William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Barnsdall’s Billboards

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House reopens tomorrow after a restoration that attempts to turn the clock back to when oil heiress Aline Barnsdall lived there. Not restored, however, were one of the site’s most visible and controversial features, the news billboards. In the 1920s and 30s Barnsdall ringed the Olive Hill property with wordy billboards expounding on her leftish political causes. The local bourgeoisie complained, and Lloyd Wright (Frank’s son) redesigned the billboards to make them “less obnoxious.” Above is a photo by Edmund Teske. The billboards brought Barnsdall to the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who had FBI agents track her travels and hair salon appointments for 24 years.

Daniel Naudé Dogs to Getty

The Getty Museum has acquired three prints by South African photographer Daniel Naudé, known for monumental images of animals. The acquisitions depict Africa’s feral dogs, quicksilver-fast and paparazzi-shy, in luminous landscapes.

“People sometimes ask me if I used Photoshop, or if the dog is stuffed,” Naudé told The Guardian in 2013, speaking of a related photo in the Africanis series. “There are specific things about the composition I wanted to achieve: seeing both of the dog’s eyes, and keeping the horizon lower than the dog’s body so he cuts through the landscape. I was influenced by Richard Avedon’s In the American West series–while his portraits of people are taken against a white backdrop, the way they look and the clothes they wear manage to say something about where they come from. With the dogs I shot, the landscape is their clothes…”

“Apparitions” at the Hammer

The UCLA Hammer Museum’s “Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now” is grounded in history, yet of the moment. It explores frottage, Max Ernst’s coinage for placing paper over a rough surface and rubbing with a pencil or crayon to get a pattern or aleatoric image.

Ernst didn’t really invent frottage, save for the word and its use in surrealist games. Rubbings were used millennia ago to document Chinese carvings. The invention of photography did not quite make the technique obsolete, as demonstrated by antiquarian rubbings of tomb monuments. Shown at top is a 1959 rubbing of an Angkor Scene from the Ramayana.

Ernst and the surrealists used frottage to free-associate weird pictures. At right is a 1949 Cadavre Exquis, partly by André Breton. There are examples by major and lesser-known surrealists, many of them women. But the show’s revelation is the rich legacy of surrealist frottage in recent decades. Frottage, though not always labeled as such, has been part of the counter-intuitive resurgence of drawing in the digital age.

Michelle Stuart’s #7 Scroll (1973) is a rubbing of the Earth itself. It is frottage’s Great Piece of Turf (though Stuart said she was influenced by NASA mapping of the lunar surface). It’s the map that is the territory, a concept talked up by Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges.

A History of Type Design (2011), by Scott Myles and Gavin Morrison, is a set of lithographs from rubbings of the grave markers of modernist type designers (William Morris, Eric Gill, Stanley Morison). Inevitably the carvings paid homage to the designers’ best-known typefaces.

Tim Hawkinson’s 1987 Untitled (Chair Back) is mesmerizing, though hard to explain. It’s a truncated chair back used a canvas stretcher for a near-monchrome rubbing of the chair’s fretted splat. It’s frottage, it’s assemblage, it’s a painting. It’s a self-referential Kubrick monolith that is also a tombstone.

Adam, Eve, and George

The Norton Simon Museum Adam and Eve restitution case draws two reactions. For some, it’s simple: Hermann Goering stole the paintings—what part of “Nazi loot” don’t you understand? For others it’s complicated. It hinges on the puzzling claims of George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, a Russian prince turned American intelligence officer.

I posted on the Stroganoff saga last month. In brief George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff claimed the Bolsheviks stole his family’s art, including Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve, in the Russian revolution. That was before the Nazis stole the same paintings from the stock of Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. After the war, in 1966, the Dutch government transferred the paintings to Stroganoff-Scherbatoff. He sold them to Norton Simon, and they now hang in his Pasadena Museum. Goudstikker’s heir, Maria von Saher, is now suing the museum for their return.

Still with me?

