Under the Dome

February 13, 2014

Although I slipped into James Turrell’s Light Reignfall Perceptual Cell at LACMA five months ago, its obvious connection to Griffith Observatory’s Samuel Oschin Planetarium did not cross my mind until I experienced another Perceptual Cell in Yucatán a week ago. Planetaria and Perceptual Cells both use domes. These two different domains of light, however, do very different things with them.


Samuel Oschin Planetarium at Griffith Observatory

Nonetheless, the initial immersion into the Perceptual Cell—before the perimeter lights ignite the eyes—recalls the effect we so deliberately designed and executed into the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. We want people to feel they are outside under the sky even though they are indoors in a very contrived room. That means the planetarium dome must be perceived by every person in the audience as pristine, luminous, and remote. Architecture and lighting must conspire on behalf of a blue celestial realm an indeterminate distance away. The vault has to distract the eye from the floor, the circular wall, the furniture, and the instrument, and from everyone else in the room, and persuade everyone there is no ceiling, just an infinite dome of sky.

This is not easy. The dome is 75 feet in diameter, and big domes are usually compromised by the materials and structures required to build them. A visit to almost any other planetarium in the world will confirm the hard truth under the dome. The illusion is betrayed by the construction. The visible artificiality of the dome prohibits the suspension of disbelief. The frame of the dome and the panels of its surface intrude on the projected imagery and remind the viewer the dome is solid: a screen, not an environment.

Unlike most modern planetarium domes, Griffith Observatory’s original planetarium induced the uplifting “cathedral effect” with a smooth plaster canopy constructed in 1935. I was troubled, then, by the dome demolition and replacement that theatrical impact and new technologies required as part of the Observatory’s major renovation and expansion, completed in 2006. I was reluctant to introduce visual distractions into a room that depends on artful deception to immerse people into an artificial but persuasive sky, but I had no choice.

Then, when we most needed innovation in dome fabrication, it was unexpectedly and cheeringly developed by Spitz, a dome manufacturer.

This new dome technology was a necessary, but insufficient, condition. Sophisticated lighting is also required, but most planetaria don’t get it because audience perception of the soaring vault is not usually incorporated into planetarium production values. In most planetaria, the dome is treated as a surface, but it should be a habitable place.

James Turrell, Light Reignfall, 2011, Gaswork, courtesy of James Turrell, Pace Gallery, and Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, installation view at Garage Center for Contempoaray Culture, 2011, © James Turrell, photo © Florian Holzherr

James Turrell’s Perceptual Cell domes are smaller than Griffith Observatory’s planetarium but exquisitely crafted to create the same initial response. Once inside, the reclined observer has a sense of horizon. The eyes and brain, however, transform the space into something indeterminably larger. In Light Reignfall, even my feet seemed very far away in light that seemed tangible. Although the space is completely transparent, the ambient interior light conceals the dimension it illuminates. It’s a good spherical surface, and the inverse-square law of brightness offers no hints of its true extent.

Once the program in a Perceptual Cell gets underway, its alliance with the planetarium dome ends. The content on the planetarium dome persuades the audience it is looking out into the universe. In the Perceptual Cell, the geography is indeterminate, and the content is abstract. People see something that resembles phosphenes, those sensations of colorful shapes and patterns in the non-visual field of view that are generated by pressure on the retina or other non-luminous stimulation.

A review of online commentaries by those who have experienced Light Reignfall in Los Angeles confirms the ambiguity in depth perception. Many report they could not tell where these kaleidoscopic, luminous, and colorful patterns originate—outside the eye or in, and in fact, it’s both. The stroboscopic display onto the dome from the perimeter lights exploits the neurophysiology of our optical apparatus and brain. Photographs of the interior of a Perceptual Cell in operation reveal at most a partial wash of a single color and none of the complex and dynamic effects the participant experiences. What people see is not on the dome but in the brain, and I believe much of the action involves intricate manipulation of retinal afterimages, an effect generated by the retina’s photoreceptors. Audiotones are also used to move the mind into these luminous and geometric visions.

In Light Reignfall, I primarily sensed streaming rivulets and flowing cells of multicolored light pouring down in every direction from the zenith in my field of view. The pace of change in color, brightness, and texture was strong and rapid, and ranged from showers to torrents. Despite the fundamental visual theme, I also retain the memory of rich and frequent variation and of shifts from and back to the primary trend.

