Artist in Focus: Max Pechstein, the Unknown Expressionist

July 2, 2014

When visiting the Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibition, you will notice several striking paintings and prints by the German artist Max Pechstein (1881–1955). Although he may not be as well known today as some of the other Expressionist artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, or Wassily Kandinsky, Pechstein nonetheless played a crucial role in the breakthrough of Expressionism. Many contemporaries, notably the art critic Paul Fechter, who published the first book on “Expressionism” in 1914, even considered Pechstein, the leading member of the Brücke group (much to the dismay of Kirchner). But what is particularly striking about Pechstein is his long and rich career and how it was forged through the dramatic events of the first half of the 20th century: he survived both World Wars and was held prisoner by the Japanese in 1914 and the Russians in 1945.

Installation view of Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 8–September 14, 2014), photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation view of Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 8–September 14, 2014), photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. Middle and right: Max Pechstein, Bathers (Badende), 1911, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; The Big Indian (Der grosse Inder), 1910, Saint Louis Art Museum, both works © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pechstein Hamburg / Toekendorf / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Pechstein had quickly become famous in the years before World War I. He was the first Expressionist artist to join the venerable ranks of the Prussian Art Academy in Berlin, and he also obtained several state commissions during the Weimar Republic. When the Nazis rose to power, however, Pechstein was considered a “degenerate artist,” and his works were included in the Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition next to artworks by other modern artists such as Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Kirchner.

ACCESSION NUMBER

Installation view of Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 8–September 14, 2014), photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. At left: Max Pechstein, Young Girl (Junges Mädchen), 1908, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Acquired by the federal state of Berlin, © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pechstein Hamburg / Toekendorf / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Pechstein started his career as an apprentice decorator before enrolling at the Dresden School of Applied Arts, where he studied decorative and monumental painting. He then studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, where he received an academic training in drawing and painting. In 1906 he met Erich Heckel, who invited him to join the Brücke group, which had been founded in 1905 in Dresden by Heckel, Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Fritz Bleyl. In 1907 Pechstein was the recipient of the Rome Prize, which allowed him to travel to Italy. On his way back from Italy in late 1907, Pechstein went to Paris, where he stayed until mid-1908. During his sojourn in Paris, he saw exhibitions of Van Gogh’s works at galleries and visited the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, where works of the young French and international avant-garde were presented to the public. He also met the Dutch painter Kees van Dongen (a member of the Fauves), whom he invited to join the Brücke. Pechstein’s Young Girl, on view in the exhibition next to a painting by Van Dongen, testifies to his exposure to Post-Impressionism and Fauvism; he started to experiment with broad zone of colors painted in loose brushstrokes. Pechstein had mixed feelings, however, about his stay in Paris and went back to Germany to pursue his search for a unique visual language. But even back in Germany, Pechstein kept up with new developments in French art, acknowledging also the importance of German private and public collections for avant-garde art; he wrote later that year: “I once heard it said that in order to see . . . good French [art] one has to go to Germany.”

Installation view of Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 8–September 14, 2014), photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation view of Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 8–September 14, 2014), photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. At left: Max Pechstein, Woman on a Sofa (Frau auf dem Sofa), 1908, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pechstein Hamburg / Toekendorf / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In 1908 Pechstein moved to Berlin, and he was followed shortly by the other Brücke members. He started to present his paintings at the Berlin Secession. At the beginning of 1909 the Galerie Cassirer in Berlin organized a Matisse exhibition, hung by the artist himself. Pechstein, together with Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff, visited this show and were very much taken by the French artists, writing that Matisse was “at times very wild.” Starting in 1909, Pechstein frequently stayed in the fishing village of Nidden on the Baltic Coast. Drawn to the representation of untamed nature, he presented the Baltic Sea and the daily life of fishermen in bold, vivid colors, flattening the space, as can be seen in his Beach at Nidden, also on view in the exhibition.

In 1910 Pechstein was one of the founding members of the Neue Secession in Berlin, which was supposed to be a more open-minded exhibition platform than the Berlin Secession, which frequently rejected works by the avant-garde. In 1912, however, he decided to present his work again at the Berlin Secession, which led to a break with his Brücke colleagues and eventually his expulsion from the group.

