1913: A Year for Debuts

October 22, 2008
The corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, c. 1920

The corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, c. 1920

Opening at LACMA this Sunday, Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 spans the entirety of the magazine’s history, stretching back to the launch of Dress & Vanity Fair in 1913. It was a pretty illustrious year for debuts.

In March, the legendary Armory show opened in New York, captivating and confusing critics and crowds alike. Causing the biggest stir were the galleries for cubist and futurist artists, whom former President Theodore Roosevelt described as “the lunatic fringe.” Noting Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, American Art News offered $10 to any reader who could identify either a nude or a staircase.

Plenty was also happening in Los Angeles in 1913. On November 6, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art opened in Exposition Park, and the Owens River Valley Aqueduct began bringing water to the city—a primary force in making this soon-to-be metropolis a livable region.

About three weeks after water and culture arrived in L.A., Cecil B. DeMille followed—fleeing the East Coast because Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company had monopolized the industry. In L.A., DeMille filmed his first feature, The Squaw Man; it was shot in a rural part of town—Sunset and Vine.

DeMille stayed in Hollywood for the rest of his career. An aviation enthusiast, he bought up land all over the city for airfields—one of which was located at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, right across the street from the future site of LACMA. Next time you drive by Johnie’s or the 99 Cent Store, imagine DeMille taking off in his JL-6.

Scott Tennent

Cleaning Smoke

October 21, 2008

Early one morning last week I walked through the Ahmanson Building and found one of our conservators dusting Smoke, the Tony Smith sculpture occupying the building’s atrium. As you can see from the photos, Smoke is huge, with a lot of hard-to-reach surface area. In the past, conservators used soap and water to wash it, followed by a special formula spray cleaner; but the cleaner left the sculpture a bit streaky so they devised a new procedure.

First, they give it a once over with a long, synthetic feather duster of sorts. Then they hit it with a Swiffer. Yes, a Swiffer. (Procter & Gamble, if you’re listening and want to make a donation…) Next, a microfiber towel is used to get any last tidbits of dust. It’s a two-day process that involves a scissor lift and a lot of fine-tuning. The difficulty of cleaning is compounded by the color of the object, black, which really shows dust from Southern California’s famed Santa Anas and a campus undergoing major construction. As one conservator told me, the most common comment observers make is, “Hey, did you know you missed a spot?” Yes, they know, and they’re on it.

Allison Agsten

Tarzan vs IBM: Manny Farber (1917-2008)

October 20, 2008

At the time of Manny Farber’s death this summer, he hadn’t published any film criticism since the late seventies, focusing instead on his collage-like, perspective-defying paintings. (The image used here appears in the latest issue of CinemaScope, which also includes a “guide to Farber“). For me, Farber remains the greatest film critic the United States ever produced (check some of his greatest hits at the invaluable Greencine blog). He ventured further out than most of his peers, all the while maintaining the swiftness and vinegary tone of a thirties B-picture roughneck and the incisive poetics of a Frankfurt school brainiac. His bebop syntax, brut exuberance, and sculptural texture are all immediately striking. But there’s also a ceaseless squirreling of ideas amid all that kinetic language.

Manny Farber, Sherlock Jr., 1982

Too much film criticism remains just perfunctory writing at the service of utilitarian opinions. Farber’s clutter of angles and tangents, the vulgar modernism and pulp formalism, always served a wealth of ideas. A champion of Wellman and Akerman, Walsh and Snow, his taste can only be considered eclectic when set against an incurious narrowness of cultists or so-called experts. Consider this sentence, written somewhat prophetically in 1968, on Godard:

At the end of this director’s career, there will probably be a hundred films, each one a bizarrely different species, with its own excruciatingly singular skeleton, tendons, plumage… already he has a zoo that includes a pink parakeet (A Woman Is a Woman), diamond-black snake (Contempt), whooping crane (Band of Outsiders), jack rabbit (Carabiniers) and a mock Monogram turtle (Breathless).

Godard and Farber cross paths at this year’s Viennale Film Festival. Godard’s first transmission in years is an erstwhile “trailer” for the festival; there will also be a sidebar tribute at the fest devoted to films of Farber’s liking. Surprisingly, it’ll only include slapstick silents. It seems much of Farber remains unexplored terrain.

Bernardo Rondeau

The Sound of . . .

October 17, 2008

Last weekend I was in New York for the closing of Olafur Eliasson’s NYC Waterfalls. I never got to see The Gates, and I swore I wouldn’t miss seeing this installation in person.

With my anticipation for what I was about to see building, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and caught my first glimpse. As soon as I saw them, the first word that popped in my head was “majestic.” They were truly a spectacle, with the juxtaposition of their massive size and their light and airy appearance.

As I stood beneath the bridge, taking in the waterfall, I looked around for my fellow revelers, expecting to be surrounded by people just like me, astounded by this massive structure. That wasn’t the case; the audience was strangely blasé. Street performers and wedding parties seemed to be receiving more attention than the 120-foot waterfall next to me. I was struck with the question, have we become numb to public art? Perhaps these people had already seen the waterfalls hundreds of times and their sense of awe had passed, the artwork becoming just another sight and sound of the city.

Unframed contributor Scott Tennent pointed me to this article from the Observer, published last year, about a group of researchers investigating what sounds might make a city environment more pleasant. Among others, they found “car tyres on wet, bumpy asphalt, the distant roar of a motorway flyover, the rumble of an overground train and the thud of heavy bass heard on the street outside a nightclub” were all pleasing to the ear. They also found that “In the laboratory, many listeners prefer distant motorway noise to rushing water, until they are told what the sounds are.”

Maybe all those waterfalls were just stressing the locals out. Lucky for them, the waterfalls are gone now.

Rachel Mullennix
Marketing Manager

An Interview with the Eliel Sisters

October 16, 2008

Clockwise from upper left: Ruth Eliel, Carol Eliel, the Eliel family c. 1961

A couple of years ago I heard about Ruth Eliel, who was, at the time, running the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. (She’s now executive director of the Colburn Foundation, the largest institutional funder of classical music in L.A.) My ears perked up. I immediately thought of LACMA’s modern and contemporary art curator Carol Eliel. I figured that these two very significant art leaders couldn’t possibly be related. What are the odds? Pretty good, I guess. Ruth and Carol are sisters. I recently spoke with them about the changing cultural landscape in L.A., a past collaboration, and the kind of parents who raise such powerful and interesting women.

You’ve both been a part of L.A.’s cultural community for some time. How have things changed in town since you got started?

Carol: I came to L.A. in the fall of 1984 and it wasn’t exactly a small pond then, but it’s a huge pond now. The best of what was happening then continues today—there’s just more of it. More shows, more museums, more artists. Yet there’s still not a major arts publication based in Los Angeles.

Ruth: I came here in 1987. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is that L.A. no longer has a professional dance company. Also, the number of art critics has really diminished. The Los Angeles Times doesn’t have a full-time dance critic any more and is down to one full-time music critic. The L.A. Weekly no longer has a classical music critic.

So while the arts scene here has flourished by all accounts, coverage of the arts hasn’t necessarily followed.

Carol: Right. When I came here in 1984, there were two papers in Los Angeles and thus two visual arts critics at dailies—Christopher Knight, formerly at the Herald-Examiner, now at the L.A. Times, and William Wilson, who was with the Times.

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