William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Goff’

L.A. or East L.A.: Who’s Got a Better Art Museum?

Vincent Price Art Museum, East Los Angeles, designed by Arquitectonica

One of Tim Burton’s mentors and actors was also founder of an eponymous museum. That would be Vincent Price, star of 1950s horror films and featured in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. In 1951 Price donated 90 artworks to East Los Angeles College. Six years later he founded an art gallery at the college. It reopened last week, as the Vincent Price Art Museum, in a brand-new building by Miami-based Arquitectonica (top).

The three-story structure has room for temporary shows and rotations from the permanent collection of 9000 works, about 2000 donated by Price himself. Typical of Hollywood collectors, Price’s collection was wide-ranging but weak. That’s almost beside the point here. Were it not for Price, the East L.A. region wouldn’t have an art museum. (Strictly speaking, VPAM is in Monterey Park.) Arquitectonica is a big name, comparable to Renzo Piano and bigger than William Pereira, designer of the original LACMA campus.

Your call:

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, designed by William Pereira; Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer Assoc.; Bruce Goff; Renzo Piano

Frank Lloyd Wright and Vampires

This is a season of Japanese prints in Southern California. The Norton Simon Museum has “Hiroshige: Visions of Japan,” with 175 prints, all from the permanent collection (left, The One Thousand Acre Plain at Susaki in Fukugawa). LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion is presenting a rotation of about 30 Abstract Expressionist prints, and the San Diego Museum of Art is headlining “Dreams and Diversions: 250 Years of Japanese Prints,” still another permanent collection show.

The two pivotal figures in the region’s collecting are the notorious Frank Lloyd Wright and the not-so-well-known (yet also scandalous) Cora Timken Burnett. Print sellers camped outside Wright’s Tokyo office while he was designing the now-demolished Imperial Hotel (below). Wright bought reams of Japanese prints and resold them for the rest of his career. It was the prints that subsidized the architecture: Wright made $17,000 for his design of the Imperial Hotel but netted over $200,000 dealing prints through the 1930s. As dealer, Wright was as leverage-happy as any hedge-fund rocket scientist. One telegram to a wealthy collector/equity-partner asked, “Can anything be done with the prints. If not would you be willing to lend me half their value for six months.”

Wright championed Utagawa Hiroshige as the world’s greatest artist. Naturally, there was only one architect who bore comparison… Students at Taliesen were informed by the Master: “Hiroshige did, with a sense of space, very much what we have been doing with it in our architecture… On what is your attention focused? Nothing.”

A large share of the ukiyo-e prints in the great Eastern and Midwest museums passed through Wright’s hands. As usual, California was late to the salad bar. But Wright died in 1959 with substantial inventory, some 6000 prints. The pre-Norton Simon Pasadena Museum was a major buyer from the estate. So was UCLA.

Many curators had reservations about Wright’s prints. Colors in ukiyo-e prints fade quickly when exposed to light. Wright’s prints often appeared as fresh as if they had been printed yesterday. Indeed, Hiroshige’s prints were such commercial successes that posthumous impressions were being pulled well into the 20th century. When a color block wore out, the publishers made a replacement. Wright was aware of this. At Taliesen he would show students how different two impressions of the “same” image could look. Pin holes, visible from behind, identified prints made from later, replacement blocks.

Not only that, Wright retouched the color of faded prints. When Metropolitan Museum curator Sigisbert C. Bosch-Reitz confronted Wright on this (1922), the architect wrote,

There is no intention on my part to deceive you or anyone else—I think you know this. Kindly forward suspected prints at once for inspection and comparison. I have never changed the values in any of my prints. As all collectors do and and will do I have worked on them sometimes with color to retouch spots, clean surfaces, put the print into condition but very little even of that. I have done this usually with the mats on and no one could object to what I did. Long ago some fooling with some of my prints was done by my studio boys who has always access to them as to a kind of library—for their education and pleasure. But that was ten years ago or more and rejected long since. I have gone through the remaining prints carefully to eliminate the “taint” of the “vamp.”

Elsewhere Wright called retouched prints “vampires” and lent some to the Met for an exhibition on fakes. It’s likely that many of the Hiroshiges in American collections are 20th-century impressions, or retouched, or both. Wright’s cavalier attitude toward the work of an artist he idolized is of a piece with the narcissism his biographers have found. Even in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, now a Tea Party bestseller, the Wright character blows up his own building. Clients!

Down to San Diego, and another sort of existential ruthlessness. Cora Timken Burnett was a roller bearing heiress and self-financed sculptor who collected Asian art and paranoid ideation. In the 1920s she married a boy-toy who also happened to be a Dr. Frankenstein. Osteopath and scientist Dr. John Clawson Burnett believed he might cure all ills with electromagnetism. Cora’s wealth bought him a suitably electrified laboratory in the New Jersey Palisades. It was part of the couple’s 50-acre compound, featuring a green-tiled house designed by Cora, a swimming pool shaped like a coiled snake, and an art collection that featured a reconstructed Indian temple. Dr. and Mrs. Burnett were nuts about security (even compared to neighbors in celeb-ghetto Alpine, NJ). They had a barbed wire fence, a kennel of guard dogs, and and unfinished 200-foot-long fallout shelter, big enough to store their collection. Cora died in 1956, before the art panic room was completed. Most of her collection went to the Metropolitan Museum. A large share of her Japanese prints were bequeathed to the San Diego Museum of Art, however. That must have been due to the lobbying of her San Diegan sister, Amelia Timken Bridges.

A  highlight of the San Diego show is Hokusai’s Rainstorm Beneath the Summit (above left). It’s a pendant to the much better-known Mount Fuji in Clear Weather (Red Fuji, right), of which LACMA has a good early impression. The jagged lines in Rainstorm are lightning, not ski trails. Hokusai was influenced by the naturalism of Western prints; and years later, Gauguin and van Gogh would regift the favor, prizing Hokusai’s abstraction.

Outside the Box at the Japanese Pavilion

Bruce Goff’s organic architecture was made to complement the nature-inspired art in LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion. Conservation practice has interposed a profusion of little Lucite boxes between Goff and old Japan. It’s welcome news that LACMA is showing its spectacular new Haniwa Horse on a rectangular catwalk, vitrine-free, with no reflections. It becomes only the third free-standing statue in the Pavilion, joining two wood (human) Bosatsus of c. 1100 and later 12th century.
Also on view is the comparably rare set of Oribe plates (below), probably too pocketable to show without glazing.

Getting Rid of LACMA

LACMA’s “transformation” takes an apocalyptic turn in The Architect Newspaper’s eye-opening interview with Peter Zumthor and Michael Govan. In case you didn’t know, Govan has tapped the Pritzker Prize-winning architect to rethink the entire LACMA campus. (Wasn’t there some other guy doing that?) Says Zumthor:

I’m sorry to say, but today what they have here are strange buildings that clog up any public spaces. It’s a little bit of a mess now on this site, so we’re trying to think, how could we get rid of this?

There’s no point in being shocked. The idea that LACMA’s architecture merits obliteration is as old as the original 1965 complex (above, one artist’s conception). Chief curator Jim Elliott privately called William L. Pereira’s neoclassical structure “the first tract house museum.” Two decades later, Robert Hughes rated it not just bad but “probably the worst of any large museum in America… the proper response… would have been the bulldozer.” Then it got worse. Hughes was writing about the 1986 Anderson Building, which he likened to the giant foot in Monty Python. The next big development was Rem Koolhaas’ unexecuted plan for LACMA, which promised complete annihilation of almost everything.

Zumthor’s plans are, to say the least, years away from any possible realization. But he said he intends to have drawings in “half a year at the latest” so that Govan can show them to donors. The subtext is that Renzo Piano was chosen by LACMA’s board — most especially Eli Broad — before Govan was hired. Govan naturally wants to choose his own architect. He finesses that point in the interview:

It’s pretty clear that over time we’ll need to do something major with our old campus.… And you know obviously Rem [Koolhaas] proposed an interesting scheme for that process, and Renzo [Piano] has proposed some ideas as well. For me, I had worked with Peter Zumthor before, and he’s just one of the great architects of architectural history and so I was really interested in working with him to get his take on what might be accomplished if you really took a big, long view…”

Govan insists Bruce Goff’s Japanese Pavilion is “a keeper,” and it sounds like they will spare the two Renzo Piano buildings. After all, one of them is still under construction.