Behind the Scenes: South and Southeast Asian Art Department

May 19, 2009

If I had to depict a curatorial space in a movie, I would model my set after LACMA’s South and Southeast Asian (SSEA) art office. While the entire collections of many other departments are tucked away in storage, a number of the SSEA objects are kept in this enviable space.

There’s something unreal about crossing the threshold from the galleries to the office and suddenly, surprisingly, encountering form beside function—a majestic, patinaed thirteenth-century statue next to the business-ubiquitous copy machine…


In a closer look at the sculpture, you can clearly see a scarf resting in its hand. It is a Tibetan kata (honorific presentation scarf) that the department received from the co-chair of the Southern Asian Art Council, Dr. Ruth Hayward. It’s customary to honor visiting Buddhist monks and high officials by presenting them with these textiles. Curator Stephen Markel draped the kata over the Buddha’s hand out of respect, and also to help keep visitors from bumping into the projecting hand.

Buddha Shakyamuni, c. 13th century, Art Museum Council Fund

Buddha Shakyamuni, c. 13th century, Art Museum Council Fund

The SSEA department really lives with its art. Here’s an eighteenth-century door frame. It no longer frames a door—rather, notices on emergency exits and procedures along with instructions for the aforementioned copier.

Door Frame,18th century, the Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky

Door Frame,18th century, the Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky

Treasures line the walls, including the area surrounding the conference table. For me, meetings become instantly enjoyable just by virtue of attending them in this space. In fact, I recently sat here to discuss the upcoming Indian Comics exhibition with the SSEA team and, though I’d been here many times before, I was just as in awe as ever.

Shivalinga, 17-18th century, gift of Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor

Shivalinga, 17-18th century, gift of Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor

Allison Agsten

Eleanor Antin’s Classical Frieze

May 18, 2009

Last Monday I had the pleasure of walking through art, literary, and cinematic histories with Eleanor Antin. The pioneering feminist artist was at the museum to install Classical Frieze, a video documenting three photographic series that occupied roughly eight years of her artistic output since 2000, as well as a sampling of those photographs. The occasion of Pompeii and the Roman Villa prompted discussions between the Contemporary Art curators and Antin about the prospect of showing selections from her forays into Roman history. Ironically, as Antin recounted to Artforum’s Brian Sholis back in 2008, it turns out that her path to Pompeii began on her southbound journey home from LACMA about ten years ago:

One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad.

Eleanor Antin, "The Golden Death," from the series "The Last Days of Pompeii," 2001

Eleanor Antin, "The Golden Death," from the series "The Last Days of Pompeii," 2001

Antin considers the photographs from the three related series (Last Days of Pompeii, Roman Allegories, and Helen’s Odyssey) “still movies,” as each involve the entire apparatus of a studio production and often replicate the bathos of Hollywood’s own historical epics, but with a much more sardonic bite. The video is a document of the involved choreography perfectly illustrating how (in art historian Amelia Jones’ words) Antin “engages the past by flirting with the fake.” You can see Antin describe these “still movies” in her own words in this scene from Art21, about Helen’s Odyssey:

In fact, Antin’s flirty engagement with the past goes back to her earliest series, The Angels of Mercy (1977), a meditation on the theatrical underpinnings of so-called documentary photography in which she cast herself and friends in a historical time swap supposedly set on the battlegrounds of the Crimean War. But as generally is the case in Antin’s oeuvre, there are multiple adaptations of style and genre at work. So to go back to that origin story for the Roman trilogy, you can imagine Antin driving through a landscape of postmodern architectural variations on the neo-classical in that blinding La Jolla sunshine and immediately making the mental leap to the decadence of Thomas Couture and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, not to mention that of Gore Vidal and Federico Fellini. And yet summoning all of these performative excesses together, Antin still manages to find wit and warmth amidst her evocation of our times (as modern day Romans) “living the good life on the verge of annihilation.”

Rita Gonzalez, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art

LACMA Oddities, the Quiz

May 14, 2009

Just as many of the objects in LACMA’s collection are steeped in history and lore, so is the museum itself. Here’s a little quiz to test your knowledge of our past. Thanks to the Collections Information Department and their Archives Project for unearthing these tantalizing tidbits.

1. Name two local artists hired in 1965 to help install the Ahmanson galleries (Hint: these artists are included in our Collections Online browse of Southern California artists featured in LACMA’s collection.)

2. Artist Claes Oldenburg said he was fascinated with the idea of working at this corporation because he “wanted to know what people who have been making animals without genitalia for thirty years are like.” To what corporation was Oldenburg referring? (Hint: Oldenberg partnered with this company for LACMA’s 1970 Art and Technology project.)

3. Speaking of Art and Technology, some artists were met with hostility at their partner corporations. For instance, when John Chamberlain asked for staff feedback at his host company, Rand Corporation, some employees didn’t hold back in expressing their opinion of the artist. Staff comments included “Drop dead”; “Why don’t you leave?”; “You’re fired”; and “You have a beautiful sense of color and a warped, trashy idea of what beauty and talent is.” While some of the indifference (or worse) directed toward certain artists may have been unwarranted, certain artists like George Brecht pushed the limits. Name two rather far-fetched projects conceived by Brecht with institutions JPL and Rand in mind.

4. Name the famous actress who was arrested for shoplifting $86 worth of merchandise from the May Company department store (now LACMA West) in 1966.

5. What industry award was won by the film Burn Hollywood Burn (not to be confused with our new Matta, Burn, Baby, Burn)—a film shot at the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits and starring Ryan O’Neal, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, Eric Idle, Whoopi Goldberg, and Coolio?

