William Poundstone
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What Perenchio Could Mean for LACMA

For a century at least, Hollywood actors, agents, and moguls have been buying School of Paris modernism. A few assembled great collections; many more assembled weak ones; and the one constant was hand-wringing over Hollywood’s failure to support L.A. museums. TV and film executive Jerry Perenchio is set to change that paradigm with his conditional bequest of an Impressionist and modern collection to LACMA. (Above, Edouard Vuillard’s “Sacha Guitry in His Dressing Room,” 1912, owned by Perenchio.)

The twist: The museum must fund, construct, and open its planned ($600 million-ish) Peter Zumthor building on schedule (c. 2023)—or else the gift may be rescinded. Back in 1971, Perenchio put up $5 million to get Muhammad Ali into the ring with Joe Frazier. Get ready for the Capital Campaign of the Century.

It’s not just a question of raising the money, formidable as that challenge is. The clock is ticking… Any delay could potentially invalidate the gift: an earthquake, a stock market crash, a construction workers’ strike, fossil discoveries on site, etc., etc. This week every museum director must envy Michael Govan, but they’re also praying their own donors don’t get the idea of gift-wrapping an ultimatum.

What could the Perenchio bequest mean to LACMA? The museum says it’s set to gain “at least” 47 works by 23 artists. It has released images of 10 works, and the press release identifies a few more by name. Some of those works are already well-known, having been lent to exhibitions and widely reproduced. It is possible to say that, in quality, Perenchio’s collection is in a league with those of Norton Simon, Walter Annenberg, and Leonard Lauder. The bequest would give LACMA its only major works by Manet and Caillebotte; its most iconic pieces by Monet, Degas, Bonnard, and Léger. It would double, or nearly so, the museum’s representation of Pissarro and Magritte. A 1909 cubist drawing, Picasso’s Head of Fernande, is one of the choicest of modern drawings, poised on the cusp of art history.

An obvious question is how the Pernechio works relate to the Janice and Henri Lazarof collection, acquired by promised gift and purchase in 2007 and also touted as a game-changer. Chronologically there is considerable overlap between the Lazarof and Perenchio collections. The Lazarof collection is bigger (130 v. 47 works) and ranges well into the mid 20th century. But—going by the images released—Perenchio has more star works, those rivaling the best of their kind anywhere.

Here’s a tentative survey of how the Perenchio bequest could one day augment LACMA’s collection.

Monet: LACMA presently has four Monet paintings. Perenchio would add three, making seven—and the three Perenchio Monets would be the ones visitors remember. LACMA stands to have the biggest and best holding of Monet west of Chicago.

Manet: LACMA has no paintings or drawings by Manet. Perenchio is bequeathing a major pastel portrait of M. Gauthier-Lathuille fils (below left). Because of the pastel medium, it can’t be on permanent view, but it’s a Manet worthy of a great museum. If Monsieur’s face looks familiar, he’s the earnest lover in Manet’s painting Chez Père Lathuille.

Degas: Perenchio proposes to donate two drawings and three posthumous bronzes by Degas. One of the drawings is the widely analyzed and reproduced Au Café Concert: La Chanson du Chien (1876). Though it’s a modest-sized work on paper, it ought to upstage LACMA’s one Degas painting, the Bellelli Sisters. The bronzes would double the museum’s holdings, and one of the Perenchio works is the nude version of the Little Dancer.

Caillebotte: LACMA has nothing by Caillebotte, the once-forgotten Impressionist whose few best works now command eight-figure prices. In 2011 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts paid $16 million for Man at His Bath (selling a Monet, a Renoir, a Gauguin, and five other paintings to defray the cost). Perenchio’s Caillebotte, A Soldier, must be a response to Manet’s Fifer. It might be the third most important Caillebotte in America (after those in Chicago and Boston)?

Pissarro: Perenchio’s three paintings would augment the three in the Lazarof collection and the bird’s eye urban landscape, La Place du Théâtre Français, that the De Sylvas gave the pre-LACMA County Museum. That would make 7 Pissarros in all—not bad, considering that Impressionist-rich Art Institute of Chicago has 10.

