New Acquisition: Robert Rauschenberg, Currents

April 24, 2012

One of the most important artists of the past century, Robert Rauschenberg famously declared himself to be working “in the gap between art and life.” Currents is a superlative example of this radical approach. Hijacking the immersive scale of abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg channeled the energy and anxiety of the world around him. The Cold War, the civil rights movement, the conflict in Vietnam, and the rarefication of high culture: these and other divisive forces had opened the chasm he resolved to occupy.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

Rauschenberg undertook to bring “serious journalism” into the fine-art realm with Currents, which expresses his intention literally, insofar as it comprises screenprinted extracts from the January and February 1970 issues of major metropolitan newspapers. This fusion of high and low culture refers back to Picasso’s incorporation of newspaper in his cubist collages, and to Rauschenberg’s own renowned Combine paintings and sculptures of the mid-1950s. Currents deploys the material and meaning of newsprint, and the work’s brash activism aligns it with the contemporaneous New Journalism. “Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism,” according to Hunter S. Thompson, but for Rauschenberg, truth-telling was worth the risk:

I want to shake people awake. I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of individual responsibility, both for themselves and for the rest of the human race. It has become easy to be complacent about the world…. I made [Currents] as realistically as I could, as austerely as possible, in the most direct way I knew how, because, knowing that it was art, people had to take a second look, at least, at the facts they were wrapping their garbage in.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

The dense messiness of the clippings, strewn across a sixty-foot expanse, creates a disorienting effect. “The world condition permitted me no choice of subject or color and method/composition,” the artist wrote emphatically. The first themes to emerge from the welter of headlines are grim: murders and riots offer stark evidence of social upheaval. More sustained observation reveals an art-world subtext, with articles documenting Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, and a new work by Richard Serra. Art, Rauschenberg suggests, has constructive potential amid general disintegration.

In keeping with his political convictions and experimental ethos, Rauschenberg participated in LACMA’s Art & Technology project simultaneously with his work on Currents. His three-year A&T collaboration with Teledyne resulted in the sound sculpture Mud Muse, a huge tank of sludgy volcanic ash that bubbles audibly as electrical signals pass through it. Deliberately atavistic, Mud Muse is an astute counterpart to Currents, which manifests the equally haphazard signals of so-called civilization.

Rauschenberg had been making large-scale prints for several years, and the commission to fill a long wall at Dayton’s Gallery 12 in Minneapolis gave him the opportunity to exceed all previous efforts by any artist to date. First, he made thirty-six collages, 30 x 30 inches each, which were then photomechanically transferred to screens for printing at Styria Studios in Glendale. Since its display at the Pasadena Art Museum shortly after its completion, Currents has not been seen in Los Angeles. Of the original six editioned prints and two artist’s proofs, one proof was destroyed by the artist, four impressions remain with his estate, and only two are in museum collections (the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts). Rauschenberg’s Currents is a critical work of art in every sense. As a tactical and technical achievement, it is as timely now as ever.

Britt Salvesen, curator and department head, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Prints & Drawings Department

New Acquisition: Shirin Neshat, Speechless

April 24, 2012

Shirin Neshat is perhaps the best-known artist of the Iranian diaspora following the 1979 Revolution, which replaced a secular regime with an Islamic republic. Born in Qazvin, she left Iran at the age of sixteen to study in the United States; she received her BA, MA, and MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, before moving to New York. Neshat returned to the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1990 and much of what she saw and experienced informed her first major body of work, the photographic series Women of Allah. The series includes black-and-white images of chador-clad women, often the artist herself, covered with text in black ink, and frequently focusing on different body parts—face, feet, hands, eyes. At times the model, gazing directly at the viewer, poses with a rifle or gun in a provocative manner, while nonetheless complying with an Islamic code of dress. Neshat has noted the deliberate emphasis on four symbolic elements in this series: veil, gun, text, and gaze. She intends these images to be ambiguous; they contradict a Western notion of Muslim women diminished and desexualized by the veil. Although they may be disempowered by their faith, Neshat’s women are strong, even heroic; they are eroticized by their weapons and sanctioned by the texts inscribed on their bodies, which enable them to speak although they are forced to be silent.

Shirin Neshat, Speechless, from the series Women of Allah, 1996, purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

The photograph Speechless is the most evocative and archetypal image in this series. The print shows the right side of a woman’s face (not Neshat), the barrel of a gun emerging like a gaudy earring from the shadowy area between her cheek and the barely visible chador. She stares calmly outward. Her face, except for the eye, is covered with Persian text written directly on the image. Although Neshat has tightly framed the face of the subject, it is the viewer who is held captive. Inscribed on the face are the words of the poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh, in which a woman addresses her brothers in the Revolution, asking if she can participate as well.

LACMA has recently begun to acquire contemporary art of the Middle East within the context of our Islamic collection. We do so in the belief that the function, strength, and ultimate success and relevance of the collection should not be based solely on exploring this art as a means to better understand the past of a single region or culture. It can also be seen as a way to build creative links between the past, present, and future in a global sense. Shirin Neshat has not only inspired a new generation of artists in the Middle East, especially Iran, but her art also concerns and often coincides with what we experience on the evening news.

Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art and department head, Art of the Middle East

Collectors Committee Acquires Seven Works

April 23, 2012

LACMA’s annual Collectors Committee Gala took place over the weekend, and the museum is seven artworks stronger for it. Members of the Collectors Committee create a pool for acquisitions funds, and are presented with a handful of objects by LACMA curators earlier in the day. At Saturday night’s gala, they then vote on which objects to acquire. All told, this weekend’s gala raised $2.8 million and resulted in the following objects joining the collection:

Shirin Neshat, Speechless, from the series Women of Allah, 1996, purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

  • Shirin Neshat’s Speechless (1996), from the photography series Women of Allah, is a black-and-white photograph capturing the intense gaze of an Iranian woman whose face is covered with an inscription from a Persian poem.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

  • Robert Rauschenberg’s Currents (1970), a dense collage of newspaper clippings strewn across a sixty-foot expanse.

    Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, photo courtesy of Wright

  • An Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building designed by renowned architect Louis Sullivan; the richly detailed iron frame demonstrates Sullivan’s creative adaption of natural materials.

    Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

  • Bruce Conner’s Three Screen Ray (1961/2006), a three-channel video based on the artist’s second film, Cosmic Ray of 1961, including fast-paced montages of the artist’s original footage juxtaposed with hundreds of images.

Fudō Myōō: The Indomitable Foe of Evil, Japan, c. 1125, purchased with funds provided by Irene Christopher, Scott M. Delman, and the 2012 Collectors Committee

  • Fudō Myōō: The Indomitable Foe of Evil, a rare twelfth-century Buddhist sculpture carved from one solid block of Zelkova wood.

Albrecht Durer, Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by the Prints and Drawings Council and Philippa Calnan

  • German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dϋrer’s Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), a meticulous engraving depicting the scholarly and spiritual reflections of Saint Jerome.

Nicolás Enríquez, The Marriage of the Virgin, 1749, purchased with funds provided by Kelvin Davis, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Kathy and Frank Baxter, Beth and Josh Friedman, and Jane and Terry Semel through the 2012 Collectors Committee

Nicolás Enríquez, The Adoration of the Kings with Donor, 1741, purchased with funds provided by Kelvin Davis, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Kathy and Frank Baxter, Beth and Josh Friedman, and Jane and Terry Semel through the 2012 Collectors Committee

  • Two oil-on-copper paintings by distinguished eighteenth-century New Spanish (Mexican) painter Nicolás Enríquez— The Marriage of the Virgin (1749) and The Adoration of the Kings with Donor (1741), each depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin.

Keep your eyes on Unframed for the rest of the week for blog posts from our curators on each of these incredible objects.

Scott Tennent

This Weekend at LACMA: Earth Day Festivities, Ellsworth Kelly Closes, and More

April 20, 2012

This weekend is your final opportunity to catch Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings, LACMA’s major retrospective of Ellsworth Kelly’s print practice. Ellsworth Kelly will be open only through this Sunday, April 22, on the second level of BCAM. Note, however, that BCAM is closing early on Saturday evening (5 pm) for a special event, and the third level of BCAM will be closed all day Saturday. Likewise, the last run of Chris Burden’s Metropolis II on Saturday on the lower level of BCAM will be 3:30–4:30 pm.

Installation view, Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings, January 22–April 22, 2012, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Where some things end, others begin: We’re hosting our first ever Earth Day celebration on Sunday from noon to 5 pm. We’ve organized special nature-themed gallery tours, as well as tours of LACMA’s own gardens and natural art on campus. There will also be an all-ages outdoor sketching workshop with artist Thom Dower, a bike photo booth, and KCRW DJ Dan Wilcox providing the soundtrack for the day’s events.

We’re also saluting alternative transportation with free bicycle valet parking (space limited), a screening of the documentary Riding Bikes with the Dutch (including a Q&A with the director), and FREE general admission for those who travel to LACMA by bike, foot, bus, or by some other non-single-car means of transportation.

Andell Family Sundays takes place on the North Piazza from 12:30 to 3:30 pm and stays true to the Earth Day theme with family art activities centered on using recycled materials.

Kay Sage, Danger, Construction Ahead, 1940, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh J. Chisolm Jr., BA 1936, © Estate of Kay Sage Tanguy, photo © 2012 Yale University Art Gallery

We have a ton of other exhibitions on view as well. This weekend marks one of the final weekends that In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States will be on view in the Resnick Pavilion before it closes May 6. Reserve your tickets now. Members see it free.

Daido Moriyama, Love Motel, Miyagi Prefecture, 1970, collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, © 2012 Daido Moriyama

Spring is proving to be a great season for photography at LACMA: See Fracture: Daido Moriyama in the Pavilion for Japanese Art and Robert Adams: The Place We Live in BCAM. Plus, if you haven’t yet seen our newest exhibition, Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico, this weekend is the perfect opportunity to check it out. Co-curator Victoria Lyall gives an overview of the exhibition in this video:

Close out a big weekend with a free Sundays Live concert featuring Hausman and Aiana String Quartets in the Bing Theater at 6 pm.

Hope to see you this weekend!

Jenny Miyasaki

Riding Bikes with the Dutch

April 18, 2012

Riding Bikes with the Dutch is a documentary about the positive effects everyday biking has on cities. The film weaves through the beautiful streets of Amsterdam to show the diversity of people who use bikes as their primary means of transport. LACMA will be screening the film this Sunday at 2 pm as part of our Earth Day celebration. Unframed’s Alex Capriotti spoke with filmmaker Michael Bauch about how this film developed and how visiting Amsterdam changed his perspective on the possibilities of bike culture in American.

Commuters biking, Amsterdam, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

Alex Capriotti: How did the idea for this documentary come about?

Michael Bauch: I have family in western Germany, near the Dutch border, whom I’ve been visiting often since I was a kid. In 2003, I was flying through Amsterdam to meet them. We were originally scheduled for a one-night layover, but we ended up enjoying it so much that we spent four more nights there. I was amazed by cycling there. The infrastructure was better suited for bicycling, but what really impressed me was how widely accepted bicycling was in the culture. Nearly everyone rode a bike. I had my camera with me and shot footage of the cyclists, which I turned into a short film called Amsterdam: The Bicycling Capital of Europe. I enjoyed Amsterdam so much that in 2007, my family and I decided to do a home exchange with a Dutch family. We lived there for a month, and eventually we began to feel like locals. My wife was working long distance and also helping to gain contacts in Amsterdam and arrange interviews.  We were also juggling a ten-month-old baby, and I still got some amazing footage for my film, Riding Bikes with the Dutch.

The very popular box bike, Amsterdam, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

AC: What were the most fascinating parts of cycling culture in Amsterdam?

MB: The most fascinating part is how well integrated bikes are in the locals’ daily lives.  You see them riding a bike while smoking a cigarette, talking on a cell phone, putting make-up on.  These are all things that people do here in the U.S. while driving and the Dutch are doing it on two wheels and pedaling and balancing at the same time . . . talk about multitasking! To them a bike is as integral as a cup of coffee in the morning.  They don’t even really think it is special any more—it’s just part of life.  They were fascinated by how interested I was in their bike culture. Most people in Holland ride with normal clothes on—women even wear high heels.  It is so normal to them, why change into special cycling clothes? The biggest visual in Amsterdam that blew my mind was the three-level parking structure filled with bikes by the central train station.  I couldn’t believe it at first.  When I saw that, I knew I had to make a film.

Bike parking structure, Amsterdam, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

AC: How does the city of Long Beach become part of the movie?

