Sheets and Siqueiros: Los Angeles, 1932

October 13, 2010

Recently I couriered Millard Sheets’ Angel’s Flight (1931) across town to the Autry National Center, where it is included in the groundbreaking new exhibition Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, the first examination of the seven pivotal months the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros spent in Los Angeles in 1932. I was on hand to make sure LACMA’s painting was safely unpacked, installed and prominently featured. Angel’s Flight is one of our most important paintings, so we rarely lend it. But this loan request was especially compelling: visitors would be able to see Sheets’ masterpiece in the context of Siqueiros’ landmark contemporaneous work in Los Angeles, where both painters knew each other and achieved artistic and professional breakthroughs in the space of a few short months.

Angel's Flight, Millard Sheets, 1931. Copyright: Millard Sheets Estate.

In 1931, Sheets, just 24 years old, completed Angel’s Flight, a dramatically composed and inventive view of downtown L.A. that refers to, but does not picture, the electric cable railway that used to carry pedestrians in downtown Los Angeles to the top of Bunker Hill between 1901 and 1969. Entered by invitation (his first) into the 30th Annual International Exhibition of Paintings held at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Sheets submitted Angel’s Flight, which was praised by critics nationwide, including at the New York Times, which reproduced the work. In early 1932, the painting was back in Los Angeles for the Thirteenth Annual Painters and Sculptors Exhibition at LACMA’s forerunner, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art, where it won the $100 painting prize. All of this caught the attention of Mrs. L. M. Maitland of Beverly Hills, who bought the painting for the museum. The Los Angeles Times reported in May: “Famed Work of Art Wins Home Here,” and Mrs. Maitland stated “I gave the museum the picture first of all because I like it, and secondly because I believe Los Angeles art patrons should buy the work of our own artists here.”

It is entirely possible that once Siqueiros was in L.A. by June of 1932 he saw and was impressed by Sheets’ unique and masterful vision of the downtown L.A. urban scene pictured in Angel’s Flight and now part of the museum’s permanent collection.  Then he actually met Sheets while a guest professor at Chouinard Art School, where Siqueiros taught a course on fresco painting, a class that Sheets went on to teach that fall. Siqueiros’ soon formed his “Bloc of Painters,” a group of American artists then active in L.A. that included Sheets, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Phil Paradise, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, Philip Guston, and many others. The Bloc of Painters helped Siqueiros complete three murals in L.A.: one for a private residence in Pacific Palisades, Street Meeting, right on Chouinard’s wall, Tropical America on Olvera Street. But the public murals proved highly controversial: the little known histories of the intertwined careers of the Bloc of Painters and the art of Siqueiros as well as the legacy of Siqueiros’ near deportation and his 1932 Los Angeles murals are uncovered in this fascinating and must-see exhibition.

Austen Bailly

Thaumatrope: An Artist Responds to Fashioning Fashion

October 11, 2010

Recently we invited a handful of artists to create digital works of art responding to the exhibitions on view in the new Resnick Pavilion. Bari Ziperstein, a graduate of CalArts who works in photography and sculpture, proposed a project inspired by Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700–1915.

Bari says her work is inspired by “collage aesthetics and the lens of feminist domesticity, as well as America’s love of excess and desire to collect.” For this piece, she created a digital thaumatrope, below.

click to view the animation

The traditional thaumatrope, popular during Victorian times, consisted of a card with an image and a bit of text—a poem or riddle—on each side. Rotating the card resulted in the illusion of a single image in motion.  Most nineteenth-century thaumatropes depicted a bird and cage, which, when rotated, made the bird appear to be in the cage. I asked Bari a few questions about the project.

How did you come up with this idea?
The thaumatrope is such a simple optical effect utilizing the persistence of vision. In this digital age, there is something so poignant about what can be done with a two-sided animation.

But there was a definite arc to my thinking about the project. At first I was just entranced by working with animated images, since I’m new to the medium. Then I asked myself, who cares? Where is the content? That’s probably my CalArts training speaking.