Installation view of Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 8–September 14, 2014), photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation view of Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 8–September 14, 2014), photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. At right: Max Pechstein, Still Life with Nude, Tile, and Fruit (Stillleben mit Akt, Kachel und Früchten), 1913, Collection Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison, © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Pechstein Hamburg / Toekendorf / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Still Life with Nude, Tile, and Fruit, another painting in the exhibition, shows how Pechstein abandoned Fauvism and started to experiment with angular forms inspired by Cézanne. This painting is also a testimony to Pechstein’s growing fascination with non-European civilizations, which was inspired notably by Paul Gauguin’s paintings from Tahiti. Pechstein and his wife, Lotte, travelled to the Palau islands in the South Pacific in 1914, a German colony at the time.  He described what he found there as an “earthly paradise,” and echoes of this trip can be found in his book Reisebilder (Travel pictures), published in 1919. Pechstein also frequently used motifs discovered on this journey in later works, which can be seen in the exhibition Visions of the South (read more about it here). With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Pechstein was forced to leave the South Pacific—he returned to Germany through an adventurous detour, which brought him first to New York. In 1915 he enlisted in the German army and fought on the western front. After the war, Pechstein became more and more politically involved and was one of the cofounders of the “Novembergruppe” (November group) in 1918, a collective of left-oriented artists who campaigned for a renewal of the artistic milieu in Germany. But when the Nazis came to power, he soon became a victim of their repressive measures and was forbidden to paint or exhibit. After World War II, Pechstein’s major contribution to art in Germany was recognized, and his works were frequently shown. Despite this, his artistic importance remained overshadowed by that of his former Brücke colleagues and notably by Kirchner.

In Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky you will see paintings and prints by Pechstein next to those by other Brücke artists and Fauves. You also will be able to discover the major role Pechstein played in the evolution of Expressionism, especially the transformative early years of his career in contact with French art—especially with Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse.

And don’t forget to stroll through our permanent collection too and discover even more works by Pechstein in the Modern Art galleries. 

Frauke Josenhans, Curatorial Assistant, Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies

 

 

 

 


Visions of the South

March 3, 2014

We all dream about faraway lands, with miles of sandy beaches, palm trees rustling in the wind, the sound of waves. This idyllic escape is generally associated with countries in the southern hemisphere, notably in the Pacific and Central and South America. Just as we are allured by these sunbathed images of the south, artists throughout history have been inspired by them. Visions of the South explores some of the ways in which artists from the 18th to the 20th century depicted the south, and how their vision shifted from a classical concept to a more exotic or realistic one.

Joseph Pennell, Sunset, Acapulco, c. 1912, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection

Joseph Pennell, Sunset, Acapulco, c. 1912, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection

Representations of the south have long occupied an important place in European art. The “south,” as defined from a Eurocentric point of view, has referred not only to a geographic reality (Northern and Southern Europe), but also to philosophical concepts going back to antiquity. A lasting idea of the south has crystallized around the notion of Arcadia, described by the Roman poet Virgil as a utopian place with pastoral landscapes where mankind lived in peace and abundance.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Another view of the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli, c. 1761, gift of Mr. and Mrs. M. F. Grollman

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Another View of the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli, c. 1761, gift of Mr. and Mrs. M. F. Grollman

With the idea of Arcadia in mind, artists came to Italy, attracted by the country’s profuse richness of archaeological remains of the Roman Empire, set in picturesque landscape and bathed in the warm light of the southern sun. This ideal vision of the south found its most complete expression in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, two classical artists of the 17th century, who both lived and worked in Rome and depicted frequently the monuments and surroundings of the city. Artists in the 18th century followed in their footsteps and continued to represent the famous monuments and locations which were then sought out by travelers on the Grand Tour—a traditional trip to Italy undertaken by mostly English aristocrats—thus further shaping the classical vision of the south.

