William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Blame Canada

Another Canadian museum has added a little pizzazz to the title of a scholarly, well-received L.A. exhibition. LACMA’s “Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky” has opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as “Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Impressionism to Expressionism, 1900-1914.” Note the changes—

• The bankable van Gogh gets first billing

• The MMFA works “Impressionism” into the title, even though the show isn’t about Impressionism

Sell the sizzle, not the Canadian bacon? Maybe the MMFA was figuring no one would notice. But Robert Everett-Green of The Globe and Mail wrote: ”Anyone expecting to see Impressionist paintings at this intriguing show is in for a big disappointment.”

The Getty’s 2012 exhibition “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350″ also got a Canadian makeover, opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario as “Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art.” As Tyler Green then noted, “The exhibition has nothing to do with secrets,” and an AGO web graphic was a rip-off of the cover of The Da Vinci Code (not that there were any da Vinci paintings in the show, either).

UPDATE: In the original version of this post, I mentioned that the MMFA website gave the title as “…Expressionism to Impression…,” inverting the chronology (see screen capture at top). This has now been changed to the more logical “…Impressionism to Expressionism…” Sophie Lynch points out that the title was given the latter way in the press release.

“Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman”

Few figures in the Los Angeles avant garde have such an intriguing life story as that of Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-1995). Known by one name, Cameron was artist, actor, mentor, muse, and sorceress to L.A.’s beat generation. Interest in Cameron has escalated in recent years, the more so after her inclusion in a couple of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. It’s been tough to disambiguate her too-colorful biography from her too-little-seen achievement as a visual artist. Is Cameron one of the great L.A. artists, or merely material for a future indie biopic? “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman,” at MOCA Pacific Design Center, is the first real attempt to answer that question.

Organized by guest curator Yael Lipschutz, “Cameron” downplays the sex, drugs, and social networks for the art itself. Cameron was above all a draughtsman. Fossil (1958, above), in white ink on black ground, is original, haunting, and unlike anything else in the show.

Cameron’s style was ever-mutating, and her retrospective might easily be mistaken for a group show. At left is Harpocrates, shown as part of a grid of 20 ink drawings of occult, freaky psychedelia. Harpocrates was the child-god of silence. The cropped face must be Cameron’s husband, Jack Parsons, a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and follower of Aleister Crowley.

“Cameron”’s most compelling pieces are assemblage-paintings of the late 1950s. Below is an untitled portrait of Crystal (the artist’s daughter, 1959) and Buried Doll (1955). These explore entropy, the universal tendency of everything to fall apart. That inconvenient truth is the nexus of mysticism, religion, and philosophy. In such works Cameron’s art connects most directly to that of her more-famous mentorees George Herms and Wallace Berman. If Berman was the father of California assemblage, Cameron was its godmother.

MOCA gives pride of place to a painting, Aleister Crowley’s Guardian Angel. The clean, illustrational style strikes me as rather dull. It is a reminder that, like Hilma af Klint, Cameron was often transcribing mystic visions more or less literally.

Perhaps in that category is a tiny portrait of an E.T.-unicorn. The title, Alien Assemblage, seems to tweak the California Assemblage movement that Cameron helped foster. In its vintage frame it is poised between a very weird Cornell box and decor for a hipster hotel. Another artist might have made a series of such things; with Cameron it was one-off.

Actually, it’s hard to make sweeping statements about Cameron’s oeuvre. Much of her work is lost or at least misplaced. The MOCA exhibition begins with Curtis Harrington’s 1955 film portrait of Cameron and her art, The Wormwood Star. All the artworks in the film are lost except for Buried Doll. It’s said that acquaintances and fans took much of her art and memorabilia after the artist’s death.

Had Cameron attended art school in this century, she would have been told to promote, promote, promote her career. She had but one single-artist exhibition in her lifetime, at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1989 (the year she turned 67).

It’s all the more notable then that MOCA director Philippe Vergne is a Cameron fanboy. He’s written a foreword to the show’s forthcoming slim (88-page) catalog. A Vergne quote in the MOCA press release puts the pro-Cameron case well:

“Cameron has opened many doors that continue to intrigue and inspire generations of artists. Her hallucinated vision, at the edge of surrealism and psychedelia embodies an aspect of modernity that deeply doubts and defies cartesian logic at a moment in history when these values have shown their own limitations. Her work demonstrates that the space in the mind is without limit.”

“Home” in El Segundo

For its new exhibition “Home,” the El Segundo Museum of Art has been sub-divided into a designer show house. A series of model rooms display mid-century modern design and ESMoA’s typically recherché selection of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Above, an unfinished bathroom has a Joseph Cornell collage in lieu of a mirror. The sink is by Henry Dreyfuss and the towel rack is an untitled 2012 sculpture by Taka Kagitomi. Partly visible through the corner gap is a copy of van Ruisdael’s The Jewish Cemetery by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, the genius of the Austrian Biedermeier.

The room below combines a Eero Aarnio Bubble Chair with a Dreyfuss refrigerator that’s seen plenty of use. Framed, domestic-themed photographs are by Bernd and Hilla Becher and Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai.

There are interesting small paintings by Corot, Maurice Denis, and Henri Le Sidanier; a Joseph Cornell box and collages; photorealism on paper by Richard Estes and Ralph Goings.

Worth a trip to El Segundo itself is a classic Jan van Goyen monochrome, Dune Landscape with Travelers Near an Inn, a Church in Distance. It was auctioned at Christie’s Amsterdam last year.

As usual for ESMoA, there’s a Teutonic accent. Witness a Landscape in Hessen (1868, below) by Andreas Achenbach, a near-abstract nocturne by Fritz Overbeck, and an 1849 Arnold Böcklin Ruins in Moonlight (Böcklin was a favorite of both Hitler and Duchamp).

Like motorcycles in museums? Check. They’ve got a 1972 Honda CB750. Burnt out by iterations of Duchamp’s urinal? ESMoA presents a toilet for what it is, a modern design object. It’s Henry Dreyfuss’ Crane “Criterion” model, 1951.

But the toilet can’t compete with Egmont Arens’ Streamliner Meat Slicer, or the rustic den dressed up with aqua floor and drawings by Edouard Vuilllard and Lyonel Feininger.

James Franco Is “Only 5% of What I Did”

Jeffrey Deitch has two new books out. One can double as a place setting, and the other is about MOCA. The MOCA Index is not a tell-all—it’s a self-published collection of photographs of Deitch’s MOCA exhibitions. For words, you’ll have to settle for some recent interviews.

On MOCA: “I walked into a hornet’s nest.” That quote appears in ArtNews (Sept. 23) and in The New York Times (Oct. 2),  which repeats “Hornet’s Nest” in the article’s title.

On celebrity shows: “… from reading press reports, people would think the only thing I did there was a show with James Franco. And the show we did with James Franco was in fact very interesting! But it’s only five percent of what I did.” (ArtNews)

On disco: “The disco show is still a show I’d like to do. I wish I could have done it then, but I think it’s OK for me to wait a while.” (ArtNews)

On Deitch Projects L.A.(?!): “If I had continued the gallery into the next decade… I would have had to have a London gallery, and a Los Angeles gallery. Rather than making this massive investment, I decided to go in a different direction. I can do business with a big collector in London without having a building that cost me millions in overhead.” (NYT)

(Above left: Martin Kippenberger’s Disco Bomb [1989] in the MOCA collection, gift of Christopher Wool.)

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.”