Rauschenberg and Earth Day

April 18, 2013

This Sunday, LACMA celebrates Earth Day with a day full of tours, art-making workshops, music, and more. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, marked the birth of the modern environmental movement. Designed to be a teach-in about conservation and environmental issues, it tapped into the grassroots movements driving many of the anti-war protests and groups. Earth Day 1970 brought issues of pollution, conservation, deforestation, and endangered species into a broader public consciousness. To commemorate this event, Robert Rauschenberg made a lithograph and collage at the Los Angeles printshop Gemini G.E.L. (edition 50) and an offset poster with nearly the same composition to benefit the American Environment Foundation (edition 300 signed, 10,000 unsigned). This was the first time the artist had used a mass-produced poster to express social concerns; however, this was not the first time he had expressed concerns about the state of the environment in his art, and he maintained his interest in this issue until his death in 2008.

4x5 original

Earth Day, Robert Rauschenberg, Gemini G.E.L., United States, 1970
Gift of the Sidney and Diana Avery Trust

Rauschenberg’s earlier, more oblique, expressions of environmental concerns were based upon his personal observations of humankind’s impact on the earth. Rauschenberg grew up in Port Arthur, TX, an oil refinery town on the Gulf of Mexico. His early memories of the oil derricks belching foul air may have inspired his vision the capital of Hell, Dis, in his illustrations of Dante’s Inferno (1959-60). In 1969, Rauschenberg made a series of prints in response to his viewing of the Apollo 11 lunar launch at the Kennedy Space Center. In his journal recalling the event, he wrote, “The incredibly bright lights, the moon coming up, seeing the rocket turn into pure ice, its stripes and USA marking disappearing—and all you could hear were frogs and alligators.” His interest in striking a balance between technology and nature is reflected in the print Sky Garden (1969) currently on view in the Stanley Kubrick exhibition. Although the main image in the monumental lithograph is the Saturn V rocket, the top register features palm trees and a heron.

Sky Garden, Series: Stoned Moon, Robert Rauschenberg, United States, 1969, Gift of Drs. Katherina and Judd Marmor in honor of the museum's twenty-fifth anniversary

Sky Garden, Series: Stoned Moon, Robert Rauschenberg, United States, 1969, Gift of Drs. Katherina and Judd Marmor in honor of the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary

His message became more explicit in the poster and print from 1970. Pictures—culled from newspapers and magazines—of crowded highways, deforested land, strip mining, piles of garbage, polluting factories, and an endangered gorilla surround the central image of the bald eagle, the symbol of the United States threatened with extinction because of pesticides. Twenty years after the original event, Earth Day 1990 was dedicated to expanding the message of environmental protection internationally and emphasizing the importance of recycling. In the lithograph, Earth Day 1990 (edition 75), published by Gemini to benefit the Earth Day 1990 organization, Rauschenberg took a less polemical approach than he had in 1970. Using photographs he shot himself, he placed a stand of denuded trees at the top of the composition, while the right and left registers contain close-up images of bark, one marred by graffiti. He then applied ink in tones of green and raw sienna over the pinkish-brown printed images in the background.

Earth Day 1990, Robert Rauschenberg, United States, 1990, Partial and promised gift of the Grinstein Family

Earth Day 1990, Robert Rauschenberg, United States, 1990, Partial and promised gift of the Grinstein Family

 

In Earth Day 1990, Rauschenberg addresses the issue of personal responsibility. The dustpan and broom in the center of the print seem to call on each of us individually to clean up the mess we have made. In 1991, when Rauschenberg revealed his project for Earth Summit ’92 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (a result of the international activities of Earth Day 1990), he directly stated his point of view that, “once the individual has changed, the world can change.” Deeply concerned about the environment, Rauschenberg used his artistic ability to support organizations financially and impart powerful messages.