Martinus Rørbye, Palermo Harbor with a View of Monte Pellegrino, 1840, gift of the 1990 Collectors Committee

Martinus Rørbye, Palermo Harbor with a View of Monte Pellegrino, 1840, gift of the 1990 Collectors Committee

The lushness of Mediterranean nature and the clear blue sky also favored open-air painting, which became increasingly popular during the 19th century. Colonies of painters from Northern Europe, especially Germany, France, and Scandinavia would travel to Italy and settle there; Rome and the Roman countryside were particularly sought, but soon these artists ventured further south, toward Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and Sicily. They would set up their easel in nature, sketching fugitive impressions of atmospheric phenomena and the ever changing light effects.

James Anderson, St. Peter's From Pincian Hill, 1860s, printed 1860s, the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

James Anderson, St. Peter’s From Pincian Hill, 1860s, the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, many artists quickly adopted this new way of documenting their surrounding world. Photographers travelled through Italy, following the path of landscape painters, visiting Rome, Florence, Naples, and Venice, and depicting landscapes, famous monuments, such as the Colosseum and St. Peter’s.

Nicolas de Stael, View of Marseille, c. 1955, Modern Art Department, Estate of Hans G. M. De Schulthess © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Nicolas de Staël, View of Marseille, c. 1955, Modern Art Department, Estate of Hans G. M. De Schulthess © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Italy, however, was soon to be replaced by other regions: France’s Provence, in particular, became increasingly popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, offering lesser-known terrains and a light different from the warm Italian sun. Following in the footsteps of Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse, many artists spent significant parts of their careers in southern France, notably in Collioure, Antibes, and Cannes on the Mediterranean coast. Their art was deeply affected by the bright coastline and the distinctive landscape of Provence. The abstract painter Nicolas de Staël found in southern France to a brighter palette, inspired by the strong light of Provence and the shimmering Mediterranean Sea. He created luminous and highly abstract views of the South during the last years of his life.

Emil Nolde, Dancer, 1913, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, Germany

Emil Nolde, Dancer, 1913, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, Germany

The notion of the south would also extend to more distant lands. With the rise of colonialism in the 19th century, scientific expeditions documented faraway regions, and artists were hired to depict the exotic cultures and landscapes, notably in the Pacific. By the end of the 19th century, illustrated magazines had featured images of exotic locations and Pacific artworks had been shown in various exhibitions in Europe. Many of the German Expressionists, especially members of the Brücke (the Bridge), were drawn to these exotic objects and frequently used them as motifs in their works. Some of these artists, such as Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde, were even inspired to travel to the South Seas in search of unspoiled nature and simple life.

Other “visions” of the south are presented in the exhibition through an original film, conceived for this exhibition, which gives voice to writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Charles Baudelaire, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson as well as to artists like Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, and Nicolas de Staël.

Frauke Josenhans, Curatorial Assistant, Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies


This Weekend at LACMA: Two New Exhibitions, World Premiere of Restored “Rebel Without a Cause,” Free Concerts, and More!

November 1, 2013

LACMA will close at 3 pm on Saturday, November 2. Enjoy free general admission from 1 to 3 pm (excludes James Turrell: A Retrospective). Underground parking on Sixth Street will also be closed all day on November 2. Please park in LACMA’s lot located at Spaulding Avenue at Wilshire Boulevard.

Two exciting exhibitions open this Sunday in our galleries: David Hockney: Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos, 2011 and Agnès Varda in Californialand. The former displays the work of one the most innovative artists from our time. Hockney took 18 cameras and recorded drives through Yorkshire’s landscape, resulting in a multi-screen grid with multiple perspectives and narratives. The latter is the first U.S. museum presentation of the “godmother of the French New Wave” and includes a new major installation and photographs. Beyond the two new shows, make sure to see See the Light—Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, which opened only last week and presents a panoramic view of the history of photography. What’s more, we can’t recommend enough the vibrant Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film and the small but powerful Newsha Tavakolian. For a complete listing of everything on view see our list of featured exhibitions and installations.

David Hockney, May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5pm, © David Hockney

David Hockney, May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5pm from Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos, 2011, courtesy of the artist, © David Hockney

And on our silver screen, a very special presentation of Rebel Without a Cause will take place Friday at 7:30 pm. The story of a rebellious adolescent dealing with bullies in a new town has become legendary due in part to the acting of James Dean, the star of the movie. Tonight’s event features an introduction from a special guest and is the international premier of the 1955 classic which has been recently restored and enhanced to project in 4K digital format. Additional tickets have been released but are in short supply, get yours now.

Finally, take a beat from the hustle and bustle and enjoy free, live music. On Friday Jazz at LACMA presents the Greg Porée Group, lead by the well-known leader whose previous work includes collaborations with Sonny & Cher, Diana Ross, and Gladys Knight. At Sundays Live, violinist Axel Strauss and pianist Eric Le Van come together on stage for a performance that will channel their combined years professional orchestral and studio work. Both concerts are open to the public. By the way, if you’re visiting with your family, stop by this week’s installment of Andell Family Sundays where children and their parents can bring to life animals found in Japanese art in this free artist-led workshop.

Roberto Ayala


Art+Film at LACMA: Part II

October 30, 2013

Two major exhibitions at LACMA this fall touch upon the theme of Art+Film: Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film and Agnès Varda in Californialand (opens Sunday, November 3). A thirdMasterworks of Expressionist Cinema: “The Golem” and Its Avatars, looks closely at the legend of the golem as it is represented in film, art, and popular culture. Today’s Unframed expands upon yesterday’s post, as curators Timothy Benson, Rita Gonzalez, and Britt Salvesen talk with Unframed’s Scott Tennent about the current exhibitions that bind art and film.

Scott Tennent: Rita and Britt, you co-curated Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film, which is currently on view. Figueroa was a celebrated cinematographer in Mexico who worked from the 1920s to the 1980s. How did you use the context of an art museum to present his work?

Gabriel Figueroa, Film still from Enemigos, directed by Chano Urueta, 1933, (c) Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Gabriel Figueroa, Film still from Enemigos, directed by Chano Urueta, 1933, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Rita Gonzalez: Britt and I were really interested in how we could present Figueroa to an audience that might have more familiarity with Mexican art. They’re more accustomed to the muralists, the great modernist painters, and photographers of Mexico. We really wanted to situate Figueroa’s aesthetics and technical accomplishments in relationship to that art lineage. Figueroa knew artists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, and was part of those circles. In fact Rivera referred to Figueroa as “the fourth muralist” alongside that group.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gabriel Figueroa reviewing light tests for the film Sonatas, directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, 1959, Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive, © Estate of Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gabriel Figueroa reviewing light tests for the film Sonatas, directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, 1959, Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive, © Estate of Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Britt Salvesen: And they influenced each other mutually. Although this exhibition has one person’s name on it, and it’s his story we tell throughout, it’s also a story of creative networks. It’s a challenge to think of how to present the art of cinematography in an art museum. When someone like Figueroa emerges with a really strong vision, that’s a story we want to tell—but in the medium of narrative film that vision also has to be linked to the vision of a director, which is also quite strong.

 Ángel Corona Villa, film still from Dias de otoño, directed by Robert Gavaldón, 1962, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Ángel Corona Villa, film still from Dias de otoño, directed by Robert Gavaldón, 1962, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Tennent: Seeing the list of people Figueroa worked with—directors as disparate as John Huston and Luis Buñuel—says something interesting about Figueroa.

Salvesen: Sometimes Figueroa’s vision was aligned with his director’s, and sometimes they were at odds. Figueroa and Emilio Fernández were really in sync, each pushing the other to really vivid iconography of the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, among other things. When Figueroa worked with Luis Buñuel, they had a bit of disparity in their viewpoints—Buñuel not being interested in this monumentalized version of Mexico and wanting something grittier, more ambivalent, surreal. Yet both collaborations produced numerous films. So in some cases the tension was productive.

Ángel Corona Villa, Pedro Armendáriz in a still from the film La escondida, directed by  Robert Gavaldón, 1955, © Televisa Foundation

Ángel Corona Villa, Pedro Armendáriz in a still from the film La escondida, directed by Robert Gavaldón, 1955, © Televisa Foundation

Tennent: Britt, Gabriel Figueroa is one of two exhibitions you’re co-organizing this fall. The other, with Tim, is Masterworks of Expressionist Cinema: “The Golem” and Its Avatars. Can you elaborate on that title?

