Living in the House of Worth

March 23, 2011

Fashion history is intrinsically embedded in art history—a history that is dressed and located in my imagination as romanticized paintings, colonial adventures and discoveries, intellectual dramas and poets’ dreamy musings. Embedded in my stark memory are the famed paniers captured in Velazquez’s Maids of Honor; Rococo’s fluid grandeur in Watteau’s swinging lovers’ tryst within a profusion of silk, flowers, and leaves; Gainsborough’s portraits in lush chinoiserie fabrics; Neoclassicism’s perfect Roman and Greek aesthetics idealized in Ingres’ portraits. And yet the most personal of these images of cloth is the famed “first” couturier, Charles Fredrick Worth, whose silk cut voided velvet Kimono-like coat, on view through Sunday in Fashioning Fashion, elicited reams of memories for me. It is not often one can be so directly be connected to an historical event or person; but this is my reality.


Worth (house of), Woman’s Opera Coat, 1910–1911, gift of Mrs. Kerckhoff Young

Fashioning Fashion is for me the most personally affecting exhibit in this museum has mounted, now or ever. 111 years after the founding of the House by Charles Frederick Worth in 1857, I, Hylan Booker, became the head designer of this famous London couture establishment on Grovenor St. West 1. The first black couturier in Europe! Having won the year before the much sought-after Yardley Award as the leading British Designer of 1967, I could safely say it paved the way to this fabulous appointment.

Dress by Hylan Booker, 1969

What Fashioning Fashion so ravishingly makes real through the full cultural forces of technology and its small but equally forceful sheer extravagance, is the power of appearance. The one sure thing in the blood of fashion is the evanescent vanity and the love affair with the “look.” Crafting this melodrama, women are made to embody ideas for desire; the chameleon’s captivating magic, “the muse,” that inspires designers to dream.

Reflecting on my time with the House of Worth, the most striking thing was the time itself. The 1960s were hot and sexy, and Swinging London was the coolest place in the universe—vivacious, vivid, and vital. It feels like everything that we experience now was being born at that very moment. The spirit of women really defined this sense of liberation with a freedom not seen since the 1920s, although far more complex and assured. Here the short skirt, the tights, bobbed hair, and the pill would cut them off from the past as never before. Unknowingly, we were the future. With our own intoxicating background music of the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Kinks, Jimmy Hendrix, and so many more, a self-reflecting universe seen through Pop art was complete. It was a glorious, uniquely transient moment! And we were the agents, the vanguard, possessing a standard we were somehow expected to maintain. I was the product of the Royal College of Art, as were many of the designers and artists at the time such as David Hockney, R. B. Kitaj, and the Kings Road style maker, Ossie Clark. England was bursting with artistic energy.

If fashion is constantly turning toward its own visions, as Fashioning Fashion so elegantly suggests, than the mood for the earlier Victorian grandeur, that perfect “House of Worth” haute couture look, became my moment in 1999. Suddenly this air, this mood, had evolved a new sensibility—a feeling for a forgotten sense of pomp and circumstance that the great ball gowns of the Romantic Age so naturally represented.  For my couture collection for that year, 1845–1865 was the perfect attitude for my romance of fashioning fashion.

Woman’s Dress (robe à transformation), France, c. 1865, purchased with funds provided by Suzanne A. Saperstein and Michael and Ellen Michelson, with additional funding from the Costume Council, the Edgerton Foundation, Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer, Maureen H. Shapiro, Grace Tsao, and Lenore and Richard Wayne

Dress by Hylan Booker, 1999

 Hylan Booker

Designed Dining: The Ellen Palevsky Cup Collection at LACMA

March 21, 2011

In developing the design for Ray’s, LACMA’s newest restaurant, Renzo Piano envisioned simple modernist architecture imbued with the character of its surroundings.  Nature, urban spaces, the strength of LACMA’s art collection and the modernist pursuit of incorporating beautiful things into everyday life form the backdrop of the dining experience. The furniture and fabrics reflect the classic midcentury style of designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen, whose work is in LACMA’s collection. You’ll also notice teacups on display in the restaurant—part of the extraordinary Ellen Palevsky Cup Collection of over 150 cups spanning 1850–1950.

Teacup installation at Ray's

Many of these cups were produced by studio artists and by companies that employed the leading designers of the period, some based in California cities, including Los Angeles. Here is a peek at just a few of these cups.