Sienna Brown, Wallis Annenberg Curatorial Fellow, Prints and Drawings


Liz Glynn: The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time

April 16, 2013

[de]-lusions of Grandeur is a cycle of performances by Liz Glynn focused on monumental artworks at LACMA. Last January, we kicked off the series with The Myth of Singularity (after Rodin), a weekend-long event for which Glynn made molds from the original sculptures on display at LACMA to later perform the casting and recombination to create a new group of figurative sculptures with a group of assistants. The second chapter of the cycle, taking place on Friday evening, focuses on the commissioning of a fountain/sculpture from Alexander Calder for the new LACMA campus in 1965.

Alexander Calder, Three Quintains (Hello Girls), 1964, Art Museum Council Fund, © Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Alexander Calder, Three Quintains (Hello Girls), 1964, Art Museum Council Fund, © Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For this new performance Liz conducted extensive research on the subject, interviewing curators and conservators and reading through the museum’s archives, catalogue essays, and newspapers articles published around the time the sculpture was installed. The result is an hour-long performance that carefully balances, as if it were a mobile sculpture in itself, all the voices that took and still take part in the process of commissioning, installing, conserving, and maintaining such a work in the campus of LACMA.

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn's "The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time"

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn’s “The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time”

Aptly called The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time, the performance draws upon the form of a ballet mécanique accompanied by a spoken chorus. On the stage, three dancers represent the three sculptural elements of Three Quintains (Hello Girls) while art handlers—doubling roles later as the water jets of the fountain—keep re-positioning the sculpture on the stage and discussing its technical challenges.

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn's "The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time"

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn’s “The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time”

For the spoken chorus, we enlisted six LACMA docents to read excerpts from the correspondence of the Art Museum Council, which commissioned the work back in the day; David, a colleague from Graphic Design, reads a few letters written by William Osmun, the Senior Curator who oversaw the entire process. Rumor has it that even the Director of Security at LACMA has a cameo appearance at the beginning of the play. Bill, the director of LACMA’s Sunday Live, reads many letters and notes from the always charming Alexander Calder, completing this sort of reenacted epistolary novel that tells many stories at once.

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn's "The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time"

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn’s “The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time”

I want to share some photographs Liz and I took with our phones during rehearsals—there were many because we are, after all, busting that myth of getting things right at the first time.

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn's "The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time"

Rehearsals for Liz Glynn’s “The Myth of Getting It Right the First Time”

José-Luis Blondet, associate curator, special initiatives

 


2013 Collectors Committee Acquires Nine Works for LACMA

April 15, 2013

Since 1986, LACMA’s annual Collectors Committee Gala has resulted in numerous important acquisitions in all areas of the museum’s collection. This weekend the Collectors Committee added nine more. For the event, Collectors Committee members create a pool for acquisitions funds and then use those funds to vote for artworks presented by LACMA curators earlier in the day. In the final tally, LACMA raised more than $3.2 million—a record for the event—toward seven artworks. On top of that, Collectors Committee sponsor JPMorgan made a gift of two more works from the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection: a photograph by Robert Frank, St. Francis and Gas Station, and City Hall—Los Angeles, from his iconic series The Americans; and a portfolio of seventy-five mixed-media works on paper made by Ed Ruscha in 1969, Stains.

Here’s a rundown of the artworks acquired over the weekend:

Mother and Child Figure for the Gwan Association, Republic of Mali, Bamana Peoples, 1432-1644 (carbon 14 testing), gift of the 2013 Collectors Committee with additional funds provided by Kelvin Davis and Bobby Kotick

Mother and Child Figure for the Gwan Association, Republic of Mali, Bamana Peoples, 1432-1644 (carbon 14 testing), gift of the 2013 Collectors Committee with additional funds provided by Kelvin Davis and Bobby Kotick

The first African sculpture to be acquired in Collectors Committee history is a Mother and Child Figure for the Gwan Association is one of the oldest surviving wood sculptures from Africa. The figure embodies continuity of generations and represents the strength and resilience of motherhood. This important acquisition marks the launching of LACMA’s new African art gallery and related educational and outreach programming. The gallery’s inaugural exhibition will be Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa, on view from July 7, 2013 to January 5, 2014.

