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Posts Tagged ‘LACMA’

Calder, Kick-Ass Mobiles & Fountains of Madness

LACMA’s “Calder and Abstraction” ends with a few objects relating to the museum’s 1964 fountain-mobile, forerunner of the institution’s other large public art commissions. For decades the Calder has gone by the handle Hello Girls. It was commissioned by a women’s support at in the 1960s, a long-ago time when grown-up alpha females were called “girls.” Research for the Calder exhibition has has uncovered the work’s original and long-forgotten title: Three Quintains.

Obvious question: What’s a quintain?

It’s an medieval mobile, or more exactly a pain- and humiliation-inflicting device for training jousters. The most famous surviving quintain is the one in Kent, England. The print records its appearance in 1798. It’s not too different from how it looks in the 21st century (below).

A horseback competitor rides past the quintain and attempts to insert a lance through one of the holes on the left-hand paddle. Success sets the cross-arm spinning. The pail drenches the rider with water or, in earlier versions, a bag of sand smacked the rider in the head. A knight who rides away fast enough can just escape punishment. It’s your basic Jackass high concept. A quintain is a pinata that hits back and tries to bust your head open.

Calder was on a chivalry kick in the mid 1960s. At about the same time as the LACMA commission, he made the two stabiles of Jousters in the Stark collection at the Getty Center.

In the LACMA Three Quintains jets of water keep the mobile in motion. This fit in with the William Pereira conception of LACMA as a pseudo-modern, pseudo-Venetian palazzo rising up out of water. But Calder wasn’t crazy about the site he was given, and Three Quintains soon fell victim to the curse of the tar pits. Tar seeped into the water, and the mobile’s bearings proved inadequate to the constant rotation. Eventually the sculpture was moved onto dry land, where the blades kept getting caught in the landscaping. Exasperated conservators immobilized the mobile to prevent further damage.

The Calder went into storage, then on loan to Art Center College of Design. There was even talk of selling it. In 2009 the restored sculpture was reinstalled in a new fountain, complete with water jets, to the southeast of the Bing Theater. The out-of-the-way site is pleasant enough, but many of those visiting Urban Light or Levitated Mass probably don’t know there’s a major Calder mobile on campus.

The fountain element might seem a departure for Calder. Actually, he did a Water Ballet (1956) fountain for a General Motors building in Warren, Michigan. Two decades earlier is Calder’s most  celebrated fountain, created for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris (where it was shown alongside Picasso’s Guernica). Mercury Fountain is just that, a pool of the toxic liquid metal surmounted by a classic mobile. Like Guernica, it was a protest against Fascism. Franco had been quick to seize Almadén’s profitable mercury mines.

The Caliphs of Islamic Spain contemplated their reflections in still pools of mercury and marveled at the funhouse distortions of quicksilver fountains. It’s said that one Caliph slept on a mercury bed. No one knew how toxic mercury vapor is.

One theory of Mozart’s death is that he was poisoned not by Salieri but by the groupies he loved too much. Mercury was an 18th-century remedy for sexually-transmitted diseases.

The Victorian coinage “mad as a hatter” refers to an occupational hazard we now credit to the use of mercury compounds in forming felt. The phrase lives on via Lewis Carroll and generations of filmmakers.

Today Calder’s Mercury Fountain is sealed behind glass at Barcelona’s Miró Museum. For the al fresco Calder fountain experience, you’ll have to try LACMA. By the way—a whiff of tar in the air won’t bother you, right?

LACMA to Show Sam Doyle

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

As I wrote earlier this year,

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

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

Pashgian Goes Big

Helen Pashgian, Untitled, 2012-2013 © Helen Pashgian | Photo: © Museum Associates/LACMA

Like almost all art movements, Light and Space was pitched as a return to realism. Rejecting subject matter and conventional materials, Light and Space artists trafficked only in the essentials of visual art. Helen Pashgian has long been known as the the miniaturist of that minimalist movement, often working at the microcosm scale of a crystal ball. For LACMA’s “Light Invisible” she has gone big. The new installation consists of twelve translucent acrylic columns, lighted from above and within, in a dark room. As the visitors walk around, vague  luminosities within the columns morph with the viewpoint. The changing light show bears some comparison to Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia (one example is on long-term loan at LACMA), and to Plato’s cave, where light and space are more illusion than absolute truthiness.

L.A. Loves Mike Kelley

Is it remotely possible that “Mike Kelley” will rival the turnstile of “Art in the Streets”? MOCA Geffen was packed Sunday for a preview open to museum members only. The show opens to the general public Monday. It will surely be mobbed for many weekends to come, and it’s set to run a week longer than “Art in the Streets” did. More to the point: “Mike Kelley” is about as good as it gets.

Kelley was in 20 MOCA shows, starting with 1983’s “The First Show.” He had an early one-artist exhibition  at LACMA. The Ann Goldstein-organized retrospective will nonetheless be a revelation to the majority of L.A. viewers. Over 250 objects span phases of Kelley’s art that have never received museum treatment on the West Coast. “Mike Kelley” overflows the Geffen into a gallery (of 2008-9 paintings) at MOCA Grand Avenue.

