Edward Biberman’s Conspiracy

December 7, 2011

I was a double major as an undergraduate, in art history and political science, and have always loved the intersection of art and politics. I think that was what first drew me to Edward Biberman, particularly his 1955 painting Conspiracy, currently on view in the Ahmanson Building as part of a focused installation of LACMA’s Biberman holdings.

Edward Biberman, Conspiracy, c. 1955, LACMA, purchased with funds provided by the Judith Rothschild Foundation; Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren & Sloane, L.L.P.; Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser; the Frederick R. Weisman Philanthropic Foundation; Dr. Judd Marmor; Paul and Suzanne Muchnic; the Reese E. and Linda M. Polesky Family Foundation; and Marvin and Judy Zeidler

The image is a very striking one, infused with a creepy quality. No one’s face is fully visible—indeed two of the four men are only seen from the rear—and the strangely paired hands seem almost cadaverous. The thinly painted surface and odd, slightly acidic palette add to the tension of the scene depicted.

What exactly is the subject here? The painting’s title offers a hint; Biberman’s biography supplies the rest. One of the best California painters working in a modernist idiom, Biberman was born in Philadelphia in 1904. Rather than joining the family garment business, he chose to study art, first in his hometown and then in Paris. After settling temporarily in New York, he followed his screenwriter brother Herbert to Los Angeles in 1936 and established himself as a portraitist. Edward increasingly incorporated social concerns into his paintings, his political consciousness heightened by the Spanish Civil War and the international rise of fascism. Then, in 1947, disaster struck the Biberman family. Edward’s brother Herbert was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. to testify about his allegedly politically subversive acts. Citing his first-amendment rights to free speech and assembly, Herbert refused to testify (he and nine other filmmakers who similarly refused were dubbed the Hollywood Ten), and as a result later spent five months in prison and was blacklisted from the film industry.

His brother’s experience had a profound impact on Edward. He stopped painting for a while, explaining later that “during the specific period…that my brother was imprisoned and denied the opportunity to do his work, I, in good conscience, could not just go normally into my studio and carry on my profession.” Edward himself came under official criticism for his leftist leanings during these years, and he resigned from his teaching position at Art Center to avoid being dismissed. After he returned to painting in the early 1950s, Biberman created Conspiracy, clearly a reference to his brother’s harrowing and anxiety-inducing experience before the HUAC. The power of the image is heightened, however, by its very lack of specificity. While its roots lie in one individual’s personal history, its “moral,” if you will, is much broader. In fact, it could just as easily refer to current events such as the Chinese government’s 81-day detention of artist Ai Weiwei this past spring. Eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty, and art can play an important role.

Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art


A is for Zebra

December 6, 2011

We sat down with Jose Luis Blondet, associate curator of special initiatives in the Education Department, to ask him about A is for Zebra, the latest LACMA-curated exhibition at the Charles White Elementary School Gallery, on view through March 30.

Photo by Howard Pasamanick

Where did you get the inspiration for A is for Zebra?
The site was very important in forming the idea for the show. The gallery is in an elementary school—an environment where students are learning to crack the code of reading and writing. Most students at this school are bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish. We wanted to create an experience where children, parents, the Charles White Elementary School community, and the broader community can see that art is a kind of language. Using the alphabet as an entry point, visitors to the exhibition will crack the code for learning to read works of art.

Photo by Christine Choi

What does “A is for Zebra” mean?
A is the first letter of the alphabet and is typically associated with “A is for animal.” Z, being the last letter of the alphabet, is most commonly associated with “zebra.” So, in this case we are turning the idea upside down. “A is for Zebra” is playful. It is funny. Also, zebras are black and white like printed text—black ink on white paper.

How did the students at the school work with some of the artists in the show?
They became a part of the exhibition with their voices. Stephanie Taylor’s work includes a song that doesn’t make sense in any language. The kids learned, sang, and recorded the song with Stephanie. Artist Kirsten Mosher has these gumhead characters that are funny, cute, and gross. Gum lives in your mouth, just like language, but the gumhead characters live outside of the mouth and they talk! The students worked with Kirsten to mix their voices into her video work. It was really fun to work with the kids, and it made sense to include them because the exhibition is, after all, in their school.

Photo by Howard Pasamanick

You describe the exhibition as being about alphabets making sense and nonsense.
The exhibition invites visitors to engage with art and language in a playful way. The works of art have humor in them; the artists intended for them to be funny. There are prints by Francisco Goya of donkeys learning how to read and write, a video by John Baldessari teaching a plant to read, a book of photographs featuring a dancer posing as different letters of the alphabet. The labels and didactics are impossible to read without 3-D glasses. Videos and projections are installed in surprising places. The installation is full of nonsense.

What will people be most surprised by?
The gallery has a pet! There are more secrets, but I will not tell them to you. You’ll have to visit.

A is for Zebra is on view at Charles White Elementary School, 2401 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90057. The gallery is free and open to the public weekdays, 2:30–6 pm. Enter through the school entrance on Carondelet Street between Wilshire Boulevard and Sixth Street. Gallery educators lead art making and other activities in response to the playful and nonsensical works on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. For more information or to arrange a special visit, contact Sarah Jesse at sjesse@lacma.org.

Karen Weeks Satzman, Director of Youth and Family Programs


Robert Therrien: The Art of Two Minds

December 5, 2011

Maybe you know this riddle someone recently told me: You leave home, you make three left turns, and you arrive back facing two masked men. What’s going on?

To some extent Robert Therrien’s art engenders, if considered as a whole, a puzzle that is both profound and quite silly. These visual puns are the foundation of pop art’s reverence of modern life. But for Therrien, these sculptural entities seem to be flying in opposite directions and for entirely different purposes. Maybe it is churlish of me to expect something else. Long guard duty can leave you with questions that mere looking can’t quite resolve.

You step onto the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and as you enter the gallery to the left, you encounter a large, haphazard stack of giant ivory plates. To your right is a fairly small painting of a blue oval. Thus, the journey begins between them. As you continue on, you realize there’s another stack, only this one is blue. Walking around these stacks gives you a dizzy sensation—which tells you something more about the art. It’s funny.

Installation view of "Robert Therrien: Selections from the Broad Collection and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art." Artworks © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the next room you find a beautifully upholstered black leather bed rising up, twisting toward the ceiling. It’s almost musical and all that is missing is a top hat, but of course, there it is—a straw boater in wood standing on its brim. It’s theater! Somewhere between commentary and sculptural invention, all the pieces placate this divide of the precarious and the pure.

Robert Therrien, Untitled (black beds), 1998, gift of Gail and Tony Ganz in memory of Robert Shapazian, © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

So, to me, Therrien’s art is about structure and reception more than form. Admittedly, at times this is a cultural joke freighted as it were as pop art and minimalism—where Disney meets Kandinsky, where Mies van der Rohe and Sealy Posturepedic meet surrealism and the film Inception. Robert Therrien manages to mine an absurdist dreamscape that lodges somewhere between Lewis Carroll and late-twentieth-century art’s fascination with Koons-ish zany domesticity and monumentality. It’s play that goes beyond playfulness. It’s a quirky world of everyday hardcore encounters—pots and pans, dishes, stoves, and tables with their intrinsic lived-in messiness and odd character construction that are somehow passionately pushed to another degree of scale and heft that bestows on them a torturous reality of restless, unstable energy. Contrapuntally, he gives us these extraordinary reductive forms in which the ghost of some previous utilitarian item merely existed. Here, we lose that topsy-turvy, disconcerting abstraction for perfect shapes, a geometrical universe in which artists in general seem to be perpetually entangled—that perfect world.

Installation view of "Robert Therrien: Selections from the Broad Collection and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art." Artworks © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I recently had the pleasure of viewing a large selection of Therrien’s works at the Gagosian Gallery, including beards in all forms—from normal-sized plastic beards to gigantic wire “hairs” in a wooden cage. I could not help but think of Jack and the Bean Stalk, pathetically. His recurring cartoon images keep one off balance. Thus, Robert Therrien creates a disquieting world in which you never quite laugh and that, for me, echoes modernism’s split personality by which any very real object in the Duchampian universal parlance of art—the human stuff—can simply be labeled and made ironically perverse, vaguely macabre, or weirdly humorous with sexual or sexless overtones and a messy undertow of violence and unease. On the other hand, the long shadow of Kazimir Malevich is cast where Therrien finds himself in the cool embrace of the same clean, frictionless forms as one of his heroes, Constantin Brancusi, and his Bird in Space. Just maybe, Robert Therrien was trying to fit them together. But more likely than not, he was prepared to live with the dichotomy of his own making—the puzzle’s sweet chaos in which nothing is really settled. Oh! And, of course, the answer is you’ve arrived at home plate.

Hylan Booker


This Weekend at LACMA: Asco Closes, Contested Visions Symposium, Biberman and Meidner Installations Open

December 2, 2011

This weekend is your last chance to see Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987 before it packs up and heads to the Williams College Museum of Art, opening in February. One of five Pacific Standard Time exhibitions at LACMA, the retrospective highlights the multitude of performances and objects created by this influential East L.A. art collective. If you missed some of our blog posts on Asco, take a moment to catch up: the four original Asco members recall the making of First Supper after a Major Riot; Willie Herrón III talks about his newly commissioned mural; and exhibition co-curator Rita Gonzalez writes about Asco’s “No Movies.”

