What do American painter Thomas Hart Benton and conceptual artist Michael Asher have in common? I had no idea either until my recent serendipitous discovery (in our amazing new Reading Room) of The Museum as Site: Sixteen Projects, the exhibition catalogue that first caught my eye the day the Reading Room launched. I started clicking through and was astonished to find on page 36 an image of Benton’s 1954 painting in our collection, The Kentuckian. Painted for the eponymous movie starring and directed by Burt Lancaster, The Kentuckian depicts Lancaster as frontiersman “Big Eli Wakefield,” Donald MacDonald as his son “Little Eli Wakefield”—and their dog. Turns out it inspired Asher’s 1981 project: Sign in the Park. As curator Stephanie Barron wrote in the catalogue, Asher’s project deals “very specifically with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, its own site in Los Angeles, and its relation to Hollywood.” You can still see The Kentuckian in our American galleries (and in our Collections Online) and now you can virtually flip to page 35 of The Museum as Site to read just how Asher played Benton’s monumental painting (and the dog!) off of these L.A. sites. You’ll soon realize, truth be told, that Asher and Benton don’t really have anything in common—anything that is, except LACMA as site.
Today is your lucky day. Not only do you (hopefully) get to stay home from work, but it’s a Target Free Holiday Monday at LACMA. There’s no better time to explore the permanent collection. Join in on a tour of our Modern Collection or our Islamic Collection this afternoon. Or simply stroll through the galleries on your own. Either way, you can’t beat the price.
*Please note that the Renoir exhibition still requires a special ticket.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing LACMA curator Claudia Einecke about the exhibition Renoir in the 20th Century, which opens on Sunday. Claudia spoke about how art historians have tended to overlook Renoir’s late paintings, and her opinion that it is high time we reexamine this body of work.
Q. The show includes numerous paintings of Renoir’s immediate family, especially his son Jean and his nanny, Gabrielle. Tell me about them.
A. The picture of Jean and his nanny, Gabrielle (a cousin of Renoir’s wife), is one of those images that look very naturalistic and very caught on the fly. The young boy is doing a normal everyday activity. At the same time the picture itself contains associations and references to Old Master art. In this, as in most of Renoir’s paintings, you see him combine realism and informality with references to high art—art with a capital “A” if you wish.
When Pablo Picasso became a father, he started drawing and painting his young children similarly absorbed in activity. Even though Picasso’s pictures will never look like Renoir’s, I believe the way of approaching the subject matter and the composition is something that Picasso got from looking at Renoir’s pictures.
Q. The show includes sculpture by Maillol. What is the connection between the two artists?
A. Maillol, who is now mostly known as a sculptor, began his career as a painter and was greatly influenced by Renoir and Renoir’s nudes. He said to a sculptor colleague, “Look at Renoir’s nudes. They are sculpture. That’s all you need.”
This seated bather is probably the type of nude that inspired Maillol, in the way the figure occupies the space fully and is fully rounded. The background is really just a backdrop against which the figure emerges as a fully three-dimensional entity. I think the monumentality—the fullness of Renoir’s figures—is something that we find very much reflected in Maillol. They share a similar preference for a powerful physical type.
Q. Late in his life, Renoir lived in the South of France. What was significant about his move there?
A. Terrace at Cagnes shows the village where the family first lived when they moved to the south. You can actually see the location of Renoir’s apartment: it’s the white building on the extreme right.
Initially, Renoir moved to the south of France for health reasons (he suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis). But I think he also had a very special understanding and appreciation of the landscape in that region. He understood the south of France as the site where the old Arcadian myth originated—the kind of landscape where you can imagine nymphs and gods and goddesses living as they do in Greek mythology.
Q. The painting of Jean Renoir dressed as a hunter belongs to the museum, and it is a favorite of many visitors to LACMA. Tell me about it.