Renee Montgomery

Answers after the jump . . .

Read the rest of this entry »

Installing “Burn, Baby, Burn”

May 13, 2009

Following two previous posts in relation to this LARGE Matta painting, I wanted to share some images I took during the stretching and hanging of this monumental piece.

Under the supervision and direction of the Painting Conservation Department, conservators and art handlers unrolled and placed the painting on a custom-made stretcher covered with a loose lining (canvas support).




Once the painted canvas was correctly positioned on the stretcher, conservators then proceeded to attach it by stapling on the back side of the stretcher. This process requires a lot of pulling and tugging to make sure the painting is completely flat and wrinkle free.




After the attaching is done, the painting is lifted and hung on the wall by as many as ten people. All told, this feat was accomplished in about four hours.




Yosi Pozeilov, Senior Conservation Photographer

Installing Henry VIII

May 12, 2009

Yesterday, we installed seven large, lead-framed photographs at LACMA that constitute Hiroshi Sugimoto’s powerful Henry VIII and His Six Wives “portraits.”

When you first enter the dark gallery, you might be confused by what these pictures are—whether they depict actors dressed as Henry and his wives or whether they’re amazingly photorealistic paintings. They are, in fact, photographs of waxworks made by the legendary Madame Tussaud. For each, Sugimoto placed a black velvet cloth behind them and used a 3/4 turned and cropped framing of the “figures” akin to the first portrait photographers in the mid-nineteenth century. In so doing, Sugimoto breathes photographic life into the layers of simulation and equivalence of his historic subjects.


Henry VIII and His Six Wives, 1999
Seven gelatin-silver prints, edition 3/10
Courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
© Hiroshi Sugimoto


Catherine of Aragon
Queen of England, 1509–1533


Anne Boleyn
Queen of England, 1533–1536


Jane Seymour
Queen of England, 1536–1537


Anne of Cleves
Queen of England, 1540 (January–July)


Catherine Howard
Queen of England, 1540–1542


Catherine Parr
Queen of England, 1543–1547

I’m so pleased we were able to bring these works to LACMA for the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the English throne (and recommend you check out the wonderful Twitter site, I Am Henry VIII, which sends you bizarrely casual and daily updates from Henry on the build up to his June 24 coronation). To see Henry VIII and His Six Wives installed within this encyclopedic museum is quite amazing, potentially activating our imaginations upon all manner of historic objects and their possible stories.

Charlotte Cotton

Bernard’s New Bow Tie

May 12, 2009


Bernard Kester, exhibition designer extraordinaire, is somewhat of a legend here at LACMA. The combination of his gentlemanly demeanor, wry sense of humor, and impeccable design sense make him much beloved among many LACMA staff. When I met Bernard, it didn’t take long to realize I was in the presence of greatness. Greatness in a bow tie, that is. Perfectly tied in beautiful colors.


One day, new work shirts arrived in our offices; they were plopped down very close to Bernard’s desk. Nearly every time he passed the work shirts, he exclaimed how “dreadful” they were. Poor Bernard seemed positively tortured by the banal and practical creations inhabiting his space.

So what to do? Torture him more, of course. Knowing that this refined character was also a fan of a good joke, I started thinking about how I could take his disdain for the shirts and channel it into something wonderful. I decided to make him a bow tie out of one of the shirts which would otherwise have been discarded. It helps that I just happened to know someone who can make a bow tie with her eyes closed: my mom. So, I sent the shirt to my mom, who sent back a perfect little bow tie. Expecting he would never be interested in wearing it, we in the Operations Department put our heads together to decide how to present it. We enlisted Gallery Services to build a little case with scrap wood and Plexiglas. Art Prep and Installation wrapped a deck with a beautiful silk and mounted the tie to museum standards.


Presented with the object of his abhorrence transformed into a stunning bow tie, Bernard was giddy. He immediately tried to try it on, and has threatened that one day he will wear it to work! My mom is working on the necessary alteration as I type…

Eileen Dikdan, Exhibition Designer


May 11, 2009

People around the museum seemed to like the Urban Light playlist I assembled a little while back, so today I bring you playlist #2, inspired by Pompeii and the Roman Villa. You can download this playlist at iTunes.


  1. Iggy Pop: Lust for Life
  2. Rufus Wainwright: Greek Song
  3. Beirut: Postcards from Italy
  4. Beck: Volcano
  5. Los Campesinos!: Between an Erupting Earth and an Exploding Sky
  6. Brian Eno: Baby’s On Fire
  7. Jim Waller and the Deltas: Vesuvius
  8. David Bowie: Ashes to Ashes
  9. Pixies: Dig for Fire
  10. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Cities in Dust
  11. Dr. Dog: Army of Ancients
  12. Dar Williams: This Was Pompeii

Special thanks to those of you following us on Twitter who suggested the tracks by Bowie, Eno, Beck, Jim Waller, and Dar Williams. Other terrific suggestions via Twitter included “Arrivederci Roma” by Jerry Vale, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass,” “Cold Song” by Klaus Nomi, “Pompeii” by Gatsby’s American Dream, Dean Martin’s classic “That’s Amore,” and, of course, Jimmy Buffet’s “Volcano,” which contained the line likely on every Pompeian’s lips that fateful day: I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when da volcano blow! Did I forget anything else? (Please don’t say “Eruption” by Van Halen.)

Last but not least, I can’t help but include this video of the excellent Rezillos song “(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures,” which is sadly not available on iTunes.

Don’t love my baby for her pouty lips
Don’t love my baby for her curvy hips

I love my baby ’cause she does good sculptures yeah!

Scott Tennent

%d bloggers like this: