Matt Ritter on the Trees of Robert Adams: The Place We Live

March 8, 2012

[Find continuing updates on the transport of the boulder for Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass here.] In other news: Opening this Sunday, March 11, Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs presents the artistic legacy of photographer Robert Adams (b. 1937) and his longstanding engagement with the changing landscape of the American West and the lives of its inhabitants. With a timely opening during California’s Arbor Day celebration (March 7–14), the exhibition reveals Robert Adams’s eloquent preoccupation with the presence of trees, featured in series dedicated to the Los Angeles region, cottonwood trees in Colorado, and poplars, alders, and firs growing in Oregon. Edward Robinson, associate curator of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, talks to Dr. Matt Ritter, a botany professor at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo and California trees expert, about the flora of Robert Adams’s photographs. Dr. Ritter will lead a gallery talk  about the exhibition on Thursday evening, March 22.

Dr. Matt Ritter

Edward Robinson: Adams began photographing the Southern California region in the late 1950s and early 1960s, returning many times to describe the citrus groves, eucalyptus, and palm trees that flourish in the area. Looking at Robert Adams’s series, “Los Angeles Spring” (1979–83), what do the many different kinds of trees featured suggest about the region’s horticultural history and changing land use over time?

Matt Ritter: At different times in Southern California’s history, certain plants have been more or less horticulturally popular. An example is the Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis) featured in Robert Adams’s Edge of San Timoteo Canyon. Although young Canary Island Date Palms are rarely planted anymore, they were very popular around homesteads at the turn of the last century.  When the homesteads and agricultural fields were abandoned, destroyed, or developed, these palms, which can live for centuries, remain as reminders of the activities, cultural history, and interests of early Californians.

Not all plants were utilitarian; a large Canary Island Date Palm would have stood proudly as a symbol of status and stateliness in the yard of a farmhouse. On the other hand, Red Gum eucalypts (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), the sole species in Abandoned windbreak, were entirely utilitarian and favored by early agriculturalists in Southern California. These trees, which seem to thrive on neglect, offer shade, protection, and wood, and were often the only trees in otherwise desolate and hostile landscapes.

Robert Adams, Edge of San Timoteo Canyon, looking toward Los Angeles, Redlands, California, 1978, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund

Robert Adams, Abandoned windbreak, West of Fontana, California, 1982, printed 1996, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund

ER:  Other series on view describe the cottonwoods in Colorado, where Robert Adams lived for much of his career. Adams writes that “Cottonwoods have been our friends for a long while. The Arapaho believed that the stars came from cottonwoods, from the glistening sap at the joints of twigs. Immigrant wagon trains followed along from one grove to the next, with cottonwoods serving as landmarks, shelter, and fuel.” What is distinctive about cottonwoods as a species of trees and an element today of the inhabited west?

MR: It is not surprising that cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) caught Adams’s eye. They are like few other trees in the American West, with their twisted, wide-branching forms, corrugated, gray-skinned trunks, and leaves that ripple in the wind. They are the patriarchs of the landscape—survivors in a place of drought, heat, and shattering cold. Inhabitants of the American West have always known cottonwoods to be indicators of precious resources. They grow where water is available, in fertile alluvial bottomlands.  Cottonwoods in the distance are a promise of arable land, water, food, shade, and better times.

Robert Adams, Untitled, from the series Along Some Rivers, 1985–87, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund

ER: For the last fifteen years or so, Adams has lived in Oregon. His series “Turning Back” is dedicated to the subject of deforestation in the Pacific Northwest. One of Robert Adams’s photographs features his wife, Kerstin, standing beside a large stump, a remnant of an ancient wood where trees once commonly grew to be five hundred or more years old; others depict the “harvest” of newer forests. What is your sense of the future of the rainforests in the region?

MR: I grew up in a rural part of Mendocino County in Northern California, where logging the remnant coastal redwood forests was one of the main industries in the area, and I witnessed those logging activities change greatly in a relatively short period of time as the trees disappeared. In my part of Northern California and the parts of Oregon depicted in Robert Adams’s photographs, there is so little of the original, virgin, old-growth forests remaining (less than 4 percent).

The wholesale plunder of California and Oregon conifers that took place in the early part of the twentieth century is over, but the scars remain. These scars take form in the infrastructure: abandoned towns, mills, railroads lines, and logging roads, and the human-modified ecosystems of Adams’s photographs: half-rotted, massive old stumps, second-growth forests, and slowly recovering waterways and fisheries. Fortunately, most old-growth rainforests of the Northwest are protected in perpetuity, and logging practices have improved greatly, with many companies finding new ways to sustainably harvest timber.

