Ellsworth Kelly on Ellsworth Kelly

February 14, 2012

While he was here previewing the exhibition Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Drawings, we caught a conversation between the artist and curators Stephanie Barron and Britt Salvesen.

In the video, below, Kelly touches on his time in Los Angeles at Gemini G.E.L.; making drawings on the hotel stationery at Chateau Marmont; and his feelings about the current exhibition at LACMA.

Amy Heibel

Q&A with Artist Alison Saar about Her Connection to Watts Towers

February 13, 2012

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Saar, a sculptor who is a native Angeleno, over tea and coffee at Ray’s on LACMA’s campus. I wanted to ask her about the lifelong relationship she has had with the Watts Towers. She comes from a family immersed in art: Her mother, Betye Saar, is also an artist and her father, Richard Saar, was an art conservator. The family’s connection with the Towers began with her maternal great-grandmother, a resident of Watts, and continued with her mother, who saw Simon Rodia’s work in progress, before being passed along to Alison and even now to Alison’s children.

After discussing LACMA’s Watts Towers conservation efforts, we got around to talking about Alison’s connection to the Towers.

Alison Saar at LACMA

Lucas Casso: Could you tell me a little about your first memories of the Watts Towers?

Alison Saar: Well, actually, one of my first memories of the Towers is one of the first memories I have. I think I was three years old and my mother took myself and my sister [artist Lesley Saar], who must have been five or six, to the Towers. We must have been under one of the main towers, and when we looked up it was like a spider web. It was really wonderful for us as kids that age because it was a kind of micro-world where we could get really up close to things. Back then they let you climb on the towers and touch them, which is probably why we need conservation efforts now.

It had a huge impact on me, and my mother’s grandmother lived in the neighborhood, so my mother actually got to see Rodia working on the Towers. It was always a place we would go to visit on family outings.

LC: Do you have a favorite spot in Watts Towers?

AS: I love when you’re underneath the towers and it creates this whole other view that you can’t experience until you’re within them. But I also like the walls and where Rodia’s signature is, along with the stamps of his tools—that really stands out in my mind. It’s funny though, because you go and you start looking at things you’ve never seen before. You recognize tiles and china from different eras, which I find pretty interesting. The Towers are a coming together of histories by using the objects and refuse from the community, and probably also beyond the community—a testimony to those who have lived in that neighborhood.

The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, 1921-54, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

LC: As an artist who often uses found objects in your work, does Rodia’s use of pottery shards and bottles from the neighborhood resonate with you?

AS: Very much so! I used to live in Laurel Canyon, an area devastated by fires in the 1950s, and every time it would rain, all of this stuff would turn up on the dirt roads – little bits of china and things that we would collect. I feel that Watts Towers let me know, even then as a little kid, that these things could be part of something else later and have the potential for a second life.

LC: How important was Rodia’s status as an art “outsider” with no formal training to your appreciation of the Towers?

AS: Aside from just the aesthetics of them and the notion that he made them from nothing, there’s the idea that he was compelled to make this thing without any sort of qualms as to whether it would fit into any sort of idea of “art” or whether it would be appreciated by anyone. The Towers just arose out of a passion. I think that was really inspirational for me and also caused me to look into other self-taught artists, specifically African American artists, who would just want to make their art out of this passion and vision of making beautiful things. So Rodia was certainly more inspiring than a lot of the artists I was learning about in school.

LC: Do the Towers still influence your work today?

AS: I think it all goes back to the notion of making things out of found objects, and not so much as objects in and of themselves, but sometimes portions or remnants of other objects. I know that it wasn’t Rodia’s intention per se—I think his intention was really to get materials that were beautiful and free—but he created this sort of refuse archive of the area. My interest in that part of the Towers is definitely still prevalent in the work that I do now—the idea that an object has a history and wisdom to it.

The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia, 1921-54, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

LC: Say you were able to ask Rodia one question about the Towers. What would it be?

AS: I would actually ask a technical question, like “How the heck did you do that?!” As an artist without any real technical training, it’s really interesting to me in terms of how despite not knowing how to do something, you just figure it out.

LC: What would you say to someone who has never seen the Towers?

AS: You know, the Towers are one of L.A.’s seven-wonders-type things. They have this strange, magical mystery to them – why they’re there, how they were built, etc. You come up to these things that are so otherworldly in this environment with all of these little houses . . . It really does alter your consciousness in terms of why to make art. Everything now is produced for a purpose, and I think it is a really interesting lesson in making things that are true to your heart.

