I Pledge Allegiance to Jasper Johns

February 7, 2011

What does Jasper Johns have in common with Lucille Ball, Warren Buffett, Estee Lauder, Colin Powell, and John Wooden?  They are all recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be bestowed on a civilian in the United States, honoring those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”  It is awarded annually to individuals chosen by the President; Obama will bestow the medal on Johns in Washington later this month. 

It seems very fitting for Johns to be honored in this way, as he is particularly known for his images of the American flag as well as of the United States map. (He is also famous for his images of numbers, targets, and other “ordinary” subjects.)  Johns—along with Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and others—was among the first artists to use these everyday subjects in his art, creating what became known as Pop Art.  However, the heavily worked surfaces of Johns’ early paintings such as Figure 7, in LACMA’s collection, still connect him to the Abstract Expressionist painters who preceded him.

Jasper Johns, Figure 7, 1955, gift of Robert H. Halff through the Modern and Contemporary Art Council, © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Johns often chose to depict two-dimensional objects (maps, targets, flags, numbers, letters) so that the flatness of the object depicted and the flatness of the painting itself were coincident.

LACMA owns forty-seven works by Johns and presented the exhibition Jasper Johns: Numbers in 2004.  We are proud to salute this modern master as he is honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Who knows, perhaps Johns’ next subject will be the medal itself!


Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art

This Weekend at LACMA: Final Weekend for Chabrol Thrillers, India’s Fabled City Lecture, and More

February 4, 2011

Tonight and tomorrow are our final entries in the current Claude Chabrol film series, Le Beau Claude: Eight Thrillers by Chabrol. Tonight, two early films—Les cousins,  from 1959, and Les bonnes femmes from 1960; tomorrow, one of my personal favorite late Chabrol films, Merci pour le chocolate (featuring a captivating performance from Isabelle Huppert), followed by 1969’s revenge thriller This Man Must Die

Exhibitions on view right now include Fashioning Fashion and India’s Fabled City. Our ongoing Andell Family Sundays have taken the former as their theme for the month of February—bring your kids so they can make ready-to-wear art!

Fans of Indian cinema and music should check out our free lecture on Sunday afternoon, Listening to the Courtesan—The Soundscapes of Pakeezah. Aparna Sharma, filmmaker and professor of world arts and culture at UCLA, will discuss Pakeezah, an acclaimed 1971 Hindi film whose sounds—not just the music but many other sounds in the film—serve as a reflection of the main character’s inner thoughts.

Sunday night, cellist Guido Schiefen and pianist Eric Levan will convene on the stage of the Bing Theater for our free Sundays Live concert, performing the complete cello/piano works of Franz Liszt.

Finally, one more event just after the weekend is over—Monday night LACMA curators Franklin Sirmans and Leslie Jones will converse with artists Andrea Bowers, Francesca Gabbiani, Alexandra Grant, Julian Hoeber, Dave Muller, and Mungo Thompson on the topic of their favorite books, held in conjunction with two book-related shows happening at LACMA now, Steve Wolfe on Paper and R.B. Kitaj’s Covers for a Small Library.

Scott Tennent

Some Curious Lists from Lucknow

February 2, 2011

Museum exhibitions involve a considerable (and seemingly endless) number of lists relating to artworks, loans, budgets, contracts, illustrations, gallery texts, condition reports, shipments, couriers, and installation specifications, to name just a few. I thought it would be fun to share a few of the more interesting lists (abbreviated here) that I encountered during my work on India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow.

Antoine Polier, a Swiss-born Frenchman, spent many years in Lucknow during the late eighteenth century. He collected Indian paintings, some of which are on view in the exhibition, and was depicted in portraits that show his adoption of an Indian lifestyle.

Colonel Antoine-Louis Henri Polier Watching a Nautch, after a Painting by Johann Zoffany, India, Uttar Pradesh, Faizabad or Lucknow, c. 1786–88, bequest of Balthasar Reinhart, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 2005.83

Polier owned an estate on which he cultivated various fruit trees, flowers, and other plants. The following is a list of items he sent to his estate manager at Lucknow in January 1784.

Two caps made of badla (golden thread) [these were intended for his young son, Baba Antony, whose mother was Indian]
218 cypress plants
7 plum trees
26 motia (jasmine)
Narcissus cuttings (1,000 in 4 bundles)
One packet of seeds of the gul-i-asharfi flower (calendula)
One gardener by the name of Narain

Claude Martin, another European resident of Lucknow examined in the exhibition, was a builder and collector extraordinaire. When he died at Lucknow in 1800, the contents of his vast estates, which included the massive building known as La Martinière, were auctioned off.