One pivotal work didn’t make it to MOCA: Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. Paul Schimmel wanted to acquire it for MOCA, losing out to the Museum of Modern Art. It was shown at PS1 but is not at the Geffen.

Turner Show Coming to Getty in 2015

The Tate Britain-organized “J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free” will travel to the Getty Center next year, running Feb. 24 to May 24, 2015, and then to the De Young Museum, San Francisco. There was a big Turner show not so long ago (2007-8), but it didn’t come to the West Coast. “Painting Set Free” will focus on the artist’s late period (1835-50). Coincidentally, the Getty exhibition will overlap with LACMA’s showing of a famous French Romantic painting, Delacroix’s Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi.

(Pictured, Turner’s Peace—Burial at Sea, from the Tate collection.)

When Did LACMA Become “LACMA”?

Google has released version 3.0 of its Ngram Viewer, the web app that lets users trace the use of words and phrases in books. I used it to ask: When did L.A.’s encyclopedic art museum become “LACMA”?

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened in 1965, people didn’t know what to call it. That six-word name did not trip easily off the tongue. A c. 1965 postcard (with the reflecting pools it cannot be much later) calls it the Los Angeles Art Museum. The title of Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68) is evidence that “Los Angeles County Museum” was another accepted contraction. But as far as I can tell, the acronym LACMA was never used in press coverage of the museum’s opening and early years.

Here’s the Ngram viewer’s chart for “LACMA.”

Evidently “LACMA” hardly existed before the early 1970s, and usage (at least in books) increased steadily through about 2005.

I also tried “Los Angeles Art Museum” and “Los Angeles County Museum.” (Ngram Vewer permits phrases of five words at maximum.) The  chart below suggests that many were calling the institution the “Los Angeles Art Museum” before the widespread adoption of “LACMA.”

Some still find “Los Angeles County Museum of Art” an awkward name, not only for its eleven syllables but for the word county, which American usage links to fairs with pig races and deep-fried Snickers. It seems we’re stuck with “County” because it’s county and not city funds that supplies a large share of LACMA’s budget.

A more graceful name might be the Los Angeles Museum of Art, or LAMOA for short. But both that name and acroynm are already taken by an alternative space in Eagle Rock.

One new feature of Ngram Viewer is that it lets you search for usage just in fiction. Here is a chart of LACMA’s mentions in novels and short stories.

Apparently LACMA had a literary moment around 1990 and has dropped off since. But as far as fiction goes, it can’t compete with a nearby attraction. The Ngram Viewer can’t say whether the rise in fictional mentions of the redundant “La Brea Tar Pits” represents the birth of a postmodern metaphor—or the death of copy editing.

Painters of Light (and Space)

Is Light and Space the ur-text of contemporary L.A. art? Two current exhibitions offer evidence of that 1960s-70s movement’s surprising reach. At MOCA Pacific Design Center, Jacob Hashimoto’s Gas Giant is a luminous cloud of hand-painted pop kites. Hashimoto is a New Yorker born in the Colorado town named for Horace Greeley (“Go West, young man!”)  He spent time in Los Angeles and describes his Light and Space—and other L.A.—influences in MOCA’s The Curve blog.

At the opposite end of Hollywood, and the art world, is F. Scott Hess, who has a painting retrospective at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. Hess is of the L&S generation but cites the super-weirdo Vienna fantastic realists as a point of departure. The LAMAG show cancels out some of the jokiness to reveal Hess as a painter of numinous light and sometimes space. Both are combined in Fresnel’s Boots (2003), the show’s only painting with no human figures. Hess depicts the Sequin Island Lighthouse, Maine, from an aerial vantage point where no human foot could stand.

For actual Light and Space, LACMA has James Turrell (through July 20) and is opening “Helen Pashgian: Light Invisible” (below) on March 30.

LACMA Adds Silver Shrine Doors

Julian Sands has given LACMA a pair of silver Shrine Doors with Indra, Divine Regent of the East, from Gujarat, India, late 19th century. Over 5 feet high and finely detailed in repoussé silver, the doors are now on display on the top floor of the Ahmanson Building.

Sands is a British-born actor (A Room with a View, Dexter) and collector of Indian and Himalayan silver. In a 2010 interview for LACMA’s “Unframed” blog Sands said,

“I don’t think of myself as a collector. I spend a lot of time on mountains doing marathons in remote places where you are carrying with you the minimum you need to exist: a tent, a bed, some fuel, some food. That’s your world. I acquire things with the ferocity of a pirate, but like a pirate I just like to dig a hole in the sand and drop it in and head off for more. It’s an insatiable greed, foiled by this Trappist like renunciation.”

A Superflat Extravaganza in the Japanese Pavilion

The Pavilion for Japanese Art, just turned 25 years old, is now showing spectacular Edo paintings from the Etsuko and Joe Price collection. The first of two rotations boasts at least ten paintings attributed to Ito Jakuchū, the great “eccentric” painter of the 18th century. Among them is “one of the most startlingly original creations in the history of Japanese art”—a pair of six-panel screens called Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants. Oklahoma-born Joe Price was a key figure in the 20th-century rediscovery of Jakuchū, now the center of a Vermeer-like cult. Takashi Murakami invoked Jakuchū as an avatar of Superflat. (Below, small details of the Price Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants and Murakami’s The Castle of Tin Tin).

There is an animé playfulness to the grinning and scowling creatures, real and sci-fi fantastic, in Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants. But the “flattest,” most extraordinary thing is the technique. The Price screens’ imagery is composed of over 86,000 colored squares. Some might be called “pixels.” The white/tan border of the tiger’s cheeks has jaggies like an Atari video game. Other curves, such as the tiger’s stripes, disregard the grid. Many of the squares are homages to the square, with concentric layers of contrasting colors. One parallel is Chuck Close’s photo-based pixel paintings.

There are only three known Edo paintings in this pixellated style. The Price screens are superior to a variant in the Shizuoka Prefectural Art Museum. (You can see a small picture of one Shizuoka screen here.) A third, near-monochrome painting in a private collection, White Elephant and Other Beasts (left), bears the seal of Jakuchū.

How was anyone in the 18th century even thinking in these terms? The grid format closely follows Japanese textile designs of the period. Jakuchū had connections to Kyoto’s textile community in the Nishijn district. The Price screens (only) have a border much like those of textile designs.

Not everyone agrees that the Price (and Shizuoka) paintings are by Jakuchū, however. In the 1989 catalog to “The Paintings of Jakuchū,” Money L. Hickman and Yasuhiro Sato proposed that the Price and Shizuoka screens were 19th-century “works that simulated the conceptions and techniques developed by Jakuchū.” The catalog mentions another painting in this style, an eight-panel Sakyamuni and Sixteen Arhats once at the Osaka Municipal Museum and now lost.

Were the Price screens by a follower, even a century later, they’d still be the most ambitious paintings in this style, transcending any known model by Jakuchū and rivaling the experimentalism of the European post-impressionists.

Joe Price is convinced the screens are indeed by Jakuchū. He said last year,

“If you walk past this screen, in the proper lighting, the colors change on the animals and the birds. Jakuchū developed a method of using glossy and matte paint side by side on the same painting. The glossy paint gives off a reflective light. When you are right in front of it, with the horizontal light coming in, it bounces straight back. But if you are off to the side, you don’t see it. The matte paint diffuses the light. Light you see everywhere. So as you’re walking by, this animal will change almost into silk. The Metropolitan Museum sent their head scientist down with microscopic cameras, and he blew up these images so that you can see which parts are glossy and which parts are matte. This had to be a deliberate technique that Jakuchū applied when he painted the screen…”

For comparison, here’s another detail of the Price screens and a Chuck Close self-portrait. The current rotation of Price paintings runs through March 9; it’s replaced with another selection March 15 to April 20.

L.A. Comes of Age (Groundhog Day)

“2014 may prove a turning point for art museums in Los Angeles.”

The Economist, in a Jan. 4, 2014, article citing MOCA’s Mike Kelley exhibition

“There is no question that Los Angeles has become the contemporary-art capital of the world.”

Eli Broad in The New Yorker, Dec. 6, 2010

“Mr. Deitch’s selection… may very well make Los Angeles the most exciting city in the world for museums of contemporary art, the place where the future of museums takes shape.”

Roberta Smith on Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment as MOCA director, Jan. 11. 2010

“Los Angeles, a city of suburbs in search of a center, on Monday came one step closer to finding one.… Whether a single building, however grandiose, can transform downtown Los Angeles is an open question.”

The New York Times on the opening of Disney Hall, Oct. 20, 2003

“The Getty Center should make Angelenos in general feel a little better, in part by making Los Angeles seem more like a real city.… obviously, the Getty Center will enable culturally ambitious citizens to weather the Woody Allen jokes.”

The New Yorker on the Getty Center opening, Sept. 29, 1997

“Q. What’s the difference between Los Angeles and a bowl of yogurt? A. Yogurt has a live culture. Time to pension off that oldie…”

Robert Hughes on the opening of MOCA Grand Avenue and LACMA’s Anderson Building, Jan. 12, 1987

“The City of Angels used to be a place where culture feared to tread. But today the traffic slowing down to neck-crane along Wilshire Boulevard is not looking for stars but admiring the shimmering complex of pavilions surrounded by a moatlike reflecting pool of vastly more substance and value than was ever to be seen in a DeMille superset.”

Time magazine on LACMA’s opening, April 2, 1965

(At top of post: Mike Kelley’s Ahh… Youth. Above: A school group at the early LACMA, viewing Norbert Kricke’s Space Sculpture.)