William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

A Big Diamond, With a Big Price Tag, at NHMLA

The art world looks down on collectors who lend paintings to museums, then send them to auction, their value presumably enhanced with a museum pedigree. Sure, it happens—all the time!—but lenders are expected to be discreet about it. There are fewer inhibitions with lenders to natural history museums. A New York diamond-cutting firm, Cora International LLC, is lending the 12-carat “Blue Moon” diamond to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for several months starting Sept. 12. Cora CEO Suzette Gomes tells Bloomberg Businessweek that, after its museum sojourn, the diamond is expected to sell for “tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars,” (In case you lost count, that’s three “tens.”) The puffy Bloomberg piece adds that Cora has “received unsolicited calls from potential buyers.” I take that to say the diamond already has a “for sale” sign on it, and NHMLA’s Gem Vault is to be the showroom floor.

Rigo 23 at the Fowler

Rigo 23 is a San Francisco street artist who uses the techniques of commercial signage rather than a spray can. His works infuse modernist design with ambiguity about the process of telling anyone what to buy or think. (Imagine a Lester Beale having serious second thoughts about rural electrification.) A small show at the UCLA Fowler Museum, “Rigo 23: From the Heart of Santa Madera,” presents eight canvas murals on the theme of indigenous peoples. It could be described as a thoughtful alternative to this summer’s other art billboard project (both run through Aug. 31).

Fall 2014 Preview

You must have heard that MOCA’s exhibition schedule is “practically blank.” Yes and no: This October MOCA Pacific Design Center will be presenting an anticipated survey of Marjorie Cameron, goddess-mother of the L.A. school. L.A. museums’  fall season is notable for several shows on cult favorites, but there are more universally acknowledged names too. “Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913-1915″ has recently opened at LACMA (through November 30), and a Rubens show will be coming to the Getty. There will be single great paintings or series by Delacroix, Thomas Cole, Manet, and Warhol. Big-picture surveys will treat Samurai armor and the cosmic phase of African art.

Tunic for Shango Priest. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Franko Khoury

The latter exhibition, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” arrives at LACMA from the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum. (Aug. 24-Nov. 30). Shown is a Yoruba tunic for a Shango priest, possibly from the Baba Adesina family workshop.

Also coming to LACMA is “Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett.” Slotted as an outsider, Bartlett was a commercial artist like Warhol and Rosenquist. In 1936 he embarked on a personal project of creating incredibly lifelike dolls of children, designing clothing for them, and photographing them in that clothing, or else nude. Bartlett has been compared to Lewis Carroll and Henry Darger, implying erotic interest in his effigies. Unlike Darger, Bartlett was no recluse. Friends say he dated women and never had children in his studio. Some believe he intended to market his creations as anatomically correct Barbies and Kens; others, that he was a serious artist who knew exactly what he was doing—creating disturbingly eroto-self-referential photographs in the mode of Paul Outerbridge. The LACMA show will include new prints of recently discovered color slides—such as the one at top right. (Aug. 30 to Jan. 31, 2015).

Another artist’s artist—like Cameron, working the Left Coast, single-name Freaknik territory—was Jess. “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle” comes to the Pasadena Museum of California Art (Sept. 14 to Jan. 11. 2015).

“Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take” runs Oct. 2 to Jan 17, 2015, at the Hammer Museum. Above is “As Close As I Can Get” (1998), a digital simulacrum created with analog Pantone color chips.

MOCA’s Cameron survey is subtitled “Songs for the Witch Woman.” Witch woman is not the nicest thing to call a proto-feminist artist. But Cameron had no problem with the term. She drove a hearse and gave Elvira-style Halloween interviews to L.A. media. She was also a draftsperson, a poet, and a Kenneth Anger superstar; a mystic muse to Wallace Berman and Philip K. Dick and a perp to the LAPD vice squad. At right is a self-portrait, The Black Egg. (Oct. 11 to Jan. 11, 2015).

The Getty Center has organized an exhibition around Rubens’ most ambitious tapestry commission, the Triumph of the Eucharist. Americans want Rubens to be a creator of autograph and not too obscurely religious paintings. The reality is that Rubens was a media-hopping art entrepreneur, deeply Catholic in both senses of the word. The Getty exhibition will present small oil sketches from Rubens’ hand alongside magisterial tapestries. Below is an oil sketch of The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. (Oct. 14 to Jan. 11, 2015).

“Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Babier-Mueller Collection” stops at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion Oct. 19 to Feb. 1, 2015. It includes the stunning Tengu (crow demon) armor at top of post, from 1854.

Nineteenth-century American paintings from the New-York Historical Society will winter at LACMA in “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School.” The loan will include Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, model for Ruscha’s post-industrial series of the same title. Below, Cole’s The Course of Empire: Desolation. (Dec. 7 to June 7, 2015).

Finally, this fall MOCA will present Andy Warhol’s Shadows (from the Dia Art Foundation), LACMA will be showing Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (from Bordeaux), and the Norton Simon will entice Rose Bowl visitors with Manet’s The Railway (from the National Gallery of Art).

LACMA Buys a 1963 Studebaker Avanti

LACMA’s “Unframed” blog reports that the museum has acquired its first automobile, a 1963 Studebaker Avanti formerly owned by its designer, Raymond Loewy. Another Avanti, also a creamy white, was featured in the 2011 “California Design” show. The fiberglas Avanti (Italian for forward) was advertised as “America’s Most Advanced Automobile.” Designed in about 40 days at Loewy’s Palm Springs home, it downplayed chrome in favor of space-age styling. The full-size clay model got a standing ovation from the Studebaker board.

Few art museums collect cars, and those that do are highly selective. The Museum of Modern Art bought its first automobile in 1972. That was a 1946 Cisitalia “202” GT. The MoMA collection now has six cars, split evenly between sensible (Jeep, VW Beetle, Smart Car) and sexy (Ferrari, Jaguar).

A block from LACMA, the Petersen Automotive Museum has about 150 cars on display and a similar number in its vault. The white Avanti in “California Design,” formerly owned by Dick van Dyke, had been in the Petersen’s collection until it was sold last year for $29,700. The Peterson has a black 1963 Avanti, factory supercharged, in its vault.

At LACMA the Avanti is likely to be a star of the modern design collection—recognition that posterity may regard cars as the quintessential “decorative art” of the 20th century.

Broad v. the Alter Egos

A recent photo, tweeted by Wilshire Metro Realty, shows that the Broad’s honeycomb “veil” now covers the upper surface. Three of the vertical surfaces remain covered in scaffolding. The back wall, facing the viewer in this photo, is not intended to be honeycombed. Problems in fabricating Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s veil have delayed the museum’s opening by at least a year and occasioned a $20 million lawsuit against the German fabricator Seele (consistently spelled lower-case in the lawsuit).

Did you know you can sue somebody without saying whom you’re suing? You can, and Eli Broad is. He is suing 70 unidentified individuals (“John Does”) who are said to be “alter egos” of each other and minions of Seele/seele.

Sound a little paranoid? That was my thought. Then I figured it must be some kind of “Unreasonable Eli” strategy. Make like the plaintiff is cracking up and get sympathy from the jury.

Elsewhere in the document, the number of John Does increases to 100.

Henri Rousseau, the Accidental Expressionist

Many know of the German Expressionist taste for Cézanne, Matisse and van Gogh. All are present in LACMA’s “Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky.” So is a less well known influence, Henri Rousseau. (Above, Rousseau’s c. 1905 The Wedding Party.)

Rousseau was the Zelig, or Forrest Gump, of modernism. It was one of his jungle scenes that provoked critic Louis Vauxcelles to label a group show the Fauves (“wild beasts”). The name stuck to to Matisse and Derain, but not to Rousseau, who was beyond classification.

As a “primitive,” Rousseau might seem the opposite of worldly and pessimistic German Expressionism. Even in Paris Rousseau was taken as a joke, a Thrift Shop Painter So Bad He’s Good. Picasso’s notorious 1908 party in Rousseau’s honor turned out to be a roast in which avant-gardists got up in turn and delivered sarcastic tributes to Rousseau’s face. Braque supplied musical accompaniment on the harmonica. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas left early after a drunken guest ate Alice’s hat.

There was nothing snide about Wassily Kandinsky’s enthusiasm for Rousseau. He bought six Rousseau paintings in Paris. All, including The Wedding Party, were reproduced in the Blaue Reiter Almanac. That made Rousseau the best represented artist in the model book of early Expressionism. In comparison the Almanac reproduced a single work apiece by van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso; two by Matisse, and three each by Cézanne and Kandinsky.