Josef Franz Maria Hoffmann, designer; Wiener Porzellanfabrik Augarten, manufacturer, Teacup and Saucer, 1929, gift of Max Palevsky

Echoing the energy of LACMA’s architectural elements painted “Renzo Red,” Austrian architect and designer Josef Hoffmann’s boldly designed red and black teacup and saucer represent the force of the Vienna Secession, a late nineteenth-century design movement that sought to replace poorly manufactured, lackluster domestic objects with functional designs of beauty that were handcrafted with quality and yet still fulfilled the need for both utility and affordability. Hoffmann, a Secessionist founder, went on to establish the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) in 1903 and stated that “usefulness is our first requirement, and our strength has to lie in good proportions and materials well handled.” This colony of workshops produced impeccably crafted, everyday objects that Hoffmann asserted were “to be measured by the same yardstick as that of the painter and the sculptor.” Hoffmann also believed in a release from historic design, stating, “To the age its art, to art its freedom.” These words underscore his belief that art need not copy the past but rather reflect present-day styles. Freed from historical constraints, Hoffmann abstracted his designs into simple geometric forms.

Keith Day Pearce Murray, designer; Wedgwood, manufacturer, “Annular” Cup and Saucer, c. 1934, gift of Max Palevsky

With the turn of the century in 1900, the profession of designer was recognized as distinct from that of an artist, and designers looked upon themselves as capable of creating functional objects with aesthetic integrity that improved quality of life. Inspired by a visit to the 1925 “Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” held in Paris, Murray designed a line of modern glassware that attracted the attention of Josiah Wedgwood V, managing director of Wedgwood from 1930 to 1968, who invited him to design for the company. Murray first collaborated with a team of designers that developed the “Annular” service, a line characterized by its distinctively modernist style, featuring ridged architectural earthenware bodies in matte glazes. Murray went on to create a series of functional vessels with simple and elegant forms with a thoroughly modern aesthetic; his elegant designs were popular throughout Europe and gained him the status of a renowned industrial designer. Due to the enduring popularity of Keith Murray’s designs, they remained in production throughout World War II and formed a large part of the Wedgwood catalogue of glazes and shapes from 1940 to 1950.

Morris B. Sanders, designer; Gladding, McBean and Company, manufacturer, “Metropolitan” Cup and Saucer, c. 1950, gift of Max Palevsky

A little closer to home, the architect and industrial designer Morris Sanders developed the “Metropolitan” line of ceramics for California-based Gladding, McBean and Company, which still continues its operations in Lincoln, located in the metropolitan area of Sacramento. Established in 1875, the company thrived, producing ornamental garden pottery, chimney pipes, architectural terra cotta facades, and clay tile, including that which covers the roofs at Stanford University—the firm continues to provide the institution with roof tiles for campus additions. 

Otto Natzler and Gertrud Amon Natzler, Cup and Saucer, c. 1942, gift of Max Palevsky

The turn of the twentieth century brought about two significant changes in American studio ceramic production.  Ceramics came to be seen as a purely aesthetic art form that did not necessarily need to be functional.  With this change of purpose came the emergence of the studio potter, who was involved in all phases of production including clay preparation, shaping, decorating, glaze formulation, glazing, and firing.  As the focus shifted from commercial production to the idea of potter as artist, accredited schools implemented ceramics education programs that stressed a balance of technical proficiency and an aesthetic that unified form, ornamentation, and glaze.  Studio potters experimented freely. They were also stylistically influenced by Asian ceramic traditions, the English Arts and Crafts movement, and modernist European styles.  Countering the calculated precision of machine-made ceramics, the studio potter embraced the evidence of the artist’s hand upon a unique creation. By the mid-twentieth century, American ceramics had developed along many lines and expanded in multiple directions to create works representing America’s diverse culture and reflecting the energy that the country’s leading ceramicists brought to the art form.  

Fleeing their native Vienna as the Nazi forces advanced toward Austria, studio potters Otto and Gertrud Natzler arrived in America with their potter’s wheel, kiln, and little else. They set up a studio in Los Angeles and their work was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Science, History and Art in the same year. The Natzlers’ ability to persevere and succeed with little training and few assets fueled what would become a nearly forty-year collaboration that combined Gertrud’s elegant and classically formed ceramic vessels with Otto’s multifaceted glaze formulations and firing techniques.  With less than a year of training, Otto describes the couple’s beginning years: “Our lack of knowledge went hand in hand with a lack of inhibitions.”  Their continual experimentation with materials and methods led to wafer-thin vessels that glow with vibrantly hued glazes.

Elizabeth Williams, Marylin B. and Calvin B. Gross Associate Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

This Weekend at LACMA: Critics’ Week Film Series, Photography Lecture, Sundays Live

March 18, 2011

You’re running out of opportunities to see Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700–1915;  the exhibition closes next weekend. Larry Fink: Hollywood, 2000–2009  is also just a couple of weeks away from closing, so this might be the perfect weekend to catch both. Also on view are two exhibitions which opened just last week—Human Nature: Contemporary Art from the Collection and Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964–1966.

