Structural Ode to a Meadow

January 14, 2010

Postcards for sale at the Eames House, Case Study #8, in the Pacific Palisades

I really like the large grassy areas that surround LACMA. Even before I worked here I used to occasionally trek over from my job in Beverly Hills and take lunch (or sometimes a nap—I called it my “LACMA napma”) on the lawn next to the ice age garden between the Hammer Building and 6th Street. One can become hyper-aware of green areas in Los Angeles. Sure, there are some patches of grass in the ginormous and grossly underused Griffith Park, but compared to some cities there just aren’t that many places where you can spread out, eat a sandwich, get a tan, or plain take a nap.

This appreciation for expanses of grass was why I felt especially charmed by something I learned last Saturday on my first visit to the Eames Case Study House #8, high up on a bluff in the Pacific Palisades, where Charles and Ray Eames lived for most of their lives together. Designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen and originally to be called “The Bridge House,” the plan for the house published in Arts & Architecture (who sponsored the Case Study House program) in 1945 depicted an elegant steel box structure composed of H-beams, joists, windows, and corrugated metal ordered prefab from the likes of Trucson Steel Company catalogs. The structure jutted out from a hill, cantilevered directly over the middle of a large yard, supported by metal columns and with room for parking underneath. I mean, it was kind of a no-brainer to make use of the view on a bluff like that by perfectly paralleling the house to the bluff’s edge and the Pacific coast beyond.

The original plan for the Bridge House, as shown in the pamphlet provided for visitors to the house by the Eames Foundation, © The Charles and Ray Eames Estate

However, due to the war, shortages prevented the eleven-and-a-half tons of steel that they ordered from being delivered for several years. Time passed, and Charles and Ray made use of the property on occasion, holding picnics and making merry. They got to know this view overlooking the Pacific very well. Consequently, they also became quite attached to the large yard that was to be split down the middle with the construction of the Bridge House. Perhaps they took another read-through of the brief they had written for the house in 1945, part of which explained, “The house must make no insistent demands for itself, but rather aid as background for life in work.”

The swing that Ray hung for a nice view of the house from across the meadow

After three years the materials finally arrived, but by that time Charles and Ray had fallen madly in love with their meadow, so Charles redesigned the position of the house, rotating the plan 90 degrees and backing the structure up against a concrete retaining wall against the hill, preserving maximum space in the meadow and eliminating the need to fell any of the grandiose eucalyptus trees that scattered around the perimeter. Thus, the meadow was saved.

A view of the meadow and house, photo by Paul Gachot

Charles and Ray moved into their house on Christmas Eve, 1949, and lived there for the rest of their days. Today the structure is a shrine to the Eameses, left intact as they had it. The house and accompanying studio are off-limits to the 5,000 or so visitors a year who come to pay homage to the architect/designer duo who were known for their “serious fun.” It doesn’t much matter, however. The open doors and airiness of the house allow for full views of the interior and its accoutrements. However, if you really want to go inside, for one day in June, members of the Eames Foundation are invited to a picnic with the Eames family and welcome inside the house.

And if you take a trip to LACMA before January 24, make sure to take in the exhibit “From the Spoon to the City”: Objects by Architects from LACMA’s Collection where you will see an original ESU (Eames Storage Unit), 1951–52, by Charles and Ray Eames and the Herman Miller Furniture Company.

ESU (Eames Storage Unit), 1951-52, Charles Eames, Ray Eames, The Herman Miller Furniture Company, gift of Mr. Sid Avery and Mr. James Corcoran, © The Charles and Ray Eames Estate

Sarah Bay Williams


Ask a Curator: Choosing the Frame

January 13, 2010

Our Ask a Curator series is back for 2010. Do you have a question for any of our curators? Art, collecting, behind-the-scenes tidbits—or anything else you’re curious about? Leave a question in the comments, send us a tweet, or email us and we’ll find a curator to answer.

