New Acquisition: 16th-Century Peruvian Textile

April 22, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

Peru, Inka (1450–1532) or early colonial period (16th century), Mantle or Hanging, 1500–1600, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

The austere geometry of the checkerboard, rendered in a singular, virtuoso weaving technique, indicates that this impressive textile was made to be displayed in a prestigious political or religious context. Textiles, the most important commodity in the ancient Andean world, were an integral part of all tribute, taxation, religion, political ceremony, birth, marriage, and death. The powerful visual impact of this cloth mosaic in its reductive color range is heightened by the metaphorical significance of the brown and white squares—symbolizing the ancient Andean belief in dynamic dualism, reciprocity, and complementarity between cosmic forces and the natural realm.

Woven in a meticulous technique in which neither warps nor wefts extend across the entire cloth, the textile was created with “scaffold” threads (which were later removed) that formed a temporary grid upon which to weave each miniscule square, less than an inch in size, separately. The fabric was assembled by the process of interlocking the warps and wefts of each adjacent square—forming a single cloth from the sum of many parts. In the history of world textiles, the multifaceted technique of discontinuous warp and weft was practiced only in the Andes.

Diagram of discontinuous warp and weft.

Peru, Inka (1450–1532) or early colonial period (16th century), Mantle or Hanging, 1500–1600, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Dynamic dualism, represented in the textile by juxtaposed light and dark squares, was a fundamental principal of ancient Andean thought. In this cosmological principle the universe was organized of contrasting but complementary opposites, and balance was attained by the interchange between the two. Balanced, harmonious existence was achieved through reciprocity, or interdependence of all human activity; in the harsh Andean environment, life was established on reciprocal relationships between family, co-workers, the administration, and the ruler, and on relationships that extended over the disparate geographies from the jungles of eastern Peru, to the Andes, to the dry desert coast. Reciprocity, symbolized by this complex textile, is expressed in the interweaving of more than a thousand fully finished squares—independent, yet interdependent—suggesting unity of the individual and the community.

The Andes

Desert coast of southern Peru.

An aesthetic object that signifies universal order, this textile is based on the same grid matrix woven into Andean textiles over a span of two thousand years. Remarkably, such an extraordinary example of the weaver’s art, more than 450 years old, could be mistaken for an artwork produced in the last half of the twentieth century.

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1964, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Barry Lowen Collection

For LACMA, with holdings in art from all over the world, this stunning Inka textile is a quintessential example of the aesthetic bond that unites time, space, and cultural diversity. It is tentatively slated to go on view this fall.

Kaye Spilker, Curator, Costume and Textiles


New Acquisition: Three Casta Paintings by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz

April 21, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino (De español y morisca, albino), c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

 Casta (“caste”) painting is one of the most compelling forms of artistic expression from colonial Mexico. These three works belong to a set of castas by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz that originally had sixteen scenes (over time many sets have been disassembled), and it is one of the finest of the genre. Morlete Ruiz was an influential member of a painting academy established in Mexico in the mid-eighteenth century, who was deeply attuned to ideas of pictorial innovation.

What makes the paintings so exceptional is what they illustrate three centuries before multiculturalism became fashionable: the intermingling of races in colonial society. Each scene depicts a family group with parents of different races and one of their children. During the colonial period Indians, Spaniards born in Spain as well as the New World (the latter known as Creoles), and Africans brought over as slaves all populated Mexico. The result was that a large percentage of the population became mixed, known collectively as castas (or “castes” in English)—from where the genre derives its name.

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, From Spaniard and Albino, Return Backwards (De español y albino, torna atrás), c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Casta paintings were largely produced for a European audience to classify and create order of an increasingly mixed society. This is especially important because in Europe there existed the widespread idea that all the inhabitants of the Americas (regardless of race) were degraded hybrids, which called into question the purity of blood of Spaniards and their ability to rule the colony’s subjects. Casta painting responds to this anxiety by constructing a view of an orderly society bound by love (hence the use of the familial metaphor), but one that was hierarchically arranged and that featured Spaniards at the top.

