William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

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.

LACMA Lends Islamic Collection to King Abdulaziz Center

LACMA will be lending 130 highlights of its Islamic collection to the 2016 opening of the Snøhetta-designed King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The loan, which will include the debut of LACMA’s recently acquired Damascus period room, is to run for two years.

That’s a long time, raising the question of whether the art is being rented out, Boston MFA-style. The King Abdulaziz Center is a private museum funded by the oil company Saudi Aramco—said to be the world’s wealthiest corporation. However, unlike many of the other starchitect-designed museums sprouting in the Middle East, the King Abdulaziz Center doesn’t have a significant permanent collection. Thus LACMA presumably isn’t expecting reciprocal loans. The LACMA press release says that the Damascus room’s conservation is “organized in partnership with” the King Abdulaziz Center.

Assuming the Center opens on schedule, the two-year loan would run through 2018—by which time LACMA could have embarked on its own construction project. It’s possible that LACMA’s historic presentation of Islamic art will be off-view in Los Angeles for quite some time.

Meanwhile on January 31, LACMA’s Islamic galleries will open the first substantial presentation of the museum’s growing collection of contemporary art from the Islamic world. Among the objects is Saudi artist Nasser Al Salem’s neon piece God is Alive, He Shall Not Die (blue) (2012).

“Hollywood Costume” at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Motion pictures are the pre-eminent visual art form (and literature) of our time. How should museums present movies?

Anyone interested in that question should see three current L.A. exhibitions. As it happens, all are presented by or in association with a not-disinterested party, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. “Hollywood Costume” is the first exhibition on-site at the future home of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. A block away, LACMA, an encyclopedic art museum, is showing “Haunted Cinema: German Cinema in the 1920s.” The Skirball Cultural Center, which focuses on Jewish history and culture, has “Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950.”

The LACMA show is primarily  addressed to those who haven’t seen (m)any German Expressionist films but have intellectual curiosity about them. The films are shown as looping digital clips, some at disappointingly low resolution. Still, that gives you an idea of what The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari looks like. LACMA adds another attraction in the form of  ontemporary architecture. The gallery design by Amy Murphy and Michael Maltzan, which loosely references expressionist stage sets, is worth seeing just for itself.

The Skirball show foregrounds cultural history. Knowledge of Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard is assumed. The exhibition explores how the filmmakers’ personal journeys as German-Jewish exiles informed Hollywood film noir, a language that has come to be understood as characteristically American. (Right, a still from 1944’s Double Indemnity.)

“Hollywood Costume” is the most populist of the three. Curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis for the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is directed primarily to those already familiar with the films referenced. You’ve seen Django Unchained… here is Django’s outfit. You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz… here are the ruby slippers.

With all the city’s wax museums and studio tours, you might think that “Hollywood Costume” would be redundant. It’s not. For one thing studio theme parks and wax museums always seem dated. They have to recoup their investments in displays built around films now half-forgotten. As a temporary exhibition, “Hollywood Costume” can be more of the moment. The show’s 150 costumes span most of the Hollywood film industry’s history, from the 1920s to the present, but most of the older costumes are from films that remain relevant to contemporary tastes. The L.A. presentation includes costumes from a number of 2013 films (The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Great Gatsby).

One problem with costume exhibits is the mannequins. They should be neutral frames, but a mannequin that isn’t quite right becomes an exercise in unintended surrealism. The problem is compounded with costumes worn by famous people. “Hollywood Costume” addresses this by showing slow-motion video loops of actors’ heads above the costumes. It must be inspired by GIFs and Bill Viola’s ultra-slow-mo tronies. It doesn’t seem derivative, just apt.

Every museum talks up video screens, interactivity, and social media. “Hollywood Costume” is a museologic future that works. One high-tech cliché is table projections. An image is projected onto a tabletop in a dark room. AMMPAS uses the technology to represent a costume designer sitting around a table with an actor or filmmaker, having a conversation about the creative process. The virtual humans are video interviews projected onto the backs of chairlike forms. The table is a blank (white) slate with a few 3D elements. Above is an installation built around Edith Head’s costume design for Hitchcock’s The Birds, with a Tippi Hedren interview and two shadowy lovebirds.

I don’t believe that museum exhibitions have to educate—which is just as well, for “Hollywood Costume” doesn’t. Oh, it tries to educate. The overriding messages (there aren’t many, for easy memorization) are that every detail of film costume has been carefully considered; that costume design is a collaboration; that film costumes do not have to be “realistic” so much as seem realistic to the audience. I should think that anyone with a Netflix subscription would know or could guess this. Furthermore, the gallery texts (and audio) keep repeating these same soundbites. I suppose this must have been motivated by research showing how little attention the average visitor pays to gallery texts.

You will learn some trivia factoids about specific films and costumes (Meryl Streep studied costume design and gives costumers hell; Quentin Tarantino insisted on Little Joe’s jacket, from Bonanza, for Django.) That’s about it.