To kick things off, an anonymous commenter asks: What’s your process for choosing the right frame?

The art of framing is to complement a work of art, not to compete with a painting’s inherent qualities. But a great frame can be a work of art in its own right. When choosing a frame, there are myriad aesthetic considerations to take into account in relation to the art within, such as its material, its color, its profile (shape), and its design, carving, or texture. Consider how the red tones of the low relief vine curving around the burnished gilt frame beautifully pick up on the organic forms, forested setting, dominant green, rose, and brown palette, and linear details in this portrait of the artist’s wife, Mrs. John White Alexander.

John White Alexander, "Portrait of Mrs. John White Alexander," 1902, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Matthew S. Mickiewicz

For American works created in the mid-twentieth century and earlier (my territory), there is also the very important matter of tradition and history. How was the painting originally framed? Occasionally, paintings retain their magnificent original frames, like the one designed by renowned American architect Stanford White that surrounds the Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1890.

John Singer Sargent, "Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis," 1890, Frances and Armand Hammer Purchase Fund

Our California Landscape by William Wendt had originally been installed as an over-mantel painting in a home, so it had no frame at all. LACMA curators worked with our designer and conservator to create a simple frame that would enable the painting to hang in our Arts and Crafts gallery in a context similar to its original one and also give the sense of looking out onto the landscape.

More typically, however, an original frame is lost or unknown, so we research how the painting, or paintings like it, would have been framed when first created or exhibited. Sometimes, however, historically appropriate frames simply don’t look right, and curators seek to improve the overall appearance of the picture by reframing it. But period frames are almost always our starting point.

Museums have a few options for framing historical paintings: they can purchase a period frame, reproduce a period frame based on careful research, retrofit existing period frames for an appropriate work, or work with designers to construct a new frame that complements the historical painting.

For example, Thomas Hill’s Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, painted in 1864, was housed in a mediocre frame that did not do justice to this accomplished and art historically important view of the Western landscape. Fortunately, a grand mid-nineteenth-century frame was in the collection and was retrofitted by our objects conservator, Don Menveg, with a new liner to fit the Hill. The reframed painting now has the presence it deserves in our galleries.

Thomas Hill, "Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe," 1864, William Randolph Hearst Collection

"Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe," detail

Austen Bailly


A New Addition to the Campus, Housing New Additions to the Campus

January 12, 2010

Construction seems to be a constant topic of conversation at LACMA, especially with the opening of the Resnick Pavilion less than a year away now. But last week I was introduced to a new addition to the campus, one I didn’t even know was going up. Imagine my surprise when John Bowsher showed me to his recently erected shade structure. At 50 feet by 50 feet, you’d think it would be hard to miss, especially since I drive by it each day. (Then again, I am known for driving at excessive speeds. Note to self: slow down.)

The new, temporary structure is sited along 6th Street and will serve as a transitioning space for the palm trees that will ultimately be planted around the Resnick Pavilion as part of Robert Irwin’s ongoing palm garden. For almost two years, the palms have been sequestered in a more dim greenhouse in Orange County and, to prevent shock, must be gradually introduced to stronger light. Over time, John’s team will switch out the green mesh on the exterior to progressively let in more sun.

Allison Agsten


Q&A with Suzanne Muchnic

January 8, 2010

Suzanne Muchnic

It was one of our greatest fears for years. Something those of us in the art community discussed occasionally and hoped would never happen—the retirement of Suzanne Muchnic. Then, last month, we read the post on the Los Angeles Times’s Reader Representative blog that after thirty-one years, she was stepping away from her long-held position as arts reporter.

The phrase “veteran arts journalist” was practically created for Suzanne. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in town, from curators to publicists, who don’t hold her in the highest regard. Suzanne just got it. She understood museums, she understood art, and she was incredibly deft at weaving compelling, honest stories. It goes without saying that we’ll miss her. So, on the occasion of her retirement, we thought we’d ask her to take a look back. Somehow, after reading her thoughtful answers to our questions, I appreciate her even more than I already did.