Salvesen: The tale of the golem is a folk tale set in medieval Prague, when Jewish residents were being persecuted by a Christian ruler. To defend themselves, a rabbi created a figure out of clay and, using incantations and spells, animated that figure. It then rampaged through the city to protect the Jews from persecution.

You can imagine any number of variations on that tale. It’s also a great metaphor for the act of artistic creation.

Tennent: So you’re taking that figure and showing it across cultures and eras?

Paul Wegener (director), Germany, 1874–1948, Carl Boese (director) Germany, 1887–1958, Film still from Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World), 1920, Written by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, Produced by Paul Wegener, B&W, silent

Paul Wegener (director), Germany, 1874–1948, Carl Boese (director) Germany, 1887–1958, Film still from Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World), 1920, written by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, produced by Paul Wegener, B&W, silent

Timothy Benson: All the way up to contemporary comic books. The film The Golem, from 1920, is by director Paul Wegener, who is very devoted to this story line—this is the third of three films he made on the subject. And he plays the golem. It’s an incredible immersion. That figure, the way it’s styled and costumed, has appeared again and again in artistic and popular culture since then—including The Simpsons.

Tennent: This is your second Masterworks of Expressionist Cinema exhibition, following last year’s on the films Metropolis and Dr. Caligari. Will there be more in the series?

Salvesen: Next fall we have planned a much larger show about German Expressionist cinema, which is coming to us from the collection of the Cinémathèque Français but can be augmented with holdings of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, since many of the émigrés from the German Expressionist era ended up in Hollywood. That will be a chance to make connections to film noir and contemporary cinema. Everyone from Tim Burton to David Lynch to Guillermo del Toro cite this influence.

Dave Wachter (illustrator), United States, born 1975, Steve Niles (writer), United States, born 1965, Matt Santoro (writer), United Stated, born 1976, Page from Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem, no. 2 (July 2013), Offset lithography, Private collection, Los Angeles © 2013 Steve Niles, Matt Santoro, & Dave Wachter.

Dave Wachter (illustrator), United States, born 1975, Steve Niles (writer), United States, born 1965, Matt Santoro (writer), United Stated, born 1976, Page from Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem, no. 2 (July 2013), private collection, Los Angeles, © 2013 Steve Niles, Matt Santoro, and Dave Wachter

Tennent: The Academy have been frequent collaborators, lenders, and copresenters of our film programs and exhibitions. They are presenters of the Gabriel Figueroa exhibition and also presented Stanley Kubrick. And, of course, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is slated to open right next door in 2017 or 2018. How will the presence of the Academy Museum influence your thinking about film at LACMA?

Salvesen: They’re an incredible resource. This interval while they consider the formation of their museum from the ground up—from staffing to exhibition programming to build-out—is a great time for us to be working together, getting to know each other, our collections, approaches, and priorities. We’ll be able to be in sync and complementary when they’re open, and offer an incredible range. There will be nowhere else in the world where a visitor can encounter that in-depth material relating to the industry and its guilds, and the specificity of Hollywood and its influence worldwide over at the Academy; and only steps away come to see exhibitions where in some instances related materials are interpreted differently, where alternative models are presented, where we can show a spectrum in dialogue with each other.

Benson: The overlap is tremendous. There are levels of expertise, issues of preservation, even knowledge of the technical aspects of filmmaking that enrich our understanding of what artists are doing.

Gonzalez: And there’s a tremendous curiosity among filmmakers to go into a different realm. Agnès Varda is a prime example. She spent 40 years of her career mostly making films for a film audience. In the beginning of the 2000s she started to be invited to contemporary art spaces and biennials. She decided that she was going to become an artist at the ripe age of her mid-70s.

Agnès Varda's film Mur Murs (Mural Murals), 1980, ©ciné-tamaris

Agnès Varda’s film Mur Murs (Mural Murals), 1980, © ciné-tamaris

Tennent: In partnership with The Film Foundation, LACMA helped to restore four films by Varda, which have screened. Can you say more about the related exhibition, Agnès Varda in Californialand?

