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William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

A Warhol “Marilyn” & More for LACMA’s 50th

Los Angeles Confidential has a feature on “The Ladies of LACMA.” That would be Lynda Resnick, Jane Nathanson, and Ann Colgin. The interview, by Degen Pener, drops several hints about future gifts to LACMA. In April 2015 the museum is to celebrate its 50th anniversary with an exhibition of 50 art gifts (promised, mainly). That will include works from the conditional bequest of Jerry Perenchio and a lot more besides. Pener asks the three collectors what they’re planning to give and gets a mix of specifics and coyness.

On the specific side, one of the gifts is already on view. Ann Colgin and Joe Wender have promised Mary Weatherford’s love forever (cave) for MW, 2012 (top), a painting in LACMA’s current “Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Painting.” It will become the museum’s first work by the California-native artist.

Jane Nathanson says that she and husband Marc “will be donating most of our art to LACMA and we are giving some for the 50th anniversary.” This would be a major win. Jane had been on MOCA’s board and is now on LACMA’s, occasioning much speculation. The Nathanson collection is focused on the pop movement.

“One of the pieces that will be going to LACMA,” says Nathanson, “is a very early Double Marilyn by Andy Warhol.” Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962—during the Ferus Gallery’s show of Warhol Soup Cans. Coincidentally Warhol had just started doing photo-silk screen paintings of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty. He switched his production to Monroe and did over 20 paintings of her in the following months. All appropriated a publicity still from the 1953 film Niagara.

The only Double Marilyn I found in a quick web search is a 1962 painting sold at Christie’s London in 2008 (right). It’s described as “one of the early images on this theme,” but I can’t say whether it’s the Nathanson one. LACMA has two Soup Cans and a set of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Boxes, but no Marilyn.

Lynda Resnick, to Pener: “I just told Michael [Govan] to come over and pick what he wanted and he did, and then I thought, well, there’s no sculpture represented. So then I said, ‘Michael, pick a piece of sculpture.’ Of course he picked the single-most important thing we have, which is what he should have done and we are thrilled.”

In the past Resnick has spoken of dividing her and husband Stewart’s collection among the Philadelphia Museum of Art, LACMA, and the Getty. If Govan got first dibs, that would be another coup. A highlight of the 2010 LACMA exhibition, “Eye for the Sensual,” was Elizabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun’s Portrait of Marie Antoinette. For what it’s worth, Los Angeles Confidential has a photo of the three art patrons, chez Resnick, with Marie Antoinette as backdrop.

The Resnicks’ tastes have lately moved beyond Rococo. They have added a Hans Memling Christ Blessing (lent to the Huntington for a 2013 show). Jesus or Marie Antoinette? Either would be a fantastic addition to LACMA’s European painting collection.

As to sculptures, my guess for ”the single most important thing” is Houdon’s The Kiss.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that “even Eli Broad doesn’t have a [Warhol] Marilyn.” In fact the Eli and Edythe L. Broad collection contains a 1962 Two Marilyns.

Hammer Is Building a Bridge to Itself

The Hammer Museum is building a bridge across its courtyard. It seems that many visitors were missing the permanent collection galleries on the east side of the building’s loop. The bridge, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture and named for former Senator and museum chairman John V. Tunney, is set to open February 2015. The Tunney Bridge will help correct a problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Edward Larrabee Barnes’  building has always been confusing to first-time visitors. As a 1991 review in the L.A. Times complained, “The whole way one enters the museum is downbeat and confusing.”

In the Beaux-Arts era museums had grand steps leading up to a grand entrance. There is only one museum like that in the region, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. But its grand entrance has not been an entrance for many years. It leads into a rotunda with no provision for ticketing. NHMLA was built in a genteel age when taxpayer-supported museums were free.

NHMLA is now directing visitors to a flashy new entrance (via a bridge).

The County’s other flagship museum, LACMA, has also accreted entrances over the years. Making sense of its campus is one of the main arguments for the Peter Zumthor redo. The Zumthor building will have multiple entrances by design. One might lead to Chinese galleries, another to American galleries, etc. It remains to be seen whether the public will embrace this clever idea or simply want to know which entrance is “best.”

The Getty Center was built in a single billion-dollar campaign and ought to be perfect. Except… Richard Meier doesn’t like signs. This defensible stance is harder to defend in a big complex combining public and private elements. The Getty has helpful folk greeting tram debarkees—and pointing out which building is the museum. It has recently taken to plastic signage underfoot, nudging visitors to the Exhibition Pavilion.

