Looking at Armor

December 8, 2008

Given the chance I will usually look at suits of armor. I love the samurai armor in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, often visit the Arms and Armor galleries when at the Met, and lately have been studying the four shining examples in the Hearst exhibition, trying to figure out what makes them interesting. I began with the thesis that they’re funny, but that’s not it: they’re more strange than funny, the original Transformers, an alien version of the human form. Hearst the Collector is a great place to ponder the contrast; the armored figures stand like sentinels at an intersection that leads in every direction to images of graceful humans, or goddesses in human form.

Armor in the Gothic Style, Germany (Augsburg), c. 1485 and later (detail), The Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of the Hearst Corporation

The Hope Hygieia, Rome, mid-2nd century (detail), LACMA, William Randolph Hearst Collection

Armor in the Gothic Style, Germany (Augsburg), c. 1485 and later (detail), The Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of the Hearst Corporation

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Antonio Canova, Italy, Venus Italica, c. 1804-14 (detail), Hearst Castle/California State Parks

The other thing that interests me about armor is: it seems like it would be difficult to fight while wearing it—hard to move and even harder to see what you’re doing. I’ve researched this a bit and am amazed to find a scholar who sort of agrees. In A History of Warfare, the historian John Keegan writes,

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that, even in its heyday in the fifteenth century, knightly warfare was not what it seems to us or what its devotees believed it ought to be at the time…. The idea that armoured knights, riding knee to knee with couched lances in dense waves of successive ranks, could have charged home against each other without instantaneous catastrophe to both sides at the moment of impact defies belief.

Keegan thinks plate armor was less suited to combat than to “the artificialities of the joust.”

Armor for the Tilt, Germany (Augsburg), c. 1580, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation

And yet, not so fast. The Met’s excellent FAQ on armor says that the immobility of knights in armor is a misconception—that field armor weighs less than the things modern soldiers carry and that “the famous French knight Jean de Maingre (ca. 1366-1421) known as Maréchal Boucicault… in full armor, was able to climb up the underside of a ladder using only his hands.” And I find that pretty fascinating too.

Tom Drury


Snapshot: Who’s at LACMA

December 5, 2008
Kansas, Ella, Vanessa, Toulah, Luna, Laura, Terry (teacher), Zach, Will

Kansas, Ella, Vanessa, Toulah, Luna, Laura, Terry (teacher), Zach, and Will | School group on a field trip

If you were an artwork, which one would you be and why?
Toulah: I’d probably be a ceramic bowl or something, maybe a plate, because I really enjoy ceramics and I think they’re very pretty.

Luna: Ditto. Or I could be a piece of photography, like a picture of something in nature; or a picture of the moon, because my name is Luna.

Terry: I’d be a jade mask from Mesoamerica, ’cause that’s my favorite time period in history, and I like the facial features that culture highlights in their art.

Zach: I’d have to say that I would be a seventeenth-century French galleon, at night, by a tropical island, on a full moon. Basically, I really enjoy little islands in the middle of nowhere, I enjoy the moon, and I’ve always loved classical ships.

Madame Boa and Finn

Madame Boa and Finn | Artists

Why did you come to the museum today?
Finn: Inspiration, fundamentally, I would say.
Madame Boa: Yeah, inspiration. We need to keep the flow trained as creative people, and everyone needs to, but especially when you’re creating art. Not necessarily to get ideas, but more to be around the energy of creation.

Michael and Cher | fashion designers from Liverpool

Michael and Cher | Liverpool fashion designers on their honeymoon

Has a piece of art ever made you laugh or cry?
Michael: I laughed at the Mona Lisa just because of how ridiculously small it was. You have something in your head, and it’s this big; but when I saw it in real life it was sort of a—not a let down, but you just sort of laugh about it and think, “God, that should be so much bigger.”

If you were a piece of artwork, which one would you be and why?
Cher: There is a sculpture in Liverpool, the Lamb and Banana, which I really like. It’s bright yellow, half banana and half lamb, and that’s really good fun.

Rachel Mullennix and Michael Storc


Protected: An Evocative Title

December 4, 2008

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Masculinity and Sport, Nineteenth-Century Edition

December 3, 2008

Hard Targets—Masculinity and Sport, which opened in October and runs through January 18, has me thinking about how artistry and athleticism have intersected in the past.

To me the unscripted intensity of Shaun El C. Leonardo’s Bull in the Ring, which he performed on Hard Targets‘ opening night, was paradoxically heightened by the precise choreography of the warm-up and drill and its ritualistic aspect, both athletic and artistic. All summer, Leonardo told us, he had been on a “strict nutrition plan and workout program just to be physically and mentally prepared… training and coaching with a team” for the performance. This “dualism,” as he calls it, between performance and sculpture, and art and reality, creates an amazing tension—one that is actually very present in a totally different kind of artwork in LACMA’s collection: Wrestlers, painted in 1899 by Thomas Eakins.

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Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, 1899, gift of Cecile C. Bartman and The Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation

Not unlike the aims of the football drill staged in the performance, Wrestlers alludes to what it took to be the best nineteenth-century academic artist, which meant being able to paint the human body masterfully. Artists had to train, practice, and study the body, paralleling the regimen of the male athletes and the coaches looking on whom Eakins depicts. For Wrestlers, Eakins photographed young men practicing at the gym, as another Hard Targets artist, Collier Schorr, does too.

 

Collier Schorr, Lives of Performers (G.R.), 2003, courtesy of the artist and 303 Gallery, New York, © Collier Schorr

Eakins also made an oil sketch in preparation for the final canvas. Just as Leonardo’s practice and Schorr’s photographs cannot assure the athletic triumph, Eakins’s artistic preparations cannot contain the tense aspects of his final painting. Strange details such as the cropped background figures, the two men fully locked in a wrestling move, and Eakins’s desire to render the male anatomy and the athletic ritual so exactingly demonstrate that more than a century later, Eakins’s Wrestlers is also a surprisingly hard target.

Austen Bailly


A Broken Dream Recovered

December 2, 2008

A refabrication of this famously broken Craig Kauffman work will make its debut in the Ahmanson Building on Thursday. We asked contemporary curator Howard Fox to write about the original, the new version, and the curatorial issues they inspire.

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Craig Kauffman, Untitled, 1967, © Estate of Craig Kauffman

LACMA is about to re-acquire a signature work by a major artist associated with the SoCal Light and Space movement of the 1960s and ’70s: Craig Kauffman’s 1967 Untitled Wall Relief, one of his best-known and widely illustrated works, made of spray-painted acrylic lacquer on vacuum-formed Plexiglas. Re-acquire? How can that be?

Longtime visitors to LACMA may be well-acquainted with the sleek, capsule-like, wall-bound object acquired as a gift of the Kleiner Foundation in 1973. Turgid and puffy, the plastic body of the work was spray-painted on its interior in a pinky-magenta color reminiscent of grape-flavored bubblegum or some exotic shade of nail polish and sported a tumescent banana-yellow streak bulging horizontally across its center. In his groundbreaking study of California art, Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970, first published in 1974, the artist/critic Peter Plagens celebrated Kaufman’s elegant yet audacious Plexiglas paintings, vaunting their “verily immoral color combinations (magenta/yellow, orange/blue)” and lauding them as “unashamedly perfumy objet[s] d’art.” LACMA’s wall relief—surely the piece Plagens had in mind when he invoked “magenta/yellow”—is arguably a signature work for this artist.

Untitled Wall Relief was exhibited many times in LACMA’s permanent collection and was featured in numerous important exhibitions, including LACMA’s 1981 survey Art in Los Angeles: Seventeen Artists in the Sixties; LACMA’s 2000 extravaganza, Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000; a Kauffman survey in La Jolla; and in other exhibitions in San Francisco, San Antonio, and Ft. Worth; and was last seen in Paris in the 2006 exhibition Los Angeles 1955–1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital at the Centre Pompidou.

