Sunday, January 15, 2017

Getty to Show Torlonia Antiquities?

The New York Post is reporting that antiquities dealer Phoenix Ancient Art is suing the Getty Museum for $77 million over an Italian government deal involving the long-unseen Torlonia collection of Roman art. Says the Post,

"The Torlonias were reluctant to cave to the Italian government’s efforts to make the art public, until recently, according to a lawsuit.
"Swiss-based Phoenix Ancient Art and its New York agent, Electrum, says it spent five years painstakingly cataloging 620 Torlonia artifacts worth up to $550 million, just a portion of the larger collection.
"Phoenix invested years building relationships with the aristocratic family and the Italian government to pave the way for a once-in-a-lifetime sale of the works. It quietly lined up the famed J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles as a potential buyer.
"But museum director Timothy Potts pulled a double-cross, Phoenix claims in a $77 million lawsuit against the Getty, dealing directly with Torlonia and cutting Phoenix out of the deal."

Background: It was widely reported last March that the Torlonia family had come to an agreement with the Italian government to show the collection in Rome, tour it to American and European museums, and ultimately house it in a Roman museum. The initial exhibition, of about 60 to 90 pieces from a collection of over 2000, is to be curated by Salvatore Settis, formerly director of the Getty Research Institute. It wouldn't be surprising if the Getty Museum were a venue.

What would be surprising is if the Italian government is allowing some Torlonia works to be sold to the Getty, as the Post story asserts. It reports that Phoenix "claims it helped smooth over the frayed relationship between the Getty and the Italian government." That's a eyebrow-raiser itself, as Phoenix, run by Lebanese-born brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, has been accused of violating patrimony laws

Another twist is that Italy's billionaire prime minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to buy the Torlonia collection a while back, to donate it to the state. Nothing came of that. 

Not in doubt is that the Torlonia trove is legendary and hasn't been seen by the public since the family closed its private museum in the 1960s. (At top, a bust of the Emperor Galba. Below a photo of the Torlonia private museum.)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

More Thoughts on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

Norman Rockwell, "The Checkup," c. 1957. George Lucas collection
George Lucas has chosen L.A.'s Exposition Park as the site of his planned Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Why L.A.? My surmise, very wrong as it turned out, was that Lucas would side with the perception of San Francisco as classy and L.A. as crass. ("Isn't it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?" —Herb Caen.)
It appears that Mayor Eric Garcetti's arguments resonated. In L.A. the Lucas museum is likely to draw more visitors and more diverse visitors. It will inspire more filmmakers and artists. It will be close to great universities and museums. The Exposition Park site is on the Expo line, near the city's core, while the San Francisco site is on Treasure Island, tricky to access.
Who knew? L.A. beat S.F. on public transit, urban authenticity, and intellectual credibility.
George Herriman, "Krazy Kat" (1933)
Global Warming. Alternate theory: Lucas fretted that melting icecaps might threaten the Treasure Island site. "They want to be sure the building will withstand sea-level rise," the ironically named Adam Van De Water, City Project Manager, told KCBS News.
N.C. Wyeth, "The Duel on the Beach" (1926), an illustration to Treasure Island
Winners: Exposition Park Museums. The Lucas will draw global crowds and media to Exposition Park. That's a likely win for the park's other museums, which complement rather than compete with the Lucas. It should boost attendance at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the California Science Center, and the California African American Museum.
Cel of "Dumbo with the Magic Feather," Disney c. 1941
Does L.A. Need Two Big Movie Museums? The Lucas isn't a movie museum exactly but it will be on the Star Wars pilgrimage. It will compete, loosely, with the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The latter is to open about 2018; the Lucas maybe 2021.
L.A. has long drawn visitors who want to experience "Hollywood." They learn that actual Hollywood is disappointing and celebrity-free aside from costumed grifters demanding cash for selfies. Both new museums promise to be fun and informative and worthwhile. There ought to be plenty of visitors for both.
Rendering of Ma Yansong's Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Exposition Park
The Building. It's tough to say whether to take the Ma Yansong renderings seriously or literally. Either way it ought to be the most interesting structure in the Park. Yes, there's Frank Gehry's aerospace museum, but that's now a derelict. The Lucas budget will be vastly more that Gehry had, and the building will be big, comparable to the Academy museum, with about 270,000 square feet of interior space and 100,000 sq. ft. of exhibition galleries. It will be bigger than the de Young or the Uffizi.
Arthur Rackham, "Badger's Winter Stories"
Norman Rockwell. Christopher Knight calls the Lucas the Treacle Museum. A subset of the collection meets that description, above all Norman Rockwell. Lucas has paid stupendous sums at auction for Rockwell paintings (sometimes competing against Steven Spielberg). It was he who paid an incredible $46 million for Saying Grace (1951).
Rockwell-as-artist has defenders. I'm not one of them. I do think it's good for institutions to preserve Rockwell's work as a social document, alongside works by his peers.
But with Lucas paying Rembrandt money for Rockwells, it's a safe bet the Rockwells will be on permanent and reverential view, like the Rembrandts at the Getty.
Norman Rockwell, "Saying Grace" (1951)
Degas, Homer, Renoir, Not So Much. Lucas is getting his money's worth out of these three artists, as they're mentioned in a large share of the written-from-press release coverage of the museum. It's apt to leave the impression that Lucas collects a lot of so-called fine art as well as the narrative kind. But the website lists exactly one work by each of the three aforementioned artists. The Degas and Homer are watercolors (and can't be on permanent display). The Renoir is a painting and nothing special. Given that the collection is said to have 10,000 paintings and works on paper, and 30,000 items of film memorabilia, some of it the best of its kind, three minor works by Degas, Homer, and Renoir hardly rate mention.