Gonzalez: The films that have been restored are four of five films she shot in California. I was wondering, how can we activate this restoration? How could we do something in the galleries? I started thinking about a work I had seen by her in 2007, where she had literally transformed the celluloid remnants of a film that she could no longer send on the road because it was too far deteriorated. She transformed into an artwork—a beach cabana. For her, this was about creating a space for reflection and a space for the memory of this film—which was actually a sour memory because the film was a huge failure commercially! When I asked her if she would do it again here in Los Angeles, she said “Oh, well I did make another huge failure when I came to Los Angeles and tried to break into Hollywood.” She made the film LIONS LOVE ( . . . AND LIES) with the two producers of the musical Hair, and the Warhol superstar Viva. It was the darling of the midnight movie circuit, but for Columbia Pictures that’s not what they were shooting for! So again she has transformed that.

Still from the short film Uncle Yanco, Agnès Varda, 1967, © ciné-tamaris

Still from the short film Uncle Yanco, Agnès Varda, 1967, © ciné-tamaris

Tennent: So Varda has really become a perfect example of how the worlds of art and film are not so distinct.

Gonzalez: She’s always argued that those worlds should be more porous. Artists have always driven this.

Benson: It’s this fluidity that artists have, and Hans Richter is another example—someone who worked completely as an artist at one point in his life, and during the 1930s especially was a professional filmmaker running a film studio.

Tennent: Artists don’t draw the same lines that academia draws.

Agnès Varda's short film Black Panthers, 1967, © Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda’s short film Black Panthers, 1967, © Agnès Varda

Benson: Especially today, in the most recent generations of artists. Training was often very traditional, even post–World War II. MFA programs were overly specialized, and artists finally decided to ignore that. One day they would make a video, another day they would make a painting, another they would do photography. We really need to benefit from this creativity and what it tells us about the world we live in.

Gonzalez: And our partnership with Film Independent takes that even further. [Film Independent curator] Elvis Mitchell has been a great role model in pushing the agenda for a broader understanding and appreciation of pop culture. Film is just one part of it. There’s also television, YouTube, and all the content developing on the web.

Salvesen: The channels of distribution have been breaking down, and it connects with what we were saying about how things are made; how they are shared and displayed also evolves. This is now a time when a museum can insert itself into those networks and become a significant site for thinking about film.


The View from the Suburbs

October 7, 2013

In his diaristic essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Robert Smithson described his first impressions of the suburban landscape, after an excursion in 1967: “Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning [it] into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph.”

For Smithson, a tour of the suburban New Jersey community resulted in an unsettling dissolution of the divide between reality and representation. The environment seemed to beg to be photographed, or, perhaps more accurately, appeared already to be a photographically and cinematically staged. Less than 20 miles outside of the reliable chaos of New York City, was this new landscape an opening onto nature, or was it something altogether artificial, even illusory?

Catherine Opie Untitled, circa 1988, printed 2006, gift of James Welling, © Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, Untitled, circa 1988, printed 2006, gift of James Welling, © Catherine Opie

The tension between the wild and the contained—the natural and the artificial—is a defining subject of much of the photography that has focused on the suburbs. Take, as an intriguing example, a work from Catherine Opie’s series The Master Plan, produced while she was a graduate student at CalArts in the mid-1980s (currently on display at LACMA as part of the selection of works Little Boxes: Photography and the Suburbs). The image shows a verdant patch of grass with the name Valencia garishly painted across it, stretched incongruously atop a sun-scorched hill. The rigid lines dividing the landscape from civilization marks where nature ends and the suburbs begin. Opie found in her immediate surroundings—the community around CalArts—an environment characterized by the push-pull of vast western landscapes and encroaching residential sprawl. Of these early works, Opie wrote that they reflected a fascination with “the absurdities of the West and its development . . . [one] can’t help but image it over and over again.” Like Smithson, Opie recognizes how the suburbs seem to invite an almost compulsive desire to photograph.

