“It’s all about Los Angeles. We’re in a lost frontier. We don’t know where in the hell we’re going.”
Los Angeles is unique among American cities in having three major museum collections of Golden Age Dutch painting (at LACMA, the Norton Simon, and the Getty). Yet it has no work by Jan Vermeer, today’s crowd-sourced fave Dutch master. By the time that Californians began to collect seriously, the Vermeers were mostly taken. Indeed, all the Vermeers in American museums are east and north of the Potomac. That’s why the loan of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, at the Getty Center through March 31, is such an event.
Southern California came closer to having its own Vermeer than you might think. Arabella Huntington owned Vermeer’s Woman with a Lute (at top). Her railroad tycoon husband Collis P. Huntington bragged that he never spent more than $200 a year on himself. That was before he met Arabella. She filled his bachelor mansion in Manhattan with French furniture and became an astute art collector. Vermeer was hardly known in American when the Huntingtons purchased Woman with a Lute.
After Collis died, Arabella became America’s richest woman. Thirteen years later she married Collis’ also-wealthy nephew, Henry. At Henry’s urging, the couple wintered in godforsaken San Marino, California. Upon Arabella’s 1924 death the Vermeer went to her son Archer. He gave it to the Met, where it is credited as a bequest of Collis P. Huntington.
Had the estate planning gone a little differently, Woman with a Lute might have ended up in San Marino. It almost made it there in 2011, when the Met lent it to the Norton Simon Museum for a few months.
Armand Hammer had coveted Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, the only probable mature Vermeer picture now in private hands. It was, you might say, a classic Hammer picture—a little painting by a big name, in dicey condition. But Hammer had been stung by bad reviews of his art collection. He took on the National Gallery’s John Walker as collection coach. Walker recommended that Hammer pass on the so-called Vermeer. Even if was by the artist, he argued, what glory would there be in owning the world’s worst Vermeer?
That was wise counsel, though as it happened there was $30 million worth of glory. Steven Wynn paid that for Young Woman Seated at a Virginal in 2004, and he flipped it for the same price, reportedly, four years later. Vermeer briefly got star billing on the marquee of Wynn’s Las Vegas casino.
Young Woman Seated at a Virginal has been conserved, supposedly revealing the master’s hand, and shown in several major museums as a Vermeer or “attributed to.” The Rijksmuseum’s Martin Bijl called it “a minor late work” of the 1670s. Bijl contends that Vermeer lost his edge in his late period—and it wasn’t all that late, as he died at the age of 43.
Those who champion Young Woman Seated at a Virginal as a Vermeer often stipulate that the clumsily painted yellow cloak has to be by someone else. The yellow cloak consititutes a large fraction of the paint surface that isn’t a white wall.
Still, if Armand Hammer hadn’t been so keen on going big-time respectable, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal might now be in Westwood.
J. Paul Getty adored Dutch pictures and bargains. It wasn’t in the cards for him to buy any of the few Vermeers that changed hands in his lifetime. Despite that, Getty bought a painting that had once been credited to Vermeer by Théophile Thoré-Bürger himself—the critic who launched the Vermeer rediscovery. Thoré-Bürger owned three authentic Vermeers (two now in London and one in Berlin) as well as the painting that Getty bought, Street Scene.
Street Scene, on display in the Getty’s first-floor French decorative arts rooms, is now understood to be by the obscure Jacobus Vrel. The feet of the elfin figures levitate over the pavement, and the perspective is peculiar. It may seem crazy that a great connoisseur could have confused the Getty painting for a Vermeer. But that’s forgetting how art history works. You don’t know anything until you know it (and even then you don’t know it, totally). Thoré-Bürger had no way of telling how wide Vermeer’s range was, or whether the artist left behind early, less accomplished works. He recognized that the Getty painting’s melancholy light and granular textures resemble such Vermeers as The Little Street in the Rijksmuseum.
Vrel is as rare as Vermeer and more mysterious. The Getty site says there are only 38 paintings attributed to Vrel, a number within the error bars of the Vermeer census. Vrel’s only dated painting is from 1654. That’s about three years before The Little Street and Vermeer’s earliest pictures of contemplative women. It raises the possibility that Vrel influenced Vermeer’s art rather than vice-versa.