Lucas Casso, Intern

This Weekend at LACMA: Ai Weiwei Closes, Mike Kelley Installation, Sidney J. Furie Double Feature, and More

February 10, 2012

This weekend is your last chance to enjoy Ai Weiwei’s outdoor installation, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads. The exhibition seems to have inspired a number of our curators to write Unframed posts: contemporary curator Franklin Sirmans gives some background on the artist and installation of the zodiac heads at LACMA. Stephen Little, head curator of Chinese and Korean art, wrote about the presence of European Jesuits in eighteenth-century China and the creation of the Yuan Ming Yuan, or “Palace of Perfect Brightness,” where the original Zodiac heads that inspired Ai’s piece resided before the palace was destroyed in 1860. Decorative Arts and Design curator Elizabeth Williams used Ai’s sculptures as a jumping-off point to talk about the influence of Chinese motifs in eighteenth-century European decorative arts.

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (installation view), © Ai Weiwei, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Starting Saturday, you’ll find two works on paper by the late Mike Kelley, on view in the Ahmanson Building across from the Art Catalogues store. Kelley, who lived in Los Angeles, was one of the most influential artists of his generation and will be greatly missed. The installation will be up through March 11. Look for an Unframed post on Kelley next week.

Mike Kelley, Wallflowers, 1988, museum purchase with funds provided by the Awards in the Visual Arts Program

Tonight our tribute to 100 Years of Paramount Pictures continues with a double feature of two films directed by Sidney J. Furie. First up is 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday and also feature Richard Pryor and Billie Dee Williams. The second feature sees Pryor and Williams teaming up again a year later for the action film Hit!

Bring your family for our weekly—free—Andell Family Sunday activities, which include art-making fun inspired by California Design, 1930–1965

On Sunday afternoon curator Stephen Little will give a talk on authenticity in traditional Chinese painting—how does one tell a fake from the real thing? The lecture is $10 for general admission, $5 for LACMA members, and is free for members of the East Asian Art Council.

The weekend concludes with a free concert by the Lincoln Trio, who will perform works by Beethoven, Lera Auerbach, Stacy Garrop, Jennifer Higdon, and Astor Piazolla for our weekly Sundays Live series.

And of course there are many other exhibitions and installations on view, including In Wonderland, our specially ticketed exhibition on surrealist women artists; Chris Burden’s Metropolis II (check for operating times over the weekend); and the stunning Ellsworth Kelly retrospective.

Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings (installation view), January 22–April 22, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Scott Tennent

In Wonderland Inspires Artist App

February 8, 2012

Sometimes we invite artists to respond to exhibitions on view at the museum with web-based projects that we can distribute to our virtual audience. In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States caught the attention of Jody Zellen, who created a free app for iPhone and iPad inspired by a popular surrealist parlor game known as the “exquisite corpse.” As the method goes, one person would write or draw on a sheet of paper, fold it, and pass it to the next participant, who would then add their own contribution and so on, resulting in a composition made up of chance and juxtaposition. The app allows users to create a collage in similar fashion, combining images from our collection, from the exhibition, and/or from their own camera roll.

We asked Zellen about the project:

LACMA: Did you identify with the artists in the show?

Zellen: As a woman working with technology, I feel like I’m in a man’s world. And when you think about surrealism, you often think about male artists. In Wonderland is an exhibition of artists claiming that traditionally male territory – rather than being so-and-so’s girlfriend, they are the artist. I was energized by that idea.

LACMA: What are your thoughts about technology as a medium for making art?

Zellen: What’s most exiting for me about working in this whole field is that you can think of what you’re making as an artwork, but it’s an interactive artwork that everybody can download and have a personal copy of. You’re giving it away or giving people a tool to make their own works of art. The potential for sharing is exciting too. The project creates a dialogue.

LACMA: How did you choose the images that are included in the app?

Zellen: The app begins with a selection of twelve images from the show and from LACMA’s collection already loaded. The app allows you to add more images from the museum’s collection if you want—I chose about 100 works of art from LACMA’s free image library representing all different periods and cultures. I also built in the capacity to add images from your own camera roll, or take a new photo with the camera on the phone or iPad and add that to the mix.

LACMA: How did you make this particular example?