Mountain Avatar (Zaō Gongen),  Japan, late Heian period, c. 1180, gift of the 2013 Collectors Committee

Mountain Avatar (Zaō Gongen), Japan, late Heian period, c. 1180, gift of the 2013 Collectors Committee

This wood sculpture of a Shinto deity features three crystal eyes and retains its original colors and surface from the late twelfth century; it is the oldest and finest sculpture of its type in existence.

Seated Buddha, Korea, Goryeo dynasty, 10th century, gift of the 2013 Collectors Committee

Seated Buddha, Korea, Goryeo dynasty, 10th century, gift of the 2013 Collectors Committee

A rare Korean cast iron Buddha sculpture from the tenth century Goryeo dynasty depicts the historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s Enlightenment at Bodha Gaya in India; this acquisition makes this the largest example of Goryeo Buddhist sculpture outside of Asia.

Julio Le Parc, Mural: Virtual Circles (Mural Cercles Virtuelles), 1964–66, purchased with funds provided by Debbie and Mark Attanasio, Jane and Marc Nathanson, Jane and Terry Semel, the Loreen Arbus Foundation, Alyce Woodward Oppenheimer, Janet Dreisen Rappaport and Herb Rappaport and an anonymous donor through the 2013 Collectors Committee

Julio Le Parc, Mural: Virtual Circles (Mural Cercles Virtuelles), 1964–66, purchased with funds provided by Debbie and Mark Attanasio, Jane and Marc Nathanson, Jane and Terry Semel, the Loreen Arbus Foundation, Alyce Woodward Oppenheimer, Janet Dreisen Rappaport and Herb Rappaport and an anonymous donor through the 2013 Collectors Committee

Mural: Virtual Circles is paradigmatic of Julio Le Parc’s visual experimentations with kinetic and optical effects, as well as his life-long interest in viewer participation. Seen from the front, the sculpture is deceptively static, but with just a slight displacement from the viewer it becomes fully activated, at once dizzying and alluring. This sculpture is already on view now, in our new permanent galleries for Latin American art.
James Turrell, Roden Crater Model (Large Overall Site),1985-87, purchased with funds provided by Suzanne Deal Booth and David G. Booth, Paul Fleming, Suzanne and Ric Kayne, and Pamela and Jarl Mohn through the 2013 Collectors Committee

James Turrell, Roden Crater Model (Large Overall Site),1985-87, purchased with funds provided by Suzanne Deal Booth and David G. Booth, Paul Fleming, Suzanne and Ric Kayne, and Pamela and Jarl Mohn through the 2013 Collectors Committee

This large-scale model of James Turrell’s ongoing project, Roden Crater is made from plaster as well as elements from the crater itself and includes details of the geologic contours, textures, and colors of the Arizona site in relation to the exterior of artist’s planned transformations. It will be on view as part of James Turrell: A Retrospective, opening May 26, 2013 and running through April 6, 2014.

Thomas Demand, Control Room, 2011, purchased with funds provided by Willow Bay and Bob Iger and Steve Tisch through the 2013 Collectors Committee

Thomas Demand, Control Room, 2011, purchased with funds provided by Willow Bay and Bob Iger and Steve Tisch through the 2013 Collectors Committee

Thomas Demand’s Control Room shows the interior of the Daiichi power plant in Fukushima following the East Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, based on a cell-phone snapshot, recreated by the artist as a full-size paper model, and then photographed.

Susan Hefuna, Woman behind Mashrabiya I, 1997, gift of Ann Colgin and Joe Wender, Kelvin Davis, John and Carolyn Diemer, Andy Gordon and Carlo Brandon, Deborah McLeod, and David and Mary Solomon through the 2013 Collectors Committee

Susan Hefuna, Woman behind Mashrabiya I, 1997, gift of Ann Colgin and Joe Wender, Kelvin Davis, John and Carolyn Diemer, Andy Gordon and Carlo Brandon, Deborah McLeod, and David and Mary Solomon through the 2013 Collectors Committee

Woman behind Mashrabiya I, by Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna, depicts the elusive silhouette of a woman in full hejab behind a mashrabiya, a latticed wood window screen characteristic of traditional Islamic architecture. Hefuna’s use of the mashrabiya not only reflects her own personal East-West dichotomy, but also serves as a reminder that our visual perceptions are often culturally encoded.

