Monday, August 23, 2010

Burn Notice

Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (this blog, not that painting) has moved to ArtInfo. Just click on the new address ( and you're there.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beach Reading

LACMA's new Alex Katz, Round Hill (small detail above), features a literary product placement: a copy of Troilus and Cressida, specifically the Pelican Shakespeare paperback. It falls into the small category of paintings that incorporate books as prominent subject matter. As Sontag said, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Paintings of books have always intrigued art's interpreters—more than anyone else—for these works appear to promise that a mere text can unlock the mystery of art.
Vincent van Gogh may be the best-known painter of books to today's audiences. He slipped contemporary novels into the foreground of many of his floral still-lifes. A unique example of an all-book subject is Still Life with Bible (1885) in the van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Generations of critics have held it up as an emblem of the artist's conflict between old-time religion and modern secularism. The small yellow softcover is Emile Zola's La Joie de Vivre. Hollywood would adapt/mangle that conflict into Lust for Life (1956).
Not so long after Van Gogh, the American John Frederick Peto invented a different sort of book painting in which he effaced titles and all other distinguishing marks from books. (Left, In the Library, Timken Museum, San Diego.) Peto presented books as victims of chance, decay, and entropy. In the twentieth century, text became a ubiquitous element of painting, from cubism to pop to postmoderism. But it was mostly low-brow, pop-culture texts, from signs and ads and movies, that drove the century's art. John Baldessari's 1968 photo-painting of Artforum magazine (This is Not to Be Looked At, MOCA) is the polar opposite of Van Gogh's earnest homages. In this respect, Peto looks more contemporary: He Photoshop'ed out book titles the way that contemporary practitioners coin art by erasing texts from magazine ads and TV commercials.
What did Alex Katz intend by painting Troilus and Cressida into his 1977 beach idyll? The play is a revisionist account of the Trojan War, the oldest tale in the Western tradition. When Katz painted Round Hill, the educated viewer would have seen the book as a signifier of advanced taste, and not just because the play was relatively little-known. A decade before Katz's painting Joyce Carol Oates wrote,

"Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare's plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document—its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century.… Shakespeare shows in this darkest and least satisfying of his tragedies the modern, ironic, nihilistic spectacle of man diminished, not exalted.… This is tragedy of a special sort—the 'tragedy' the basis of which is the impossibility of conventional tragedy."

In recent years, productions of Troilus and Cressida have proliferated and have sometimes drawn sell-out crowds. What's interesting is that Katz was ahead of the literary curve, or at least on top of it. Van Gogh wasn't, and practically no once since would have even cared to be.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Change of Address

Next Monday, August 23, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire is moving to ArtInfo. Aside from a design refresh and some heftier servers, nothing will be changing. LACM on Fire will continue to offer a unique perspective on Los Angeles art and institutions, now in the company of blogs by Tyler Green, Jason Edward Kaufman, Homa Nasab, and Andrew Russeth. ArtInfo will host the complete archives as well as all new posts. Check here for further details. The new address is Once the link is active, all you'll have to do is click and change your bookmarks.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brooklyn Curators Sign “Work of Art”

Followers of Bravo TV's Work of Art may have noted that the Brooklyn Museum's curators have kept the reality show at arm's length. The series' grand prize was of course a one-artist show, and Abdi Farah won it. His exhibition opened this weekend in Brooklyn. The art is, uh, about what you saw on TV. The surprise is that the museum's curators are now embracing the zeitgeist. Two large text panels flanking the entrance are credited to the museum's Charles Desmarais and Eugenie Tsai. The copy has the unnaturally cheery affect of a political prisoner forced to write upbeat letters to home. "Desmarais"—if it is Desmarais—writes,

"Though it may seem an unconventional presentation, contests such as Work of Art are not unfamiliar to art museums. In nineteenth-century France, the principal route to prominence for an artist was to enter his or (rarely) her work in a competition held every year or two at the Louvre… [Goes on to argue that the Paris Salon = reality TV.] Work of Art is a direct descendant of the juried-exhibition tradition… [Goes on to name check the TV show jurors, known to anyone who's taken the subway to Brooklyn for this goddamn thing.]

"The world changes constantly, and art changes with it, as do the ways audiences engage with art. Reality television—in this case, the on-camera interactions between artists, critics, and dealers—offers a dynamic new way for viewers to encounter works of art."

