What Is It About Chairs?

December 22, 2011

What is it about chairs?  I once drove past a garage sale in San Francisco and caught a glimpse of a chair. I pulled over and begged the price down to $80. That same chair design, by Luther Conover, is in our California Design exhibition.

The Luther Conover chair, circa 1950.

Last year while doing interviews for our California Design show, I asked designer John Kapel why chairs have such allure. He gave a thoroughly compelling explanation of why chairs are particularly expressive opportunities for a designer.

According to Kapel, a chair is a showpiece, one that is often positioned in a living room such that it can be appreciated from many different angles – unlike, say, a sofa, which typically sits against a wall. He also explained the complex geometry of a chair, its assortment of lines and angles that invite design innovation. And he made the point that, unlike, say, a table, a chair cradles the human body, and reflects our physicality.

The Huntington has a current exhibition, The House that Sam Built, part of Pacific Standard Time, about the work of another chair master, Sam Maloof, and his midcentury cohort, centered around Claremont. In a stroke of exhibition design genius, one gallery features a Maloof chair you can actually sit in.

Yes, you can sit in it. At the Huntington exhibition The House that Sam Built.

When we interviewed textile artist Kay Sekimachi for our own California Design show, she was sitting in a beautiful Sam Maloof rocking chair.

…Completing that circle, the show at the Huntington features some of Kay’s weavings (her husband, Bob Stocksdale, was a close friend of Maloof, and his work appears in all of the PST shows discussed here).

Kay Sekimachi weavings at the Huntington.

After the Huntington, I continued on to the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation to see the house that Sam did build, out in Alta Dena, and another small Pacific Standard Time exhibition, In Words and Wood. A lifelong work in progress, the house is magical – full of Maloof’s furniture, paintings by his wife (and her collection of kochina dolls from her days as an art teacher in New Mexico), more carved wooden bowls by Stocksdale, sculpture by Sekimachi, and ceramics by various Claremont friends and colleagues. I intended to spend an hour and spent three.

Outside the shop at the Maloof Foundation.

One thing leads to another, and for me that day, chairs led to ceramics: from Alta Dena, I went to downtown Pomona to see the American Museum of Ceramic Art in its brand-new location. They have an excellent selection of work by Harrison McIntosh amongst many others (Paul Soldner, Peter Voulkos) in the exhibition Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945-1975.

Ceramic work by Harrison McIntosh with a mural by Millard Sheets in the background at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.

Our own show at LACMA includes work by McIntosh, who grew up in Los Angeles (in an interview we did with him, available here, he described how he and his parents commissioned a modest house from Richard Neutra in 1939, adding just enough space and light in the garage to allow Harrison a workbench where he began working with terra cotta). In a room full of notable ceramic works at the AMOCA, his sang.  AMOCA is a focused museum, with deep ties to the Claremont arts and crafts scene that included McIntosh and Maloof, as well as Paul Soldner, Millard Sheets, and Rupert Deese. (If you go, I highly recommend a visit to the ceramic studios in the back to see work in progress by a new generation of ceramic artists).

One of the striking things about PST, and particularly the design-related shows, is how small the midcentury SoCal design scene was. You can trace certain relationships amongst friends across shows, and see who shared studio space, taught at the same college, or frequented the same Claremont coffee shop, sharing inspiration and practical advice. Plan a route and trace your own narrative thread here.

At the Sam Maloof house, I heard tell of a visitor from Germany who came to Los Angeles for a month, just to see all of the PST shows. It’s not hard to imagine such a journey. Especially because this is what Southern California looks like in December:

Gardens at the Huntington.

The gardens at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation.

Amy Heibel


The Muse: France’s Rouen Cathedral

December 20, 2011

After seeing how obsessed both Claude Monet and Roy Lichtenstein were with the Rouen Cathedral in our exhibition Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals—Monet painting numerous versions at various times of the day and year and Lichtenstein mirroring that repetition with Pop art renderings—I began to wonder if other artists had taken the building as their muse.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, the portal. Morning Sun, Blue Harmony, 1893, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France, photo courtesy Réunion des Musées Nationaux by Thierry Le Mage/Art Resource, NY.

Roy Lichtenstein, Rouen Cathedral (Seen at Five Different Times of Day), Set III, 1968-69, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein, photo courtesy The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection by Douglas M. Parker Studio

Construction of the current structure began in the 12th century, so the potential inspiration has been looming for hundreds of years. Around the same time that Monet painted his set of cathedral paintings, other painters flocked to the city of Rouen. Versions of the cathedral were painted by English Romantic landscape painter and watercolorist Joseph Mallord William Turner in the 1830s. Then, a few years after Monet’s works were completed, Camille Pissarro painted the cathedral from a farther distance.