Ultimately, all of this reflects a prevailing architectural and museologic philosophy. Museums should be non-hierarchical. They should not enforce an Alfred Barr circuit; not privilege one type of art, or one experience of art, over another.

This is a libertarian philosophy (even if most espousing it cringe at the mention of Ayn Rand, or Rand Paul). The visitor is given total, existential freedom to invent his or her own experience. But the human reality is that total freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be. Most of us, most of time, welcome a “curated” heads-up—just as long as we can opt out. The Hammer’s bridge might be a modest step in that direction.

Did Manet’s “Spring” Inspire Seurat’s “Grande Jatte”?

Christie’s lot notes for Édouard Manet’s Spring (Jeanne Demarsy)the painting the Getty acquired and has just put on view—makes an audacious claim: that Georges Seurat “alluded to the profile view of Jeanne Demarsy” in his own masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884. The focal point of Seurat’s picture is of course a woman with a  parasol. Like Manet’s Jeanne Demarsy, she is in profile, carries her parasol at a jaunty angle, and offers a contrast of black against a verdant landscape.

Grande Jatte is in every art history book. Spring is not. Though Spring has been on loan to the National Gallery of Art for the past 21 years, it has not been in any Manet retrospective (not since 1884, anyway) or Impressionist-era blockbuster. It is rarely reproduced in books or on the Web (until recently). This past weekend the Getty’s Impressionist gallery was packed, and vernacular photographers queued up for a shot at Spring.

Despite its obscurity in the 20th century, Spring was once among Manet’s best-known works. It debuted at the 1882 Salon with the now-renowned and much larger A Bar at the Folies Bergère. It seems that Spring got at least as much attention as A Bar.

Manet was asked to reproduce both paintings. He wrote that A Bar could not be reproduced without halftones, but Spring could be an etching. Manet produced a drawing of Spring (now in Harvard’s Fogg Museum) that was used as the basis for a reproductive etching that appeared in the Gazette des Beaux Arts. Much later, it was sold as a print, and in this form Spring appears in many museum print collections.

Spring was apparently the first work of art to reproduced in color with photographic process. This involved three black-and-white photos taken through color filters. Similar to Clerk Maxwell’s pioneering forays into color photography, the particular process was the invention of poet Charles Cros, a friend of Manet’s. The color reproduction appeared on the cover of critic Ernest Hoschede’s Impressions de mon Voyage Au Salon de 1882. The printed result is reversed and muddy, though it forecasts Walter Benjamin’s anxious age of mechanical reproduction. The reproduction’s murky color would ultimately be resolved by Benjamin Henry Day, Jr.’s dots, invented in 1879, two years before Manet’s painting, and later used to print American comic books.

Seurat must have attended the 1882 Salon. He hardly could have missed Manet’s two buzzed-about paintings. He likely also saw Manet’s posthumous exhibition at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1884, which also included Spring. The year 1884 was the starting point of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884. It was completed in time to appear at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886. (Actually Seurat added the painted border a few years after that.) Thus Seurat probably saw Spring at least twice while creating Grande Jatte. He could have had a reproduction of Spring, even a color one, at hand.

Of course that doesn’t prove that the woman in Grande Jatte was conceived as a reference to Manet’s Demarsy. Least of all does the parasol prove anything. Parasols were the rage, and there are parasols galore just in Grande Jatte. Monet, Renoir, and many lesser lights did pictures of women with parasols. Seurat studied his Grand Jatte figure in a drawing that is also at the Chicago Art Institute. Dated 1884, it is a full figure, doubtless from a model, and close to the final painted image. It lacks the prominent (red) flower on the hat—one point of similarity between Spring and Grande Jatte.

The coincidence is not the parasol but the profile view of a young woman with a parasol. Manet was influenced by early Florentine Renaissance portraiture, which favored profiles as flattering and suitably dignified. Seurat was well aware of Renaissance art too and was especially keen on Piero della Francesca. That could mean that he and Manet simply shared common influences, in art history and contemporary fashion, that independently led them to the profile/parasol motif.

The Spring-Grande Jatte thesis can be taken further, albeit by segueing from art history to conspiracy theorizing. Grande Jatte was conceived as a big, bourgeoisie-scandalizing machine along the lines of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Both paintings present moderns at leisure in a leafy setting with water in the background. The posture of the foreground man in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is close to that of the most prominent male figure in Grande Jatte.