You might have feared/hoped that the winning artist would be as profoundly embarrassing as was Work of Art itself. Not really. Farah's work may be pegged as "art school," serious and fashionably derivative. He's 22, OK? The floor sculptures, of fallen youths wearing tennis shoes, vaguely recall Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman. It could have been so much worse, and it's not.Work of Art has occasioned "end of civilization" hyperbole. The fact is that artists less seasoned than Farah land museum shows every year, for reasons less public but no less absurd. Brooklyn's Farah show is more defensible than LACMA's 2002 exhibition of Farrah Fawcett (and Keith Edmier, also more-or-less inspired by a TV show).
Farah, Farrah, whatever. The Brooklyn Museum's presentation of contemporary art has never been stronger. Across the hall is a survey of late Warhol. Drawn from Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, it's far from definitive, but it makes a compelling case for the post-1968 Warhol that not many love. On the floor below is Kiki Smith, plus a newish presentation of contemporary art from the permanent collection. It's impressive and strong in Brooklyn artists, artists of color, and women artists. A great Francis Bacon hangs amongst artists who are—for now—less famous than Abdi Farah is.
In a saner world, a single Farah might have been slipped seamlessly into this survey. Farah's fallen figures can be read as the road kill to the art world's up-and-down fame game—as a sardonic denouement to another Brooklyn work, Kehinde Wiley's 2003 ceiling painting, Go.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Puzzling Paradox of Broad’s Basement

"If 90% of your work is in storage you need to begin lending it to other institutions. Get art out of the basements."
—Eli Broad, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums, New York

The Hilbert Hotel is always full, yet it always has room for one more guest. It appears that Eli Broad has taken a leaf from this famous paradox (or maybe he saw Inception). Broad has an equally mind-bending plan for getting all the nation's art out of museum basements. Just lend it to other museums.
Museum #1 wants to show the great art it's got in storage. To do that, it must find a place to put the art it's already displaying in its exhibition galleries. It lends that art to Museum #2. This means that Museum #2 needs to free up space, so it lends the art it was exhibiting to Museum #3. And so on, and so on.
This isn't Broad's idea, it's David Hilbert's. His hotelkeeper can always free up a room by moving every guest from room N to room N+1. Needless to say, Hilbert was a mathematician, not a hotelkeeper. There's a fairly serious catch. Hilbert's scheme works only when the hotel has an infinite number of rooms.
Broad has long struck the quasi-populist note that evil, elitist museum directors are scheming to put art (Broad's art!) in storage. He's used this versatile talking point to justify yanking his collection from BCAM and building yet another museum to house it. (The new museum will reportedly be smaller than BCAM: Broad is a man of many paradoxes.) Broad talks as if everything in his 2000-piece collection can and must eventually be on permanent view. The art that's not in his planned museum will be lent out, notwithstanding the fact that this would require the equivalent of about ten Whitney Museums, sitting empty out in the hinterlands.
The bottom line is that there is more art than museum space to show it. Thus museum installations, particularly of contemporary art, are ever-changing and (to use the fashionable term) "curated." What's so bad about that?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Glendale and Kitsch

Look up "kitsch" in the dictionary — the Grove Dictionary of Art — and you'll find that Los Angeles is mentioned.

"Straightforward printed reproductions of famous paintings are not in themselves kitsch, but objects that adapt high art images from one medium to another are paradigmatically kitsch, for instance plastic or fibreglass sculptural renderings of Dürer’s Study of Praying Hands, Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495–7; Milan, S Maria della Grazie) executed in tapestry, or stained glass, such as that at the Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Los Angeles…"

OK, the Forest Lawn Last Supper is as good an example of kitsch as you could ask for. It's the work of twentieth-century stained glass artisan Rosa Caselli Moretti (her surname ironically evocative of Giovanni Morelli, founder of connoisseurship). But no, Moretti's Last Supper isn't in Los Angeles. It's in Glendale. Same difference? Well it's hard to imagine the Grove saying the "Monuments of Passaic" are in New York.
Also in Glendale is Ernesto Gazzeri's unforgettably titled sculpture, The Mystery of Life, a Forest Lawn "original." To the art world, neither Gazzeri nor his sculpture are nearly so well known as Garry Winogrand's 1964 photograph of the marble group. The usual title of the Winogrand photo is Forest Lawn Cemetery, Los Angeles. There is unquestionably a treasure trove of kitsch in Los Angeles, and there's even another kitsch-packed branch of Forest Lawn within city limits (in Hollywood Hills)… but maybe it's time to give Glendale its due?

Friday, August 6, 2010

National Brotherhood Week

[The Museum of Tolerance promotes tolerance] "just as building health clubs promoted health."
—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Jerusalem branch of L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance, which is built on an ancient Muslim graveyard. Schwarzenegger spoke at the 2004 groundbreaking. Since then hundreds of skeletons have been exhumed from the site.