Kandinsky praised Rousseau as the father of the “great realism” he found central to the art of his time. That almost tops Rousseau’s parting words to Picasso: “You and I are the greatest painters of our time. You in the Egyptian style, I in the modern!”

What did cerebral abstractionist Kandinsky see in Rousseau? First of all Kandinsky went through his own “folk art” phase. His jewel-like works c. 1907 were inspired by Russian folk paintings on glass and church mosaics.

A few years later Kandinsky was wrestling with how to do paintings without subject matter. One of the Rousseau paintings he bought, exhibited, and published is Malakoff, the Telegraph Poles, made the year of Picasso’s party. It’s a painting about nothing. Rousseau paints telegraph poles… but that can’t be the real subject(?) The tiny figures are doing nothing of interest. The main effect is the looming gray sky. Yet it’s not a painting of a storm or a cloud study, in any usual sense.

Kandinsky’s semi-abstractions of the Blaue Reiter period are landscapes with linear elements, suggestions of miniscule figures, and threatening weather. (Below, Sketch I for Painting with White Border, 1913.) In calling Rousseau a realist, Kandinsky apparently meant that Rousseau faithfully recorded an inner reality—”the spiritual in art.”

Franz Marc was equally entranced. In 1913 he wrote, “The douanier Rousseau is the only one whose art often haunts me. I constantly attempt to understand how me painted his marvelous pictures.” Marc painted blue horses, and what’s folksier than than that? (Blue dogs?)

The LACMA show ends with the first World War. Rousseau’s influence didn’t. After the war he became much better known in Germany through publications and exhibitions. Rousseau was a point of departure for the faux naiveté and odd juxtapositions of Max Beckmann’s triptychs. Intentionally or not, Rousseau made the bourgeois look ridiculous, a concept taken to the next level by the New Objectivity.

Rousseau may have had the last laugh on Picasso. Some believe the Spaniard’s most “expressionist” painting, Guernica, cribbed from Rousseau’s War (c. 1894).

Marble? Marlboro?

Gabriel Kuri’s untitled cig butts/carrara white HM01, in “Made in L.A. 2014,” tweaks the Carrara marble façade that Armand Hammer (via architect Edward Larrabee Barnes) used to lend legitimacy to his once-controversial vanity museum. Hammer is credited with opening the Soviet market to American corporations such as Philip Morris, and brands such as Marlboro were “very well received by the Soviet people.”

LACMA to Show Sam Durant “Monument”

In 2013 a large Sam Durant installation, Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C., was presented for acquisition by LACMA’s Collectors Committee. It consists of 30 replicas of American monuments to the Indian wars. The Collectors Committee didn’t raise enough money to buy the Durant, but a group of its members later pooled funds to acquire it for LACMA. Proposal goes on view for the first time this Sunday through Nov. 30, 2014. Durant’s website has more photos and an artist’s statement.

Below is the Gnadenhutten Massacre monument in Ohio, one of the obelisks reproduced by Durant. “The Mohicans were co-existing peacefully and assimilating to white civilization,” writes Durant. “They were slaughtered by American troops in retaliation for an earlier Indian raid on white settlers in which they played no part.”

Whites often saw Indians as a monolithic entity, to be exterminated and commemorated by tasteful monoliths. The Gnadenhutten monument’s inscription reads, “Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians, March 8, 1782.”

Alexandre Hogue’s “Mother Earth Laid Bare”

California’s drought finds resonance in the Autry National Center’s “Route 66: The Road and the Romance.” One section of the exhibition documents the Dust Bowl, the 1930s drought that sent many Plains States residents to fertile California (where police often turned them back at the state border). The best known artwork is Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother). From the same year is Alexandre Hogue’s painting Erosion 2: Mother Earth Laid Bare. Both use imperiled motherhood as an image of the drought. The Lange is authentic and anguished; the Hogue is goofy and surreal.

Hogue was one of the Dallas Nine group of regionalists. Mother Earth Laid Bare was created just a few years after the Surrealists discovered anthropomorphic landscapes. Dali and company were themselves inspired by mannerist examples from 16th-century Europe.

Hogue said his mother spoke to him of “Mother Earth,” a term that “conjured up visions of a great female figure under the ground everywhere—so I would tread easy on the ground.”

“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.”