William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Duck and Cover

The Daily Bulletin reports that the Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War has acquired an air raid siren that had long been installed at Claremont McKenna College. Such sirens were intended to provide civilians with notice of an impending nuclear attack. It augments a small group of American artifacts in the Wende collection, mostly focused on Eastern Europe.

The Claremont siren is the so-called birdhouse model, looking more like a honey dripper and capable of pumping out 113 decibels at a frequency slightly below an F note. The Wende intends to install it in the sculpture garden planned for its forthcoming Culver City Armory home.

Urban Light, the Sequel

This week Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum is debuting Chris Burden’s Light of Reason, a permanent installation on the museum’s Waltham, Mass. campus. Made from salvaged L.A. street lights, it will of course invite comparison to Urban Light at LACMA. The new piece has 24 near-identical street lamps arranged in three converging lines. (The LACMA sculpture has 202 lamps of various designs.) Burden, a Boston native, said the tripartite form echoes the three torches, three hills, and three Hebrew letters on the Brandeis University seal. The Rose is using the ambitious commission to advertise that it is alive and well after nearly being dissolved by the university in 2009.

This fall the Rose will be L.A. East. The John Altoon exhibition now at LACMA opens at the Rose Oct. 8. A Mark Bradford show, “Sea Monsters opens this Thursday. It features a new 100-foot-long mural, The King’s Mirror, inspired by L.A.’s subprime mortgage posters advertising “SEXY CA$H.”

Mr. & Mrs. Jesus H. Christ

I guess I can skip the SPOILER ALERT. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is built around the premise that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. Brown didn’t invent that high concept, not even within the context of pop fiction. It was a meme of late 19th-century French literature and art. The most important visual expression of it might be the Auguste Rodin sculpture the Getty Museum recently bought, Christ and Mary Magdalene.

The apocryphal gospel of Philip reports that Jesus kissed Mary often on her (blank). The last word is missing.

So is any indication of which Mary Philip meant. The New Testament names five Marys, among them the mother of Jesus. The guess, among those who take this seriously, is that Philip meant Mary Magdalene. (Right, Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, c. 1640, at LACMA.)

Incidentally, the Bible doesn’t describe her as a prostitute. Mary Magdalene has long been confused with the unnamed adulteress in the “Let he who is without sin…” episode.

In an 1886 book French socialist Louis Martin proposed that Jesus became an atheist, married M.M., and moved to the South of France, where they had a son.

Two years later Symbolist poet Rodolphe Darzens’  L’Amante du Christ explored a similar theme in verse. Félicien Rops supplied a frontispiece showing an androgynous Christ bleeding over a nude and muscular Mary Magdalene. Rodin must have played off the edginess of such antecedents in creating his more nuanced and modern image.

Rodin’s first version, a plaster Christ and Mary Magdalene, was probably modeled in 1894 and is in the Musée Rodin, Paris. Not until the following decade was it executed in two marbles, commissioned by rival steel tycoons.

The first (1905) went to German steel man August Thyssen. Thyssen rated it his favorite work by Rodin and insisted that it be placed at the head of his coffin (below right). This marble is now in the collection of Thyssen’s daughter-in-law and is displayed at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

The other (1908) marble was carved for Austrian industrialist Karl Wittgenstein, father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Wittgenstein marble, in a Dutch collection from 1964 to 2012, is the one now at the Getty.

It is a bit larger than Thyssen’s version. It also incorporates some changes. Rodin’s 1894 plaster (detail below) has an indisputable cross and open space between the figures. In the marbles, the bodies melt into each other and a mass of unfinished stone that is only vaguely cruciform. Judging from online photographs, the Getty marble is cut less less deeply on the left side than the Thyssen version is, making it less cross-like, more abstract.

Rodin gave the sculpture other titles: “The Genius and the Pity” and “Prometheus and an Oceanid.” Perhaps he worried that the Jesus and Magdalene story, so popular in the 1890s, had run its course. A great work of art need not be nailed down, but “nailed down” is a fair description of Rodin’s male figure. Nailheads are visible in the palms.

Rodin need not have worried. The Magdalene legend had legs. In the 20th century it was proposed that the Merovingian kings of France were descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This gave several pretenders basis for claiming a European throne. The Belgian Michel Roger Lafosse thought his alleged Nazarene ancestry qualified him to be king of Scotland. Pierre Plantard, a former Nazi sympathizer, came forward in the 1960s as France’s long-lost and not particularly sought-for dauphin. Plantard cited not only his Jesus and Mary ancestry but the authority of Nostrodamus, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, and General de Gaulle in an all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Dan Brown was well aware of Plantard and drew on his claims in his novel.

The success of The Da Vinci Code inspired polemics, rip-offs, and debunkings in every medium. The Jesus bloodline idea must be more globally known today than it was in Rodin’s time. It got a bump in 2012 with the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. That is a 2nd-century scrap of papyrus with the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife…” Again we’re left hanging.

Royal claimants like Plantard presumed that a Jesus bloodline would be a rare distinction. Recently, computer analysis has shown that it would be all but impossible for a first-century A.D. couple to have a small group of 21st-century descendants. Genealogist Steve Olsen concluded, “If anyone living today is descended from Jesus, so are most of us on the planet.”

That’s a sobering thought, not just because of Ferguson and ISIS. What if God was all of us?

A Noisy, Belligerent Koons for the Broad

The Whitney Museum’s Jeff Koons retrospective is showing a bronze sculpture recently acquired by the Broad Art Foundation: Hulk (Organ), dated 2004-2014. Reports the gallery label: “when the organ is played, this sculpture emits a deafening, belligerent sound.”

When Mayberry Had an Arts School

From 1933 to 1957 Black Mountain, North Carolina, had the nations’ most advanced interdisciplinary arts school. Faculty and students of Black Mountain College included Joseph Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Peter Voulkos, and Emerson Woelffer. The UCLA Hammer Museum is to present a show built around Black Mountain’s artistic legacy. Organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston, and opening there in fall 2015, it will travel to the Hammer and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Henrietta Shore’s “Cactus”

The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art is showing Henrietta Shore’s Cactus, on loan from a private collector. Dated “before 1927,” it’s one of Shore’s most celebrated works. Christopher Knight called it “outstanding… an eye-grabbing portrait of prickly eroticism.

The “before 1927″ bit owes to the fact that Shore met Edward Weston in February 1927, introduced by Peter Krasnow. In Weston’s daybook he wrote of his first visit to Shore’s studio,

“I stopped short in my tracks silently amazed; here was something outstanding, a notable achievement.…Shores’ work stimulates directly through the senses without intellectual interference… She possessed a technical perfection rarely seen in contemporary art. A small drawing may represent the labor of weeks or even months.”

Perhaps Weston, then little-known, was also describing the artist he hoped to be.  Of Cactus he wrote: “Every time I see that cactus, I have renewed emotion: it is a great painting.” (The Huntington has a room of Weston photos adjacent to Cactus. On view in the Chandler wing is Shore’s color drawing of Cypress Trees, Point Lobos—right, recently acquired by the Huntington.)

Edward Weston, "Two Shells" (c) 1981 Arizona Board of Regents, Center for Creative Photography

Toronto-born Shore had the distinction of being John Singer Sargent’s only private student. She also studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri. Seven years older than Georgia O’Keeffe, she came to explore similar territory: macro-shot still lifes of Western flora and fauna that read as sexual metaphors. It’s not clear whether Shore more influenced O’Keeffe or vice-versa. They showed together several times, and it’s said that critics were more favorable to Shore.

Shore’s 1927 meeting with Weston was certainly decisive for him. He showed Shore some of his  nudes of Bertha Wardell. “I wish you would not do so many nudes,” advised Shore. “You are getting used to them, the subject no longer amazes you—most of these are just nudes.”

Shore was doing paintings of sea shells. Weston did his first shell photo in Shore’s studio, and Shore lent him some shells to photograph. This led to such classic Weston images as Two Shells (1927).

O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, from 1926 (below right), is among the artist’s first to present a still life subject as a metaphor for womanhood. Cactus is something else again. Its Kardashian-esque swellings leapfrog several generations to read as an ironic deconstruction of O’Keeffe’s prefeminist program. The palette is less Canadian than Chicano.

Shore had been painting cacti for some time. Her California Data (owned by the Oakland Museum—the name is prophetic of Silicon Valley) is a c. 1925 exercise in American surrealism. A cactus sprouts out of a calla lily and bears dissimilar blossoms fertilized by a trio of avian weirdos.

By 1930 Shore had a promising career. She moved to Carmel, where Weston had located. Bad career move? Well, O’Keeffe began spending time in the Taos region in 1929 and moved there decisively in 1940. O’Keeffe had a New York gallery. Shore showed in the Carmel region and fell off the national radar.

Shore’s life demands the attention of a serious biographer. What little is known, or said to be known, of her last years is this. Circa 1939, some acquaintances found Shore’s home and studio “messy and deteriorating.” They had her committed to a mental institution. That’s still another parallel to O’Keeffe, hospitalized for a 1933 breakdown. But Shore spent more than two decades in confinement. She died forgotten, at the State Mental Hospital in San Jose, on May 17, 1963.

All of John Baldessari’s Tattoos

Tattoo artists are currently featured in shows at the Japanese American National Museum and the El Segundo Museum of Art. Meanwhile the Hammer Museum is offering a set of five temporary tattoos designed by artists not known for the medium: John Baldessari, Friedrich Kunath, Dave Muller, Laura Owens, and Raymond Pettibon. It’s $100 for the set, with proceeds benefitting the Kid’s Art Museum Project.

Both Baldessari and Pettibon have designed temporary tattoos before. Below is one Baldessari produced for Garage Magazine in 2011.

Disambiguation: Los Angeles Museum of Art

You must have heard that Alice Könitz’s nano-alternative space-decorated shed, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, has won the Hammer’s 2014 Mohn Award. You may be less clear on which of at least three LAMOA avatars is the real thing.

Structurally LAMOA is a 13-foot-long wood framework with corrugated metal roof. That structure (at left) is currently in Pasadena, at the Armory Center for the Arts, in “The Fifth Wall: Tom Friedman, Evan Holloway, Farrah Karapetian, Alice Könitz, Marco Rios, Corinna Schnitt, Artur Żmijewski” (through Dec. 14).

Normally LAMOA is parked outside Könitz’s Eagle Rock studio and filled with minivan-size installations by other artists. Below is LAMOA in situ, with the 2013 installation of Stephanie Taylor’s Three Samoan Proverbs. (Just don’t try to visit now. More attentive readers of the previous paragraph will have noticed that LAMOA is now in Pasadena.)

What is the Hammer Museum showing then? It’s a set of modules that Könitz created for “Made in L.A. 2014″ (top of post, through Sept. 7). They are sized to fit the LAMOA framework and are installed with other artists’ works, chosen by Könitz. The Hammer website wryly compares its presentation of LAMOA to “the precedent of other touring museum collections, such as the Musée d’Orsay and the Barnes Foundation. Typically such exchanges between museums create institutional goodwill and benefit the organizing institution with an additional stream of income while attracting large audiences for the hosting institution.”

Further disambiguation: The Los Angeles Museum of Art is not to be confused with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (a misnomer that occasionally turns up in New York media); Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (this one or the real one); nor the Los Angeles County Fire Museum (in Bellflower, chronicling the history of local fire-fighting).

Huntington Gets Serious About Chinese Art

Hu Zhengyan (1584-1674), The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures. Photo (c) The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Since the first phase of its Chinese garden opened in 2008, the Huntington has done two shows of Chinese art. Both showed private collections. The Huntington didn’t own any Chinese art aside from a few export porcelains. Last month the institution announced the acquisition of its first major Chinese work, an early, pristine copy of the Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures (1633-). An album of 185 prints, it is a compact picture gallery of late Ming painting. The Huntington is planning an exhibition around the book’s publisher, Hu Zhengyan.

The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection is a landmark of color printing technology. It achieved shading and texture rivaling that of painting. The book was so popular that the woodblocks used to print it wore out and were replaced repeatedly over the centuries. The first edition is rare, though there are incomplete examples at the museums of San Francisco and Boston. No copy, even in China, compares to the Huntington’s, said to be the best preserved of all. It has 185 illustration pages and 139 pages of calligraphy (lacking just one of each type). A former owner unfolded the tissue-thin, folded pages and matted them flat into an album that helped preserve them.

The pictures are not by Hu Zhengyan, a publisher and seal carver, but by some of the leading painters of the time. The calligraphy is equally notable. In the 20th century typographer Jan Tschichold judged the Ten Bamboo Studio Collection “perhaps the finest book ever printed in colors.”

Hu Zhengyan (1584-1674), The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures. Photo (c) The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Where in the World is Judy Chicago?

The Brooklyn Museum’s “Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work, 1963-74″ zeroes in on the transformative years (and transformative city) of first-generation feminism’s crucial artist. It’s not set to travel to L.A., and that’s too bad. Locally Chicago has been shown in historicizing group shows but not in depth. She remains barely represented in Los Angeles museum collections.

Chicago’s big break, careerwise, was “Primary Structures.” That was the Jewish Museum’s 1966 show that helped define minimalism. It was also notable for presenting L.A. artists such as Larry Bell and John McCracken as peers of the New Yorkers. Chicago’s Rainbow Picket (at top), installed in the lobby, was the opening salvo.

Its colors shout a feminist critique of minimalism—as we see things now. Sixties critics noticed Chicago, if at all, as a worthy compatriot of Donald Judd. There was just one other woman in “Primary Structures,” the very different Anne Truitt.

Back in L.A. Chicago threw herself into the plastics-and-automobiles narrative of the Fetish Finishers. She educated herself in plastic molding and auto body painting. Her instructors informed her that works like Birth Hood, 1965/2011 at above left, were too girly for the market demographic. She took up less characteristically L.A. crafts like pyrotechnics and ice sculpture.

Chicago progressed to paintings on acrylic like the Pasadena Lifesavers. They were intended to represent the female orgasm. Others read them as pop art: Lifesaver candies, like something Wayne Thiebaud might have done.

By the end of the Brooklyn show’s chronology, Chicago was doing sublime airbrush paintings such as Through the Flower (1973, right). Only Agnes Pelton dared its blend of hard-edge and lady-parts abstraction.

The Brooklyn galleries, in its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, circumnavigate Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Created in the artist’s Santa Monica studio from 1974-79, and now on permanent view in Brooklyn, it’s not strictly part of the show yet supplies a de facto exclamation point. With 39—count ‘em—vulvas of females historical and mythical, it left almost every 1970s critic sputtering that it wasn’t art. Within a few years, The Dinner Party’s shock-value identity politics had became a lingua franca of postmodernism.

That makes “Chicago in L.A.” rich in ways you might not expect. The story of how a Second City artist went from minimalism to feminism is one of the more compelling of recent art history. Where in the world is Judy Chicago?