American Stories (Through a Mirror, Darkly)

April 21, 2010

When I was a kid, I lived in the nineteenth century. Admittedly, I was an old guy before I realized that poignant detail about my grandfather’s farm. Everything about it was of a distant time, for there was not one modern convenience in sight. Everything was intensely labor related. But at nine years of age, the world was still a wonder and so the anachronism of the farm seemed rather like implacable fact. And nothing so reminded me of that moment than seeing Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers. This utterly striking image flooded my memory with that life and all the attending forces and beauties that the past could conjure.

Winslow Homer, "Cotton Pickers," acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees: Robert O. Anderson, R. Stanton Avery, B. Gerald Cantor, Edward W. Carter, Justin Dart, Charles E. Ducommun, Camilla Chandler Frost, Julian Ganz, Jr., Dr. Armand Hammer, Harry Lenart, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, Mrs. Joan Palevsky, Richard E. Sherwood, Maynard J. Toll, and Hal B. Wallis

American Stories has such power, the power of a distant recall, the elusive narrative that manages to trace the ill-conceived and erratic path where somehow we Americans find ourselves in a very different future. What we learned about “narrative painting” is the nature of their owners, for this was a bourgeois world. And though it was a world where the unpleasant was kept at bay, there were still quite practical aims to be achieved. Status had to be acknowledged, daughters had to marry, land and livestock had to be sold. In a very real sense, commerce and then pleasantries were on display in the guise of the idealized narrative of the mildest aspects of American life.

The idea of art and artist in some journalistic form was merely a budding aside to the business of art. It is probably unfair and even nonsensical to assess painting at that time as anything but utilitarian, hence the narrow focus, though this would not always be the case. But unfortunately, in our modern times, the down side is that it aids a form of historical forgetting and implies an entirely different past reality.

From the African American’s view, this is a dark, melancholy, and bittersweet story. One cannot avoid the unambiguous and sorrowful state of slavery and post-slavery life and the immense cruelty that forms the backdrop to this American drama. Maybe, coming from the post-Reconstruction period, Winslow Homer’s rare, debatable though insightful painting Gulf Stream, where the black man on a rudderless boat is in truly troubled waters surrounded by sharks with little hope of rescue, could suggest an abiding metaphor.

Winslow Homer, "Gulf Stream," 1906, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund

For most of the pictures, the purposeful hint at the marginalized presence of the African Americans on the edge of “white” social events may very well serve as a graphic tool of their lamentable presence and an illustrated hierarchy that they occupied which could not be denied, even if it were possible. The narrative painting would give way to moving pictures, starting with the release of Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith in 1915, his racist retort to Reconstruction. And once more darkness would fall on the true American stories that would know no paint.

Nevertheless American Stories is a mirror and a Rosetta stone of our convoluted past, and these dim tableaus, these plaintive snapshots in their vivid paint, where a universe lays motionless, are a continual reminder of our shadow world and the extraordinary distance we have traveled.

Hylan Booker

LACMA’s Collectors Committee Acquires Six Works

April 19, 2010

This weekend was the museum’s 25th annual Collectors Committee event, in which a group of generous donors pool their resources to purchase works for LACMA’s collection. Curators from nearly every department present artworks they’d like to see added to the permanent collection, giving short presentations on the objects’ background and also temporarily installing the works in one of our galleries. After careful consideration, the Collectors Committee members—there were about 160 this year—come together for a gala dinner and vote on which artworks to acquire. The voting is over when the pool of funds is exhausted. (You may recall we made a few acquisitions thanks to the Collectors Committee last year as well.)

Saturday’s event raised a record $2,063,000, and we have consequently added six new works to our collection, ranging from a seventeenth-century Japanese screen to a nineteenth-century painting to a variety of masterful pieces of Tibetan furniture, as well as three works of contemporary art. Here’s a look at the night’s bounty.

Kano Sansetsu, Tiger Drinking from a Raging River, c. 1640. This two-panel folding screen dates to Japan’s Kanei period (1624–1644). According to curator Robert T. Singer, Sansetsu is among the most original Japanese artists of the seventeenth century. Tiger Drinking from a Raging River is the first work by the artist to enter the collection of any museum outside of Japan. Over the weekend the screen was installed and is now on view in the Pavilion for Japanese Art.

