Tour New Topographics with Amir Zaki

November 6, 2009

Last week we introduced an opportunity for everyone to see New Topographics in an entirely new way: via special Sunday afternoon tours given by leading Los Angeles photographers.

This Sunday’s tour leader will be Amir Zaki. Born and trained in Southern California, Amir focuses on the region’s architectural landscape. Carefully recording—yet deftly using digital technology to transform—subjects such as modernist residences, nocturnal suburbia, and urban density, Amir reconfigures many of his subjects into unfamiliar and confounding images. The desire to challenge assumptions about photographic authenticity also informs his recent survey of elevated lifeguard towers on Orange County beaches. Amir experiments with light and color until, shorn of regular indications of locality or use, these everyday structures become monuments of uncertain function and suggestive new meaning.

I recently spoke to Amir about LACMA’s restaging of this important exhibition, which was first seen in 1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The video here offers a sneak peek into Amir’s take on New Topographics, including how his early aversion to the work grew into profound respect and inspiration.

Edward Robinson, Associate Curator, The Wallis Annenberg Photography Department

What Lovely Teeth You Have…

November 5, 2009

Opening this weekend is the first full installation of our permanent collection of art from the Pacific Islands, the majority of which we acquired last year. Though these objects haven’t been on view before, I already feel familiar with them, thanks in part to some beautiful photographs our supervising photographer, Peter Brenner, took upon their acquisition.


Papua New Guinea, New Ireland Province, Memorial Figure (uli, selambungin lorong type), c. 1900, Purchased with funds provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation with additional funding by Jane and Terry Semel, the David Bohnett Foundation, Camilla Chandler Frost, Gayle and Edward P. Roski and The Ahmanson Foundation


Easter Island, Rapanui Male Ancestor Figure, c. 1800, purchased with funds provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation with additional funding by Jane and Terry Semel, the David Bohnett Foundation, Camilla Chandler Frost, Gayle and Edward P. Roski and The Ahmanson Foundation


Papua New Guinea, Gulf Province, Skull Rack (agiba), c. 1900, purchased with funds provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation with additional funding by Jane and Terry Semel, the David Bohnett Foundation, Camilla Chandler Frost, Gayle and Edward P. Roski and The Ahmanson Foundation

Already feeling like I “know” these pieces—and their faces are so expressive, so animated, that they do take on real personalities—I was surprised, when I walked into the new galleries, to find myself bowled over anew. The pictures, compelling as they are, don’t do the objects justice. The detail requires that you get up close. I became captivated by the mouth of one object—a Gable Peak Figure from New Zealand—finding its teeth to be so lifelike, so downright human it was almost eerie. Go figure—when I checked the materials listed for the object, “human teeth” were on the list.


New Zealand, Gable Peak Figure, c. 1800, purchased with funds provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation with additional funding by Jane and Terry Semel, the David Bohnett Foundation, Camilla Chandler Frost, Gayle and Edward P. Roski and The Ahmanson Foundation

In fact many of the objects in this collection include the bones of humans and animals, as well as human hair, shark skin, and bird feathers. For me, a twenty-first century Angeleno, it creates a strange disconnect: on the one hand so many of these characters look like they might have walked right out of a Tim Burton film, possessing a kind of sinister charm or a dementia that inspires a chuckle rather than a shiver. But on closer inspection, the human element—both the hands that made the objects and, in some cases, the heads that are part of the objects—makes itself utterly apparent.

Scott Tennent

Q&A with Britt Salvesen

November 4, 2009


Britt Salvesen came to the museum earlier this month from the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, where she was director and chief curator (as well as organizing curator of New Topographics, on view now at LACMA). In her new role at LACMA, she’ll head up our Wallis Annenberg Photography Department as well as our Prints and Drawings Department. What better way to welcome her than to grill her?

When I was on a walkthrough of New Topographics with Michael Govan last week, he commented on a trend—the exhibition as art—that I thought was very interesting. Can you tell me a little about that phenomenon?

We’ve seen some really seminal shows come to life again recently. New Topographics is one of those, as is The Pictures Generation, which was on view at the Met earlier this year. One reason to revisit these shows, New Topographics in particular, is because the original exhibition, which ultimately has become a chapter in the history of photography, didn’t have a huge audience. The tour started off in Rochester and the accompanying catalogue was quite small. No one was expecting it to become a definitive show that embodied a particular style. So it was time to ask, what can we learn by looking at these images again?