A. Jean Renoir became quite a well-known film director and eventually moved to Los Angeles. Years after the painting was made, he recalled posing for the picture. He wrote, “At Les Collettes, when I was fifteen years old, I wore a jacket that reminded my father of a hunter, so he had me pose with a gun and with Bob for a hunting dog. The gun was borrowed from one of our farmers. I shot it only once, killed a bird, and was horrified.”
Jean spoke at LACMA in 1979, and at that time, he recalled that his father intended the painting to fit a specific frame—a magnificent carved and gilded antique Italian frame. The painting is still displayed in that frame today.
Q. How do you hope Renoir will be remembered?
A. Renoir is usually seen and thought of as an impressionist and he’s been appreciated as an impressionist, but in fact, he left impressionism behind around 1880. His later paintings really took a different turn. His late paintings reveal his knowledge of old masters like Titian and Reubens.
In the twentieth century, art historians tended to favor modern art that led directly to modern twentieth century abstract painting. Many critics felt that Renoir’s late painting was old-fashioned, reactionary, and not modern. I think it is time that the great prolific work that he did later in his career be recognized and understood on its own terms, as something that is going someplace—perhaps just not where modernist critics wanted it to go.
In particular, one of the aspects of his work that has created a lot of discomfort among critics and art historians are his late nudes. I hope that today, with developments in contemporary art, where you have artists distorting the body as well, maybe we are ready to look at these works and judge them on different terms.
Q: It seems as if you showed up at LACMA one day and were ready to open a dramatically different bookstore on the next. Did it all transpire as quickly as it seems?
A: Yes! I came on as a consultant just a month ago.
Q: What is your approach to book buying?
A: I look at an exhibition catalogue and then I make links. For example, Renoir in the 20th Century. I’m looking at modernism in film, in literature, in music, in theater, and in other artists working at the time. They all were looking at each other, these artists, and some of them were friends.
Q: What’s your vision for the latest venue for Art Catalogues?
A: The bookstore will be much more of a performative space, a theater. All of the bookcases will be on wheels so we can push them aside to make room for talks, signings, music, theater. Why not have a band in there? Or a poetry slam? There will be webcams that can stream performances live. I don’t want to go backwards to having lunches in the store like I did in the old days because I didn’t have any customers. Yet, I would like to do some version of that today because I want to have a dialogue. Art is art and it’s all connected.
Q: Will you only sell books?
A: No. There will be one large, long wall used for changing exhibitions. I specialize in museum and gallery exhibition catalogues, but there will also be a lot of multiples, of objects. Some wildly expensive, some not expensive at all. As an aside, members will still get their standard discount on books. The most interesting thing is that the inventory will change. Artists and curators will curate the books and make displays, which is interesting because it’s a different point of view.
Q: How will that work?
A: I’ll approach a curator, for example, and ask her about her next exhibition—what research she’s doing, what books she’s interested in, and what on earth led her to those books. What’s her reading list? Then, I’ll augment that list with interesting things that are collateral to it. Then I’ll ask about objects or posters from the era of the selection and have a display of that stuff.
It seems like everyone knows Dagny Corcoran. Even if you don’t, there’s a good chance you admired Art Catalogues, her store at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center location. Now, Art Catalogues is coming to LACMA, inside the Ahmanson Building. To celebrate the opening, here’s a little Q&A with the woman behind the project. Tomorrow we’ll tell you more about the store itself.
Q: How long have you been selling exhibition catalogues? Can you tell us a bit about the history of your business?
A: My first boss, and life-long influence, was Walter Hopps. In the ’70s, as the Norton Simon Museum was taking over the Pasadena Art Museum, Walter told me to go and buy the archives of the Pasadena Art Museum, which the Norton Simon Museum was not interested in. That was my first inventory—I had the inventory before I had a store. The first Art Catalogues opened in 1977 above the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, on Santa Monica Boulevard. I was married to Jim Corcoran at the time, whose gallery was next door to Nick’s. Patty Faure and Betty Asher opened Asher Faure Gallery upstairs, next to Art Catalogues. Later, in the early ’80s, Larry Gagosian’s gallery was on Almont Drive, and I rented a weird space from him, which is now Regen Projects I. Behind my shop was a storage space for Gagosian. Some days, a big truck would drive up and drop of loads of blank canvases. Then, a few hours later, a limo would show up, Jean-Michel Basquiat would get out, and they’d put him in there with the blank canvases and he’d paint. At that time, I was really the only place that sold exhibition catalogues. My customers were generally dealers and artists, people who were seriously interested in art.