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, From Spaniard and Return Backwards, Hold Yourself Suspended in Mid Air (De español y torna astrás, tente en el aire), c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

In his works, Morlete Ruiz situates the mixed couples in elaborate landscape settings and pays careful attention to the figures’ clothing and attributes. For example, some Spanish men hold a sword—a privilege that in colonial legislation was only reserved to this group—while some women sport a manga, a cape that resembles an inverted skirt fit from the head, worn exclusively by women of African descent ( it was adapted from a similar garment worn by Moorish women in Spain).

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, From Spaniard and Albino, Return Backwards (De español y albino, torna atrás), c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee (detail)

In addition to presenting a typology of human races, occupations, and dress, casta paintings picture the New World as a land of boundless natural wonder through precise renderings of native products, flora, and fauna. Morlete Ruiz’s works include an assortment of local fruits such as avocados. Products like these underscored the colonists’ pride in the diversity and prosperity of the colony, and at the same time they fulfilled Europe’s curiosity about the “exoticism” of the New World. In addition, they reflect the popularity of classificatory theories introduced by the Enlightenment and the interest in natural history.

Native American and Watermelons, from Charles de Rochefort, Histoire naturalle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amerique (Roterdam, 1658).

This print, for instance, was included in a seventeenth-century book about the natural history of the New World. The artist resorts to the same formula of juxtaposing human types with local flora, except that here he includes a group of giant melons. This is in keeping with the general idea that Europe had of the Americas as an unusually hot place due to its geographic location, one where nature and people (regardless of their racial makeup) ripened and spoiled quickly. The overgrown fruit points to the unruly superabundance of the land and to its quick degradation.

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, From Spaniard and Return Backwards, Hold Yourself Suspended in Mid Air (De español y torna astrás, tente en el aire), c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee (detail)

Casta paintings respond to this idea by emphasizing the natural bounty of the Americas, and by emphasizing the superiority of Spaniards. If people degenerated, it was not due to the heat of the region (hence Spaniards where not affected), but to where they fell in the racial scaffolding—that is, to their type of mixture.

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, From Spaniard and Albino, Return Backwards (De español y albino, torna atrás), c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee (detail)

Indeed, the basic premise of the castas genre as articulated through its inscriptions, is that the successive combination of Spaniards and Indians resulted in a vigorous race of unadulterated white Spaniards after three generations. The combination of Spaniards or Indians with blacks, however, led to racial degeneration and the impossibility of returning to a whiter racial pole. This inscription, for example, refers to the mixture of a Spanish male and an Albino woman (Albinos were misguidedly believed to descend from blacks), which beget a torna atrás, literally a return-backwards, an expression by which was meant that their offspring receded in the racial hierarchy by moving away from the “whiteness” of pure Spaniards.

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, From Spaniard and Albino, Return Backwards (De español y albino, torna atrás), c. 1760, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee (detail)

What makes casta paintings so compelling is the tension between the story they tell and how they tell it. On the one hand the works rank each racial group and articulate its place within an “invented” racial order. At the same time these are highly estheticized paintings that function as proud renditions of the local: their exquisite assortment of fruits and textiles alone make them fascinating images of the material culture of the period. And one cannot fail either to notice the great tenderness among the figures which serves to mask any sense of racial tension.

In 2004 I organized an exhibition of these fascinating works at LACMA titled Inventing Race: Casta Painting and Eighteenth-Century Mexico. Since then, we are constantly asked by the public about the works and whether we have any in the collection. Now we do! These paintings by one of Mexico’s most notable eighteenth-century masters will provide an important anchor to discuss the origin of racial perceptions and their ongoing effects in today’s society—a subject that is especially poignant in a city like LA. We will feature the paintings soon, in an upcoming reinstallation of our Spanish colonial galleries among many of our recent acquisitions. Stay tuned.

