New Acquisition: Heian-Period Head of a Buddha

April 20, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

Head of a Buddha, Japan, 1000–1050 (Heian Period), gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

This large head was originally part of an eight-foot- tall seated Buddha, probably that of Amida,  ruler of the  Western Paradise of Ultimate Bliss. Made of cypress wood, it was lacquered in black and covered with gold leaf, traces of which remain. It bears the requisite characteristics of a Buddha: the crystal  Urna in the forehead emitting infinite light, the 656 tight curls of hair, and the all-hearing elongated ears. The head of a Buddhist statue is by far its most important element: the power, meaning, and compassion of the Buddha is expressed through its face. The construction of this head is of an ancient type primarily seen in sculpture of the eleventh century, called wari-hagi-zukuri (splitting, carving out, and rejoining). In this technique the head is first carved from a single large block of wood, then split into halves along a vertical line behind the ears, creating a front half and a back half. Both of these halves are then hollowed out using a chisel, and the two halves rejoined. This technique produces a sculpture that is lighter and far less likely to crack due to dryness.

This sculpture has been definitively dated to 1000–1050 AD. There exist three other  Heian period  (794-1185) sculptures comparable to Head of a Buddha in age and size; all are in Japanese Buddhist temples and all are registered National Treasures—but are inferior in condition and quality to this one.

Next month, Head of a Buddha will join three other eleventh- and twelfth-century (Heian-period) wood sculptures on display, but it will be—by a significant margin—the oldest and finest of them all.  Together,  the four works will give tremendous depth, quality, and breadth to our display of Heian-period sculptures of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Robert T. Singer, Curator and Department Head, Japanese Art


New Acquisition: 13th–14th Century Painted Panel

April 20, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

Painted Panel, Mexico, Oaxaca/Guerrero border region, 1200–1400, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Rare in its scale and in its elaborate imagery, this painted panel derives from an archaeologically little-known area of southwestern Mexico. Its palette of strong primary colors and the prominent use of step-fret imagery throughout its composition, however, identify it as an extraordinary example of the artistic tradition referred to as the International Style, which dominated Mesoamerica during the Late Postclassic period (AD 1200–1400). The International Style originated in the present-day states of Oaxaca and Puebla and spread throughout much of Mexico via an extensive network of commercial and cultural trade routes. These networks, closely linked to the veneration of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, transcended ethnic identities and united disparate areas of Mesoamerica.

The unique aesthetic of the International Style characterizes work in all media from this period. Its specific motifs appear across Mexico, from ceramics from the Pacific coastal state of Nayarit to the murals of Mayapan in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula to the turquoise mosaics produced in Oaxaca, testifying to the extent to which royal houses were driven to seek new materials in order to maximize the value of their works within the highly competitive gift economy that supported their political alliances. The style also characterizes the system of pictorial communication that allowed peoples speaking diverse languages to communicate with each other and to participate in a widely shared set of religious practices and beliefs.

The face of this panel is divided into three registers, each showing a composite human-serpent figure as its central motif. The intertwined pairs of serpents in each register are animated with human arms and hands, each of which holds a sinuous serpent, while another serpent emerges from the “knot” of each intertwined pair. The registers are framed with a step-fret design painted in red on a white background after the ceramic panel was fired. The geometric pattern of the outer frame reveals the unusual use of brilliant yellow and orange pigments as well as red. The reverse side is severly eroded, suggesting that it may have been in contact with organic matter such as paper, cloth, or human remains, but the painted vestiges of a single richly dressed human figure are still visible.

Within the geographic range of the International Style, the artistic and cultural origins of the panel is confirmed by comparing it to ceramic vessels recovered by UCLA archaeologist Clement Meighan during his excavations at Amapa, Nayarit in the 1950s. Like the panel, many of the objects feature intertwined serpents and step-fret designs and were painted after firing in the same strong primary color scheme. The origins and spread of the International Style is a primary topic of the upcoming exhibition Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico, opening in April 2012, in which the painted panel will figure prominently.