MB: Truthfully, when I started filming in Amsterdam in 2007, I had no idea that my home city would be part of it.  When we came home to Long Beach, the footage sat on the shelves for a while because I didn’t know exactly what shape the movie would take. When I set out to make this movie, I wasn’t intending to find the most bike-friendly city in the U.S. In fact, initially I was going to portray Long Beach as a typical example of the car-dependent American city. But as it turned out, I came back to Long Beach just as the sharrows were opening and other bike programs were being launched. A lot was changing and it was happening fast. Sometimes, timing is everything. So the direction of the American portion of the movie went from showing a car-centric dystopia to a place where cars still rule but there’s hope for the bicycles.  And if this can happen in car-centric Southern California, it can happen almost anywhere.

A family rides on the Sharrows in Long Beach

A family rides on the sharrows, Long Beach, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

AC: Have you always been a cycling enthusiast?

MB: Not in the normal sense.  I was never into racing bikes or even having a nice bike.  If someone asked me what brand of bike I have, I would really have to think about it. I’ve just always enjoyed the freedom and the simplicity.  I remember that in third grade it was a big deal because I was finally allowed to ride my bike to school. Later in life, especially after moving to Long Beach, I found it was so much easier and enjoyable to run errands on two wheels than to drive.  Most of my trips are fairly short, one to three miles, so why fight parking and traffic when I can ride a bike?  Besides, I find that I can actually get some places faster on two wheels than on four.  With a simple $40 basket on the back, I can easily carry several bags of groceries, or make that last-minute delivery to FedEx.

When we returned home from Amsterdam, I splurged.  I bought a bakfiets or box bike.  It is a Dutch cargo bike and it is amazing what I can carry in it–two kids to school, a week’s worth of groceries, the dog . . . you just have to try one to believe it.  They are very common in the Netherlands but still very new to the States, but they’re becoming more popular.

AC: What advice do you have for people who want to swap their cars for bikes but may not have experience with biking in the city?

MB: Grab the bike that you probably already own (you know, the one in the back of the garage or up in the attic), pump up the tires, and get started riding short distances.  Ironically, the U.S. has some of the highest bike ownership in the world, but some of the lowest ridership.  In other words, we already have the “stuff,” now we just need the new mindset.

When someone says, “I am going to run to the store,” you can bet they are not going to actually “run” to the store.  They are going to instinctually grab their car keys and drive the two miles or less and grumble about parking and traffic all the way.  These short trips are the ones we should tackle first.  They are the ones where the bike blows the doors off a car in almost every way—it’s cheaper, more efficient, healthier, better for the environment, and probably faster in many cases. The amazing fact is that 35 percent of all trips in the city of Amsterdam are done on a bike. Since 40 percent of car trips in the U.S. are 2 miles or less, I think this is where the real opportunity to use bikes is.  You don’t have to be athletic to cover a short distance like this and it opens the door to a lot of opportunities.

In Wonderland Redux: The Male Gaze

April 17, 2012

LACMA’s special exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States is, in some peculiar way, like a well-kept secret or a lost island of beautiful visions the collective grandeur of which adds so much more to the understanding of surrealism as a movement and expresses so much more about women than any art movement I could name.  Here surrealism debunks Freud’s question of  “What do women want?,” not only suggesting its simplistic nature but also the sheer paucity of its reach. What we sense is an inner worldview of such variety and complexity that no single question could encompass the nature of the female imagination. Of course, this is all speculation as I sit on the other side of the great divide looking through my intrinsic desire, my idealization, and an opacity that one so readily takes for granted, and yet it also absurdly seems on the verge of worship, knowing all too well the opposite emotion is just as possible.

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

That being said, it is nevertheless a journey—a wondrous journey of clues: Mexican, American, and French cultures, shifting identities, phantasmagoria, and at times a sense of impenetrable details leaden with irony, which, in spite of an air of melancholy, on the whole manages a measure of what seems an erotic wistfulness and a rather passionate display of a world of organic entanglement and femininity as one.

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Los Dos Fridas), 1939, © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, reproduction of Frida Kahlo governed by Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBA), photo courtesy Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

The weather is decidedly stormy in Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, (Las Dos Fridas), the portrait as the imperiled self, and for most of In Wonderland it’s overcast, indoors and out, or inky blue, or ruby blood sunset, abstracted or realist. Containment is the abiding abode.  In fact, one could say that weather is inordinately important to the atmosphere of this marvelous collection of art, but it is much more than mere mood; it’s an inhibited space, more a solarium. In Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday, the figure stands, bare breasted, possibly naive, wearing a skirt made of vegetation and cloth, and holds a door open through which there is a series of gray, receding doors, clustered and open, mysteriously beckoning and foreboding. In this estrogen-filled universe, the air is of a mystic nature: ectoplasmic, thick with magical emanations and fractal edges and teeming with small creatures. Sylvia Fein’s fastidious entities in The Lady Magician convey a primordial otherworldliness that works its way through many of the paintings.

Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, 1942, © 2012 Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive/Artists' Rights Society (ARS) New York/ADAGP, Paris, photo © 2012 The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Sylvia Fein, The Lady Magician, 1954, © Sylvia Fein, photo © Eric Tadsen, courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art

And what’s to be made of Leonora Carrington’s Red Mask and Delicate Fly? Some nightmare vision! For Ms. Carrington, Shakespeare’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream flows so readily to mind, “More strange than true: I never may believe/These antique fables, nor these fairy toys./Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.”

And the material world sits uneasily in the surrealist’s domain, more a mechanical interloper and a divisive puzzle—some dystopian tundra where a dress knows all of its ugliness, such as depicted in Frida Kahlo’s My Dress Hangs There. Lee Miller’s Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy is the dark offering on a bourgeois plate. The photo collage of Lola Alvarez Bravo’s The Dream of the Poor or her Some Rise and Others Fall, in which money grinds the weak, and ambition is an up-and-down toil. And these feelings of circuitous entrapments bleed through home, work, and personal dreams as unwitting co-conspirators.

Helen Lundeberg, The Mountain (detail), c. 1933, Redfern Gallery, Laguna Beach, California, © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation, reproduced with permission, photo courtesy of Redfern Gallery

In my rather blunt skills, it seems the female surrealist’s erotic world is self-contained, shrouded in that sense of being both the subject and the object dispersed as solar-centric or nature as it were, which is somehow ironically a mystery known and unknown to the subject itself. A kind of ongoing surprise, it seems, for there is an odd mixture of real and feigned innocence and sheer guile that should be seen. And maybe something darker, a savage secret nature of pain as the black monkey and black cat play their parts in a painting of wounded self-awareness in Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (victim or martyr?) or Remedios Varo’s Creation of Birds as the humanoid owl paints birds into existence and odd fluids flow from mysterious vessels. It’s the witness of inner destruction and the act of creation; the female persona, balancing, making harmony in all forms of animal magnetism, animal husbandry, for she is closer in spirit, maybe even a form of sensuous vegetation as we see her among the phallic limbs in Helen Lundeberg’s The Mountain, romantically an earth-made thing. The late medieval painting Garden of Earthly Delights suggests something quite different. This is an ironic twist on the great Freudian trope “penis envy,” that gender conceit that seems absurd on an existential level. In In Wonderland, the penis is at best an intruding fact. Louise Bourgeois’s He Disappeared into Complete Silence or her more brutal Persistent Antagonism could suggest an altered species. From the evidence of this art, I don’t know if it would qualify as envy, more a theater of moral revenge.

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

One could take this art as a breach of the fog of intimacy, an attempt to look through Eros, that self igniting flame and its massive betrayals into this natural and unnatural naturalism, which conceals a fateful duality of seeing what men see and knowing so much more.  Bridget Tichenor’s The Imprisoned, or Louise Nevelson’s dense and ominous, Sky Cathedral/Southern Mountain and Dorothea Tanning’s Family Portrait, render scale and the occluded male as otherness in the ironic beauty of art, which belies the psychological realities and inconsolable grief that marked their lives about the haunting, fragile place of loss, courtship, divorce, separation, death, and suicide. And though surrealism, as an art movement, may be trapped in a particular time, buffeted by social and political mayhem, the thrill of the visions in this exhibition crackles with a life of undaunted revelation.

Installation view, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, January 29-May 6, 2012, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Within such fabulous realizations, it only slips ever so slightly at the shore of the unstated otherness. The existential “appetite,” the carnal dance we do, the DNA, that indifferent condition that plants us willy-nilly into the only known world possible and gives only dreams. Nothing in the show captures the absurd abstraction that this whole thing may be about better than Dorothea Tanning’s The Seven Spectral Perils, whose images and ideas escape a composite understanding but leave a visceral blow. Male (my) guilt??? Well, yeah!

As a guard, I am most often asked the question that is always joyful and in this remarkable show, with its dream like set-up, weirdly telling, curiously apt, and bizarrely ironic: “Which way is out?”

