Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Quote of the Day: Maurice Marciano

"You reverse the pyramid, it's the Guess triangle!"
—Maurice Marciano, in The New Yorker

Marciano connects the Guess logo to the all-seeing eye of Masonry, a triangular emblem that has obsessed conspiracy theorists for generations. Dana Goodyear's New Yorker article also quotes Susan Aberth, Bard art historian and curator of the Marciano Art Foundation's installation of Masonic objects. Aberth theorizes that the 1980s sexy jeans logo represents a pubic triangle: "I mean, how could it not?"

Monday, May 22, 2017

Huntington Buys George Tooker's "Bathers"

George Tooker, Bathers (Bathhouses), 1950. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
The Huntington's Art Collectors' Council has purchased two American paintings: George Tooker's Bathers (Bath Houses) (1950) and Albert Herter's Woman With a Fan (c. 1895). Bathers becomes the only Tooker in a West Coast museum.

George Tooker was a magic realist who admired the monumentality of Piero della Francesca and worked in tempera. He is associated with Paul Cadmus (Tooker's sometime boyfriend), Jared French, and Margaret French. This complicated menage summered in Fire Island, Provincetown, and Nantucket, swimming against the abstraction riptide of the New York school.

Tooker is the subtlest of this band of outliers. Bathers dates from the apex of his career, the same year as The Subway in the Whitney Museum. In these and a handful of other claustrophobic genre scenes, Tooker finds mid-century alienation as his medium and message. Life is an anxious beach.
Albert Herter, Woman With a Fan, c. 1895. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Painter Albert Herter is less known than the Herter Brothers, the Gilded Age furniture firm co-founded by his father, Christian Herter. Albert became a Beaux Arts painter, illustrator, and muralist (for the Los Angeles Public Library, among many other institutions). The profile of Woman With a Fan draws on quattrocento precedents.

A nameplate on the back of the Huntington painting identifies its subject as "Miss Maude Bouvier." That would be the grandmother of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis; also the mother/grandmother of "Big Edie"/"Little Edie" Bouvier, of Grey Gardens notoriety.
Albert Herter, The Bouvier Twins, 1926. Private collection
If the nameplate is accurate. It is not original to the painting, and the art market has a habit of faking celebrity IDs for unknown sitters. Herter spent time in the Hamptons near the Bouviers in the early 1890s. About 30 years after Woman With a Fan, Herter did a double portrait of twins Maude and Michelle Bouvier in flapper-era finery. I wouldn't say either sister looks a day older than the Woman With a Fan. But who knows? It's a society portrait.

Maude Bouvier would appear to be some relation to Marge Bouvier Simpson, whose husband and son feature in an animated sitcom's homage to George Tooker's The Subway.
The Huntington's American department has been on a roll lately. In the past year it has bought or been given major works by under-recognized modernists who have come to the forefront of smart attention: Charles Reiffel, Agnes Pelton, Henrietta Shore, Lee Mullican—and now Tooker.  

The Magnificent Bugattis

There were artistic Bugattis before the surname was a marque. The Petersen Automotive Museum's "The Art of Bugatti" presents the work of an artistic family that includes Art Nouveau designer Carlo Bugatti (above); son Ettore, who started the Bugatti car company; and grandson Jean, who designed the Art Deco curves of some of the world's most famous cars. The show also has works of lesser-known family members, such as Rembrandt Bugatti, a sculptor who had the best name this side of Elvis Costello.

With paintings, sculptures, furniture, and decorative arts—along with the cars—"The Art of Bugatti" will appeal to the art crowd as well as car enthusiasts. Most of the objects are from the Petersen or Oxnard's Mullin Automotive Museum, founded by Peter W. Mullin, chairman of the Petersen board. (Below, a 1939 Bugatti Type 57C, a French government wedding gift to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, future Shah of Iran.)

Trained as an architect, Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940) never got around to building an actual building. Instead he became the consummate Art Nouveau weirdo. His work is hardly ever seen in L.A. Below is a Moorish-influenced Side Table, c. 1890 shown with two Fringed Chairs from about a decade later. Carlo took fin de siècle in the direction of surrealism; his aesthetic is often compared to Gaudi's.

Carlo is less notable as a painter, but a portrait of his daughter-in-law, Barbara Bolzoni Bugatti, stands out for its alarming hairstyle and side-eyed menace.
Carlo's son Ettore (1881-1947) trained as an artist but became an engineer and entrepreneur, establishing the eponymous automobile firm in Moslheim, France. His son Jean (1909-1939) was the true automotive artist, designing many of the Bugatti models of the 1930s. Jean is responsible for the four bodies applied to the Type 57—Ventoux Stelvio, Atalante, and Atlantic. Below are specimens of the Ventoux (1935) and Atalante (1939).

Ettore's brother, Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), was a sculptor of animals in bronze. Rembrandt worked from life observation at the Antwerp Zoo. A statuette of a trumpeting elephants was reduced for the hood ornament of the Bugatti Royale. I don't see Rembrandt's work as anything more than charming, but interest in it spiked after a Bugatti Baboon sold for $2.6 million in 2006, a price that can only be described as apeshit-crazy. The Bugatti name must charm collectors who ought to know better, much as the Brueg(h)el name does for Pieter Jr.

Rembrandt volunteered as a paramedic in the first World War. Besides the medical horrors he witnessed directly, the Antwerp Zoo began slaughtering its animals for lack of food. Rembrandt killed himself at age 30, the year before the Armistice.

