William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Fuseli’s Weird Sisters to the Huntington

The Huntingon has acquired its first Henry Fuseli painting, The Three Witches (or The Weird Sisters), c. 1782. It represents the fortune-telling witches in Macbeth. At 30 inches across, it’s one of three versions of the composition, the others at the Kunsthaus Zurich and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Despite the Shakespearean subject, the gilded frame quotes Aeschylus, roughly: “These are women but I call them Gorgons.” The Huntington believes that inscription was supplied by the erudite Fuseli.

The Huntington painting is an oil study preparatory to the other two versions. The Zurich version (left) is somewhat larger and more polished in technique. It does not crop the pointing fingers and includes a death’s head moth. But the intense faces of the Huntington painting are more disturbing, and the lighting is more spectral.

By 1791 the composition was familiar enough to be fodder for one of James Gillray’s political cartoons (below). The three “Wierd Sisters” represent Lord Dundas, William Pitt, and Lord Thurlow. Rather than point out the future, they ponder an indecisive present. The moon’s faces are those of “lunatic” King George III and Queen Charlotte.

The Huntington painting was in British private collections for most of its existence. It was last auctioned at Christie’s in 2003 (for $361,500). The Huntington bought it from dealer Jean-Luc Baroni using a fund set up by George R. and Patricia Geary Johnson.

There aren’t many Fuseli paintings in America. LACMA has one, and Paul Mellon gave four to the Yale Center for British Art and one to the National Gallery of Art. The Met has another, also a witchy subject. The Huntington press release rates The Three Witches “second in impact only” to The Nightmare at the Detroit Institute of Art. Swiss-born, but active in Britain, Fuseli was just about the only major painter of the Georgian age not represented in the Huntington collection.

The Three Witches goes on view Oct. 11 (in time for Halloween). A small exhibition of drawings by Fuseli, William Blake, and their contemporaries will run Nov. 22 through March 16, 2015.

A Short History of Broken Mirrors

The Hammer Museum’s “Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take” include several works made from fractured mirrors. In Hodge’s Movements series, a semi-circular mirror-mosaic produces a numinous play of light on an adjacent wall. The treated mirror reflects its own off-kilter reflections, and reflections of its reflections, ad infinitum. It’s a light-and-space fractal.

From Jan van Eyck to Roy Lichtenstein, painters have occasionally taken up the challenge of representing a mirror. Luis Camnitzer’s This is a Mirror (1966-8) was a linchpin of early conceptualism. Camnitzer’s vacuum-formed plastic “mirror” is as bogus as the oil-on-canvas one in Las Meninas.

Mirrors have lately become a material for contemporary artists. Broken or fragmented mirrors are less often encountered. Tradition connects broken mirrors to bad luck—or to cubism, which has been likened to reflections in a shattered mirror. Florence Henri’s photography of the 1920s deployed multiple small mirrors to achieve a cubist effect.

In the 1960s, Michelangelo Pistoletto came to attention for figure paintings and collages on large mirrors. At the 2009 Venice Biennale, Pistoletto smashed a series of framed mirrors with a mallet.

Alberto Pellaschiar’s press photo of the smashing is a modern history painting rivaling anything by Struth. Recalling Apple’s 1984 SuperBowl ad, it presents the mirror as a metaphor for our selfie-centric media-verse.

The mirrored rooms of Lucas Samaras and Yayoi Kusama exploit the barbershop mirrors effect of infinite reflection. Hodges’s Movements use two imperfect reflectors: the fractured mirror and a white wall. The imperfection conjures theatrical magic out of the white cube—symbol of contemporary art, that mirror to society. Explained Hodges: “I’m a destroyer as much as I’m a maker.”

(Below, René Magritte’s Evening Falls, 1964)

“Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Art”

LACMA is debuting a couple dozen newly acquired pieces in “Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Art.” Gerhard Richter’s St. Andrew (1988) is the frontispiece, but almost everything else was made in the past few years. (At top is an Aaron Curry next to paintings by Christopher Wool and Mary Weatherford.)

Rachel Lachowicz’s Cell: Interlocking Construction (2010) is an assemblage of plastic polyhedra containing blue powders—cosmetic eye shadows. This experiment in feminist chiaroscuro is shown next to Lachowicz’s Lipstick Urinals, 1992, that LACMA bought in 1995. The pairing makes a concise introduction to Lachowicz. You can say the same for groupings by Sterling Ruby, Mark Grotjahn, and Mark Bradford.

LACMA must have been one of the first museums to acquire a Bradford (in 2003). This year it added two large recent works. Shoot the Coin is one of the best in any museum. Carta (above) has a faux basketball that might recall Joe Goode’s milk bottles.

Speaking of bottles, Amy Sillman’s Untitled/Purple Bottle recapitulates a history of postmodern bottle painting, from Giorgio Morandi to Mike Kelley.

Rashid Johnson’s Afro-futurist psychoanalytic couch, Four for the Talking Cure (left), is from a series shown in London in 2012 “inspired by… an imagined society in which psychotherapy is a freely available drop-in service.”

Think contemporary art is an exclusive club? Dianna Molzan’s Untitled (2012) conjoins a frame with a velvet rope.

A downside of the global art market’s feeding frenzy for contemporary art is that even mid-career artists may be unaffordable by the biggest museums. Going by the quality and quantity of what’s on view, LACMA has moved to the forefront of institutional collectors of art here and now.

Nearly all the work in “Variations” was donated by private collectors, and no single name dominates. LACMA is collecting the old-fashioned way, by persuading wealthy citizens to buy top-of-the-line art and donate it to their city’s museum for the good of all. That’s a “variation” from the L.A. model of even a few years ago. Amen to that.

Should Museums Shame Critics for Bad Reviews?

Through Sunday MOCA is offering free admission to “Andy Warhol: Shadows” to anyone who brings a review and tweets about it (hashtag #LetsDiscuss). The Museum’s tweeted photo makes it clear they’re reacting to Christopher Knight’s negative review in the L.A. Times.

“Vapid and pretentious, the overblown installation ranks among the worst works Warhol made,” writes Knight. This view is no outlier. That Shadows and other late Warhol abstractions are relatively minor is the conventional opinion. MOCA is challenging that opinion, as it’s entitled to do.

Other reviews of the MOCA show have been kinder. Chalk up Edward Goldman’s as a rave. (“Andy at the Top of His Game… Hurry up and go see the new jaw-dropping exhibition…”) Still other reviews, including my own own, have been generally positive, if not to a Goldmanesque degree. But hey, don’t go by me. I’m Mikey—I like (almost) everything.

So Knight alone dares to say the Pope of Pop Art has no clothes.

This is the Internet, and we’re all making up the rules as we go along. MOCA’s social net team must have regarded the promotion as a proactive way of countering a bad review. My sense is that it comes off as belittling rather than encouraging honest discussion.

Are there any situations where a museum might push back against criticism? Sure. An obvious example is New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s criticism of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary back in 1999. Giuliani was a powerful figure who knew nothing about contemporary art. His words got far more attention than any art critic’s and, had they gone unchallenged, would have left the public misinformed. Using the controversy as a teachable moment was inevitable.

But with Knight and Shadows, there’s nothing to teach. Knight knows all about Warhol and is offering his well-informed opinion that Shadows is bad Warhol. I’m not sure the Internet has changed the old advice, that the best reaction to a bad review is to ignore it.

Laguna’s “Last Supper” Gets the GIF Treatment

The New York Times recently ran a long-form piece on Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters (in which O.C. volunteers pose as famous works of art). Trust me—you’ll want to click the link just for the GIF of The Last Supper.

The Vault of Mr. Unreasonable

The Broad recently tweeted these construction photos of its Diller Scofidio + Renfro staircase. Though the escalator has gotten most of the attention, the staircase (which allows a view of the “vault” storage level for the Broad collection) will make a substantial statement itself. You may be reminded of the trippy staircase designs in LACMA’s “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s.” (At bottom, a staircase in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.)

A gallery text at LACMA explains: “Stairs appear frequently in Expressionist set designs. Leading the eye up (or down) to an unknown and unseen destination, a staircase can suggest both physical displacement and psychological states such as anxiety and foreboding… At the conclusion of The Nibelungen (1924), victims lie dead on the steps… And in the futuristic Metropolis (1927), pyramid-like staircases organize the workers’ movements, first into and then away from the maw of the machine.”

Bohemia on the Bay

Long ago, when the 20th century was middle-aged and San Francisco real estate was a whole lot cheaper, an artist (Jess [Collins]) and his poet partner (Robert Duncan) lived in bohemian splendor, helped by Duncan’s trust fund of $275 a month. That bought a Mission District home with room for entertaining. The pair’s network of talented friends, skewing gay and female, defined the “San Francisco Renaissance.” That movement, nominally opposed to the better-known Beats, is now being celebrated at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle.” (Above, Jess’ collage Sent on the VIIth Wave, 1979).

