finally catching up to East Lansing,” begins a story in the Lansing State Journal. The piece refers to the Broad, understood (in East Lansing) to be a me-too response to the Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, designed by Zaha Hadid. The article includes an online poll asking “Which Broad Museum design is superior?” The “East Lansing original” is winning by a large margin—not surprising for a Lansing newspaper.

Not mentioned is the context: Some L.A. critics have lately come down hard on Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s veil, claiming the final result compares unfavorably to the digital renderings. Also not mentioned: The one and only original Broad museum, the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA.

Corita Kent Gets a Retrospective

In the mid 1960s, the most famous L.A. artist just might have been Corita Kent. Pegged by the media as the Pop Art-making nun, “Sister Mary Corita” [Kent] is due for reappraisal. Her method was to fold, spindle, and mutilate advertising graphics, then photograph the results to produce screen prints commenting on consumerism, war, and other mysteries of life. This summer the Pasadena Museum of California Art will present “Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent” (June 14-Nov. 1, 2015), billed as Kent’s first full retrospective.

Below, Kent’s The Sure One, 1966.

A Maynard Dixon Cloudscape to Huntington

The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art is showing a 1931 Maynard Dixon, New Mexico, September. It’s a recent gift from Marcia F. McMahon and John W. Fish.

Dixon is often pigeonholed as a “Western” artist, i.e. beyond the pale of serious art. Some of his most modern works are cloud studies in the mode of Constable and Stieglitz. Dixon’s modestly sized, unpicturesque landscape bears some comparison to the big land art of Turrell, Heizer, and de Maria. Nearby is a larger Dixon on loan, of a Southwestern graveyard against a looming sky. No major museum makes a better case for Dixon’s arguable seriousness than the Huntington does, in this one room.

Mao’s Terracotta Army

The Rent Collection Courtyard is the most important work of contemporary Chinese art that you’ve never heard of. The USC Pacific Asia Museum has a intriguing focus exhibition on it, tied to the 1965 piece’s 50th birthday.

Rent Collection Courtyard is a group of 114 figures showing the evils of, well, income inequality. Peasants pay rent to a menacing landlord and his minions. They are swindled, beaten, and human-trafficked by the capitalist baddies. Finally they rise up in glorious revolution. Some may call it kitsch. As they say in Hollywood, it’s based on a true story, that of Sichuan province landowner Liu Wencai (who may not have been quite as bad as represented).The life-size figures, designed by Zhao Shutong and Wang Guanyi and sculpted with a team of colleagues at the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, were installed in Liu’s former palatial home, and they remain there today.

The Rent Collection Courtyard was a huge popular success—the Big Eyes art of 1960s China. They made copies, and copies of the copies, in every conceivable medium. Madame Mao praised the piece, but some felt it was not revolutionary enough. Additional figures were added, showing the peasants as less downtrodden, more heroic, and carrying copies of Mao’s Red Book. The USC Pacific Asia Museum owns a particularly important set of terracotta reductions made as models for casting in bronze. It’s the original set of 114 figures with artistic refinements. A 1988 gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Whitehead, the Pacific Asia set is shown on a walk-in rectangular table evoking Liu’s courtyard.

In the above image, Liu rests his foot on a grain measure. It’s said he dispensed grain loans with a small bushel and measured repayments with a larger one. Fitted with glass eyes, each figure has intense expressions.

As an ambiguity-free exemplar of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Courtyard had little appeal to Americans of the 1960s. Its influence within China was massive. It revived sculpture as an artistic medium. It also prefigured installation art and social practice. The Courtyard artists interviewed Liu’s former tenants and worked in view of the public, welcoming feedback.

A 1968 Chinese catalog, published in English translation, praised Courtyard as “An immortal work.”

“The artists resolutely followed Chairman Mao’s instruction that writers and artists must integrate themselves with the workers, peasants and soldiers and learn from them. They lived and worked in the courtyard where rent had been collected..…

“The artists cast aside the rules and conventions followed in making statues with plaster, marble, granite or bronze, and critically adopted the traditional techniques of making clay figures loved by the common folk in China.… These clay figures not only meet the aesthetic demands of the labouring people but are much cheaper and quicker to do than statues in plaster and other materials. Straw and clay are available anywhere in the countryside. With such methods, amateur and professional artists can create and exhibit their works on the spot, whether they want to depict revolutionary history or reflect the life and struggle of socialist society today.…”

Some Westerners know the Rent Collection Courtyard via Cai Guo-Quiang’s partial recreation of it for the 1999 Venice Biennale. For many Chinese artists,  the Courtyard remains a point of reference, if one that raises mixed emotions. This rare showing of PAM’s set is indispensable for anyone interested in where Chinese art is going.

Tacita Dean’s “J G” to LACMA, Met

LACMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have jointly acquired Tacita Dean’s J G, a film inspired by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and British novelist J.G. Ballard’s short story, “The Voices of Time.” The anamorphic 35-mm film was shown at the Hammer Museum last winter.

On Jan. 17, Dean will discuss her work with Michael Govan and screen her film Manhattan Mouse Museum (2 PM in LACMA’s Bing Auditorium).

Mr. Turner Is Back on Timken Schedule

In the film Mr. Turner, Queen Victoria pronounces J.M.W. Turner’s paintings “vile.” Timken Museum board president Tim Zinn was not quite that unkind, merely saying that the Turner you see above isn’t “world class” and would therefore not be shown at the Timken. The Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm, owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, was one of three major loans (along with a Raphael and Vermeer) that former Timken director John Wilson arranged to mark the San Diego institution’s 50th anniversary in 2015. Apparently there’s been a change of heart. The San Diego Union-Tribune now says the Turner loan is “being postponed until 2016, according to [Timken director David] Bull, who said three special exhibitions in a single year would be too much.”

Turner is riding a wave of popularity with the biopic Mr. Turner and a retrospective of late paintings coming to the Getty and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.