New Acquisition: Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray

April 25, 2012

Bruce Conner was one of the most important artists of the Beat Generation, a visionary whose work simultaneously epitomizes the aesthetics of his contemporaries and looks forward to the sensibilities of younger generations of artists. Conner’s practice points to a postmodernist sensibility well before its time, using both figurative and abstract vocabularies in a wide variety of media, including not only video and film but also assemblage, collage, drawing, prints, and photographs.

Conner’s films are acknowledged to be his most influential legacy, “a new way of imagining visual perception” as groundbreaking as cubist paintings were in the 1910s. Major filmmakers and artists ranging from Dennis Hopper to Christian Marclay have acknowledged the influence of Conner on their own work.  Using the collage aesthetic of his work in other media, Conner’s pioneering films combine found footage from a variety of sources (commercial movies, advertisements, government promotional films, etc.) with his own original footage to create social critiques that are simultaneously seductive and scathing. Born in Kansas, Conner moved to San Francisco in 1957; he remained in the Bay Area (with a brief 1961–62 interlude in Mexico) until his death in 2008.

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Three Screen Ray is based on Conner’s second film, Cosmic Ray of 1961, the first time he combined found footage with footage he shot himself.  In 2006 he edited the fast-paced, black-and-white collage that is Cosmic Ray into is a three-channel video projection. The central channel of Three Screen Ray is the 1961 film exactly; the left and right channels are edited versions.  Both Cosmic Ray and Three Screen Ray, which has lovingly been called “a cinematic slot machine of disparate images,” are synchronized to a live recording of soul pioneer Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.” As Conner described it, “I felt that I was…presenting the eyes for Ray Charles …I was supplying his vision.”

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Three Screen Ray is a funny yet serious social critique juxtaposing hundreds of images ranging from nude women and fighter airplanes to cartoon figures, firing cannons, and Conner’s signature use of commercial film countdown leader. It also includes visual references to non-Western cultures including a many-armed Hindu deity and tribal dancing from an ethnographic film. Conner even tipped his hat to abstract expressionism—at its peak in 1961—by marking and staining the actual celluloid of the original Cosmic Ray with ink and corrosive chemicals so that moments of it look like an action painting akin to Jackson Pollock’s drips.

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Both Cosmic Ray and Three Screen Ray represent a critical link between early twentieth-century avant-garde cinema—particularly the black-and-white films of Hans Richter and Fernand Léger—and music videos, which came to the fore towards the end of the century.  

Carol S. Eliel, curator, Modern Art


New Acquisition: Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building

April 24, 2012

Historians have called Chicago architect Louis Sullivan “the father of skyscrapers” and “the father of modernism.” Together with H. H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan forms the “recognized trinity of American architecture,” according to the eminent scholar James O’Gorman. He was the philosophical leader of the Prairie School, the Midwest manifestation of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the teacher of Wright, who was his chief draftsman for five years.

Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee

Completed in 1894, Sullivan’s thirteen-story Stock Exchange was an early triumph of the skyscraper—that signature edifice of America, perfected in Chicago. Made possible by the development of steel framing in the 1880s, the skyscraper was not invented by Sullivan and his partner Dankmar Adler. Rather, their revolutionary contribution was to take the skyscraper away from the prevailing vocabulary of historical styles and create one derived from the nature of the material (steel and iron). Rejecting Greek and Roman classicism, Sullivan used abstracted, organic floral designs to emphasize the building’s verticality and relate the shape of the building to its specific purpose.

It was Sullivan who coined the phrase “form ever follows function,” arguing that a building’s exterior should reflect the activities within. These words became the clarion cry of all twentieth-century pioneers of modernism. While Sullivan led the way to the International Style, he differed from its practitioners in his passionate embrace of ornament. Informed by the poetry of Walt Whitman and the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he advocated a new American architecture based on the simplification of mass and the growth of plants.

Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (detail), 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee

Sullivan believed that ornament is not merely decoration, for it expresses both the building’s structural tensions and its soul. In a famous essay of 1892, “Ornament in Architecture,” he urged architects to think of a building’s ornamentation as “a garment of poetic imagery” in which “strong, athletic, and simple forms” are clad. This elevator surround demonstrates how Sullivan adapted naturalistic motifs to the reticulated austerity of metal—in this case, an iron frame. The perfectly proportioned grid of stylized seedpods acts as a foil for the more sinuous curves of the frieze. And a surround for an elevator, which, together with steel, enabled the development of the skyscraper, is the ideal way to represent Sullivan in LACMA’s collection.

Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (detail), 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee

The Stock Exchange, tragically, was demolished in 1972. Its trading room is permanently installed at the Art Institute in Chicago, and many other museums have fragments of the interior. Most, however, are not as complete and accurate as this surround, which has been assembled from the side of the elevators located on the third to the thirteenth floors of the building. Its acquisition enables us to interpret Sullivan’s seminal rationalist architecture as well as what Frank Lloyd Wright called “that supreme, erotic, high adventure of the mind that was his ornament.”

Wendy Kaplan, curator and department head, Decorative Arts and Design


New Acquisition: Robert Rauschenberg, Currents

April 24, 2012

One of the most important artists of the past century, Robert Rauschenberg famously declared himself to be working “in the gap between art and life.” Currents is a superlative example of this radical approach. Hijacking the immersive scale of abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg channeled the energy and anxiety of the world around him. The Cold War, the civil rights movement, the conflict in Vietnam, and the rarefication of high culture: these and other divisive forces had opened the chasm he resolved to occupy.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

Rauschenberg undertook to bring “serious journalism” into the fine-art realm with Currents, which expresses his intention literally, insofar as it comprises screenprinted extracts from the January and February 1970 issues of major metropolitan newspapers. This fusion of high and low culture refers back to Picasso’s incorporation of newspaper in his cubist collages, and to Rauschenberg’s own renowned Combine paintings and sculptures of the mid-1950s. Currents deploys the material and meaning of newsprint, and the work’s brash activism aligns it with the contemporaneous New Journalism. “Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism,” according to Hunter S. Thompson, but for Rauschenberg, truth-telling was worth the risk:

I want to shake people awake. I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of individual responsibility, both for themselves and for the rest of the human race. It has become easy to be complacent about the world…. I made [Currents] as realistically as I could, as austerely as possible, in the most direct way I knew how, because, knowing that it was art, people had to take a second look, at least, at the facts they were wrapping their garbage in.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

The dense messiness of the clippings, strewn across a sixty-foot expanse, creates a disorienting effect. “The world condition permitted me no choice of subject or color and method/composition,” the artist wrote emphatically. The first themes to emerge from the welter of headlines are grim: murders and riots offer stark evidence of social upheaval. More sustained observation reveals an art-world subtext, with articles documenting Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, and a new work by Richard Serra. Art, Rauschenberg suggests, has constructive potential amid general disintegration.

In keeping with his political convictions and experimental ethos, Rauschenberg participated in LACMA’s Art & Technology project simultaneously with his work on Currents. His three-year A&T collaboration with Teledyne resulted in the sound sculpture Mud Muse, a huge tank of sludgy volcanic ash that bubbles audibly as electrical signals pass through it. Deliberately atavistic, Mud Muse is an astute counterpart to Currents, which manifests the equally haphazard signals of so-called civilization.

Rauschenberg had been making large-scale prints for several years, and the commission to fill a long wall at Dayton’s Gallery 12 in Minneapolis gave him the opportunity to exceed all previous efforts by any artist to date. First, he made thirty-six collages, 30 x 30 inches each, which were then photomechanically transferred to screens for printing at Styria Studios in Glendale. Since its display at the Pasadena Art Museum shortly after its completion, Currents has not been seen in Los Angeles. Of the original six editioned prints and two artist’s proofs, one proof was destroyed by the artist, four impressions remain with his estate, and only two are in museum collections (the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts). Rauschenberg’s Currents is a critical work of art in every sense. As a tactical and technical achievement, it is as timely now as ever.

