Cold War Surprises

January 22, 2009

The word “thrilling” is generally not the first word that comes to mind in describing the life of a book editor. But I will say that when it comes to exhibition catalogues, there are two moments that come close.

The first is when the books arrive in our offices. It’s amazing how all the hard work and late nights seem to dissipate the moment the book is in hand. (It’s a bit like giving birth, but instead of inhaling the scent of new baby, we inhale the scent of fresh ink.) The second is witnessing the installation process itself—a transformation from the two-dimensional page to the three-dimensional space.

Gerhard Richter, Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi), 1965, oil on canvas, photo courtesy Památník Lidice/Lidice Memorial

It takes more than a year for a catalogue to be edited, designed, proofread, printed, bound, and shipped. During that time, editors become very familiar with descriptions of artworks, but of course we can only view the artworks themselves as reproductions. (And even then, the actual images can arrive surprisingly late in the process—sometimes months after we’ve edited the very text that describes them.) Consequently, artworks take on a certain presence of their own in an editor’s mind, which means that those first visits to the galleries can be full of surprises. For example, Gerhard Richter’s Uncle Rudi: during the editing of the catalogue for Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures, it had assumed larger-than-life dimensions for me. But it isn’t six or seven feet high, as I had envisioned; it’s less than half that—a small, stunning painting that compels the viewer to lean in close to squint at this blurry figure standing cheerfully in his SS uniform.

When I interviewed curator Stephanie Barron, she mentioned a number of other works that may come as a surprise to visitors…

Sara Cody, Editor


Behind the Scenes

January 21, 2009

There are a few staff-only areas at LACMA that I’ve often thought the public would enjoy getting a peek at. To that end, here’s the first in an occasional series of little glimpses into our world…

Boardroom with "Some Clouds (as floor) and Los Angeles Freeways (as ceiling), 2006," © John Baldessari

There’s a chance you may have actually seen elements of the LACMA boardroom, pictured above, on a visit to the museum. Its carpet and ceiling wallpaper installation were created by John Baldessari for the hugely popular Magritte exhibition, which went on view in the fall of 2006. John Baldessari’s installation literally flips the world upside down—snarled freeways in the sky and clouds underfoot. Always a pleasure to attend a meeting here.

Allison Agsten


Capturing the President for Posterity

January 20, 2009

Jean-Antoine Houdon, Portrait of George Washington, c. 1786, purchased with funds provided by Anna Bing Arnold

In honor of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States, a marble bust of the nation’s first president, George Washington, is now on view in LACMA’s American art galleries. The bust was not made, however, by an American artist but by a French one—Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828). Believing sculptors in colonial America were then too inexperienced to represent Washington for posterity, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin led the effort to find the best sculptor in Europe for the commission. The celebrated young Frenchman was chosen partly because he insisted on crossing the Atlantic to sculpt Washington in person rather than relying on existing portraits, a common practice at the time. In October 1785 Houdon arrived at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, where he measured Washington, made a plaster mask of his face, and executed a clay bust. From these important studies Houdon carved this marble bust, one of five he completed.

Gilbert Stuart, the painter whose later portraits of the first president are the most famous (one graces the U.S. dollar bill), greatly admired Houdon’s vivid likeness of Washington. Stuart noted, “Houdon’s bust came first… when I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face. Houdon’s bust does not suffer from this defect. I wanted him as he looked at the time.”

In our era of instantaneous and global dissemination of images and non-stop media coverage of American presidents, it is interesting to consider how prized Houdon’s representation of a younger Washington was, nearly a half century before the invention of photography. Acquired for LACMA in 1976 in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, Houdon’s bust of Washington is still seen as admirably fulfilling the daunting mandate of Jefferson’s original commission: “The statue shall be exactly that of life.”

Austen Bailly


Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day

January 19, 2009

Funny thing about holidays—we get a day away from the museum; you get a day to come to the museum. LACMA is free today, so make the most of your day off and stop in for a visit. It’s your last chance to see Hard Targets—today’s the last day—and it’s almost your last chance to see A Story of Photography: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection and Hearst the Collector, both of which close on February 1.


Twenty Questions about Urban Light

January 16, 2009

As part of our Urban Light celebration, we present you with…an Urban Light quiz! Some of the questions are pretty tough, but we’re providing many of the clues you’ll need via our Twitter account and Facebook page. Doing a little research to get the answers right is worth it—the winner, chosen at random from all the entries with the highest number of correct answers, will get a signed Chris Burden monograph. Just make sure to enter by February 14. And good luck.

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