Virginia Fields, Senior Curator and Co-Department Head, Latin American Art


New Acquisition: Ai Weiwei, Untitled (Divine Proportion)

April 19, 2011

 This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

Ai Weiwei, Untitled (Divine Proportion), 2006, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, photo: Giovanni Tarifeño, courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist

 

On April 3, Ai Weiwei’s human right to free speech—and all other rights—were summarily taken away from him when he was arrested in Beijing. (LACMA, along with twenty-seven other art institutions around the world, urge you to sign this petition for his release.  More than 91,000 have signed so far.) The acquisition of Untitled (Divine Proportion) gives us the opportunity to consider Weiwei the artist and thinker—an artist whose ability to poetically transform material into objects embedded with meaningful ideas and consummate beauty assertively raises fundamental questions concerning human existence.

Untitled (Divine Proportion) employs materials and techniques associated with the historical past in order to explore the object in the present. While the type of wood and the way it is crafted recalls the making of utilitarian objects of an earlier era, Weiwei’s contemporary work of art is thoroughly of our moment. In its formal simplicity—the circle being the most common form in diverse societies around the world—and its title, the artist presents us with a contemplative object hinting at a mathematically derived spiritual dimension while remaining fully open to interpretation. Is it a globe, a ball, or just an abstracted work in the form of a circle? One critic has said that, “Overturning practical function transforms [Weiwei’s] pieces into inoperative but strangely elegant mutations that reintroduce the conceit of ornament and ritual back into the domain of art.” I’d agree.

Born in 1957 to a poet father whose leftist leanings led to the family spending the 1960s in Siberia, Weiwei and his family did not return to China until after his father’s “rehabilitation” and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Early in his career Weiwei thought of art as a means of getting away from politics, as well as a means of expressing himself as an individual; once back in Beijing, in fact, he joined the Stars Group, which believed each of their members to be a star in direct confrontation to communist uniformity. Having obviously put himself in the way of politics, as had his father, Weiwei embraced another exile, though voluntarily this time, spending most of the 1980s in New York. Returning to Beijing again in 1993, four years after the events of Tiananmen Square, Weiwei helped establish the experimental art community, the East Village, which also included the artists Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan, whose work recently came into LACMA’s collection thanks to the Los Angeles collector Audrey Irmas. Since then, Weiwei has become increasingly well known; his work constantly probes and pushes aesthetic and political boundaries, often exploring the role of the individual in society through writings and actions, as much as through individual pieces of art and architecture.

Amidst his activism, work as an architect (he was a collaborator with Herzog & de Meuron on the “Birds Nest,” China’s Olympic stadium in Beijing, in 2008) and busy studio practice, Weiwei also continues to make objects—the real heart of all his artistic endeavors. 

A collector and connoisseur of Chinese antiquities, Weiwei is fond of using “found objects” in his own work. While this Duchampian practice began when he was in New York, his return to Beijing in 1993 inspired him to turn to Chinese cultural materials and artifacts as an integral part of his art-making process. “I take the constitution and the political situation in China as a readymade,” he has said. In a twist on his hero Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the readymade, which purports that anything can be turned into an object of art, Weiwei introduced the “ancient readymade.” He displaces, recycles, and manipulates, sometimes even destroys traditional objects in order to “make it new.” One of the earliest works in this mode is Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, from 1995, seen here in three documentary photographs of the artist destroying a 2,000-year-old vehicle of cultural tradition. The artist’s belief in iconoclasm as a way of creating new ideas and values is a central facet in his work.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1/3, 1995, © Ai Weiwei

Less ironic, Divine Proportion is handcrafted from Huanghuali wood, a fine Rosewood used to make furniture during the Qing era, the sculpture is made by a carefully executed tenon and mortise technique perfected during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644–1912). This nail-free joinery technique achieves a seamless connection of surfaces regardless of thickness or placement of wood. Made to withstand time, as earlier pieces were in this mode, Weiwei’s Divine Proportion evokes the past though it is built for the future.

Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci for De Divine Proportione

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings for The Divine Proportion, made to illustrate Luca Pacioli’s book written in 1509, are some of the first drawings of polyhedra known to humanity. But Weiwei’s object was not originally modeled after Leonardo’s. He was first attracted to the toy his cats played with, which was exactly the same designed spherical object. That sense of playfulness coupled with the historical weight of early geometric drawings unified into a single beautiful object, goes to the heart of Weiwei’s endeavors to successfully combine wit with substantial subject matter in a mute object. The simple form of Divine Proportion is in line with the artist’s architectural projects that evince a clear-cut and precise sense of space.

As in the work of Sol Lewitt or Donald Judd, the extreme regularity of forms and volumes in the Divine Proportion sculptures delimits visual concreteness, and as a result, thoughts are directed to context, meaning, and nature of the material itself.

Later this year, we are proud to say that LACMA is the west coast destination for the artist’s recent project Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals,  a twelve-piece installation of thirteen-foot-high bronze sculptures that represent the zodiac installed at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted by the French and British in 1860. Some of those pieces have been returned as national treasures but others are still out there in the world. Weiwei’s work brings them all together again, in a sense. While that piece mends a broken circle together again, Divine Proportion speaks to the circle or globe as an inherently well put together place, strong in its connection and rich in its natural cohesion. Untitled (Divine Proportion) is tentatively slated to go on view by the end of this year.

Franklin Sirmans, Terri and Michael Smooke Curator and Department Head, Contemporary Art


New Acquisition: Christian Marclay, The Clock

April 19, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

Christian Marclay, still from The Clock, 2010, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, © Christian Marclay, photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Born in San Rafael, California in 1955, Christian Marclay grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. He received his BFA from Massachusetts College of Art in 1980, and currently resides in London and New York City. Working in sound, sculpture, performance, video, and other time-based media, Marclay began manipulating gramophone records and creating time-based works using loops, skips, and scratches on turntables as musical instruments in the 1970s.

Christian Marclay, still from The Clock, 2010, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, © Christian Marclay, photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

The Clock, a 24-hour single-channel montage, is constructed out of moments in cinema and television history depicting the passage of time; in other words, scenes in which all manner of clocks and reference to time appear. The Clock weaves together Marclay’s interests in collage and found visual and aural artifacts with his own roots in live performance.

The edited footage of clocks not only provides cues as to the role of time’s passage in the appropriated film narrative, but also serves as a functioning timepiece that marks the exact time in real time for the viewer. When one sees The Clock at 1:17 pm, for example, the action (or inaction) in the clip will be taking place at the same moment. Screened in a cinematic setting, it retains the rhythmic pulsations and tonal shifts typical of Marclay’s sound works but also plays with the viewer’s sense of expectation, casting time as a multifaceted protagonist and creating a conflation of tensions à propos the layered tempos of contemporary life.

Christian Marclay, still from The Clock, 2010, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, © Christian Marclay, photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Marclay follows a long trajectory of artists interested in the history of cinema and the ways in which its footage or grammar can be appropriated and recontextualized. Since the dawning of the medium, experimental and documentary filmmakers have used found or appropriated footage, such as in the collage techniques of Dadaism, Surrealism, and Constructivism, among other historical avant-gardes. An important, albeit much shorter, precedent to Marclay’s The Clock is Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), an experimental film which edits together clips from disparate sources, from stag films to sports footage to mainstream melodramas, to create a meta-film that throws out all rules of linearity and narrative progression. Similarly, The Clock causes the viewer to ruminate on what David Velasco, writing for Artforum in February 2011, calls a film or television show’s “temporal grammar” in the way that Marclay “string(s) together this panoply of irrational times according to a rational tempo, [making] salient the idiosyncrasies of movie time.” Additionally, The Clock pays homage to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film, Empire (1964), which tracks the flickering floodlights of the Empire State Building from sunset to near total darkness around 2 am. It also recalls Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s signature film The Way Things Go (1987), in which a Rube Goldberg device performs a very simple task via a series of chain reactions in 29 minutes.

