African American Art at LACMA: Q&A with Bridget Cooks

May 9, 2011

I recently invited Dr. Bridget Cooks to be a panelist in this coming Saturday’s program, Two Centuries of Black American Art: A 35th Anniversary Roundtable, which will revisit this seminal LACMA exhibition. Dr. Cooks, Assistant Professor of Art History and African American Studies at University of California, Irvine, and a former LACMA educator, is the author of the forthcoming book Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum and dedicated a chapter in her study to the show: “Filling the Void: Two Centuries of Black American Art (1976).” An excerpt from that chapter will be an integral part of our soon-to-be-launched online archive for this historic exhibition,  and the cover image for her book was shot in LACMA’s American Art galleries. I sat down with Bridget when she was here planning the cover shoot to learn more about her work and her connections with LACMA.

Bridget Cooks

Austen Bailly: When we were first in touch, you told me you were a LACMA neighborhood kid, which I loved. Can you tell me about your early experiences at the museum? Is there a particular LACMA memory that stands out from your childhood?

Bridget Cooks: My mother used to take my sister and me here often. We’d pack a picnic and walk here from home. We lived a couple of miles away, and we would sit by the Page Museum and have lunch, and we’d bring a hula hoop and play games and roll down the hills, and look at the art in the museum. I have to say that one of my earliest memories of LACMA, in the galleries, was the King Tut show, which I think was 1977. I remember my mother holding me up so I could see all of the jewelry in the cases; that’s really one of my earliest memories, ever, of anything. I remember looking down at the jewelry because she lifted me up so high.

AB: As a former member of LACMA’s Education Department, you created the programming for the museum’s landmark exhibition Made in California (2000). How did that experience inform your book?

BC: The book is based on a lot of primary research, oral histories, and archival work, and was really inspired by my experience as a museum educator and professional. There were so many things that I learned about when I was working in museums about how museums work, the kinds of conversations we have about cultural history and cultural memory; the kind of responsibility that museums have to the community; the kind of narratives we tell. I really wanted to write books about that sort of behind-the-scenes process. Programming for Made in California was about crafting a narrative, trying to reflect everyone’s California—which is a really impossible thing to do—but to try to bring out some of the stories that are not as familiar to everyone, and also capitalizing on common experiences that we all have. In the Education Department I learned a lot about the different layers of memory, the desires that different audiences have of LACMA in particular and museums in general. And those stories, that whole process is just endlessly fascinating to me. That’s definitely been an inspiration for the book.

AB: Tell me about your vision for the book’s cover, which will show African Americans in LACMA’s American galleries.

BC: I have a very strong vision that I’m really excited about for the book, which will be published in August. I wanted to come to LACMA because it is really my museum—because I grew up here. I wanted to show some of the work that we have here in the American galleries, but also show the way that people interact with it, particularly African Americans—as guards, as visitors, and also as people who are imaged in the photographs, and in the paintings and the sculpture. I want to show an image that relays the kind of complexity of that relationship—the way that we have an African American presence in major mainstream museums.

Poster for Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1976

AB: What do you think about the relationships between LACMA and its African American visitors today?

BC: I think that there are a lot of African American people in Los Angeles, and really across the nation, that remember the show Two Centuries of Black American Art and think about LACMA as a place where David Driskell [the guest curator] was able to bring his vision to the world, something that we’re all really proud of. And I think that might be the last really strong memory that the African American residents of Los Angeles really have of a strong black presence at the museum. I like that the work by black artists is interspersed, in their contexts, throughout the museum; I think that’s really wonderful.  I don’t know if the black population that’s interested in art really knows that that’s here. I think they might be relieved and excited to see that there are black artists throughout the collection without a huge announcement or a show that’s just for black artists, but to see that we are becoming more and more integrated into the collection. I really like very much that on LACMA’s website you have a section where you can search and see African American artists that are collected. I think that’s an important part of that public relationship with the larger black community, so they can see that there’s recognition. But, I think, of course, more, more, more.

Austen Bailly, Associate Curator, American Art

This Weekend at LACMA: The Mourners Opens, Late Night at LACMA, Members Appreciation, and Much More

May 6, 2011

It’s a weekend full of events at the museum, including the opening of our latest exhibition, The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy.  The exhibition opens to the public on Sunday (see below for a related lecture) but is open now for members.  And for an extra dose of gratitude to our members for their support, this weekend is Members Appreciation Weekend.  Members only will get extra discounts in the museum stores, plus 10% off at the Plaza Café!

Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, "Mourner no. 72," 1443-57, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, image © FRAME 2010, photography by Jared Bendis and Franҫois Jay

As usual, the weekend at LACMA kicks off with jazz. Tonight, House of Games will be performing for free in front of Urban Light—the perfect way to relax after a week of work and enjoy a drink at Stark Bar while you’re at it.

