William Poundstone
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William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Posts Tagged ‘LACMA’

The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett

Morton Bartlett (1909-1992) is an artist’s outsider artist. His photographs have been admired by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and Mike Kelley. Think of them as film stills, or yearbook photos, in which the figures are dolls sculpted, painted, and dressed by the artist.

One of the smallest, most powerful museum shows in Los Angeles currently is “Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett” at LACMA. It features a dozen posthumous color prints (donated to the museum in recent years by L.A. collector Barry Sloane), as well as several black-and-white prints and documents that provide clues to the Bartlett puzzle.

Bartlett was a Boston graphic artist and photographer. In 1936 he began creating a series of half-size polychrome “dolls”/sculptures  of children, mostly girls. He photographed them in clothes he made for them. A few photographs are nude, revealing that the dolls have genitals.

Bartlett never exhibited his photographs (or the dolls) in his lifetime. He did publish them, once, in the unlikely pages of Yankee magazine. A 1962 feature, “The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett,” reproduced nine of his photographs of dolls in ethnic costumes.

The other key text of the Bartlett canon is a status update he wrote for a 1957 Harvard alumni publication. “My hobby is sculpting in plaster,” said Bartlett. “Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies—to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”

There are few biographical facts about Bartlett but many theories. The three most popular are:

(1) Bartlett was a sublimated pedophile, like Lewis Carroll and Henry Darger are presumed to have been.

(2) Bartlett, being an orphan, sought to recreate the family he never had. It’s said that the boy dolls resemble him as a child.

(3) Commercial artist Bartlett aspired to be a “serious” artist. The dolls and photos were a personal project he intend to exhibit one day (but didn’t). Bartlett’s doll project might show awareness of Hans Bellmer’s dolls and the staged color photography of Paul Outerbridge.

These theories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Barlett’s recent fame in the outsider art community has elicited some new information. One woman came forward to report that her mother was engaged to Bartlett (who never married).

Most intriguingly, Bartlett’s longtime friend Jean Gilbran spoke with critic Ken Johnson. ”He used to come with us to art openings” Gilbran said. “He knew all about art and artists—he couldn’t have been an outsider. He was a well-educated, well-rounded man, and there was nothing primitive or strange about him.”

As to the dolls: “He wanted to get a toy company to manufacture them. He thought they could become big sellers like the Barbie doll.”

A Barbie with a vagina? It’s worth remembering that Barbie was considered pretty radical back in 1959—for having breasts. Had Ruth Handler died before getting Mattel off the ground, leaving behind prototypes for a super-sexualized teenager and a genital-free boyfriend, maybe the outsider art market would have “theories” about her.

Bartlett was discovered, after his death, by Connecticut dealer Marion Harris. She bought a cache of  small black-and-white photographs and the dolls themselves. Harris introduced Bartlett to the art world at New York’s 1995 Outsider Art Fair.

Later, L.A. real estate agent Barry Sloane found and bought a set of 17 of Barton’s color slides on eBay.

“I remember Mike Kelley saying that the color was extraordinary,” said Sloane, “and asking me how anyone was going to know how great Morton Bartlett was in color if the images weren’t bigger.”

Sloane made editioned color prints of the slides, large but not too large. In recent gallery showings these color prints have upstaged the much smaller B&W ones Bartlett printed.

The color prints raise two questions. The less interesting one is “are they authentic?” There is no evidence that Bartlett ever intended the slides to be enlarged. In this regard they bear comparison to the posthumous bronzes after Degas’ wax sculptures.

The more interesting question is, “What if an artist’s best work is ‘inauthentic’?” This isn’t an issue with Degas. It is most likely to be with outsiders, or quasi-outsiders like Bartlett. A better parallel is E.J. Bellocq’s negatives of New Orleans prostitutes, discovered and printed by Lee Friedlander. These are accepted as too important to sweat the authenticity.

There is the separate matter of whether the dolls or the photographs are to be considered Bartlett’s main achievement. Note that Bartlett himself described his “hobby” as sculpting, not photography. The dolls have been exhibited in gallery shows, and the American Folk Art Museum acquired one in 1998. My sense is that Bartlett’s vision comes together most completely in the photographs, where he controls pose, lighting, and camera angle. It is the photos that seem especially contemporary.

Bartlett’s friend Gilbran said that she never saw a child model in Bartlett’s studio. Apparently, though, Bartlett did photograph children as part of his commercial work. “Playthings” has a model release and several such photos. Furthermore, a black-and-white photo of a girl reading Grimm’s fairy tales was clearly a point of reference for one of the color photo of a girl reading Reader’s Digest.

(Below is a work not in the show but in LACMA’s collection. It’s a B&W image that Sloane printed in 2006. For the c. 1955 negative, Bartlett assembled his repertory company in front of a cyclorama.)

Fall 2014 Preview

You must have heard that MOCA’s exhibition schedule is “practically blank.” Yes and no: This October MOCA Pacific Design Center will be presenting an anticipated survey of Marjorie Cameron, goddess-mother of the L.A. school. L.A. museums’  fall season is notable for several shows on cult favorites, but there are more universally acknowledged names too. “Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913-1915″ has recently opened at LACMA (through November 30), and a Rubens show will be coming to the Getty. There will be single great paintings or series by Delacroix, Thomas Cole, Manet, and Warhol. Big-picture surveys will treat Samurai armor and the cosmic phase of African art.

Tunic for Shango Priest. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Franko Khoury

The latter exhibition, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” arrives at LACMA from the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum. (Aug. 24-Nov. 30). Shown is a Yoruba tunic for a Shango priest, possibly from the Baba Adesina family workshop.

Also coming to LACMA is “Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett.” Slotted as an outsider, Bartlett was a commercial artist like Warhol and Rosenquist. In 1936 he embarked on a personal project of creating incredibly lifelike dolls of children, designing clothing for them, and photographing them in that clothing, or else nude. Bartlett has been compared to Lewis Carroll and Henry Darger, implying erotic interest in his effigies. Unlike Darger, Bartlett was no recluse. Friends say he dated women and never had children in his studio. Some believe he intended to market his creations as anatomically correct Barbies and Kens; others, that he was a serious artist who knew exactly what he was doing—creating disturbingly eroto-self-referential photographs in the mode of Paul Outerbridge. The LACMA show will include new prints of recently discovered color slides—such as the one at top right. (Aug. 30 to Jan. 31, 2015).

Another artist’s artist—like Cameron, working the Left Coast, single-name Freaknik territory—was Jess. “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle” comes to the Pasadena Museum of California Art (Sept. 14 to Jan. 11. 2015).

“Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take” runs Oct. 2 to Jan 17, 2015, at the Hammer Museum. Above is “As Close As I Can Get” (1998), a digital simulacrum created with analog Pantone color chips.

MOCA’s Cameron survey is subtitled “Songs for the Witch Woman.” Witch woman is not the nicest thing to call a proto-feminist artist. But Cameron had no problem with the term. She drove a hearse and gave Elvira-style Halloween interviews to L.A. media. She was also a draftsperson, a poet, and a Kenneth Anger superstar; a mystic muse to Wallace Berman and Philip K. Dick and a perp to the LAPD vice squad. At right is a self-portrait, The Black Egg. (Oct. 11 to Jan. 11, 2015).

The Getty Center has organized an exhibition around Rubens’ most ambitious tapestry commission, the Triumph of the Eucharist. Americans want Rubens to be a creator of autograph and not too obscurely religious paintings. The reality is that Rubens was a media-hopping art entrepreneur, deeply Catholic in both senses of the word. The Getty exhibition will present small oil sketches from Rubens’ hand alongside magisterial tapestries. Below is an oil sketch of The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. (Oct. 14 to Jan. 11, 2015).

“Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Babier-Mueller Collection” stops at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion Oct. 19 to Feb. 1, 2015. It includes the stunning Tengu (crow demon) armor at top of post, from 1854.

Nineteenth-century American paintings from the New-York Historical Society will winter at LACMA in “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School.” The loan will include Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, model for Ruscha’s post-industrial series of the same title. Below, Cole’s The Course of Empire: Desolation. (Dec. 7 to June 7, 2015).

Finally, this fall MOCA will present Andy Warhol’s Shadows (from the Dia Art Foundation), LACMA will be showing Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (from Bordeaux), and the Norton Simon will entice Rose Bowl visitors with Manet’s The Railway (from the National Gallery of Art).

LACMA Buys a 1963 Studebaker Avanti

LACMA’s “Unframed” blog reports that the museum has acquired its first automobile, a 1963 Studebaker Avanti formerly owned by its designer, Raymond Loewy. Another Avanti, also a creamy white, was featured in the 2011 “California Design” show. The fiberglas Avanti (Italian for forward) was advertised as “America’s Most Advanced Automobile.” Designed in about 40 days at Loewy’s Palm Springs home, it downplayed chrome in favor of space-age styling. The full-size clay model got a standing ovation from the Studebaker board.

Few art museums collect cars, and those that do are highly selective. The Museum of Modern Art bought its first automobile in 1972. That was a 1946 Cisitalia “202” GT. The MoMA collection now has six cars, split evenly between sensible (Jeep, VW Beetle, Smart Car) and sexy (Ferrari, Jaguar).

A block from LACMA, the Petersen Automotive Museum has about 150 cars on display and a similar number in its vault. The white Avanti in “California Design,” formerly owned by Dick van Dyke, had been in the Petersen’s collection until it was sold last year for $29,700. The Peterson has a black 1963 Avanti, factory supercharged, in its vault.

At LACMA the Avanti is likely to be a star of the modern design collection—recognition that posterity may regard cars as the quintessential “decorative art” of the 20th century.

