Community Stories: Kerry James Marshall

April 12, 2010

Works of art from our permanent collection often travel on loan to other museums. For instance, Kerry James Marshall’s 1993 painting De Style is soon headed to the Vancouver Art Gallery, where a retrospective of his work opens next month.

Marshall, who currently lives in Chicago, grew up in Los Angeles. As an elementary school student living in Watts, Marshall visited LACMA and began to envision a future as an artist. Since then his work has been widely exhibited by major museums and he is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius award. I recently spoke with him about his formative experiences at LACMA. Here’s what he had to say:

We arrived in Los Angeles in 1963 from Birmingham Alabama, part of the classic migration story. My father was looking for better opportunities. We all got on a train and took that three-day trip from Birmingham to L.A.

It was so bright! The light was blinding almost. Then you saw palm trees, thirty or forty feet tall, which was something we had never seen before. It was strange and new.

Kerry James Marshall, "De Style," 1993, purchased with funds provided by Ruth and Jacob Bloom

When we first got to California we lived in Watts. We moved to the Nickerson Gardens Projects on 111th Street. Then we moved to South Central L.A. so my father could be closer to work at the VA Hospital in Westwood.

From my third grade teacher I was starting to develop an interest in art. And then in fourth grade we visited the library and I started to learn about technique. I used to watch John Gnagy’s program, Learn to Draw. By the time I got to LACMA on a fifth grade field trip, it really meant something. I was able to see things by people whose work I had seen in books.

Paolo Caliari Veronese, "Allegory of Navigation with an Astrolabe: Ptolemy" (left) and "Allegory of Navigation with a Cross-Staff: Averroës," 1557, gifts of The Ahmanson Foundation

There are two paintings in the museum by Veronese. Two big paintings of saints. Those two pictures struck me as the most magnificent things I had ever seen. I grew up looking at a lot of comic books. The figures in those were like super heroes! It was the color, the tone, the drawing. The size. They were extraordinary. They were beyond.

I also saw one of the most powerful things I had ever encountered. In the African Art section, there was a Senufo figure—burlap with feathers in the top and sticks for the arms.

Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, Senufo peoples, "Fetish Figure," 20th century, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Baker

I had never seen anything like it. It was so mesmerizing. It had such a power. I didn’t know anything about it, but there was something about it that was haunting.

I would go back to the museum to see that and the Veronese paintings all the time. Those two things had the most profound impact on me.

Amy Heibel

Show Us How You Eat

April 9, 2010

Fallen Fruit, "Fruit Machine Video," 2009

Have you had your breakfast yet? Did you get a chance to record that on video?

This weekend, we’d like you to think about documenting something you do every day, several times a day. We’re looking for short videos of you, your friends, or your family eating—nothing else, just eating.

Submit your video to the Show Us How You Eat group on YouTube by May 31, 2010, to participate in EATLACMA, an ongoing series of events exploring the human connections between food and art organized by LACMA and the artists’ collective Fallen Fruit. A selection of the submissions to Show Us How You Eat will be selected by Fallen Fruit to be part of an exhibition for Fallen Fruit Presents EATLACMA at the museum, opening in June.

So pick up that video device—get your camera, cellphone, laptop or PC video camera—and have a bite. And remember, we just want to see eating, no preparing, no cooking, just eating. Bon appétit!

Sarah Bay Williams

A Lavish Mirror Regains its Luster

April 7, 2010

I was staring at myself in the massive mirror which adorns the early American gallery on the second floor of the Art of the Americas Building when I got to thinking, “There’s got to be a story behind this thing.” It’s hard for me to imagine the context in which such a massive piece of furniture would be not only feasible to construct but also fashionable. Luckily, Don Menveg came to my rescue. After breaking me away from my own reflection he explained the provenance of the piece and how it wound up in LACMA’s permanent collection.

