William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

A Renaissance Odd Couple Remains a Mystery

LACMA has reunited a Paolo Veronese painting cycle in “Four Allegories by Veronese: A Rediscovery and a Reunion.” The museum bought two of paintings in 1974 as a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation. They were always an odd couple: a river god-looking guy in classical dress and a younger, bearded man in Renaissance drapery. It was known that the two were part of a series of four, as copies of whole cycle exist. Recently the two other Veronese originals have been identified in Turin. The four paintings were reunited in two recent Italian exhibitions and are now being shown in the U.S. for the first time.

The Turin paintings are a female figure representing Sculpture and a a turbaned male clutching an armillary sphere. The Turin man fits in easily with the LACMA paintings (“Dudes and Their Navigation Instruments”). It’s harder to figure how Sculpture fit into the scheme.

W. R. Rearick identified the three male figures as as the Greco-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (LACMA), Islamic philosopher-scientist Averroës (LACMA), and Zoroaster (Turin), based on attributes in woodcut illustrations to a 1556 edition of Vitruvius. With its colors and balletic pose, Averroës is the most engaging of the set, but it’s the least historically accurate. The philosopher, who lived in Spain and Morocco, is usually depicted with a beard and turban. His most famous imaginary portrait is in Raphael’s School of Athens (with turban but without beard). The bare head and mannerist costume of LACMA’s Averroës is a departure. In fact, the Turin man might pass as a more conventional Averroës. (Left to right: Raphael’s Averroës, LACMA’s Veronese Averroës, and Veronese’s Zoroaster.)

But the identification of the Turin man as Zoroaster has to be right. He’s shown holding an armillary sphere, a kind of celestial globe, and stands next to a terrestrial globe. Those are Zoroaster’s attributes, as seen in The School of Athens (where the sage appears close to Raphael’s self-portrait).

It remains uncertain who commissioned the cycle or why. A gallery text mentions the theory that the three sages were intended for the Marciana Library, Venice, but were ultimately rejected as unsuited to Jacopo Sansovino’s architecture. Veronese might have added a fourth painting—the outlier Sculpture—to make a set more appealing to another patron.

(Below, an Italian armillary sphere, too fancy to have gotten much use, c. 1600.)

Anti-Björk at the Forest Lawn Museum

Björk, schmjörk. L.A. audiences interested in the intersection of art and alt/pop have an alternative in “Revolutions 2: The Art of Music” at the Forest Lawn Museum, Glendale. Forest Lawn sure ain’t MoMA, but it’s $25 cheaper and offers the frisson of contemplating Grateful Dead graphics in a cemetery with working crematory. (Above, Rick Griffin’s Hawaiian OXOMOXO, 1969.)

The 2 in the exhibition title refers the fact that this is an expanded version of a popular show from ten years back. It’s also being billed as the Forest Lawn Museum’s biggest-ever show of contemporary art.

Just not too contemporary. Radio marketers would term the mix “classic” rock, Elvis to Eminem. Forest Lawn might think of it as savvy marketing for a cohort of aging boomers.

At least 95 percent of what’s on view is kitsch past its expiration date. That’s the bad news. The good news is that (a) 95 percent of Björk/MoMA is also crap, and (b) the other 5 percent of the Forest Lawn show is pretty interesting.

Start with the Ernie Cefalu drawing for the Rolling Stones tongue logo (1971). The tongue first appeared in the packaging for the Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers, remembered for Andy Warhol’s cover photo of a jean-clad crotch. Cefalu’s lips became a meme, as much as any Paul Rand logo lionized by modern design departments.

Partly because of Warhol and Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper cover (neither in the Forest Lawn show), 1970s album art became a high-low medium. This informed the early music videos of the 1980s and is still a factor today.

The high-low art of rock illustration was often derivative—or was it postmodern? Glenn McKenzie did an oil-on-canvas painting for the cover of Alice Cooper’s DaDa album (1983). It rips off Dali’s rip offs of the visual puns of contemporary and art history.

The exhibition’s few examples of West Coast psychedelia are standouts. Psychedelia too was retro, drawing on Art Nouveau’s curves as well as op and pop influences. Shown is David Edward Byrd’s 1968 poster for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Forest Lawn show accompanies it with Byrd’s preliminary, annotated drawings, and with alternative versions, one commissioned by Prince.

Speaking of which, there’s a 1984 Neon Park portrait of Prince, in the manner of  Margaret Keane.