Camille Pissarro, The Roofs of Old Rouen: Grey Weather, 1896, Toledo Museum of Art

The inspiring nature of the cathedral extended past painters. In French writer Gustave Flaubert’s work Three Tales, the story The Legend of St Julian Hospitator was motivated by a stained glass window in the Rouen Cathedral depicting a medieval tale. In 1898, French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote the novel La Cathédrale which was based on the Rouen Cathedral and described the building in such great detail that tourists often used it as a guidebook.

Many artists were inspired by Monet’s paintings of the cathedral rather than the cathedral itself. Even a Project Runway contestant was taken by Monet’s work. When the competition brought them to The Getty in 2009, contestant Gordana Gehlhausen chose The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light as the inspiration for a gown. She used silk organza to mimic the brush strokes in the painting and was even told by judge Hiedi Klum that her creation best mirrored her inspiration.

Gordana Gahlhausen, Project Runway

Contemporary photographer Renato Cerisola created serial photographic work based on Monet’s canvases. He too focused on the building in various lights and used the exposure of the photographs to mimic Monet’s brushstrokes and Impressionist style.

Both the Rouen Cathedral itself and Monet’s serial paintings continue to act as a muses today as can be seen by their ever-growing Flickr stream.

Alex Capriotti


What is the Sound of Four Hands Closing?

December 19, 2011

It’s easy to describe Bruce Nauman’s For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers). There it is, right in the title: two sets of hands displayed on a large, two-sided screen, palms facing out as two voices command different combinations of fingers and thumbs to close. Five fingers in a row, combinations of four fingers in a row, three fingers, and so on.

Bruce Nauman, For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), 2010, collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Art and Artis, Image courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York. © 2011 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It’s easy to describe what it is, sure, but it’s harder to describe what it does. That’s largely because, despite the work having a huge, imposing visual element, the sound of the video piece is dominating. The two voices instructing the hands are, more specifically, two sets of the same voice, each instructing the fingers to open and close in different intervals. For instance, while one voice speaks “third finger, fourth finger, thumb, first finger,” the other is saying “first finger, second finger, third finger,” and so forth. They speak over each other, at equal volume and tone.

The artwork occupies its own gallery on the first floor of BCAM, where the voices echo through the spacious room. On entering the other day, it sounded to me like cacophony. The longer I listened, however, the more musical it became. And by musical I’m thinking less of Beyoncé, more of Steve Reich, whose early works involved tape loops of the same voice played at slightly different speeds, causing them to fall out of phase before eventually synching back up again.  Nauman’s voices are not exactly the same as Reich’s loops, but a similar thing is happening—just when the dual instructions seem a barrage of confusion, they suddenly, coincidentally, powerfully, come together to say THUMB. It hits so abruptly and with such clarity that it has the power of a drum or cannon shot. At one point as I sat in front of the screens the voices hit onto a whole string of simultaneous commands—”first finger, second finger, third finger”—before jogging away from each other again.

I started listening for patterns, intentional or not. It became hypnotic (aided by the lulling images of the giant fingers in front of me, opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing). A colleague of mine equated it to a Gregorian chant. In a way, yes—the voice is deep and commanding—but the rhythm is all wrong. So I started thinking about the cadence of the voice. And suddenly I realized: it was a waltz! “SECOND fin-ger / THIRD fin-ger / FOURTH fin-ger / THUMB.”

Or, something approaching a waltz; it is plain speech, not song. I find that I, personally, tend to become enamored of sounds before visuals (if that isn’t apparent). That isn’t true for everyone, for sure. In the fifteen minutes I’d spent with For Beginners, it became more and more like a kind of music to me. That didn’t seem to be the case for the guard positioned in the gallery. She asked me if I liked the piece and I told her I thought it was great. She sort of winced, then asked if we could trade jobs for the day. I almost took her up on it.

Scott Tennent


This Weekend: Rodarte Collection on View, Chopin & Haydn, Eight Exhibitions

December 16, 2011

Earlier this year fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, aka Rodarte, debuted their “Fra Angelico Collection” in Florence, and soon after announced that they would giving the entire collection to LACMA as a promised gift. On Saturday, you can see these amazing gowns in a unique installation inside our Italian Renaissance galleries. The collection was inspired by paintings from this period, and the installation (on view through February 5) offers interesting resonances with the surrounding paintings.

