The Art—and Audaciousness—of War

October 8, 2008

1918, Joseph Christian Leyendecker

Iconic, striking, colorful, surprising, propagandistic, bold, poignant, beautiful, inappropriate, funny, historic—these are some of the adjectives that popped into my head while looking at the amazing selection of posters from World Wars I and II featured in The Art of War, a small but choice exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum (through January 26). We are not used to seeing government-sponsored art promoting unity, sacrifice, patriotism, or America’s allies, so these images registered for me in startling, even funny, ways, especially given our current political and economic situation. The early posters were often by painter/illustrators and reproduced contemporary paintings created for the specific theme, such as J. C. Leyendecker’s Order Coal Now from 1918. The posters from World War II are stylistically more graphic (as in advertising), even cinematic. The World Cannot Exist Half Slave and Half Free is an astonishing image from 1942 that channels Simon Legree, Abraham Lincoln, and Hollywood-style horror.

1918, James Daugherty; images courtesy Norton Simon Museum

1918, James Daugherty; images courtesy Norton Simon Museum

One of my favorites is by a little-known modern artist, James Daugherty, who actually features significantly in my (in-progress) dissertation on Thomas Hart Benton. But it was Daugherty’s vividly colored image, not the name recognition, which drew me to his poster, THE SHIPS ARE COMING. Picture this: a fleet of half a dozen or so massive war ships are powering full steam ahead, churning through a teal-colored river that looks about to careen dramatically over, yet cling to, the curvature of the earth. Rising above this unknown beyond is a giant, blazing red-orange sun, molten and bubbling at the edges. Above it all? A screaming eagle. Yes, a screaming eagle—talons clawed, wings spread, blood red and orange-yellow tail feathers flared, beak wide open—a proto-Technicolor version of the one that swoops across every opening of The Colbert Report. I died laughing. I don’t know why, but that screaming eagle flying over “Colbert Nation” just never gets old. I always laugh. And here was 1918’s version!

Austen Bailly

The Exile Cinema of Edward Yang

October 7, 2008

Of the blows cinema suffered in 2007, a year when it lost Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, perhaps none hurt me more than the sudden passing of Edward Yang at the age of 59. After receiving his first-ever full U.S. release with the roundly praised and awarded Yi Yi (aka A One and a Two) in 2000, at the time of his death Yang had yet to produce a follow-up.

Yang was actually based in Los Angeles for a long time and is even buried here. Though born on mainland China, Yang’s life was split between Taiwan and the U.S.; his time here increased as he grew disillusioned with the film industry in his homeland. Though all of his works are rooted in the specificity of Taipei’s perpetual urban reinvention, he eventually returns to the city of his youth as if from exile. I hear that Yi Yi has not been released there to this day.

Yang’s parents remain in Seattle, where he studied to be an engineer and, anecdote has it, was initiated to the pleasure dome of cinema through the epic atmospherics of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Yang’s own films (he made seven features) are set amidst an equally dynamic environment, though high-rise-crowded vistas and poured concrete panoramas replace Herzog’s tropical luxuriance.

It’s no surprise that Gao Wendong’s new film Sweet Food City pays tribute to Yang. Set in an unvaryingly decrepit complex that encompasses cramped flats and ramshackle storefronts, it’s a picture-perfect microcosm for the megalopolises that Yang saw on the horizon.

I’m pleased we’re paying tribute at LACMA to this under-screened and increasingly prescient filmmaker, whom the world lost far too early.

Bernardo Rondeau

Obama and McCain on the Arts

October 7, 2008

A few bloggers have recently written about the arts policies (or lack thereof) of the presidential candidates. Obama has had a pretty substantial issue statement on his website for some time now; in the last few days, McCain, who had not formally addressed the issue, released a paragraph-length statement on the topic to the Salt Lake Tribune. For those of you who are thinking of the arts as the election approaches, take a look at the grid recently disseminated by the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, which succinctly sums up the positions of each candidate.

Allison Agsten

Hard Targets, New Media

October 6, 2008

In the summer of 2005, I produced CNN’s coverage of the King Tut show here at LACMA. I was at the museum for a few days interviewing curators, shooting footage, and coordinating our live shots that began very early in the morning, well before the museum was open. To be in the quiet, uninhabited galleries was nothing short of magical. I thought, “This is what it’s all about—having a personal communion with art.” So, I want to share that experience with you, what it’s like to be behind the scenes, and more specifically, to watch a show come to fruition—what the curator is experiencing, the artists are contemplating, etc.

Check in as I Twitter daily (or near daily) about the ins and outs of installing Contemporary Projects 11: Hard Targets—Masculinity and Sport (opening this Thursday) and take a look at our YouTube interviews with some of the artists. It’s a fun group to say the least. And for more on the exhibition and the museum projects series in general, Senior Curatorial Fellow Howard Fox enlightens us with a scholarly article available on LACMA Wiki. Even more to come soon.

