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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A Place for No-Tin, Part II

October 15, 2008

In my previous post, I wrote about my process of deciding where to place Henry Inman’s portrait of Chippewa chief No-Tin, which is now on view in our gallery displaying American decorative arts and portraiture from the early 1700s to the early 1800s. 

Charles Bird King, Study for a Portrait of Chippewa Chief No-Tin, c. 1830, American Art Council Fund

I decided that situating this historic individual in the midst of relative contemporaries was paramount for his debut in our galleries, even though space proved a little tight in our front gallery. What made the options for placement somewhat limited was the exciting opportunity to install at the same time an original drawing of No-Tin—made from life for his portrait by a different artist, Charles Bird King. Rather than show the two works exactly side by side, I placed them adjacent to each other on two different walls, so each can be seen independently.

The links between King’s small drawing and Inman’s stately oil are fascinating, and their histories are interconnected but distinct. In my previous post I had mentioned that No-Tin was a Chippewa chief who came with his tribe’s delegation to Washington in the mid-1820s. Thomas L. McKenney, then head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, commissioned King to make portraits of the Indian chiefs for a national Indian gallery. No-Tin sat for King, who drew the vivid chalk-and-charcoal portrait in preparation for his own painting of No-Tin.

Henry Inman, No-Tin (Wind), 1832-1833, Gift of the 2008 Collectors Committee

King’s portrait and those of over 130 other Indian chiefs were all on permanent display to the public in the War Department offices in Washington, D.C. Later they were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where they were all destroyed by fire in 1865. But it was the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that encouraged McKenney to make the portraits in the Indian Gallery as widely available to the public as possible. He planned another commission and knew that only a successful artist, one more accomplished and ambitious than King, could produce the kind of compelling paintings that would become well known outside Washington. That artist was Henry Inman.

Austen Bailly


Burning Question

October 14, 2008

Ed Ruscha, The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968, Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

One of the first things I ever learned about LACMA was that it was the subject of Ed Ruscha’s 1968 painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire. In March of 2006, the Believer asked Ruscha about the work, which resides in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and his other fire paintings.

“I’m not lighting fires,” he said. “It’s a way of attaching an additional meaning to the painting that would otherwise not have fire—if I can be so simple to say. And it’s fun to paint fire.” Asked if “there isn’t an embedded desire to burn the Los Angeles County Museum,” Ruscha said, “No. But if you want to see that as a political painting, you can—a revolt against an authority figure.”

Of course the meaning of the painting is a good question, but my question is more prosaic: What is it doing at the Hirshhorn? Great museum, no doubt, but wouldn’t it more naturally reside at the museum whose imaginary peril it depicts? So we at Unframed would like to propose a trade, Hirshhorn Museum: Los Angeles County Museum on Fire in exchange for—well, take a look at this sketch.

It’s not finished. If you’re interested we can work on it. So, you know, think about it. In the meantime, if you’re in Los Angeles and want to see a fine selection of Ruschas (including, yes, Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire), check out the third floor of BCAM here at LACMA.

Tom Drury


Free Access to LACMA

October 13, 2008

The Unframed team is off today, but the museum is open—and free to all. Stop by to hear artists from Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A. speak about their work (including Gilbert Luján on his low rider, parked in our main entrance). If you can’t make it today, take a look at other ways you can get into the museum for free another time.

Gilbert “Magu” Luján, Our Family Car, collection of Paul Dunlap, Fullerton, California

Gilbert “Magu” Luján, Our Family Car, collection of Paul Dunlap, Fullerton, California

We’ll be back in full force tomorrow. Stay tuned…

Brooke Fruchtman


Bull in the Ring

October 10, 2008

On Wednesday night, I attended the opening performance for Hard Targets—Shaun El C. Leonardo’s Bull in the Ring (which he discussed here earlier this week). I have mixed feelings about football—the brutality bothers me but the sportsmanship has, and I do not exaggerate, brought me to tears (what can I say? Seeing offensive linemen sacrificing their bodies for the greater good really struck me).

The performance did little to soothe, or sway, me. Leonardo may have drawn chalk lines onto the grass at LACMA, but the fact that this was not a football field was abundantly clear. When removed from the context of an actual practice or game, the brutality—the absurdity—was all the more striking. On the other hand, each time he got back up after being knocked down, I couldn’t help but think “that guy has heart.” I’m not sure what Leonardo intended for me to feel, but quite frankly, I’m just as confused as ever. And football season has only just begun.

And just one more quick note to add now that I’ve seen the clip—the thing that actually made me the most uncomfortable was hearing the applause. Although I was clapping right along with everyone else, in retrospect, I’m not sure what or who I was clapping for. Was it Leonardo’s willingness to put himself through physical trauma for art, the football players for exposing themselves to the judgment of onlookers, or the sheer brutality of it all?

Brooke Fruchtman


Take an Online Survey

October 10, 2008

I was talking to a colleague the other day who noted that practically all museums with websites seem to be somewhere in the process of redesigning them. I couldn’t argue because we are ourselves in the early stages of redesigning lacma.org, which I edit and publish. The present format has lasted more or less intact since the beginning of 2006, which is a long time in computer years, and we look forward to making something new and, well, improved. To that end we would like to hear from you, users of museum websites in general and of lacma.org in particular. What works for you about our site? What doesn’t? What information should we be better at providing? Take a quick survey and let us know. Here is an example of the kind of advice I’m after: Some time ago I received an unsolicited email from a user. I’m paraphrasing, but what he said was: “Assume we want to see the exhibition, and make it easy for us to do so.” I often tell this to museum web people, who always know just what he meant.

Tom Drury


Photography, Unveiled

October 9, 2008

On the opening night of A Story of Photography: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, I came across an installation convention I’d never before encountered. Four of the photographs in the exhibition were covered with gray velvet curtains. A sign beside them read, “These photographs are extremely sensitive to light. Please lift the curtain to view the work.” So, as someone raised the first veil, I peered under the fabric. Behind each were examples of particularly old, beautifully fragile photographs, already dimmed by the passage of time.

But the curtains did more than shelter these delicate works; they also encouraged an added level of engagement. It’s impossible to simply cast a quick glance. To look, one must stop. Pause. Lift curtain. Think a little bit more. Not to mention proximity to the objects—I can’t remember the last time I was invited to get that close to a photograph in a museum. And finally, the act of holding the curtain up for others, making eye contact to ensure the gathered crowd had finished looking, layered on a communal feeling that I’ve rarely experienced in a museum’s hallowed galleries. This intimate, personal encounter was only amplified when I asked Charlotte Cotton, head of the Photography Department, where one finds protective curtains for photographs. Her response? She actually purchased the fabric, carefully choosing a shade of gray that complements photography’s grayscale, and sewed the curtains herself.

Allison Agsten


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