The Emancipation of Black Beauty

March 11, 2013

Michelangelo’s David was my first artistic example of the male muscular body as art and its faint brethren, those alabaster physiques marching through hallways of museums. The picture of the self is made from a thousand words, half-disguised meanings, paintings, and well-intended and not-so-well-intended imagery that can obscure ideas of the self.

But the photo is another self. Art so easily becomes a thin veil through which a version of the self, some autobiographical reference—even if it’s miles off—defines oneself. Thus, it has been his—our—the black man’s ego-image search from the very beginning, which up to now has been an unattractive kaleidoscopic merry-go-around. In the procession of time, this has made black self-idealization an existential and perpetual split personality in which the culture at large and “the self” battle for supreme identity.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Alistair Butler, N.Y.C. (Z Portfolio), 1980, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Alistair Butler, N.Y.C. (Z Portfolio), 1980, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

LACMA’s hard-edged and gritty-though-romantic exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ, which closes March 24, has within its dreamy, almost fortyish “Movieland” gay star quality, the challenged and somewhat exaggerated iconography of the black male as not only exotic and erotic, but also some of the most unabashedly striking images of sheer black beauty ever rendered and recorded as art. And though this emancipation by no means compares to the great 1863 one, it does enter the “temple of the muses,” disentangling the object of “derision” from the object of “desire”—that human paradox of sexuality in its most vivid form of carnality.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Leigh Lee, N.Y.C. (Z Portfolio), 1980, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2011, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Leigh Lee, N.Y.C. (Z Portfolio), 1980, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2011, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Even imagery has journeys, and particularly, this one. Out of the swampy darkness of slavery and Jim Crow—“strange fruit hanging from the popular trees”—images were fixed. The 3/5 of a persona saddled with the weight of those ludicrous tags designed to debase—Tom, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks—and a book by Donald Bogle that illustrates blacks’ film presence in the culture: a mauled version of blackness. The image moves backward and forward, sidewise and facedown, constantly transforming the cultural baggage as it shifts by fits and starts.  The tight grip one had to have on the perceptions and the many contradictions between say, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington or the cries of W.E. B. Du Bois, which extended the tension that continued between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—an apparent acquiescence and forthright rebellion vying for the soul of the self-image. Sports heroes and apparent villains: Jack Johnson for one era and Jesse Owen and Joe Louis for another, and yet another existential battle in the single person of Cassius Clay vs. Mohammad Ali. And this would continue on with the Black Panthers and, not to leave out the endless list of entertainers, from the black minstrels to blues Madonnas, which would play out the tragically evocative drama of self-identification. But the beauty itself as iconography remains half hidden in the debris of America’s shadow boxing in an ever-decreasing sandbox of social, racial, and sexual reality.

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906, accession number: 06.1234

Not that there were no captivating images of blacks painted by white and black painters that reek of pathos and sentimentality. I was always struck by Winslow Homer’s  The Gulf Stream, with a black man shipwrecked on a rudderless and sail- less boat in a stormy sea, circled by sharks with a distant ship on the horizon, which was shown in LACMA’s 2010 exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915. This is an abiding metaphor. There would be beautiful renderings by Joshua Reynolds’s Study of a Black Man, or John Biggers’s Cotton Pickers, or the divinely colorful Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Bashi-Bazouk, and of course a legion of work-related paintings that sadly reinforce the condition of blacks’ status: servitude.

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

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

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bashi-Bazouk, 1868–69, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2008, accession number: 2008.547.1

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bashi-Bazouk, 1868–69, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2008, accession number: 2008.547.1

The power of the imagery by this endearingly charming man, Robert Mapplethorpe, filled with honest warmth and a sensuous admiration was to free the black male from the shackles of invisibility as this shadowy dark otherness of the so-called American Dream by the very means it was feared: a full-frontal revelation of his maleness. In the exhibition, the stellar beauty of the flowers counterbalance the metallic grays of skin, bone, and muscle restlessly exchanged as classic poetic forms. Like hot ice, Mapplethorpe burns coolness into the image possibly in an effort to capture the ecstatic realism that was before him. Homosexuality, combined with sadomasochistic leather/chain garb, reinforces a shared profound otherness of the black male; and yet in an odd way, it releases a whole society of the hitherto unseen but with a deeply felt presence.  Not only is it in-your-face art, but it pulls from its dubious depth an intrinsic beauty.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim, Sausalito (X Portfolio), 1977, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2011, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim, Sausalito (X Portfolio), 1977, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, jointly acquired by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, partial gift of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation; partial purchase with funds provided by the David Geffen Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust, 2011, © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