In the meantime here’s what artist Shaun El C. Leonardo had to say about getting pummeled by a bunch of semi-pro football players in his upcoming opening-night performance piece for the show.

Allison Agsten

Small Pleasures in the Permanent Collection

October 3, 2008

The first time I wandered through LACMA’s modern art galleries (when they were reinstalled back in January) was almost overwhelmingly stimulating. Perhaps that’s why, as I walked from a gallery of twenty Picassos to a gallery of eleven imposing Giacommettis, I turned a corner and halted at a small, 5×4 inch scrap of stationery with nothing more than a list of words neatly written down the left side:

The list was one of ten similar notepad sketches, each a variation on a group of shapes with or without these ten words crammed inside. I must have stared at these drawings for ten minutes, transfixed by the repetition and variation.

Stuart Davis, Studies for Package Deal, 1956, gift of Earl Davis

I took the drawings in as if they were an artwork in and of themselves; it wasn’t until I went back to the gallery later that week that I realized these were preparatory sketches for Stuart Davis’s Premiere—merely one of the most well-known paintings in LACMA’s collection, and hanging on the opposite wall!

Stuart Davis, Premiere, 1957, museum purchase, Art Museum Council Fund

Don’t tell anyone, but I like the sketches more than the painting. Maybe it’s the simplicity, the unconsciousness of the blue ballpoint pen on the yellowing notepaper, with the notations in the margins, ink smudges, and wobbly lines; maybe it’s seeing them as a group. I could pore over these drawings all day looking at the small differences.

I went back to look at them yet again before writing this post, and my favorite—that simple list—was gone. It took me a few moments to realize that there were now ten entirely new sketches, still in preparation for the same painting. A quick check reveals that we actually have twenty-eight of Davis’s sketches in our collection—all of which you can see here (though the smudged ink looks nicer in person).

Scott Tennent

Mystery Train

October 2, 2008

Train, work in progress, © Jeff Koons

It’s inevitable, I suppose. Offer to suspend an extremely large object high above a public place, and people will talk about it. I’m referring to LACMA’s plan to build the Jeff Koons sculpture Train, a notion that became public in February 2007 and has been resurfacing every once in a while ever since. It was mentioned in coverage of this week’s Phase II announcement, and Esquire just predicted that Train will be the first iconic monument of the new century—”if it indeed gets built.”

Train would be a lifesize replica of a 1940s steam locomotive, suspended from a 161-foot-high crane. Three times a day it would perform: wheels churning, whistle sounding, smoke blowing.

At a talk that unveiled the project, Koons recalled his moment of inspiration. He was in Sweden, trying to come up with an idea for a site. ” I really didn’t have any ideas, but I saw off in the distance a crane out in the field,” he said. “And I thought, you know, the crane’s such a great image, it’s a wonderful readymade, it’d be really nice to do something with it. And I guess also, on kind of a subconscious level, it’s like a Led Zeppelin stairway to heaven or something.”

But will it get built? It sounds like it will, though not soon (installation is projected for 2012). John Bowsher, LACMA’s director of special art installations, told me that the feasibility study should be finished this fall, and the next step would be a high resolution scan of the 2900 series locomotive, an example of which has been found in Albuquerque. “This will be the first step in reverse-engineering in order to fabricate the locomotive,” Bowsher wrote in an email. “It will be a long lead process. Current estimates are 8-10 months to complete the scanning and create the digital files.”

Tom Drury

Why I’m Crazy for Fabiola

October 1, 2008

Though my job at LACMA is to promote the museum’s programming, there’s one exhibition I almost hope our visitors don’t know about. I think the serendipitous discovery of Francis Alÿs: Fabiola is about as rewarding an experience as a patron could have here. Not only is this gem of an exhibition thoroughly interesting in and of itself, but it also touches on context in a very powerful way, which is why stumbling upon it is such a treat.

A little background on the show—contemporary artist Alÿs has assembled a collection of nearly identical paintings and other depictions of fourth-century Saint Fabiola, all based on a renowned lost portrait by nineteenth-century painter Jean-Jacques Henner. I was hooked there. Then I saw the installation. I’m no art critic, but the perfectly proportioned blue room in the European galleries is an ideal fit for these objects. And it’s not accidental: Alÿs very clearly specified the space in which they were to be shown, which is pretty atypical. Artists don’t usually choose the galleries their work is shown in; curators do. As you’ll see in the picture in this post, Alÿs selected the European galleries, which are filled with venerated works.

So now, imagine this… walking through the European galleries, passing huge oil paintings by Paolo Veronese, a formidable marble sculpture from the sixteenth century, and then, suddenly, happening upon this group of works—one of the staff favorites is made from colored beans—and experiencing the juxtaposition of European masterworks and objects collected from flea markets, antique shops, and elsewhere. The juxtaposition of high to low, which has been elevated to high, is pure magic to me.

Allison Agsten

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