Tale of Two Cities

Once upon a time Mexico had two cities named Los Angeles. Puebla de los Ángeles was a wealthy, populous center of the arts. Its poor sister, Pueblo de Nuestra Señor de los Angeles, was a cultural desert in the arid Mexican outback. It was the poor Los Angeles that grew up into the American metropolis of swimming pools, movie stars, and MFAs. To historians of Spanish colonial art, the “other” Los Angeles is associated with glazed earthenware pottery (maiolica). Long Beach collector Ronald A. Belkin has given LACMA two jars and a tile representing this production, now on view in the Spanish Colonial galleries.

Puebla de los Ángeles was the only New World city to produce maiolica. The two jars’ forms are based on those of the Italian Renaissance. The blue-and-white glaze imitates Chinese porcelain. Both jars date from the the early 1700s. To the right is an earlier, multi-color Tile with Hunter from about 1690.

Today Puebla de los Ángeles (generally known as Puebla) is Mexico’s fourth-largest city. It makes Volkswagens and mole poblano; but also prized maiolica, now in prismatic colors.

A Space Odyssey for Calif. Science Center

The California Science Center is to be the permanent home for a $6 million, NASA-co-organized space station exhibit now at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul. The most-buzzed-about feature simulates weightlessness. Visitors stand on a bridge as a mock-up of the International Space Station rotates around them. It looks and feels like you’re spinning in zero-gravity.

NASA used the illusion, known as vection, to train astronauts. Kubrick adopted it in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Victorian amusement parks used it in an attraction billed as the “haunted swing.” Those who get motion-sick are advised to close their eyes.

(Below, a still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Late Turner and the Dress That Broke the Internet

I walked through the Getty Museum’s “J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free” thinking about a more recent picture. It was the digital photo of a dress that set the Internet buzzing last Thursday. Some saw the dress as white and gold, others as blue and black. It split couples—for Kim Kardashian it was #whiteandgold; for Kanye West it was #blueandblack. Kanye was right, it turned out, when less ambiguous photos of the dress turned up and themselves went viral. The dress came to mind in the Getty show with Turner’s Peace—Burial at Sea (1842), on loan from the Tate. Critics objected that Turner had painted the white sails black. Turner’s Twitter-worthy comeback: “I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”

The relativity of visual perception is the ultimate subject matter of Turner’s late years. Blue Rigi or Red Rigi?—it depends on the lighting. In the 1840s, as in the Tumblr age, ambiguity is a polarizing thing.

You’ve probably heard the psychophysical explanations for the dress. Its wearer was standing in front of a blazingly sunlit background, overexposed in the photo. The picture lacks the usual visual cues that would indicate whether the dress was itself brightly lit or in shadow. As a meme, the dress photo is fundamentally about glare and lack of visual cues. Both were fundamental to Turner’s late work. His painting Regulus looks straight into the sun, a gimmick he took from Claude Lorrain. No one can paint the sun in any “realistic” sense. What ought to be a point of white-hot incandescence must instead be represented by a blob of white pigment. Turner implies the sun’s brilliance by flooding much of his canvas with white and gold. Like the dress photo, Regulus is burnt out, subject to a finite dynamic range. The details establishing the subject and perspective are relegated to the margins.

Writing of Regulus, an 1837 Spectator critic found ”just the reverse of Claude; instead of the repose of beauty—the soft serenity and mellow light of an Italian scene—here all is glare, turbulence, and uneasiness. The only way to be reconciled to the picture is to look at it from as great a distance as the width of the gallery will allow of, and then you see nothing but a burst of sunlight.”

Turner was not an abstractionist, a misreading that the Tate-Getty-Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco-organized exhibition gently rebuts. The subject matter mattered, not just to his patrons but to Turner himself. (Regulus was the scheming Roman general whose punishment was to have his eyelids cut off and be blinded by the Tunisian sun.) But the mature Turner’s main visual interest was the aspects of a view—glare, gloom, masses of color—that are perceived a split second before the brain manages to make sense of it all. Watercolors such as Turner’s Bedroom in the Palazzo Giustinian and Venice: Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets (below) have been called “abstract” yet are essentially naturalistic. They are like what one sees when waking up in a dark room in an unfamiliar city: a reality in which dim forms momentarily resist interpretation.

This interest in the subjectivity of vision may be Turner’s most authentic connection to modernism. It recalls the tale of Kandinsky being enraptured by an indecipherable painting he saw from a distance (a Monet Haystacks, it turned out). It is in the spirit of André Breton’s surrealist decree: “Anything that can delay the categorization of beings or ideas—that can, in a word, maintain ambiguity—has my full approval.”