The cat in Manet’s Olympia is echoed by a dog in Grande Jatte, both silhouettes on a green ground. And if you believe that Grande Jatte is a grabbag of encoded Manet references, then it’s easy to identify Jeanne Demarsy with the umbrella woman on Seurat’s grassy knoll.

I would say that the Spring-Grande Jatte theory is unprovable (in the absence of documentation) but not implausible. It does seem that Seurat would have known of Spring not just as a masterpiece but as a meme, a much-reproduced image that was famous for being famous. Spring thus could have been a target for Seurat’s dotty deadpan, as Picasso’s modern women were for Roy Lichtenstein.

Norton Simon’s Duveen Shopping Binge

In 1964 Norton Simon purchased New York’s Duveen Brothers Gallery for $4 million (about $30 million in today’s money). That bought almost 800 art objects plus a building, library, and archive. Corporate raider that he was, Simon downsized Duveen, selling off works that didn’t interest him. It’s said that he recouped much of the $4 million in the sales. Of the original Duveen stock, about 130 artworks remain in the Norton Simon Museum collection. Two dozen are usually on view. The NSM’s “Lock, Stock and Barrel: Norton Simon’s Purchase of Duveen Brothers Gallery” is largely about the hundred-some Duveen works that aren’t normally on view. Many are on display here for the first time.

As with every other working gallery, the 1964 Duveen stock was a quality pyramid. At the apex was Gerard David’s The Coronation of the Virgin, top of post. This remains a tentpole of the NSM collection, worthy of the greatest things that Simon would later acquire.

Below that were solid, representative pieces by important artists. At bottom was a foundation of studio copies, trivia, dreck, wrecks, forgeries and conundra. Simon didn’t sell off all the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. He may have hoped to find a prize in the Cracker Jacks.

Consider the painting that brought Simon to Duveen in the first place. It’s a Courtesan attributed to Giorgione (or Titian? or somebody not that famous?) Unfortunately Giorgione is at this point more a literary character (from Vasari) than an oeuvre. There are only about ten widely accepted Giorgiones on the planet. Even they involve some guesswork. The Simon Courtesan is at best on the fringes of that charmed circle. It lacks the magic of the atmospheric portrait in San Diego. Could it be established, once and for all, that the Courtesan was by Giorgione, it would be a coup for the Norton Simon Museum… less so for the artist. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Simon also got from Duveen a possible Carpaccio portrait and a threadbare Madonna that is likely to be an early work of Botticelli. These are regularly shown. Not so is a rogue’s gallery of Bellini, Titian, and Tintoretto wannabes. One is the alleged Tintoretto Venetian Nobelman. It appeared in the 1857 “Art Treasures of the United Kingdom Exhibition.” When it came into the Duveen collection, one connoisseur pronounced it “the most important portrait by Domenico Tintoretto.” To today’s eyes something about the face is suspiciously modern, and the gown and landscape are disappointing. No one has proven it’s not a Tintoretto, but so many scholars have given it thumbs down that it’s not been on view.

The middle tier of the Duveen pyramid includes paintings by Luini, Catena, Ribera, Rigaud, Largillière, and Fragonard; sculptures by Giambologna and Clodion; a group of Flemish Renaissance tapestries. There are also some surprising outliers. On view for the first time is a 14th-century fresco of Saint Anthony Abbot from Avignon; a Fontainebleau School painting of the Birth of Adonis; and a powder-blue silk Mantle of the Order of Carlos III of Spain dated c. 1804.

It’s possible to read the NSM show as a critique of connoisseurship. Look at how many ambitious attributions were wrong! Well, yes and no. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Duveen’s bargain basement had relatively few prizes. Connoisseurship and science come into play only in the undocumented and problematic cases. Not too many of these turn out to be diamonds in the rough.

New technologies have been successful in dating panel painting supports and terra-cotta sculptures. Above left is a fake Donatello scientifically dated to c. 1860 (the artist would have been 480 years young), and an intriguingly possible Luca della Robbia. The science says it’s from the mid-1400s. That would support Sir John Pope-Hennessy’s endorsement of it as a probable original. (The problem with connoisseurship is that the experts are usually right but you can’t tell when they’re wrong.)

The craziest conundrum of all must be a Crucifixion by… would you believe, Richard Parkes Bonington? It’s a Romantic-era reinvention of a Rubens oil sketch believed to have been owned by Delacroix. Bonington might have had a chance to copy it. It’s nothing like the landscape subjects Bonington is known for, precluding any confident attribution.