The Metasphere in Yucatán produced generically related imagery, but it differed greatly in detail from Light Reignfall. Geometric figures—especially a honeycomb of hexagons delineated in concentric colors—dominated my mind’s eye. When I closed my eyes, the same lattices were apparent, but colors changed and intensity diminished. There were also episodes of laminar flow and a distinct impression of a dark spot—a black hole—in the middle of the patterns, about halfway up the “sky.” Even though these effects are not phosphenes, they seemed even more like them. Phosphenes for me, however, usually play out on a distinctly black background that was not as evident here.

I remain amused by the liability release, the helpful female technicians in laboratory attire, the panic button, and all of the other ornamental elements of LACMA’s Perceptual Cell installation. A venture into the continuous and commonplace operation of the eye and brain is staged as an expedition into unknown territory, and in fact, as under the planetarium dome, the destination is infinity and beyond.

E. C. Krupp is an astronomer and the Director of Griffith Observatory. He will be in conversation with LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan on Tuesday, February 18, at 7:30 pm, as part of the Director’s Series. Reserve your tickets here.

Derelict Electronics at the Art + Technology Lab

February 12, 2014

Last weekend, we hosted our first workshop at the Art + Technology Lab for the public. Noise artist Ryan Jordan of Derelict Electronics, led the session, which centered on the construction of crystal amplifiers, solar cells, and diodes with raw minerals and detritus. Wielding glue guns and soldering irons, participants assembled their own custom instruments and then tested them out on a specially designed sound system in the Lab. Here are some photos from the fun and noisy afternoon.

Derelict Electronics participants at work on amplifiers and solar cells.

Derelict Electronics participants at work on amplifiers and solar cells.

The amplifiers made in the workshop were based on the design of the Adams Crystal Amplifier of 1933, a precursor to the modern transistor, now ubiquitous in the contemporary electronic and digital world.

The amplifiers made in the workshop were based on the design of the Adams Crystal Amplifier of 1933, a precursor to the modern transistor, now ubiquitous in the contemporary electronic and digital world.

Many of the instruments were also intended to be crude aesthetic objects in their own right.

Many of the instruments were also intended to be crude aesthetic objects in their own right.

Artist Ryan Jordan and a workshop participant test an amplifier.

Artist Ryan Jordan and a workshop participant test an amplifier.

The request for proposals just closed a few weeks ago, and we’re considering our first wave of proposals for artist grants in the Lab right now. We expect artists with projects in development will hold future workshops and demonstrations in the new facility. Watch this space for more information and upcoming programs.

Joel Ferree
Art + Technology Lab Program Manager

An Interview with Artist Hassan Hajjaj

February 10, 2014

Hassan Hajjaj, whose work My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume  I, 2012, is currently on view in the Ahmanson Building, also has a piece featured in the just-opened exhibition Fútbol: The Beautiful Game. The artist sat down with LACMA’s Erin Yokomizo to talk about My Rock Stars Experimental and his working process.

Erin Yokomizo: Hassan, your work is the focus of the current exhibition, Hassan Hajjaj: My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1, curated by Linda Komaroff, curator and department head of Art of the Middle East. The three-channel video installation features nine separately filmed performances by an international array of musicians—your “rock stars.” How did you select your subjects?

Hassan Hajjaj: All my subjects were people around me who I admire. Most of them are friends, or if not, they’re friends of friends; it kind of happened naturally. I was shooting stills for My Rock Stars, and I got to the point with a lot of them where I thought: how can I show these people why they’re rock stars?

Once I recognized this, I started to make a list of people around me that do this kind of thing and it happened from there. A lot of the people I’ve filmed are people from different parts of the world who either live in London or are passing through London or just living in London for a period of time, so it was set up documenting them in that period of time.

Hassan Hajjaj, My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1, 2012, Mandisa Dumesweni, purchased with funds provided by Art of the Middle East: CONTEMPORARY, courtesy of Rose Issa Projects

Hassan Hajjaj, My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1, 2012, Mandisa Dumesweni, purchased with funds provided by Art of the Middle East: CONTEMPORARY, courtesy of Rose Issa Projects

EY: You are also the creative vision behind each featured musician’s clothing as well as the tapestries used in their set designs. How much does each individual artist and personality influence what you select for them?

HH: I normally have things already made, and when I choose the person I’m shooting, I’ll work out the backdrop and what they’re going to wear. But saying that, some of the artists [in My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1] are wearing their own clothing. I couldn’t really touch them as they already had this flamboyance, this kind of rock-star character identity. If that’s the case, I might just add sunglasses, shoes, and socks to accessorize them. But I’d say 80% of it is all my design, and the others I just kind of add on to.

EY: I’ve seen background footage on how you shot My Rock Stars Experimental. I liked the fact that you documented the work in public and out on the street.