If you’re looking for film, tonight and tomorrow you have a couple of chances to see Bruno Dumont’s provocative 2009 film Hadewijch, which follows an expelled novice nun as she wrestles with faith and fanaticism.

Saturday afternoon you’ll have a chance for a sneak peek at an object which will be featured in next month’s exhibition Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts. Art historian Eleanor Sims and Metropolitan Museum of Art associate curator Yana Van Dyke will discuss a recently conserved folio from the Zafarnama of 1436, reunited at LACMA with its facing page.

LACMA will definitely be the place to be on Saturday night: our latest Late Night event includes a DJ set by Mtendere Teebs of Dublab, a screening of Pilgrimage from Scattered Points (about Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra), and the feature event, The Inquisitive Musician—Cindy Bernard’s adaptation of a seventeenth-century satire that delves into the still-felt tensions between classically trained and self-taught artists. The project will be a staged read, featuring cast members Mike Watt, Dave Muller, Thomas Watson, Dick Hebdige, and many more. Also: beer and sausage! Are any of your friends going? Check out our Facebook event listing and see. Here’s a trailer for The Inquisitive Musician:

Sunday is Mother’s Day and LACMA is a great place to bring mom for a little celebrating. Have brunch at Ray’s (call for reservations), take part in family activities as part of Andell Family Sundays, check out the exhibitions on view, or drop in on any of the free talks taking place throughout the day:

Finally, cap off the weekend with a free concert by pianist Alon Goldstein, who will perform works by Janácek, Ligeti, and Debussy.  

Scott Tennent

The Inquisitive Musician Top 10

May 4, 2011

This Saturday during Late Night at LACMA we are presenting a staged reading of The Inquisitive Musician, a project by artist Cindy Bernard and featuring a cast that includes writer Dick Hebdige, composer Gregory Lenczycki, artists and musicians Dave Muller, Ami Tallman and Marnie Weber, artist and activist Haruko Tanaka, experimental bagpiper David Watson, dean of the School of Art at CalArts Thomas Lawson, musicians Tom Watson and William Roper and punk icon Mike Watt. We asked Cindy to tell us a bit more about the project and to put the play’s subject-matter in context of contemporary issues facing musicians today.

The Inquisitive Musician is an adaptation of a seventeenth-century German satire attributed to Johann Kuhnau, Musicus Curiosus, or Battalus, the Inquisitive Musician; the Struggle for Precedence between the Kunst Pfeifer and the Common Players. The satire pits itinerant “beer fiddlers” against the official city sanctioned “Kunstpfeifer” (or “art piper”) in an argument over who is the better musician and has the right to perform and be fairly compensated—those who play tunes by ear and memory or the “Kunstpfeifer” who relies on printed music. The play is written from the position of Kuhnau (1660–1722), who was Bach’s predecessor as the cantor of the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, and arises out of the challenge of an economically strained populace to compensate musicians for their labor—a familiar story which continues to this day.

My set of links—an Inquisitive Musician Top Ten—is inspired by these age old conflicts.

Steven Colbert’s Sellout Off
Steven Colbert judges which alternative rock group deserves his Grammy vote by determining who most successfully “whored” their music, the Black Keys or Vampire Weekend. As Colbert puts it, “It used to be easy to figure out the best album of the year—it was the one that sold the most….These days nobody pays for music anymore, it’s gone the way of pornography….So the only way to determine which alternative band has the most edgy non-commercial appeal is which one got their songs in more commercials.” (Starts at about 3:30 in).

Led Zepplin is missing out

The Problem With Music
The days of the “big break” major label recording deal are probably over, but musician, audio engineer, and journalist Steve Albini’s 1993 laying out of the numbers remains one of the clearest articles on the, uh, trench, that is the big label contract. Courtney Love had one word for it: sharecropping.

The Sunset Strip and Pay to Play
It’s sad that Los Angeles, home to a great tradition of clubs such as the Whisky A Go-Go, the Troubadour, and the Roxy is also the birthplace of one of the most pernicious practices in music—pay to play, a system where bands are asked to front the money to finance their own club gigs. Sunset Strip clubs are infamous for this, sometimes asking bands to pre-sell hundreds of dollars tickets in order to play for half an hour on a multi-band bill. A recent article in the LA Weekly generated a lively “axis of sucks” in the comments, which also seemed to point to tensions between east side and west side clubs.

The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2
Sampling continues to be a battleground where musicians (and their labels) come into conflict, but many of the most well-known cases emerged in the early ’90s.  In 1991, prompted by acquiring tapes of popular DJ Casey Kasem criticizing the band U2, the experimental music collective Negativland included thirty-five seconds of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” performed on kazoo as a part of a sound collage released on SST. Chaos ensued.

