William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Serra’

Disown the Picture

Can an artist disown a work he or she has made and sold? If so, can the artist use the threat of disownment as, uh, leverage? These are the knotty questions in a Laura Gilbert article for The Art Newspaper. Case in point is Richard Serra’s large oilstick drawing, The United States Government Destroys Art (above), made in 1989 and now owned by the Broad Foundation. It’s one of the drawings that Serra extensively reworked for his 2011 Met show. Curator Magdalena Dabrowski suggested that it be shown with the double date of 1989 and 2011. Serra said no, and that was that. In a talk Dabrowski charged that Serra had threatened to remove the work, not only from the Met show but from the Broad collection, unless it was shown as he wanted. Serra may indeed have had legal grounds for that position in the Visual Artists Rights Act.

Sure—but would Serra actually repossess a work from a major collector?

“Serra denies saying he would withdraw the work from the Broad collection. ‘If a work is damaged and the surface is anonymous and the client agrees, I restore it,’ he says. Asked if he would have disclaimed the drawing if the Broads had not agreed, Serra would only say: That’s hypothetical.’”

Eli Broad is living the hypothesis. He lives in a Frank Gehry home that the architect disowned.

Freedom & Anarchy: David Smith at LACMA

Freedom must be a trending topic. It’s the title of a Jonathan Franzen bestseller, and it’s what the Tea Party claims to want. This morning I read a review of Charlie Sheen’s Detroit meltdown that likened it to the Simpsons episode where Homer accidentally shatters an ant farm on a space station. The ants stream into the cosmic void, screaming “Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!”

Freedom is the ever-fascinating subtext of ”David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy,” now occupying the center space of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion. Smith was schooled in the political radicalism of John Sloan, the Ash Can painter who lived in an age when anarchists tried to exterminate Henry Clay Frick and the whole Rockefeller clan (pictured, the June 1914 cover of The Masses, with Sloan’s illustration of the Ludlow Massacre). Smith reimagined himself as a downtrodden worker and ultimately boxed his aesthetic into the blocky sculptures called Cubi. No matter: The surface finish, created by a proletarian circular sander, screams freedom. It was retroactively hailed as the 3D counterpart to gestural abstraction, even though the Cubi date from the age of minimalism.

The first two works you see are LACMA’s Cubi XXIII and Eli Broad’s Cubi XXVIII (ex-collection Norton Simon, who paid 1/366 what Broad did). They’ve rarely looked better. This show has the second-best lighting of any large-scale Smith survey. Best was Storm King Art Center’s 1997-1999  ”The Fields of David Smith,” which was outdoors in an upstate NY sculpture park. Smith believed his sculptures looked best in sunlight and displayed them outdoors at his Bolton Landing studio. The LACMA show approaches that ideal about as close as is possible for an urban museum. Renzo Piano’s building offers beautiful natural light from above and Robert Irwin-curated greenbelt views from two sides. The light turns the planes of the Cubi into mesmerizing holograms. The “cubes” dissolve into translucent boxes of weirdly luminous drawings in space.

The exhibition also presents an alternate meditation on freedom, namely, how best to show largish 3D works in a museum. Post-Guggenheim Bilbao curators have become libertarians. They demand more space, more light, no columns, no rules. Frank Gehry said he built Bilbao to house  big Richard Serras and to challenge artists to fill the space. Fair enough, but an encyclopedic museum shows artists who lived long pre-Bilbao. Smith’s sculptures, many quite large for their time, are swallowed up by the Resnick’s acre of art.

Were you happily anticipating the spectacle of a football field packed chockablock with Smiths, be warned that this show doesn’t quite deliver that. Instead, the installation (credited to Levin & Associates Architects) breaks up the view with white scrims. The effect is like a May morning in Santa Monica. Near things are sharp, distant things blur into snowblind white.

The concern must have been that the silhouettes of the sculptures would interfere with each other, creating visual clutter. The scrims also make it easier for curators to phrase a visual argument. A curator wants to say, “Look at these objects; next, look at these and compare.” That’s tough to do with the untrammeled freedom of a partition-free space. Of course, exhibition circulation is another controversial point. The tone of the room is that the Barr-era MoMA was wrong to insist on its circuit of modern isms. The new, improved MoMA corrects that, sort of.

Speaking of freedom: The many photos of Smith’s studio-estate (one above) make it clear that the artist had no particular problem with sightline clutter. Bolton Landing was a frigging trailer park. I’ll end with Smith’s photo of his daughters, Rebecca and Candida, freely posing in Circle III (it’s in the show).