Throughout the Gilded Age (1865–1901), fashionable interior design became increasingly lavish, expensive, and resplendent with decoration. The crescendo of all this adornment is reflected in this mirror with its carved and inlaid wood, gilded statues, and painted figures. Because of limits on the ability to manufacture glass in large sheets, this single mirror pane was incredibly expensive. The mirror was used to adorn the music room of Milton Latham, former governor of California and railroad magnate. His mansion, designed by the Herter brothers of New York, was considered one of the finest residences in the San Francisco area and was constructed and furnished at a considerable price. Not long after the home’s completion in 1873 its owner went bankrupt, and in 1882 he passed away. The home was demolished in 1942, but many of its impressive features were salvaged.

In the wake of World War II, Hollywood studios bought up a lot of the lavish interior decorations of European homes to use as set pieces. The Herter mirror, with its European-style craftsmanship, met a similar fate. When LACMA acquired this piece in 1991 the mirror was covered in dulling spray so it would register more subtly on camera. Much of the carved surface, including the blue painted figures, was painted over, and the gilded faces were coated in bronze so they would be less reflective.

Restoring the Herter mirror was a multi-year project for Don and his colleagues. They used special enzymes to eat through the most recent coat of paint without destroying the underlying design, bringing the luster back to the mirror. It’s amazing how art objects absorb and record history. This piece in particular is interesting because it had been used by different people for different purposes. And yet, thanks to the efforts of the conservation center, it appears untouched by time.

Aaron Ziolkowski, Collections Information Intern

Soap and Water on View

April 5, 2010

Visitors to the Ahmanson building may notice an unusual sight—a bright green bike lying on the floor near plaza doors. It’s apparent at once that it both is and isn’t a bicycle. It’s a work of art by Robin Rhode, cast in Sunlight soap, a popular brand in his native South Africa. I watched Robin install the piece while he was here working with curator Leslie Jones. He was patient and engaging as visitor after visitor stopped to ask him about it. Here’s what he said:

Amy Heibel

The More Our Stories Change…

April 2, 2010

On your way to American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915, you’ll notice a small neighboring show just to the left of the exhibition’s entrance, the visually strapping In Color: New American Stories from LACMA’s Photography Collection. Assembled with American Stories’ bountiful regale in mind, this aperitif of a show is comprised of a handful of large-scale color photographs by contemporary artists who worked or are working in the United States.

Viewing American Stories after In Color you may feel a slight sense of déjà vu—or, rather, discover some formal precursors to what you saw in In Color. I certainly ran with my imagination here, and made some centuries-spanning connections:

Rembrandt Peale, "Portrait of Jacob Gerard Koch" (top left) and "Portrait of Jane Griffith Koch" (bottom left), c. 1817, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, Mary D. Keeler Bequest and Dr. Dorothea Moore; Joel Sternfeld, "Investment Banker at Home, Malibu, California" (top right) and "A Woman at Home in Malibu after Exercising, California" (bottom right), 1988, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Michael E. Tennenbaum in loving memory of Frieda Tennenbaum and the Ralph M. Parsons Fund

Rembrandt Peale & Joel Sternfeld

On the left, above, we see portraits of Mr. Jacob Gerard Koch, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, and Mrs. Jane Griffith Koch, his wife, by Rembrandt Peale. On the right are Joel Sternfeld’s portraits of (what can be assumed to be) a couple in Malibu, an investment banker and his Pucci spandex-clad ladyfriend. The similarities? Both Peale and Sternfeld use architectural details such as columns and drapes (Koch) and drinking cups and floor-to-ceiling windows (Malibu) to indicate that the portraits are possibly to be viewed in tandem. In both sets, the male figure is seen to be in the midst of reading or reviewing correspondence—Koch with a letter in hand and the investment banker deftly multitasking between phone, newspaper, and exercise bicycle (the last of which history tells the stout Mr. Koch was sorely in need). The females appear more at ease, dressed attractively, and in the midst of reading (Mrs. Koch) and having a healthy lunch (Malibu). Even the males both have a tiny bit of flair to their dress—Mr. Koch, with a kerchief of red with flecked gold, and the investment banker with just a peek of, well… leopard print tighty whities, of course.