HH: All the Rock Stars stills and music are done in the street. I think one of the reasons I do it in the street is to capture that moment. If you have somebody performing in the street, you’re going to really see if they’re comfortable in their own skin. It’s a sense that they’re real rock stars: not aware of anything, they just go for it. Sometimes when I shoot, we’ll have crowds. I’ve had people jump in the stills to pose with the performers. For me, the street shoot is exciting; it makes my heart beat; it’s kind of “guerilla-cized.” You’re worried about the rain, you’re worried about the car noises . . . it keeps me in check.

EY: Your work has been shown in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East; and you’re having somewhat of an L.A. moment as well with the presentation here at LACMA, your one-man show at Gusford Gallery, and your work is also included in LACMA’s just-opened exhibition, Fútbol: The Beautiful Game. Do you find differences in the way your work is received around the world?

Hassan Hajjaj, My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1, 2012, Poetic Pilgrimage, purchased with funds provided by Art of the Middle East: CONTEMPORARY, courtesy of Rose Issa Projects

Hassan Hajjaj, My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1, 2012, Poetic Pilgrimage, purchased with funds provided by Art of the Middle East: CONTEMPORARY, courtesy of Rose Issa Projects

HH: I think the Rock Stars has been a fun show because it seems to be global. I think when you put art and music together most people like music and people take an interest in art. The response I’ve had from people has been quite incredible. What’s interesting is when you highlight a certain kind of people and you bring them into like a gallery. For example, in Dubai it’s more of an Arab country, there’s an expectation that you should have Arab art, so it was nice to kind of flip it and show something that’s worldly. It’s perceived in the same way; so far it’s been very positive.

EY: Speaking of the Fútbol exhibition, your work Feetbol is featured in the show. Do you have personal interest in the sport?

HH: 100%. That’s my favorite game to play, so I’m very happy to be part of another show at LACMA. Also, it’s the World Cup this year, and I think it’s incredible to highlight a sport and to bring it to a gallery. I’m definitely a big fan.

This Weekend at LACMA: L.A. PRINT 4.0, Contemporary Curator Franklin Sirmans in Conversation, Final Weekend of Monterey Park Art+Film Lab, and More!

February 7, 2014

Fuel your weekend with conversations, presentations, free film screenings and workshops, and world-class art. To start, take part in L.A. PRINT: 4.0, a panel discussion on fine-art printing and digital technology, on Saturday at 1 pm. On Sunday, at 2 pm, contemporary art department head and curator Franklin Sirmans, who organized Fútbol: The Beautiful Game, is in conversation with chief curator of contemporary art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Trevor Schoonmaker about soccer through the lens of art. Also, the first Art + Technology Workshop, Derelict Electronics with Ryan Jordan, takes place on Sunday at 11 am. Then of course Sundays Live, with conductor Maxim Eshkenazy at the helm of the Colburn Chamber Orchestra, at 6 pm on Sunday, will stimulate the senses. All programs are free and open to the public.

Ryan McIntosh, Lifespan of Technology, 2013, 2013, edition of 10, published by Intellectual Property Prints

Ryan McIntosh, Lifespan of Technology, 2013, 2013, edition of 10, published by Intellectual Property Prints

At the Monterey Park Art+Film Lab the bevy of free programs reaches the end of the line. This weekend community residents are invited to participate in two sessions of Oral History Drop-ins on Friday at 3 pm and later on Sunday at 12:30 pm; free screenings of the films The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada on Friday night and To Live on Saturday night; and a Mini-Docs Workshop on Saturday at noon, all at the East Los Angeles College site. We look forward to seeing Monterey Park residents at LACMA come April 6 for their Free Day at LACMA, the culminating component of each lab site. Our next stop: Hacienda Heights, beginning on February 21.

For more family fun, circle the wagons and check out the free family day at the Charles White Gallery near MacArthur Park, featuring the colorful exhibition Kaz Oshiro: Chasing Ghosts. For this project, artist Kaz Oshiro presents two of his medium-bending sculpture-paintings alongside pieces from LACMA’s collection, as well as a collaborative work between Oshiro and local-area students. Visit the gallery on Saturday at noon to join a tour of the exhibition and a hands-on art project. The weekly installment of Andell Family Sundays on Sunday at 12:30 pm at LACMA gives families another opportunity to spend the weekend sparking creativity.

Install shot of Kaz Oshiro: Chasing Ghosts, 2014, Los Angeles County Museum of Art   Artist Kaz Oshiro works with a student on a collaborative painting project.

Artist Kaz Oshiro works with a student on a collaborative painting project.