Quote of the Day: Charles Gaines

“[I] didn’t rely on Fresno as an art resource. I kept a New York base, which was a good thing because otherwise I would have been dragged into oblivion.’”

—Charles Gaines, in a 1990 feature in The Fresno Bee, “Is Fresno Any Place for an Artist?” The article is on view in the UCLA Hammer Museum’s “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989″

Washington & Napoleon, Under the Dome

Earlier this month, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced the acquisition of an 1822 Gilbert Stuart George Washington that was once in the collection of L.A.’s Hammer Museum. The Stuart was among the 92 objects that the UCLA-run museum returned to the Armand Hammer Foundation in 2007, in order to get out of an inconvenient clause in the founder’s will demanding near-continuous display of Hammer’s uneven collection.

It’s anyone’s guess how well the mild-mannered Stuart portrait will hold up in its new home. The Louvre Abu Dhabi plans to show it next to Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps—on loan from Versailles—and even Napoleon may have trouble competing with architect Jean Nouvel’s numinous dome.

Antonio Mancini, the Last Realist

LACMA has put on view a work by the artist that John Singer Sargent considered “the greatest living painter.” That wasn’t Cézanne, nor even John Singer Sargent. It was Antonio Mancini (1852-1930). The painting at LACMA, Dolce melodia (“Sweet Melody”, 1900), was auctioned at Christies last May and is on loan from an unidentified private collection. It is unusual in subject, paint handling, and format (6.5 feet wide by 20 inches high).

It shows a nude boy reclining on a table or mantle as an elderly violinist plays. There’s a hint of Degas in the violinist’s cropping. Mancini met Degas and Manet in 1870s Paris, and his early, realist works of starving waifs were considered akin the better-known Parisians’ ballerinas and beggars. For later works such as this, Mancini used a self-invented variant of Dürer’s perspective machine. He viewed his subjects though a frame with strings stretched in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal directions. Mancini then painted onto a similar string framework pressed flat against his canvas. The strings left a grid pattern in the sculptural paint surface, proof of the artist’s devotion to absolute realism in paintings that verge on illegibility.

The Superbad Art, and School, of Robert Williams

Robert Williams was the outlier of Paul Schimmel’s “Helter Skelter” (MOCA, 1991)—the only artist for whom low-brow was more than a pose. Williams came out of the hard-knock school of custom automotive grotesquerie. Schimmel’s MOCA exhibition invited reflection on how Williams’ art was or wasn’t akin to art-schoolers like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is revisiting Williams’ oeuvre in “Slang Aesthetics!: Robt. Williams.” (Above, Death by Exasperation, 2010).

Nominally a one-artist show, “Slang” effectively explores the circle of Robert Williams. It shares gallery space with “20 Years Under the Influence of Juxtapoz.”

That would be Juxtapoz magazine, long a champion of the art of Williams and fellow travelers. The large roster spans Mark Ryman, Shag, Shepard Fairey, Odd Nerdrum—and, yes, Margaret Keane (Flower Heads, 2011, at right). Jon Swihart has portraits, in a magic-realist-Flemish primitive mode, of Williams and Juxtapoz publisher Greg Escalante. Like Williams, many of the artists have a passionate claque that does not usually include the curators of major art museums.

The shows have only a few sculptures, but they’re often among the most memorable pieces. Kazuhiro Tsuji has two hyperreal portraits of Dali and Warhol. They were at the L.A. Art Show, displayed together. They work better at LAMAG, in separate pitch-dark alcoves.

Williams has lately turned to sculpture. I know… doesn’t sound good. René Magritte, another popular punster, sought critical and economic refuge in bronze sculpture late in his career. The two Williams fiberglass sculptures are either the LAMAG show’s best things or worst things. For Williams, that might be the sweet spot.

Artists Support MOCA With $10 Million Auction

The New York Times is reporting that 35 artists will be donating a single artwork each for an auction to support MOCA’s endowment. The sale, to be held at Sotheby’s New York May 12-13, is to include pieces by board members John Baldessari, Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, Barbara Kruger (above, Untitled [Provenance]), and Catherine Opie; former board member Ed Ruscha; and Sam Durant, Elliott Hundley, Jeff Koons, and Liz Larner. The auction house expects to raise about $10 million minus fees. That would add about 10 percent to the current endowment of $100 million — and take it 1/10 of the way to Philippe Vergne’s goal of $200 million.