The Enraged Musician

Van Halen and the Myth of the Brown M&Ms
A widely cited example of musicians run amok is Van Halen’s demand that all brown M&Ms be removed from the candy bowl requested for every gig in their contract rider. But in fact it was a very savvy business move—if the brown M&Ms were in the bowl, it was a sign that the promoter hadn’t read the contract rider and it was time to “line check the entire production.” Another strategy? Iggy Pop’s roadie just made the rider a hilarious read.

The Rise and Demise of the Scratch Orchestra
Who knew that a collective lasting less than six years and a long dead composer would suddenly become so hot? The recent upsurge in artist collectives and experimental sound has spurred renewed interest in Cornelius Cardew, the Scratch Orchestra, and the tensions that eventually ripped the orchestra apart. The Scratch Orchestra was an experimental musical collective founded in 1968 by Cardew, Howard Skempton, and Michael Parsons, whose ranks swelled to over fifty people in its brief existence. It was defined in its founding constitution as “A large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music making, performance, edification).” Anyone could join, graphic and text-based scores were used (rather than traditional sheet music), and there was an emphasis on indeterminate composition. It was a fluid community of students, office workers, amateur musicians, and some professional composers. The Orchestra dissolved in 1974 due to the strains of Cardew’s “reverse seniority” (whereby the most junior members in age would receive the first opportunities to direct the Orchestra), tensions between musically trained and non-musically trained members, and Cardew’s increasing interest in radical politics. Cardew was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1981.

The numerous recent Cardew / Scratch Orchestra related events include Play for Today, Cornelius Cardew and the Freedom of Listening, Agape, From Scratch, The Cardew Object, a reenactment, and of course Luke Fowler’s  Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, which I premiered in Los Angeles as a part of a SASSAS Scratch Orchestra event in 2010 and am screening again as a part of Late Night at LACMA.

The Orchestra on Strike

In order to comply with truth in advertising, at what point will ‘Symphony Orchestra’ need to be removed from the name of the institution? Brian Ventura, Assistant Principal Oboe, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, on the DSO Facebook page 3/28/11

Tough financial times are wreaking havoc on symphony orchestras. In Detroit financial stresses resulted in failed contract negotiations and a contentious six-month strike by the members of Detroit Symphony Orchestra. At issue were salary cuts of 33% for existing players, 42% for new players, the elimination of tenure, and a redefining of job requirements. The strike was unusually contentious, with the Detroit Free Press comparing the loss of a world-class orchestra to the loss of world-class sports franchise, while other newspapers claimed  the orchestra was one of the “remnants of an era when the city was awash in automotive cash…The reality may be that this region can no longer support a world-class orchestra.”

Both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Musicians took the dispute to their respective Facebook pages. Particularly controversial was the assertion that the DSO Board wanted to replace the current world-class musicians with less experienced and qualified players, or as some put it, “Detroit’s unwashed masses can no longer discern the difference between a great orchestra and a mediocre one, in much the same way that Detroit car makers once snorted at suggestions U.S. consumers would notice a modest slippage in vehicle quality.” The strike was settled in April 2011.

This Ain’t no Picnic
Class conflict in two minutes by my hometown band, the Minutemen (featuring Ronald Reagan, actor).

Last but not Least
Much of the cast of The Inquisitive Musician is populated by artists and musicians who are engaged with the struggle represented in the play—here’s what a few have been up to lately: Mike Watt and Tom Watson just completed fifty-two shows in fifty-one days, all recounted in Mike’s tour diaries; Tom Lawson is working  on Branches of Liberty, based on Scottish terrorist revolutionary Thomas Muir, and is editor in chief of East of Borneo, an online journal investigating the art of Los Angeles, past and present; William Roper is getting together a concert of his “Bavarian” compositions; David Watson recently performed in the Anarchist Festival; and Dick Hebdige has just published an essay entitled “Lucifer Setting: Art, Engineering and the ‘dawn’ of the Stadium Rock Light Show” in Bullet-Proof I Wish I Was: The Lighting Design of Andi Watson.

Cindy Bernard

Tim Burton Picks “Burtonesque” Works from the Permanent Collection

May 3, 2011

During the past few years, we LACMA curators have been willingly outsourcing some parts of our jobs—to artists. When we invite artists to curate our collections, we don’t know exactly what to expect. Artists look at art differently than curators do, encouraging us take a new look at old favorites, pull things out of storage, and put apples together with oranges. Our latest guest curator is Tim Burton, who is also the subject of a major retrospective exhibition opening on May 29. In anticipation of that show, we’ve assembled Burton Selects: From LACMA’s Collection, on view now.

Next month’s Tim Burton, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, convincingly demonstrates that Burton’s creative process stems from his lifelong dedication to drawing; the vast majority of the 700-plus objects included in the show are drawings of one sort or another, from sketches and doodles to cartoons and character studies. Even in the earliest of these, Burton’s key themes and storylines are evident: creatures transforming from one thing into another, quirky children attempting to make sense of equally odd adults, skeletons mingling with humans.