Left: Mary Cassatt, “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair,” 1878, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon; Right: Sharon Lockhart, “Ruby,” 1995, gift of Peter Norton

Mary Cassatt & Sharon Lockhart

The random scattering of blue club chairs and a deep blue sky thick with clouds echo each other here—but the psychology of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl and Sharon Lockhart’s Ruby suggest comparable tone as well. Both images portray girls of a similar age, disheveled and accompanied by an animal—Lockhart’s Ruby holds a rat, while Cassatt’s Little Girl is sacked out by a proper dog (Cassatt’s own Brussels griffon). Lockhart’s Ruby, looming large in front of the viewer, seems to both own the world and to be in danger of falling into it—at cliff’s edge. Cassatt’s Little Girl reclines in posture like a bathing beauty, but is intentionally painted as just a little girl worn out from play. The brash informality of these images foreshadows the autonomy of adulthood while granting the viewer those true moments of childhood.

Left: John Singleton Copley, “Portrait of a Lady,” 1771, purchased with funds provided by the American Art Council, Anna Bing Arnold, F. Patrick Burns Bequest, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, David M. Koetser, Art Museum Council, Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., The Ahmanson Foundation, Ray Stark and other donors; Right: Tina Barney, “Jill and the T.V.,” 1989, Ralph M. Parsons Fund

John Singleton Copley & Tina Barney

John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of a Lady and Tina Barney’s Jill and the T.V. portray subjects with items and dress that depict wealth, such as the upholstered sofa and silk reclining gown of Copley’s Portrait and the large television and silk kimono of Barney’s Jill. But look at those eyes! In Copley’s portrait, the simple realism of a vacant background, not a jewel on her person to be found, and little sartorial decoration is heightened by a quiet confidence in her stare, with a slight angle to the face as if in serious consideration of the viewer. Barney’s Jill, also intense, is mid-sentence, looking beyond the camera plane and seemingly interrupting whatever was on that television, relegating it to permanent background noise and almost geometric abstraction.

Left: George Caleb Bingham, "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri," 1845, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris K. Jesup Fund; Right: Andew Bush, "Man Driving Southwest at Approximately 72 MPH on Arizona Interstate #40 on an Afternoon of the July 4th Weekend of 1989 (Possible Air Conditioner Malfunction)," 1989, printed 1991, purchased with funds provided by Graham and Susan Nash

George Caleb Bingham & Andrew Bush

In reference alone, these images could be thought of as similar—two vehicles of river and road traveling alongside our viewing plane. However, George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri speaks much more of the waterway of the Missouri and the opportunities this brought to those who were seeking resettlement and trade. As described in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, the image can be “read from left to right—against the flow—from the native bear cub chained to the boat’s prow, to the boy reclining on the pelts, to the man at the stern, a straight line from the beast to civilized humanity.” Andrew Bush’s Man Driving Southwest, part of his series of Vector Portraits of people driving 50 to 70 miles per hour in Los Angeles and the surrounding environs, studies the car/human relationship as an extension of personal space. In a city of highways, such as Los Angeles, the car becomes another form of dress and a comfort zone, or, in the case of what Bush guesses to be an air conditioner malfunction, perhaps the decline of civilized humanity.

I found echoes of Larry Sultan, Christina Fernandez, and Taryn Simon in American Stories as well, but you can discover those on your own and perhaps you’ll see the same correlations. Hints: think mammoth bones and multiple wives for Larry Sultan’s photos of adult film sets (I promise this has nothing to do directly with the adult film theme…), laundry in Christina Fernandez’s Lavanderia #1, and another portrait with a message for Taryn Simon’s photograph of William Gregory, a death row inmate who was exonerated post-conviction with DNA evidence.

Sarah Bay Williams

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