Collecting African American Art

May 23, 2012

This past weekend, LACMA hosted a panel, Building Collections of African American Art: Los Angeles Perspectives, which provided a great opportunity for collectors, curators, experts, and the public to examine why and how individuals and institutions collect African American art and to examine the significance of doing so. Janine and Lyndon Barrois (collectors for twelve years), Linda and Paul Gotskind (collectors for thirty-eight years), and Aryn Drake-Lee and Jesse Williams (collectors for three years) talked with Dr. Halima Taha about their collections and experiences—and their responsibilities as collectors to the art, the artists, and even to art history. The conversation not only illuminated their passion for African American art and artists and their desire to share their collections with the public in a variety of ways, but it also provided guidance and inspiration for beginning art collectors.

Collectors from left to right: Jesse Williams, Aryn Drake-Lee, Linda Gotskind, Paul Gotskind, Lyndon Barrois, Janine Barrois, Halima Taha

In opening remarks, LAMCA deputy director Brooke Davis Anderson addressed why we were focusing on African American art to begin with, noting that first and foremost African American artists make, and historically have made, great art, museum-worthy and therefore LACMA-worthy art that should be acquired and exhibited. Furthermore, she cited the fundamental necessity of focusing on historically marginalized artists, such as artists of African descent, to reinvigorate and transform traditional conceptions and collections of historical American art (my area of specialty), collections typically defined within museums and academia as art of the United States created from the colonial era through the mid-twentieth century.

To bring this mission forward to the present day is also the responsibility of collectors and curators of contemporary art who, in the words of collector and panelist Janine Barrois, “need to work to preserve the history of African Americans figuratively and conceptually and document our time so that African American artists have a place at the table, and we will know what African American artists were saying.” To provide a foundation for the museum’s historical-to-contemporary collecting mission, contemporary art curator Franklin Sirmans and I offered a brief history of the building of LACMA’s African American art collections, from the first acquisition in 1922 to the most recent, an ongoing process introduced in a previous post on the subject.

Richard Howard Hunt, Extended Forms, 1975, purchased with funds provided by The Ahmanson Foundation, the League of Allied Arts, the Charles R. Drew Medical Society Auxiliary, and the Los Agneles Chapter of Links, Inc.

One important African American art acquisition we highlighted was a major collaborative effort between donors and the museum to acquire Extended Forms (1975) by Richard Hunt (b. 1935), one of America’s foremost sculptors.  A 1957 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he continues to live and work, Hunt was the first African American artist to have a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1971). In celebration of LACMA’s acquisition of Hunt’s Extended Forms in 1980, the artist created a limited edition lithograph, Untitled, 1980, for the museum’s then active Black Historical Advisory Group led by former trustee Robert Wilson.

Richard Hunt, Untitled, 1980, signed and numbered edition of fifty, printed by Will Petersen, Master Printer, with Cynthia D. Archer, Associate, Plucked Chicken Press, Chicago, IL

The prints were sold to support the acquisition of additional works by African American artists. Though the group no longer exists, proceeds made possible acquisitions of works by John Biggers, Adrian Piper, and Therman Statom.

John Biggers, Cotton Pickers, 1947, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Crawford Jr. and the Black Art Acquisition Fund

Adrian Piper, Ur Mutter #4: Relax. We don’t want what you have., 1989, Black American Artists Fund

Therman Statom, Chair on Base, 1987, Black American Artists Fund

We announced on Saturday that the remaining thirty-nine prints have been made available again to benefit LACMA’s African American Art Fund. (For more information, or to purchase, please call 323 857-6587 or email  We hope that the works we may be able to acquire with the African American Art Fund will inspire many more lively discussions like Saturday’s panel, scholarship, and exhibitions of African American art at LACMA and beyond.

Austen Bailly, Associate Curator, American Art

Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass Opens June 24

May 22, 2012

Last March you watched as a 340-ton boulder was transported from Riverside County to LACMA. Ever since its arrival, the question we’ve gotten the most around here has been “when can we see Michael Heizer’s  finished artwork?” Well, we’ve got an answer for you: on Sunday, June 24, LACMA will officially open  Levitated Mass to the public. Finally, you will be able to walk through the long concrete slot—one-and-a-half-football-fields long—descending 15 feet as the giant granite megalith rises over your head.

Megalith slated to become part of Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” arriving to LACMA on March 10. Photo by Tom Vinetz, © Michael Heizer

As a special thank-you to the many communities through which the megalith traveled on its historic journey, LACMA is offering free admission to residents of select zip codes from along the route for the entire week of June 24–July 1. With proof of residence, such as a driver’s license, members of these communities will be granted free admission to LACMA’s galleries. Check this list to see if your neighborhood was on the route.

So, mark your calendars! The countdown begins.

Scott Tennent

Whistler’s Etchings: An Art of Suggestion

May 21, 2012

One of LACMA’s current installations, Whistler’s Etchings: An Art of Suggestion explores the prints of the American artist James McNeill Whistler, a key figure among the artists, critics and print publishers of the so-called Etching Revival of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In pursuit of a career as an artist, Whistler sailed to Europe at the age of twenty-one. He arrived in Paris in 1855, where he received artistic training, and later settled in London, never to return to the United States.  Whistler travelled broadly throughout England and the continent, chronicling in prints his response to the urban scenes, built landscapes, and people he encountered.  Through his paintings, prints, and writings on art, he was to achieve lasting international acclaim; but his combative and polemical character also earned him his share of notoriety, as he abruptly ended significant personal and professional relationships and engaged in public critical debate. The reception of Whistler’s paintings and prints at the time of their making was divided.  One of the most damning statements about Whistler’s work was made in a review of the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Art), in which the influential English art critic John Ruskin accused the artist of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  Whistler sued for libel and won the case. He was however, awarded a mere farthing, leaving him in financial ruin.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Under Old Battersea Bridge, 1876/78, The Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

The title of the installation, Whistler’s Etchings: An Art of Suggestion, is taken from a review of the artist’s 1871 Thames Set, which, while in itself positive, makes note of the criticism his etchings did receive:

“It is one of the obvious charges against Mr. Whistler, as against many other masters of the etching-needle, that he constantly contents himself with slurring and hinting, instead of working patiently to a finish.  The etcher, when this is alleged against him, has to say for himself that his art is not an art of finish, but an art of suggestion, that what he uses this method and material for is to make notes and set down impressions, not to produce elaborate pictures, therefore, that he has a perfect right to stop where he pleases, and that it pleased no other etcher to stop so often as the chief of them all, Rembrandt.”  (Pall Mall Gazette, 1 January, 1872)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Forge, 1861, from the Thames Set, 1871, the Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

Indeed, with their summary style, abbreviated forms, and fragmentary views, Whistler’s etchings and drypoints promoted an aesthetic language counter to the prevailing Victorian taste for the elaborate narrative description and meticulous finish of reproductive engravings.  Whistler exploited the marks of artistic process (for example, taking his plate through as many as twenty states in his Doorway) and treated individual impressions in a singular manner by varying the application of ink and the supports used, thus challenging conventional notions of finish.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Palaces, 1879/1880, from the Second Venice Set, 1886, the Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

Among the twenty-five works exhibited are seven images of Venice.  In 1879, Whistler travelled to Venice to execute a suite of etchings commissioned by the Fine Arts Society of London.  These etchings, which beautifully render the effects of light and atmosphere through a skillful use of reserves of paper and expert manipulation of ink, are today considered among the most prized of Whistler’s oeuvre. In Whistler’s day, they did much to restore his reputation and finances, which had both suffered from the protracted Ruskin legal trial.  Yet when they first appeared, the Venice etchings were not met with universal approval. In a collection of writings published in 1890—titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies—the artist reprinted some of the unsympathetic responses his etchings had elicited (alongside his own acerbic retorts).  These remarks speak of an abiding apprehension towards the question of finish.  Whistler was disparaged as “an artist of incomplete performance,” his Venice etchings having been “done with a swiftness and dash that preclude anything like care and finish.”

While many of the prints on view are indeed seemingly spontaneous in execution, at times resembling preliminary studies taken from life, Whistler continuously reworked his plates, fastidiously redefining details and often reinforcing areas of shading to compensate for the wear of the plate.  His economy of means belies his great expense of labor.  This is especially the case with Whistler’s informal and concisely executed portraits.  Although spared of details of costume and setting, they are convincing likenesses that successfully convey distinct character and mood.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, C. L. Drouet, Sculptor, 1859, the Julius L. and Anita Zelman Collection

Not all critics failed to admire Whistler’s mastery of the etching medium.  Many appreciated his resistance to the strongholds of Victorian convention, and praised the bold quality of his compositions which often have the appearance of being casually rendered: “they are singularly felicitous, dashing, dexterous, and suggestive” (The Critic, 25 May 1861).  This selection of Whistler’s etchings and drypoints considers—indeed celebrates—the printmaker’s exploration and subversion of artistic resolution.   It examines in particular the variety of technical means Whistler deployed to achieve his carefully considered and desired ends.

Naoko Takahatake, Assistant Curator, Prints and Drawings

This Weekend at LACMA: Free Friday, California Noir, Maria Nordman Closes, and More

May 18, 2012

First thing’s first: Happy Art Museum Day! LACMA, along with 100 other museums around the country, is offering free admission all day today. Come down and check out Chris Burden’s Metropolis II, or see exhibitions such as Robert Adams,  Daido Moriyama, or Children of the Plumed Serpent.

