New Acquisition: Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper

August 3, 2011

Last month the newly formed American Art Acquisitions Group voted to acquire Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper, a graphic masterpiece. A sophisticated and virtuosic pattern of cuts into the linoleum block create the striking energy and clarity of this print.

Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper, 1952, gift of the 2011 American Art Acquisitions Group

Catlett, who is the granddaughter of slaves and just celebrated her 96th birthday in April, was first introduced to the linoleum cut, or linocut, in 1946, when she apprenticed at El Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico City (The People’s Graphic Workshop). The artists’ collective (Catlett was a member from 1946 to 1966) influenced her commitment to create art that would promote social change and be accessible to broad audiences. Prints, in particular linocuts, were the workshop’s specialty and became Catlett’s preferred medium: they were inexpensive, easy to incise, and conducive to publishing large editions. The linocut is also aesthetically appealing for its smooth, uniform, and clean surface qualities.

Sharecropper, first created in 1952, is one of Catlett’s most iconic works, and the version just acquired for LACMA is the artist’s proof—the first impression pulled by the artist. The vivid contrasts of the black and white markings creating the sharecropper’s weathered skin, textured white hair, and broad brimmed straw hat framing her face are direct and vigorous—and contrast with fatigue evident in the eyes and the large safety pin neatly holding her lightweight jacket closed. These details allude to hardships of the life of a sharecropper. Sharecropping was an agricultural system that emerged in the U.S. immediately following the Civil War. Laborers worked plantation lands, usually cotton fields, in exchange for a portion of the crops, but typically the proceeds from the crops were allocated to the landowners in advance for expenses, such as housing on the plantation, now required of the farmers. For formerly enslaved African Americans, this exploitative system created extensive and ongoing disenfranchisement.

Catlett’s image does not shy from this history, nor have other artists throughout the history of American art since Reconstruction. In fact, Sharecropper demonstrates the persistence of this theme, namely picking cotton, in American art for both African American and Caucasian artists, including, from LACMA’s collection, Winslow Homer (The Cotton Pickers, 1876), Thomas Hart Benton (Cotton Pickers, 1931), and John Biggers (Cotton Pickers, 1947). However, Catlett’s Sharecropper is now the American art collection’s most modern image of American sharecroppers, and one of the artist’s innovations was to remove any visual reference to the cotton field or bags. As a result the image appears more universal and heroic, a portrait of the everywoman sharecropper to whom we look up but who does not meet our gaze. Sharecropper in on view now in our American art galleries.

Austen Bailly

Eric Fischl Visits LACMA

October 26, 2010

The painter Eric Fischl was in Los Angeles recently and stopped by LACMA to see his painting, St. Barts Ralph’s 70th, which he has generously lent to the museum and around which I developed a small installation including some related works from our permanent collection: Alex Katz, Eric Fischl and the Beach Scene (on view through November 28).

Eric Fischl, “Saint Barts Ralph’s 70th,” 2009, © Eric Fischl 2009

Eric kindly agreed to take some time to talk with us about his big, vibrant painting of his friends on vacation and to let us record him doing so. His responses to my questions got right to the heart of what I loved about the painting and had responded to so enthusiastically—its cheerful subject matter and brilliant execution for starters. We then had a chance to walk through the American art galleries, as Eric had not seen our collection for some time. There were a few works that really caught his eye and when I heard the painter in him responding to these masterpieces in our collection, I had to capture that on video too.

As a curator who focuses on our historical American art collection (artists active before 1968), I was thrilled to talk with a living artist about the art of painting. I love how clearly Eric describes his own practice and what makes a great painting.


Austen Bailly

June in Paris with the Surrealists

September 7, 2010

For the past year, I have been working as a research assistant here at LACMA, helping the curator Ilene Susan Fort with the preparations for a major exhibition called In Wonderland: the Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. This show, opening in January of 2012, will showcase the work of many well-known artists such as Frida Kahlo, but also introduce many important women who have not achieved such international renown. One of the most enjoyable aspects of working on this project has been tracking down key paintings and sculptures by these lesser-known artists and learning about their extraordinary lives.

This past June, I was lucky enough to travel to Paris in the pursuit of information on one such artist, Helen Phillips. Born in San Francisco in 1913, Phillips won a travel scholarship to study art in Paris in 1936, where she fell in love with the ideals and practices of the surrealist movement. Phillips also fell in love with the artist William Stanley Hayter, director of the Atelier 17, a print studio which served as an important center of experimentation for many surrealist artists. In the 1940s and 1950s, Phillips created anthropomorphic forms in bronze, and we are eager to include a few of these in show.