Jess, "The Seven Deadly Virtues of Contemporary Art" The Jess Collins Trust

Curated by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff, “An Opening” begins as an overdue (for L.A.) Jess survey. Jess began as an abstract expressionist but came to question the Greenbergian virtues of spontaneity and immediacy (see his little manifesto at left). He evolved into an almost sculptural brand of Bay Area figure painting. Despite that Jess is best known for his collages. The New York establishment connected his cut-ups of Dick Tracy comic strips (“Tricky Cad”) to the Pop movement. But if ever an artist resisted categorization, it was Jess. One amusing group of  text collages (below) were created as film titles.

Though Jess is properly the star, his work comprises one-fifth of PMCA’s dense show. Otherwise “An Opening of the Field” is a tasting menu of Bay Area modernism, visual and literary. There are a few big names, like George Herms and Wallace Berman, and some surprising cameos, such as Pauline Kael, Jack Kerouac, and Robert de Niro Jr.’s mom, Virginia Admiral.

Paul Alexander, "Eakins as Pan" Collection of Ernesto Edwards, Salt Lake City

Paul Alexander, "Eakins as Pan" Collection of Ernesto Edwards, Salt Lake City

Mainly “An Opening” is about a couple dozen artists you’ve probably never heard of. One is Paul Alexander, a latter-day intimist. His Eakins as Pan (1974), based on a Thomas Eakins photographic self-portrait, is rendered in an elegiac Fairfield Porter style.

Quite a few of the people here are poets who did art only as a sideline. The surprise is how engaging their efforts can be. One reason is collage, a modernist medium with few barriers to entry. That’s not to say anyone can do it, but it doesn’t take a lot of training to produce interesting results. Jess’s example apparently inspired many friends to to take up scissors, paste, and Life magazine. Among them was the Scotland-born poet-prodigy Helen Adam. Below is Adam’s Where Are the Snows.

Virginia Admiral worked in the shadow of her painter husband, Robert DeNiro, and is now inevitably connected to her movie-star son. Admiral’s The Red Table (1944, below) is deeply indebted to Matisse, as was much of her husband’s work, but few Americans approached her level of tart chromatic lyricism.

Never-Built Malibu: The Getty Volcano

—from Stephen Garrett’s 1977 report on “Future Development” of the J. Paul Getty Museum, which was exploring options for using its founder’s billion-dollar bequest

Warhol’s Disco Rothko Chapel

MOCA got its disco show after all. Andy Warhol envisioned a hundred-panel abstraction, a “disco Rothko,” for Studio 54. The nightclub passed, and the work was instead commissioned by the precursor of the Dia Art Foundation. Dia’s former director, Phillippe Vergne, is now MOCA’s director, and he’s arranged a loan of the Dia Warhol, titled Shadows. It has converted MOCA Grand Avenue into a Disco Rothko Chapel.

Warhol’s late abstractions—Shadows, Oxidation/Piss, Rorschach, and Camouflage paintings—have been called difficult, self-indulgent, and just not that good. MOCA’s 2012 “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol” argued that the late abstractions were due for reappraisal. When The Broad opens across the street, its collection will hold large Camouflage and Rorschach paintings.

Factory assistant Ronnie Cutrone said the Shadows silkscreens were based on photographs of studio constructions that Warhol made to cast interesting shadows. That connects them to Constructivist and Dada precedents, such as Man Ray’s 1919 Integration of Shadows (right).

Warhol described Shadows as “disco decor.” But he also blew up when poet René Ricard used the term”decorative.” “That got me really mad,” Warhol told his diary, “and I’m so embarrassed, everybody saw the real me.”

Rothko is decorative (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Warhol’s Day-Glo acrylics seem intentionally garish. They are fundamentally experiments in monochrome. Shadows has more profitably been compared to Franz Kline’s B&W abstractions. (Several  are on view in MOCA’s permanent collection galleries. Left, Buttress.)

The installation in MOCA’s biggest gallery does however pose parallels to the Rothko Chapel and the perception that certain abstractions are worthy of extended philosophic contemplation. That can’t have been a realistic prospect for Studio 54. Yet there is a melancholic tone to much of late Warhol. Shadows is often connected the Skull series of 1977. In those memento mori, Warhol gave equal weight to shadow and substance, and sometimes upset the figure-ground applecart by screening negative images. The vibe of Shadows is similarly sepulchral. “Even in the disco, there am I.”

A Houdon in a Hoodie

The Brooklyn Museum has acquired this Kehinde Wiley bronze bust, Houdon Paul-Louis (2011), in advance of its 2015 Wiley show. The title and composition refer to Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1777 marble portrait at the Huntington, Madame Paul-Louis Girardot de Vermenoux (right). Like Robert Rauschenberg, L.A.-born Wiley credited the Huntington’s old masters with sparking his interest in art.