William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Should Museums Shame Critics for Bad Reviews?

Through Sunday MOCA is offering free admission to “Andy Warhol: Shadows” to anyone who brings a review and tweets about it (hashtag #LetsDiscuss). The Museum’s tweeted photo makes it clear they’re reacting to Christopher Knight’s negative review in the L.A. Times.

“Vapid and pretentious, the overblown installation ranks among the worst works Warhol made,” writes Knight. This view is no outlier. That Shadows and other late Warhol abstractions are relatively minor is the conventional opinion. MOCA is challenging that opinion, as it’s entitled to do.

Other reviews of the MOCA show have been kinder. Chalk up Edward Goldman’s as a rave. (“Andy at the Top of His Game… Hurry up and go see the new jaw-dropping exhibition…”) Still other reviews, including my own own, have been generally positive, if not to a Goldmanesque degree. But hey, don’t go by me. I’m Mikey—I like (almost) everything.

So Knight alone dares to say the Pope of Pop Art has no clothes.

This is the Internet, and we’re all making up the rules as we go along. MOCA’s social net team must have regarded the promotion as a proactive way of countering a bad review. My sense is that it comes off as belittling rather than encouraging honest discussion.

Are there any situations where a museum might push back against criticism? Sure. An obvious example is New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s criticism of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary back in 1999. Giuliani was a powerful figure who knew nothing about contemporary art. His words got far more attention than any art critic’s and, had they gone unchallenged, would have left the public misinformed. Using the controversy as a teachable moment was inevitable.

But with Knight and Shadows, there’s nothing to teach. Knight knows all about Warhol and is offering his well-informed opinion that Shadows is bad Warhol. I’m not sure the Internet has changed the old advice, that the best reaction to a bad review is to ignore it.

Laguna’s “Last Supper” Gets the GIF Treatment

The New York Times recently ran a long-form piece on Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters (in which O.C. volunteers pose as famous works of art). Trust me—you’ll want to click the link just for the GIF of The Last Supper.

The Vault of Mr. Unreasonable

The Broad recently tweeted these construction photos of its Diller Scofidio + Renfro staircase. Though the escalator has gotten most of the attention, the staircase (which allows a view of the “vault” storage level for the Broad collection) will make a substantial statement itself. You may be reminded of the trippy staircase designs in LACMA’s “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s.” (At bottom, a staircase in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.)

A gallery text at LACMA explains: “Stairs appear frequently in Expressionist set designs. Leading the eye up (or down) to an unknown and unseen destination, a staircase can suggest both physical displacement and psychological states such as anxiety and foreboding… At the conclusion of The Nibelungen (1924), victims lie dead on the steps… And in the futuristic Metropolis (1927), pyramid-like staircases organize the workers’ movements, first into and then away from the maw of the machine.”

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 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.