Pieter de Hooch, a much better-known artist than Vrel, also did Vermeer-esque subjects a few years before Vermeer did. Vrel is more naive-folksy than either, though there is a certain kinship between Vrel and Vermeer. Their subjects are often Walker Evans slices of life, unpicturesque and without obvious meaning. De Hooch, working the same territory, more often has a moral, or at least a point. Vrel and Vermeer’s figures are isolated even in an urban street. Like vampires, they do not cast shadows so solid as those of the inanimate objects around them.
The case for a Vrel influence on Vermeer would be stronger if we knew he lived in Delft. We don’t know that; we don’t where he lived or anything else.
Vrel has been getting some buzz lately. In 2011 the Fitzwilliam Museum (then helmed by Timothy Potts, now of the Getty) did a mini-blockbuster, “Vermeer’s Woman: Secrets and Silence.” Much of the attention surrounded Vrel’s little-known and mesmerizing Woman at the Window (below), lent from a French private collection. A woman tips forward in her chair to see a ghostly child outside in the night. She’s trying to say something, or to hear something. Maybe she can’t make out the words. The chair’s position in space is irrational. The angles of the walls make no sense. Vrel’s painting is as abstract as a Dutch interior can be—or else it’s Whistler’s Mother gone off her rocker.
The Museum of Modern Art’s interest in black L.A. artists could not generally be called excessive. But in the latest “Pacific Standard Time” miracle, MoMA has added a dozen works by six artists featured in the Hammer Museum-organized “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980″ (currently at MoMA’s PS1 branch). The acquisitions include pieces by Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, and Bette Saar. Above is Charles White’s Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man). The word in the middle of his sign reads NOW.
For forty years Llyn Foulkes has been painting “bloody heads”—mutilated, eyeless faces of male power figures. Like Francis Bacon’s screaming Magdalenes, they are hermetic emblems of postmodern angst. Unlike Francis Bacon’s screaming Magdalenes, they were inspired by Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.
That is one surprise in the Hammer Museum’s ever-surprising Llyn Foulkes retrospective. The Hammer show is sure to prompt a reappraisal of one of L.A.’s hardest-working artists.
The young Foulkes was a proto-goth, dressing in black and keeping a raven as a pet. Below is the quintessential photo portrait by his then father-in-law, Disney animator Ward Kimball. A friend who worked as night watchman at a funeral home invited Foulkes to see an autopsied corpse. The scalp had been peeled down over the forehead. “It freaked me out,” Foulkes said in the Hammer’s audio tour. It also reminded him of Moe Howard’s bowl haircut.
Foulkes had been working on a self-portrait that wouldn’t gel. He went home and painted blood over the face, making it look like a red wig. The hair was less Moe Howard than Foulkes’ own beatnik cut. A mask further concealed the face. This became the first bloody head painting, Who’s on Third? (1971-1973; top of post, right).
Buster Keaton preceded the Stooges in the pie fight game. He was also an avid baseball player, boasting that he could hit someone with a pie while running from second to third base. Foulkes knew that quote and free-associated Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine to derive the painting’s title.
Pie fights are surrealist schtick in which the “victim’s” facial identity is disturbingly nullified by gobs of shaving cream masquerading as custard. Annililation of identity is the art-schtick of the bloody heads, the Bacon Magdalenes, the Baldessari circles, and porn-star shots with bars over the eyes.
“The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes,” said film director John Ford. Himself, Ford wore dark glasses and sometimes an eye patch (right). Foulkes’ bloody heads are an inversion of Ford’s formula. They support the not-entirely-crazy hypothesis that contemporary art is, increasingly, about putting a minus sign before Hollywood.
Hammer curator Ali Sobotnick notes that Foulkes’ bloody heads are almost all male. In the 1930s, Hal Roach Studios had a rule that attractive young women should not be shown taking a pie in the face.
The UCLA Hammer Museum has acquired Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), a major feminist work that was featured in MOCA’s “Under the Big Black Sun.” Created at L.A. City Hall in collaboration with Leslie Labowitz, it’s a map with the word RAPE stenciled wherever an assault occurred—in close-to-real-time. The map also indicated which rapes had been investigated by police. It is thus an analog precursor to the sort of information graphics we now take for granted. In a talk at Bard College last summer, Paul Schimmel regretted that MOCA had not bought it.