“Hollywood Costume” and the LACMA and Skirball shows confront a common paradox. The average feature film runs ~90 minutes. The average museum visitor is willing to look at a given object for ~15 seconds. Dealing with that is a challenge, but the AMMPAS, LACMA, and Skirball shows demonstrate the multiplicity of strategies.

The Broad Goes Big

The scaffolding is now off the Broad’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro building. The latest press release says the Grand Avenue museum will have “more than 50,000-square-feet of public gallery space.” That figure has been creeping upward even during construction. It includes the original, column-free space on the third floor (35,000 sf.) plus another 15,000 sf. now planned for the first floor. The building’s total area is 120,000 sf.

Speaking just of public exhibition space: How big is 50,000 square feet? Well, it’s twice the size of the Broad’s neighbor, MOCA Grand Avenue (which claims 24,509 sf. of “actual exhibition space.”) It’s almost as big as the Geffen Contemporary (about 55,000 sf.)

It’s about the size of Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum, also opening in 2015 and said to be 50,000 sf. The Whitney will have another 13,000 sf. of outdoor exhibition space. The Broad has a 24,000 sf. public plaza, but it doesn’t sound like art will be displayed there.

The Broad’s exhibition space is between that of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion (45,000 sf.) and Broad Contemporary Art Museum (about 60,000 sf.) It is half the total size of the immense Hauser Wirth & Schimmel commercial gallery space planned for downtown (100,000 sf.—presumably, most of that for exhibitions.)

(Shown: a rendering of Robert Therrien’s Under the Table on the Broad’s third floor; Gary Leonard’s photo of the Broad as it now looks.)

The Cold War on Christmas: Socialist Santa

Culver City’s Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War documents Santa Claus’ communist cousin, Grandfather Frost. That would be Ded Moroz, a figure of Slavic folklore that the Eastern Bloc repurposed as a secular and socialist alternative to Santa Claus. Grandfather Frost was lean, wore blue, and wasn’t all that jolly. Under the Soviet regime he underwent an Animal Farm transformation, becoming all but indistinguishable from his porcine western counterpart. One difference: Grandfather Frost has no reindeer. A collector’s plate in the Wende collection suggests he’s placing his bets on the Soviet space program. (A somewhat comparable cold-war relic is NORAD’s Christmas Eve tracking of Santa, as if he were an incoming missile.)

By the way, Taschen’s long-awaited coffee table survey of the Wende collection, “with themes ranging from the secret police to sexuality,” is now on sale.

Through the New Year, posting will be light to none at Los Angeles County Museum on Fire. In the mean time, and especially for those who haven’t had enough year-end lists, here are this blog’s ten most shared posts of 2014.

10. Ensor and “The Burning of Los Angeles”

9. “Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections”

8. Delacroix “Greece Expiring” to Visit L.A.

7. “Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Art”

6. Does L.A. Need Another Contemporary Art Museum?

5. Vergne Is Serious About That $200M

4. Street Art After Deitch

3. LACMA Collectors Hit a Grand Slam

2. Why Summer Tourists Should Head West

1. Should Museums Shame Critics for Bad Reviews?

Warhol, Hollywood & Museums on the “Big Eyes” Keanes

In 1965 Life magazine ran a feature on Walter Keane. Life journalist Jane Howard didn’t know that the phenomenally successful paintings of teary-eyed waifs had in fact been painted by Walter’s wife, Margaret. The Life article did address the ambiguous status of Big Eyes paintings in the art world.

“One of [Walter Keane's] most eminent supporters—whom he has never met—is Andy Warhol, a leader of the Pop Art movement, painter of soup cans and pioneer of Underground movies. ‘I think what Keane has done is just terrific,’ Warhol says. ‘It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

“Terrific” and whatever-the-market-will-bear was of course Warhol boilerplate—for Coca-Cola, movie stars, Los Angeles, and anything else held to be banal and American. Warhol goes on:

“In a lot of ways, Americans are like children—I mean, we aren’t very grown up. But what I like most about Keane, myself, is that he’s mass-produced, like a factory. I think he’ll end up being something like Disney.”

This was one of Warhol’s early mentions of a “factory”—not his, Keane’s!

Warhol’s art was less market-validated than the Keanes’ was. Yet each battled the lingering critical sentiment that only abstract art could be serious. The year before the Life piece, the Keanes and Warhol had each been “censored” from the 1964 World’s Fair by New York urbanist Robert Moses. Margaret Keane’s salon machine, Tomorrow Forever, was derided as kitsch, scuttling Moses’ plan to show it; Warhol’s first-and-only public artwork, Thirteen Most Wanted Men (silk-screened from FBI wanted posters) was painted over on the pretext that the preponderance of low-ranking Mafiosa might offend Italian-Americans.