The Stroganoffs, richest family of Czarist Russia, lived in a Saint Petersburg palace (now a museum, seen in the recent photo above). At one point or another, the Stroganoff collection included works by Duccio (the Madonna and Child now in the Metropolitan Museum), Botticelli, van Dyck, Claude, Poussin, and Watteau, Boucher, and Robert.

The Soviet Union sold confiscated Stroganoff works in a 1931 Berlin auction titled “The Stroganoff Collection.” Princess Stroganoff-Scherbatoff—George’s mother—wrote a letter of protest to the New York Herald Tribune (May 13, 1931). “The collection is entirely my property,” she wrote. The Soviet republic has taken possession of this collection in a way that sets at defiance every principle of international law.”

More informative for the Norton Simon case is an essay written by James Schmidt for the auction. A copy of the essay, along with an English translation, was submitted to U.S. District Court in 2007. The main points have been summarized in the press, but the full document supplies important context.

Let me first say I don’t know who James Schmidt was, and a quick Googling was unavailing. In the translated essay, he writes as someone knowledgeable about the Stroganoff collection and its display. Schmidt explores the Stroganoff collection’s history; complains about the lighting (the windows produced “irritating reflections” making it “extremely difficult to observe the paintings, let alone examine them”); admits the inadequacy of the collection’s several catalogs, limited by the “impossible technical conditions” for photography.

“Pictures from other sources joined the Stroganoff paintings at this auction,” he writes. They include paintings that had formerly been in the Hermitage, plus Cranach’s Adam and Eve—which Schmidt says were discovered in a Kiev church.

The Cranach paintings rate a single sentence. But when taken in context, it seems evident that Schmidt would have know whether they were Stroganoff works, and he says, very clearly, that they weren’t.

Was George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff aware of this? Well, he had a job in military intelligence. That presumably means he was good at locating hard-to-find documents, translating them, and putting two and two together. In fact Stroganoff-Scherbatoff served as translator at the Yalta, Potsdam, and Big Four conferences.

In 1976 Stroganoff-Scherbatoff sued collector Henry Weldon over a van Dyck Portrait of Antoine Triest (right) that he said had been part of his family’s collection and sold in the same 1931 auction. Weldon contended it had actually come from the Hermitage. The case was dismissed.

It sounds like Stroganoff-Scherbatoff either didn’t know what was in his family’s collection… or else that he was in the habit of filing suits for paintings the family had never owned. Admittedly, that would be peculiar. There was no shortage of authentic Stroganoff artworks to sue over.

In a 2014 opinion on the Norton Simon case, Senior Circuit Judge D.W. Nelson supplied further details on the Cranach pictures’ early provenance. Nelson writes, “For the 400 years following their creation in 1530, the panels hung in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kiev, Ukraine. In 1927 Soviet authorities sent the panels to a state-owned museum at a monastery and in 1927 transferred them to the Art Museum at the Ukrainian Academy of Science in Kiev.”

These details aren’t in Schmidt’s article. I assume they reflect further research by von Maher’s legal team. It would be notable, even surprising, that Ukrainians were collecting high-end German Renaissance art way back in the feudal 16th century. (The NSM website says that Adam and Eve ”were probably painted for a member of the court of the Elector [of Saxony, today's Germany] and intended to hang in domestic surroundings.”)

Judge Nelson accepted these details as accurate. They further remove the paintings from the St. Petersburg Stroganoffs, who supported many churches but seem not to have had any particular connection to Kiev.

If indeed the Stroganoffs never owned Adam and Eve, it would greatly limit the scope of the Norton Simon Museum’s defense. The museum would likely have to predicate its ownership on the theory the 1966 Dutch transfer of the paintings to Stroganoff-Scherbatoff constituted a sovereign state’s act of restitution that the U.S. cannot contest. The details of that transfer remain sketchy. Though it came after years of Stroganoff-Scherbatoff’s petitioning, it’s said that he had to pay money and received three paintings—Adam, Eve, and another painting that doesn’t seem to be identified in court proceedings. Von Maher contends this transfer was a sale, not a restitution. In any event, a “restitution” based on mistaken information would be a narrowly legalistic defense.