Scott Tennent


This Weekend at LACMA: Hokusai Opens, Family Activities, Mexican Silver Talk, and More

April 12, 2013

Some of the great masterpieces of our Japanese art collection are by the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai, who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to iconic works like The Great Wave and South Wind, Clear Dawn, our holdings of Hokusai prints have dramatically increased in the last few years, thanks to a remarkable gift in 2006 from the Joan Elizabeth Tanney Bequest, followed by a gift of the complete set of eight prints from Hokusai’s series A Tour of Waterfalls in the Provinces. Opening Saturday in the Pavilion for Japanese Art is Japanese Prints: Hokusai at LACMA—our first Hokusai exhibition since 1997. This is a great opportunity to see a variety of masterful prints by this incredible, influential artist.

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830–31, gift of the Frederick R. Weisman Company

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830–31, gift of the Frederick R. Weisman Company

You may also notice something a little less traditional inside the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art—intervention is by Stephen Prina, related to his As He Remembered It exhibition on view across campus in BCAM, which opened last week. (FYI: Prina will be at LACMA next week for a free conversation with Michael Govan, plus a screening of Prina’s film The Way He Always Wanted It II, which also takes Bruce Goff’s architecture as its subject.)

Finally, while you’re in the pavilion, make some time to see our most recent major acquisition—Cranes, by Maruyama Okyo, created a generation earlier than Hokusai’s prints. Cranes a beautiful pair of screens depicting seventeen cranes—twelve Red-crowned cranes, five White-naped cranes—surrounded by gold leaf on paper.

Maruyama Okyo, Cranes (detail), 1772 (An’ei period, 1772-1780), gift of Camilla Chandler Frost in honor of Robert T. Singer

Maruyama Okyo, Cranes (detail), 1772 (An’ei period, 1772-1780), gift of Camilla Chandler Frost in honor of Robert T. Singer

There’s a lot happening on the east side of our campus at the moment, in addition to all the activity in the Japanese Pavilion. Inside the Hammer Building you’ll find Ming Masterpieces from the Shanghai Museum—the title says it all, but let me add that these are masterpieces rarely seen in the United States. Across the way you’ll find the ever-popular Stanley Kubrick (did you read the excellent article about Kubrick in Entertainment Weekly?).

2001: A Space Odyssey, set photo, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1965-68

2001: A Space Odyssey, set photo, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1965-68

Upstairs from Kubrick is our new installation of works from our permanent collection of Latin American art. L.A. Weekly spoke to curator Ilona Katzew about the new installation, which includes objects from ancient to contemporary times, including recent gifts or Mexican modernist silver. We talked about that on Unframed earlier this week; come to LACMA on Sunday for a free talk on the subject.

Installation view, Latin American art galleries

Installation view, Latin American art galleries

For families, both Saturday and Sunday offer great opportunities for fun. On Saturday, start your morning at Charles White Elementary School for a viewing of Shinique Smith: Firsthand, which features works by artist Smith, objects from LACMA’s costume and textiles collection, and art by Charles White students. We’ll have tours of the exhibition, a scavenger hunt, and art projects—all for free. If you prefer to head straight to LACMA instead, get here in time for bilingual Family Tours of the permanent collection. On Sunday we’ve got our usual FREE Andell Family Sunday activities.

Shinique Smith, Swaying Beauty, 2007, gift of Schiff Fine Art, © 2013 Shinique Smith, photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA

Shinique Smith, Swaying Beauty, 2007, gift of Schiff Fine Art, © 2013 Shinique Smith, photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA

Close out your weekend with a free Sundays Live performance from the Colburn School Orchestra (Maxim Eskenazy, conductor), performing pieces by Vivaldi and Telemann.

