Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An American Gift for the Huntington

The Oct. 2016 opening of the Huntington's Jonathan and Karin Fielding Wing led to speculation about whether the Early American objects it displayed, all on long-term loan, would eventually enter the Huntington's permanent collection. It appears that many already have. Gallery labels now identify a sizable fraction of the works as gifts of the Fieldings. Though there has been no official announcement, the Huntington collection website lists 153 Fielding gifts, with 2016 accession numbers. That would make it the most important gift of American art to the Huntington since the 50 paintings donated by the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation in 1979.

Though the donated works are just part of the Fielding collection, they constitute a capsule survey of the Americana often seen in East Coast museums, but not otherwise on the West Coast. Gifts include the 19th-century Girl with Flowers (top) by an unknown artist; the metal objects comprising the theatrical wall installation in the Fielding Wing's lobby; two quintessential Ammi Phillips portraits of members of the Van Keuren family; plus quilts, scrimshaw, boxes, baskets, chairs, jugs, glassware, pewter, and top hats.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Google App Finds Celebrities' Art History Avatars

Louie Anderson (as Christine Baskets) and Elif Pettersen's Portrait of Eivind Hagale (1870)
The Internet's new toy is the Google Arts & Culture app, specifically a feature that searches the world's museums for the user's doppelganger. Download the app, snap a selfie, and Google does the rest. Kumail Najiani posted this one on Twitter:

It doesn't have to be a selfie. The app also works with celebrity photos taken off a laptop or desktop screen. It usually isn't fazed by glasses, facial hair, headgear, cropping, gender fluidity, or mugging for the camera.
Donald Trump and Joseph Ducreux's 1783 Self Portrait, Yawning (at the Getty Museum)
Oprah Winfrey and Winslow Homer's Under a Palm Tree (1886)
Results vary. Google matched a photo of Oprah Winfrey to various portraits of black women, none looking especially like Oprah. It seems all black women look alike, in beta-release. My guess is that, with fewer women of color in the Google Arts & Culture dataset, the chance of finding a close match is less. (Should anyone want to do a piece on the many Google faces of Oprah, be my guest.)
Other Google avatars of Oprah: Ernest Crichlow's Woman in a Blue Coat (1948) and Evelyn Joyce McCrea's Isidanga (c. 1935-36)
More matches, white-male department:
Harvey Weinstein and Max Liebermann's Portrait of Alfred von Berger (1905)
Bernie Sanders and Barend Lenardus Hendriks' Portrait of Rudolph Anne Jan Wilt Baron Sloet van de Beele (1861-1886)
Steve Bannon and the woman with glasses in Murillo's Four Figures on a Step (c. 1655-60)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Museums Want to Be Free. Why Isn't It Happening?

There's not much debate about whether museums should be free. Just about everybody's for that. The only ones who hedge are some museum directors (who know how hard it is to raise funds). Witness Hyperallergic's interview with Met CEO Daniel H. Weiss. Hrag Vartanian asked Weiss whether he thought museums should be free. Weiss waffled so much that Vartanian asked the same question again—and still didn't get a straight answer.

The real answer to Vartanian's question is simple enough. Wealthy museum supporters aren't all that into free admission. Sure, they're for it in theory. The theory is that someone else pays for it. They'd prefer their own funds go to something more tangible, like new buildings, wings, acquisitions, or exhibitions.

But someone has to pay for boring necessities like light bills and cleaning toilets. In the past, that someone might have been a local government or income from an unrestricted endowment. But as museums have expanded, so have the bills. Visitors are being asked to make up the shortfall though rising admissions.
Could museum directors use their persuasive skills to talk donors into funding free admission? They could. But those same directors also tend to be focused on buildings, acquisitions, and exhibitions.

LACMA counted 1.6 million visitors in 2016. It says about half get in for free (this is includes school field trips, free hours after 3 on weekdays, and members). If the paid admission averages $10 per visitor, then it would cost something like $16 million a year to offer free admission across the board. It would take a $400 million endowment to throw off that income stream. That's as much as a starchitect building. It's not that that kind of money isn't out there. But those who have it, and are willing to donate it, want to say exactly how the money is spent.

New single-collector museums like the Broad or Crystal Bridges tend to be free. That's because the founders know that no one else is going to pay a new vanity museum's bills. Over time, single-collector museums require the support of a board, and they often institute admission charges. Henry Huntington intended his museum to be free, and it was for a long time. Now it's $29 on weekends, blasting through the $25 barrier set by the Met, MoMA, and Art Institute of Chicago.

Is there a path forward for making public museums free? I can see two. One is persistence (the Guerrilla Girls approach). If enough  people who believe in free admission speak up and keep doing it year after year, funders will get the message. Ultimately all it takes is convincing one billionaire per city. Or maybe we don't need 0.1 percenters so much as 20 percenters. There could be a special level of membership that contributes a little extra towards a fund for expanding free admission hours.

That bring us to Plan B: The incremental approach. Most civic museums have free times but they're usually not convenient to anyone working a 9-to-5 job. What's needed are free hours every weekend. Funders might be persuaded to offer free entry before noon on Saturday, say. This would presumably cost much less than going totally free. But it would make a big difference to anyone who finds the admission charge a reason to not visit.

(Shown, Augustus Saint Gaudens' Victory Gold Piece, whose nominal $20 value equals LACMA's current general admission for county residents; Barbara Kruger's Untitled [It's a small world].)

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Barbed Wire Muse of Allen Hendershott Eaton

The Japanese American National Museum is showing the Eaton collection of internment art, acquired in 2015 after social-media activists protested an impending auction. "Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection" is shoehorned into a library space with less than optimal lighting. (JANM's exhibition galleries are occupied with its sprawling PST LA/LA show, "Transpacific Borderlands.") But "Contested Histories" offers a near-comprehensive introduction to a collection that bolsters JANM's scholarly heft. The display runs through Apr. 8, 2018, and is to tour nationally.
Who was Allen Hendershott Eaton? Born in Oregon, Eaton (1878–1962) was an enthusiast of American crafts and folk art. He lived at a time when collectors, galleries, museums, and artists gained appreciation for the work of self-taught rural artists. Viewed through art history's rear-view mirror, "folk art" looked modern indeed.

By the second World War, distinctions between folk art and historical artifact were fluid. Duchamp declared a urinal to be art—the folk art crowd staked out quilts and duck decoys. There was commercial and intellectual pressure to identify and present new types of objects as art. Most of what was called folk art had been made in the Northeast, within a stone's throw of the summer homes of antiquing Yankees.

In his writings, Eaton liked to quote William Morris: "Art is the Expression of Man's Joy in Work." The flip side of that is the Auschwitz motto: "Work Sets You Free." It was in America's concentration camps that Eaton struck gold.
Roosevelt's 1942 order sent over 110,000 Japanese-Americans to hastily constructed camps that often had no furniture aside from metal bed frames. Internees began constructing chairs from such wood as they could find. A chair in the Eaton collection is poised between Shaker plainness and Nakashima truth to materials.
Barracks were cookie-cutter indistinguishable, like a nightmare premonition of postwar suburbia. Homemade signs distinguished one residence from another. 

The internment camps were in the Far West and Arkansas, mostly terra incognito for folk art as it was then understood. In summer 1945 Eaton visited five camps, sending assistants to another four. He found that internees had created not only practical goods but paintings, sculptures, photographs, jewelry, and bric-a-brack. (Particularly "folksy" are tiny bouquets made from shells.) Eaton wrote that he tried to buy artworks for an intended show, but the internees mostly gave him the works for free.
Eaton's exhibition never happened (before now, that is). It did result in a 1952 book, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire. Eaton's collection was eventually inherited by his daughter and then by a friend of hers. This unidentified owner arranged to auction the items at New Jersey's Rago Art and Auction Center in April 2015. A New York Times article alerted Yoshinori Himel of Sacramento, who recognized a photograph of his mother among the auction lots. Himel started a Facebook page to prevent the collection's dispersal. Actor and social net celeb George Takai launched a campaign to acquire the Eaton collection for JANM and assisted in the negotiations. JANM bought the 450--piece collection in a private deal.
"Contested Histories" is showing most of the major objects except for photographs. You can view the whole collection via hi-res photos on JANM's Flickr. In many cases makers and histories are unknown. The museum is asking viewers to supply information on any objects they recognize.
"Lil' Neebo" was a cartoon character of an interned boy, featured in the Granada camp (Colorado) newspaper and in puppet shows. He was created by Chris Ishii, a Chouinard-trained Disney animator who later directed the Snow White sequence in Annie Hall. (Another toon fact: Iwao Takamoto, also an interned Disney animator, later went on to draw Scooby-Doo.)

A large set of watercolors are split between post-card size views of the dark side of the American Scene, and larger ink paintings of bamboo, fish, and calligraphy owing nothing to America and the modern century it rode in on.
Possibly the best-known genre of internment art is bird pins, a specialty of Arizona's two camps. They must have delighted Eaton as jewel-sized counterparts to East Coast duck decoys. (Compare also the Eameses' House Bird, c. 1910 Appalachia.) The bird pins were carved and painted after illustrations in National Geographic magazine. The feet were wire, made from unraveled window screens. One pin, of an American eagle, hints at how conflicted loyalties were.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

When Op Went Plastic

We think of plastic as a quintessential medium for L.A. modernists, but interest in space-age polymers was global. A 1966 exhibition at Argentina's National Museum of Fine Arts, "Plastica con plasticos," raised awareness of new materials among South American artists. LACMA has acquired a remarkable example, an untitled acrylic sculpture (1974) by Argentinian artist Rogelio Polesello (1939–2014), mainly known as an exponent of Op Art. It's a three-panel slab with embedded fish-eye lenses. In these photos the lenses distort a Fanny Sanin painting, also in a thoroughly modern medium, Acrylic No. 13, 1970.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2018: MOCA's Year of the Woman?

"Laura Owens," now at the Whitney, will be coming to MOCA's Geffen Contemporary (Nov. 4, 2018—Mar. 25, 2019). It will run simultaneously with the MOCA-organized "Zoe Leonard: Survey," the artist's first major museum exhibition. Shown, Owens' Untitled, 2014.

2018 is shaping up to be MOCA's year of the woman. Also planned is a building-wrap mural by Njideka Akunyili Crosby and an installation by Lauren Halsey. Counting the installations and the Anna Maria Maiolino show now running (through Jan. 22, 2018), MOCA will have five single-artist exhibitions of women in 2018. That equals 2015's total of four big NY museums, in the Guerrilla Girls' accounting.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Cold War on Christmas

LACM on Fire posting will be infrequent through the New Year. Holiday greetings from the Soviet space dogs!

The Wende Museum's "Cold War Spaces" includes excerpts from Günter Rätz's stop-action animation, Sharp Left Behind the Moon (East German, 1959). It predates the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Art Clokey's Davey and Goliath (1961–). God sends Santa Claus to Earth to investigate a puzzling trend: all the kids want Sputniks. Not until South Park did mainstream American TV show a cartoon Judeo-Christian God. In Ratz's film, cutting-edge science beats old-time religion. It was created for the Young Pioneers, a Communist youth organization for children 6 to 14.