A Jewish proverb says that he who marries for money earns it. Young, dirt-poor MOCA is thinking of hooking up with the wealthy old University of Southern California in “a possible partnership that would enhance the missions of both institutions.”
What’s in it for USC? The university would acquire prestige, most especially for its art department. Beyond that, it’s hard to say much, given that nothing’s been disclosed about the terms of any possible deal. At one extreme, a “partnership” could be no more than sending out a press release and having a few USC classes at MOCA, a few loans of art to USC’s Fisher Museum.
It’s unlikely that such a loose arrangement would solve MOCA’s financial problems. MOCA needs infusions of millions of dollars this year, next year, and every year. USC surely isn’t going to put out that kind of money unless it gets something exclusive. It would almost have to be on the order of UCLA’s takeover of the Armand Hammer Museum.
You might ask, what’s so bad about that? The UCLA Hammer Museum is a great success story. But MOCA is a collecting institution, as Armand Hammer’s crazy little vanity project wasn’t. A possible alliance with USC would come with baggage. Many collectors and MOCA board members have strong ties to UCLA. Well, UCLA and USC are rivals. Oh, the rivalry is all in good fun, but how many Bruins would think twice before writing a check to a USC-affiliated museum?
MOCA’s President Emeritus Dallas Price-Van Breda is a big supporter of UCLA’s School of the Arts. MOCA Life Trustee Lenore S. Greenberg has her name on a UCLA law school endowment. Then there’s David Geffen, namesake of MOCA’s Little Tokyo building. Geffen didn’t attend UCLA but his name is on UCLA’s school of medicine and theater. Unlike Hammer, Geffen has made no promises to anybody about where his collection is going. But whether a USC-MOCA alliance would diminish the odds of landing the Geffen collection is worth pondering.
The terms of a MOCA-USC deal, or of a gift of money or art, could resolve any legalistic difficulties. I’m not sure you can get around a widespread perception. USC isn’t likely to pump millions into MOCA unless that museum becomes very strongly identified with the university.
(Below, USC’s Tommy Trojan statue, wrapped in duct tape to prevent vandalism by UCLA fans. All in fun!)
L.A. now has two Old Master blockbusters, Caravaggio and Co. (LACMA) and Giotto-plus (Getty). New York has one, the Met’s “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay.” (Left, Caravaggio’s Portrait of Maffio Barberini at LACMA.)
In more recent art, New York has market-friendly efforts built around Picasso (Guggenheim) and Warhol (Met). They’re delighting touristic masses starved for yet another Picasso or Warhol show in New York.
Meanwhile Los Angeles institutions are writing the next chapter of art history. LACMA has “Ken Price Sculpture,” MOCA has “Destroy the Picture” and “Blues for Smoke,” and the Fowler has “In Extremis.”
The only comparably paradigm-challenging shows in New York are PS1’s “Now Dig This!”—organized by the Hammer for PST—and MoMA’s “Tokyo 1955-1950: A New Avant-Garde,” opening this weekend.
“Ken Price” will travel to the Met, and the Whitney’s Richard Artschwager retro will land at the Hammer next summer. The Brooklyn Museum is hosting the Mickalene Thomas survey that debuted at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. All this demonstrates that, for market-valued or trendy contemporary art, there’s no longer much of a difference between the coasts at the museum level.
Movies? Well LACMA has Stanley Kubrick, and MoMA has the Quay Brothers.
MoMA’s marquee draw of the moment is Munch’s expensive pastel of The Scream, timed tickets required. The Frick’s painting loan is van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant, from Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum of course.
A Nate Silver would properly conclude that L.A.’s momentary surge is noise, not signal. It so happens that some New York museums are at a trough in their schedule, while some Los Angeles institutions are cresting. A reversion to the mean is on the books for December, when promising shows of early Euro abstraction (MoMA) and Matisse (Met) open in Manhattan, and nothing much happens on the Left Coast.
That said, L.A.’s perfect storm is the sort of thing that didn’t happen until recently. The main reason is the 2 acres of new exhibition space that LACMA has opened since 2008. Many an American museum has discovered that it’s easy to raise funds for a glamorous building that will put the city on a mythic circuit of “world-class” exhibitions. The ongoing challenge is to raise the money to program the space and to draw the audiences that will make it worthwhile. For the past couple of years, Los Angeles has been doing just that, and that’s worthy of mention.
A sidelight to the Hammer Museum’s focus show, “A Strange Magic: Gustave Moreau’s Salome” is two small oil sketches verging on complete abstraction. They come from the Moreau Museum, Paris. At his 1898 death, Moreau left hundreds of near-abstractions in his studio, none of which had ever been exhibited publicly. His partisans have made the case that their man was the first abstractionist.
Moreau began producing small, brushy sketches as early as 1855. Some are related to major paintings like Salome; others seem to be color experiments that may not have been preparatory to anything. By the late 1880s Moreau was about where Kandinsky would be 20 years later, producing paintings that were non-objective save for a fugitive hint of figure or a descriptive title. At top is Sketch D. Below is is Battle of the Centaurs (about 1890), a watercolor resembling a Lee Krasner.
Moreau must have been thinking of works like these when he wrote:
“One thing is uppermost for me, an impulse and ardor of the strongest kind toward abstraction. The expression of human feelings, of the passions of man, interests me very much indeed, but I am less inclined to express these movements of the soul and spirit than to render visible, so to speak, the flashes of imagination that one doesn’t know how to situate, that something divine in their seeming insignificance and that, translated by the marvelous effects of pure plasticity, open magical horizons that I would even call sublime.”
The final link in the Moreau-as-abstractionist syllogism is that Moreau taught Matisse and Roualt. Ergo, he was the first Fauve. Roualt became the first curator of the Gustave Moreau Museum, which opened in 1903. Moreau’s abstractions were on view in a Parisian museum well before any 20th-century artist’s were.
How did Moreau come to paint abstractions? All agree he was influenced by the Romantic oil sketch tradition. One of his earliest quasi-abstractions, The Cavalier (c. 1855, left) is an homage to Delacroix.
There is a plausible literary precedent, too: Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 short story “The Unknown Masterpiece.” Set in the 17th century, Balzac’s tale has Nicolas Poussin and Frans Pourbus the Younger encountering a fellow painter, Frenhofer, said to be a student of Jan Gossaert (a.k.a. “Mabuse”). Frenhofer has spent 10 years working on a portrait he refused to show anyone.
Porbus and Poussin, burning with eager curiosity, hurried into a vast studio. Everything was in disorder and covered with dust, but they saw a few pictures here and there upon the wall. They stopped first of all in admiration before the life-size figure of a woman partially draped.
“Oh! never mind that,” said Frenhofer; “that is a rough daub that I made, a study, a pose, it is nothing. These are my failures,” he went on, indicating the enchanting compositions upon the walls of the studio.
That’s a decent description of Moreau’s studio, filled with “daubs” and works in all states of completion. Finally, Poussin and Pourbus see the masterpiece. It’s incomprehensible.
“Do you see anything?” Poussin asked of Porbus.
“No… do you?”
“I see nothing.”…
In a corner of the canvas, as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living delicate beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town.
“Art cannot exceed the boundaries assigned it by nature,” the real Poussin said, and this line is paraphrased by Balzac. Frenhofer’s years of labor had produced incoherent madness. He ends up killing himself and burning his lifework. The Balzac story is a key text of the romantic theme of creative artist as nut case. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick adopted it in The Shining.
Balzac did not describe a non-objective painting. That must have been inconceivable even to his imagination. Instead he exaggerated the Romantic tendency, seen best in Turner, to supply a small narrative subject to a “chaos of color.” Moreau adopted a similar approach, as did James Ensor, although both worked in a more figurative mode as well.
There’s no doubt that later modernists identified with Frenhofer. Émile Bernard wrote of this encounter with Cézanne: “One evening when I was speaking to him about The Unknown Masterpiece and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac’s drama, he got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, designated himself—without a word, but through this repeated gesture—as the very person in the story. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.”
Picasso, who created an illustrated edition of The Unknown Masterpiece for Vollard (below), was practically a Balzac stalker. He rented Pourbus’ old studio, Nº 7 rue des Grandes-Augustin, where the tale begins. While there he painted Guernica.