How did your appreciation of art change in three decades of writing about it? Did you start out liking one genre and move on to others?
I was primarily interested in contemporary art when I started writing, but over the years I developed a much deeper knowledge and love of art history. One of the best things about my job was that it was an ongoing education. In newspaper terms, I was a specialist because I wrote almost exclusively about visual arts. In fact, I was a generalist, forever exploring things that required as much research and reading as deadlines allowed.

What was the first show you reviewed as a staff writer for the LA Times, and the last?
I freelanced for the LA Times for about a year before I joined the staff. My first review published in the paper, in 1977, covered a show of Bill Davison’s prints at USC and an exhibition about performance art at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art. My first review as a staff writer was about Paris-Berlin: Reports and Contrasts from France and Germany, 1900–33 at the Pompidou Center in Paris. I stopped reviewing around 1990 and began devoting all my time to news and features. My last feature written while I was on staff, to be published Jan. 10, is about The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Tradition, an exhibition at the Autry National Center.

We were recently talking about the notion of the “L.A. Artist.” Is the term useful to you? Do the artists of the region have something in common other than where they work?
The term might seem limiting or hopelessly old-fashioned, but I always want to know where an artist lives and works, and how that fact might shape or influence the work. “L.A. artists” come from all over the world, but there’s something about the region’s light, space, climate, and sense of possibility that distinguishes the work of many who choose to work here.

Which artist gave the best interview? And the worst?
I don’t think there was a best or worst, just many memorable conversations. One of my favorites was with Lee Bontecou at her home on a Pennsylvania farm, reached by a series of dirt roads. I talked to her just before she ended a long retreat from the art world with a retrospective exhibition at the Hammer Museum.

Do you see art criticism migrating away from print, and if so what effect does this have on the quality of the coverage?
Journalism is certainly migrating away from print, but we are in the midst of such a profound transition that it’s probably foolhardy to predict the future. In the long run, I think there will be a place for thoughtful art criticism and feature articles. At the moment, though, the push to be first and get the most hits with celebrity coverage seems overwhelming.

Do you look forward to seeing shows without having to write about them?
I have always gone to see shows that I didn’t write about and I’m sure I will continue. It can be fun to look without a reporter’s sense of responsibility, but having that responsibility has tremendous rewards.

Allison Agsten


Sig Alert on Memory Lane

January 7, 2010

The very first work of art I can remember experiencing as a child is on view in Los Angeles right now. Doug Wheeler’s RM669 is part of MOCA’s dazzling 30th anniversary show. I’ve seen it, and LACMA’s similar Untitled (Light Encasement), more times than I can count; but I was especially excited to visit it this time so I could introduce my two-and-a-half-year-old son to his mother’s most seminal art experience. I just knew he’d love the installation and all that comes with it… the very ceremonial act of taking off one’s shoes before entry, the misty light that has almost a tactile quality…

Doug Wheeler, RM 669, 1969, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, purchased with funds provided by Bullock’s/Bullocks Wilshire; image courtesy of MOCA

So, this past weekend, we plowed through the dense, satisfying show, and I watched him connect especially with Alfred Jensen’s A Quadrilateral Oriented Vision, Per I – Per IV and pretty much everything in the Ellsworth Kelly gallery. At the very end of the exhibition, like dessert, was the Wheeler installation. I knelt down and said, “I’m going to show you something really special now. First, you get to take off your shoes!” My son squirmed. Not only were we at the end of the show, but we were at the end of his attention span. He proclaimed loudly in the galleries, “It’s not really special! No take off shoes!”

Well. Ok.

With that, we left. I’d rather he loves it later than hates it now, and more importantly, I hope I can keep his awe and wonder of museums alive as long as possible. (Is forever too long to ask?) Thank goodness we’re fortunate enough to have a pair of great Wheelers in local permanent collections. Maybe next time…

Allison Agsten


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