It could be argued that the Soviets must have stolen the paintings, if not from the Stroganoffs, from somebody—maybe from the Church of the Holy Trinity. Follow that thought, and conceivably the “real” owner has yet to step up. But such a hypothetical claimant would be unlikely to prevail in U.S. courts, given the precedents for denying Soviet restitution cases.

Under the Act of the State doctrine, the U.S. recognizes the internal decisions of other sovereign states. The Stroganoff-Scherbatoff v. Weldon decision cites previous cases denying restitution for property seized by the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba.

Why then do courts allow restitutions of works confiscated by the Nazis? The judge in the Weldon case cited Menzel v. List. It was there ruled that property was taken by “an organ of the Nazi Party, not a sovereign state,” rendering the Act of State doctrine inapplicable.

This may seem legalistic hair-splitting itself. The Nazi party was the law under Hitler. Nevertheless, the Soviets passed laws confiscating the property of wealthy landowners, such as the Stroganoffs, who fled for their lives. The Nazis apparently didn’t have comparable laws on the books. In the case of Jacques Goudstikker, the Nazis went through the pretense of a sale, at nominal prices, transferring the best of his gallery stock to Hermann Goering. In this understanding, accepted by U.S. courts, Nazi looters were criminals because they violated the law—of the Third Reich.

Art Math, Qatari Edition

A Qatari buyer has reportedly paid nearly $300 million for Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? The latter is an average-sized easel painting, 40 by 31 inches. Based on the price per square inch, Gauguin’s large masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Art We? Where Are We Going? would be worth just short of $2 billion. The later painting’s owner, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, has been criticized for renting out its paintings to other museums. At a 5 percent cost of funds, the rental on a $2 billion painting would come to $100 million a year, or $11,416 an hour.

Fresh Off the Boat

In 1913 anti-immigrant fervor culminated in California’s Alien Land Law, an attempt to discourage immigration by preventing Asians from owning agricultural land. The following year Ash Can School painter Robert Henri made the first of three trips to Southern California. Living in an Irving Gill house in La Jolla, he produced a series of paintings of Asian, Latino, and black kids. Today the La Jolla paintings risk being dismissed as merely cute, but they had political dimensions. The Laguna Art Museum will examine the paintings and the politics in “Robert Henri’s California: Realism, Race, and Region, 1914-1925″, running Feb. 22 through May 31, 2015.  (Shown, Tam Gan, 1914.)

Islam Meets Neon

“Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East” surveys LACMA’s collection of contemporary Islamic art, said to be the largest in an American museum. The installation starts with two neon pieces, unrelated yet complementary. Iranian/Parisian artist Arash Hanei’s Too Khali [Void] (2011, above) makes concrete the word for nothing. Saudi artist Nasser Al-Salem’s God is Alive, He Shall Not Die (blue), 2012, is a mirrored box multiplying the name of God to infinity.

The text-based art of the West almost never celebrates the beauty of the Roman alphabet. In the 1960s John Baldessari hired So. Cal. sign painters to achieve typographic banality. The pure beauty of Arabic script remains central to many of the works being produced in the Islamic world.

Mesoamerican Visionaries at the Fowler

The art of José Benítez Sánchez (1938-2009) integrated peyote psychedelia with Euro modernism. A working shaman, Sánchez became the most admired practitioner of Huichol yarn painting. An appropriately fantastic 2005 example anchors the third of three small shows of gifts in honor of the UCLA Fowler Museum’s 50th anniversary. This latest grouping (through April 26) presents objects from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, and the U.S. Southwest.

A beaded banner by Myrlande Constant, Negre Quimbois La Sirene Negre Andezo (c. 2010, large detail below) represents the apex of that medium. Constant’s mother worked in a Port-au-Prince factory producing beaded wedding dresses. The artist pioneered the use of glass beads (in place of sequins), allowing for piquant colorism and greater detail.