This weekend is also your last chance to see Maria Nordman FILMROOM: SMOKE, 1967–Present, on view in the Art of the Americas Building. FILMROOM: SMOKE is one of Nordman’s earliest pieces; the single-room, two-channel video documents the same scene from two positions—a fixed tripod and a hand-held camera, moving in concert with the breath of the actors and the ocean behind them. Outisde of the exhibition you’ll find a new sculpture Nordman created just for this exhibition, YANG-NA 2011–Present—a frame scaled to the same size as the Filmroom, through which you can become the actor yourself.

Maria Nordman, Filmroom: Smoke, 1967–Present. Photo: Courtesy of the Fundação de Serralves, Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto, Portugal

Stay at LACMA into the evening and catch bassist Henry “Skipper” Franklin performing for Jazz at LACMA, right in front of Chris Burden’s Urban Light. Over in the Bing Theater, tonight is the start of our latest film series, The Sun Sets in the West: Mid-Century California Noir. Get here early to see the sunny objects in our California Design exhibition, then see the shadows fall in ten noir thrillers set in the Golden State, presented this weekend and next. Friday night we present two from the 1950s: Kiss Me Deadly and The Crimson Kimono (the latter directed by the legendary Samuel Fuller). On Saturday night we screen three in a row: Blake Edwards’s Experiment in Terror, the Burt Lancaster vehicle Criss Cross, and the 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s M

We’ve got two great talks happening this weekend too. On Saturday afternoon, LACMA curators Austen Bailly and Franklin Sirmans introduce a talk about African American art between collectors Aryn Drake-Lee and Jesse Williams and scholar Dr. Halima Taha, author of Collecting African American Art.

On Sunday, artist Lawrence Weiner will join LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan and assistant curator Jarrett Gregory in conversation about contemporary aesthetics. Stick around to tour the bevy of new installations on view now, and then head to the Bing Theater for our free Sundays Live concert featuring Young Musicians Foundation Chamber Ensembles.

Textile Panel (Mola), Panama, San Blas, Kuna people, last quarter of 20th century, gift of Lindy and Ellen Narver in memory of Grace Narver, from the installation Stitching Worlds: Mola Art of the Kuna

Finally, to cap off a busy weekend, we’re screening Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, Sunday night at 8:30 pm in the Bing Theater. Though the film is sold out, there will be a standby line forming at the Hammer Building Ticket Office at 6 pm.

Scott Tennent

How to Make a Museum Hip Hop Series

May 17, 2012

Tonight marks the launch of Through the Mic: LACMA x Hip Hop, a new monthly concert series taking place on the third Thursday of every month from May to October, co-curated by LACMA and hip hop artist Murs. The inaugural show—3MG, aka Murs, Scarub, and Eligh—is sold out. But you can buy tickets now for next month’s performance, Dumbfoundead and Medusa. Jason Gaulton, who heads LACMA’s Muse programs, details how the concert series came about.

Step 1: Dream It
It’s the classic L.A. story, kind of. Maybe not Boy meets Girl, but Museum meets Rapper. We teamed up with Murs a few months ago to create the first live music series dedicated to hip hop at a major arts institution. Now, it’s ready to launch.

Step 2: Name It
Through the Mic stems from hip hop’s mode of expression. Microphones are to hip hop as brushes are to painting. The relatively simple tool unlocks a world of gripping truth, vivid imagination, and a wide range of emotion. Life stories bad and good take on greater meaning when amplified and accompanied by a beat. They become more than words; the mic makes them anthems.

Step 3: Frame It
Through the Mic is not only about hip hop—it’s also a celebration of Los Angeles. The genre is the perfect showcase for our city’s talent, diversity, and spirit. Through the Mic’s performers span L.A.’s various neighborhoods, each bringing unique sounds and messages.

Step 4: Place It
Location. Location. Location. LACMA happens to have one of the best. The stage set up in front of Chris Burden’s Urban Light gives any outdoor venue this side of the Hollywood Bowl a run for its money. The 202 streetlamps provide an incredible backdrop in the heart of the museum. Hip hop will have never looked so good.

Step 5: Rock It
Any concert series is only as good as its music and, as we’re trying to launch a series that will flourish for years to come, we thought we better have some damn good music. Through the Mic co-curator Murs takes the stage this Thursday as part of the reunited 3MG: Murs, Eligh, and Scarub, originally formed a few miles away at Hamilton. In June, Koreatown icon Dumbfoundead shares a bill with the high priestess of underground hip hop herself Medusa and the rising star Gizzle. Announcements for July through October are coming very soon so don’t stray too far.

Jason Gaulton, Muse Coordinator


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