In Paris I went to stay with Phillips’ daughter-in-law, the Italian curator Carla Esposito Hayter, whose apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés is right down the street from the famous Café Les Deux Magots. With regular doses of espresso and pain au chocolat, we spent long hours happily digging through Phillips’ documents from throughout her career, including wonderful photographs such as this of Phillips and Hayter in their studio.

We also measured and photographed many examples of Phillips’ work, lugging bronze sculptures onto a bathroom scale (it is important to have a weight estimate for shipping purposes). Phillip’s best-known sculpture is a work in Carla’s apartment called Metamorphose (1946) a good example of the artist’s concern with forms in perpetual motion and transformation.

As Carla and I were looking through a batch of old photographs of Phillips’ sculptures, she suddenly realized that one of the works was in corner of the bedroom where I was staying. Neither she nor I had given much attention to the piece, which seemed sort of flat and nondescript. However, as we carried the bronze out into the living room and set it in the proper position according to the old photograph, a fully-realized work came to life.

Although the piece is romantically called Amants Novices (Inexperienced Lovers), its sharp “teeth” and tangled limbs give the sculpture a slightly menacing quality that may relate to the surrealist interest in symbols of violent female sexuality, such as the Praying Mantis. Carla and I were very excited about our discovery, and it may turn out that this sculpture is perfect for a show about the ways in which women artists responded to surrealist concepts.

Terri Geis,

Research Assistant, American Art

Tad Beck on his Installation, Palimpsest

August 2, 2010

Inside the exhibition Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins is a gallery of works by contemporary artist Tad Beck, whose exhibition Palimpsest, works in dialogue with Eakins’s paintings and photographs. We asked Tad to guest blog on Unframed today, connecting the dots between the two shows.

During the installation of my exhibition Palimpsest, I was able to have my own private exploration of Manly Pursuits. I had never seen many of these works in person, though Eakins has been one of my primary influences since parallels emerged with my own practice. The first similarities appeared between my video installation, Roll (2003) and Eakins’s painting The Swimming Hole (1884–85). Both Eakins’s and my own work focus on nude models. The locations look very much the same, and both Eakins and I are treading water. There was even similar passion for creating axis. While none of these parallels were intentional in Roll, they became definitive and almost seemed beyond coincidence.

Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole, 1884–85, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchased by the Friends of Art, Fort Worth Art Association, 1925; acquired by the Amon Carter Museum, 1990, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation and the people of Fort Worth

Palimpsest was created in part to examine my connection to Eakins, to make the parallels a primary issue in my creative process. Brian Allen of the Addison Gallery of American Art had given me reproductions of the Circle of Eakins’ Grafly Album, which provided me with images that evoked an artist/model dynamic I was very interested in. I shot the Palimpsest models in my own studio, simulating the light of Eakins’s studio and reenacting the poses of Eakins’s models. My models were then digitally inserted into Eakins’s studio.

Despite the consuming installation of my own photographs, I was struck by one of Eakins’s works in particular—Male Clothed, Standing, and Male Nude Named J. Laurie Wallace Nude, Reclining on Platform in Wooded Landscape (1883). This photograph is a study for The Swimming Hole, but it was not shot at the swimming hole; rather at an entirely unrelated location and time with the figures posing on a constructed stage that simulated the perspective and lighting of the location in the painting and other photographs.

Thomas Eakins, Male Clothed, Standing, and Male Nude Named J. Laurie Wallace Nude, Reclining on Platform in Wooded Landscape, c. 1883, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection. Purchased with the partial support of the Pew Memorial Trust, 1985.68.2.476

One of the model’s poses in this image is seen in the painted Study for Swimming Hole. While it is clear that Eakins used photographs to paint from, this photograph represents the more complicated strategy of a self-aware cinematic or fictional use of photography that really came into critical discussion in the Pictures generation. It is not just a photographic moment to be reproduced in paint. In ways it resembles the photographs I initially shot before I digitally inserted my models into Eakins’s studio in Palimpsest. The figures are engaged in an activity that does not match their background or their time, primed for insertion into a fictional or constructed scene made up of various other photographic moments.

Although some may have issue with Eakins painting from photographs, I have no qualms with it, rather I celebrate him for it. My real interest is in Eakins’s relationship to what photography does, to what the choreographed and assembled reality that photography provided him. Surprisingly I found myself even more closely aligned with Eakins because of a contemporary method that requires the artist to unify a variety of moments into one realistic composition. As viewers, we are able to embrace the fiction of that warm afternoon swimming, but also the reality of each ingredient of the composite seen in the accompanying photographs. This duality is at the heart of Palimpsest and apparently The Swimming Hole as well.

Tad Beck, Palimpsest One, 2009, courtesy the artist

Tad Beck

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

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