The oldest object is a Retablo for Saint Cammillus of Lellis, perhaps from the Academy of San Carlos, Mexico City, and dated late 18th or early 19th century. A verbose preamble frames the picture, Edward Hicks style. Cartoon balloon-banderoles issue from the mouths of the saint, the dying man, and a profusion of devils.

SEE ALSO a post on 50th-anniversary gifts of African art at the Fowler.

Groundhog Day

“Los Angeles is knocking hard on the door of the elite club of art-world cities.”

The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2, 2015

“The Broad, sharing the Grand Avenue block with the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Frank Gehry’s shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall, is not just a $140 million building. It’s at the core of a cultural boom… Long the center of the movie industry, the region is now becoming a magnet for artists, dancers, musicians and a murderer’s row of museum leaders.”

The Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2014

“We used to always be the wild stepchild out in the desert. Now, we’re being adopted.”

Mark Bradford in the 2014 Post article

“It takes time for these things to evolve. And now we’re there.”

Eli Broad in the Post

“Of course, its abundant light and space have always drawn a certain kind of artist—members of the Light and Space movement, for instance… But now… it seems that everyone, major figures and young guns alike, wants to call L.A. home.”

The New York Times, Aug 19, 2014

“[Mat] Gleason sees L.A. finally coming into its own as a place for world-class collectors to buy art.”

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Aug. 8, 2014

“Cultural leaders in downtown expressed optimism about the role [the Broad] will play in revitalizing the area. Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art… said the Broad will be ‘transformative’…”

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 8. 2013

“No one is suggesting that Los Angeles is about to supplant New York as an art capital…”

The New York Times, Oct. 12, 2011

“There is no question that Los Angeles has become the contemporary-art capital of the world.”

—Eli Broad, Dec. 6, 2010, in The New Yorker

“…pomegranate-juice magnates, billionaire museum builders and celebrity-packed boards are turning the city into a world-class art center”

The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 29, 2010

“Los Angeles, a city of suburbs in search of a center… came one step closer to finding one.… Whether a single building, however grandiose [Disney Hall], can transform downtown Los Angeles is an open question.”

The New York Times, Oct. 20, 2003

“The Getty Center should make Angelenos in general feel a little better, in part by making Los Angeles seem more like a real city.… obviously, the Getty Center will enable culturally ambitious citizens to weather the Woody Allen jokes.”

The New Yorker, Sept. 29, 1997

“Q. What’s the difference between Los Angeles and a bowl of yogurt? A. Yogurt has a live culture. Time to pension off that oldie…”

Robert Hughes, Jan. 12, 1987, in Time magazine

“The City of Angels used to be a place where culture feared to tread. But today the traffic slowing down to neck-crane along Wilshire Boulevard is not looking for stars but admiring the shimmering complex of pavilions [LACMA] surrounded by a moatlike reflecting pool of vastly more substance and value than was ever to be seen in a DeMille superset.”

Time magazine, April 2, 1965

(Above: A school group at the early LACMA, viewing Norbert Kricke’s Space Sculpture. Top of post: Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure.)

Hammer to Survey Frottage

This season’s most anticipated drawing show is “Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now,” opening Feb. 7 at the UCLA Hammer Museum and traveling to the Menil Collection, Houston, this fall. Frottage is the kindergarten praxis of placing paper over a textured surface and rubbing with a soft pencil or crayon to get a “picture.” Many will know frottage for its connection to the surrealists. The exhibition traces frottage’s history from the rubbings of Victorian antiquarians to its counter-intuitive resurgence in the digital age. “Apparitions” is curated by Allegra Pesenti, formerly of UCLA’s Grunwald Center and now of the Menil Drawing Institute.

(Shown, a c. 1860 brass rubbing of a gothic funerary monument and Do Ho Suh’s Rubbing/Loving Project: Metal Jacket, 2014.)