Winslow Homer, "Four Leaf Clover" (c. 1878)
Will the Lucas Kill L.A.'s Smart Vibe? At long last the city, its artists, and its museums are being taken seriously. Within a few years the openings of the Academy Museum and the Lucas will shift the conversation back to L.A. as Tinsel Town. (Darth Vader's helmet! The ruby slippers!) Just an observation.
Character make-up for "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," 2000
The $$$. Lucas has said his museum will have a $400 million endowment. That's huge. It's twice what Eli Broad has promised, and more than any other Los Angeles museum aside from the Getty. The sort of art that the Broad and the Getty acquire is expensive. Norman Rockwell aside, most of the works the Lucas collects are considerably cheaper. This implies a museum with the resources to redefine itself after its founder's time. It will have considerable power to exhibit and acquire whatever its curators decide.
Charles Shultz, "Peanuts" comic strip (1953, detail)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Preview: The George Lucas Collection

George Lucas has chosen Los Angeles over San Francisco as the site of his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. (I called this one about as well as I called the election.) Herewith a repost of an October 21, 2014 article assessing the Lucas collection.
“Did you hear about the George Lucas collection? Everyone who knows the slightest thing about art says it’s JUNK!”
That chatter was the backdrop to Lucas’ search for a home for his planned museum of narrative art. After San Francisco rejected an initial building proposal, the leaders of Los Angeles and Chicago began lobbying for it. Mayor Eric Garcetti had a hashtag (#WhyLucasInLA). The local art community was less enthusiastic, feeling that L.A. needed another pop culture attraction like Las Vegas needed another hooker (to paraphrase Dave Hickey). But no one knew much about the collection beyond from the fact that Lucas collected Norman Rockwell and intended to juxtapose magazine illustrators with today’s CGI and prop movie magicians. (Above, Rockwell’s The Gossips [1948], auctioned last December for $8.5 million. The anonymous buyer was George Lucas, it turns out.)
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art ultimately chose Chicago [update: Los Angeles] as its future home. It now has a new website with much information on the collection. Based on that, I’d say the skepticism was misplaced.
Let me begin by saying that the three things I can’t stand are (a) intolerance, (b) Norman Rockwell, and (c) Star Wars. I’m not the Lucas museum’s target audience.
Sure, there are numerous works by Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, and N.C. Wyeth; Gibson Girls and Vargas Girls. There is also Kelley Freas. Above is a Freas painting made for a 1960 cover of Mad magazine. Free of text, it becomes something else again. Imagine (if you need to imagine) that you know nothing of Mad or Alfred E. Newman. How many outsiders or thrift shop artists can rival Freas? That’s a good way of appreciating the Lucas collection: vernacular art, only better. And if you like that sort of thing, there’s plenty more where it came from, most by artists few have heard of. (Below, illustrations by Richard Sargent and Norman Saunders.)
One of the more interesting artists is Walter Tandy Murch, a steampunk Chardin who specialized in still-lifes of obsolete machines. Canadian-born, Murch studied under Arshile Gorky and had a show at Betty Parsons’ New York Gallery in 1941. His works appeared on the covers of Scientific American and Fortune magazines. Below is The Clock. Murch was the father of sound editor Walter Murch, who worked on several Lucas films.
The Lucas is also collecting comic strip and comic book art, an area generally underserved by museums. The LMNA website has a broad and smart sampling, from Al Capp to Robert Crumb; Walt Kelly (bottom of post), Charles Schultz, Winsor McCay, Basil Wolverton, and David Levine. The quality is first-rate—though it’s impossible to judge the quantity from a selection on a website.
There is also a trove of children’s book art (John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Beatrix Potter) of a quality worthy of the Morgan library’s collection.
