William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Posts Tagged ‘MOCA’

“Heaven and Earth” at the Getty Villa

Archangel Michael, early 14th century. Image courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958

The elevator pitch for MOCA’s “Mike Kelley” is “what American society has repressed.” That might equally apply to the Getty Villa’s “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.” The Byzantine empire has been minimized, if not written out of history books, and its art is barely represented in most American museum collections. The Getty Villa’s permanent collection ends with the sack(s) of Rome in the 5th century. By then Rome’s emperors had moved to Constantinople, where they kept calm and carried on for another thousand years.

"Christ as Orpheus." Image courtesy of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, inv. no BXM 1

Americans nonetheless regard the Byzantines as peripheral to the imagined timeline of Western culture. In fact it was Byzantium that preserved the texts of Homer and Euclid, the Greek playwrights and scientists, the Roman orators and lawgivers. These survived to the Renaissance precisely because the Byzantine empire itself did. Had there been no Byzantium, there were would have been many fewer Wikipedia entries on classical topics. (A case in point is the Archimedes Palimpsest, a Byzantine manuscript that is the subject of a current Huntington show.) For much of the middle ages, Byzantium was smart, sophisticated, and successful, while the post-Roman West was an underachieving, Game of Thrones-uncouth, poor relation. Aspersions were cast both ways. Today, when we say Byzantine we usually mean “complicated.”

The Getty Villa’s “Heaven and Earth” is the first large Byzantine exhibition on the West Coast. It surveys a panorama of Greek culture, high and low, in almost every medium prior to oil paint: marble sculpture and reliefs; mosaic, panel, and manuscript paintings; jewelry, textiles, ivories, coins, and glass.

10th-century "Four Gospels." Image courtesy of the National Library of Greece, Athens, cod. 56

The earliest works, fitting most directly into the Getty Villa’s usual offerings, are marble sculptures. Above is a 4th-century Christ as Orpheus. It’s an earnest blend of pagan and Christian subjects. The Byzantines came to favor relief formats, and the flattening trend is already visible in Christ as Orpheus. The superflat braids and lions of Byzantium resonated throughout the medieval West.

The naturalism of a 10th-century manuscript of The Four Gospels (left) connects us to Pliny’s tall tales of ancient trompe l’oeil. The gold ground was typically Byzantine, and was also widely emulated in the West.

The best-known Byzantine artworks are icons, those devotional paintings and mosaics that have lent their name to clickable computer interface elements. A 14th-century Archangel Michael (top of post) is otherworldly, focused on the eyes.

With its emphasis on spirit, Byzantine painting is sometimes indifferent to anatomy. Byzantine heads can be pear-shaped, like a brainy, Mars Attacks alien. There is a poetry of furrowed brows. You may be reminded of Lisa Yuskavage, comic books, and street art.

Plate with a lion (cheetah?) killing a deer. Image courtesy of the 7th EBA, no. N.A. 18 (1406)

A surprising high point is a case of folksy ceramics. A 12th-century plate may represent a goateed cheetah killing a deer. Textual sources record that Byzantine emperors used the speedy African felines in their hunts.

Andreas Pavias, "Crucifixion." Image courtesy of the National Gallery, Athens, no. 144

One of the show’s few paintings by a known artist is a 15th century Crucifixion by Andreas Pavias of Crete. The energetic horror vacui recalls works by van Eyck, Signorelli, and many other Westerners.

The Getty Center has a companion show of Byzantine and related manuscripts. It includes six Greek loans alongside works from the Getty’s manuscript collection. Appearing for the last time is the 1133 New Testament that the Getty is restituting to Greece (right). It was recently discovered that this manuscript, purchased as part of the Ludwig collection in 1983 and widely exhibited, had been stolen from the Greek Monastery of Dionysiou in 1960. The 1133 manuscript’s four gold-ground Evangelist portraits were the most important Byzantine paintings in a Los Angeles collection.

Does Byzantine art matter in our busy, material world? Art history is like the butterfly flapping its wings and creating a hurricane. It’s chaos, and the first rule of chaos is everything makes a difference.

El Greco trained in the Byzantine icon painting tradition of his native Crete. Like “Byzantine,” El Greco’s nickname speaks to the Greek otherness that influenced the Renaissance schools of Venice and Spain.

Five centuries later, a modern El Greco revival inspired Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Mike Kelley reimagined Pollock’s drips as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid. Another generation of L.A. artists will respond to that or already has—and so it goes. We are all Byzantines.

Mike Kelley, Silence & Death

Jori Finkel has an article in The Art Newspaper on the politics of talking, or not talking, about Mike Kelley’s suicide. She writes of the Kelley retrospective, now at MOCA Geffen,

“I’m relieved that art historians assessing Kelley’s legacy are not sensationalising his death or letting it overshadow his art, which has happened in some press coverage.… Nevertheless, the failure to acknowledge that Kelley died by his own hand, alongside the omission of his depression and drinking, smacks of wishful thinking.… Does the Stedelijk’s 400-page catalogue, billed as the ‘most comprehensive book on the iconoclastic American artist’, really have no room for a basic account of Kelley’s death and depression? Does art history as practiced today need to be blind to an artist’s biography? There must be some middle ground between people worshipping Van Gogh as the ear-slicing genius-madman and academics interpreting the work of Mike Kelley without mentioning his suicide.