The black-and-white film that the buttery Hassleblad lens enhances brings a luscious tactility to the black skin and the deep encroaching shadows, as if of some mystical nature, the chiaroscuro intrinsically ethereal and base, soft and hard, and made visible our physical subterranean worlds. XYZ, by Mapplethorpe’s own stated intention was not meant for everyone. For me, these portfolios are about an art through a portal of pleasure and pain. But art this raw, this free, was a Pandora’s Box of “the sacred and the profane” that, once opened, would change everything.

Hylan Booker


This Weekend at LACMA: Free Family Activities, final days of Expressionist Cinema, and More

March 8, 2013

You may be losing an hour of your day this weekend to daylight savings time, but there are plenty of things to do at LACMA to ease this perennial pain.

Saturday is a perfect day for the curious explorer in all of us. LACMA has once again collaborated with the Charles White Elementary School Gallery near MacArthur Park (just five miles east of LACMA on Wilshire) to present the unique work of New York–based artist Shinique Smith. On Saturday, join LACMA at the Charles White Gallery for free drop-in family activities all day including tours of the exhibition, a scavenger hunt, and a life-drawing workshop with a costumed model. Or, if you’re closer to campus, bring your family to the museum for free, bilingual family tours of the collection on Saturday starting at 11 am.

Sally Victor, Woman’s Hat, circa 1942, gift of Betsy Talbot Blackwell

Sally Victor, Woman’s Hat, circa 1942, gift of Betsy Talbot Blackwell

Sunday is another excellent opportunity to spend time together at the museum during our free Andell Family Sundays. This week’s activities focus on “Fruit & Flowers on Fabric.” Then, in the afternoon, learn about traditional Korean ceramics and how they inspire contemporary artists today. Dr. Burglind Jungmann, professor of Korean art history at UCLA and curator of Life in Ceramics: Five Contemporary Korean Artists, will give the talk. By the evening, when you’re wondering where the weekend went, you can slow down and take a step back to enjoy the UCLA Philharmonia performing works by Mozart and Schumann at Sundays Live (always free!).

This weekend is also the closing of Masterworks of Expressionist Cinema: Caligari and Metropolis. Visit this exhibition to see vintage posters, set stills from these two iconic films, and selected prints from the Robert Gore Rifkind Collection.

Set photograph from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919, The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies

Set photograph from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919, The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies

Also nearing its end in our galleries is the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ. Together with the J. Paul Getty Museum, LACMA has been able to show the three transformational portfolios, X, Y, and Z, in their entirety—a true rarity. Catch it before it closes on March 24.

Finally, visit our newest exhibition, Ming Masterpieces from the Shanghai Museum. This exhibition presents ten masterpieces of early Ming dynasty court painting from the 15th and 16th centuries. If you run out of time this weekend, this exhibition will be open through June 2.

Roberto Ayala, Marketing Coordinator


LACMA and MOCA: A Message from Michael Govan

March 7, 2013

As you may have read in the Los Angeles Times today, LACMA was recently approached by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of a merger between the two museums as they consider partnerships of various kinds. MOCA has received a proposal from LACMA.

Like so many others in the art world, we appreciate the impact MOCA has had, both on Los Angeles and on the world stage.  Our chief desire is to see MOCA’s program continue and to serve the many artists and other Angelenos, for whom MOCA means so much.

Combining LACMA and MOCA would strengthen both.  LACMA’s mission is to share world-class art with the widest array of audiences possible. MOCA’s downtown location, extraordinary collection and devoted constituency, combined with LACMA’s modern art masterpieces, large audiences and broad educational outreach (especially in schools near downtown L.A.) would create a cultural institution that is much more than the sum of its parts. LACMA’s strong leadership, its history of fundraising, and its support from Los Angeles County and other donors will provide MOCA with the stability it deserves.

The founding of MOCA in 1979 and the subsequent opening of the Temporary Contemporary (now The Geffen) in 1983 and the Arata Isozaki–designed MOCA at Grand Avenue in 1986, along with major acquisitions and gifts including the landmark acquisition of the Panza Collection, were key to establishing Los Angeles as a world power in contemporary art and breathing new life into downtown L.A. as a cultural center. Many “MOCAs” around the world have followed. Almost none kept up with the ambition and rigor of MOCA’s exhibitions and publications, or the speed with which a world-class art collection was assembled in just a few years.