Cézanne: Perenchio’s juicy Cézanne landscape, House and Tree (c. 1874) was a stand-out of MoMA’s 2005 “Cézanne & Pissarro” show. So was LACMA’s Sous Bois of the 1890s. Were they one day united at LACMA, they could offer a super-concise survey of Cézanne landscapes, albeit without a Mont Sainte-Victoire. They would join a still life and a figure already in the collection.

Picasso: It remains a scandal that LACMA doesn’t have a cubist Picasso painting. The Perenchio gift won’t remedy that. It does include a painting of Marie Thérèse-Walter and six Picasso drawings, including the key 1909 Head. That relates to LACMA’s bronze Head of a Woman, from an edition cast half a century later. The Perenchio Picassos stand to complement the Lazarof holding of 20 Picasso paintings, drawings, and watercolors. (The museum’s most notable Picasso paintings will likely remain the blue-period portrait from the Bright bequest and the mini-Guernica, Weeping Woman with Handkerchief, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mitchell.)

Bonnard: LACMA has just one Bonnard painting. Perenchio has two, one of them Après le Repas (1925). It has a fine old Hollywood provenance, having been owned by industry power couple William and Edith Mayer Goetz (Edith was daughter of Louis B. Mayer). When Après le Repas was sold along with most of the Goetz collection at Christie’s in 1988, a LACMA press officer told the L.A. Times: “It was not a collection we were expecting to receive as a gift.”

Léger: Perenchio is bequeathing two figurative Léger paintings and a late ceramic relief. Woman with Bouquet (1924, bottom left) will be the only fully realized example of Léger’s pneumatic-Art Deco style at an L.A. museum. It will complement LACMA’s more cubist Légers such as the 1918 The Disks, from the David Bright bequest, and the 1925 Composition in the Lazarof collection.

Magritte: LACMA has two Magritte paintings; the Perenchio gift would double that to four. Below center and right are Stimulation Objective No. 3 (1939) and Liaisons Dangereuses (1935). Thanks to the preeminent importance of Treachery of Images, already in the collection, LACMA’s representation of Magritte stands to rival MoMA’s holding of seven Magritte paintings.

Bottom line: Compared to other big American museums, LACMA’s holdings of impressionist and modern art have been anemic. That reflects the museum’s relative youth and an ego-driven history in which Norton Simon, J. Paul Getty, and Armand Hammer founded private museums rather than supporting the public one.

The Perenchio bequest won’t put LACMA on a par with Chicago or the great East Coast institutions. It will let LACMA’s early modern collection stand up to those of the Simon and Getty. Unlike those institutions LACMA presents contemporary art in the context of global art history. For that the Perenchio bequest would be pivotal. Today’s transnational postmodernism remains indebted to the avant garde revolution that occurred in Europe during the period that Perenchio has collected.

Preview of LACMA’s Perenchio Collection

Writing in the L.A. Times, David Ng and Suzanne Muchnick have identified the collector promising a major collection to LACMA: TV executive Jerry Perenchio, a founder of Univision. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because of Perenchio’s philosophy: “Stay out of the spotlight. It fades your suit.”

The Times article mentions one major qualification to the promised gift: “The museum must first complete construction of its new building, which is planned for 2023.” On the one hand, that’s one heck of a carrot for Zumthor fund-raising. On the other hand, if for any reason the Zumthor building doesn’t happen, the gift might not happen either.

Among the works promised to LACMA are Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vethéuil (top), Léger’s Woman With Bouquet. and Magritte’s Liaisons Dangereuses.

Getty Buys Manet’s “Le Printemps”

Last night the Getty Museum paid $65,125,000 for Manet’s Le Printemps (Spring) at Christie’s New York. Incredibly, it’s the second Manet portrait the Getty has bought this year—the other is a pastel—and the third in the past three years.

Le Printemps was conceived as one of four portraits of fashionable women representing the seasons. Manet completed only two, the other being Autumn in the Fine Arts Museum of Nancy, France (below).

The $65 million price is the most the Getty has ever paid at auction. It’s rumored that the museum paid $70 million ($90 million in today’s dollars) for Titian’s Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos in a private sale. The $54 million auction price for van Gogh’s Irises (paid by Alan Bond, who owned it before the Getty) would be about $110 million in today’s money. That figure however deserves an asterisk for some very creative financing.