Our latest weekend film series celebrates the annual Critics’ Week, which runs in conjunction with Cannes each year. Critics’ Week has been going since 1962, and the six films chosen for our series come from the event’s earliest and more recent years. Tonight the series begins with Jacques Audiard’s first film, Regarde les homes tomber (See How They Fall); as Kenneth Turan writes, seeing it tonight at LACMA is a “rarer-than-rare opportunity.”  This is followed by Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “documentary-fantasy” Pitfall, from 1962.

Tomorrow night the series continues with Gaspar Noé’s debut feature, the quite violent I Stand Alone (no one under 18 allowed), followed by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s mesmerizingly restrained Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which features long, uninterrupted performances of the composer’s music.

On Saturday photographers Gil Garcetti and David DiMichele will give a free talk about their photographic process. Their work is currently on view in the museum’s Art Rental & Sales Gallery.   

David DiMichele, Pseudodocumentation: Hose Drawing

Sunday night the weekend closes out with a free concert from pianist Andrew Brownell, who performs works by Clementi, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Scott Tennent

Harry Callahan’s Ireland

March 17, 2011

Combing through our collection in search of some images to share on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day, I must admit I was looking for something that would stereotypically evoke “Ireland”—clovers! fields of green! potatoes!

Harry Callahan quickly put an end to my search for clichés. Among other Callahan photographs in our collection is a series from 1979, Ireland, an anonymous gift made in honor of the late Robert Sobieszek, former curator of photography at LACMA. So, rather than present you with symbols of Ireland, here are photographs, simply and beautifully, of Ireland.

Callahan’s photographs are spare. The geometric nature of the streets, buildings, doors and windows come to the fore while the hustle-bustle of whatever must inevitably happen inside these buildings is suppressed. Callahan’s m.o. was to wake up and take photographs during his morning walk. Apparently it was early enough that no one else in town had yet risen! The result is a solitary set of images, sometimes downcast, sometimes peaceful. Some images feel as if Callahan had just missed seeing another soul—an open gate, perhaps just passed through; others feel as if only ghosts walk the streets.

Scott Tennent

Geometry of the Kuba

March 16, 2011

There is no doubt that geometrical solutions have been a kind of “language” that has aided our complex social interaction from the very beginning. Although for each culture its origins, meanings, and evolutional usage would vary profoundly, its pervasive presence seems to suggest a deep and abiding function that mere words fail to provide. Thus we are people of “signs”—perhaps no better illustrated than by the current installation of textiles by the African Kuba people on view now.

Late 19th–Early 20th Century, gift of the 2009 Collectors Committee

The Kuba Kingdom is situated in the middle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nestled in a fertile forest and savanna fed by three rivers. The culture itself is primarily a complex hierarchical social structure where the royals, in masks of various sizes with geometrical meaning, are portrayed as intricate manifestations of the nature spirits casting out evil, or as intermediaries between the gods and people. At the center of their artistic innovations and competition of cloth and mask is the King, Mwaash aMbooy. The most ornate and sumptuous of these precious cloths and masks are given great fanfare; distinctive motifs are introduced into the Kuba repertory and can even be signed by the individual designer.

Late 19th–Early 20th Century, gift of the 2009 Collectors Committee

Late 19th–Early 20th Century, gift of the 2009 Collectors Committee

Beside the sheer artistry behind these textiles, what is so unique is their creation. The men are responsible for the cultivation of the raffia palm and its weaving. The women embroider with dyed raffia to create the plush pile. Each ceremonial cloth, a singularity, has an insistent, dazzling inventiveness that calls the Kuba to celebration. It is said that they are a people who cannot leave a surface without ornament. Geometric forms seem to place them in their knowable universe; the mystical quality of nature lies in its abstract entity. Although it is never made entirely clear why or how this deeply spiritual impulse, compulsion, and obligation generated into the Kuba universe as a geometrical communication, it could be suggested that Woot, the first man (the Kuba are also known as “the Children of Woot”), a pattern of utter intricacies, is feared, honored, and worshiped through these complex though dazzling displays of geometrical signs.

Hylan Booker

Transcending the Who’s Who: Thoughts on Larry Fink

March 15, 2011

Over the course of ten years, Larry Fink, whose photographs are now on view in LACMA’s exhibition, shot Vanity Fair’s legendary annual Oscar party. He was brought in as an alternative view, with no propensity towards chasing celebrity—unusual, considering that since its inception in 1994 at Morton’s in Beverly Hills, the party had become a Who’s Who of Hollywood elite.

Larry Fink, Natalia Vodianova, 2007.

In fact, Fink swears he had no idea who most of the celebrities were until he began to see the same faces year after year. Instead, he sought that odd moment of physicality—an illuminated arm hovering in mid air behind a quizzically craned neck and a glance (who happens to be Lindsay Lohan), or the unspoken but clear words articulated from a clenched fist or an open palm. LACMA’s exhibition, Larry Fink: Hollywood, 2000–2009 displays thirty-seven pictures with this particular knack for tracing the sensuality of things back to their source.

Larry Fink, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and Kid Rock, 2007.

In a conversation I had with Fink, who is a lover of the blues, he compared his ideology on photography to music. “When a musician goes off for a high note and they look for that ecstasy or deliverance, it’s always that moment where there’s a higher truth being looked for or asked for. It’s that moment where they actually meet the maker, and even though the maker is not going to gift them with anything more than what that moment can give, at least, and at most, there is some kind of merger of the spirit, the ambition, and the toil of life all put into one little arena. It’s redemptive transformation. And everything on the way.” Fink has a high-pitched laugh that shows itself every once in awhile, and he finalized this statement with near-hysterical interjection. It made me giddy and I wanted to ask more questions about the complexities of music making, of bowling three perfect games when he was a teen (he did—in one year), of the good and evil of boxing (which he photographed for his 1997 monograph, Boxing), all topics he seemed to enjoy talking about as we strayed from the literal subject of photography.

I shared some of my own stories with him. While many of the photographs exhibited in Larry Fink were being taken, I was across town, a few floors up from the Kodak Theatre (where the Oscars are held) making memories at the “official” Academy-sanctioned post-Oscars party known as the Governors Ball. Some of these memories were personal (a dark nimbus of pain in my feet, glorious mountains of shellfish), others professional (“Javier Bardem with John Stewart, section Y, table 47!” exclaimed into a walkie-talkie). Though I attended this ball five years in a row, I was not an invited guest. I served as the Academy’s in-house photography coordinator, assisting four dedicated photographers to find electrical moments—when one shining star came into contact with another shining star—worthy of the Academy’s historic photograph archive.

I wished I had a team of Larry Finks. I wished I could have encouraged the Academy photographers to roam free to shoot as they wished, driven by intuition, deaf to my suggestions, oblivious to the brute iconography of celebrity. In the grip of capturing the image of stardom rather than humanity, it rarely happened. In his graceful depiction of unconscious gesture and expression, Fink has made his photographs different from anything that was ever orchestrated via press office walkie-talkie. Yet, despite this delineation, Larry Fink provokes the issue of making art versus depicting celebrity. With the Fink exhibit, to dispassionately view Oscar-party photographs in an art museum may raise an eyebrow or two. Do Fink’s images have a place here? Does all such imaging of celebrity eclipse art?

My conclusion is that if you are open to complexities of human engagement within the museum context, Fink’s photography will draw you in. While engaging with these images, you can decide if they are art or not. The selection of photographs include the likes of Russell Simmons, Faye Dunaway, Arianna Huffington, and Spike Lee, among many more, as they hug each other, love each other, and perhaps love themselves. Walking through Larry Fink: Hollywood, 2000–2009 is like making your way to the bar at a crowded event. You cast glances as you go, recognizing faces with which you have no real personal connection. In one picture Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper are gently illuminated and formally separated from the rest of the party, seated on a stuffed couch from which they silently observe the strange universe rotating around them. And just when you think you can remain the voyeur, Tom Ford stares out of a frame at you, asking why you are there. Fink, while unintentionally fulfilling the special promise of Hollywood—that you are always welcome to dream about celebrity—freezes the best of these glances in time. These photographs are memories we don’t have, of celebrities we don’t know, and within this engagement are the formal qualities of gesture cut by light and dark, which elevate these images from the pages of a glossy magazine, transcending the Who’s Who. At the end of my visit to the exhibition, I didn’t much care to leave the party.

Sarah Bay Williams is a graduate student of art history at the University of California, Riverside. She was previously a fellow in LACMA’s photography department.

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor in Iran

March 14, 2011

Recently, I interviewed Firooz Zahedi about his photographs of Elizabeth Taylor in Iran. He traveled there with her in 1976, as a recent art school graduate, and made the photographs that are part of the exhibition Elizabeth Taylor in Iran. They are like vacation snapshots from a very exotic trip–very personal images.

Firooz started out as a diplomat before going to art school. We talked about the fact that it was somewhat unusual for someone from a traditional family such as his to pursue an art career–and how Elizabeth Taylor encouraged him to do so.

I like the part of the video (around 2:52, below) when he recalls the sense memories of an afternoon visit to an old teahouse– the sounds on the street, the feeling of being indoors protected from the outdoor heat. He describes these memories as part of the essential feeling of Iran, in the way that we all have some nostalgia for a place and time that defined our childhoods.

The photographs–and his personal recollections–struck me as a beautiful commemoration of a bygone world.

Alexa Oona Schulz

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