Lastly, see in our galleries the exhibitions Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to IconicJohn Divola: As Far as I Could Get, and the finals days (closing February 16) of Masterworks of Expressionist Cinema: ‘The Golem’ and Its Avatars.

Roberto Ayala

The Importance of Provenance

February 5, 2014

Every picture tells a story, as we all know. But with artworks the history of a picture’s journey through time also tells an important story. Where a picture has been, who its various owners were, and where it has been exhibited and published all reveal something about how it was valued, and how it was interpreted—that is to say, what the painting meant, even “said,” to those who experienced it in the past. The history of an object’s ownership is called its provenance, from the French word provenir, which means “to come from.”

The Nazi era in Germany (1933–1945) culminated in genocide and extraordinarily egregious violations of cultural norms, and a concerted effort has been made in recent decades among museums around the world to focus special attention on this era in assessing provenance. Few public museums in the United States have devoted more sustained attention to modern German art and the cultural destruction wrought by the Nazi regime than LACMA. We have a history of presenting groundbreaking exhibitions on modern German art, particularly “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (1991), the first major exhibition to explore the attack mounted by the National Socialists against modern art and artists; and Exiles + Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler (1997), which traced the migration of artists within Europe and to the United States. Both exhibitions were prepared by extensive research conducted by teams of experts and was accompanied by engaging public programming. LACMA has also presented exhibitions on many of the artists designated as “degenerate” and persecuted, including German Expressionist Sculpture (1983); German Expressionism, 1915–1925: The Second Generation (1988); The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Ludwig Meidner (1989); Nolde: The Painter’s Prints (1995); and most recently Hans Richter: Encounters (2013), as well as more than 50 exhibitions organized by the Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies. You can read in full the catalogues to some of these exhibitions and others in LACMA’s online Reading Room. Projects by other institutions in Los Angeles include the Getty Research Institute’s Provenance Index® databases as well as its ongoing acquisition of Holocaust-Era Research Resources.

These projects and similar endeavors in German museums, as well as a growing and already vast scholarly literature on the subject of Nazi cultural policies, provide not only a picture of cultural destruction and looting on an almost unimaginable scale, but an understanding of the roles of those who must be held accountable. Additionally, these projects shed light on the moral complexities faced by art dealers, museum officials, journalists, and even artists themselves as they saw what was once a highly cultivated world of culture disintegrating around them.

Max Beckmann, Bar, Brown, 1944, © Max Beckmann Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn

Max Beckmann, Bar, Brown, 1944, gift of Robert and Mary M. Looker, © Max Beckmann Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn

LACMA was recently gifted a painting whose provenance is instructive in understanding the complexities of this tragic era. Like thousands of paintings now hanging in public museums and private collections, Max Beckmann’s Bar, Brown (1944), previously discussed on Unframed, passed through the hands of at least one art dealer who catered to the Nazi regime. These art dealers generally had two lines of business with the Nazis: disposing of modern art designated by the Nazis as “degenerate” in return for hard currency abroad, and providing traditional art of all periods to the Nazi elite, and especially to Hitler’s huge museum project planned for city of Linz. It has been documented by the Art Looting Investigation Unit that some 68 dealers in Germany alone sought works for this massive museum. Holland, where Beckmann sought refuge in 1937 upon hearing Hitler’s tirade at the opening of the Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition, became under German occupation one of the busiest and hottest markets for traditional art—and especially old master works—so much so that prices on the Dutch art market were artificially inflated.

Yet Jewish families, collectors, and dealers were not able to benefit from this situation. They fled Holland and were forced to sell at ludicrously low prices, or worse, were transported to concentration camps to face certain death, while dealers were given license to loot the collections they left behind. In about 1937 the Nazis commissioned a select group of dealers (slightly more than a half a dozen), principally renowned firms, to dispose of “degenerate art” purged from state collections. The most visible event was an auction in 1939 of 125 paintings and sculptures at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne. While a number of the works sold at this auction have returned to German museums, masterpieces by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Henri Matisse, and Franz Marc now hang in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Basel Kunstmuseum, the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Norton Simon Museum, and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