Rodarte, Cantaloupe Pleated Silk, Draped Silk Georgette, and Taffeta Gown with Gold Ray Belt, promised gift of Rodarte (Kate and Laura Mulleavy), Maria Arena Bell, Susan Casden, Eva Chow, DNA Boutique, Allison Sarofan, Karyn Silver, Christine Suppes, Lizzie Tisch, Dasha Zukova, and an anonymous donor

The Rodarte collection joins eight other special exhibitions on view now. If you have family descending upon you this season, LACMA is a great destination for getting out of the house. The beautiful Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals is on view in BCAM for just a couple more weeks, so now is the times to catch it if you haven’t yet.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, the portal. Morning Sun, Blue Harmony, 1893, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France (Inv. RF2000). Photo courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux by Thierry Le Mage/Art Resource, NY.

More shows’ closing dates are approaching in January as well, including Glenn Ligon: AMERICA and Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World. The latter was named one of the top ten exhibitions of the year by the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight (his lengthier rave review is here, and you can also read a wonderful profile of the exhibition’s curator, Ilona Katzew, which graced the front page of last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Arts section).

José de la Mota, Allegory of the New World: Christ Delivering the New World to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Pope, 1721, Galeria Coloniart, Collection of Felipe Siegal, Anna and Andrés Siegel, Mexico City, photo © Jorge Pérez de Lara

If that weren’t enough, there are still five other exhibitions on view now, from the sunny California Design to the dark Five Car Stud. Check this overview of exhibitions on view to see what appeals (and don’t forget to look into some of the many smaller installations also on view now).

The rest of the year will be fairly quiet on talks, films, and concerts front, but we do have one last free concert before the year ends: cellist Ruslan Biryukov and pianist Armen Guzelimian will perform works by Chopin, Haydn, and Lalo on Sunday night as part of our free Sundays Live chamber music series.

Scott Tennent


A Korean Masterpiece, Restored

December 15, 2011

One of the largest traditional Korean paintings in the United States was unveiled last weekend in LACMA’s galleries of Korean art. This spectacular work, depicting the historical Buddha Seokgamoni (Shakyamuni) preaching at the Vulture Peak in India, was acquired in 1998, but was so damaged that it could not be displayed. Now, thanks to the generous financial support of CJ E&M America and other donors, the newly conserved painting is being presented for the first time in many years.

Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak, Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 1755, Far Eastern Art Acquisition Fund

The painting was created in 1755, during the Joseon dynasty, and presents a visionary scene of the Buddha surrounded by a host of enlightened beings, including bodhisattvas, the Hindu Gods Indra and Brahma, and the Guardian Kings of the four cardinal directions. The scene is inspired by the Lotus Sutra, a pivotal text of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism. The work is painted in ink and bold mineral colors on silk. When acquired, the painting had been cut into six irregular pieces and had suffered from extensive loss of pigment; during the conservation effort, the separated pieces were re-attached, losses patched, and missing areas of pigment inpainted.

Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak, Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 1755, Far Eastern Art Acquisition Fund

Led by Korean conservator Prof. Park Chisun and her team (including LACMA conservators), the conservation project took over a year to complete. Using traditional tools (knives, brushes, paper, silk, dyes, and mineral pigments), this process resembled nothing more than a painstaking and delicate surgery. The entire project was filmed in detail, and is now the subject of a five-minute video displayed in the same gallery as the painting.

Conservators working in the Korean galleries earlier this year

On December 11 LACMA celebrated the unveiling of the Vulture Peak painting with the presentation of the rare Yeongsanjae ritual: a combination of Buddhist chanting, music, and dance. Listed as an endangered cultural form by UNESCO, the Yeongsanjae is rarely performed outside of Korea, and the LACMA performance attracted an enormous crowd of observers. We are grateful to the Buddhism Promotion Foundation in Seoul whose support made it possible to bring a group of monks and dancers from the Kuyang Temple in Incheon, Korea to LACMA to present this riveting performance, which commemorates the Buddha’s sermon at the Vulture Peak through music and movement.

Monks from the Kuyong Temple in Incheon perform the Yeongsanjae ritual

LACMA has one of the finest collections of Korean art, and the largest Korean galleries, of any museum in the United States, and it is our intention to be the leader in the presentation of Korean art and culture in America. The acquisition, conservation, and unveiling of the Vulture Peak painting is a symbol of this commitment, and we are grateful to both the generous Korean population in Los Angeles, and to our many corporate and foundation partners in Korea, who are making this possible.

Stephen Little, curator and department head, Chinese and Korean art


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