Some art is so good it doesn’t matter where it comes from, reports blogger Jillian Steinhauer:
“On first glance, some may wonder why MoMA PS1, a New York contemporary art museum, has just opened a historical exhibition of art from Los Angeles.… Once you step inside the exhibition, you realize that Now Dig This! is so good — so well-curated, so full of fantastic art, so revelatory — that it was worth bringing to New York no matter what.”
(Pictured, John Outterbridge’s No Time for Jivin’)
New York’s shuttered Knoedler & Company is in the news again, in good ways and bad. The Getty Research Institute has just announced the acquisition of Knoedler’s archives. That venerable institution sold European masterpieces to great American collectors like Mellon and Frick. A few of the Getty Museum’s most famous paintings, like Manet’s Madame Brunet and van Gogh’s Irises, passed through its hands. So did a few paintings that the Getty lost out on, like Rembrandt’s Juno (above).
Meanwhile, more details have surfaced in the ongoing legal battles over dubious Abstract Expressionist paintings the gallery sold in the 1990s and 2000s. At right below is an alleged Rothko that Knoedler sold for $8.3 million in 2004. The buyers now say it’s fake. The painting came from an enigmatic source known in Knoedler files as “Secret Santa.” New court filings charge that Knoedler made most of its profit in recent years selling unprovenanced New York school paintings. If accurate, that’s like learning that a one-time starlet was arrested for shoplifting.
The GRI purchase extends through 1971. This is being spun as motivated by a desire to steer clear of Secret Santa-gate. But the 1971 cut-off date surely reflects a change of ownership. That was the year that Armand Hammer bought Knoedler. Hammer, who died in 1990, had nothing to do with the current legal troubles. He may have been the start of Knoedler’s ethical malaise, however. Hammer was known for sharp bargains that left customers unhappy, and biographers have accused him of worse transgressions.
In the 1930s Knoedler had brokered the sale of Raphaels and Rembrandts from the Hermitage to Andrew Mellon. At about the same time Armand Hammer was importing B-list material from the USSR: Fabergé eggs, that kind of junk. (At left below, the Renaissance Egg, sold via Hammer.) One story is that, after Hammer ran short of legitimate Fabergé material, he had fakes made, marking them with an authentic Fabergé stamp.
Shortly after Hammer took over Knoedler in 1971, William Middendorf II, a U.S. Secretary of the Navy, came in saying he had a Rembrandt to sell. It was legitimate.
Middendorf was offering Juno, the queenly goddess of wealth. Once considered the work of a follower, Juno had been purchased by the city of Bonn for its museum in 1925. When the Nazis came to power, the city was ordered to focus on German art and sell other works to raise cash. Juno sold in 1935 as a work “in the style of Rembrandt” for the equivalent of $214.
It later came into the possession of Middendorf, who lent it to the Metropolitan Museum for a decade. The Met paid a record $2.3 million for another large and late Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. After the Rembrandt Research Project gave Juno the green light, Middendorf decided it was time to sell. His asking price was a then-outrageous $5 million. The Metropolitan passed.
Somewhere down the list was J. Paul Getty, the world’s richest man, elderly and in poor health. It would have made sense to buy a great Rembrandt for his Malibu museum. He and his museum bargained back and forth, negotiating Middendorf’s price down to $3.25 million. They had a deal, until they didn’t.
Under Hammer, a clause in the Knoedler contract allowed the gallery to step in and purchase at the client’s negotiated price. Hammer bought Juno for his own collection, describing it as his favorite painting.
The Getty’s loss was LACMA’s gain. Hammer had promised his collection to LACMA. From December 1976 to February 1977, Juno was shown in LACMA’s New Acquisitions Gallery.
Shortly before his death, Hammer revoked his pledge to LACMA and built his own museum in Westwood. Juno is now in the UCLA Hammer Museum.
Hammer’s last sharp deal may have been Knoedler itself. He bought the gallery for $2.5 million in 1971. Judith Dobrzynski writes that grandson Michael Hammer’s asking price for just the Knoedler archive was said to be between $5 and $10 million. The GRI probably didn’t pay anywhere near that, but it’s a safe bet the Hammers came out ahead.