Why did you choose the format of the thaumatrope?
The content and the form line up perfectly. I was thinking about the arc of women’s liberation and the feminist history behind the time period covered by the exhibition, particularly the late 1800s and early 1900s. The thaumatrope as a binary construction tied directly to my thinking about the fact that some women were confined within their domestic life, while others had more choices.  In the thaumatrope, the woman is caged, uncaged, caged, uncaged. It expresses two different ideas at the same time—perfect for a time when women’s roles were becoming more fluid, which effected an aesthetic shift in fashion in terms of the silhouette.

Where does the imagery in your piece come from?
The scaffolding is something I photographed at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Gaudi was a visionary whose creation is still under construction. I like that as a metaphor too: as women, we are metaphorically under construction at all times.

I came to see and photograph the exhibition while it was being installed. The dresses were so inspiring. The first row of dresses in the exhibition as you enter say so much about what was happening culturally with women at the time. The curators are showing the evolution of the silhouette, the undergarments and how they were architectural structures on the body. That was fascinating to me, the connection between architecture and the way women’s roles are being constructed around this time in history.

I’ve been working with the idea of decorative protection for a while—my last show focused on the economy and security of domesticity in Los Angeles. I collect images of barred windows when I travel. So I brought in the idea of the door that you see in the piece—it comes from a found image from the 1980s showing how to protect your home. It’s timeless in a way.

I worked with my friend, writer Justin Lebanowski, on the text. Justin has titled many of my exhibitions and various projects. I found it really exciting to collaborate with him; we had long discussions and he  was so important to this project. He gave me a list of twelve riddles to choose from.

What was it like working in this format?
It was a bit of a challenge. I haven’t made anything move before. I make sculpture and photography. But after visiting LACMA, I felt the thaumatrope was the perfect synthesis of the time period, the content and the medium I was asked to work within – something that could be distributed on the web and by cell phone.

Artists Respond is a series of ongoing digital commissions from artists interested in collaborating on creative projects that use the web and mobile technology to deliver art outside the museum’s walls.

You can also take part in another project by Bari Ziperstein, as part of Fallen Fruit’s Let Them Eat LACMA event on Sunday November 7. Bari is creating a piece called 1,095: One Year’s Worth of Other People’s Plates. She will create an interactive three-dimensional installation of other people’s ceramic plates in the shape of a mandala. Please donate a plate! For every plate you donate, you can pick out a new commemorative “1,095” plate during the event. More information.

Amy Heibel

This Weekend at LACMA: Eakins Lecture, Film Foundation Series, and More

October 8, 2010

Exhibitions, lectures, concerts, films… we’ve got a little of everything this weekend. On the exhibition front, there are seven different special exhibitions on view right now, starting with Olmec, Fashioning Fashion, and Eye for the Sensual in the new Resnick Pavilion. In the Ahmanson Building you’ll find In the Service of the Buddha: Tibetan Furniture from the Hayward Family Collection and EATLACMA. Harvest time is approaching for the artist-created gardens of EATLACMA, so keep on the lookout as you walk around campus. Finally, there’s Catherine Opie: Figure and Landscape and Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, both of which close next week.


Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, 1899.


Saturday would be an ideal day to take in Eakins, as we’re also holding a special symposium, “The Body Imagined: Sports & Art in American Culture, Then & Now.” Tad Beck, the artist behind the Palimpsest exhibition embedded within Manly Pursuits, will be on hand, along with Los Angeles Times sports journalist Mike Bresnahan; Jennifer Doyle, professor at UC Riverside; and Amy Werbel, professor at St. Michael’s College, all discussing the role of sports and art in the evolving cultural attitudes toward the human body. The lecture is free and starts at 1 pm.


Muhammad Aza, Portrait of Nasir ud din Haidar, c. 1830. India, Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow. Oil on canvas 36-1/4 x 28-3/8 in. (92.1 x 72.1 cm). Collection Drs. Aziz and Deanna Khan. Photo courtesy Drs. Aziz and Deanna Khan.


