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


A Curator’s Adventures around the World

January 6, 2010

In connection with its archive program, LACMA has been conducting oral history interviews with ex-staff and volunteers. One of the most exciting biographical interviews has come from former Senior Curator of Far Eastern Art George Kuwayama.

While studying Chinese paintings and ceramics on a fellowship at the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, George was invited to join the curatorial staff at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art at Exposition Park for what was then known as the “Oriental Art” Department. Throughout his nearly forty-year career, George secured numerous acquisitions, greatly enriching the museum’s holdings in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian art, and began the initiative to create the Pavilion for Japanese Art. He was also responsible for organizing many important exhibitions such as Art Treasures from Japan and The Quest for Eternity: Chinese Sculpture from the People’s Republic of China.

George Kuwayama

Like many art historians studying Sino-Japanese art during the mid-twentieth century, George’s earliest research played out against the backdrop of historical drama. In our interview he spoke of his frustrating attempts to access artworks in war-torn Japan in the early 1950s. He also described at length a subsequent experience, examining Chinese masterpieces spirited away from the country during Chiang Kai-Shek’s retreat from China to Taiwan.

All the artworks came from the original Palace Museum in Peking. When the Sino-Japanese war broke out, they moved Chinese treasures from Peking to the south, to Nanking. When the Japanese came up the Yangtze River, they moved westward to Suchuan, and Chungking became the capital of wartime China. The Palace treasures were stored safely in the hillside caves, and then after WWII, were brought back. But there was still fighting between the Nationalists and the Communists, so the collection was never truly unpacked, and it sat in Nanking for a while. When the Communists advanced and beat up the Nationalists, chasing them out of the Yangtze Valley, Chiang Kai-Shek decided to make a strategic retreat to Taiwan. He brought much of the Palace collection to Taiwan—a good deal of the cream of the Palace Museum’s collection.

There in the hillsides of central Taiwan, George followed a team reviewing the expatriated treasures of the centuries-old Chinese empire. He described this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity:

I was there at an ideal time because they were doing inventory and condition reports. So every day from ten till twelve and from two to four, they would unpack great works of art for examination. I’ve forgotten the exact number—about twenty paintings a session…. It was a grand experience to see close-up the supreme masterpieces of Chinese art.

Over the course of our interview, George had a number of great stories to tell, including the tale of a vacation to Mexico in the 1960s. While there he was surprised to see an antique Chinese porcelain bowl in the National Historical Museum. He asked himself, “What is this bowl doing here?” This simple question initiated an intellectual quest that would occupy him off and on for many years. Researching the Manila galleon trade of East Asian luxury goods to Latin America became a personal passion during his tenure, and especially following George’s retirement from LACMA in 1997. George uncovered how silk and porcelain traveled around the globe to satisfy European tastes in Spanish- and Portuguese-controlled territories as well as the cultural exchanges that occurred from this commerce, such as the copying of Chinese styles and motifs by local, indigenous craftsmen. Because of the complicated provenance of these objects, George substantiated his research with archeological confirmation from digs in Mexico City, Lima, and Antigua, Guatamala, as well as shipwrecks across the Pacific. George published Chinese Ceramics in Colonial Mexico in 1997 and continues to be inspired by this fascinating global artistic exchange.

George retired from LACMA in 1997, but he hasn’t retreated from historical drama. In his current study, George researches sixteenth–eighteenth century Chinese porcelain brought to the New World by the Manila galleons.

Aaron Ziolkowski, Collections Information Intern


Watering the Art

January 5, 2010

As I wrote yesterday, Cor-Ten steel is a well-aging material, popularly used by artists like Richard Serra. While it decomposes to a degree, for the most part it holds up well and looks great to boot, particularly when exposed to seasonal weather conditions. However, in L.A., that seasonal weather thing is a bit of an issue. In case you haven’t heard, it never rains in Southern California

The problem for Ellsworth Kelly’s Curve XV, installed in the Director’s Roundtable Garden, is an atypical one in the conservation world. It needs care not because it’s been overly taxed by snow, rain, and wind, but rather because the elements here simply are not taxing enough.