Jean also died at age 30. In 1939 he crashed a Type 57 race car into a tree at high speed. Though the Bugatti brand has survived to be celebrated in hip-hop, Jean's death put an end to the classic epoch of Bugatti automobiles.

That does not exhaust the corpus of talented Bugattis. Jean's sisters Lydia and L'Ebé were painters, and there are a few of Lydia's watercolors on view—mostly studies for hood ornaments. The family had connections to the post-impressionist painter Giovanni Segantini (Carlo's brother-in-law); the once-fashionable sculptor Paolo Troubetzkoy; and the canonical modernist Alberto Giacometti. None of the latter are in the Petersen show, but a gallery text aptly quotes Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto in praising the bad-boy beauty of the automobile.
Type 46 Cabriolet, 1930

Friday, May 19, 2017

Who Got the Better Basquiat?

One index of the fevered art market is that the untitled 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat that just sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby's is being described as the most expensive American artwork ever sold at auction. Though bigger prices have been paid privately, Basquiat's auction record tops Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and, uh, Norman Rockwell. Another distinction: Basquiat was 22 the year he painted it. "My kid could do that?" Someone's kid did do that.

This raises the question of how the auctioned painting (bought by Yusaku Maezawa) compares to another large Basquiat skull painting in the Broad collection (below). The Broad painting is somewhat larger and a year earlier (1981). It's known that the artist worked on it for months in anticipation of his first gallery show. The Broad painting is considered to be the archetype of later skulls, which were often executed in a few days. Of course fast isn't bad for an artist whose work is about spontaneity.

Fast also means that Basquiat did quite a few paintings with a skull or mask-like head as the main motif. They're not in museums, as the Basquiat market has levitated far beyond the range of acquisition budgets. That means that further skulls will inevitably come to market.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

(Almost) All Is Vanity

Inside Philanthropy has a piece on vanity museums by Mike Scutari. One statistic jumps out: "80 percent of all single-family museums were created in the 21st century."

This undercuts the often-made claim that our gilded age is not so fundamentally different from the one that gave rise to the Gardner, Frick, and Huntington. There are a lot more vanity museums being created now, and that has consequences for how art is displayed and experienced.

(Shown, Roy Lichtenstein's Mirror #1, 1969, at the Broad.)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Apocalypse Then

The Getty's "Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe" is billed as the first exhibition to present familiar view painters in the less familiar guise as interpreters of newsworthy events. The painters are Canaletto, Guardi, Panini, and company, and they record courtly spectacle and populist celebration. The show ends with a half-dozen paintings of fire, war, and eruptions socioeconomic and volcanic. With the exception of Pierre-Jacques Volaire (known for Mount Vesuvius souvenirs), these works are somewhat atypical for the artists.  

Two Hubert Robert paintings document the 1781 burning of the Opera House of the Palais-Royal. At top is a morning after view from the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Elegant rubberneckers have turned the disaster into a Snapchat op. The lollipop trees, not palms, evoke the many artistic burnings of Los Angeles. A much larger night view from Houston (below) demonstrates how freely Rococo and sublime aesthetics mixed. 
At the exhibition's entrance is Francesco Guardi's late Fire at San Marcuolo, c. 1789-90. An oil spill set the Venetian canals ablaze, a uniquely terrifying calamity in a city of water. Guardi's flames, not immediately recognizable as such, take on the appearance of a supernatural event.
Prussian cannonballs pummeled Dresden's Church of the Holy Cross in the Seven Years' War. Baroque and Neoclassical architects debated how to restore it as the building crumbled. A large section collapsed in 1765, leading to the demolition captured by in Bernardo Bellotto's Demolition of the Ruins of the Kreuzkirche. Its fractal messiness one-ups Canaletto's Stonemason's Yard of 40 years earlier. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Frank Romero at MOLAA

This is the year that dos of Los Four get serious museum treatment. "Dreamland: A Frank Romero Retrospective" is at the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, through May 21. A Carlos Almaraz show comes to LACMA in August. "Dreamland" is the first Chicano exhibition for MOLAA, which previously restricted itself to artists working south of the Rio Grande. With 200 works "Dreamland" is crazy-big. It spans paintings (mural-size agitprop to modest-size still life), drawings, and neon sculptures. A more tightly edited show, like maybe a third the size, could have championed Romero better. But "Dreamland" underscores how multifarious Romero's art is. I left marveling at three dog portraits, all weirdly effective riffs on expressionism, outsiderism, and (Lucian) Freudianism. (At top, Pablo, c. 2001.)
Romero is best known for candy-hued, politically charged history paintings. Most of the key ones have been assembled here. Above is The Arrest of the Paleteros (1996), from the Cheech Marin collection. Below is a blazing cake for Rodney King's 25th anniversary, L.A. on Fire (c. 1992).
L.A. artists from Lundeberg to Kuntz to Opie have adopted freeways as found abstractions. Almaraz painted freeways too, as sites of self-immolation in the big, random city. Romero has churned out cartoony view paintings of freeway-girt L.A. City Hall and Disney Hall; but his best freeway paintings are subtler. Harbor Freeway (2010) finds grace in an ugly duckling of civil engineering. Freeway Blue on Blue (c. 2008) and Freeway Pink & Red (2007) are part of a series of drone's-eye hard-edge abstractions.