Scott Tennent


Modern Mexican Silver: Reflections across Time

April 11, 2013

Recently LACMA received a gift of some 80 pieces of Mexican modernist silver dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. A selection of these objects is on view in the newly reinstalled Latin American galleries. LACMA’s curator and department head of Latin American Art Ilona Katzew sat down with Dr. Penny Morrill, a scholar of Mexican modernist silver at George Masson University to discuss the history of these fascinating objects and their recent gift to the museum. Dr. Morrill will also be at LACMA on Sunday afternoon for a free talk and book-signing.

Frederick Walter Davis, "Swirl Glyph Cuff Bracelet," c. 1935, silver, gift of Ronald A. Belkin, Long Beach, California

Frederick Walter Davis, “Swirl Glyph Cuff Bracelet,” c. 1935, silver, gift of Ronald A. Belkin, Long Beach, California

Ilona Katzew: Penny, you’re a noted expert on Mexican modernist silver; what got you interested in the subject?

Penny Morrill: My grandparents had the first tourist hotel in Taxco (1931–42), the Hotel Taxqueño, and my mother was born and raised there. When I was 17, I accompanied my grandmother when she returned for a visit with her good friend William Spratling. He showed us around the ranch and we spent a great deal of that time looking at his pre-Columbian collection. This experience and my family’s connection to Mexico led to my decision to study Mexican art and to my fascination with the Taxco silver phenomenon.

IK: People are generally familiar with the name of William Spratling, the architect from New Orleans who established a workshop in Taxco in 1931 and reinvigorated the town’s economy by employing hundreds of local artisans. He was also a brilliant marketing strategist. Could you tell us what drew Spratling to Mexico and some of his achievements?

PM: The archaeologist Frans Blom, founder of Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute, gave a presentation in New Orleans about his recent finds. Spratling, who was on the faculty of the School of Architecture at Tulane, became enthralled with Mexican culture and, in 1926, began teaching an annual summer course on Mexican colonial architecture at the national university in Mexico City. He received a book contract and, in 1929, resigned from his faculty position at Tulane to buy a house in Taxco and write Little Mexico. Spratling decided to stay and, in order to make a living, he organized a small silver workshop and went into production in 1931. While he is considered one of the foremost silver designers in the world, Spratling was lionized in his own time for the creation of a model industry. Warner Brothers did a documentary about him in 1946 and, in 1949, Spratling was asked by the U.S. government to replicate his workshop in Alaska. A pragmatic visionary, Spratling’s success derived from an emphasis on process rather than product in a handwrought industry, a workshop hierarchy based on ability, the use of local materials combined with silver, and the inspiration of pre-Columbian art. Spratling’s approach to production provided employment and training for hundreds of artisans and became a prototype for countless small industries in Mexico.

William Spratling, Alaska Mask Necklace, 1949, silver, baleen from either a bowhead or blue whale, Alaskan or pinto abalone, gift of Penny Morrill, McLean, Virginia

William Spratling, “Alaska Mask Necklace,” 1949, silver, baleen from either a bowhead or blue whale, Alaskan or pinto abalone, gift of Penny Morrill, McLean, Virginia

IK: Frederick Walter Davis was another American who was a major catalyst in the development of the silver design industry in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. Did he know Spratling? How did their projects intersect?

PM: Fred Davis would have been one of the first people Spratling encountered in Mexico City. In the 1920s, Davis’s gallery in the Palacio de Iturbide Hotel had become a lively center for the exchange of art and ideas, drawing both Mexican and international artists and intellectuals. Spratling’s architectural drawings were exhibited at the gallery. Rene d’Harnoncourt, who arrived from Austria in 1926, worked with Davis in the development of the gallery. In 1934, he emigrated to the United States, later serving as director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1949–1967). Davis, d’Harnoncourt, and Spratling collaborated on designing and furnishing Ambassador and Mrs. Dwight Morrow’s home, Casa Mañana, in Cuernavaca, the couple’s retreat while Morrow was American ambassador to Mexico (1927–1930). In the late 1920s, Davis was producing a line of jewelry based on pre-Columbian sculpture and contemporary folk art. This jewelry provided inspiration for Spratling’s first designs in silver and, in those early years, Spratling sold his work in Davis’s gallery.

