I Had a Dream

January 11, 2012

The art of Edward Biberman is currently on view in a special installation, and in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this Monday, I want to make sure our audiences know about his painting of Dr. King on display. Acquired last June thanks to the generosity of the American Art Council, I Had a Dream was Biberman’s response to Dr. King’s 1968 assassination. Prominently placed in the exhibition space, Dr. King’s eyes are unavoidable and draw you into his vision and the gallery.

Edward Biberman, I Had a Dream, 1968, purchased with funds provided by the American Art Council, © Edward Biberman Estate

Edward Biberman moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles in 1936 and is best known for later paintings such as The White Fire Escape, in LACMA’s collection. Such urban scenes reveal his affinity for the seemingly mundane details of midcentury modern architecture, which he illuminated through his attention to the light, shadow, and geometry of both subject matter and composition. But throughout his career he created important figurative paintings of labor, social struggle, and political tension, such as Conspiracy (1955), as well as significant portraiture. His portraits of African American cultural and political leaders are especially noteworthy: he created a monumental portrait of Paul Robeson, and his Lena Horne is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery where it has graced enormous banners on their façade.

I Had a Dream is unique for Biberman in that it zooms in on the civil rights leader’s face. Though we see only Dr. King’s eyes, nose, and mustache, his iconic features are instantly recognizable. The searing intensity of his gaze is not confrontational but steadfast and visionary.  This is a portrait with which all can connect. A large and powerful painting like I Had a Dream not only represents one of the most important figures of the twentieth century but demonstrates the devastating impact of Dr. King’s death on all Americans and can remind us of the significance of his legacy today.

Austen Bailly

Edward Biberman’s Conspiracy

December 7, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art

Sheets and Siqueiros: Los Angeles, 1932

October 13, 2010

Recently I couriered Millard Sheets’ Angel’s Flight (1931) across town to the Autry National Center, where it is included in the groundbreaking new exhibition Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, the first examination of the seven pivotal months the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros spent in Los Angeles in 1932. I was on hand to make sure LACMA’s painting was safely unpacked, installed and prominently featured. Angel’s Flight is one of our most important paintings, so we rarely lend it. But this loan request was especially compelling: visitors would be able to see Sheets’ masterpiece in the context of Siqueiros’ landmark contemporaneous work in Los Angeles, where both painters knew each other and achieved artistic and professional breakthroughs in the space of a few short months.

Angel's Flight, Millard Sheets, 1931. Copyright: Millard Sheets Estate.

In 1931, Sheets, just 24 years old, completed Angel’s Flight, a dramatically composed and inventive view of downtown L.A. that refers to, but does not picture, the electric cable railway that used to carry pedestrians in downtown Los Angeles to the top of Bunker Hill between 1901 and 1969. Entered by invitation (his first) into the 30th Annual International Exhibition of Paintings held at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Sheets submitted Angel’s Flight, which was praised by critics nationwide, including at the New York Times, which reproduced the work. In early 1932, the painting was back in Los Angeles for the Thirteenth Annual Painters and Sculptors Exhibition at LACMA’s forerunner, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art, where it won the $100 painting prize. All of this caught the attention of Mrs. L. M. Maitland of Beverly Hills, who bought the painting for the museum. The Los Angeles Times reported in May: “Famed Work of Art Wins Home Here,” and Mrs. Maitland stated “I gave the museum the picture first of all because I like it, and secondly because I believe Los Angeles art patrons should buy the work of our own artists here.”

It is entirely possible that once Siqueiros was in L.A. by June of 1932 he saw and was impressed by Sheets’ unique and masterful vision of the downtown L.A. urban scene pictured in Angel’s Flight and now part of the museum’s permanent collection.  Then he actually met Sheets while a guest professor at Chouinard Art School, where Siqueiros taught a course on fresco painting, a class that Sheets went on to teach that fall. Siqueiros’ soon formed his “Bloc of Painters,” a group of American artists then active in L.A. that included Sheets, Reuben Kadish, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Phil Paradise, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, Philip Guston, and many others. The Bloc of Painters helped Siqueiros complete three murals in L.A.: one for a private residence in Pacific Palisades, Street Meeting, right on Chouinard’s wall, Tropical America on Olvera Street. But the public murals proved highly controversial: the little known histories of the intertwined careers of the Bloc of Painters and the art of Siqueiros as well as the legacy of Siqueiros’ near deportation and his 1932 Los Angeles murals are uncovered in this fascinating and must-see exhibition.

Austen Bailly

A Place for No-Tin

September 29, 2008
Henry Inman (United States, New York, 1801-1846) No-Tin (Wind), 1832-1833 Oil on canvas 37 1/2 x 33 1/2 x 2 7/8 in. (95.25 x 85.09 x 7.3 cm) Gift of the 2008 Collectors Committee

No-Tin, 1832-33

I am trying to decide where to hang a new American art acquisition—a portrait painted in 1832–33 by Henry Inman of Chippewa Chief No-Tin (which means “wind”). This is a particularly exciting process because this portrait is the first image of an identifiable American Indian to enter the collection. As soon as the painting returns from the objects conservation lab, where its frame is being repaired and cleaned, it can go up.

The decision to place any work of art is always a challenge, but one I love: what is an appropriate context for the object for our galleries, which are organized roughly chronologically? Where will the painting look best? Do I have to move or remove anything to accommodate it? What impact would that have? What visual and/or thematic connections to surrounding works of art do I want to create? What histories about American art and experience can the art convey in this context? Answers to these questions are always subjective and depend on individual curators’ perspectives, which can be controversial. (I recently wrote an article on the subject.)

However, underlying all these factors informing a curator’s decision is the fact that the historical object is always, inextricably removed from its original context once in the art museum. Are we trying to recreate that original context? Or rethink it? Trouble it? Draw attention to it? In the case of No-Tin, here is a portrait of a Chippewa chief who traveled with one of many Indian delegations to Washington, D.C., in the 1820s and 1830s as guests of the federal government. They sat for commissioned portraits destined for a national Indian Gallery. We could not recreate a portrait gallery of American Indians at LACMA, nor would we necessarily want to. What if I install the portrait of No-Tin prominently in our front gallery, with portraits of other eighteenth and nineteenth-century Americans, who were his previously unacknowledged contemporaries? I’ll be thinking through these questions in the next few weeks, so check back to see where I end up installing No-Tin’s portrait.

Austen Bailly

%d bloggers like this: