William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Posts Tagged ‘LACMA’

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.

Korean Simplicity, and Bling, at LACMA

Moon Jar, 18th century. Photo (c) National Museum of Korea

Korea’s National Treasure No. 1437 is a moon jar. Its form is one of the few uniquely Korean ones that is reasonably well-known to American audiences. We see it as “modern.” The surprise might be that a rough-hewn, undecorated ceramic rates national treasure status. The moon jar is pointedly imperfect, like the globe we live on.

The taste for simplicity is one thread of “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910,” now at LACMA. It has about 150 objects spanning five centuries and media ranging from painting and sculpture to furniture, ceramics, ritual objects, books, costumes, hairpins, and a map (a 22-foot-long map of the Korean peninsula). Most are from the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, and many are the best of their kind. As you’d expect, there is gold and show-off virtuosity. Yet you may leave most impressed with the traditional Korean values of simplicity, authenticity,  and self-effacement.

Maybe that’s because we like to think that these are American values too. Of course they are, and they aren’t. No nation can be reduced to a sound bite. That said, a display of furnishings for aristocratic scholars at LACMA will remind many visitors of the Shakers and the Eameses (those two poles of abstemious practicality). A Joseon brush holder verges on a Shaker peg rack. A candlestick has the cursory curves of a Shaker candle stand, but is topped with a reflective iron butterfly with calligraphic inscription.

A 19th-century letter holder (left) invites comparison to John Frederick Peto’s letter racks and Melville’s Bartleby (“Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men?”). In their 20th-century leg splint (right), the Eameses deployed the technology of the military-industrical complex to mold plywood. The Korean letter holder uses bamboo, which bends without the rocket science.

Two 17th-century ritual ceramic vessels of an ox and elephant look like “folk art” at its most whimsical, but they were likely royal commissions for an ancestral shrine.

A late 19th-century Box with Ox-horn Decoration recalls another old-time American aesthetic. “American Fancy” was nominally the opposite of Puritanism, an embrace of complicated European pattern and decoration, turned out with native ingenuity. The Korean box exemplifies that spirit, being an attempt to encapsulate Chinese and Korean tradition with new materials. The motifs were painted in reverse on translucent slivers of ox horn and pasted on the box.

Box with Ox-horn Decoration. Photo (c) National Museum of Korea

Box with Ox-Horn Decoration. Photo (c) National Museum of Korea

The last room presents objects from the end of the Joseon period, influenced by photography and the West. One display case is a mini-Urban Light. The largest of six electric light covers from a Joseon palace represent lotus buds. The profiles of the others look back to moon jars. All are etched with a plum blossom, logo of the soon-to-be-extinguished dynasty.

Why Summer Tourists Should Head West

This summer millions of American and overseas visitors will flock to the big museums of the Eastern seaboard. There they will see unparalleled permanent collections and fewer intelligent loan exhibitions than are currently on view in Los Angeles. (Shown, Mike Kelley’s “The Territorial Hound,” part of the MOCA retrospective.)

L.A. has two sprawling shows that could serve as primers of contemporary art—MOCA’s “Mike Kelley” and the Hammer’s “Made in L.A.” Then there are three big exhibitions of classic modernism: “Calder and Abstraction” and “Expressionism in Germany and France” at LACMA and “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor” at the Getty Center. Two shows present hard-to-arrange loans of iconic treasures from centuries past: “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium” at the Getty Villa and “Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections” at LACMA. A third such show, “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910″ opens this Sunday. For a week–until “Chinese Paintings” closes on July 6—L.A. museums will have eight shows of international distinction running simultaneously.

In New York, the marquee attraction is “Jeff Koons,” opening tomorrow at the Whitney. (Left, Split Rocker.) It will join three big retrospectives of contemporary artists (Sigmar Polk and Lygia Clark at MoMA, Ai Weiwei at Brooklyn). There’s Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim and “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu Buddhist Sculpture” at the Met. Count the Met’s fashion show, on Charles James, and that’s seven major exhibitions in New York. IMHO, not only does L.A. have more first-rate exhibitions but they’re less predictable and more relevant.

In D.C., the National Gallery of Art has the predictable crowd-pleaser “Degas/Cassatt.” The Freer/Sackler has a mid-sized show on James McNeill Whistler and the Thames. The Hirshhorn is partly closed for construction.

There are fine small shows in Boston and Philadelphia, though not at this level of ambition. The summer’s biggest tourist magnet in Philadelphia is Vermeer’s worst(?) painting—the Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, below. (The singleton loan to see is in New York, Parmigianino’s Schiava Turca at the Frick Collection.)

Patrons of East Coast museums leave town when the tourists arrive. That’s probably why Eastern museums focus more on a fall-winter season. Maybe some of those summer tourists should try L.A. instead?

A Drive-Through LACMA?

The latest renderings for Peter Zumthor’s proposed museum campus stretch across Wilshire Blvd, avoiding an encroachment on the Tar Pits. The new design also gives more breathing space for the Pavilion for Japanese Art, which was previously all but surrounded by two pseudopods.

In Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s early conception for the Broad, cars and pedestrians entering the museum would face each other through glass. That idea was tabled. The new Zumthor concept would literally be a drive-through museum (one with its own subway stop).

Ivan Albright, the People’s Choice

Voters in the “Art Everywhere US” promotion—which will put a crowd-sourced selection of 58 images of American artworks on 50,000 billboards, bus shelters, and subway platforms this August—turned thumbs up to Ivan Albright’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (nominated by the Art Institute of Chicago) but thumbs down to Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (below, nominated by LACMA). OK, I get that the critically praised Opie is edgy and that Marie Cassatt might be more Mr. and Mrs. America’s speed. But Ivan Albright??? Where did that come from?

A Pomegranate for LACMA

The Supreme Court recently ruled that Lynda and Stewart Resnick’s POM Wonderful brand can sue Coca-Cola over the latter’s imitation pomegranate juice, made mostly from apple and grape juices. I think it’s just a coincidence that LACMA is showing this newly acquired painting of a pomegranate with apples and grapes. It’s not in the pomegranate juice-tested Resnick Pavilion, nor even in the pomegranate-pink Resnick Gallery but rather in a 19th-century room in the Ahmanson Building’s European galleries. Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate (c. 1865), by French realist Théodule-Augustin Ribot, was bought via the European Art Acquisition Fund.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy invoked another still life in his ruling: “a vignette of blueberries, grapes, and raspberries in front of a halved pomegranate and a halved apple” on the bogus pomegranate juice’s label.