Harry Callahan’s Ireland

March 17, 2011

Combing through our collection in search of some images to share on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day, I must admit I was looking for something that would stereotypically evoke “Ireland”—clovers! fields of green! potatoes!

Harry Callahan quickly put an end to my search for clichés. Among other Callahan photographs in our collection is a series from 1979, Ireland, an anonymous gift made in honor of the late Robert Sobieszek, former curator of photography at LACMA. So, rather than present you with symbols of Ireland, here are photographs, simply and beautifully, of Ireland.

Callahan’s photographs are spare. The geometric nature of the streets, buildings, doors and windows come to the fore while the hustle-bustle of whatever must inevitably happen inside these buildings is suppressed. Callahan’s m.o. was to wake up and take photographs during his morning walk. Apparently it was early enough that no one else in town had yet risen! The result is a solitary set of images, sometimes downcast, sometimes peaceful. Some images feel as if Callahan had just missed seeing another soul—an open gate, perhaps just passed through; others feel as if only ghosts walk the streets.

Scott Tennent

Geometry of the Kuba

March 16, 2011

There is no doubt that geometrical solutions have been a kind of “language” that has aided our complex social interaction from the very beginning. Although for each culture its origins, meanings, and evolutional usage would vary profoundly, its pervasive presence seems to suggest a deep and abiding function that mere words fail to provide. Thus we are people of “signs”—perhaps no better illustrated than by the current installation of textiles by the African Kuba people on view now.

Late 19th–Early 20th Century, gift of the 2009 Collectors Committee

The Kuba Kingdom is situated in the middle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nestled in a fertile forest and savanna fed by three rivers. The culture itself is primarily a complex hierarchical social structure where the royals, in masks of various sizes with geometrical meaning, are portrayed as intricate manifestations of the nature spirits casting out evil, or as intermediaries between the gods and people. At the center of their artistic innovations and competition of cloth and mask is the King, Mwaash aMbooy. The most ornate and sumptuous of these precious cloths and masks are given great fanfare; distinctive motifs are introduced into the Kuba repertory and can even be signed by the individual designer.

Late 19th–Early 20th Century, gift of the 2009 Collectors Committee

Late 19th–Early 20th Century, gift of the 2009 Collectors Committee

Beside the sheer artistry behind these textiles, what is so unique is their creation. The men are responsible for the cultivation of the raffia palm and its weaving. The women embroider with dyed raffia to create the plush pile. Each ceremonial cloth, a singularity, has an insistent, dazzling inventiveness that calls the Kuba to celebration. It is said that they are a people who cannot leave a surface without ornament. Geometric forms seem to place them in their knowable universe; the mystical quality of nature lies in its abstract entity. Although it is never made entirely clear why or how this deeply spiritual impulse, compulsion, and obligation generated into the Kuba universe as a geometrical communication, it could be suggested that Woot, the first man (the Kuba are also known as “the Children of Woot”), a pattern of utter intricacies, is feared, honored, and worshiped through these complex though dazzling displays of geometrical signs.

Hylan Booker

Transcending the Who’s Who: Thoughts on Larry Fink

March 15, 2011

Over the course of ten years, Larry Fink, whose photographs are now on view in LACMA’s exhibition, shot Vanity Fair’s legendary annual Oscar party. He was brought in as an alternative view, with no propensity towards chasing celebrity—unusual, considering that since its inception in 1994 at Morton’s in Beverly Hills, the party had become a Who’s Who of Hollywood elite.

Larry Fink, Natalia Vodianova, 2007.

In fact, Fink swears he had no idea who most of the celebrities were until he began to see the same faces year after year. Instead, he sought that odd moment of physicality—an illuminated arm hovering in mid air behind a quizzically craned neck and a glance (who happens to be Lindsay Lohan), or the unspoken but clear words articulated from a clenched fist or an open palm. LACMA’s exhibition, Larry Fink: Hollywood, 2000–2009 displays thirty-seven pictures with this particular knack for tracing the sensuality of things back to their source.

Larry Fink, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and Kid Rock, 2007.

In a conversation I had with Fink, who is a lover of the blues, he compared his ideology on photography to music. “When a musician goes off for a high note and they look for that ecstasy or deliverance, it’s always that moment where there’s a higher truth being looked for or asked for. It’s that moment where they actually meet the maker, and even though the maker is not going to gift them with anything more than what that moment can give, at least, and at most, there is some kind of merger of the spirit, the ambition, and the toil of life all put into one little arena. It’s redemptive transformation. And everything on the way.” Fink has a high-pitched laugh that shows itself every once in awhile, and he finalized this statement with near-hysterical interjection. It made me giddy and I wanted to ask more questions about the complexities of music making, of bowling three perfect games when he was a teen (he did—in one year), of the good and evil of boxing (which he photographed for his 1997 monograph, Boxing), all topics he seemed to enjoy talking about as we strayed from the literal subject of photography.

I shared some of my own stories with him. While many of the photographs exhibited in Larry Fink were being taken, I was across town, a few floors up from the Kodak Theatre (where the Oscars are held) making memories at the “official” Academy-sanctioned post-Oscars party known as the Governors Ball. Some of these memories were personal (a dark nimbus of pain in my feet, glorious mountains of shellfish), others professional (“Javier Bardem with John Stewart, section Y, table 47!” exclaimed into a walkie-talkie). Though I attended this ball five years in a row, I was not an invited guest. I served as the Academy’s in-house photography coordinator, assisting four dedicated photographers to find electrical moments—when one shining star came into contact with another shining star—worthy of the Academy’s historic photograph archive.