Britt Salvesen, curator and department head, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Prints & Drawings Department


New Acquisition: Shirin Neshat, Speechless

April 24, 2012

Shirin Neshat is perhaps the best-known artist of the Iranian diaspora following the 1979 Revolution, which replaced a secular regime with an Islamic republic. Born in Qazvin, she left Iran at the age of sixteen to study in the United States; she received her BA, MA, and MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, before moving to New York. Neshat returned to the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1990 and much of what she saw and experienced informed her first major body of work, the photographic series Women of Allah. The series includes black-and-white images of chador-clad women, often the artist herself, covered with text in black ink, and frequently focusing on different body parts—face, feet, hands, eyes. At times the model, gazing directly at the viewer, poses with a rifle or gun in a provocative manner, while nonetheless complying with an Islamic code of dress. Neshat has noted the deliberate emphasis on four symbolic elements in this series: veil, gun, text, and gaze. She intends these images to be ambiguous; they contradict a Western notion of Muslim women diminished and desexualized by the veil. Although they may be disempowered by their faith, Neshat’s women are strong, even heroic; they are eroticized by their weapons and sanctioned by the texts inscribed on their bodies, which enable them to speak although they are forced to be silent.

Shirin Neshat, Speechless, from the series Women of Allah, 1996, purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

The photograph Speechless is the most evocative and archetypal image in this series. The print shows the right side of a woman’s face (not Neshat), the barrel of a gun emerging like a gaudy earring from the shadowy area between her cheek and the barely visible chador. She stares calmly outward. Her face, except for the eye, is covered with Persian text written directly on the image. Although Neshat has tightly framed the face of the subject, it is the viewer who is held captive. Inscribed on the face are the words of the poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh, in which a woman addresses her brothers in the Revolution, asking if she can participate as well.

LACMA has recently begun to acquire contemporary art of the Middle East within the context of our Islamic collection. We do so in the belief that the function, strength, and ultimate success and relevance of the collection should not be based solely on exploring this art as a means to better understand the past of a single region or culture. It can also be seen as a way to build creative links between the past, present, and future in a global sense. Shirin Neshat has not only inspired a new generation of artists in the Middle East, especially Iran, but her art also concerns and often coincides with what we experience on the evening news.

Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art and department head, Art of the Middle East


Collectors Committee Acquires Seven Works

April 23, 2012

LACMA’s annual Collectors Committee Gala took place over the weekend, and the museum is seven artworks stronger for it. Members of the Collectors Committee create a pool for acquisitions funds, and are presented with a handful of objects by LACMA curators earlier in the day. At Saturday night’s gala, they then vote on which objects to acquire. All told, this weekend’s gala raised $2.8 million and resulted in the following objects joining the collection:

Shirin Neshat, Speechless, from the series Women of Allah, 1996, purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

  • Shirin Neshat’s Speechless (1996), from the photography series Women of Allah, is a black-and-white photograph capturing the intense gaze of an Iranian woman whose face is covered with an inscription from a Persian poem.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

  • Robert Rauschenberg’s Currents (1970), a dense collage of newspaper clippings strewn across a sixty-foot expanse.

    Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, photo courtesy of Wright

  • An Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building designed by renowned architect Louis Sullivan; the richly detailed iron frame demonstrates Sullivan’s creative adaption of natural materials.

    Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

  • Bruce Conner’s Three Screen Ray (1961/2006), a three-channel video based on the artist’s second film, Cosmic Ray of 1961, including fast-paced montages of the artist’s original footage juxtaposed with hundreds of images.

Fudō Myōō: The Indomitable Foe of Evil, Japan, c. 1125, purchased with funds provided by Irene Christopher, Scott M. Delman, and the 2012 Collectors Committee

  • Fudō Myōō: The Indomitable Foe of Evil, a rare twelfth-century Buddhist sculpture carved from one solid block of Zelkova wood.

Albrecht Durer, Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by the Prints and Drawings Council and Philippa Calnan

  • German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dϋrer’s Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), a meticulous engraving depicting the scholarly and spiritual reflections of Saint Jerome.

Nicolás Enríquez, The Marriage of the Virgin, 1749, purchased with funds provided by Kelvin Davis, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Kathy and Frank Baxter, Beth and Josh Friedman, and Jane and Terry Semel through the 2012 Collectors Committee

Nicolás Enríquez, The Adoration of the Kings with Donor, 1741, purchased with funds provided by Kelvin Davis, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Kathy and Frank Baxter, Beth and Josh Friedman, and Jane and Terry Semel through the 2012 Collectors Committee

  • Two oil-on-copper paintings by distinguished eighteenth-century New Spanish (Mexican) painter Nicolás Enríquez— The Marriage of the Virgin (1749) and The Adoration of the Kings with Donor (1741), each depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin.

Keep your eyes on Unframed for the rest of the week for blog posts from our curators on each of these incredible objects.

Scott Tennent


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