Sunday, January 31, 2010

LA Art -- the Huntington Library

The Huntington Library, also in Pasadena, surprised me. We had been told about its collection of old books (I like old books as much as the next person, but had flown across the country to see art, not books), its gorgeous gardens (ha ha, with the fourth and worst day of torrential rain well underway), and its trove of Gainsboroughs and other 18th century British portraits (what could be more boring than Blue Boy and Pinkie). By the way, everybody thinks of BB & P as being a pair, but they aren’t – only their showing up in the same museum in the 1920s made people think that.

I thought this might be the day when I should have slept in and skipped the festivities.

Was I wrong! Our first stop was a special exhibit of color lithographs, which doesn’t sound very exciting but occupied us for almost two hours. It was a survey of how the lithography process was used in American business for ads, packaging, posters and other ephemera. In effect, it was several shows in one: a history of the American economy, a process tutorial on lithography, a reflection of a century of popular culture, to name some aspects that I found fascinating. Granted, my professional interests in printing and history made me a sucker for this stuff, but I don’t think you need those inclinations to find something to learn and enjoy. Did you know, for instance, that Mr. and Mrs. Butterick invented paper dress patterns in 1863 and printed them with, yes, lithography? The exhibit is up through February 22 and it’s worth the shlep to the far end of the grounds, even in the rain.

Then we slogged across to the American art building, which had a lot of portraiture (not my cup of tea) and some nice stuff from early 20th century. My favorite piece was a huge, brilliant painting by Helen Frankenthaler; also was struck by a Diebenkorn and some Robert Motherwell drawings which he made by applying ink heavily with a brush to an absorbent Japanese rice paper, then going away and letting it wick and spread as it wanted.

Helen Frankenthaler, Adriatic

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #24

Robert Motherwell, Drawings from The Lyric Suite

Luigi Lucioni, Still Life 

I'm always happy to find a Lucioni in a museum because I happen to have inherited an etching by him, probably the most prominent artist whose work I own (with the exception of a Picasso lithograph which was probably done in an edition of 732,000).

That was fine, but the best was last – a Gutenberg Bible! When Henry Huntington bought it in 1911 for $50,000 that was the most that had ever been spent for a book. The most recent sale of a complete Gutenberg was more than $5 million, in 1987, and single pages now sell for as much as $100K. It’s a beautiful piece of printing, perfectly preserved, bright white (it's on vellum, not paper) and I felt as though I was in the presence of ----- somebody/something transcendental.

Also a huge collection of other important books, which I didn’t have time to look at carefully, including originals of Chaucer, Galileo, Shakespeare, Milton, Copernicus, etc. etc. Nicely displayed, given the fact that they have to keep the light very dim to preserve the books.

I must give a shout-out to the Huntington for its people. Unlike the gestapo at the Norton Simon, the attendants here were the nicest museum staff I’ve ever encountered. When we came in dripping, the attendant tipped us off to the lockers at the end of the hall. In another building, there were no lockers but the guard said he’d be happy to keep an eye on my wet poncho if I just stowed it in the corner on a rug alongside other people’s umbrellas. I knew there was no photography in the lithography exhibit, but asked whether it would be OK to shoot the large wall signs with lots of good explanatory info; the guard cheerfully went to track down the curator and ask (they said yes).

So this made five for five for the week. Not a bad batting average.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

LA Art -- Norton Simon Museum

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is a strange place: it contains the formerly private collection of Simon, a fantastically rich dead dude, who toyed with giving his art to various existing museums but apparently couldn’t stand the thought of anybody else touching it. So he bought a financially struggling museum, took it over, spruced up the building, hung his stuff on the walls, provided a huge endowment and told them not to buy anything new, ever. A few random donations aside, that’s pretty much what happened. As a result the collection is largely frozen in time and reflects Simon’s personal tastes, which were strong and idiosyncratic.

He loved Degas, and the place is packed with paintings and more than 100 little bronze ballerina sculptures. Excellent collection of impressionists, not much really new art, but a spectacular trio of paintings by Sam Francis hung at the far end wall of one of the wings so it called to you the whole time you made your way through the other galleries. Lots of very old European art, which except for the Rembrandts I breezed through to have more time with the newer things. I totally skipped the huge collection of Indian and Southeast Asian artifacts in the basement. (When you’re on a group tour and the bus leaves at 3 pm you have to set your priorities!)

Simon adorably attributed his own success to "power, publicity and paranoia" and you can still detect those traits by visiting his museum. Especially paranoia.