William Spratling, "Quetzalcóatl Head Brooch," 1938–44, silver, gift of Ronald A. Belkin, Long Beach, California

William Spratling, “Quetzalcóatl Head Brooch,” 1938–44, silver, gift of Ronald A. Belkin, Long Beach, California

William Spratling, "Jaguar Brooch," c. 1940–46, silver and amethyst, gift of the Goddard Family in memory of Phyllis Goddard, Los Angeles

William Spratling, “Jaguar Brooch,” c. 1940–46, silver and amethyst, gift of the Goddard Family in memory of Phyllis Goddard, Los Angeles

IK: Aside from Spratling, there were other important designers who established equally successful workshops and created astonishing objects. Part of your life’s work, in fact, has been to give these designers their due.  Who, in your estimation, are some of the most salient artists?

PM: According to most Taxquenians, one of the greatest silver designers in twentieth-century Mexico was Valentín Vidaurreta, who collaborated with Fred Davis, Spratling, and Héctor Aguilar. Vidaurreta’s art education in Spain and Paris enabled him to interpret the three-dimensionality of pre-Columbian sculpture with a refined simplicity of line and surface. He was also a master at reproducing in repoussage the flowers from his spectacular gardens. Margot van Voorhies has recently received her due as an extraordinarily gifted and prolific designer at Los Castillo and then on her own at Margot de Taxco. Chato Castillo became a significant design force at Los Castillo after 1950, and Salvador Teran and Sigi Pineda emerged from that workshop to establish their own unique jewelry designs. In Mexico City, Matilde Poulat (MATL) designed and produced jewelry that I consider to be some of the most interesting and exciting work from the period.

Photo by Juan Guzmán of Héctor Aguilar, Antonio Pineda, William Spratling, and Antonio Castillo, c. 1955. Collection of the Latin American Library, Tulane University

Photo by Juan Guzmán of Héctor Aguilar, Antonio Pineda, William Spratling, and Antonio Castillo, c. 1955. Collection of the Latin American Library, Tulane University

IK : Another question that inevitably comes to mind, is who were making these objects, and what was the relationship between the designers and craftsmen?

PM: I have come to realize that the object could not have existed had it not been for the artistic dialogue between designer and maestro. Spratling’s drawings, while occasionally on the backs of envelopes, were fairly complete concepts. However, Spratling was dependent on Marcial Chávez’s genius as a silversmith to interpret the drawing in the production of the silver object that became the prototype for the workshop. Two gifted maestros, Enrique Ledesma and Alfonso Ruiz Mondragón, were chosen by Spratling to produce the prototypes for the Alaska project, one of which is the beautiful mask necklace illustrated above. Master silversmiths at Héctor Aguilar’s “Taller Borda,” Adan Alvarado, Luis Flores, and Julio Carbajal López, are remembered for their contributions. The jewelry signed by Antonio Pineda resulted from the teamwork of an extraordinary group of maestros, including Bruno Rafael Pineda, José María Pineda, Filiberto Gómez, and Luis Montes de Oca. Tane perhaps best exemplifies this dialogue in the Art/Object series, in which renowned artists are given the opportunity to design an object in silver and to collaborate with a maestro in its production.

IK: What I find so fascinating is how Mexico, Taxco, became the epicenter for innovative silver designs, attracting artists, writers, and politicians from all over the world, including Hollywood celebrities such as John Huston, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe. What role do you think the silver industry played in attracting these personalities? 