“Human Nature” at LACMA

A couple move in together with no strings attached. The romance fizzles, and one moves out, leaving the other with an awkward surplus of real estate. That too-familiar tale describes the post-Eli Broad LACMA, owner of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum but not the Broad collection for which it was built. “Human Nature: Contemporary Art from the Collection,” is billed as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of LACMA’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council. It will be remembered as the first exploration of how well LACMA’s own collection can fill BCAM’s big, empty spaces. Over 70 works from the museum collection, plus a few non-Broad loans, fill the second of three floors. As the first floor is occupied by two big Richard Serras, one owned by LACMA (a Broad gift), this is the first time that half of BCAM is displaying LACMA’s permanent collection. It fills the space well and—the better for moving forward—looks almost nothing like the ex.

Bruce Nauman is a pivotal artist better represented at LACMA than in the Broad collection. His 1983 neon piece supplies the show’s title. The show’s chronology ranges from 1968 (about where the Ahmanson modern galleries fade out) to the present. It omits some of the museum’s blue-chip names from that period and practically all of Broad’s market-darling faves.

It’s been several years since LACMA has had much space to show new acquisitions of contemporary art. Who knew the museum had a Fred Sandback? Or a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, or a Paul Pfeiffer video?

The representation of African-Americans is stronger than you’ve ever seen in a museum’s contemporary survey. They’re showing the David Hammons Injustice Case alongside a lesser-known watercolor. New acquisitions include three small Robert Colescotts, not so jokey as you’d think; an Old Master-y Kehinde Wiley oil study of hands and a rosary; and a Henry Taylor that riffs on LACMA’s most famous modern painting.

Ditto for Korean-Americans, if only for the resurrected Nam June Paik Video Flag and gallery-scaled pieces by Do-Ho Suh and Haegue Yang. (Pictured, Suh’s Gate, 2005). Video Flag, once on permanent display, has had aging-analog hardware issues. Whatever they did to get it working again, it looks fantastic.

Actually, “Human Nature” does deliver on its 50th anniversary premise. It demonstrates that the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council bought early masterworks by some of today’s buzziest names, especially local ones. There’s a 2002 Mark Bradford and a 2006 Elliott Hundley. Above, the Bradford Biggie, Biggie, Biggie—it has to be the first Bradford in a big museum?—collaged with the permanent weave end papers the artist had been using in his mom’s salon the year before.

Amanda Ross-Ho’s Inbox (2007) must rank near the top of that difficult sculptural genre of small-thing-made-really-big. It’s a giant cat litter tray, filled with real and thus weirdly under-scale cat litter. Eli Broad has an affection for this sort of thing too, with his Charles Ray Firetruck and Robert Therrien Under the Table. Ross-Ho refuses to take the meme more seriously than it deserves. Her title downplays it as a Dilbert gag, even though important art is never funny. Right?

The Art of War

Somehow LACMA keeps acquiring in these tough times. The museum has added Sandow Birk’s 2007 The Depravities of War, a suite of ten monumental (48 by 96 inch) woodcuts of the Iraq war. Birk’s starting point is Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War, alleged by Wikipedia to be the first anti-war works of art in the West. Callot produced “small” and “large” Miseries, though size is relative: the large etchings, from 1633, are barely 7 inches wide. It’s believed that Goya based his Disasters of War on Callot’s Miseries. Like Callot and Goya, Birk includes a grandiose title page (above). Among other novelties, Birk made use of Kinko’s copy machines, and these prints are likely to be the first in LACMA’s collection made in Maui. (More at LACMA’s site.)
The art history of the Iraq war will have to start with the notorious hooded prisoner on a box. It put the grimmest possible spin on the notion of a “vernacular photograph.” In order to transmute this digital image into so-called art, Richard Serra went analog. He devised a creamy, black-and-white abstraction (almost a Franz Kline). Then, in a nod to the zeitgeist, Serra distributed it as a free digital file (Stop Bush, 2004).
Birk’s Humiliation plays the B&W; analog game itself. You don’t get more analog than a 21st-century woodcut. Birk demotes the hooded wraith to a black-comic bit player. (Callot etched scores of Judd Apatow-worthy freaks and geeks from the commedia dell’arte). Birk’s engagement is not in doubt: the image is as hellish as a Goya madhouse. We quickly grow accustomed to the depravities of war or anything else. Birk grants the viewer the space to draw conclusions.
War in the Middle East is also the theme of four pages LACMA has recently bought, originally from a lavish Shiraz Shahnama manuscript, c. 1560. (Left, small detail from The Battle between Bahram Chubina and Sava Shah.) The pages present war as lyrical, colorful, sexy, and wise. Artist(s) and patron(s) remain a mystery — other pages from the same book are in the British Museum and at Harvard.