We showed up at the museum an hour before it opened, and there were three or four docent tours going on for groups. Each group was trailed by a glum security guard who looked like a former Stasi agent and gave you the hairy eyeball should you try to hold back and look at a painting instead of trooping on to the next room. The security guards were even glummer when it got to be lunchtime and we had to sit outside in the monsoon to eat (god forbid they might drag some tables into the lobby to accommodate their paying visitors). Two guards stood guard outside while about 20 of us huddled under a canopy and ate our damp sandwiches. Somebody had thoughtfully put a couple of those big propane heaters out on the patio, but had unthoughtfully neglected to gas them up sufficiently. When asked whether the heaters couldn’t be turned back on, the guards “explained” that sometimes they didn’t work. Of course they did not go for help, lest any of us vandalize the potted plants in their absence.

It was pouring when we left the museum and it was amazing how far away the bus had to park, because of course no buses could be permitted into the parking lot or driveway. Probably because you could pack a bus with explosives and storm the building. Neither could visitors be let out through the staff entrance 20 feet from the bus parked at the curb.

In the Simon’s defense, I must commend their excellent wall labels, which gracefully and economically covered artistic design, art process, artist biography and overall cultural context. And of course the art was spectacular. 

Edgar Degas, Wheat Field and Green Hill

I never think of Degas as a landscape painter, although apparently he did some in later life.  The notes said that he started by making a monoprint of tha pale yellow background, then worked over it in pastels.

Sam Francis, Basel Mural I

A special exhibit of portraits was far more interesting than I had anticipated, as generally I don't like this genre of pictures.  But the wide variety of artists, subjects, mediums and artistic approaches made it exciting.  One of my favorites was this one of Van Gogh's mom.  One of the ladies from my group said to me as we both looked at the painting that she didn't like it, because the poor woman has a green face.  (That's probably why I liked it.)

This week's art-a-day

It's cold this week!

January 24 -- holly berries in the park

January 25 -- reflections

January 26 -- first it snowed, then it froze -- or something

January 27 -- cloudy day in the park

January 28 -- in the alley

January 29 -- big boy's toys

January 30 -- snow again

Thursday, January 28, 2010

LA Art -- the Getty Center

More on the details of my five-museums-in-five-days whirlwind.

But before I talk about the museum, here's an art history pop quiz. Who painted the picture below?

The Getty Center, that famous white temple on a hilltop, is every bit as fabulous as its reputation. The architecture, by Richard Meier, is stunning and the art is fine, too. It’s the wealthiest museum in the world, with a billion-dollar endowment, and you can tell!  Too bad we came during the monsoon, because the gardens were closed along with many of the parapets and terraces from which on a better day you could see vast panoramas of LA.

From the standpoint of visitor comfort, the Getty wins brownie points for being the only museum of the five with indoor dining (along with very good, inexpensive food), also for the hundreds of umbrellas provided free for visitors – pick one up as you leave one building, stash it in a big box as you go into the next one. 

But they lose points for skimpy restrooms. And that’s even after they added more plumbing when Meier’s original buildings proved to be notoriously unfacilitated. They also lose points for lousy signage and directions to get you successfully from one building to another. Turns out you can walk from building to building (at least many of them) without going out in the rain, but try to figure that out from the brochure or the wall signs. It was even hard to figure out what building you were in right now.

Since I’m usually the one who skips the old masters and heads straight for the avant-garde, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved the old stuff at the Getty. There were Rembrandts everywhere, lots of great oils plus a huge temporary show of Rembrandt drawings. Also two separate exhibits of old books and manuscripts. I am very familiar with the many types of old religious works, such as Bibles and books-of-hours, which were well represented at the Getty, but was delighted to also discover a huge trove of scientific publications such as maps and texts on science and math.

A math text in Arabic from Moorish Spain, 1256.  Notice how they were using the same format for fractions that we use today, with the numbers above and below a horizontal line.

Good thing I found those other things to love, since they don't have any avant-garde at the Getty.  There was one room called "European Art Since 1875" but all it contained was the h-u-g-e and spectacular James Ensor "Entry of Christ Into Brussels 1889" and four or five other nondescript paintings.  Thanks to bad signage one could easily miss the whole room, but one wouldn't have missed much.

By the way, the surprisingly modern-looking gent at the top of the post was done by Rembrandt!  (Saint Bartholomew)  You could have fooled me. 

Paul Gauguin, Head With Horns  (I didn't know he did sculpture)

Henry Moore, Bronze Form (just the top part -- too wet to venture into the sculpture garden, and the bus was waiting...)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

LA Art -- Los Angeles County Museum of Art

LACMA is huge, with eight separate buildings spread over a large campus, and that’s not even counting the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits, which I had happily visited with my kids many years ago. Unfortunately, several of the buildings were closed, as were large parts of two or three others. On the other hand, one building they told us was closed wasn’t, and fortunately that was the one with the good stuff, but we discovered this only by accident. Communication with the visitors doesn’t seem to be a priority here, as you find out about these things only by accident – no signs, no notice boards, no “daily news” flyer as you walk in the door.

The new Eli Broad Building, dedicated to contemporary art, had one floor that I could have easily skipped – Joseph Beuys and Jeff Koons do very little for me. But on the ground floor was the best art in the whole place: two spectacular Richard Serra steel ellipse works, each much larger than any Serra I’d ever seen. If you’re not familiar with this family of works, they’re made out of massive steel plates about 12 feet tall, bent into curvy forms that stand on end and “fence in” areas and corridors that you can walk around and through.

One piece (Band) is shaped generally like an S, but with extra curves so that there are three “rooms” on each side. The other (Sequence) is shaped like a double-walled S, with the two walls forming an S-shaped corridor that you can walk through. If this guy’s name had been Richard Werra there would probably be lots of straight lines and points instead of curves in his work.

Richard Serra, Band

In the Korean art section I was intrigued by two large fiber pieces, both by contemporary artists.

Helen Kwak, Untitled (Tea Bowls) -- detail.  Most of the picture is silkscreened but several foot-square panels of pieced fabrics were collaged over the top.

Do Ho Suh, Gate -- a huge, intricately stitched three-dimensional sculpture of silk stretched over metal rods.  You can see from the shadow how detailed the stitching is, and how translucent and ethereal the whole sculpture is.

Tony Smith, Smoke -- this view shows maybe half of the sculpture, which takes up the entire entry lobby of the main LACMA building.  People walk through it to get to the galleries.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled

Sunday, January 24, 2010

LA Art -- the Museum of Contemporary Art

We hit five museums in five days on our recent trip to Los Angeles. I’ll tell you about them today and in subsequent posts.

Museum of Contemporary Art ( MoCA) has two branches in downtown LA, one kiddy-corner from the new Disney Concert Hall (designed by Frank Gehry) and one right across the street from the new Metro stop in Little Tokyo. It’s about a 20-minute walk between the two, but on weekends there’s a free shuttle if you show your ticket, which is good for both places.

Last week the special exhibit was a greatest-hits from the permanent collection, and what a wonderful collection it must be! A whole room full of Rothkos, almost a room of Franz Klines, a few lovely Johns and Rauschenbergs that left me wishing for more.

Mark Rothko "#9 Dark Over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow on Rose"

Franz Kline "Hazelton"

I was thrilled to see a conceptual art piece by On Kawara, “I Got Up,” which I had seen before, and which had a huge impact on my art. It consists of a series of postcards, one sent every day. The cards are standard tourist souvenirs from New York City, rubber-stamped with the words “today I got up at, ” the date, and the time. (It’s an interesting commentary on the artist’s life that he sometimes got up in the PM rather than the AM.)

On Kawara  "I Got Up.."

I saw this piece for the first time in 2002 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in a retrospective of conceptual art from the 60s. Before visiting this show I had no idea there even was such a thing as conceptual art, but by the time I walked out the door my mind had been exploded! This piece was the reason I embarked on my daily-postcard project the following year, and seeing it again was like visiting your great-grandmother whom you hadn’t seen in a decade.

Kawara's postcard project went on for many years and various museums have only small portions of it.  The bit at the Stedelijk had cards addressed to Kawara's dealer in Europe.  The bit in Los Angeles had cards addressed to artist John Baldessari.  Since they were behind glass, I was unable to get a decent photo, so found this one online.  Same wording and format.

Wallace Berman "Silent Series"

Here's one panel from a very extensive series of photos (or photomanipulations, not sure how they were executed) that all use the same format: a hand holding a device with a different photo each time it's presented.  The pictures were made in 1966 and the device was a small AM/FM radio.  Us geezers remember when transistor radios small enough to hold in your hand were something pretty cool.  The thought of replacing the speaker with a photo was probably pretty clever in the day.  Today, of course, it's just an iPod Touch with some funny numbers on the edge.

Finally, my nomination for the most startling art I've seen all year (I know, it's still January....). 

John Baldessari  "Two Highrises (with Disruptions) / Two Witnesses (Red and Green)

At first glance you think "just another 9/11 riff" but then you notice that it was made in 1990.

The docent thought the "twin towers" were a small model made for low-end movie special effects, but didn't sound 100% confident in her story.  Who knows!  Baldessari made the piece for an exhibit on relationships, and apparently the couple on the top were supposed to be the main subjects of the picture.  Today, of course, we are riveted by the burning towers.  MoCA has only recently put the piece on display for the first time since 9/11.

The blessing/curse of surface design

Going through images from a series I completed several years ago, I am reminded again of one of my recurring observations about fiber art: that beautiful surface design can be both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, of course, because fiber artists are familiar with such a variety of techniques and materials, and it’s so easy to produce glorious, unique fabrics. A curse, because it’s so hard to figure out what to do with those glorious fabrics once you have made them.

Case in point: some beautiful discharge pieces I made as part of a series on letters of the alphabet. I cut the big M from a campaign sign that I rescued from the trash after an election. (Campaign signs make excellent resists for wet mediums, because the heavy cardboard is heavily coated to stand up to rain.) I was so enthralled with the results of spraying bleach over the resist that I made Ms in practically every color of Kona cotton available to mankind. But what to do with them??

My first thought was that the Ms were so beautiful, I would simply sew them together into the simplest possible composition. That quilt looked OK, especially if you got up close to it and noticed the beautiful blotches and shadings of the bleach discharge. But as time passed I realized that from a few steps back it was kind of boring. To be more accurate, it was really boring.

M&Ms 2 -- 2002 -- 33 x 34

Since I had lots of Ms still in the box, I decided to try to pep them up by slicing and reassembling the letters. You’ll probably agree that these two smaller compositions are far more interesting than the original.

M&Ms 3 -- 2004 -- 24 x 9

M&Ms 4 -- 2004 -- 30 x 10

I used the same technique of slicing and reassembling to make a larger quilt in the same series.

Seven Cs -- 2005 -- 52 x 63 

The M&Ms quilts were my first experience with the blessing/curse of surface design. Since then I’ve wrestled with the problem in many other formats, with varying degrees of success. And I’ve thought about it a great deal.

In a nutshell, the dilemma of the surface designer is how to transform your beautiful fabric from yardage to art. If you simply sew up your yardage into a whole-cloth quilt or hanging, it often lacks the pizzazz to be a successful piece of art, even though it is truly beautiful. Yet if you cut your yardage into small pieces and use them as you would use any other printed fabric, are you just flushing your hard work down the toilet? If the pieces are so small that you lose the character and detail of your unique surface design, you might as well go out and buy commercial fabric, with much less investment of time, effort and money.

I’d like to return to this question again in future posts, and show you more examples of how I and other fiber artists have wrestled with the issue.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Art-A-Day -- In California

Just home from an art week in California -- five museums in five days.  And what a wonderful week to be in Los Angeles!  While we were there they had five or more inches of rain, depending where you were, along with mudslides, waterspouts, tornadoes, flooding, snow, mandatory evacuations, road and airport closures and general distress.  Four of the five museums have only outdoor cafeterias, and the bus always has to park a  l-o-n-g way from the front door.  Good thing the art was great!  I'll write more about that later, but here are my daily photos.

        "Seems it never rains in southern California
        Seems I've often heard that kind of talk before
        It never rains in California
        But girl don't they warn ya
        It pours, man it pours."

January 16 -- Las Vegas airport

January 17 -- Little Tokyo

January 18 -- Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the rain

January 19 -- The Getty Center

January 20 -- pumping stuff

January 21 -- the Norton Simon Museum

January 22 -- just before sunset

January 23 -- guess what -- still wet

Thursday, January 14, 2010

This week's art-a-day

Here's the second week of photos in my 2010 performance art project: one photo per day.  I'm happy to report that the self-imposed task of taking a picture every day has on at least one occasion induced me to turn off the trash TV, leave my cozy studio, get all bundled up and venture into the cold, nasty slushy world outside -- because I needed to take that photo before it got dark!  The old me would have said "I walked for almost an hour yesterday, let's just skip the exercise today."

January 8 -- wish I'd made this art

January 9 -- little girl, big coat

January 10 -- Eiffel Jr. was here

January 11 -- shoveling only enough for the mailman to bring my mail (to hell with the other pedestrians) (no, this isn't our sidewalk -- we don't even have a sidewalk but if we did we would shovel it!!)
January 12 -- in the alley again

January 13 -- shadows

January 14 -- garage doors