PM: Art was the language of revolution in twentieth-century Mexico, and the world was drawn by the power of art to enact change. Scholars, artists, authors, communists, and musicians traveled to Taxco for its beauty and to observe the realization of social and economic change wrought by the silver industry. Stuart Chase, Katherine Anne Porter, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, and John Dos Passos were among the early cultural pilgrims, as were Aldous Huxley, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Chief White Eagle of Oklahoma, George Gershwin, Leopold Stokowski, and the renowned costume designer Adrian of Hollywood (Dorothy’s red slippers). Other Hollywood luminaries who made their way to Taxco were director John Ford, Leslie Howard, Linda Darnell, Lana Turner, Mae West, Dolores del Río, Errol Flynn, Henry Ford, Paulette Goddard, and many more. These visitors brought home silver jewelry and decorative objects embellished with “exotic” motifs derived from Aztec and Mayan art that became emblems of the new Mexico.

Photo by Florence Arquin of Frida Kahlo in Coyoacán, wearing a necklace made for her by Frederick Davis with a Tlatilco ceramic figure on a silver plaque (detail), 1949, photo: courtesy of Spencer Throckmorton, New York

Photo by Florence Arquin of Frida Kahlo in Coyoacán, wearing a necklace made for her by Frederick Davis with a Tlatilco ceramic figure on a silver plaque (detail), 1949, photo: courtesy of Spencer Throckmorton, New York

IK: Many of the works in LACMA’s inaugural gift reveal a fascination with indigenous cultures and ancient Mesoamerican forms and materials. How did these motifs fit within the larger vogue for all things Mexican, and also the archaeological discoveries of the time? 

PM: Spratling owned reproductions of the Codexes Vindobonensis, Fejérváry-Mayer, and Nuttall as part of an extensive library on pre-Columbian art. He shared his passion for collecting with Josué Sáenz, Miguel Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, and Roberto Montenegro, and with North Americans Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Woods Bliss, Gillett G. Griffin, and Morton D. May. Spratling visited archeological sites and knew many of the notable archaeologists and scholars in Mexico, among them, Ignacio Bernal, Herbert J. Spinden, Alfonso Caso, and George Vaillant. Caso’s discovery in 1931 of the gold treasure in Monte Albán’s Tomb 7, in Oaxaca, directly influenced the work of designers in Taxco and throughout Mexico. Most of these Mexican jewelers resisted slavish imitation and moved to subtle and suggestive borrowings, all the while retaining symbolic references. The resonance of these works reveals the fascination with indigenous culture, which was shared by those who made the silver and by those who bought it. Today these silver designs remain powerful and sensuous artistic statements.

Left: William Spratling, "Tree of Life Brooch," c. 1938–44, silver and copper. Gift of Ronald A. Belkin, Long Beach, California; Right: "Xochiquetzal," from the "Codex Fejérváry-Mayer," Nahua, Mexico, 1350–1500, World Museum, Liverpool, Great Britain, folio 29, photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA

Left: William Spratling, “Tree of Life Brooch,” c. 1938–44, silver and copper. Gift of Ronald A. Belkin, Long Beach, California; Right: “Xochiquetzal,” from the “Codex Fejérváry-Mayer,” Nahua, Mexico, 1350–1500, World Museum, Liverpool, Great Britain, folio 29, photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA

IK: Finally, Penny, why is it so significant to represent these works at LACMA and in Los Angeles?

PM: Something almost magical took place in Taxco during the twentieth century. Vast numbers of designs poured out of the workshops where there seemed to be no limits on creativity and experimentation. Marked by technical and stylistic innovation, the jewelry and decorative objects are a worthy match to the modernist Mexican paintings on display at LACMA. The museum is the first in the world to develop a collection of Mexican twentieth-century silver and, as a result of the generosity of collectors from across the United States, LACMA has been able to acquire extraordinary examples of the silversmith’s art. Los Angeles has strong ties to Mexico, and these will only be strengthened by LACMA’s efforts to represent the full range of Mexico’s artistic output. This silver collection will become the benchmark for the future, as inspiration for connoisseurs, artists, and designers. In future years, museum visitors will get the opportunity to view new work by young contemporary designers working in Mexico today. The exciting aspect of Mexican silver is that there is always something new to discover. Even more fun is that you can set your table with Mexican silver candlesticks, bowls, and flatware and then wear Mexican jewelry to the party!


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