The anchor of the film collection is material from Lucas’ own movies and the Industrial Light & Magic effects firm. Going by the website, however, it lags when it comes to the history of non-Lucas cinema. There are Cinema 101 stills and animation cels (Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, Battleship Potemkin, Oswald the Rabbit, Citizen Kane), but these are not all that hard to come by on a high-end fanboy budget. One of the prizes, outside the Star Wars franchise, is Syd Mead’s gouache sketches for Blade Runner.
There’s also a fair of amount of so-called fine art: painting, sculpture, photography, and architecture from the 19th century to just about now. But that’s where the mission gets confused.
The roster of big names is eclectic to say the least: an Ingres wash drawing of Napoleon; watercolors by Winslow Homer and Degas; paintings by Renoir, Frederic Remington, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Thomas Hart Benton, and Guy Pene Du Bois; photos by Bernice Abbott, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith, and Alfred Steiglitz; documentation of the architecture of Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas; Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roxy Paine, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Above is the Renoir, Les Enfants au Bord de la Mer (c. 1894), no better than something Armand Hammer would have bought. Is it “narrative”? Obviously narrative art covers a lot of territory, and almost anything this side of a Judd might qualify. What’s missing is a sense of why these artists and works have been collected and not others.
That paradox multiplies with the collection of “digital art.” The thesis must be that movie CGI deserves to be shown next to every other kind of art made digitally. But the latter embraces an ever-expanding share of contemporary art, from David Hockney‘s iPad drawings (shown, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011-5 May) to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 3D-printed Mathematical Model 009, Surface of Revolution With Constant Negative Curvature (2006).
The Lucas collection doesn’t need “serious” art to lend legitimacy. Judging from the website, it has already carved out an important and counter-intuitive mission: to champion the many phases of our visual culture that art museums ignore.

Monday, January 9, 2017

California Luminism

California's brand of Impressionism gets too much attention. No so West Coast versions of Luminism, the mid-19th-century movement exemplified by Fitz Henry Lane's and Martin Johnson Heade's hazy, light-filled, weirdly calm seascapes. The Pasadena Museum of California Art's "In the Land of Sunshine: Imaging the California Coast Culture" is showing a notable Luminist-inspired painting, Raymond Dabb Yelland's Golden Gate from Angels Island (1884). The Golden Gate Bridge would one day be built just about where the sailboat is.
British-born Yelland (1848-1900) studied in New York, did the Paris bit, and then spent most of his career in San Francisco. He was born 44 years after Lane, though he died young, eight years before the last of the major Luminists, Alfred Thomas Bricher. Works such as Golden Gate from Angels Island were about a generation behind the curve of East Coast developments. California's "Impressionists" are 40- to 100-years-and-counting late to the party.
Speaking of that, Yelland did paintings of nearly this same view at different times of day, paralleling Monet's Haystacks and Poplars of the 1880s. In that sense Yelland is the true California Impressionist.
"In the Land of Sunshine" is a mixed bag, sometimes provocatively so. Its title comes from Charles Lummis' booster magazine. Commercial illustration plays a strong role, with works spanning the Auto Club Westways school, Disney imagineering, and surfer-dude psychedelia. But Yelland's painting, installed near the entrance, invites reflection on a Luminist counterpoint to the state's cloudless blue skies. Several Phil Dike paintings of Newport Beach, of all places, are studies of sublime light effects. Best are the smoggy-creepy Quiet Beach and The Pink House (shown). The sun may be a moon—a painted counterpart to cinematography's "day for night."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Fate of Lucas Museum Still Up in the Air

For the second time this month, George Lucas has delayed announcement of which city will be the site of the planned Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. It's now said the announcement may not come until the end of January (shown, a Kelly Freas Mad magazine cover painting from the Lucas Collection).

