Ed Ruscha, The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1965-68. Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington.
There are times that a little bit of research-by-Google is OK, such as when I know that someone coming onto The Modern Art Notes Podcast did an oral history with the Archives of American Art, and I’m pretty sure the transcript is available digitally. Or when I’m looking up an art museum’s tax filing. But as it turns out, there’s a lot that’s not on the interwebs, and that’s when I visit my local art museum libraries. And once I’m there, I never know what I’m going to find.
Take last week, when I spent the morning at the Hirshhorn’s library to research an upcoming Modern Art Notes Podcast interview. (I’m something of a regular there.) My work sent me into the museum’s bound copies of art publications, specifically to the October/November, 1978 issue of “Journal,” a publication of the old Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art. The cover of that issue is shown above in the best mobile-phone picture I could make.
The “Journal” cover is an illustration or photo-collage or something-of-the-sort by Richard Jackson, the Southland-based artist and teacher best-known for his witty commentaries on painting. Earlier this year the Orange County Museum of Art exhibited a retrospective of Jackson’s work. (The catalogue is particularly strong, though it lacks an index.) Jackson’s piece shows the Los Angeles County Museum of Art along with the caption “King Tut’s Tomb.” It was 1978 and a famous exhibition of the boy king’s tomb’s had touched down at LACMA. For a time, I guess, LACMA literally was indeed Tut’s tomb, home to Egyptian artifacts and not to, say, Los Angeles-based painters. (In 1978, Jackson exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and by that point in his career he’d been included in biennials and exhibitions at SFMOMA, the Pasadena Art Museum, the Corcoran, the Museum of Modern Art… but never at LACMA.)
But Jackson being Jackson, he was also commenting on the art museum as a place where King Tut’s stuff may not have quite belonged, a wry bit of institutional critique in the city where Michael Asher and others helped pioneer the often-wry genre. Jackson, who has used a Ford Pinto to make paintings, has long preferred painting to have verve and life. Dead Egyptian kings were likely of little interest to Richard Jackson.
However, that’s certainly not all Jackson is doing here. His “Journal” cover is also a send-up — or maybe an updating — of one of the greatest paintings of the post-war era, Ed Ruscha’s The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1963-65), which happens to be on view in the Hirshhorn’s “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.”
The Ruscha is one of the greatest and most important paintings of the post-war era. Ruscha apparently started work on it by taking photographs of the museum from a helicopter in or around 1965, when LACMA debuted its current Wilshire Boulevard location. The “1965-68″ period during which the painting is said to have been made was a time of heady anti-institutionalism (particularly in California), of state-sanctioned violence in America, of the escalation of the Vietnam War, and of the Watts riots. [Image: Ruscha in front of the painting, which was shown behind a velvet rope, at his 1968 Irving Blum exhibition.]
Kynaston McShine described The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire as “Ruscha’s deadpan critique of timeless, modernist, civic virtue,” which I see almost not at all. (However, McShine’s history of the painting’s unveiling is plenty useful.) Another way to think of it is as an anti-institutionalist screed that reflects the violence in the world around it, a commentary on Watts, an artist wondering why his city is building an art museum before it’s enabled artists. I’ve never really fully accepted any one of those reads of the painting, nor, except in the vaguest, but still appealing ’something was in the water’ kind of way, have I been much convinced of them in aggregate, either. So far as I can tell, while the painting was complete by 1968, the rest of the timeline of its creation is still pretty fuzzy. And with the quite-arguable exception of Burning Standard (1968), there’s little suggestion of up-to-the-minute political engagement in Ruscha’s work of the period. (And for what it’s worth, LACMA exhibited a number of Ruscha’s L.A.-based peers during those years, especially the Ferus lads, so the museum was, in fact, participating in the city’s booming art scene.)
In summary, The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire fascinates me, but I’ve never been able to pin it down. (And as best I can tell, no one else has either.) But despite having been bought out of Los Angeles by Joseph Hirshhorn while it was still on dealer Irving Blum’s wall (Hirshhorn bought the entire show in which it debuted) it’s a painting that’s had significant influence in Los Angeles and presumably beyond: Jackson’s “Journal” cover showed that while Hirshhorn may have taken the painting out of Los Angeles, he couldn’t take it away from Los Angeles-based artists. Paradoxically, the more references to Ruscha’s painting I see in other work, the harder it is to ’solve.’ What fun!