I wished I had a team of Larry Finks. I wished I could have encouraged the Academy photographers to roam free to shoot as they wished, driven by intuition, deaf to my suggestions, oblivious to the brute iconography of celebrity. In the grip of capturing the image of stardom rather than humanity, it rarely happened. In his graceful depiction of unconscious gesture and expression, Fink has made his photographs different from anything that was ever orchestrated via press office walkie-talkie. Yet, despite this delineation, Larry Fink provokes the issue of making art versus depicting celebrity. With the Fink exhibit, to dispassionately view Oscar-party photographs in an art museum may raise an eyebrow or two. Do Fink’s images have a place here? Does all such imaging of celebrity eclipse art?

My conclusion is that if you are open to complexities of human engagement within the museum context, Fink’s photography will draw you in. While engaging with these images, you can decide if they are art or not. The selection of photographs include the likes of Russell Simmons, Faye Dunaway, Arianna Huffington, and Spike Lee, among many more, as they hug each other, love each other, and perhaps love themselves. Walking through Larry Fink: Hollywood, 2000–2009 is like making your way to the bar at a crowded event. You cast glances as you go, recognizing faces with which you have no real personal connection. In one picture Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper are gently illuminated and formally separated from the rest of the party, seated on a stuffed couch from which they silently observe the strange universe rotating around them. And just when you think you can remain the voyeur, Tom Ford stares out of a frame at you, asking why you are there. Fink, while unintentionally fulfilling the special promise of Hollywood—that you are always welcome to dream about celebrity—freezes the best of these glances in time. These photographs are memories we don’t have, of celebrities we don’t know, and within this engagement are the formal qualities of gesture cut by light and dark, which elevate these images from the pages of a glossy magazine, transcending the Who’s Who. At the end of my visit to the exhibition, I didn’t much care to leave the party.

Sarah Bay Williams is a graduate student of art history at the University of California, Riverside. She was previously a fellow in LACMA’s photography department.

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor in Iran

March 14, 2011

Recently, I interviewed Firooz Zahedi about his photographs of Elizabeth Taylor in Iran. He traveled there with her in 1976, as a recent art school graduate, and made the photographs that are part of the exhibition Elizabeth Taylor in Iran. They are like vacation snapshots from a very exotic trip–very personal images.

Firooz started out as a diplomat before going to art school. We talked about the fact that it was somewhat unusual for someone from a traditional family such as his to pursue an art career–and how Elizabeth Taylor encouraged him to do so.

I like the part of the video (around 2:52, below) when he recalls the sense memories of an afternoon visit to an old teahouse– the sounds on the street, the feeling of being indoors protected from the outdoor heat. He describes these memories as part of the essential feeling of Iran, in the way that we all have some nostalgia for a place and time that defined our childhoods.

The photographs–and his personal recollections–struck me as a beautiful commemoration of a bygone world.

Alexa Oona Schulz

This Weekend at LACMA: Human Nature, Vija Celmins Catherine Deneuve Series, Philip Glass, Nowruz Celebration, and More

March 11, 2011

We’ve got a busy weekend at LACMA, starting with two new exhibitions. Human Nature: Contemporary Art from the Collection gathers roughly seventy-five works from our permanent collection, including many recent acquisitions which have never been on view at LACMA before. We are excited to see these objects by Glenn Ligon, Nam June Paik, Gerhard Richter, Haegue Yang, Mark Bradford, and many others fill the second floor of BCAM. This exhibition opens to the public on Sunday but is open now if you’re a member.

Bruce Nauman, Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know, 1983, Modern and Contemporary Art Council Fund

Also on view, in the Ahmanson Building, is Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster 1964–1966. This is the first exhibition to focus on a specific slice of Celmins’ work—paintings from a two-year period early in her career which reflect televised images of war. This show also opens on Sunday, and on Saturday for members.

Vija Celmins, Burning Man, 1966, McKee Gallery, NY, © Vija Celmins 2011

Tonight our Catherine Deneuve film series continues with two classic films she made with the wonderful director Jacques Demy. The first is the heartbreaking musical masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Incidentally this is one of my favorite films of all time, so if you’ve never seen it on the big screen, do yourself a favor and see it. Deneuve is radiant as a shopgirl who lets her true love slip away, while Demy’s colorful sets and Michel Legrand’s score turn the film into candy for the eyes and ears. This is followed by another Deneuve/Demy pairing (they partnered four times altogether), Donkey Skin—a strange and wondrous film based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault (who also created Mother Goose and wrote Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood).

The Deneuve series concludes on Saturday night with Francois Truffaut’s excellent film The Last Metro, staring Deneuve as an actress working in occupied Paris while her Jewish husband, the director, hides from the Nazis, unable to keep his wife from falling in love with her leading man.

Also on Saturday we’re glad to have Philip Glass return to LACMA for an afternoon concert and conversation, including excerpt performances from his opera, Akhnaten (unfortunately sold out, sorry).

All day Sunday you can come to LACMA to celebrate the Persian New Year with a full slate of activities happening all over campus, including live music, film, dance performances, and more. You can see the full schedule here. While you’re on campus head up to the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building to see Elizabeth Taylor in Iran, or check out our newly reinstalled ancient Near East collection in the Hammer Building.

If you’re on campus on Sunday to take in the new contemporary shows, be sure to stop in to the Art Catalogues bookstore at 4 pm to see former director of the Chinati Foundation, Marianne Stockebrand in conversation with Robert Irwin about the new book Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd and Irwin’s plans for an upcoming Chinati installation.

Sunday evening be sure to head to the Bing Theater to see the UCLA Philharmonia perform selections by Bartók for our free Sundays Live series.

Scott Tennent


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