Christian Marclay, still from The Clock, 2010, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, © Christian Marclay, photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

The Clock’s presence at LACMA speaks directly to the institution’s interest in the intersections of contemporary art and cinema. It will be screened in LACMA’s Bing Theater in early May for its West Coast premiere, and in the galleries thereafter—all before its celebratory screening at the Venice Biennale this June.

Christine Y. Kim, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art


Acquired This Weekend: 8 Works by Christian Marclay, Ai Weiwei, and More

April 18, 2011

Our annual Collectors Committee event was held this weekend, and the results are in: we’ve just acquired eight new works, from contemporary to ancient times, for the permanent collection. All this week Unframed will be running in-depth blog posts from our curators about each of these artworks, but for now, here’s a quick look at the weekend’s bounty:

Christian Marclay, The Clock (still), 2010, purchased with funds provided by Steve Tisch through the 2011 Collectors Committee, © Christian Marclay, photo courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), a 24-hour single-channel montage constructed out of moments in cinema and television history depicting the passage of time.

Ai Weiwei, Untitled (Divine Proportion), 2006, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, photo: Giovanni Tarifeño, courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist

Ai Weiwei’s Untitled (Divine Proportion) (2006), a spherical wooden structure carefully crafted using a tenon and mortise (nail-free joinery) technique.

Mexico, Oaxaca/Guerrero border region, Painted Panel, 1200–1400, purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor through the 2011 Collectors Committee

An ancient and richly painted panel (AD 1200-1400), from the region bordering Oaxaca and Guerrero in Mexico, rare in its scale and elaborate imagery.

Japan, Head of a Buddha, 1000–1050 AD, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

An ancient, wooden Heian-period Head of a Buddha—one of the finest sculptures of its age and size—from 1000–1050 AD Japan.

Craig Kauffman, Untitled, 1969, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Craig Kaufman’s Untitled (1969), part of the artist’s loop series (ten in total, each a different color), a painted-plastic hybrid between painting and sculpture.

Donald Judd, Prototype Desk, 1978, purchased with funds provided by Kelvin Davis in honor of his brother, Paul Davis, through the 2011 Collectors Committee

Donald Judd’s seminal Prototype Desk (1978)—one of the few pieces the artist made himself—demonstrates the same philosophy about space, geometry, and proportion that characterizes his body of sculpture.

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, Three Casta Paintings, c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, Three Casta Paintings, c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, Three Casta Paintings, c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Three casta paintings from a series by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, circa 1760, representing the process of racial mixing among Indians, Spaniards, and Africans in colonial Mexico: VII. From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino (De español y morisca, albino), IX. From Spaniard and Albino, Return Backwards (De español y albina, torna atrás), From Spaniard and Return Backwards Hold Yourself Suspended in Mid Air (De español y torna atrás, tente en el aire).

Peru, Inka (1450–1532) or early colonial period (16th century), Hanging or Mantle, 1500–1600, purchased with funds provided by Camilla Chandler Frost through the 2011 Collectors Committee

An intricately woven Peruvian textile (1500–1600), symbolic of universal order.

Each year the Collectors Committee gathers for a weekend of events that include a chance to see a handful of proposed acquisitions installed in one of our galleries and to hear LACMA curators give presentations on each artwork. At the culmination of the weekend, the members convene at a gala dinner and vote on which artworks to acquire with funds raised through Collectors Committee membership dues. You can also see what we acquired in 2010 and 2009 through these generous and essential donors.

Stay tuned to Unframed all week for a closer look at each of these objects, starting tomorrow with looks at Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Ai Weiwei’s Untitled (Divine Proportion).

Scott Tennent


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