Ellsworth Kelly, Curve XV, 1975, purchased with funds provided by the David E. Bright Bequest

To fix this non-problem sort of a problem, head objects conservator John Hirx connected with the facilities team to rig the sprinkler system to hit Curve and in turn, to encourage the rusting process. Still, since there are watering restrictions in L.A.—we’re only allowed to use automated sprinklers two days a week—Curve isn’t getting a whole lot of help. John tells me it’s already better off that it was before though, with a deepening rust that will only be enhanced with the passage of time.

Allison Agsten


Sing, O Muse, of the Qualities of Cor-Ten Steel

January 4, 2010

In the last couple of weeks, it seems like every other conversation I have is in some way about Cor-Ten steel. That’s probably because Cor-Ten is the stuff that a lot of great art is made of, from Richard Serra’s monumental sculptures, including our own Band, to an architectural element Robert Irwin is designing for his expanding palm garden here at LACMA. But what exactly is Cor-Ten and why is it so popular with artists?

Cor-Ten steel, photo by Beair via Wikimedia Commons

I did a little research and spoke with our Head of Objects Conservation, John Hirx, as well as John Bowsher, our Director of Special Installations, to learn more. Cor-Ten, Hirx told me, is a “weathering steel” that develops a rusty appearance when exposed to the elements but that overall exhibits more resistance to atmospheric corrosion than would a low-carbon steel. One reason artists appreciate the material is because, in addition to being highly durable, the surface of Cor-Ten matures and regenerates continuously when subjected to the influence of the elements, creating a nuanced patina that looks like “burnt cinnamon,” according to John Bowsher—or, as John Hirx said, over time surfaces appear “velvety, like a deer’s antlers.” The poetry continued to flow when I asked our director, Michael Govan, about the appeal of Cor-Ten. He noted that it blends easily with the natural environment and that, as well as having a rigid shape, its oxidized appearance is “leathery, velvety, and disarmingly seductive.”

Wow. I think I just fell in love with weathering steel.

Cor-Ten, not surprisingly, isn’t just an exquisite material favored by artists; it has industrial applications as well. The alloy was developed to be used in bridge construction so as to obviate the need for constantly repainting. It has also been used for the manufacture of railcars, bridges, shipping containers, and buildings.

Tomorrow—a post on the conservation efforts on Ellsworth Kelly’s Curve, which is made out of, you guessed it, Cor-Ten.

Allison Agsten


Reflections on the Decade: Transforming the Modern Art Collection

January 1, 2010

After a bit more than three decades at LACMA, being asked to reflect on the biggest story of the last ten years, I instantly knew what it was. Though it was exciting to spearhead the massive Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity show at the beginning of the decade, and to be the curator who organized the first showing of Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer, without a doubt it’s the building of the permanent collection that is the most lasting thing a curator can do. In the field of modern art, with the skyrocketing prices in the art market of the last twenty years, it has become almost impossible for museums to make major purchases, causing us to rely upon the generosity of collectors who donate works to the museum.

The acquisition of the Henri and Janice Lazarof Collection truly transformed our collection of modern art. In one magnificent gesture by these Los Angeles collectors, we were able to add 130 paintings, sculptures and works on paper—more than twenty works by Picasso, a group of sculptures by Giacometti, works by the Bauhaus artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, and remarkable examples by Brancusi, Braque, Matisse, Léger, Dufy, Degas, and many others. In late 2006 I started installing the modern collection in its new home—on the plaza level of the Ahmanson Building. With new walls, floors, and ceilings, we were able to rethink the presentation of art of the first three quarters of the twentieth century, something I’ve waited a long time to do. It was the occasion to premiere the new Lazarof Collection, integrate it within the entire collection, and to see how beautifully it complemented our other holdings. When the galleries opened to much acclaim in January 2007 it was tremendously gratifying. This was without a doubt the most important acquisition I’ve had the privilege to be involved with, and every day I walk through the galleries, still amazed by the remarkable works that are now “ours.” What a transformation of a collection, and how lucky we all are to have these works available to our public!

Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator, Modern Art


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