The Hayward Family Collection of Tibetan Furniture. The Hayward Collection contains 39 masterpieces of virtually every important type of Tibetan furniture, dating from the late 12th to 20th centuries. Tibetan furniture was typically made for Buddhist monasteries and households, and features vibrant colors and ornamentation. With this acquisition, LACMA’s collection of Tibetan and Nepalese art has been elevated to the most comprehensive public collection in the world. This collection is already on view in the exhibition In the Service of the Buddha: Tibetan Furniture from the Hayward Family Collection.

Jean-Jacques Henner, Portrait of Madame Paul Duchesne-Fournet, 1879. Though Henner is known for his nudes and landscapes, earlier in his career he was a sought-after painter of religious subjects and portraits. Curator J. Patrice Marandel writes of the piece, “Among the portrait painters of his generation, Henner developed a distinctive style. Less voluptuous than Carolus-Duran’s but more spirited than Leon Bonnat’s, Henner’s portraits were particularly appealing to a clientele eager to display in a dignified manner their newly acquired wealth and social rank.” Indeed, this portrait gained some renown at the time of its creation when Henner charged his subject, the wife of a prominent politician, 10,000 francs—an extravagant sum in its day.

John Baldessari, Portrait: Artist’s Identity Hidden with Various Hats, 1974. LACMA has a number of Baldessari works in its collection, with particularly important works from the 1960s (Wrong) and the 1980s (Heel), but Portrait is the first significant work of the artist’s from the 1970s to enter the collection. It will be featured in the upcoming retrospective John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, opening at LACMA in June.

Glenn Ligon, Rügenfigur, 2009. Rügenfigur is part of a recent body of Ligon works entitled, collectively, America. Curator Franklin Sirmans notes that Ligon’s series was inspired by the paradoxical opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sirmans writes, “At once, this expansive neon courier-font A-M-E-R-I-C-A in-verso conjures what Ligon describes as the ‘somewhat troubling’ moment in our country’s identity.”

Samira Alikhanzadeh, Untitled, 2009. Iranian artist Alikhanzadeh’s work focuses on found images of women from the mid-1930s, a period when Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1921–41) led a reform movement to bring women and minorities in Iran into the mainstream, including the compulsory uncovering of women. This was the first generation of Iranian women who were free to appear uncovered in public and in photographs. As curator Linda Komaroff explains, Alikhanzadeh’s untitled work “includes small shards of mirror allowing the viewer (perhaps, ironically, an Iranian woman now decreed by law to wear hejab) to identify more closely with the nameless girls and women dressed in their once fashionable clothes.”

Look for future Unframed posts on some of these works; we’ll also let you know when any of these go on view.

Update: See today’s Los Angeles Times for more on Saturday’s event.

Scott Tennent

Newly Added to the Reading Room: 7 German Art Catalogues

April 16, 2010

Today LACMA is launching its latest installment of free online catalogue reprints in the Reading Room. In conjunction with the German expressionist exhibition Myths, Legends, and Cultural Renewal: Wagner’s Sources, which opened yesterday, the latest batch of Reading Room catalogues revolves around LACMA’s scholarship in the area of German art. Take a look at the seven new catalogues here. Below, LACMA Editor in Chief Thomas Frick gives some insight into the biggest behemoth of them all.

There are those of us in the book world—you know who you are—who feel an uncanny affinity with Thomas Mann’s observation, “Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.” Attracted to endless encyclopedias, massive catalogues, and arcane compendia of all types, we’re perverse enough to gladly trade a free round-trip ticket to Paris for a week’s lodging in Borges’s Library of Babel.

One LACMA publication could be placed on any list of exhaustive works: German Expressionist Prints and Drawings: The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, a two-volume behemoth published in 1989. Comprising a book of essays and a catalogue raisonné totaling 1,088 pages, it has been called by one antiquarian bookseller “among the finest resources on the graphic art of German Expressionism.” Although LACMA’s Rifkind Center has added significantly to its holdings during the subsequent two decades, these out-of-print volumes are still much sought after—I’ve seen the set offered through AbeBooks for well over $2,000.

In 1971 Robert Gore Rifkind, a Beverly Hills lawyer and third-generation Angeleno, began collecting German expressionist graphic art, along with the books and periodicals that themselves often contained original works. Eventually the collection grew large enough to require a staff and a place to house it; thus the center at LACMA was born.

The essay volume surveys the history of the expressionist movement, recounts its reception in the U.S., and includes, among other things, an intimate conversation between Rifkind and Oskar Kokoschka.

It also features numerous reproductions, many in saturated color. The expressionists’ angular forms and bold vibrating lines, carving out indelible images within often highly charged negative space, are a reminder of the power of expressionism as conveyed in the graphic arts.