Charles Shepherd and Arthur Robertson, La Martinière and the Lath, 1862, Howard and Jane Ricketts Collection

The items contained in his estate inventory numbered in the tens of thousands. Many were imported by Martin from various buyers working for him in London and elsewhere. The two lists below indicate dueling aspects of Martin’s experience of India—his nostalgia for the comforts of home (he was born in Lyon, France) and his attraction to Indian riches.

Annual food provisions that Martin received from Marseilles, France:

Four dozen bottles of fine liqueurs
Two dozen bottles of tarragon vinegar
Four dozen bottles of olive oil
One dozen boxes of assorted preserves
Two dozen boxes of double bottles of olives
Four flagons of anchovies in oil
One sack of 20lbs of nuts
One sack of 20lbs of sweet chestnuts or dried chestnuts
20lbs of prunes
20lbs of prunellos
20lbs dry figs
20lbs Corinth raisins

Just a few of the diamonds listed in the 1801 auction inventory of Claude Martin’s estate. (The weight is given in ratis—an Indian measure equivalent to nearly one carat.)

96 set diamonds in a row (266 ratis)
32 set diamonds in a cluster (91 ratis)
17 unset diamonds (49.5 ratis)
31 set diamonds (106.5 ratis)
1 rose diamond (14 ratis)
10 diamonds in a chain (19 ratis)
26 diamonds unset (34.5 ratis)
41 diamonds unset (37.25 ratis)
16 rough diamonds (45.25 ratis)
32 rough diamonds (44.5 ratis)

Lucknow was plundered after the Great Uprising of 1857–58. What follows is a short selection of items appearing in a lengthy list detailing the contents of one “barrel” of loot sent back to the royal treasury in England. The lists of forty such barrels can be found in the Government of India Archives.

Selected items from contents of Barrel No. 12. Secret A Proceedings. CROWN: FOREIGN DEPT.’T. SEC. 1858: Consl No. 24 Sept. No. 163-164.

Item 1. A red velvet cap richly jeweled with diamonds, emeralds, and pearls.
Item 21. A large silver box of unset diamonds of large and medium sizes.
Item 24. A set of emerald ornaments consisting of 5 large stones, and 2 emerald mouthpieces [for water-pipes]
Item 33. A. One pair of ruby bracelets with central emeralds, B. one pair of diamond bracelets, C. One diamond bracelet, D. a pair of bracelets with 3 stars alternating with rubies and emeralds, with central pearls, E. 2 pairs of diamond bracelets with central rubies, F. A pair of bracelets half mooned set with emeralds, G. A pair of bracelets set with emeralds, H. An odd diamond, I. Another pair of diamond bracelets with 3 ruby and 2 emerald bracelets, J. A gold bracelet with central ruby, K. A small silver bracelet,
L. A bracelet with small ruby and diamonds.
[The list extends to more than 41 entries. Several of them, like Item 33 above, detail extensive groups of jeweled ornaments.]

In 1988, a writer by the name of I. Allan Sealy, who was educated at La Martinière (the great building erected by Claude Martin, which was later turned into a school) published a fabulous and inventive novel called The Trotter-Nama. The setting of the novel is an estate called Sans Souci which is located in a city called Nakhlau (modeled, respectively, on La Martinière and Lucknow).

F. Frith & Co.; Francis Frith, La Martinière, Musée national des Arts asiatiques–Guimet, Paris, AP 15364

Justin Aloysius Trotter, one of the main characters in the novel is based on the figure of Claude Martin. In one section of the novel, the narrator describes Justin Trotter in a page-long passage of praise which parodies Indian historical chronicles:

Great Trotter, Beloved of God, Cynosure of Mankind, Builder of Sans Souci, Feeder of One Lakh [100,000], Who Sweetens the Melon, Who Will Shortly Walk in the Sky, Whose Tower Scrapes the Heavens, Valiant One, Who Plucks the Liver of Crocodiles, Namer of Stars by Day, River-Course Changer, Holy One, Sleek Master, Herald of the Ice Age, Causer of Lakes to Appear, Causer of Water to Run Uphill, Virile One, Beloved of Many, Who Fathered a Fat Son, Who is Himself Fat, Who Eats Jakfruit Whole, Shapely One, Who Cannot be Outeaten, Who Ate the Nawab to a Standstill, …To Whom the Graceful Palm Bows, Before Whom Elephant Grass Bends, For Whom the Elephants Trumpet, For Whom Camels Reserve Their Choicest Smiles, …Who Spotted the Leopard and Let it Go, …Who Leaps Heart-Stopping Streams with a Horse Under each Arm, …Whose Rages are More to be Feared than the Yellow Storm, Who Pays his Writers Handsomely, As He Himself is Handsome, …Beginning and End, Philanthropist, Shining Forehead, Sweet Rain Cloud, Munificent One.

