William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Biberman on the Beach

LACMA’s one-room “Edward Biberman, Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice” celebrates the restoration of the artist’s 1941 mural for the Venice post office. Though the mural is the main attraction, the most engaging works are small paintings showing Biberman at his unclassifiable best. There are echoes of Precisionism and Walker Evans; Biberman breaks all the rules of composition and avoids painting anything that might be considered a worthy subject.

Shown are Subdivision and Flying Fish.

Kickstarter Potato Salad Museum… Anybody?

You’ve probably heard about that guy who’s using Kickstarter to fund potato salad. I was reminded of him while reading Los Angeles Downtown News article on the Old Bank District Museum that real estate developers Tom Gilmore and Jerri Perrone are planning for Fourth and Main. Gilmore puts the “early price tag” at $25-$35 million and foresees a nonprofit to raise that and “additional funds.”

The article doesn’t do much to explain why we need another contemporary art museum downtown, or to counter a perception of flakiness. It says the museum would focus on downtown L.A. artists. Gilmore “anticipates showing” Robert Reynolds and Tod Lychkoff. “This is going to be one wacky museum,” he says. He also describes it as a “non-museum museum.”

Don’t get me wrong: I like wacky non-museums. Alice Könitz’s Los Angeles Museum of Art is a star of the Hammer’s “Made in L.A. 2014.” Everybody loves the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the El Segundo Museum of Art, etc. But the Fourth and Main project is sounding more like a Kickstarter vanity museum, an idea its promoters are tossing out in the hope that viral mobs, or one kindly gazillionaire, will fund.

“Basically I’m just making potato salad,” runs Potato Salad Guy’s Kickstarter plea. ”I haven’t decided what kind yet.” He asked for $10. So far he’s raised $50,053.

Ensor and “The Burning of Los Angeles”

“My response was sadness,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Brenson. He was speaking of the news that the J. Paul Getty Museum had bought James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (detail above). Brenson felt that Ensor’s masterpiece belonged in Europe. It was an outlier in J. Paul Getty’s fussy collection of minor Old Masters. Ensor’s subversive, ironic painting was the antithesis of East Coast stereotypes of L.A. as bourgeois and irony-free.

Los Angeles Times critic William Wilson observed that the purchase contradicted a 1980s Getty directive to avoid buying modern art. Museum director John Walsh defended the opportunity as “too good to pass up” and declared the Ensor to be the Getty’s most important painting.

This summer the Getty is presenting “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor,” built around Christ’s Entry of course. It remains the conventional wisdom that the opportunity was indeed too good to pass up, though the prize had no more connection to Los Angeles than Seurat’s Grande Jatte had had to Chicago. Overlooked is that, half a century before the Getty bought it, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 was the inspiration for the first L.A. painting of global significance.

I speak of The Burning of Los Angeles. If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because it’s a fictional painting. It’s the pivot of Nathanael West’s classic L.A. novel, The Day of the Locust (1939).

West’s tale concerns Tod Hackett, a Hollywood set painter who dreams of a career as a serious artist. He envisions a magnum opus titled The Burning of Los Angeles. West said that he modeled the painting on Ensor’s Christ’s Entry. That was an extraordinary point of reference for the 1930s. The Depression had pummeled whatever curiosity Americans had about the European avant garde. Though painted in 1888, Christ’s Entry had not been exhibited until 1929, and then in Brussels. West couldn’t have dreamed that the painting would one day end up in Los Angeles.

The novel describes The Burning of Los Angeles in some detail. The paperback cover above, by British-born illustrator Charles Ashford Binger, represents part of Tod Hackett’s painting. The motley crowd almost spills out of the picture, as they do in the Ensor. Hackett depicts himself (as does Ensor) along with the novel’s other characters. Among them is the bumbling everyman who triggers pandemonium, named Homer Simpson. Matt Groening named his cartoon dad after him.

West wrote,

“Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches.… No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

With The Burning of Los Angeles West invented a (potential) genre of apocalyptic L.A. landscapes. The novel was also prophetic. In August 1965 a DUI arrest in Watts quickly escalated to arson and looting. Watts burned for six days, resulting in 34 deaths.

Another Nathaniel, spelled the usual way and known as the “Magnificent” Montague, was a dejay for R&B station KGFJ. His radio catchphrase was “burn, baby, burn!” It became the anarchic motto. The Watts rebellion was fought as West’s was, with fists, rocks, and the most subversive weapon of all—the elemental power of fire in the real estate boosters’ “Mediterranean climate.”

The masses of West’s novel feel cheated by the American (L.A.) dream. They find solace in chaos. But West missed the nexus of the 1965 reality, race.