Sunday sees another lecture, also free: “Lucknow through the Lens of Bollywood.” The lively presentation of film clips from Hindi and Bollywood directors from the 1960s to the present will also include a live tabla performance. This will be a good primer for our upcoming exhibition, India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, opening in December.

If music is your game, we’ve got two free concerts. Tonight (Friday), the Ernie Watts Quartet plays Jazz at LACMA. Watts is a two-time Grammy winner and has played with plenty of greats over the last forty years, from Cannonball Adderly to Frank Zappa. Sunday, we continue our Sundays Live series with another concert be performers from the New England Conservatory, in celebration of Robert Schumann’s bicentennial.

This weekend also kicks off our latest film series, a 20th Anniversary Tribute to the Film Foundation. The series will run every weekend for the rest of the month and features a diverse slate of films—all of which have been restored and preserved by the Film Foundation. Tonight sees a noir double feature with The Big Combo and They Made Me a Fugitive. Saturday, the foreign masterpiece Pather Panchali will be followed by the dance classic The Red Shoes. Here’s a trailer for the latter:

Stretching into next week, we should note that Monday is a holiday—we’ll be open (but not free, as we are for other holiday Mondays). But Tuesday we will be free, as we are on the second Tuesday of every month If you’re free you should come down, maybe catch The Swan, with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness, during the Tuesday Matinee—just two bucks!

Scott Tennent

The Sporting Life

October 6, 2010

Many of our cherished memories are made from sweat and fun at some sport or another.  So there’s a visceral reaction to Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins and Catherine Opie: Figure and Landscape. And, although many of us may not have known the bullfighting sport in Picasso and la Tauromaquia, a small installation in the Ahmanson Building, it too recalls the “passion” in which these activities reside in the times, the culture, and us.

Thomas Eakins, The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, 1873, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection, 1984, photo courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art

Although Eakins’s youth sits squarely at the end of the Civil War, he remains stoically and single-mindedly an artist of his middle-class, privileged background. The sports of his paintings are the sports of his class. In the artist’s sometimes precise and evocative paintings, with their late Renaissance references and a palette of moody color that paid attention to the pale sunlight yellowing the complexion of his young men, or the sculling in morning haze dulling the sky into slate blue. With a measure of bravery and insolence, and maybe just a touch of social blindness, aided with detailed drawings and Muybridge-style motion photographs, Eakins mounts an artistic and scientific adventure, at considerable cost to himself, into the intimacy and freedom of men and their competitive nature, within a ring or within the great outdoors. Regardless of the possible homoerotic interpretation, we get to witness the blending and contrasting renderings of his sinewy males, thrillingly captured in their sporting life. The novelist J.M. Coetzee, writing about Eakins and his friend, Walt Whitman, could be quoted: “…that democracy was not one of the superficial inventions of the human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in its Eros…”

Catherine Opie, Tyler S., 2008, collection of the artist, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, CA, © Catherine Opie

Opie’s world is far more familiar.  Here, among her lithe young men armored up in their padding, could be our own story.  One might expect that these bright modern portraits of high school football players, up close and personal, would achieve a certain intimacy that would defy their generic presence—would open up their world, so to speak. The color, the varying body types, the shapes of their faces, and even their race might offer up that tactile “thereness” that one usually senses in snapshots. Even the boys’ hormonal storms are veiled by a rather sweet charm, while the fury of the game itself lies elsewhere. Opie’s savage eye is also elsewhere, for one senses a new, deep, fastidious, and passionate look at nature and the horizon. As the players fit into that horizon, their true presence is felt—not unlike Eakins’s young men with nature as their background, but essentially different. Opie finds “man” located in the greater Nature.