Q. What happened next?
A. I had my Barbara Stanwyck period and I moved to the country, where I bought a cattle ranch and learned about cowboys… I took the books and that’s where I cemented my mail order and library business. No cowboys were interested in my books. Five years ago, I came back and went to work for MOCA when Paul Schimmel approached me, and jointly we cooked up an idea to establish Art Catalogues there.
Q: Things seemed to have changed dramatically since you began your venture at MOCA; we’ve really begun to enjoy books differently. (Take for example our Reading Room.) How has digital consumption impacted your business?
A: The challenge now is to sell books to an audience who expects content to be free. I am all for free content, by the way. It’s also a challenge to sell on site here versus on Kindle or Amazon. But I like to think of a physical book as a sculpture, as a limited edition, as a print. Again, I agree that content is free but buying an object is a different thing.
Q: How did Michael Govan convince you that LACMA is the place to be?
A: He’s like a popcorn machine or a champagne cork, exploding with ideas. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to catch one of those ideas and put it into reality. And to have the possibility of using the bookstore as a laboratory. That’s what I want to do.
As you may have heard, last week we launched the Reading Room, an online space devoted to the electronic publication of the museum’s catalogues. Our first selection of books focuses on the L.A. art scene of the 50s, 60s, and 70s—a real heyday for L.A. artists, galleries, and art institutions.
From the beginning, even as we were selecting which books to digitize, one of our biggest concerns was that we’d lose something deeply valuable by putting the books online, that the tactile presence of each of these great artifacts would instantly evaporate. One way to address that, we determined, was to show them in someone’s hands in order to give better context for their scale. We also thought it would be helpful to hear a thoughtful narrator describe what each of them meant as books and also as exhibitions. We asked Senior Curator of Modern Art Stephanie Barron to talk about the Billy Al Bengston exhibition from 1969. As Stephanie notes, both the catalogue and the installation were designed by friends of Bengston’s. And they’re not just any old friends…
Editor’s note: On Saturday, the fruit tree giveaway will be held at Watts Towers Art Center, starting at noon. On Sunday, the event will be held at LACMA, starting at noon. Please plan to arrive early as the quantity is limited. More event information.
For the past six months, I’ve been working closely with local artist collective Fallen Fruit on plans for EATLACMA–artist designed gardens throughout the museum’s campus; an exhibition that invites public participation and draws from LACMA’s collection; and Let Them Eat LACMA, a one-day final event with more than fifty artists and collectives to activate, intervene, and re-imagine the entire museum’s campus and galleries.
Our first EATLACMA event will be this weekend’s public fruit tree adoptions held at LACMA’s campus and Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. Fallen Fruit encourages the public to “plant the perimeter”—plant fruit trees in public space or on the perimeter of private property—so that generations to come will enjoy public fruit.
On Saturday and Sunday, Fallen Fruit will hand out 150 trees each day along with planting instructions and ideas for transforming your neighborhood with the simple act of planting one tree. Fruit tree adoptions begin at 12 pm and quantities are limited so come early! (You can check out a video about the project at FallenFruit.org.)
P.S.—We’d love your help! EATLACMA is in the running for a $250,000 Pepsi Refresh Everything grant and your votes could help us win! The grant would allow us to expand our public programs and on-site garden projects, and would especially benefit the one-day Let Them Eat LACMA event, allowing us to fund more artists’ projects. You can vote at refresheverything.com/EATLACMA once a day until voting ends on February 28. Thanks!
Michele Urton, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art
Tree distribution at LACMA is sponsored by Paramount Citrus, the world’s largest grower of California Cuties, and tree distribution at Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center is sponsored by TreePeople and Paramount Citrus.