Tushara Bindu Gude, Associate Curator, South and Southeast Asian Art

Spine Sonnet: Jody Zellen on Steve Wolfe

February 1, 2011

Lately, we’ve been inviting artists to respond to art on view at LACMA in the form of web-based projects. On a recent visit, Jody Zellen suggested a project inspired by the Steve Wolfe show, on view through February 20.

Jody’s piece, Spine Sonnet, generates an image composed of fourteen spines from books in her nonfiction library. Refresh the browser to cycle through various combinations.

Below, a short Q&A with Jody about her project.

We invited you to visit LACMA and respond to anything that grabbed you. Why did you choose to respond to the Steve Wolfe show?

I was immediately drawn to and struck by his craft and the fact that these were trompe l’œil paintings of books—for the most part they were old books that had a beautiful 50s coloring and design aesthetic that I feel has disappeared. Everything is going digital; he is preserving them by painting them. That was interesting to me. And his pieces are quite beautiful.

Untitled, (Study for Mumm/Jose Cuervo Cartons) Steve Wolfe, 1994. Collection of Lawrence Luhring.

How did you approach the project?

I’ve always been sort of fascinated when I have a pile of books on my desk and I look at the titles, how those titles become something. When I got home I was looking at my bookshelf and thinking: is there something I can make that takes its point of departure from the ideas of books as precious and meaningful? And I came up with the idea of trying to make a poem by linking all of the titles on the spines.


Jody's personal library

I went through the process of scanning every single book in my library. I have two libraries: a library of fiction, and a library of art books. I decided that I wouldn’t use the fiction books because they seemed to be too much about the author’s name and I was interested in the titles of books.

I wanted it to randomly arrange itself so that every time you refresh the browser it would appear differently. Would it be vertical or horizontal? I wanted all the books to be horizontal, so you could read them like you might read a poem.

How many? I came up with the idea that a sonnet is fourteen lines, so if it was fourteen books and I called it Spine Sonnet, it could relate to that form.

Because we live in Southern California and there’s a lot of light that filters into my library, it’s caused my books to fade, so they aren’t pristine; they’re well-used and ragged around the edges. I thought that related to Steve Wolfe’s work because the books that he’s chosen to reproduce or paint are not in perfect condition.

In terms of how the selections were ordered, I have twenty-one shelves. Each line of the poem comes from a certain shelf. That was a way for me to organize the arrangement and still keep it arbitrary.


A sample from Spine Sonnet

What arrangement are you looking at on your browser right now?

Mine is: Crucial Condition/Particles and Waves / With Possibility / Angry Women / Voyeur / Fish Story

It really does read as a kind of interesting poem.

Mine reads: “Discontents/River of Shadows / Ghost Stories / Notes in Hand / Full Moon / City of Panic / Polyphilo or the Dark Forest Revisited / Architecture of Fear / The Digital Dialectic / Camera Lucida / Reconstructing Modernism / Public Offerings / Automatic Cities / True Stories.”

How do you feel about the way the project turned out?

I was very happy with it. As soon as I tested it, I was excited. This is exactly what I’ve been looking at in my mind for years and never had a way to make it into something I could share.

What interests you about the web as a medium?

It’s public art. You don’t need four walls of a gallery and a defined period of time; it’s out there and it’s permanent.

I’m interested in how I can push interactivity. How can I make something dynamic that takes over your computer? How can I push the technology from a non-programmer’s really low-tech point of view?

I’m not a programmer, I’m an artist and I’m coming to this medium bringing text and images—asking, how can I put them together, how can I make them change, how can they be different every time you look at them? How can I lead someone through a narrative?

For more on artists’ relationships to books, come to the museum next Monday, February, for Conversations with Artists: Artists and their Books. Curators Franklin Sirmans and Leslie Jones will talk with artists Andrea Bowers, Francesca Gabbiani, Alexandra Grant, Julian Hoeber, Dave Muller, and Mungo Thompson, in conjunction with Steve Wolfe on Paper and R. B. Kitaj’s Covers for a Small Library

Amy Heibel

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