Andy Warhol’s Race Riot series used 1963 press photos of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors. The most memorable images of Watts are of another kind. Insurgents are in control. They pose for the camera, their eyes confronting the viewer’s as do those of some of Ensor’s masqueraders. The people in Watts press photos are not literal actors like West’s Hollywood rejects, but they are media-aware in the way we all are now. They are ready for their group-selfie in the reality show that constitutes our so-called reality. That may be the most terrifying thing about 1965 Watts or right now—or about Day of the Locust, or Christ’s Entry.

The burning of Watts occurred just as Los Angeles was becoming an important art center. The fires were pivotal to such artists such as Noah Purifoy (who has a LACMA retrospective coming in 2015). Purifoy wrote,

“While the debris was still smoldering, we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching.… Despite the involvement of running an art school, we gave much thought to the oddity of our found things.… The junk we had collected… had begun to haunt our dreams.”

Purifoy and Judson Powell organized a group show, 66 Signs of Neon, of works made from post-riot debris. It travelled to nine cities from 1966-69 and was a nexus of California Assemblage. Purifoy was an alchemist who mixed Duchampian ready-mades with entropy and politics. His salvaged-wood Watts Riot (1966, below) could be called the Mona Lisa of the California African-American Museum’s collection.

Watts’ influence went worldwide. Chilean/cosmopolitan surrealist Roberto Matta recycled the Magnificent Montague’s phrase, producing a 32-foot-wide painting of that title (1965-6). Burn Baby Burn is a highly abstracted Burning of Los Angeles and is now at LACMA.

In weird synchronicity, Ed Ruscha’s first fire paintings predated Watts. The famous pictures of Los Angeles architecture ablaze were created afterward. Among them is this blog’s namesake, the Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-8). It’s not in Los Angeles but in Washington DC at the Hirshhorn. (That’s Homer Simpson saying “D’oh!”)

In 2006 Ruscha said of the fire paintings: “It’s a way of attaching an additional meaning to the painting that would otherwise not have fire.”

Judy Chicago almost literally set the pre-Norton Simon Pasadena Museum on fire in a 1972 Atmospheres performance. Her autumn-hued smoke bombs were intended “to soften and feminize the environment, one that… was not particularly hospitable to women artists.”

Watts was eventually sublimated into the Hollywood dream/nightmare machine. The Towering Inferno (1974) was a big-budget melodrama about a group of people trapped inside a burning L.A. skyscraper. The credibility-defying cast included Steve McQueen (the white one), Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, and Mrs. Norton Simon, Jennifer Jones, in her final screen role.

Carlos Almaraz invented another kind of disaster picture. His paintings of L.A. fires reference not only the uncertainty of urban life but the most overworked of screenwriter clichés. (Shown, Sunset Crash; Trash Burning on Venice Beach.) LACMA is organizing an Almaraz retrospective for 2017.

W.H. Auden coined the term “West’s Disease.” He was referring to Nathanael West, not longitude, and to a free-floating American malaise, “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of turning wishes into desires.”

West described his writing as “a sweeping rejection of political causes, religious faith, artistic redemption and romantic love.”

That’s an encapsulation of what has fascinated and repulsed later generations about Los Angeles. In Spike Jonze’s Her, a meditation on romantic love, the Los Angeles of the near future has become a city of madding and lonely crowds. Jonze’s protagonist, martyr and narcissist, is in the spirit of Ensor’s.

Raphael, Vermeer to Visit San Diego’s Troubled “Frick”

Judith H. Dobrzynski has the fullest story I’ve yet seen on John Wilson’s sudden resignation as director of San Diego’s Timken Museum of Art, the small institution once billed as “the Frick of the Pacific.” Dobrzynski also reveals that London’s National Gallery will be lending a Raphael and a Vermeer to the Timken for its 50th anniversary in 2015. (Shown, one of the National Gallery’s two comparably fine Vermeers, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal.)

It will be interesting to see how they handle the crowds. When Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring was shown at the Frick Collection (a.k.a. the Timken of the East), crowds waited three hours in 5-degree weather to pay $20 a head. The Timken is free, and it’s always sunny in San Diego.

Is Gehry’s Museum Luck Changing?

Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Bilbao, the most acclaimed museum of our time. Yet he’s never had a worthy museum commission in his home city. That could be changing. The L.A. Times reports on discussions about Gehry designing a skyscraper on land partly owned by LACMA. The site is just south of BCAM, and just above the subway-station-to-be. Michael Govan proposes that the ground floor could be an architecture and design wing for LACMA.

A run-down of Gehry’s checkered history with L.A. museum commissions:

• He’s best known for the California Aerospace Museum—long closed. The paint is peeling, it creaks in the wind, and it gives off the vibe of a bypassed mall. Any chance of the California Science Center reopening it seems to have been squashed by the arrival of the Endeavour space shuttle, which is way too big to fit in the old aerospace building. Gehry’s structure would be a challenge to repurpose, for it’s got a Lockheed fighter jet thrusting off the facade.

• Gehry designed the original Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. His work has been overshadowed by another architect’s expansion and by Long Beach’s larger, flashier Aquarium of the Pacific, which opened just a few miles away.

• Mainly Gehry is known for renovating spaces for museums in L.A. He converted two police warehouses to MOCA Geffen. That project is now revered, but at the time it was considered a temporary structure (the “Temporary Contemporary”) to be used until the real museum opened on Grand Avenue. Gehry was not asked to design the main museum. He was however asked to repeat his Temporary Contemporary magic with an industrial site in Santa Monica, turning an industrial complex into the Edgemar shopping center and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The latter turned out to be a temporary contemporary, for after just six years, SMMoA moved to Bergamot Station.

• Gehry was asked to square the curvy interior walls of the Norton Simon Museum. This intervention too was highly praised, but Gehry was not given license to change the exterior of the Ladd + Kelsey building that was called “grotesque” (Walter Hopps), “crackpot” (John Coplans), and “ridiculous” (Leo Castelli).

• Gehry was apparently not considered as a serious candidate for the Getty Center, the “commission of the century.” Instead he served on the Architect Selection Committee that chose Richard Meier.

• Eli Broad hired Gehry to design his home, and it wasn’t a life-affirming experience for either party. “Eli is a control freak,” Gehry said. “I won’t do a project for him” again. It’s no surprise that BCAM and the Broad went to other architects.

Huntington Adds Two African-American Paintings

Sandra and Bram Dijkstra have given the Huntington its first two paintings by African-Americans: Charles White’s Soldier (1944) and Robert Duncanson’s Landscape with Ruin (c. 1853). This is a coup for the Huntington as the White had been on loan to the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Duncanson to LACMA. Bram Dijkstra is an art historian who long taught at UC San Diego.

Chicago-born Charles White lived in L.A. for most of his career. Soldier is a relatively early work, made about when the artist was drafted at age 26. It was created the year after White’s most famous work, the Hampton University mural of The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America. Like that mural, it’s executed in tempera and shows the influence of El Greco, the Mexicans, and existential angst. Though White is revered enough to have an L.A. elementary school named for him, there aren’t many of his works in local museum collections. Solider becomes the most iconic.

Nearly a century earlier, Robert S. Duncanson was hailed as “the greatest landscape painter in the West.” The West meant Cincinnati—in mid-19th century, the only alternative to New York for an ambitious artist. Duncanson did everything from house painting to hand-coloring of photographs. He probably contributed to the 1800-foot-long Abolitionist panorama, Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade. But otherwise Duncanson rarely treated African-American life, achieving fame with imaginary landscapes such as the Dijkstra painting. The Civil War sent Duncanson into exile in Canada and Britain. On the Isle of Wight, he showed one of his paintings to Alfred, Lord Tennyson (whose neighbor Julia Margaret Cameron had started puttering around with a camera). “Your landscape is a land in which one loves to wander and linger,” Tennyson declared. Less than a decade later, Duncanson died sick and broke in Detroit.

Soldier goes on display July 19, when the Huntington opens five new galleries for 20th-century American art. Landscape with Ruin is already on view.

Jess & Co. Coming to PMCA

It isn’t often that a show organized by Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum gets rave reviews in New York. “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle” did, and this fall it touches down at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (Sept. 14, 2014-Jan. 11, 2015).

Jess is known for collages that anticipate Elliott Hundley in their horror vacuii (above, The Napoleonic Geometry of Art—Given: The Pentagon in the Square; Demonstrate: The Hyperbolic Swastika, 1968). Robert Duncan was a beat poet who became Jess’ partner and collaborator. The show emphasizes their “circle,” 30-some Bay Area artists and poets, big names and no names. At its NYU Grey Art Gallery showing, Andrew Russeth felt the exhibition embodied Walter Hopps’ dictum: “If you really want to do a show about any era in art, you need to hang work by about 600 artists, though most of the time we get the same six names.”

An American Wing That Looks Like America

Can art museums represent America in all its E Pluribus Unum diversity? A room in LACMA’s Art of the Americas Building ought to advance that conversation. It’s a modest shoebox divided by a partition at one end. The main space has 12 representational works from the early and mid-20th century. It starts with George BellowsCliff Dwellers—the first major painting the old L.A. County Museum acquired—and runs through Marsden Hartley’s The Lost Felice. That much is typical. Less so is the fact that two of the 12 works are by African Americans, one is by an Asian, and two are by women. Compared to other museums, that counts as an impressive representation of minority (and even women) artists. The visitor who doesn’t read labels may notice that eight of the 12 objects depict Asians, blacks, or Latinos.

Wing Kwong Tse’s watercolor Chinese Family is an alternative American Gothic. That’s Granddad with the opium pipe. (Swears he’s going to quit…) Tse’s own family fled the Chinese revolution for Hawaii. He dropped out of USC to become an actor. The Hollywood of the 1920s offered only demeaning roles. Tse moved to San Francisco and became the Left Coast’s hippest Asian beatnik. He knew Allen Ginsberg, and his North Beach studio was above Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books.

Tse’s American scenesters look nothing like Grant Wood’s. Is it permissible to admire Tse’s eidetic skills as a watercolorist, or must Chinese Family be considered a DON’T in Barr’s Big Book of Modernism? LACMA bought the Tse watercolor not so long ago, in 2005, with funds by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Crawford, Jr. It provokes in ways that a second-rate Hopper wouldn’t.

The installation mainstreams self-taught art with the school-taught kind. Clementine Hunter’s Camitte the Hair Fixer Is Doing Ceola’s Hair is on loan from the collection of Gordon W. Bailey. As Bailey told me, “Sans marginalizing categorization, Hunter’s magnificent painting is exhibited with other American masterworks.” I’ll bet, this is the only place to see a Hunter next to a Hartley.

For still another alternative vision see the luminous view of Watts Towers by the multi-talented Gloria Stuart, at bottom of post. Like Tse, Stuart knew a thing or two about the crazy actor’s life.

Beyond the room divider, a smaller space has six western landscapes. One is by a woman artist (Evelyn McCormick), and another by an Asian (Taneyuki Dan Harada). The latter’s Barracks—Tule Lake (1945) is an concentration camp landscape demonstrating the fat-tail influence of Cézanne for West Coast Japanese artists. There’s got to be a dissertation or two in that.

LACMA’s American collection is thin next to the long-established East Coast institutions. That makes its example all the more relevant. If LACMA can deliver diversity at a high level of quality and interest, then institutions with bigger collections can. All it takes is the will.

America’s Most Pervy

Days after the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2014″ opened, American Apparel ousted its CEO Dov Charney for “alleged misconduct” including sexual harassment. All of a sudden, American Apparel was a troubled brand and the outspoken Charney was the new Donald Sterling. That was awkward for the Hammer because it had partnered with American Apparel to create a generally well-received line of “Made in L.A.” clothing and gear, some designed by the biennial’s artists.

Who is Dov Charney? Jezebel has an instructive run-down on the “sketchy, scandalous history” of American Apparel’s “pervy madman CEO.” A few bullet points:

• Charney took business meetings wearing nothing but “a garment described as a ‘cock sock.’”

• Charney had a policy of not hiring those who weren’t good looking (“off-brand”). His directive for hiring black women: “none of the trashy kind… try to find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair, you know?”

• “Masturbation in front of women is underrated,” Charney told a Jane magazine journalist (he had masturbated during the interview).

• Here’s a distinction: Charney was sued by a barely legal sex partner and by Woody Allen. Charney had used an Annie Hall still on American Apparel billboards, without bothering to get permission.

The largest harassment lawsuit, for $260 million, was filed by former American Apparel employee Irene Morales, who said that Charney ”dragged her to the bedroom, threw her on the bed, got on top of her and forced her to perform another act of fellatio, nearly suffocating her in the process.”

Hey, did you know that “Made in L.A.” is the first biennial with more women artists than men?

If a screenwriter conceived Dov Charney and his cock sock for Horrible Bosses 3D, nobody would believe it. Is it possible, then, that Dov Charney is a performance-art sock puppet, a walking embodiment of white male privilege, created by… Joe Scanlan?

On second thought, I’m betting he’s an invention of the Yams Collective.

Neutra House to Go Iron Curtain Modern

Starting July 12, all the movable mid-century modern furnishings in the Neutra House, Silverlake, will be replaced with counterparts from behind the Iron Curtain. On view will be Eastern Bloc chairs, tables, lamps, phones, pictures, cooking utensils, and surveillance equipment, all from the Wende Museum collection. Nothing will be labeled, but gallery iPads will provide further information. “Competing Utopias,” organized by the Wende Museum and the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences, will run through Sept. 13.

Above is an exhibition poster by David Hartwell. Below, a selection of East German telephones.