Ilona Katzew, Curator and Co-Department Head, Latin American Art


New Acquisition: Donald Judd, Prototype Desk

April 21, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.  

Donald Judd, Prototype Desk, 1978, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Donald Judd, one of the most significant artists of the latter half of the twentieth century, is often acknowledged as an originator of Minimalism, a style developed in the 1960s and characterized by the extreme reduction of form to simple repeated geometries, free from any historical references or narrative. Judd’s principal preoccupation was form in space, which, in “Specific Objects”, an eponymous essay of 1965, he called work that was “neither painting nor sculpture” but “challenges both.” As early as the mid-1960s, Judd demonstrated his belief that the space surrounding his work was equally essential to the viewer’s experience, carefully installing his own art (and that of others) in his home in New York. By the mid-1970s Judd included the design of architecture, furniture, and ceramics in his artistic practice.

This conviction led to a project of enormous ambition—the adaptive reuse of historic buildings (former industrial and army facilities as well as commercial and residential structures) in Marfa, a small town in the West Texas desert. There, from the 1970s until his death in 1994, Judd converted largely abandoned and unused buildings into living spaces, studios, and museum galleries for his own art as well as the art of several of his colleagues. His first major project was to convert a city block with two airplane hangers into a studio and residence for himself and his two young children. Unable to find furniture locally that suited his architecture, he decided to make his own, beginning in 1978 with beds and a pair of desks for his daughter and son.

The design of the prototype desk (this example made for his son, and later put into limited production) relates strongly to the formal logic of Judd’s box sculptures. Simple butt-joined pine boards are deliberately arranged and divided in regular measures by planes in the form of shelves, legs, and a desktop. The desk, with its repetition of planes and divisions, delineates space in a complex rhythm of surfaces and edges. Its open shelves (instead of drawers) a reflection of Judd’s commitment to visual transparency, the desk is one of the very few pieces made by the artist himself.

Two years earlier, Judd had made a series of fifteen plywood boxes of equal exterior dimension, each varied in open, closed, and divided interior volumes. (These boxes are now a centerpiece of the Dia Art Foundation collection.) One example from the series features a lifted top plane echoing the floating double planes of the desktop. The plywood boxes became the prototypes for Judd’s monumental series of 100 milled-aluminum boxes in the two former artillery sheds at Marfa he modified to house them—a virtual symphony of Euclidian geometry and an ideal symbiosis between art and architecture, space and light. As one ensemble, the building and the sculptures comprise the masterpiece of Judd’s oeuvre.

The prototype desk became a starting point for a whole series of indoor and outdoor furniture. Judd’s ideas about the integral relationship between art and architecture extend the principals of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total design unity) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Arts and Crafts movement. Judd  admired the movement and shared its goal to integrate art and life. With the acquisition of this rare desk, LACMA can now display a work seminal to Judd’s critically influential philosophy about the nature of art and design.

Wendy Kaplan, Curator and Department Head, Decorative Arts and Design


New Acquisition: Craig Kauffman, Untitled (1969)

April 20, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

One of the original Ferus Gallery artists who helped put Los Angeles on the art world map—the one who, according to fellow Ferus artist Billy Al Bengston, “showed us the way”—Craig Kauffman is best known for the sensuously painted-plastic hybrids between painting and sculpture that he made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Associated with both the Southern California Light and Space and Finish Fetish movements, Kauffman—like many of his SoCal contemporaries—to a great degree faded from public view in the 1980s and 1990s. Only with the rise of Los Angeles as one of the major centers of contemporary artistic production in the 1990s and early 2000s has significant attention been directed once again to an earlier generation of L.A. artists, including Kauffman.