To page through the catalogue volume is a pleasure and an amazement. Simply the corralling of such complete documentation alongside each of the thousands of black-and-white thumbnail images (so numerous no one is ever confident of their count) commands the awe of anyone who’s ever assembled a checklist for an exhibition catalogue.

Of course, such exhaustiveness exacts a toll. The boxed set weighs fifteen pounds. Every time I pull it off the shelf, my wrists feel in danger of snapping. To fall asleep with the catalogue volume on your chest might well asphyxiate you.

Thus, it is especially rewarding to add this work to our electronic Reading Room library, where it will be more safely perusable. There it joins six additional historically important LACMA publications concerning German expressionism, a field with which the museum has had a long and fruitful engagement. The most notable of these other books, “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, will be the subject of a future Unframed report.

Thomas Frick, Editor in Chief

Jazz at LACMA 2010

April 15, 2010

This Friday marks the opening night of our nineteenth jazz season at LACMA. I always look for a special musician to open the series, someone who epitomizes the best of the L.A. jazz scene. In that regard, it’s hard to top Red Holloway—one of the musicians who created the L.A. jazz scene, both as a saxophonist and as the talent director of the legendary Parisian Room.

Red has been on the world stage for nearly sixty years and is still blowing strong. He started his career playing with Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, and Chuck Berry. For most musicians, those would be the career highlights, but Red went on to tour and record extensively with Lionel Hampton, Jack McDuff, George Benson, Clark Terry, Sonny Rollins, along with his long partnership with Sonny Stitt. The guy is living jazz history.

Dizzy Gillespie, Red Callender, and Red Holloway

At 82 years young, Red’s touring schedule has not slowed down. He still jets around the globe as one the revered jazz figures of our time. Be it straight-ahead, blues, soul, or bop, Red does it all. For our opening-night concert he’ll be joining drummer Gerryck King and his organ trio. The clip below features Red with a different group—organist Rhoda Scott and drummer Bobby Durham—but should give you a taste of what to expect this Friday.

Mitch Glickman, Director of Music Programs

The Earth Quakes, but the Art Stays Still

April 13, 2010

Like a lot of people in L.A., especially in the last few weeks, I’ve had earthquakes on the brain. Is the big one on its way? Am I just asking to be crushed by my unreasonably large collection of books and records? Do I need to start wearing a helmet to work? If I’m in one of LACMA’s galleries during a quake, should I fear toppling art?

I needed John Hirx, head of Objects Conservation, to set at least one of my fears to rest. John, I was told, is the man to talk to when it comes to earthquakes. For many years he has been working closely with engineers on isolator systems installed in the bases of sculptures to protect them from crashing to the floor during a major earthquake. There are a variety of mounts used for all kinds of sculptures around the museum, but the most sophisticated isolators are used for especially large freestanding sculptures. John estimates there are about five such isolators currently in use in the galleries.

Two of them are in the South and Southeast Asian galleries on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building—the “worst-case-scenario” galleries in the museum, he tells me. Based on years of observation we know that this floor of the Ahmanson moves the most during earthquakes. In fact, during the Northridge earthquake in 1994, before the current isolators had been invented, the tenth-century Hindu God Vishnu, which stands more than seven feet tall, toppled from its mount, its head separating from its body. (Luckily, it should be noted, the statue was originally acquired in two parts; it broke in the exact spot where it had previously been separated.) In fact if you go into the gallery today you can still see a mark on the floor from the crash.

Cambodia, Angkor, Pre Rup, "The Hindu God Vishnu," c. 950, gift of Anna Bing Arnold

Today Vishnu stands in a new, safer location within the gallery, and on a new pedestal containing the most sophisticated isolator system thus far devised by anyone. Take a look at the base.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside that box are three massive steel plates stacked on top of each other on rails. And when I say massive, I mean massive: there are about three tons of steel inside that mount. These isolators act as a counterweight to the sculpture and absorb the movement of the quaking floor beneath. John illustrated this further by pointing to the top portion of the mount, which looks like a three-inch-high platform on top of the larger base. That platform actually moves, sliding from side to side atop the motionless base. In an earthquake the opposite would happen—the ground itself would be moving from side to side while the sculpture, thanks to the isolators, would remain still. Here’s a shot of a different sculpture atop a similar isolator, sans exterior base in order to illustrate the movement.

So that’s one fear I can happily suppress. Now about my books and records…

Scott Tennent

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