Despite its buying power, the Getty has mostly avoided the cliché people’s choice: colorful Impressionist paintings of young women in landscapes. Of the museum’s four paintings by Claude Monet, three are near-monochrome views of gray or wintry weather. You might not know that Monet ever painted a human figure or a green leaf. The “prettier” sort of Impressionist paintings often command stupendous prices from private collectors. I suspect that, either by design or happenstance, the Getty found more value in other parts of the 19th-century market.

But Le Printemps is about as feel-good appealing as an Impressionist painting gets. It will be one of the museum’s signature paintings and ought to take some of the selfie-heat off Irises.

LACMA Has Big News

On Thursday at 10 AM LACMA is set to announce the “largest gift of art… in its history.” The donor, so far unnamed, is giving works by Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Bonnard, and Picasso.

This comes the day after L.A. County Supervisors agreed in principle to supply $125 million toward the Peter Zumthor redesign.

When Art Outgrew the Convent

Getty installation of "The Victory of Truth over Heresy" (Tapestry (c) Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid)

Rubens’ Triumph of the Eucharist was the artist’s most ambitious tapestry cycle. Four examples, each 16 feet tall, are now on view in the Getty Center’s Richard Meier-designed Exhibition Pavilion. You might assume they’d look even more stately in their home, the Convent of Las Descalzas Reales, Madrid. Well… not necessarily.

Though the tapestries were commissioned for the convent, the building has been remodeled extensively since the 17th century. Thus the tapestries can no longer be shown as Rubens intended. Today they’re presented in a former dormitory and—d’oh!—the walls aren’t quite tall enough. The tops of the tapestries overlap the ceiling, and the bottoms graze the floor.

Before traveling to the Getty, “Spectacular Rubens” was shown at the Prado. Even there it was a tight fit (left).

The first American to collect Rubens in a big way was circus impresario John Ringling. In the 1920s he learned that the Duke of Westminster was trying to sell four oil-on-canvas cartoons from The Triumph of the Eucharist. The cartoons are the full-size models used to direct tapestry weavers. Usually watercolor on paper, cartoon were cut into strips and discarded during the weaving. But Rubens’ studio produced full-sized oil paintings for some of the Eucharist tapestries.

Westminster’s cartoons had been put up for action unsuccessfully, drawing total bids of $10,000. Not many American collectors had the space, or the desire, to show 16-foot tall peans to Catholic dogma. The Duke was trying to arrange a private sale, asking about $100,000 for the set. Ringling’s advisor Julius Böhler ticked off the reasons not to buy them: they were too big to show in a home or museum; they were studio works not by Rubens’ own hand; baroque religious art was out of fashion; and finally, at $100,000 they were overpriced.

Ringling bought the cartoons anyway. He had his architect design a soaring room to show them in the museum he built in Sarasota, Florida. It remains one of the more spectacular rooms in any American museum. Ringling’s example inspired other museums to collect Rubens—and to think big in architecture, well before Tony Smith.

Lucas Museum to Look Like Jabba the Hutt

Beijing- and L.A.-based architect Ma Yansong has been chosen to design Chicago’s Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. You’ll recall that that the Lucas Museum’s original, Beaux Arts design (by Dallas-based Urban Design Group) was booted out of San Francisco for being too boring to look at. That shouldn’t be a problem with Ma’s design, which some are comparing to Jabba the Hutt and Disneyland’s Space Mountain (it’s to be 115-feet high). In the Architectural Record, Fred Bernstein asked:

“Is form following function when a building meant for artworks that tell stories—the “Narrative Art” in the name refers to everything from Norman Rockwell paintings to designs for animated films—incorporates so many images from science fact and fiction? Is this, in the Venturi lexicon, more duck than decorated shed? More Hutt than decorated hut?”

Despite Chicago’s tradition of architectural innovation, not all rank-and-file Chicagoans are on board with the museum design.  Comments to a Chicago Tribune article liken the new museum to “the world’s most epic skateboard park”… “the Sta-Puft marshmallow man took a dump”…”all the piled up snow we love to see gone by April”…”a colossal joke on America… man, there is a limit to what the eyes may be subjected to.”

Gilbert Gold Returns to L.A.