In Wonderland closes May 6. Reserve your tickets now. Members can see in In Wonderland for free but still must reserve tickets.

Hylan Booker

LACMA’s Docent Council Celebrates Fifty Years

April 16, 2012

On the anniversary of the docents’ fifty years of service to LACMA, I’d like to share the beginnings and many accomplishments of this invaluable group of volunteers.  Around 1960, when LACMA was part of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art, there were just fifty-three volunteers: thirty giving tours of exhibitions and a collection “highlight” tour for adults and twenty-three giving tours to fifth- and sixth-grade students. Today their ranks number more than five hundred and they have toured more than 1 million adults and 1 million students.

Glenn Janss, first Docent Council Chair, 1962-1964

This group of volunteer docents became an official council in 1962, three years before the completion of the new museum, which was dedicated solely to art, opened on Wilshire Boulevard.  In preparation for that opening, the volunteers were instructed to increase their numbers from fifty-three to two hundred.  Docent Glenn Janss was appointed chair and began working with Henry Hopkins, assistant curator of modern art, to train the new recruits.  But before they moved to LACMA, the docents toured three blockbuster exhibitions at Exposition Park: Treasures of Tutankhamun, Treasures of Versailles, and Treasures of Mexico; they also polished silver in conjunction with touring a small exhibition of English silver and photographed the permanent collection in order to give lectures in the community.

Docents share research information in front of The Hope Athena, c.130-161, second-century copy of a Greek original

Just one year after the opening, the docents played a vital role in the controversy surrounding the 1966 installation of Edward Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38. Because of the sexually suggestive nature of the piece, the County Board of Supervisors insisted that the car door remain closed unless a docent was touring. Docent, and later trustee, Terry Bell recalled, “We toured almost around the clock, so that the public could be better informed.” In addition to touring the public in those early years, the docents were also called upon to record audio tours for special exhibitions.

Docent Peggy Hazen joined the Council in 1970 and set a direction for training that lasted into the early twenty-first century.  Advocating extended looking, Peggy instructed docents to focus on the overall effect of a work of art. Tour offerings were expanded to include visitors with special needs, including the visually impaired and deaf, with docents learning sign language as part of their tour preparation.

School group on a docent-led tour at LACMA

The Council was exclusively female until 1973 when Morris Treiman paved the way for men; by 1980, there were two additional men in the Council. Today the Council has twenty-five male docents and many members who maintain full-time careers.

The decline in funding for public education in the late 1970s brought a reduction in school tour visits, which the docents addressed by broadening their tours to include third- and fourth-grade students and adding tours that aligned with curricula for language arts and literature. This has been a recurring issue as Los Angeles public schools continue to see reduced funding and an emphasis on teaching to standardized tests. To meet this challenge, tour offerings increased to serve grades 3–12 and the docents worked with the Education Department to align tours to a wider range of subject areas, while outside support and the generosity of members of the Docent Council have made it possible for local students to receive free buses to visit the museum and learn through the collection and special exhibitions.

Docent Della Speer welcomes a student group on a school tour of Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico at the exhibition’s opening week in the Resnick Pavilion in October 2010

Museum expansion began in the early 1980s, providing the docents with several years of gallery closures, reinstallations, and new objects to research. They weathered the changing landscape, and the sound of jackhammers, and kept informed by calling their tour chair every Monday morning to see which galleries would be available for touring. Once completed, the new Ahmanson Building, Art of the Americas Building, and Pavilion for Japanese Art offered an array of touring opportunities that included a Discovery Tour added to serve the 300 to 400 new members the museum was signing up on a monthly basis.  In this century, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion have extended those possibilities even further.  The docents gave tours to more than 8,000 adults and students for the three opening exhibitions in the Resnick Pavilion.

Docent Linda Pennell asks students to describe this ancient Olmec head on a school tour of Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico during the exhibition’s opening week in the Resnick Pavilion in October 2010

As the docents embark on their next fifty years, they continue to expand their knowledge and their ability to share the collection and exhibitions with the public.  Now that the Docent Council is fully part of the Education Department of the museum, educators work with school tour docents to learn new touring techniques and public tour docents to gain an understanding of strategies for engaging visitors in informal conversations. The Docent Council’s commitment to the institution, the public it serves, and maintenance of the highest standards is as strong today as it was for those original fifty-three volunteers.  The museum is immensely grateful for the service they provide.

Jane Burrell, Senior Vice President, Education and Public Programs

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