Would you actually use the phrase “New Topographics style”? And if so, what does it mean?

It has emerged as a useful category in today’s vocabulary, though the original work wasn’t intended to forge a style. New Topographics tends to be shorthand for photography that depicts the built environment, human impact on land. It also implies something harder to define as clearly—an objective viewpoint and also a serial approach, an assumption that a single image cannot necessarily capture all aspects of a subject.

What are your initial thoughts on L.A. from a professional perspective so far?

I oversee two departments—the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department as well as the Department of Prints and Drawings—and L.A. is unique in its productive disregard for traditional disciplinary backgrounds. There are powerful precedents of that kind of thinking here. John Baldessari is an artist, for example, who has been working in a variety of media for his entire career. I think, at museums, we can always learn from artists and their ability to create through juxtaposition, contrast, and invention.

And what about personally? Do you have any L.A. favorites yet?

I’m getting to know my way around as I drive to gallery openings in Culver City, to universities, and to other museums. I love the energy here—it used to be people left L.A. for New York and now it’s the opposite for career and quality of life reasons. So far, I’m really enjoying the farmers markets and the restaurants, which are great. I have to say, the fresh produce here is just amazing.

Allison Agsten

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

November 3, 2009


In February 2008, LACMA bought the building across the street from Urban Light, at 6006 Wilshire. It had been gutted by a developer who was readying it for a condo project. When that fell through, the museum purchased the building, to improve the museum’s neighborhood and to seize a strategic opportunity to acquire prime real estate at a reasonable price. But, as you can tell from the “before” picture above, it wasn’t exactly in the best of condition. (Read: It had no windows, no water, no power.) So, a few months ago, in what amounts to the world’s most anticlimactic demolition, workers began chipping away at the five story structure. Even if you’re in the neighborhood often, you might not have noticed as the process occurred over a long period of time behind scaffolding. But, lo and behold, the scaffolding is down now, and so is the building.


In the next couple of months, we’ll transform the space into a surface parking lot for the museum and for staging space for the MTA construction of the Subway along Wilshire Blvd. Long term plans for the museum’s use of 6006 have not been established; office, gallery, housing, hotel and other museum related mixed use retail options are being considered.

Allison Agsten

The Case of the Reappearing Mural

November 2, 2009

Now that cooler weather and darker evenings are here, haunted houses, hay rides, and ghost tours abound in Southern California. The city of Fullerton, located thirty miles south of Los Angeles (and a convenient half-hour train ride from Union Station) offers “haunted” walking tours within its downtown area. One fascinating spot rumored to have paranormal activity is Plummer Auditorium, part of the Fullerton High School campus, where witnesses claim to have seen ghosts watching the stage from the balcony. But it was something outside the auditorium that really caught my eye: a large wall mural entitled Pastoral California by Charles Kassler.


Murals such as these were very common. To combat the high unemployment rate and faltering American spirit of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created a series of social/economic programs called the New Deal; artists like Kessler were hired under the Public Works of Art Program, designed to inform the public by showing art in public buildings and by displaying works of an American scene. The US government also hired artists for other New Deal programs; Dorothea Lange documented the effects of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration, and Lester Beall designed energy posters (which were on display in the American Art galleries this past year) to promote the use of electricity in the agricultural states.

Kassler’s Pastoral California (1934) reveals the history of southern California at the time. Painted over just five years later—it was considered inappropriate by school officials—the mural was eventually discovered and fully restored in 1997. Pastoral California depicts a scene of ranchers and animals, with evidence of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. On the right-hand side, Kassler depicts a fight between wild animals—a bear biting viciously into a bull.




While the origin of the bear and bull market terminology is debated, some believe it has to do with the attacking styles of each animal, and at the time the mural was painted, the triumphant bear may have revealed the artist’s pessimistic assessment of the economy at the time.

The Fullerton Haunted Walking Tour continues until November 6, but if you’re interested in other works of art created under the New Deal closer to Los Angeles, you can check them out here. And if you already have a local favorite, please comment!

Devi Noor

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