Another mystery guest, a c. 1770 Fête Champêtre, dominates the show’s third room. It’s four large and three smaller decorative panels of rococo-Chinoiserie tweeness. The Simon now identifies it as “Style of Jacques Lajoue,” and the label says the artist could have been French, Italian, Dutch, or German.

Were I to nominate one back-bench Duveen work worthy of regular display, I’d pick George Romney’s Lady Hamilton as “Medea,” c. 1786. Duveen pushed British portraits onto American collectors and was a primary supplier of Henry Huntington. It’s said that Huntington entertained friends with his hilarious imitation of Duveen. Simon sold off most of Duveen’s British stock because he saw little point in competing with the Huntington collection. He kept Medea, though. There are other Romney Hamiltons in greater Los Angeles, but nothing like this one. Almost as weird as a Fuseli, it looks forward to the wild hair of the Pre-Raphaelites.

MOCA’s New Schedule Is Smart and Sensible

MOCA’s 2015/2016 exhibition schedule is a return to real art for real art audiences. A Matthew Barney exhibition, focused on his new RIVER OF FUNDAMENT project, might be considered the flashiest attraction. Shows of William Pope.L, Elaine Sturtevant, and R.H. Quaytman ought to establish MOCA as the artist’s artist museum. (At top, Quaytman’s Point de Gaze, Chapter 23, 2011.)

Not in the mix: the Magdalena Fernandez exhibition that MOCA had scheduled and rescheduled. There’s no budget-busting Jeff Koons, no disco, no Devo.

There is Kendrick Lamar, sort of. MOCA will present Kahlil Joseph’s m.A.A.d, a two-screen hip-hop Fantasia scored to Lamar’s beats (a still at left). True believers in the Deitchian fusion of art and fashion can look forward to Bernhard Willhelm and Jutta Kraus’ “sculptural installation with a fashion sensibility” at MOCA Pacific Design Center.

Has there ever been an major museum’s exhibition schedule not worthy of Guerrilla Girls shaming? MOCA 2015/6 might merit a pass. Of the four single-artist and multiple-object shows, two involve women, and one an African-American. There are no Latinas, but Magdalena Fernandez must have been on the bubble? The L.A. Times reports that exhibitions of Kerry James Marshall and Zoe Leonard are planned for 2017.

The elephant in the calendar is a one-year permanent collection install that will occupy the entire Grand Avenue building from fall 2015 to fall 2016. That must have been motivated by the Deitch-Vergne hairpin turn and a renewed commitment to fiscal discipline. The year-long event will lay out Chief Curator Helen Molesworth’s take on MOCA’s historic collection and its newest art. Above is an untitled Lari Pittman, gift of Peter Morton.

MOCA’s permanent collection display will coincide with the opening of the Broad. Roughly this time next year Grand Avenue will highlight the contemporary wing of the “Greater Museum of Los Angeles”—that museum with too many walls.

The Dog With the Pink Leg

Move over Wegman Weimaraners and Koons pups. The dog of the moment is skinny and has a hot pink leg. She’s a living conceptual art piece called Human, part of the Pierre Huyghe retrospective that opens Sunday in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion. “Human” was a sensation of Documenta 13 and the subject of countless selfies at the Pompidou and Museum Ludwig. The dog is one reason the museum requires timed tickets to see the show. Here’s all you need to know about Human.

What kind of dog is Human?

Human is an Ibizan hound, bred in ancient Egypt and said to be one of the oldest of surviving breeds. The dog became extinct in Egypt, however, and modern specimens descend from dogs on the Western Mediterranean island of Ibiza. Ibizan (or Pharaoh) hounds have a respected place in art history. They were the presumptive model for depictions of Anubis, jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife. (Shown, a recumbent Anubis from Late or Ptolemaic period, Metropolitan Museum.)

How is Human around large swarms of bees?

Cool. (Another Huyghe installation involves thousands of bees.) Ibizan hounds are friendly, inquisitive, and intelligent. Videos show visitors petting Human. In previous showings, and probably at LACMA, Human had a sheltered place to go when she needed some quiet time.

What makes Human’s leg pink?

Red food coloring.

Why is Human’s leg pink?

Huyghe said it “breaks the form of ‘dog,’ makes you look at it as something else.” The color “makes me think of the Sex Pistols. It’s very punk, that color.”

What if I want my own Ibizan hound?

Well, be prepared for the lecture on how you shouldn’t get a dog just because you saw it in a relational aesthetics piece. Ibizan hounds require lots of exercise. It’s advised that they need plenty of space to run and an owner who can devote an hour a day to exercising them. There is an Ibizan Hound Club of the United States.

Are there any pictures of Human resting on a mink stole?


La Tour’s “Louis XV” at the Getty

The Getty Center is showing three 18th-century French pastel portraits on loan from unidentified collector(s). They include works by Coypel and Perronneau; plus King Louis XV in Armor Before Tournai Cathedral by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. This is apparently the portrait shown at the Salon of 1745, which led to other court commissions. La Tour did a second Louis XV portrait (1748) at the Louvre—three years older, heavier, more dissipated.

Is Mr. Turner Classy Enough for San Diego?

Last summer the Timken Museum’s visiting director, conservator David Bull, canceled one of the three major painting loans that had been organized for the Timken’s 50th anniversary in 2015. According to Bull, J.M.W. Turner’s famous Valley of Aosta—Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm wasn’t “world class” enough for the small Balboa Park institution. It was unclear whether that was to be taken as a thumbs down on Turner, the preservation of Valley of Aosta, or the appeal of a very abstract landscape.

The Timken’s Facebook page recently posted this photo of Bull… who happens to be shown working on Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights.

Ghana’s Culture-Clash Cloths at the Fowler

The sleeper show of this fall is the UCLA Fowler Museum’s one-room “Yards of Style: African-Print Cloths of Ghana.” Museum displays of African textiles usually chase the chimera called authenticity. “Yards of Style” is deliriously inauthentic. Everything you see is mass-produced, much of it in China for African tastes. Those tastes embrace Eurotrash bling, World Cup soccer, Madison Avenue illustration, Silicon Valley tech gear (not the latest), and above all a jazzy discord of color and pattern.

Ghana’s printed cloths may be made into clothing, wrapped or tailored; they are also prized as prestige collectables and given as gifts. It’s said that an affluent woman may own over 150 wax-print cloths. That means that an Accra fashionista might have what you see at the Fowler several times over.

Popular designs are given names that carry prestige and may encode multiple levels of meaning. “Cinderella” (above) ought to keep diligent Africanists busy for a while. It’s a Chinese interpretation of a Franco-German-Disney fairy tale. The wand owes something to those in magic kits hawked to American youth. The perfume bottle, not part of the Cinderella or pre-teen magic canon, is out of a luxury ad. The op art ribbon, or whatever it is, must be indebted to Victor Vasarely. Or is the whole thing an atavistic echo of the top hat, magic stars, and trippy patterns of Paul Signac’s Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon?

There is a strictly Afrocentric side to the show. That’s the most outrageous travesty of all. One of the display racks (loosely modeled on those in Ghana’s markets) presents mechanically printed simulacra of handmade Kente and Adinkra cloths. American parallels would be Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans and plastic flooring made of laminated photographs of hardwood floors.

The faux-traditional cloths were at least made in Africa, as many of the show’s textiles were not. The globalizing nature of the printed cloth business, and every business, gets retro-infographic treatment in “Handshake.”

Many cloths are political. One 1984 design memorializes Liberia’s 3rd National Redemption Day. It lionizes, within a circle of hippopotami, Samuel K. Doe, the nation’s U.S.-supported (for a while) military dictator.

President and Mrs. Obama made a state visit to Ghana in 2009. Whatever his approval ratings here, Obama remains a hero in the Ghana cloth markets, with many photo-based likenesses on offer. An understated tribute is the enduringly popular pattern known as “Michelle’s Handbag” (made first in Ghana and, in the example below, knocked off in China).

Sturtevant, Barney Coming to MOCA

Though it’s still unofficial, two upcoming MOCA exhibitions have been disclosed. Curator Bennett Simpson’s Facebook page and today’s New York Times are saying that MoMA’s “Sturtevant: Double Trouble” will travel to MOCA March 21 to July 27, 2015. And in a New York Observer piece last month collector and former MOCA board member Maria Arena Bell mentioned an upcoming Matthew Barney show. Finally, it may or may not be meaningful that the Magdalena Fernandez exhibition, planned for 2014, then bumped for Warhol’s Shadows and moved up to 2015, is no longer listed on the MOCA site.

(Tyler Green tweeted the Sturtevant news. Above, Sturtevant’s Haring Tag July 15 1981.)