Snuffbox with Flowers, c. 1765 Photo (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Arthur Gilbert was the loosest cannon on LACMA’s board of trustees. He made no secret of his opinion that contemporary art was “junk” and that LACMA was too focused on the contemporary (long before Govan). In 1975 Gilbert promised his collection of silver, micro-mosaics, gold boxes, and furniture to the museum. Two decades later he rescinded that gift and deeded his collection to his native Britain.

In recent years Gilbert’s second wife, Marjorie, has promoted long-term loans of Gilbert objects to LACMA and has made gifts of pieces not donated to the British state. The most spectacular result of this detente is “Close-up and Personal: Eighteenth-Century Gold Boxes from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection.” On view through March 1, 2015, it’s easy to miss. The works are small, occupying vitrines in a permanent collection gallery in the Hammer building. Yet the loan includes some of the finest gold snuffboxes ever created—and these were taken very seriously in their time, valued as much as Chardins. At top is Frederick II’s Snuffbox with Flowers, c. 1765.

Fanboys disappointed with Jony Ive’s Apple Watch ought to check out a gold and agate box/automaton watch by James Cox. No fitness app, but it holds snuff.

James Cox, automaton snuffbox and watch Photo (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

LACMA isn’t the only beneficiary of Gilbert largesse. The Marjorie W. Gilbert 2001 Trust has promised the Getty Museum a Roman musical clock attributed to the workshop of Giuseppe Valadier, c. 1790, and two Chinoiserie porcelain inkstands. The clock is on view in the Getty Center’s 19th-century decorative arts gallery.

Season of the Witch

One of the remaining distinctions between art museums and theme parks is that museums don’t program around Halloween (much). Still, a couple of witchy acquisitions have been announced this October: Henry’s Fuseli’s The Three Witches at the Huntington and Jordan Wolfson’s slutty android in witch mask for the Broad Art Foundation (below). Another museum-to-be, that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is presenting “Hollywood Costume” with the gingham pinafore of film’s most famous witch hunter, Dorothy. But this year’s ultimate Halloween show is  “Cameron: Songs of the Witch Woman” at MOCA Pacific Design Center.

Cameron was not just an artist, mystic, and underground film diva. Her friend Scott Hobbs recalls that Cameron wore black, drove a hearse, and gave interviews as a “witch” to L.A. TV stations on Halloween. I have tried to find Cameron’s video (or newspaper) Halloween interviews online, with no luck. If any reader can find them, let me know and I’ll share them.

Cameron took a feminist-realist attitude to the passing of youth and beauty. She told a friend who’d had plastic surgery: “You can erase the lines, but not the pain!”

(Top of post: Cameron’s Black Egg, a self-portrait. Below, one half of Cameron’s Witch Diptych).

Eli Broad Buys “the Most Terrifying Robot Ever”

The Broad Art Foundation has acquired L.A. artist Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure (2014), an Uncanny Valley-girl android that twerks in front of a mirror. It’s part of a recent effort to add crowd-pleasing interactive works for the Broad’s Grand Avenue museum (now set to open fall 2015.)

Female Figure was shown earlier this year at New York’s David Zwimmer gallery and Art Basel. I won’t try to top this description by the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

“Is this the most terrifying robot ever?…

“From creepy clowns to demonic serial killers, ‘possessed’ dolls have been the subject of many a horror film. Now an animatronic life-sized doll with a scary face and even more frightening dance moves might give you nightmares.…

“It uses facial recognition technology to seek out viewers in the gallery and stare at them with its terrifying green, masked face. … It is assumed that the doll follows people with its terrible eyes to make them feel uncomfortable if they are trying to view it as a sexual object.… The animatronic doll dances along to distorted versions of songs including Robin Thicke’s hit, Blurred Lines… However, the robot is far less glamorous as ‘she’ appears to be slightly grubby and has a mask capable of unnerving most adults.”

There are several videos of Female Figure on the web, including Vernissage TV and a MOCAtv mini-documentary.

A Pop-Up Bosque

Announced just this February, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s 24,000-sq. ft. green space next to the Broad looks to be complete in construction cam photos. The small planting (“bosque”) of century-old Barouni olive trees went up a lot faster than the long-delayed Broad (and because it’s still an active construction zone, the park isn’t open).

UPDATE. A new Broad press release says the park “will be completed in November 2014 in advance of the museum’s debut.” Since the museum opening is set for a still-approximate “Fall 2015,” it sounds like the park will be open before then.