“Above all, it seems highly ironic that an artist who brilliantly mined the realm of suppressed memory and subterranean imagery, who was fascinated by the Freudian mechanisms of repression, would become subject to these sorts of public denials and evasions.”

(Pictured, Kelley’s Personality Crisis, 1982.)

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.

Why Isn’t Every Museum an Artist’s Museum?

John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, and Catherine Opie have rejoined the MOCA board, along with Mark Grotjahn. That brings the number of artist-trustees back to four.

I’ve never understood why the artist-trustee concept hasn’t been more widely adopted—what’s not to like? The Hammer Museum has an Artist Council of 15 artists, plus Kruger and Lari Pittman on the Board of Overseers, and Frank Gehry on the Board of Directors. SFMOMA has Ed Ruscha (he’s MOCA-board diaspora, of course). But artists of this stature are rarely found on museum boards outside of California.

(Shown, Grotjahn’s 1997 Untitled [three-tiered perspective] from MOCA’s collection.)

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.

Quote of the Day: Tim Blum

“There’s a whole Deitch camp that are probably rolling on the floor gnashing their teeth.”

—Tim Blum of Blum & Poe

Blum’s comment, referring to “a certain sect of middlebrow graffiti artists who believed they were getting their due from the museum world” under Jeffrey Deitch’s regime, is just one of many quotable bits in a candid two-part article on MOCA, Philippe Vergne, and Dia Art Foundation in the Gallerist.

Pictured, Shepard Fairey’s Marilyn Warhol, 2000.

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.)


That 70’s Show

Whenever somebody writes the Jeffrey Deitch-MOCA biopic (opera?), the final act will turn on the disco show. Media leaks turned “Fire in the Disco,” Deitch’s scheme of recreating famous discos in a MOCA exhibition, into a meme. “When I heard about that disco show I had to read it twice,” said John Baldessari. “At first I thought ‘this is a joke’ but I realized, no, this is serious.”

It’s still serious. Since leaving MOCA, Deitch has continued to talk of the disco show (to be curated by electronic musician James Murphy). In October Deitch told the Brooklyn Rail

“I am developing a disco exhibition that will be a combination of an educational experience and a completely immersive club or festival experience. I hope to combine the two, in a way that museums have been heading toward, but that has never been quite realized to this extent, where people will dance in the middle of the exhibition.”

Last November, Deitch realized a proof of concept in “AREA: The Exhibition,” a five-night pop-up recreation of the old AREA nightclub at The Hole, the New York gallery, and other Manhattan sites. The write-up for the exhibition name-checks the many artists who created original work for AREA (click here for the only known photo of Michael Heizer, David Hockney, Andy Warholand Leroy Nieman in proximity). The art and disco connection is not so entirely tenuous as you might assume.

That granted, the question isn’t, is disco worthy of an art museum show? Nor is it are social experiences art? Museum directors face a more difficult puzzle: Is a disco show the best thing an art museum can be doing with its finite resources?

(Photos of “AREA: The Exhibition” by Elise Gallant at purple Diary.)


Artists on Vergne

MOCA’s press release announcing Philippe Vergne’s appointment as director has quotes from all four of the artist-trustees who resigned in protest of Jeffrey Deitch’s leadership. Catherine Opie is “personally thrilled,” and John Baldessari is “100% excited.” Barbara Kruger praises Vergne’s “deep appreciation of MOCA’s rigor,” and Ed Ruscha deems him “the most artist friendly and at the same time most community friendly choice to steer our ship.”

In The New York Times—speaking before the Vergne announcement—Diana Thater said: “We don’t want someone coming into town the way Jeffrey Deitch did, announcing immediately his own curatorial plans. We’re not interested in his personal plans. We’re interested in his plans for hiring more curators and how he’s going to manage the so-called $100 million endowment.”

(Pictured, Vergne holding a Frank Gaard painting the artist gave him when he left the Walker Art Center.)

MOCA’s New Goal: Richer than LACMA?

LACMA has offered to bail out MOCA twice in the past six years. But having met its $100 million endowment goal, MOCA is now almost as wealthy as its Hancock Park cousin. LACMA’s endowment was recently put at $115 million. MOCA has just set a new goal of $150 million, which would take it well above LACMA’s current endowment.

This isn’t about bragging rights, of course. A $100 million endowment might throw off $5 million a year in income, a fraction of MOCA’s cut-to-the-bone $14 million budget. All of L.A.’s museums—Getty and Huntington excepted—still have modest endowments relative to comparable institutions elsewhere. Eli Broad’s Grand Avenue museum will be a rich kid, opening with $200 million in the bank. The effectively brand-new Perez Art Museum Miami has a $69 million endowment.

MOCA’s endowment is 7 times its current budget. LACMA is a much bigger operation; its endowment is a year and change worth of expenses ($96 million for 2013).

How did MOCA raise so much so fast, in an ego-mad city? They’re not revealing the secret sauce, but the New York Times offers this alarming disclaimer: “none of the donations or pledges for the endowment were contingent upon Mr. Deitch’s leaving.” Jeffrey Deitch in fact is listed as one of the major donors.