The Vincent Price Art Museum is the sort of encyclopedic museum that James Cuno likes to talk about, though Cuno probably isn’t thinking of one named after a campy horror actor and located at a community college in East Los Angeles. On the occasion of the founder’s 100th birthday (May 27), VPAM has reopened in a new, 40,000-sq. ft. Arquitectonica building. Price is all over town these days. Those ubiquitous LACMA Tim Burton street banners, of a bushy-headed kid climbing stairs, use a drawing from one of Burton’s earliest shorts, Vincent (1982), about a boy who wants to be just like Vincent Price. It’s autobiographical, naturally.
Many readers will be unaware that Vincent Price, better known for his evil wax museum in House of Wax (1953), also founded an actual museum that is not evil at all. That is not the paradox it seems. Price studied art history at Yale and the Courtauld Institute before turning to acting. He juggled his Hollywood career with those of gallerist and collector. In the great Mark Lombardi diagram of the L.A. art scene, Price was the 1950s Dennis Hopper. Instead of running with the Ferus boys, Price palled around with the likes of Rico Lebrun, Lorser Feitselsen, and Helen Lundeberg. For a while, Price and wife shared a house with surrealist Howard Warshaw. Did anyone more suavely bridge Eastside and Westside, lowbrow and highbrow, Hollywood and Hancock Park?
Born in St. Louis, and grandson of a baking powder tycoon, Price had no evident connection to East L.A. until 1951. That year he was asked to give a graduation address at East Los Angeles College (located in nearby Monterey Park). Price began giving occasional lectures at the college. In 1957 he supplied funds and 90 artworks to found the Vincent and Mary Grant Price Gallery, precursor of VPAM. Before his 1993 death, Price gave about 2000 artworks to VPAM. It was and is a teaching collection, where students can have hands-on experience with art objects.
It’s also the only real museum on the Eastside. VPAM has attracted donations from many other collectors, notably Bernard Lewin, the great patron of LACMA’s Latin American collection. Though lacking in unique masterworks, VPAM’s 9000 object collection exemplifies the James Cuno precept that art speaks culture to culture. It ranges from Mesoamerica to Africa to Japan, antiquity to the present. Quite a few big names are represented with drawings and prints (Piranesi, Goya, Delacroix, Hiroshige, Manet, Schiele, Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Siqueiros, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein).
The original Price Gallery was housed in a bungalow. It moved to the ELAC art department building, then to the college library. The continuing growth of the collection and the exhibition program motivated the new building, one of three Arquitectonica commissions comprising the Performing and Fine Arts Center. VPAM thus boasts a purpose-built starchitect building. It makes a better curb impression than does UCLA’s Hammer Museum.
VPAM has three floors of exhibition space, for both temporary shows and rotations from the permanent collection. The gallery rooms are modest boxes carved from an irregular floorplan. They’re less distinctive than the building itself, and they don’t take advantage of the building’s natural light. They really couldn’t, as the collection skews toward works on paper.
The largest of the inaugural exhibitions celebrates the role of the college and VPAM in the L.A. art world. “Round Trip: Eight East Los Angeles College Alumni Artists” is a group show of Diane Gamboa, Gronk, Clement Hanami, Will Herrón III, Judithe Hernández, Kent Twitchell, John Valadez, and Patssi Valdez. Pictured at left is John Valadez’s pastel, The Preacher.
VPAM is currently presenting two permanent collection installations, “The Makings of Mexican Modernism” and “Modern Expressions of Figure and Form.” A third gallery, of West Mexican and Peruvian antiquities, opens June 21.
Overall, the permanent collection installations are most engaging for showing what other museums don’t: L.A., East L.A., and Mexican moderns who were once considered reasonably important, then weren’t so much. I liked Leonardo Nierman’s Rain (1961, above). It’s an almost abstraction in the Siqueiros mode, with a touch of Dr. Atl’s volcano-loving land use interpretation. Nierman upturns the complete-abstraction hypothesis with a Matta sci-fi tree in the lower left and his calligraphic signature at right.