Robert Adams, Sitka spruce, Cape Blanco State Park, Curry County, Oregon, 1999–2000, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund

Robert Adams, Kerstin, Next to an Old-Growth Stump, Coos County, Oregon, 1999–2003, Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Saundra B. Lane, a grant from the Trellis Fund, and the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund

ER: Robert Adams writes, “Art should finally be encouraging. That’s the promise that brings people to museums. And since lies are finally discouraging, that means art should be truthful. Truthful and affirmative, presumably even about what has happened to most of the landscape.” Amid LACMA’s twenty-acre campus, visitors can also experience firsthand artist Robert Irwin’s Palm Garden, an installation of some one hundred palm trees, designed with landscaper Paul Comstock. Bringing together more than thirty varieties of palm trees and other specimens, Irwin has noted that certain cycads for the site are among the first plants on earth. As the author of A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us (Heyday Books, 2012), and thinking about the importance of trees to local and worldwide communities, what do you think some of the most exciting and rare plantings to look for are when visiting LACMA?

Robert Irwin, Palm Garden, 2010, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

MR: Robert Irwin’s Palm Garden is a truly impressive collection of trees. Not only does it have one of the greatest diversities of palms in any collection in California, it also houses a number of rare cycads.  Cycads, although ostensibly like palms, are actually distantly related ancient plants that evolved during the time of the dinosaurs and have changed very little in the last 250 million years. They have declined in abundance in the places where they occur to a point now where all three hundred species of cycads in the world are rare and endangered in the wild.

Robert Irwin, Chilean Wine Palm (Jubaea chilensis), Palm Garden, 2010, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

A particularly awesome individual in the palm collection is the Chilean Wine Palm (Jubaea chilensis) planted in a submerged position near the elevator to the Pritzker Parking Garage. Individuals of this species are the widest palms in the world. If its massive trunk is cut, a sugary sap will flow from it for a long time—hundreds of gallons of syrup can be harvested. In Chile, where the palms are now protected and rarely cut down, this syrup was fermented into a sweet wine. Chilean wine palm fruits are also edible and similar in appearance and taste to small coconuts (called coquitos in Chile). Riding the LACMA’s plaza elevator and observing this massive tree is a special treat during a visit to the museum and palm collection, and you may even get to eat a coquito.

Robert Adams: The Place We Live, A Retrospective Selection of Photographs opens March 11. Members get a sneak preview today, Friday, and Saturday.

Edward Robinson, Associate Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department

Reflecting on Master Movers of Stone

March 7, 2012

[The boulder for Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is in Bixby Knolls for the day, where local officials are hosting a “Rock Party” from noon to 7 pm. For more information and continuing updates on the transport, click here.]

This weekend, while I was in Rowland Heights observing the megalith that is to be part of Levitated Mass, I overheard another viewer say, “That boulder would make the ancient Egyptians proud. It is almost as big as one of the stones from the Great Pyramid.”

Megalith slated to become part of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, en route to Rowland Heights, during transport to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, March 3, 2012, © Michael Heizer, photo by Tom Vinetz

Indeed, the ancient Egyptians were masters at moving enormous monoliths. However, the largest granite slabs roofing the burial chamber of the Great Pyramid weighed only eighty tons. Other Egyptian stones used in burial chambers, such as those from a pyramid at Saqqara, ranged in weight up to one hundred and fifty tons.

Francis Frith, Pyramids of El-Geezeh (from the southwest), c. 1857, the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

The ancient Egyptians do hold the record for the second-largest moved stone—an enormous royal statue placed at the mortuary temple of Rameses II at Thebes. It once stood taller than sixty-two feet high and weighed more than a thousand tons, but it is now preserved as a shattered fragment, as poet Percy Bysshe Shelley described it: the “Half sunk, a shattered visage” lying on the sand.

Francis Frith, The Ramesseum of El-Kurneh, Thebes (first view), c. 1857

Other Egyptian statues may have even been larger, based on fragments of works found in other Egyptian sites. However, the largest known moved stone is a boulder called the Thunder Stone, weighing in at 1250 tons. The Thunder Stone was moved into position in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the late eighteenth century to serve as the base of an equestrian statue of Peter the Great.

In some ways, walking beneath the huge 340-ton monolith of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass at LACMA will be similar to the modern experience of entering the burial chambers of Egypt’s pyramids with the knowledge that multi-ton slabs support the ceiling above and that you’re standing under the weight of an enormous constructed human monument.

Francis Frith, Statues of the Plain, Thebes, 1858

Nearly four thousand years later, the Colossi of Memnon of ancient Egypt remain landmarks of human ingenuity. Certainly Michael Heizer’s sculpture at LACMA will intrigue visitors to the western coast of this continent for many centuries to come.