There, a museum worker walked into the Level 6 special exhibition galleries one day to discover the work lying on the floor, severely—fatally—damaged. Sections at the edge had broken off in the fall leaving gaps as obvious as missing teeth, and though the rest of the object remained intact, it suffered multiple fractures and one out-and-out break as significant as the San Andreas Fault. The pristine sleekness of the piece—its very aesthetic integrity—was in ruin. To this day, nobody who investigated the unfortunate incident knows for sure how it occurred. And, except in forensic inquiry, how it happened really doesn’t matter. The work was lost. In the aftermath, LACMA, the Centre Pompidou, and the artist agreed that it was appropriate to attempt to re-fabricate the work under the artist’s supervision in Los Angeles. The Centre Pompidou worked directly with Kauffman to cover the costs of shipping and re-fabrication, while the Pompidou’s insurance paid LACMA the then-current market value of the work; the artist has graciously agreed to LACMA’s use of that sum to purchase the 2008 re-fabrication of Untitled Wall Relief.

To anyone familiar with the 1967 original, there is no question that this is its twin. And yet, there are significant differences. The coloration of the original was slightly more candy-like and goofy—what Plagens called “immoral” and “perfumy”—while this new incarnation is somewhat more ruby-tinted, like port wine, and its yellow is slightly more egg-yolky. Yet it is a vital piece in its own right, with all the edginess and spunk of the original. Purists and some aestheticians might question the notion of this new work’s authenticity, denouncing it as an “impostor” or a surrogate put forth in lieu of its lost forebear. Indeed, this wall relief of 2008 is a separate object; but it has the same artistic DNA: Kaufman himself cast the new work directly from the carcass of the original, and he mixed the colors himself. The re-fabrication was executed completely under Kauffman’s control, and he was satisfied with the result. The interests and hopes of both the artist and LACMA’s contemporary curators—to recover a lost work of art—were congruent. The artist’s satisfaction with the result informed LACMA’s curatorial thinking as well.

We may question how relevant elusive notions of authenticity are in this case. Since the 1960s, many artists working in such directions as minimalism, conceptual art, and new media have created artworks that are replicable without limit. Carl Andre arranges industrially manufactured copper and lead panels in checkerboard patterns on the floor but is not responsible for any other physical or formal aspect of his sculptures; Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings are formulated by written instructions conceived by the artist but executed by someone else; Lynn Hershman makes interactive works that exist only in cyberspace and are equally “authentic” when viewed or manipulated on anybody’s computer. In all these instances, the mythic hand of the artist—the inspired vision and unique virtuoso “touch” of the creative genius—are simply not a factor or an issue in the aesthetics of the art.

Similarly, Craig Kauffman’s Untitled Wall Relief, while unquestionably the creation of the artist’s aesthetic choices and sensibility, is fabricated by vacuum-formation, a mechanical process to shape plastic sheeting on a mold through the application of heat, pressure, and vacuum action. There are various technologies, some obsolete, to vacuform plastic and to spray-paint its colors, but they are industrial technologies, not ones associated with traditional ateliers. Kauffman’s 2008 wall relief is of course not the selfsame object as the 1967 original. Yet the new work is not necessarily to be regarded as less authentically a creation of Kauffman any more than photographic prints made from a master negative and printed long after the original picture has been taken are any less “authentic” than earlier prints—even if there are discernible differences among them and though vintage prints command a higher market value—as long as they are authorized by the photographer. Assertions about the sanctity of an initial iteration of a work can be misguided; in cases where the fabrication is largely mechanical and the artist has assented to the result, common sense should avoid “fetishizing” the original.

LACMA owns two other Plexiglas paintings by Craig Kauffman and many works on paper. With the mishap of the irreparable damage to Untitled Wall Relief of 1967, LACMA lost a significant work from its internationally respected collection of Southern California art. The work’s re-embodiment in this new object brings its history full circle and enables the work to remain represented in the collection.

Howard N. Fox
Senior Curatorial Fellow, Contemporary Art


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