Patrick Gerald Wah’s Tete de Femme (1978, left) blurs the line between fine art and tourist art and thrift-shop art. It’s a painting of a cou, not a tete, tweaking mannerism, surrealism, Freudianism, and, especially, the Western understanding of the Haitian modernism that is called “primitivism.”
You’ll wait a long time before seeing Nierman and Wah at any other area museum. You may not like these two paintings, but you’ll probably find something to like, unmediated by too much conventional wisdom. VPAM is open Tuesday through Friday only, plus the second Saturday of each month. Check the museum website for details.
SPECIAL VINCENT PRICE CENTENNIAL ADDENDUM
This blog’s egregiously unscientific poll found that readers preferred the architecture of VPAM’s new building to LACMA’s, 63% to 37%.
For those too young to remember Vincent Price the actor, a still from Tales of Terror (1962) will give you the basic idea. That’s Price at right, contemplating the weirdly outsized head of Peter Lorre. In mid-century Hollywood, Price was the go-to man for effete mad scientist roles.
Click if you dare on this YouTube version of Tim Burton’s Vincent. It’s full of Price-narrated couplets you may never be able to get out of your head (“He likes to experiment on his dog Abercrombie / In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie.”)
In 1991 Tim Burton began shooting a Vincent Price documentary, in black-and-white. He interviewed Price at the old VPAM building. The film was never completed due to Price’s illness and death and Burton’s accelerating career. The footage isn’t in the LACMA exhibition (proving that the 700-piece survey did leave something out, after all.) There is however a 1992 Price oral history of his role in the art world, courtesy of the Archives of American Art.
As a sample, here’s Price’s prickly take on Millard Sheets, onetime lion of L.A. art. Sheets is best known for LACMA’s Angel’s Flight (right) and the decoration of the Home Savings and Loan buildings. Interviewer Paul Karlstrom keeps trying to turn the conversation back to saying something nice about Sheets… and Price just ain’t buying it.
VINCENT PRICE: Oh, yes, no question about that, but that has nothing to do with influence on other artists.
PAUL KARLSTROM: Well, what about influence on taste in Southern California?
VINCENT PRICE: Terrible. [laughing] Terrible. I mean, those banks are really the pits. And the whole sort of movement that worked around that group of people, the taste of the Orange County-Pasadena group was not anywhere else but in their mouth, you know.
PAUL KARLSTROM: [chuckles] This is an interesting issue, though, because Millard Sheets, part of his prominence and success, I think, has to do with his association with Howard Ahmanson. . . .
VINCENT PRICE: That’s right.
PAUL KARLSTROM: . . . who was very wealthy, savings and loan. . . .
VINCENT PRICE: Tremendous, tremendous.
PAUL KARLSTROM: . . . and actually then a collector, and I guess through his wife, if not directly, actually has been an important patron. You know, helping to fund the L.A. County Museum. And collected. Had a collection of _____. . . .
VINCENT PRICE: Ahmanson?
PAUL KARLSTROM: Yeah.
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, oh yes.
VINCENT PRICE: Well, Millard was socially a very nice man.
PAUL KARLSTROM: I see.
VINCENT PRICE: Very pleasant man to be with. But this has happened all over America. There are people who run the art communities in every city in America, and some of them are duller than dishwater. Some of them are very adventurous. In Houston, the DeMenils, and people like that are really far ahead of the, [an] awful lot of the, other people.
PAUL KARLSTROM: Of course.
VINCENT PRICE: Millard represented a conservative, very safe. . . . He would introduce people to. . . . But you noticed the Ahmansons I don’t think bought his pictures.
PAUL KARLSTROM: I guess not.
VINCENT PRICE: Yeah.
PAUL KARLSTROM: So you see that more as a. . . .
VINCENT PRICE: I liked him, though. I always felt that there a place for all kinds of people in the art world. But I don’t think he was an influence on the art, the taste of California, except for in a negative way.