Zellen: I have a lot of drawing and paint programs in my iPhone so I was able to pick some of my own drawings and then combine those with works from the exhibition and other random photos from my camera roll.

LACMA: What satisfied you about this project?

Zellen: It allows people to play and learn at the same time. You’re not just combining three sections of different pictures—you’re encountering works of art from all different time periods and cultures, and you can learn about them. Also, I was able to include images of three examples of exquisite corpse drawings from the Art Institute of Chicago to give people a little bit of a history.  You can take the images in the app and mix them up, combine them with, say, an image of your cat or a sunset, and it becomes something magical.

The way it functions mirrors the approach of the artists in the show, in many ways. It’s about play and fun and making uncanny juxtapositions out of things that already exist—taking something that is a given and reading it in a new way, putting a new twist on it.

The images split in fascinating ways and it’s really endless fun in terms of the combinations you can make. You can add and subtract images and come up with limitless variations.

Find out more about the app here.

Amy Heibel

LACMA’s New South Asian Sculpture Gallery

February 8, 2012

As a consequence of LACMA’s current loan exhibition of Indian art to Mexico and Chile, the South and Southeast Asian Art Department’s flagship gallery of South Asian sculpture needed to be reinstalled because many of the stellar works displayed in the gallery are now in the traveling exhibition. This was a welcome opportunity, as the gallery (located on the top floor of the Ahmanson Building) had last been reinstalled in 1998 and would benefit from an updated presentation. With so many of our Indian treasures out on loan, it would have been impossible to organize the works in a comprehensive geo-chronological manner. Instead, I decided to arrange them thematically and focus selectively on aesthetic masterpieces and new acquisitions. Here is a peek at just a few of the objects now on view in the reinstalled gallery.

The Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, India, Tamil Nadu, c. 950–1000, anonymous gift

The South and Southeast Asian Art Department’s signature work is The Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. This south Indian processional bronze (indicated by square holes on the base that were used to tie it to a mobile platform) is one of only a small handful from the tenth century that survive with an elliptical aureole of flames.  Most extant bronze images of Shiva dancing are embellished with a round nimbus, which was the style from the eleventh century onward. While the circular halo may be more apt for symbolizing the cyclic nature of time in Indian philosophy and cosmology, the ovoid shape of LACMA’s bronze is a much more dynamic form that helps convey the animated movement of the cosmic dance.

Shivalinga, India, Uttar Pradesh, Mathura, late 4th century, gift of Yvonne and Harry Lenart

Immediately to the right of the gallery entrance is an object that is simultaneously a new acquisition and an old friend. The late-fourth-century sandstone Shivalinga (emblematic shaft personified by the mustachioed face of Shiva) was bequeathed to LACMA last year by our beloved late trustee Yvonne Lenart. This extremely rare and early representation first graced LACMA’s galleries in 1978 in the exhibition The Divine Presence: Asian Sculptures from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lenart, and it was generously pledged as a promised gift in honor of LACMA’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1990.

Krishna, the Butter Thief, India, Karnataka, Mysore, 16th century, purchased with funds provided by the Louis and Erma Zalk Foundation and Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Pollock

One of LACMA’s most charming works, the ivory sculpture of Krishna, the Butter Thief is a delightful portrayal of the Hindu god of devotion as a pudgy infant joyfully holding two balls of butter that he has mischievously stolen from the churn to his mother’s amused consternation.

The Hindu Goddess Kali, India, Kerala, c. 17th century, gift of Dr. S. Sanford and Mrs. Charlene S. Kornblum

Another new acquisition generously donated by long-time LACMA patrons Charlene and Sandy Kornblum, the wooden sculpture of The Hindu Goddess Kali is a tour de force of intricate carving. The goddess is bountifully adorned with ornate jewelry replicating the spectacular gold jewelry that was the fashion of the day. Note in particular the dramatic earrings: one depicts the head of a lion, the other an elephant. Kali is endowed with eight arms, each holding either a weapon or an attribute symbolic of her fearsome power. Such projecting parts are exceedingly rare in surviving sculptures from Kerala (a modern state of southern India) because the jackwood in which they are carved is extremely soft and especially susceptible to erosion from the heavy rainfall of a tropical climate.

There are many more wonders to behold in LACMA’s new South Asian Sculpture Gallery. I invite you to come see for yourself and don’t be afraid to linger.

Stephen Markel, the Harry and Yvonne Lenart Curator and Department Head of South and Southeast Asian Art

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