Lewis Baltz, Park City #53, 1979, gift of Betty Freeman, © Lewis Baltz

Lewis Baltz, Park City #53, 1979, gift of Betty Freeman, © Lewis Baltz

Opie acknowledges her indebtedness to the generation of photographers identified with the New Topographics exhibition that originated at George Eastman House in 1975, and which was the subject of a 2010 restaging at LACMA. Artists such as Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, and Robert Adams turned their cameras to the changing face of the American West, offering a radical renegotiation of landscape photography. These photographers focused on the conflict between the expanses of nature and the structured angularity of suburban encroachment. For Baltz, suburban architecture was “the most prominent and enduring material artifact produced by the dialectic of nature and culture.” His deadpan photographs of subdivisions and industrial parks offer unflinching views into the effects of the suburbs on the landscape. They also reveal how the growth of the suburbs reconfigured the very foundations of landscape photography.

Anthony Hernandez, Women Sunbathing, Whittier, CA, 1978, Ralph M. Parsons Fund

Anthony Hernandez, Women Sunbathing, Whittier, CA, 1978, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Anthony Hernandez

Such photographs expose the central paradox of the suburbs: the promise of a return to nature through the fabrication of artificial landscapes. This tension plays itself out in the work of photographers who emerged in the late 1970s, as part of the so-called Pictures Generation, who, with a dose of postmodern irony, created artificial worlds to comment on the manufactured character of everyday life. Artists such as Laurie Simmons, Eileen Cowin, and, later, Gregory Crewdson made the tension between the real and the artificial the subject of their work. The staged nature of the domestic experience—the cinematic qualities of daily life—emerged as key themes in the work of these artists. Crewdson’s Untitled (1991), shows a view into the backyard of a typical suburban home, constructed as a cinematic backdrop. Beneath the synthetic lawn, and underneath prosthetic flowers, a dead bird festers—a surrealistic commentary on what lies beneath the surface of suburban tranquility.

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 1991, printed 1993, Photo L.A. Fund, © Gregory Crewdson, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 1991 (printed 1993), Photo L.A. Fund, © Gregory Crewdson, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery

Such images reveal—as Smithson suggested in his essay—that cinema and the suburbs rely upon the same illusion: the manufactured recreation of the natural world. Despite this logical affinity, film and television have been remarkably unkind to the suburbs. Shortly after the postwar explosion in suburban development, filmmakers of all stripes took aim at the social problems endemic to the communities sprawling from city centers. From Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Joseph Sarno’s influential sexploitation Sin in the Suburbs (1964) to the punk-revolt of Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia (1983) and Richard Linklater’s grunge manifesto of the same name (1996) to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) and to the indelible opening sequence of the television show Weeds (2005), set to Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes,” the soul-crushing conformity of the suburbs has been a favorite punching bag of film—mainstream and underground alike. Perhaps Linklater was most direct—his film opens to the Gene Pitney song “Town without Pity” played over a broad sweeping pan of a seemingly endless repetition of bland structures, shot in a way that echoes the flat deadpan of the New Topographics photographers of a generation prior.

As scholars and demographers call for “The End of the Suburbs,” it is useful to look back at what artists and filmmakers have had to say about the American affinity for the single family home. The transformed landscape—the way the suburbs have recreated our image of nature, as well as how artists have imaged nature—is an ongoing process, one that seems very much bound up with processes of recording and documenting.

Stéphane Couturier, San Diego—Fenêtre, East Lake Greens, 2001,  Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Stéphane Couturier

Stéphane Couturier, San Diego—Fenêtre, East Lake Greens, 2001,
Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Stéphane Couturier

To return to Smithson, and his tour through Passaic, New Jersey, we once again land on a question of cinematic and photographic vision. Describing how he might use a camera to undo the ruin of the suburbs, he suggests, “Cinema offers an illusive or temporary escape from physical dissolution. The false immortality of the film gives the viewer an illusion of control over eternity.” With this enigmatic note, Smithson ends his essay. The feeling of control over nature offered by film and photography is, Smithson contends, only an illusion. The same can be said of the suburbs.

Ryan Linkof, Ralphs M Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography


%d bloggers like this: