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LACMA to Show Sam Doyle

In coming weeks, the American Folk Art Museum’s 53rd street building will be demolished and its copper-bronze facade put into storage for unspecified future use. On the opposite coast LACMA will be showing an American folk artist who made a career out of repurposing metal from wrecked buildings. “Sam Doyle: The Mind’s Eye” will survey the South Carolina artist’s paintings of Gullah culture and celebrities, many of them executed on corrugated tin roofing.

As I wrote earlier this year,

Jean-Michel Basquiat admired Doyle’s work so much that he traded an entire show of his own art for two Doyle paintings. (Go figure the valuation with today’s Basquiat prices.) Another big fan is Ed Ruscha. After Doyle’s 1985 death, he did a tribute painting, Where Are You Going Man? Now in the Broad collection, it’s an L.A. street grid with text in Gullah dialect.”

“Sam Doyle” runs May 3 to August 17 in LACMA’s Art of the Americas Building. Pictured is Doyle’s Dr. Crow (1970-83) from the Gordon W. Bailey collection. More of Doyle’s art is on view in “Soul Stirring: African-American Self-Taught Artists from the South” at the California African American Museum through June 8.

Insider-Outsiders at CAAM

The California African American Museum’s “Soul-Stirring: African American Self-Taught Artists from the South” features artists usually categorized as “folk” or “outsider.” Several also qualify as artist’s artists. One is Sam Doyle, painter of Gullah country (South Carolina) history and culture. The painting above has Abe Lincoln breaking the slavedriver’s whip.

Jean-Michel Basquiat admired Doyle’s work so much that he traded an entire show of his own art for two Doyle paintings. (Go figure the valuation with today’s Basquiat prices.) Another big fan is Ed Ruscha. After Doyle’s 1985 death, he did a tribute painting, Where Are You Going Man? Now in the Broad collection, it’s an L.A. street grid with text in Gullah dialect.

One artist in the CAAM show was recently the subject of a Robert Wilson opera, Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter. Wilson met Hunter and collected her work. Below is a Stephanie Berger photo of the opera’s premiere at Montclair State University, New Jersey, in early 2013.

Among Hunter’s best-known images is Cotton Crucifixion, one of a group of politically charged paintings of a black Christ. The version in the CAAM show (lent by L.A. collector Gordon W. Bailey) has a fauve energy achieved with the most literally economical of means.

The Kelley Collection at CAAM

Single-collection (“fluff”) shows don’t get much respect. But West Coast audiences would have quite a wait to see the equal of the California African American Museum’s current exhibition of works on paper from the collection of Dr. Harmon and Harriet Kelley of San Antonio. The artists range from Grafton Tyler Brown to Alison Saar, with examples by Henry O. Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Wilfredo Lam, John Biggers, Charles White, Norman Lewis, and Robert Colescott.

At top is an acrylic and pastel by the self-taught Ike E. Morgan. Diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18, Morgan began painting the Presidents on U.S. money to pass time in the Austin State Hospital. The folk/outsider art market “discovered” Morgan in 1987, and he’s now got gallery representation and paintings in several major museums. The flower piece at CAAM works van Gogh territory without seeming derivative. It’s another reminder of how magical color can be.

Below is a 1973 watercolor, Wind and Flowers, by the great Alma Thomas.

Harlem Renaissance History Painting in L.A.

Fluff shows of corporate art collections are generally the lowest of the low. An exception is at the California African American Museum through next June. “The Legacy of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company: More Than a Business” surveys a storied patron. In 1965 GSM initiated a corporate collection of African-American art at its Los Angeles headquarters. That was three years before the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem. GSM became a crucial collector when the art market and museums weren’t interested in black art unless it came from Africa.

Then Golden State Mutual fell off a fiscal cliff. In 2007 it sold the cream of its art collection at Swann Auction Galleries, New York. The works at CAAM are mostly second-string, supplemented by a few loans. The quality is wildly uneven, but that’s part of the interest. This is a core sample of one of the first systematic collections of its kind. A hopeful wall label talks up the possibility of the museum acquiring the remaining works in the GSM collection.

Most interesting are two works that aren’t properly in the show. In 1949, before the official art collection began, GSM commissioned two major Harlem Renaissance painters, Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff, to paint a pair of murals for their Paul Williams-designed building at Western and Adams. They were titled The Negro in California History, with Alston doing Colonization and Exploitation (top of post) and Woodruff Settlement and Development (above). In 2011 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History offered $750,000 for the two murals. They withdrew after a West Coast outcry (and claims that the murals were worth more than offered).

That leaves the fate of the murals in the air. Though neither painting is at CAAM, they have an instructive room on their history with documents, installation photos, and large color reproductions. For the time being, both murals can be seen by appointment in the GSM building.

Both Alson and Woodruff had achieved fame in the 1930s, when Mexican-style murals were in vogue. Alston is best known for his Harlem Hospital murals (left, Modern Medicine, 1937). He was a stylistic chameleon, also doing trippy surrealism, portraits of working folk, and abstract expressionism. To get by he did cartoons, war posters, and album covers for Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. The white-horsed Spaniard in the center of Alston’s GSM mural represents the founding of Los Angeles. Most of the city’s original settlers were African-descended subjects of the Spanish crown.

Woodruff’s Settlement and Development is about as dystopian a take on the American dream as you could expect to find in an insurance company office. Still, it’s tame next to Woodruff’s famous Amistad murals at Talladega College (1937, below), a mass of writhing, Thomas Hart Benton figures going Django on each other. Recently conserved, the Amistad murals began a seven-city tour this past summer.

