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Posts Tagged ‘LACMA’

Archibald Motley at LACMA

“Archibald Motley: Jazz-Age Modernist,” now at LACMA, could be mistaken for two shows. Motley came to attention in the 1920s with riveting portraits of persons of color (above, Woman Peeling Apples, 1924). Not long afterward Motley’s output shifted to the work he’s mainly known for: colorful, cartoonish crowd scenes of black nightlife in Paris and Chicago (below, Saturday Night, 1935). It’s possible to feel that Spike Lee had turned into Tyler Perry.

One key to Motley’s career arc is the “New Negro” movement. The African-American intellectual Alain Locke called for blacks to create literature and art presenting their race in a dignified manner. Motley’s early portraits exemply this and prove that “dignified” does not have to be boring. Below is Motley’s 1933 Self-Portrait (Myself at Work). It recalls the the New Objectivity of Germany (which, by the way, will have a LACMA show next fall). Germans of the period favored occupational portraits with a magic-realist slant. While the French developed surrealism, the New Objectivists—and Motley—understood the power of the Dutch proverb, “Be yourself, and you will be strange enough.”

The New Negro was often blackish. Harlem Renaissance literature explored the “talented tenth” of educated and affluent blacks, and the nuances of skin tone within the black community. Locke himself adopted a Barnabas Collins umbrella in sunlight, to preserve his light complexion.

Many of Motley’s female sitters are mixed-race, a fact that is underscored by Motley’s titles: Octaroon, Mulattress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape. Motley had some white and Native-American ancestry, and he married a white woman when this was illegal in most states. The artist’s wife is the subject of two impressive portraits from 1930, one nude and one dressed to the nines. Motley’s zaftig missus, of German ancestry, fills the space like Dr. Mayer-Hermann of Otto Dix’s New Ojectivity 1926 masterpiece. In the full-dress portrait, an out-sized fox stole destabilizes the composition, like seeing a beautiful woman make a phone call with a phablet a couple sizes too big.

With the comic nightlife scenes, Motley inverts the New Negro premise. Figures are reduced to ethnic caricatures and shown engaging in popular, “stereotypical” entertainments. A gallery text connects Motley to hokum, a jazz term for a lowbrow joke insinuated into serious music or art.

One example of hokum is Motley’s Card Players. It’s a Bronzeville send-up of Cézanne. But it’s not just an art-history joke; the still-life of cards and tobacco is perfect, as is the sense that the tabletop is not quite right. Motley has reinvented the most important and subtle elements of the Cézanne.

Saturday Night takes the Cézanne game with perspective to another level. The nightclub is a haunted shack where gravity is suspended. Dancer, waiters, and customers struggle to remain upright—a problem for the artist and just about everyone else in 1935.

Museum Without Walls

The mythic “Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art,” known only from mentions in East Coast media, makes another appearance in the New York Observer.

Ahmanson Gives LACMA a Frans Snyders

Earlier this year, LACMA had to close some of its European painting galleries after a ceiling leak. The museum has taken the opportunity to repaint and reinstall its 17th-century Flemish, Dutch, and French rooms. They’re reopened with a ginormous Frans Snyders, a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation.

Game Market (1630s) must be the biggest Old Master painting acquired by a West Coast institution in recent years. It occupies its own wall and becomes the visual anchor of  the Flemish room. Snyders and his studio produced many variations on this theme, almost all in European collections. (Another, with a similar swan and deer, is in Chicago, and a vegan counterpart is at the Norton Simon Museum.) In the LACMA painting, a man at far right holds a boar’s head, symbol of gluttony. To the left is a table piled with feathered and furred game. In the detail below, a peacock gives a cat a side-eye.

Rubens esteemed Snyders’ ability to render livestock so much that he delegated him to paint the animals in some of his paintings (the documented instance is the eagle in Rubens’ Prometheus Bound, now in Philadelphia). Despite his ability to capture nature, Snyders took some license with kittens, giving them weirdly human arms. Or did 17th-century felines look like that?

LACMA is showing several paintings brought out from storage. Among them is a small, circular Frans Hals Laughing Child, a 1992 gift of Varya and Hans Cohn. Museums are normally expected to display every authentic Hals they’ve got, unless it’s a complete wreck. To my knowledge, Laughing Child has never been on view at LACMA. I took that as a vote of no confidence. The Cohn painting is now on view, as a Hals and next to the better-known Portrait of Pieter Tjarck.

Last year’s experiment in pomegranate pink—for a French gallery named for the Resnicks—has been discontinued. All the Northern Baroque rooms are now a pale shade of anti-oxidant blueberry.

Samurai and Starchitects

LACMA’s show of Samurai armor, opening this Sunday in the Resnick Pavilion, starts with three galloping equestrians under a Kurosawa-red “sky.” The cinematic installation, by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture and Design, is the antithesis of the white cube.

Below is the same show at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum last summer—also in a Renzo Piano building.

“Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Art”

LACMA is debuting a couple dozen newly acquired pieces in “Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Art.” Gerhard Richter’s St. Andrew (1988) is the frontispiece, but almost everything else was made in the past few years. (At top is an Aaron Curry next to paintings by Christopher Wool and Mary Weatherford.)

Rachel Lachowicz’s Cell: Interlocking Construction (2010) is an assemblage of plastic polyhedra containing blue powders—cosmetic eye shadows. This experiment in feminist chiaroscuro is shown next to Lachowicz’s Lipstick Urinals, 1992, that LACMA bought in 1995. The pairing makes a concise introduction to Lachowicz. You can say the same for groupings by Sterling Ruby, Mark Grotjahn, and Mark Bradford.

LACMA must have been one of the first museums to acquire a Bradford (in 2003). This year it added two large recent works. Shoot the Coin is one of the best in any museum. Carta (above) has a faux basketball that might recall Joe Goode’s milk bottles.

Speaking of bottles, Amy Sillman’s Untitled/Purple Bottle recapitulates a history of postmodern bottle painting, from Giorgio Morandi to Mike Kelley.

Rashid Johnson’s Afro-futurist psychoanalytic couch, Four for the Talking Cure (left), is from a series shown in London in 2012 “inspired by… an imagined society in which psychotherapy is a freely available drop-in service.”

Think contemporary art is an exclusive club? Dianna Molzan’s Untitled (2012) conjoins a frame with a velvet rope.

A downside of the global art market’s feeding frenzy for contemporary art is that even mid-career artists may be unaffordable by the biggest museums. Going by the quality and quantity of what’s on view, LACMA has moved to the forefront of institutional collectors of art here and now.

Nearly all the work in “Variations” was donated by private collectors, and no single name dominates. LACMA is collecting the old-fashioned way, by persuading wealthy citizens to buy top-of-the-line art and donate it to their city’s museum for the good of all. That’s a “variation” from the L.A. model of even a few years ago. Amen to that.

The Vault of Mr. Unreasonable

The Broad recently tweeted these construction photos of its Diller Scofidio + Renfro staircase. Though the escalator has gotten most of the attention, the staircase (which allows a view of the “vault” storage level for the Broad collection) will make a substantial statement itself. You may be reminded of the trippy staircase designs in LACMA’s “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s.” (At bottom, a staircase in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.)

A gallery text at LACMA explains: “Stairs appear frequently in Expressionist set designs. Leading the eye up (or down) to an unknown and unseen destination, a staircase can suggest both physical displacement and psychological states such as anxiety and foreboding… At the conclusion of The Nibelungen (1924), victims lie dead on the steps… And in the futuristic Metropolis (1927), pyramid-like staircases organize the workers’ movements, first into and then away from the maw of the machine.”

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).