Today, MOCA’s collection is among the finest of contemporary art museums, and MOCA has helped bring interest in contemporary art into the mainstream. LACMA, which has acquired contemporary works by living artists since its founding in 1965, recently has reinvigorated its contemporary programs through the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in 2008 and through major acquisitions and commissions of contemporary art. With public artworks including Chris Burden’s Urban Light, Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, Robert Irwin’s palm garden, and Barbara Kruger’s monumental mural, LACMA has tied its identity to the work of contemporary artists.

LACMA collects and exhibits contemporary art with a global perspective and in relation to its collections of art of all times and places. With approximately 120,000 artworks amassed in less than fifty years, LACMA has become the most significant general art museum in the Western United States. Recent acquisitions not only of contemporary art but also modern masters such as those included in the Lazarof Collection have made LACMA a growing destination for twentieth-century art. Combining MOCA and LACMA would create one of the largest and most significant art museum collections in the United States. Uniquely, LACMA/MOCA would become a general museum with a substantial commitment to contemporary art in three or more facilities designed expressly for that purpose. The scale and common purpose of the larger combined institution would provide stability, confidence, and opportunity for donors. Each facility and location could retain individual character and the potential to reach different audiences.

It is appropriate for a large art museum in Los Angeles to have a special emphasis on contemporary art. Today L.A. may be home to the most important concentration of contemporary artists in the world. Only time will tell, but with proper patronage and institutional focus, we could be living in a great time and place for art to be made–like New York in the 1950s and 60s, Paris or Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century, or even the cities of the Italian Renaissance. A combined MOCA and LACMA could make history.

Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director


The Anatomy of an Exhibition

March 7, 2013

As discussed in the previous blog post on the exhibition design of In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women in Mexico and the United States, this post will give some the behind the scenes insight as to how the installation process works for a major exhibition.

Typically curators will work with an exhibition designer, either one that is part of the museum staff or hired from outside of the museum. In some cases, artists work on the design plan as was the case with our Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images exhibition in 2006.

After brainstorming with the curator about how the works of art will be installed, an exhibition designer proposes their concept with a floor plan at the first installation design meeting  with the director, curator, heads of exhibitions, conservation, construction services, and other involved museum staff where everyone can give their input.

After the initial feedback, the designer might have to refine their concept a couple times. But once the design plans get officially approved at the final installation design meeting, construction services gets started.

In the case of In Wonderland, the Tim Burton retrospective preceded the show. In order to maintain costs and keep under budget, we reused several existing main walls and vitrines, but to give In Wonderland its own unique design, senior exhibition designer Victoria Behner presented this concept:

LACMA designer’s original model for the exhibition space

LACMA designer’s original model for the exhibition space

IMG_1975

LACMA designer’s original plans for the exhibition space

Work began in early December, where you can see the shards of walls being built.

Wall shards in progress

Wall shards in progress

It was also at this time where we experimented with the rope. Inspired by artists like Marcel Duchamp and Maya Deren, the rope was an integral element to Behner’s design. In the installation design meeting, the natural rope was preferred, but conservation pointed out that a rope with natural fibers with fraying ends could pose potential alarm to a painting that has not been glazed (protected with a sheet of glass of Plexiglas over the work). So a synthetic natural-looking rope was opted for instead.

"Curator

Curator Ilene Susan Fort, graphic designer Jin Son, exhibition designer Victoria Behner, environmental designer Daniel Young discussing the installation progress; Behner, Time Based Media Exhibition Manager Eddy Vajarakitipongse, curator Ilene Susan Fort and Curatorial Assistant Marvella Muro deciding where the exterior for the film should go

Curator Ilene Susan Fort, graphic designer Jin Son, exhibition designer Victoria Behner, environmental designer Daniel Young discussing the installation progress; Behner, Time Based Media Exhibition Manager Eddy Vajarakitipongse, curator Ilene Susan Fort and Curatorial Assistant Marvella Muro deciding where the exterior for the film should go

Since film was also a type of artwork featured in the exhibition, cases were designed to keep much of the light out in order for the public to view the work in. Technicians assist with installing any of the equipment needed for sound or film recordings.

Final exterior case design for Maya Deren’s Witch’s Cradle (1943).