There’s a case for keeping the GSM murals where they are, in Williams’ landmark moderne building. But the building’s future is equally uncertain. No one knows who will own it and with what intention. It’s been reported that community groups are trying to raise funds to buy the murals. As Golden State Mutual is bankrupt, a sale would have to be at market value—whatever that is.

The murals were made to be removable. Should they be sold and moved, their size (16′5″ by 9′3″) will limit their appeal to private collectors and raise issues for public display.

Museums tend not to like large paintings unless they’re quintessential works by major artists. The GSM murals aren’t either artist’s greatest work artistically. They do represent a type of painting with few parallels in Los Angeles (one being Siqueiro’s America Tropical). As art and as visual history, the two murals would fit perfectly into CAAM’s collection. Barring a miracle, it probably doesn’t have the money to buy them.

One thing’s for sure: The murals mean more in Los Angeles than they will anywhere else.

The Tree of Art

In May 1933 Vanity Fair magazine ran a cheeky illustration billed as “The Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago.” The artist was Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican-born caricaturist who was the Al Hirschfeld of his time. Covarrubias, who portrayed many Harlem Renaissance figures, is the subject of an absorbing show at the California African American Museum. That exhibition presents a poster-size facsimile of Covarrubias’s tree. It’s thought-provoking in several ways.

For one thing, it predates Alfred Barr’s earnest and much better-known 1936 diagram, “The Development of Abstract Art.” In fact, it’s plausible that Barr saw or heard of Covarrubias’ diagram. If so, Covarrubias might have indirectly influenced MoMA’s (the world’s) vision of moderism. Is anybody paying attention to that?

In Covarrubias’ image, an African wood sculpture and an antique marble head sit beside the roots of modernism. Those roots are all French: Poussin, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Daumier, and Corot. Impressionists form the trunk. It splits into three Post-Impressionist limbs, for Cezanne, Seurat, and Gauguin/van Gogh. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the Cezanne limb is pruned, sprouting the Cubists at right angle. (Duchamp is classified as a Cubist, not a Dadaist.) Gauguin and van Gogh lead to the Fauves and Expressionists. The Seurat lineage ends in a braided espalier finessing the fact that he must have seemed the underperforming Post-Impressionist at the time (before Lichtenstein and Close and the whole pixel thing).

Covarrubias omits many of today’s usual suspects. Dalí and Mondrian were at the top of their game by 1933, and Malevich was past it—but they’re not on this tree. Covarrubias does include several artists who are extremely obscure today. One unintended message is that time is the Great Curator. One visual gag is hard to fault: Henri Rousseau as an exotic bird perched on a clipped offshoot.

Below is Alfred Barr’s 1936 diagram for the Museum of Modern Art. Barr charts movements more than individual artists, and naturally he dispenses with the niceties of a “tree” in favor of a flow chart.

Barr’s diagram has become notorious. It is said to epitomize a MoMA-dictated linear and even fascist vision of art history. I’m not sure why. Look at the thing. I would say that Barr’s thesis is that art history is “nonlinear” and “messy,” to use today’s buzzwords.

Oh, well. Barr’s diagram invited parodies, and it got them. In 1938 painter Nathaniel Pousette-Dart—father of the better-known abstractionist Richard Pousette-Dart—published “A Tree Chart of Contemporary American Art” in the June-July 1938 issue of Art and Artistes of Today.

This is a tea party reaction to MoMA’s Eurocentrism. Currier and Ives is a limb! Nevertheless, at the crown of Pousette-Dart’s creation are MoMA’s beloved abstractionists. Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis are close to the top. At the very tip are… John Graham and Katherine Dreier. The real puzzler is Adolf Dehn, sole leaf on the Chinese trunk. Say what?

The July 2, 1946 issue of New York’s highbrow tabloid P.M. carried Ad Reinhardt’s “How to Look at Modern Art in America.” It’s by a long shot the funniest, most relevant, and most caustic of the genre. I’d wager that Reinhardt knew of the Covarrubias tree in Vanity Fair, for he includes several birds, the most amusing being those two love birds, Guggenheim gate-keeper Hilla Rebay and boytoy-abstractionist Rudolf Bauer.

Sorry, Miguel. “Mexican Art Influence” is a lead weight burdening an already fracturing limb of American modernism. Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, Philip Guston, and the late, great Dorothea Tanning are about to be wished away into Reinhardt’s cornfield.

Covarrubias had something to do with the Mexican influence on American art, for he was one of the curators of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1940 exhibition, “20 Centuries of Mexican Art.” Below is Covarrubias’ Vanity Fair caricature of the opening gala, itself a kind of art-world family tree. The Vanity Fair spread is also on view—with identifying key—at CAAM.

Going by the chronology, Covarrubias either invented, revived, or popularized a meme. Satirical or serious, trees of art history are sometimes illuminating and almost always fun. Why aren’t we doing more of them today?

Betye Saar: “CAGE” at CAAM

The California African American Museum is showing a series of assemblages and collages by Betye Saar, godmother of California Assemblage. Most involve literal bird cages, filled to bursting with a sensibility that seems to be equal parts Jim Crow and Edgar Allan Poe. (Left, The Weight of Color.) Created in 2008, when Saar was already in her 80s, they rival her best work.

What is it with birds as metaphors lately? As with the Cerulean warblers in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Saar’s crows find that a gilded cage can be an iron maiden. Freedom is also the rallying cry of politicians who have cut state museum and park budgets to the bone. Despite that, “CAGE” is the strongest art show CAAM has managed in a long while—a reminder, if any is needed, that Tim Burton didn’t invent So. Cal. goth.