Jane Howard wrote,

“Walter is only dimly aware of such current modes as Pop Art; and when recently asked about Camp he proved totally unknowing. People who take him seriously, however, see elements of both these styles in his work.…

“Allusions to mass production, which he hears often, cause Walter to cringe. ‘I only do a dozen paintings a year,’ he protests, ‘and sometimes less. And I’m not commercial. People who call me commercial ought to see the offers we turn down. Why, we could be making $100,000 a year more than we do if we were really commercial. We could have gone ahead and let manufacturers make Keane sweatshirts, Keane trays. But we didn’t. Nothing has been done to our work that hasn’t happened to Velázquez, Picasso, Rembrandt, all those.”

On the other coast, Hollywood gave Big Eyes art an enthusiastic thumbs up. “Keane paintings are my friends,” Joan Crawford was quoted in Life. Here is Margaret Keane’s portrait of Crawford. In portrait commissions Keane was able to strike a balance between freak and chic. The Crawford portrait was reproduced on the cover of the actor’s pre-Mommy Dearest autobiography, and two Keane paintings are visible as set decoration in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.

It was known to portrait sitters that Margaret, not Walter, was the talent. Jerry Lewis commissioned Margaret for a family portrait, with Jerry in a Picassoid harlequin costume. Many other Hollywood actors collected Keane: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dean Martin, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, and Robert Wagner.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Marilyn Manson bought Keane paintings. Tim Burton has a small Keane collection, including a Magrittean 2010 study of a Big Cyclopic Eye. There is a circa Mars Attacks! Keane portrait of Lisa Marie with chihuahua Poppy. (Margaret reported that Lisa Marie “looks like my paintings—she has big eyes.”)

Jerry Lewis used Margaret Keane’s family portrait for a 1960s Christmas card (bottom of post). John Waters reproduced it as his own holiday card in 1995.

As far as museums go, Margaret Keane’s art remains radioactive. The Laguna Art Museum did Keane’s first and only museum show in 2000. I’m not aware of a single Keane painting in any museum’s permanent collection.

Museums have found places for vernacular photographs and psychedelic concert posters; commercial art and self-taught art; Norman Rockwell and Tom of Finland. But not Margaret Keane. Tim Burton’s Big Eyes may or may not provoke a rethinking of this paradox.

SEE ALSO My Visit With “Big Eyes” Walter Keane

Pollock Is Still Bigger Than Koons

BEAR: "I am nature." COP: "Morality is generally based around economics."

The Whitney Museum’s Jeff Koons retrospective drew 319,000 visitors, reports the Wall Street Journal. The same article notes that the Getty Center’s showing of Jackson Pollock’s 1943 Mural drew 304,349. The similar numbers are notable when you consider that the Koons show got more buzz than any exhibition this year, and it filled the Whitney with 150 works—the Getty show was a single painting.

The Pollock exhibition was up for 92 days, versus 114 for Koons. That means that, on a per-day basis, one Pollock outdrew a Koons extravaganza (3038 v. 2798 visitors a day).

The Most Dangerous Man in Naples

Artists revere their predecessors—conservators, not so much. Rauschenberg’s erasure of a de Kooning drawing was a unique act of provocation. Conservators spend their whole careers “erasing” the hard work of talented forbears. This is one subtext of two conservation-themed shows now at the Getty Villa. Most will prefer the dazzle of “Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville.” But “Dangerous Perfection: Funerary Vases from Southern Italy” has more to say about the ethical puzzles of conservation. (Above, Carl Wilhelm Götzloff’s 1826 watercolor of part of the collection featured in the show.)

The “dangerous” in the exhibition title refers to the skill of 19th century Neapolitan art restorer Raffaele Gargiulo. He developed the chemicals, draughtmanship, and art-historical knowledge to restore ancient vases (and bronzes) to convincing simulations of their original condition. Should a piece of a vase be missing, Gargiulo replaced it and painted in the figures to match. Of course, the invented figures would be pure guesswork.

Gargiulo was so good at what he did that it was made illegal. In 1818 Naples outlawed “integrative” restoration. It was appreciated that it muddied the archeological record. Another concern must have been that expertise in undetectable restoration could easily turn to expertise in creating forgeries. The ban lasted for three years; even after it was relaxed, restoration was a changed and more cautious profession.

The Getty show has 13 vases, some of them monumental. All were purchased by Baron Franz von Koller and restored by Gargiulo. Most of the restorations have been removed and replaced with black ground or simple indication of outlines. Gargiulo’s restorations have been left, as a historical document, on one vase by the Darius painter (below). Ironically, Gargiulo’s secret formula for restoring vases used paint to color-match the terra-cotta—on an ancient vase or fragment the “red” ceramic is the same color throughout. Over the centuries the terra-cotta paint has blistered and chipped, revealing Gargiulo’s restorations even to the inexpert eye.

Vase by Darius Painter, with restorations by Raffaele Gargiulo, Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin