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.
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.
Few figures in the Los Angeles avant garde have such an intriguing life story as that of Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-1995). Known by one name, Cameron was artist, actor, mentor, muse, and sorceress to L.A.’s beat generation. Interest in Cameron has escalated in recent years, the more so after her inclusion in a couple of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. It’s been tough to disambiguate her too-colorful biography from her too-little-seen achievement as a visual artist. Is Cameron one of the great L.A. artists, or merely material for a future indie biopic? “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman,” at MOCA Pacific Design Center, is the first real attempt to answer that question.
Organized by guest curator Yael Lipschutz, “Cameron” downplays the sex, drugs, and social networks for the art itself. Cameron was above all a draughtsman. Fossil (1958, above), in white ink on black ground, is original, haunting, and unlike anything else in the show.
Cameron’s style was ever-mutating, and her retrospective might easily be mistaken for a group show. At left is Harpocrates, shown as part of a grid of 20 ink drawings of occult, freaky psychedelia. Harpocrates was the child-god of silence. The cropped face must be Cameron’s husband, Jack Parsons, a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and follower of Aleister Crowley.
“Cameron”’s most compelling pieces are assemblage-paintings of the late 1950s. Below is an untitled portrait of Crystal (the artist’s daughter, 1959) and Buried Doll (1955). These explore entropy, the universal tendency of everything to fall apart. That inconvenient truth is the nexus of mysticism, religion, and philosophy. In such works Cameron’s art connects most directly to that of her more-famous mentorees George Herms and Wallace Berman. If Berman was the father of California assemblage, Cameron was its godmother.
MOCA gives pride of place to a painting, Aleister Crowley’s Guardian Angel. The clean, illustrational style strikes me as rather dull. It is a reminder that, like Hilma af Klint, Cameron was often transcribing mystic visions more or less literally.
Perhaps in that category is a tiny portrait of an E.T.-unicorn. The title, Alien Assemblage, seems to tweak the California Assemblage movement that Cameron helped foster. In its vintage frame it is poised between a very weird Cornell box and decor for a hipster hotel. Another artist might have made a series of such things; with Cameron it was one-off.
Actually, it’s hard to make sweeping statements about Cameron’s oeuvre. Much of her work is lost or at least misplaced. The MOCA exhibition begins with Curtis Harrington’s 1955 film portrait of Cameron and her art, The Wormwood Star. All the artworks in the film are lost except for Buried Doll. It’s said that acquaintances and fans took much of her art and memorabilia after the artist’s death.
Had Cameron attended art school in this century, she would have been told to promote, promote, promote her career. She had but one single-artist exhibition in her lifetime, at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1989 (the year she turned 67).
It’s all the more notable then that MOCA director Philippe Vergne is a Cameron fanboy. He’s written a foreword to the show’s forthcoming slim (88-page) catalog. A Vergne quote in the MOCA press release puts the pro-Cameron case well:
“Cameron has opened many doors that continue to intrigue and inspire generations of artists. Her hallucinated vision, at the edge of surrealism and psychedelia embodies an aspect of modernity that deeply doubts and defies cartesian logic at a moment in history when these values have shown their own limitations. Her work demonstrates that the space in the mind is without limit.”
Jeffrey Deitch has two new books out. One can double as a place setting, and the other is about MOCA. The MOCA Index is not a tell-all—it’s a self-published collection of photographs of Deitch’s MOCA exhibitions. For words, you’ll have to settle for some recent interviews.
On celebrity shows: “… from reading press reports, people would think the only thing I did there was a show with James Franco. And the show we did with James Franco was in fact very interesting! But it’s only five percent of what I did.” (ArtNews)
On disco: “The disco show is still a show I’d like to do. I wish I could have done it then, but I think it’s OK for me to wait a while.” (ArtNews)
On Deitch Projects L.A.(?!): “If I had continued the gallery into the next decade… I would have had to have a London gallery, and a Los Angeles gallery. Rather than making this massive investment, I decided to go in a different direction. I can do business with a big collector in London without having a building that cost me millions in overhead.” (NYT)
Through Sunday MOCA is offering free admission to “Andy Warhol: Shadows” to anyone who brings a review and tweets about it (hashtag #LetsDiscuss). The Museum’s tweeted photo makes it clear they’re reacting to Christopher Knight’s negative review in the L.A. Times.