Nancy Thomas, Curator of Egyptian Art and Deputy Director, Art Administration and Collections

Monumental Sculpture at LACMA

March 6, 2012

Over the course of the 340-ton megalith’s journey to LACMA to become a part of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, we have been blown away by how many people have come out to visit the transporter, or have been following from afar via Unframed, Twitter, Facebook, or the Levitated Mass website. [For continuing updates on the transport of the boulder for Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, click here.] Everyone we’ve met has been fascinated by the details of the transport and incredibly excited about the finished artwork. Best of all, so many of the people we’ve met so far have either not been to LACMA before, or haven’t visited in many years—and now they want to come.

Megalith slated to become part of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, en route to Chino Avenue near the 71 freeway, during transport to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, March 2, 2012, © Michael Heizer, photo by Tom Vinetz

If you have been following the journey of the megalith, you’ve no doubt contemplated the sheer size of the boulder as it makes its way through twenty-two cities and four counties to LACMA. But Levitated Mass is not the only monumental artwork on LACMA’s campus. If you’re a resident of Los Angeles or have traveled down the Miracle Mile, chances are you’ve seen Urban Light, the colossal sculpture consisting of 202 vintage street lamps that sits just off of Wilshire Boulevard, lighting up the night sky. Created by artist Chris Burden, Urban Light has become an iconic landmark—not only on LACMA’s campus but in Los Angeles and Southern California as well.

Chris Burden, Urban Light, 2008, The Gordon Family Foundation’s gift to Transformation: The LACMA Campaign, © Chris Burden, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Chris Burden is also the artist behind Metropolis II, which had its LACMA debut just two months ago. Burden’s vision of a futuristic Los Angeles, Metropolis II is a frenetic kinetic sculpture that features 1,100 miniature cars zipping through a dense, complex city at 240 scale miles per hour. Metropolis II towers nine feet in the air and is spread across more than five hundred square feet—inspiring awe in visitors young and old alike.

Metropolis II shares the first level of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum with another jaw-dropping artwork: Richard Serra’s Band, an elegant, curved ribbon of a sculpture whose sheer mass (it’s made of steel, after all) is disguised by the ease and fluidity of its presence in the gallery.

Richard Serra, Band, 2006, purchased with funds provided by Eli and Edythe L. Broad, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Moving Richard Serra’s work is no small feat, as a typical piece weighs about twenty tons (though the megalith of Levitated Mass is proving to be the new heavyweight on campus). We documented the tremendous effort of LACMA’s crew to deinstall another Serra sculpture, Sequence, last summer.

Finally, the Ahmanson Building atrium is home to Tony Smith’s Smoke, a towering aluminum lattice that stands twenty-four feet high and spans forty-eight feet across. Smoke consists of forty-five octahedrons, eight-sided geometric shapes that resemble crystals. The artwork was originally constructed by Smith in 1967 for a temporary exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. At the time it garnered the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Art Outgrows the Museum.”

Time magazine, October 13, 1967

Since then it had not been on view again until 2008, when Smoke was erected piece by piece at LACMA. We captured the entire process in a time-lapse video.

Preparing to welcome Levitated Mass into the ranks of monumental sculpture at LACMA has inspired us to reflect on the other truly massive works of art that already call LACMA home—all of which have been added to LACMA’s collection in just the last four years.

Jenny Miyasaki

Latin American Art at LACMA (and a Levitated Mass Connection, Too)

March 5, 2012

[For continuing updates on the transport of the boulder for Michael Heizer’s Levitated Massclick here.]

Sunday’s Los Angeles Times included a terrific article on California museums’ engagement with Latin American art. It’s only natural—Southern California was once part of Mexico, after all; the history of this region is reflected in the art and artifacts of the indigenous cultures of the Americas (as well as Europeans, as the recently closed Contested Visions in the Colonial World demonstrated).

LACMA is incredibly committed to its collection and exhibition of Latin American art, as the Times article noted. To delve deeper, here are some links to a variety of ways LACMA is furthering scholarship and sharing with local and international audiences:

On view now through May 6 is In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, featuring works by Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and many more.

Frida Kahlo, Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), 1939, © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

Opening April 1 is Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico, featuring objects from 1200–1500 AD such as frescoes, codices, featherworks, and more.

Additionally, we recently closed Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World, which will travel to the Museo Nacional de Historia del Castillo de Chapultepec this summer.

As the Los Angeles Times article noted, LACMA is also touring an exhibition of objects from its permanent collection of ancient Indian art. The exhibition recently finished at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas in Mexico City and is now heading for the Centro Cultural Palacio de la Moneda in Santiago, Chile. Curator Stephen Markel recently wrote about the exhibition for Unframed.