Craig Kauffman, Untitled, 1969, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, photo by Vicki Phung Smith, courtesy of the Estate of Craig Kauffman and the Frank Lloyd Gallery

The works in Kauffman’s loop series (ten total, each a different color or combination of two colors) function as both painting and sculpture and seem to hover in space, suspended as they are out from the wall. His use of industrial materials and fabrication techniques for the bent and lacquered plastic of Untitled, combined with his traditional painterly use of color, allowed Kauffman to achieve what noted art historian and critic Barbara Rose has called “a kind of abstract eroticism that is purely visual.” Most of Kauffman’s loops have either been hidden in collections for decades or were kept by the artist, so the series has remained fairly unknown and unseen until recently.

Kauffman’s use of plastic as a sculptural medium was informed not only by technological advances developed by the local aerospace industry in the 1950s and 1960s but also by his knowledge of modern masters such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Naum Gabo, pioneers in the use of an earlier generation of plastics for their sculptures. Similarly, Kauffman’s interest in rich and sensual colors came out of his lifelong love of Henri Matisse who, Kauffman once said, “has always been my favorite painter.” The transparency of the loops may owe to Kauffman’s having seen Marcel Duchamp’s signature Large Glass in the French artist’s seminal 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum.

Kauffman—and his loops in particular—will be included in two major upcoming shows this fall (at the Getty and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego) both part of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-sponsored exhibitions initiative throughout Southern California, highlighting the significance of art in Los Angeles in the postwar decades. Our new acquisition is also planned to go on view at LACMA this fall.

Carol S. Eliel, Curator, Modern Art


New Acquisition: 13th–14th Century Painted Panel

April 20, 2011

This weekend LACMA added eight new works to its collection through its annual Collectors Committee events. All week on Unframed our curators will be highlighting the objects just acquired.

Painted Panel, Mexico, Oaxaca/Guerrero border region, 1200–1400, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee

Rare in its scale and in its elaborate imagery, this painted panel derives from an archaeologically little-known area of southwestern Mexico. Its palette of strong primary colors and the prominent use of step-fret imagery throughout its composition, however, identify it as an extraordinary example of the artistic tradition referred to as the International Style, which dominated Mesoamerica during the Late Postclassic period (AD 1200–1400). The International Style originated in the present-day states of Oaxaca and Puebla and spread throughout much of Mexico via an extensive network of commercial and cultural trade routes. These networks, closely linked to the veneration of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, transcended ethnic identities and united disparate areas of Mesoamerica.

The unique aesthetic of the International Style characterizes work in all media from this period. Its specific motifs appear across Mexico, from ceramics from the Pacific coastal state of Nayarit to the murals of Mayapan in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula to the turquoise mosaics produced in Oaxaca, testifying to the extent to which royal houses were driven to seek new materials in order to maximize the value of their works within the highly competitive gift economy that supported their political alliances. The style also characterizes the system of pictorial communication that allowed peoples speaking diverse languages to communicate with each other and to participate in a widely shared set of religious practices and beliefs.

The face of this panel is divided into three registers, each showing a composite human-serpent figure as its central motif. The intertwined pairs of serpents in each register are animated with human arms and hands, each of which holds a sinuous serpent, while another serpent emerges from the “knot” of each intertwined pair. The registers are framed with a step-fret design painted in red on a white background after the ceramic panel was fired. The geometric pattern of the outer frame reveals the unusual use of brilliant yellow and orange pigments as well as red. The reverse side is severly eroded, suggesting that it may have been in contact with organic matter such as paper, cloth, or human remains, but the painted vestiges of a single richly dressed human figure are still visible.

Within the geographic range of the International Style, the artistic and cultural origins of the panel is confirmed by comparing it to ceramic vessels recovered by UCLA archaeologist Clement Meighan during his excavations at Amapa, Nayarit in the 1950s. Like the panel, many of the objects feature intertwined serpents and step-fret designs and were painted after firing in the same strong primary color scheme. The origins and spread of the International Style is a primary topic of the upcoming exhibition Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico, opening in April 2012, in which the painted panel will figure prominently.

Virginia Fields, Senior Curator and Co-Department Head, Latin American Art


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