The delay is puzzling—to me at least—because I never believed L.A. was seriously in the running. Lucas could have established his museum anywhere. He chose San Francisco (in 2013). When that ran into roadblocks, his second choice was Chicago (2014). That fell apart too. Then in 2016 Lucas announced he was considering San Francisco and Los Angeles. Obvious-to-me inference: Lucas was using L.A. as a bluff, a way to warn San Franciscans that this time they'd better approve his plans without any grief. Eli Broad did much the same thing with his museum, negotiating with Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City, and Los Angeles.

Lucas had architect Ma Yansong produce renderings for the museum in San Francisco's Treasure Island and L.A.'s Exposition Park. Hey, a bluff has to be credible.
Ma Yansong rendering of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles
San Francisco leadership promptly embraced the new Lucas plans. San Francisco was the No. 1 choice all along—whereas Los Angeles couldn't rank higher than third place in Lucas' estimation. The choice ought to have been a no-brainer.

My reading isn't the media's. In the past week publications from Bloomberg to Los Angeles Magazine to Los Angeles Sentinel have run pieces on the supposedly intense competition between SF and LA for the museum. Most writers seem to take it as a given that Lucas is still deciding which city he wants.

What does the delay mean? I still don't think it means L.A. has much of a shot at being chosen. My best guess is that the Lucas people are still nailing down a very complex deal with San Francisco. They figure they can use the leverage of a plan B a little while longer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ten Years of Japanese Acquisitions at LACMA

LACMA's Japanese Art Acquisition Group is the rock star of Asian art councils. Perhaps no other U.S. museum support group has written checks for such transformative objects in such a short time. The decade-old group is responsible for the Maruyama Okyo Cranes screens (gifted by Camilla Chandler Frost in 2011) and the Soga Shohaku Oxen and Shepherds added in 2016 (by JAAG and the museum's Collectors Committee). Both are in the current exhibition, "Japanese Art at LACMA: Celebrating 10 Years of the Japanese Art Acquisitions Group." Here I'll mention just a few more recent purchases making their debut.
Start with a 4-1/2-in. high Dakiniten (c. 1300, top of post), a gift of Laurie and Bill Benenson. The diminutive sculpture shows Dakiniten riding a Shinto fox-god, curved like a carousel animal. Unusually she has wings—an angel she's not. Dakiniten is known for eating the hearts of those who fail to worship her.
Scroll paintings feature flora and fauna, notably an Ito Jakuchu Turnip (detail below) in shades of watery soft gray. It brings to mind the artist's Vegetable Nirvana in Kyoto, which finds Buddha-nature in a radish.

There's a cartoonish Tani Buncho Tiger Family and Magpies (1807); a Fireflies at River's Edge by Shiokawa Burnrin, who specialized in nocturnes with fireworks or luminescent insects; and an early 20th century Wild Boar in the Snow by Konoshima Okoku.
Suzuki Mutsumi's red lacquer Flower Vessel (2005) is a gift of Arthur and Fran Sherwood. Conceding its inability to hold water, it comes with a puddle of black lacquer—or is it a tar pit, or a Zumthor blob?