Asco, First Supper (After a Major Riot), 1974, printed 2011, color photography by Harry Gamboa, Jr., courtesy of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) Library, © 1974 Asco/Photography © Harry Gamboa Jr.

All weekend long, in partnership with UCLA, we will be holding a three-day symposium in conjunction with Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World. Scholars from around the world will convene both here at LACMA (Friday and Sunday) and at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (Saturday) to discuss major themes addressed in the exhibition. View the schedule of events or read abstracts for each of the presentations. The events are all free.

Marcos Chillitupa Chávez, Folding Screen with the Genealogy of the Incas, 1837, Cuzco Circle, Pastor Family Collection, Lima, Peru, photo © D. Giannoni

Opening this weekend are two smaller installations highlighting works from our permanent collection: a selection of paintings by Edward Biberman and German Expressionist prints by Ludwig Meidner.

A note about museum hours on Saturday: the east side of campus will be closing at 5 pm for a special event. This will affect Edward Kienholz’s Five Car Stud, Maria Nordman’s FILM ROOM: SMOKE, 1967-Present, and many permanent galleries. The west side of campus (including Asco, Contested Visions, Glenn Ligon, California Design, Ai Weiwei and Monet/Lichtenstein) will remain open regular hours, as will Ray’s and Stark Bar.

Sunday sees a couple of great talks and a concert, all free. If you’re into manga, check out a free lecture by Pomona College professor Lynne K. Miyake, who will discuss the ancient Tale of Genji. The famous Japanese story was written a millennium ago but has been updated and adapted over many generations—most recently influencing manga.

Also on Sunday, in the Art Catalogues store, performance art group Culture Clash reads and performs from its latest book, Oh, Wild West! They’ll also talk about recently having their art banned in Arizona by the state’s Attorney General.

Finally, violinist Phillip Levy and pianist Francois Chouchan will perform works by Franck and Mozart for our free Sundays Live concert.

Scott Tennent


New Acquisition: Baratta’s Wealth and Prudence

December 1, 2011

On view now in our European galleries are two life-size allegorical figure statues, Wealth and Prudence, by the late Florentine Baroque master, Giovanni Baratta (1640–1747)—just acquired through the largess of The Ahmanson Foundation. The rediscovery of these sculptures has been recognized as a major contribution to the study of early eighteenth-century Florentine art.

Giovanni Baratta, Wealth (left) and Prudence (right), 1709, gift of the Ahmanson Foundation

Originally part of one of Baratta’s most illustrious commissions, the works are noted for their refined elegance. The sculptures were commissioned by Niccolò Maria Giugni (1672-1717) for the gallery in his Palazzo on the Via degli Alfani in Florence. Facing one another at either end of the gallery, they were part of an elaborate iconographic scheme intended to glorify the Medici family and celebrate the Giugni family’s allegiance to the Medici. The choice of Wealth and Prudence was particularly appropriate to illustrate the joint virtues of the families, as some members of the Giugni family had advised the Medici in various aspects of their governance.

The two allegories closely match the iconology of the subjects: Wealth is a woman bedecked with jewels and holding a crown in one hand, a scepter in the other (the scepter may either have disappeared or never have been intended by the sculptor); Prudence is identified by the mirror she’s holding as well as an arrow and eel, all of which appear distinctly in Baratta’s sculpture.

In addition to their size, the extraordinary quality of carving in the sculptures is noted. Of particular beauty are the hands whose fingers delicately press the fabrics, and folds that are thinly and sharply executed in a way that carries into the eighteenth-century tradition of Bernini, in whose studio Baratta’s uncle had worked. The sculptures were executed shortly before 1709, at the height of Baratta’s fame. Shortly after, with well-established international recognition, he received commissions globally, including those from the Duke of Marlborough (“Princely Glory”, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum), the King of Denmark (Peace, Fedensborg Castle), and the Royal House of Savoy in Turin (Decoration of the Church of St. Hubert in the Venaria Reale).

As the first marble examples of Baroque Florentine sculptures to enter the collection, Wealth and Prudence are an important addition to LACMA’s extensive grouping of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Florentine sculpture. The Baratta works join a bronze by Antonio Montauti, as well as a gilded terra-cotta, a wax relief, and medals by Massimilliano Soldani-Benzi, amongst other notable works currently on view in the museum’s European galleries.

J. Patrice Marandel, the Robert H. Ahmanson Chief Curator of European Art


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