As a curator of prints and drawings, I quickly realized that these same motifs have also been explored by many of the great printmakers in art history. Long before film emerged as the leading mass-culture medium, printmaking was a primary means of disseminating ideas widely and democratically. Thinking about these connections, I decided to invite Burton to curate an exhibition from LACMA’s collections.

Burton is based in London, and he already has a more-than-full-time job directing and producing movies. For practical reasons, therefore, we streamlined the curatorial process. I made a preliminary selection from our holdings of over 30,000 prints and drawings. Just for good measure, I included a few objects from the departments of photography, Latin American art, and Japanese art. Setting aside the usual curatorial concerns, such as chronology, I simply looked for things that might resonate with Burton’s vision. I knew from interviews that he appreciated German Expressionism, so I offered a lot of examples from LACMA’s renowned Robert Gore Rifkind Collection.

Hugo Steiner-Prag, The way to horror, 1915-1916 Print, Lithograph on handmade paper, Image: 7 1/8 x 4 13/16 in. The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies (M.82.287.68L)

There are many other periods in art history when exaggeration, distortion, and fantasy tended to dominate over realistic description. The list eventually included European mannerism and symbolism, Japanese ghost images, and surrealist photographs. I couldn’t resist adding some three-dimensional objects: tiny Japanese netsuke, carved in the shapes of skeletons, ghosts, and demons. These were irresistibly similar to the puppets Burton used in his stop-motion animation films The Nightmare before Christmas and Corpse Bride.

Odilon Redon, À Edgar Poe (L'oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l'infini), 1882, lithograph, Wallis Foundation Fund in memory of Hal B. Wallis (AC1997.14.1.1)

From my long list of around 150 works of art, Burton selected 50, which was a comfortable number for the Rifkind Gallery (on the plaza level of the Ahmanson Building). As expected, he did select several German Expressionist prints, as well as an arresting four-foot-tall poster for the classic expressionist film M. He also responded to some of the Old Master prints, especially those featuring caricatured figures or chaotic compositions. Skeletons from the four centuries are included. And to my delight, so are the netsuke.

Hokkyo Sessai, Skeleton, mid- to late 19th century Netsuke, Stag antler with staining; sashi type, Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection (M.87.263.11)

I know visitors to LACMA will enjoy seeing the full scope of Tim Burton’s art in the retrospective exhibition in the Resnick Pavilion. Please also stop by the Rifkind Gallery to see some of LACMA’s art through his eyes.

Tickets for Tim Burton are on sale now. Join today for two free tickets to the exhibition and other benefits.

Britt Salvesen, Curator and Department Head, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Prints and Drawings Department

David Smith In Focus: Tanktotem VII

May 2, 2011

Having selected all the works that are on view in David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, it’s hard for me to talk about “a favorite”…and yet there are definitely individual pieces in the show that I have completely fallen in love with. One in particular is Tanktotem VII of 1960.

David Smith, Tanktotem VII, 1960, Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York, gift of the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Inc., © The Estate of David Smith, VAGA, NY; photo © Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, NY, by Jerry L. Thompson

Each sculpture in Smith’s Tanktotem series (begun in 1952 and completed in the early 1960s) includes the round lid (in whole or part) of a commercially manufactured boiler tank. To a greater or lesser degree all of these sculptures are anthropomorphic; Tanktotem VII is a particularly elegant and refined work in the series.

It is this graceful beauty combined with its rigor that makes Tanktotem VII so appealing to me. Cubes and Anarchy looks at Smith’s self-constructed blue-collar identity and his interest in the artistic vocabulary and the beliefs of early modernists who saw basic geometric form as a way to express their utopian optimism. Smith was fascinated by found industrial geometries and incorporated not only boiler tank lids but also circular saw blades and other such geometric forms into his work. At the same time, he often referenced the pure geometries of Russian avant-garde artists including Kazimir Malevich, who felt they could make the world a better place through the purity (and hence geometric abstraction) of their art. The white rectangle on the circular black tank lid of Tanktotem VII undoubtedly was informed by Malevich’s painted abstractions such as Black Square of 1915.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, location unknown

The surface of Tanktotem VII is itself a sumptuous painting. Although from afar Smith’s sculpture appears to be a simple combination of black and white, closer inspection in fact reveals deep midnight blues beneath both the black and the white areas, giving the sculpture a wonderful velvety richness.

Nuanced, tough, elegant…David Smith’s Tanktotem VII satisfies on all levels and needs to be seen “up close and personal.” I am already sad that the sculpture will be on view here at LACMA only through July 24!

Carol S. Eliel, Curator, Modern Art

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