LACMA Lands a Japanese Treasure
A Cross-Culture Box of Secrets

Monday, January 2, 2017

Marciano Art Foundation: Preview

"I think this will become one of the most important spaces for contemporary art in the whole country." That was Jeffrey Deitch's prediction for the newly minted Marciano Art Foundation, in 2013. You're welcome to make your own forecast. We're told the foundation, home to the art collection of Guess stone-washed jeans magnates Paul and Maurice Marciano, will open "Spring 2017." That's as little as three months from now, though no exact date has been announced. The Marciano collection is almost as mysterious as its creepy-kooky Masonic temple building. Eli Broad's collection was reasonably well-known when his museum opened, having been shown in other local and national institutions. Not so the Marciano.
• Museum or Not? Everyone's calling it a museum now. Initially there was talk of the Foundation being open only by appointment and on a limited basis. Now they're saying it will have free admission and curated temporary shows and installations of the Marciano collection. So far unsaid is whether you'll need or want reservations. My guess is that, given the Broad example, they will open with reserved time slots and a stand-by line, and see how it goes from there.

• Bigger Than the Broad. As reconfigured by wHY Architecture the interior will have about 65,000 square feet of exhibition space. That's 30 percent bigger than the Broad (50,000 sq. ft.) and over double that of Grand Ave. MOCA (28,000 sq. ft.)

• "Does This Top Art City Really Need Another Art Museum?" Mike Scutari posed that question in Inside Philanthropy. Most features on the Marciano echo it.
If the question is, does L.A. have enough people interested in contemporary art to draw big crowds to the Marciano, the answer is yes. Absolutely.
If the question is, are there better ways for the Marcianos to support art in Los Angeles… well, that's a more complicated question.
Maurice, the talkative Marciano brother, recently told The Wall Street Journal: "We don't need another MOCA or Broad or Hammer Museum. It has to be different, or why do it?" Fair enough. The WSJ piece didn't say how it would be different.

• The Collection. According to Marciano Foundation director Jaime G. MannĂ©, 90 percent of the collection has been assembled in the past 7 years. It's said to be 1500 works. That's about the size of the Broad collection exclusive of the Beuys multiples. But the Broad spans 60-plus years of recent-ish art history. It sounds like the Marciano collection is much more focused on the past decade. That's intriguing and could stake a claim as a museum of the right now.
Is the collection any good? I've not seen it. For what it's worth, Alex Israel figures in the founding story. He alerted the Marcianos to the Masonic building being on the market. Israel is one of the artists collected in depth, and he is creating a mural for the Foundation's interior.
Recent articles report that the Foundation has 17 Albert Oehlens; it collects Carrol Dunham, Kaari Upon, Doug Aitken, Rudolf Stingel, Wade Guyon, Sterling Ruby, and Thomas Houseago. There will be a Houseago in a sculpture garden.
It was/is kvetched that the Broad is a random core sample of art-fair sensibility, with no inner conviction. I'll make this one prediction sight-unseen: Expect to hear the same about the Marciano.
• Catalog. There will be a catalog for the Philipp Kaiser-curated inaugural installation, "Unpacking: The Marciano Collection." That implies a seriousness of purpose, or at least a seriousness of vanity. The Marciano will also open with a monographic show that sounds promising and overdue for L.A.: "Jim Shaw: The Wig Museum."

• Masonic Mystery! "Imagine—a room just for wigs," marveled Maurice. Wilshire's Masonic Temple had just that, and it's one way the Marciano will be unlike any other contemporary art museum.
Mozart and George Washington were Freemasons, members of a white men's club with confabulated historical roots. The Masons still exist, and are more inclusive than they once were, though membership seems to be in a death spiral. The 1961 Wilshire Temple was one of the last grand expressions of the club's relevance. The Masons are known for elaborate initiation ceremonies, and the Wilshire Temple drew on Hollywood expertise for wigs, costumes, and painted backdrops.

• Millard Sheets!!! The loved/hated/deprecated American Scene painter Millard Sheets is remembered for his Home Savings and Loan decorations, Vincent Price's disses ("those banks are really the pits"), and Notre Dame's so-called Touchdown Jesus. That's a mosaic executed in an art-deco-precisionist mode (in 1964) and visible ever since in telecasts of Notre Dame football games. The Savior's arms resemble a referee's, ruling in favor of the Fighting Irish.
Sheets designed the Wilshire temple's sculptures and murals. The exterior mosaics are a few years earlier than "Touchdown Jesus."

Sheets murals, never seen by non-Masonic eyes, are in the building's interior. The Marcianos have preserved them, and they are being restored under the direction of  Sheets' son. Whatever else it is, the opening of the Marciano Art Foundation will be a boon for Millard Sheets scholars. So there's that.