Our permanent collection of Latin American art is on view in the Art of the Americas Building in a unique installation that takes you from ancient to contemporary. The ancient galleries were designed by artist Jorge Pardo in 2008 and feature vibrant colors and undulating walls. Don’t miss the colonial, modern, and contemporary works on view in the same floor, too, including Roberto Matta’s Burn, Baby, Burn. You can learn more about our collection online, too—see highlights from the ancient collection or colonial through modern. You can also download select free, high-resolution images from our image library, including many works from our Latin American art collection.

Ancient American galleries at LACMA, designed by Jorge Pardo, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

LACMA is also active in terms of education, from elementary school all the way up to PhDs. On view now in a gallery at the Charles White Elementary School is A is for Zebra, an eclectic exhibition about language that includes ancient Aztec objects, facsimiles of Goya’s Caprichos, and works by John Baldessari and Mel Bochner. We talked with curator Jose Luis Blondet about the exhibition last month. We also send art to schools via the Ancient World Mobile and Maya Mobile, which teach sixth and seventh-graders about ancient cultures from the Americas, Egypt, Rome, and Asia.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, LACMA is also stewarding the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), including the incredibly rich website

Finally, what with all the hullabaloo surrounding the transport of the boulder that will be part of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, it’s worth pointing out an interesting connection Heizer himself has to ancient American cultures. His father, Robert F. Heizer, was a noted anthropologist who specialized in Native American Indian cultures of California and Nevada and the Olmec culture at the La Venta site in Tabasco. Among his many achievements, Robert Heizer actually discovered some Olmec portrait heads in La Venta—much like the heads displayed at LACMA in the 2008 exhibition Olmec: Colossal Masterworks from Ancient Mexico. In fact, the museum commissioned Michael Heizer to design the magnificent pedestals on which those extraordinary heads sat for the exhibition.

Installation view of Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008, including pedastal designed by Michael Heizer, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Scott Tennent

This Weekend at LACMA: Levitated Mass Updates, Ellsworth Kelly Film Series, Ken Price and Mike Kelley Tributes, and More

March 2, 2012

As you may have heard, the 340-ton granite megalith that is slated to become part of Michael Heizer’s sculpture Levitated Mass is in the midst of its journey from Riverside to LACMA. We are constantly updating our “Gawker’s Guide” to give you the most accurate up-to-the-minute information on the boulder’s route as possible. Have you already encountered the megalith? Do you plan to? Tag us in your photos on Facebook and Twitter (hashtag: #LevitatedMass).

Megalith slated to become part of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, en route to Ontario, CA, during the second night of transport to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, March 1, 2012, © Michael Heizer, photo by Tom Vinetz

Besides the transport of the boulder, there is so much happening at LACMA this weekend for you and your family.

Tonight, the 1967 film Playtime kicks off the weekend and is the first in our series of three films hand-selected by artist Ellsworth Kelly that reflect his skeptical, unsentimental eye. Didn’t know about the series? LACMA Film Club members get advance notification of all film events as well as discounts on tickets.

This weekend is a perfect time to see our special exhibition In Wonderland if you haven’t already. In Wonderland has been hailed by critics far and wide as being an unprecedented survey of surrealist work by women artists in North America. UNFRAMED has featured a post about the influence of surrealism on contemporary music as well as a poignant tribute to the In Wonderland artist Dorothea Tanning, who recently passed away at the age of 101—both pieces are worth checking out. LACMA members get to see In Wonderland for free.

Dorothea Tanning, The Game of Chess, 1944, collection of Harold and Gertrud Parker, © 2011 Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive/Artist’s Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © Ben Blackwell

We have installed pieces from our permanent collection from two other notable artists who have also passed away recently. Two pieces by Mike Kelley and one sculpture, Zizi, by Ken Price are installed in the Ahmanson Building in tribute to those great artists.

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

There are many other incredible exhibitions and installations on view right now. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings is on view until April 22, and we’ve just posted a Facebook photo album of gallery shots for those of you who want a sneak peek at the exhibition. Our exhibitions Common Places, California Design, and Maria Nordman “FILM ROOM: SMOKE,” 1967–Present continue to inspire and amaze. Also, be sure to check Metropolis II operating times before your visit to catch it in action.

Join us on Sunday for Andell Family Sundays, where we’ll host a variety of tours and art-making activities for you and your family. While you’re here, enroll for your child in Arts for NexGen LACMA, the nation’s only free youth membership program. Our Sundays Live concert is at 6 pm and features the Capitol Ensemble—as always, Sundays Live concerts are free and open to the public.

Finally, mark your calendars—Monday is the first anniversary of Ray’s and Stark Bar, and to celebrate, chef Kris Morningstar and company are offering up a special menu, drink specials, live DJs, giveaways, and screen printing (bring your own T-shirt). The event is from 6 to 11 pm, RSVP at 323 877-6160.

Have a great weekend!

Jenny Miyasaki

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