“Vapid and pretentious, the overblown installation ranks among the worst works Warhol made,” writes Knight. This view is no outlier. That Shadows and other late Warhol abstractions are relatively minor is the conventional opinion. MOCA is challenging that opinion, as it’s entitled to do.
Other reviews of the MOCA show have been kinder. Chalk up Edward Goldman’s as a rave. (“Andy at the Top of His Game… Hurry up and go see the new jaw-dropping exhibition…”) Still other reviews, including my own own, have been generally positive, if not to a Goldmanesque degree. But hey, don’t go by me. I’m Mikey—I like (almost) everything.
So Knight alone dares to say the Pope of Pop Art has no clothes.
This is the Internet, and we’re all making up the rules as we go along. MOCA’s social net team must have regarded the promotion as a proactive way of countering a bad review. My sense is that it comes off as belittling rather than encouraging honest discussion.
Are there any situations where a museum might push back against criticism? Sure. An obvious example is New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s criticism of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary back in 1999. Giuliani was a powerful figure who knew nothing about contemporary art. His words got far more attention than any art critic’s and, had they gone unchallenged, would have left the public misinformed. Using the controversy as a teachable moment was inevitable.
But with Knight and Shadows, there’s nothing to teach. Knight knows all about Warhol and is offering his well-informed opinion that Shadows is bad Warhol. I’m not sure the Internet has changed the old advice, that the best reaction to a bad review is to ignore it.
MOCA got its disco show after all. Andy Warhol envisioned a hundred-panel abstraction, a “disco Rothko,” for Studio 54. The nightclub passed, and the work was instead commissioned by the precursor of the Dia Art Foundation. Dia’s former director, Phillippe Vergne, is now MOCA’s director, and he’s arranged a loan of the Dia Warhol, titled Shadows. It has converted MOCA Grand Avenue into a Disco Rothko Chapel.
Warhol’s late abstractions—Shadows, Oxidation/Piss, Rorschach, and Camouflage paintings—have been called difficult, self-indulgent, and just not that good. MOCA’s 2012 “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol” argued that the late abstractions were due for reappraisal. When The Broad opens across the street, its collection will hold large Camouflage and Rorschach paintings.
Factory assistant Ronnie Cutrone said the Shadows silkscreens were based on photographs of studio constructions that Warhol made to cast interesting shadows. That connects them to Constructivist and Dada precedents, such as Man Ray’s 1919 Integration of Shadows (right).
Warhol described Shadows as “disco decor.” But he also blew up when poet René Ricard used the term”decorative.” “That got me really mad,” Warhol told his diary, “and I’m so embarrassed, everybody saw the real me.”
Rothko is decorative (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Warhol’s Day-Glo acrylics seem intentionally garish. They are fundamentally experiments in monochrome. Shadows has more profitably been compared to Franz Kline’s B&W abstractions. (Several are on view in MOCA’s permanent collection galleries. Left, Buttress.)
The installation in MOCA’s biggest gallery does however pose parallels to the Rothko Chapel and the perception that certain abstractions are worthy of extended philosophic contemplation. That can’t have been a realistic prospect for Studio 54. Yet there is a melancholic tone to much of late Warhol. Shadows is often connected the Skull series of 1977. In those memento mori, Warhol gave equal weight to shadow and substance, and sometimes upset the figure-ground applecart by screening negative images. The vibe of Shadows is similarly sepulchral. “Even in the disco, there am I.”
Which is the better Hammer Museum—the one in L.A. that shows art, or the one in Haines, Alaska, that shows actual hammers? There’s an app for that. Several, in fact. Google and TripAdvisor give higher ratings to the Alaska museum, and Yelp! calls it a tie.
That in a nutshell is the problem with crowdsourced museum ratings. Or consider a TripAdvisor press release that was widely reported as news last week. A TripAdvisor algorithm had determined that the best museum in the whole wide world is… the Art Institute of Chicago. The Getty Center came in #4 (#2 in the U.S.), beating the Met, the Musee d’Orsay, and the Prado.
Before anybody gets too excited, the #8 American museum on TripAdvisor’s list was Chilhuly Garden and Glass, Seattle.
Okay, right: never mind.
Here are some TripAdvisor reviews of the Louvre: “Huge disappointment and waste of time”… ”Never want to go back to that place”… “It sucks.”
Whether you think online ratings are worthwhile or not, they’re getting harder to shrug off—especially for museums hoping to court younger audiences.
A couple of issues with online ratings have received much attention. You must have heard that Yelp! is running what some call an extortion racket and that a recent court ruling supported its right to do just that. (“It’s Mafia on the Internet,” griped one of the plaintiffs.) Review sites are also subject to businesses gaming the ratings by encouraging friends and customers to post good reviews (or bad reviews of competitors).
I don’t think either issue is too much of a factor with museums. But from the end-user perspective, the biggest problem with museum ratings may be that every significant museum gets almost the same rating: 4.5 out of 5, plus or minus 0.5.
TripAdvisor gives LACMA 4.5 stars, same as the Louvre and Perez Art Museum Miami. MOCA is a 4. The Huntington, Norton Simon, and Getty are perfect 5s, as are the Met, the Frick, the National Gallery, Crystal Bridges, and the Kimbell.
It should be apparent that most reviewers aren’t trying to compare quantity and quality of art from an global perspective. Probably they shouldn’t: There’s little point in downgrading a Santa Monica restaurant because you think there’s a better one in Tuscany.
Many raters are comparing the experience as much as the collection or exhibitions. That means things like amenities, gardens, admission cost, and not being too crowded. This isn’t unreasonable, and I imagine that it helps L.A.’s sybartic, indoor-outdoor museums.
But… Florence’s Uffizi, being only a palace, gets downgraded for lacking the coffee kiosks and comfy seats Americans expect. Only a few art museums get higher ratings than Disneyland.
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.
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).
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?
What is the place of street art in museums, post-Jeffrey Deitch MOCA? Anyone interested in that conversation will want to see “Scratch” at the El Segundo Museum of Art. (Above, a wall by Eyeone, Gorgs, Kozem, Swank, Tanner, and Tempt.)
ESMoA calls itself as an art laboratory, a place where nutty professor-curators mix unstable reagents to see what happens. “Scratch” realizes that pitch more completely than any previous effort has.
The backstory is that street art collector Ed Sweeney approached the Getty Research Institute with the idea of assembling an album of L.A. street art. The result was the LA Liber Amicorum (the “Getty Black Book”). Completed in 2013, it garnered tons of publicity (much of it “news of the weird,” spanning written-from-press-release praise to conservative trolling.) “Scratch” gives the public its first opportunity to judge the LA Liber Amicorum on its own.
A fairly big asterisk: It’s a book. Only one page spread can be shown at a time. Galley iPads let you swipe though the whole book, but that has been possible for some time on the GRI site.
In “Scratch” the Black Book is really a pretext for six of its artists—Axis, Cre8, Defer, Eyeone, Fishe, and Miner—to co-curate (along with the GRI’s David Brafman) a collaborative installation. About 50 street and tattoo artists have inscribed, transformed, and annotated five of the six faces of ESMoA’s white cube. It’s billed as a “cathedral of urban art” although, to cover all bets, one wall has a mihrab.
The Donatello among the taggers is a mini-exhibition of European Renaissance books and manuscripts, plus a few ancient scarabs, cuneiform tablets, and cylinder seals. Some books are Renaissance “books of friends” paralleling the black books of today. Others are manuals of calligraphy (shown, a 1564 book of letter forms by Urban Wyss). The earliest object in the show appears to be a 1-inch high Sumerian cylinder seal dated 2900-2750 B.C. That’s five millennia of urban art, not bad for a small museum in El Segundo.
In all the juxtapositions work better than you might expect. The parallels between the ancients and the contemporary artists are more thought-provoking than gimmicky. Easing the segue are industrial-strength vitrines for the books. The one drawback is the lighting. Subdued enough to protect the rare books, it doesn’t quite do justice to the art on the walls.