Final exterior case design for Maya Deren’s Witch’s Cradle (1943).

Once the walls are constructed and painted, installation of the actual artwork can begin. It is at least a two-to-three week process, depending on the amount of artwork and couriers scheduled. The Registrar for the exhibition coordinates all the incoming artwork; conservators are also on hand to do the condition reporting of each work once the artwork arrives on the museum premises. After works have been given sufficient time to acclimate upon arrival, they are then installed by the art preparation handlers.

IMG_2367

Templates are made for the size of the artwork so curators can play with the positioning of the work in the actual space.

Ephemeral objects

Ephemeral objects

Ephemeral objects under Plexiglas vitrine

Ephemeral objects under Plexiglas vitrine

Ephemeral objects (documentary works to supplement the content of the artwork in the exhibition) are also installed. Paper conservators will prepare the cases and mount them to the case before the Plexiglas vitrine is installed over it.

Once the artwork is installed, labels are affixed to the walls, and any other didactic panels or treatments are installed and/or finalized. Gallery technicians will adjust any of the lighting to make sure the works look their best.

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Conservation will measure light levels to make sure the works are installed under the proper conditions and routinely look over the galleries throughout the exhibition.

Some shots of the complete installation :

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Devi Noor, Curatorial Administrator, American Art


Surrealist Travels: “In Wonderland” in Mexico and Canada

March 6, 2013

Rarely does the average person see the same exhibition at multiple venues, except for the truly dedicated art lovers out there.  When an exhibition travels, the design plans change due to the evident fact that all museums aren’t created equal; each institution has their unique space, which can allow for a different visitor experience.  In the case of In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women in Mexico and the United States, the show traveled to three different countries: it made its debut early last year at LACMA, traveled on to the Musée National des Beaux-arts in Québec last summer, and completed its final leg of the tour last month at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.

With an art movement as complex and varied as surrealism, there are many approaches to take when displaying the objects. With the exhibition now closed, we can take a look at how each of three venues displayed the subjects of women surrealist artists to the public in their respective countries.

For the Los Angeles venue, LACMA exhibition designer Victoria Behner was given different examples of surrealist exhibitions, particularly Marcel Duchamp’s First Papers of Surrealism in 1942, and also Maya Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), which featured the filmmaker’s experiment with the elements of string.

LACMA-Model

LACMA designer’s original model for the exhibition space

According to Behner, her vision for the exhibition space was “basically the walls and rope [to] work together as a system.  The regular architecture (enfilade) is the woman, the shards/slanted walls her issues, and the rope her reparation.  That’s why the slanted walls are dark; they’re meant to be violent slashes or gashes. The rope is suturing everything back together.”

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

In regards to the design plan for the Musée National des Beaux-arts, the museum was challenged to present the content of the exhibition in three separate gallery spaces. Taking note from the design of the In Wonderland catalogue (see a promotional video here), the use of the red was mimicked, using the flow of the cursive on the text cover to tie the three galleries together, this trail effectively becoming a “white rabbit” for the visitors to follow into the In Wonderland exhibition (note even the security tape reminding  visitors to watch their step is red).

Images courtesy Musée National des Beaux-arts, Québec

Images courtesy Musée National des Beaux-arts, Québec

Images courtesy Musée National des Beaux-arts, Québec

Images courtesy Musée National des Beaux-arts, Québec

Images courtesy Musée National des Beaux-arts, Québec

Images courtesy Musée National des Beaux-arts, Québec

In the final venue of In Wonderland, the Museo de Arte Moderno took a more whimsical approach with their exhibition space, playing with angular disproportionate shapes along with their curved gallery. Featuring checkerboard panels extending up and across the ceiling, this game-board motif touched upon of the show’s themes of games, where artists experimented in their surrealist makings (chess or drawing exquisite corpses are just a couple of examples).

Francisco Kochen. Photographer. Courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno-INBA.

Francisco Kochen. Photographer. Courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno-INBA.

Francisco Kochen. Photographer. Courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno-INBA.

Francisco Kochen. Photographer. Courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno-INBA.

Francisco Kochen. Photographer. Courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno-INBA.

Francisco Kochen. Photographer. Courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno-INBA.

Now that we’ve seen different examples of exhibition design, how does the process go from concept to an actual installation? Stay tuned for more . . .

Devi Noor, Curatorial Administrator, American Art


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