Pablo Picasso, Female Bullfighter—the Last Kiss, 1934, purchased with funds provided by Dr. Richard E. Brandeis, © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

If Eros sits immured in Eakins’s work and veiled in Opie’s, in Picasso’s it is apparently out there, highly personal and in our midst. Picasso might very well be the last impersonator of a mythological god. His beloved avatar, the Minotaur, the bad seed, half god and half bull, we find at the center of this exquisite installation.  Ringed by a series of aqua-tints showing one day of bullfighting, whose almost magical black brushwork leaves one stung by its sheer lightness and the artist’s action-filled touch, is a dense, labyrinthine etching known as Female Bullfighter—The Last Kiss. Out of a mass of short curvy ink strokes, we find the avatar overcoming the female matador and her horse, while her “suit of light” (traje de luces) falls away from her body revealing her nakedness as the bull’s lips press closely to hers. Here Eros is a fully sexual metaphor, the embodiment of nature, the violent game and its wish fulfillment, “the moment of truth,” ironically altered.

Hylan Booker

Visual Rhymes and Dotted Lines

October 5, 2010

I’ve walked through the Eye for the Sensual exhibition a few times now, and each time I do it seems to come more and more into focus. The first time through all I really took in, to be honest, was Pier Luigi Pizzi’s exhibition design—the columns, the fabric walls, the mirrors, the beautiful colors—and the feeling that I was being overwhelmed by amazing art. The paintings, the sculptures, the furniture… there’s a lot to take in in every gallery.

On my second trip through, I was able to take a little more time to consider the different artworks. That’s when I noticed this little visual rhyme in the second gallery:

That’s a sculpture by Giambologna in the foreground, called Flying Mercury, from the 1580s. On the wall behind it is Mars, from 1585–1600, by an unknown artist (“Netherlandsish,” the label says). The photo is a bit misleading—Mercury is just two feet tall, while Mars’ canvas is a little more than five and a half feet tall. It feels larger than life in person, helped in no small part by the figure’s muscular countenance.

But the manner in which they are placed in the gallery, playing off each other visually, makes them feel in some ways equal, or at least related. Both have the outstretched arm, both nude, both Roman gods. Mercury’s eyes are turned upward, as if he is reaching for something; Mars is looking out, toward the surrounding destruction (a fire rages in the background), his shield aloft in victory.

I was curious to know if there was anything to this pairing, or if the exhibition curators were just riffing, so I went to the exhibition catalogue. While there isn’t a direct connection between the two works, the catalogue entry for Mars does discuss the influence of sculpture on the painting: “In keeping with innovations in the representation of anatomy circulating in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, particularly among sculptors, the monumentality and three-dimensional presence of Mars are intended to showcase the painter’s skill in representing the male form in dynamic action.” The entry goes on to point to the influence of sculptor Willem Danielsz. van Tetrode, whose depictions of Roman gods in action influenced both painters and sculptors at this time, including Giambologna, the artist behind Flying Mercury.

Intrigued, I searched the museum’s collection for Tetrode and found that we have our very own Mercury on view in the newly reinstalled European galleries in the Ahmanson Building. So I headed for the Ahmanson’s third floor and found Tetrode’s Mercury front and center in a gallery just off from the Carter Collection galleries. I immediately noticed the similarity to Giambologna’s, though Tetrode’s Mercury isn’t looking skyward.

As I was looking at the sculpture, thinking about how it might have influenced the artists in the Resnick Collection, I realized I wasn’t alone in the gallery. “You’ve stopped in front of my favorite work in the gallery.” It was Gail, one of the guards in those galleries. “A lot of people walk right past this,” she said. We chatted for a few minutes about the new galleries, the Tetrode, and a few of her other favorites.

“What do you like about the Tetrode?” I asked, and she proceeded to identify exactly what it was that the artists of the time also found so amazing—its “extreme posture,” to borrow a phrase from the Mars entry I’d read an hour earlier.

“I love this piece because it does something that the paintings, and even many of the sculptures [in these galleries], don’t do. You can look at it from any angle and see that every limb is doing something different—the outstretched arm here, the bent elbow there, the leg in motion.”

She was right. The Mercury felt active—it had a visceral quality to it. I spent a little more time with it, then headed back to the Resnick galleries to look at Flying Mercury and Mars once more—as if I were walking a dotted line from one gallery to the other.

Scott Tennent


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