As thousands more modern works were confiscated and sold, prices dropped and dealers selling on commission did not reap the profits that they had initially envisioned, unless they could sell in volume. Ironically, many of these dealers had been champions of modernism and rightly feared that works that were not exported (or somehow concealed) would be destroyed (as many thousands of objects were). Among these dealers were Ferdinand Möller (who had specialized in Die Brücke), Günter Franke (who retained and hid from the Nazis his Nolde watercolors), Bernhard Böhmer (a specialist in Ernst Barlach), and Hildebrand Gurlitt, the first owner of Max Beckmann’s Bar, Brown. (In 2012, over a thousand works by Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, among others, were discovered hidden for reasons as yet unknown in the possession of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius.) As director of the König-Albert-Museum in Zwickau in the 1920s, Gurlitt had organized exhibitions on Max Pechstein, Käthe Kollwitz, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Emil Nolde, among others. He continued to support modernism as managing director of the Hamburg Kunstverein (Art Association) until he was forced to resign by the Nazis in 1933, the same year Beckmann was dismissed from his post as professor in Frankfurt. Although designated by the Nuremberg laws as a “quarter-Jew,” Gurlitt’s connections for selling modern art were valuable to the Nazis. Gurlitt faced what Jonathan Petropoulos, a leading authority on the subject, has aptly called a Faustian bargain: by trading with the Nazis he could rescue modernist works from destruction by selling them abroad.

Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired Bar, Brown directly from Beckmann; it was not confiscated from a public museum nor looted from a private collection. At the time Gurlitt acquired it, Beckmann and his wife were living in desperate conditions in occupied Amsterdam. Selling off personal possessions to survive, he and his wife, Mathilde (“Quappi”), lived for a time in the home of Helmuth Lütjens, the Amsterdam representative of Berlin’s Cassirer gallery. Lütjens arranged for many of Beckmann’s paintings to be stored in the gallery warehouse, where they would be better protected from confiscation. He had been tipped off to this possibility by another important dealer in Beckmann’s life, Erhard Göpel, who, like Gurlitt, was connected by trade to the Nazis. Göpel twice arranged for Beckmann (lastly at age 60) to be exempted from the draft, and Beckmann gave him artworks in gratitude on both occasions.

It is unlikely that Beckmann or his dealers reaped great returns selling art in Germany, given that most “degenerate” artists were legally prohibited from working, selling, or even obtaining art-making materials; Beckmann’s son, Peter, serving in Germany’s medical corps, had to smuggle works from Holland to Beckmann’s loyal buyers in Germany. Nonetheless, Beckmann received vital financial support from German patrons such as Georg Hartmann, who, through Göpel’s efforts, commissioned Beckmann’s portfolio of lithographs, Apocalypse, to be printed in Frankfurt in a small edition to avoid Nazi detection. Göpel had bought five paintings from Beckmann between 1942 and 1944, and he and Gurlitt acquired another five works in September 1944, when Göpel left Holland for good. It is not known if Bar, Brown was included in this group. Mayen Beckmann, Max Beckmann’s granddaughter, was quoted recently in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that she says the work has a “clean” history and that she has no plans to reclaim the painting, while noting, “Of course Max Beckmann would have preferred to be in the U.S. by then and to be in a situation that would have enabled him to get a better price for the painting.” (“Private Geschäfte,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 1, 2014, page 35.) After the war, Beckmann’s dealers continued their support, with Göpel writing the authoritative catalogue raisonné on Beckmann, and Gurlitt organizing retrospectives for Beckmann in 1947 at Frankfurt’s Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie and in 1950 at Düsseldorf’s Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen.

Peter Beckmann and Hildebrand Gurlitt at the 1950 exhibition

Peter Beckmann and Hildebrand Gurlitt at the opening of the Max Beckmann exhibition in Düsseldorf in February 1950.

Bar, Brown was included in both exhibitions. After the war, Beckmann valued Gurlitt as an art dealer, advising his first wife, Minna Beckmann-Tube, in a letter of January 1, 1950: “For the sale of my recent paintings I believe that H. Gurlitt is the most appropriate person. He is clever and has a fine feeling for art and is fair.” As the painting’s provenance shows, Gurlitt never sold the painting: it was inherited by Gurlitt’s wife upon his death in 1956. The work was offered for sale at public auction in Stuttgart in 1960, but remained unsold. After her death in 1968, it was purchased from her estate by Galerie Roman Ketterer in 1971, from whence it was sold at Sotheby’s in Munich on October 28, 1987, to collectors Marvin and Janet Fishman of Milwaukee. The painting was among the works featured in a traveling show of the Fishman Collection, organized in 1990 at the Milwaukee Museum of Art that subsequently toured to Berlin, Frankfurt, Emden, New York, and Atlanta before being sold at Sotheby’s London, on October 18, 2000, where it was purchased by Robert and Mary M. Looker, who generously donated the painting to LACMA in November 2013. From its initial exhibition to its public sales at auction and in connection with each subsequent exhibition, the provenance of Bar, Brown has been well documented.

Timothy O. Benson, Curator, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies


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