Henri Rousseau, the Accidental Expressionist

Many know of the German Expressionist taste for Cézanne, Matisse and van Gogh. All are present in LACMA’s “Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky.” So is a less well known influence, Henri Rousseau. (Above, Rousseau’s c. 1905 The Wedding Party.)

Rousseau was the Zelig, or Forrest Gump, of modernism. It was one of his jungle scenes that provoked critic Louis Vauxcelles to label a group show the Fauves (“wild beasts”). The name stuck to to Matisse and Derain, but not to Rousseau, who was beyond classification.

As a “primitive,” Rousseau might seem the opposite of worldly and pessimistic German Expressionism. Even in Paris Rousseau was taken as a joke, a Thrift Shop Painter So Bad He’s Good. Picasso’s notorious 1908 party in Rousseau’s honor turned out to be a roast in which avant-gardists got up in turn and delivered sarcastic tributes to Rousseau’s face. Braque supplied musical accompaniment on the harmonica. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas left early after a drunken guest ate Alice’s hat.

There was nothing snide about Wassily Kandinsky’s enthusiasm for Rousseau. He bought six Rousseau paintings in Paris. All, including The Wedding Party, were reproduced in the Blaue Reiter Almanac. That made Rousseau the best represented artist in the model book of early Expressionism. In comparison the Almanac reproduced a single work apiece by van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso; two by Matisse, and three each by Cézanne and Kandinsky.

Kandinsky praised Rousseau as the father of the “great realism” he found central to the art of his time. That almost tops Rousseau’s parting words to Picasso: “You and I are the greatest painters of our time. You in the Egyptian style, I in the modern!”

What did cerebral abstractionist Kandinsky see in Rousseau? First of all Kandinsky went through his own “folk art” phase. His jewel-like works c. 1907 were inspired by Russian folk paintings on glass and church mosaics.

A few years later Kandinsky was wrestling with how to do paintings without subject matter. One of the Rousseau paintings he bought, exhibited, and published is Malakoff, the Telegraph Poles, made the year of Picasso’s party. It’s a painting about nothing. Rousseau paints telegraph poles… but that can’t be the real subject(?) The tiny figures are doing nothing of interest. The main effect is the looming gray sky. Yet it’s not a painting of a storm or a cloud study, in any usual sense.

Kandinsky’s semi-abstractions of the Blaue Reiter period are landscapes with linear elements, suggestions of miniscule figures, and threatening weather. (Below, Sketch I for Painting with White Border, 1913.) In calling Rousseau a realist, Kandinsky apparently meant that Rousseau faithfully recorded an inner reality—”the spiritual in art.”

Franz Marc was equally entranced. In 1913 he wrote, “The douanier Rousseau is the only one whose art often haunts me. I constantly attempt to understand how me painted his marvelous pictures.” Marc painted blue horses, and what’s folksier than than that? (Blue dogs?)

The LACMA show ends with the first World War. Rousseau’s influence didn’t. After the war he became much better known in Germany through publications and exhibitions. Rousseau was a point of departure for the faux naiveté and odd juxtapositions of Max Beckmann’s triptychs. Intentionally or not, Rousseau made the bourgeois look ridiculous, a concept taken to the next level by the New Objectivity.

Rousseau may have had the last laugh on Picasso. Some believe the Spaniard’s most “expressionist” painting, Guernica, cribbed from Rousseau’s War (c. 1894).

LACMA to Show Sam Durant “Monument”

In 2013 a large Sam Durant installation, Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C., was presented for acquisition by LACMA’s Collectors Committee. It consists of 30 replicas of American monuments to the Indian wars. The Collectors Committee didn’t raise enough money to buy the Durant, but a group of its members later pooled funds to acquire it for LACMA. Proposal goes on view for the first time this Sunday through Nov. 30, 2014. Durant’s website has more photos and an artist’s statement.

Below is the Gnadenhutten Massacre monument in Ohio, one of the obelisks reproduced by Durant. “The Mohicans were co-existing peacefully and assimilating to white civilization,” writes Durant. “They were slaughtered by American troops in retaliation for an earlier Indian raid on white settlers in which they played no part.”

Whites often saw Indians as a monolithic entity, to be exterminated and commemorated by tasteful monoliths. The Gnadenhutten monument’s inscription reads, “Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians, March 8, 1782.”

Altoon, Naughty and Nice

The July 1957 issue of Escapade magazine had John Altoon’s illustrations for a short story by (fellow Armenian-American) William Saroyan. For a look at how Altoon’s work for stag magazines may have influenced his art, see the Laguna Art Museum’s “John Altoon: Drawings and Prints”  (through Sept. 21 and coinciding with the larger LACMA retrospective). In 1950s pin-up magazines women were often only half-exposed and unaware of their nudity: a premise that Altoon caricatured in 1960s works like F-8, in the LACMA show.

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.

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.

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.

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.