As Baltimore Sells, LACMA Adds a Julie Mehretu and Jacob Lawrence
|Julie Mehretu, Haka (and Riot), 2019. LACMA|
Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford presents diversity as a trolley problem: Either the museum must sell off some of its most expensive works, or abandon its goal of increasing representation of women and artists of color.
A couple of recent acquisitions at LACMA (where Bedford was once an assistant curator) demonstrate that the choice needn't be so stark. LACMA has been given a magisterial work by Julie Mehretu and has purchased its first important Jacob Lawrence. Deaccessioning played no role in the former and only a tangential one in the latter.
Mehretu's two-panel, 15-foot-wide ink and acrylic painting Haka (and Riot)—a coded abstraction of Trump-administration inhumanity—was a highlight of last year's Mehretu retrospective. It's a gift of Andy Song. Like many of Mehretu's recent works, Haka (and Riot) is grounded in digital manipulation of news photographs, in this case two images of U.S. detention camps. A haka is a Maori war dance.
Haka (and Riot) is currently at the High Museum, Atlanta, where the Mehretu exhibition runs through Jan. 31, 2021.
|Jacob Lawrence, Woman with Groceries, 1942. LACMA|
Jacob Lawrence was a gap in LACMA's collection of American art, which has few black artists prior to the 1960s (notwithstanding two paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner). The new work, Woman with Groceries (1942), is from a group of Lawrence's gouache-on-paper paintings of African-American life that includes the Metropolitan Museum's Pool Parlor and the Harlem Street Scene recently acquired for the Lucas Museum. The Harlem pictures were executed after the Migration and John Brown series and before Lawrence was drafted into the WWII Coast Guard. LACMA's only other work by Lawrence is a print.
Woman with Groceries is to debut in the Stephanie Barron/Frank Gehry installation of modern art planned for the top floor of BCAM, now slated for spring 2021. It will be accompanied by newly acquired works by Fred Eversley and Betye Saar.
Though the purchase of Woman with Groceries was completed last year, it took some heavy lifting. It's credited to a trust established by Julius Bernard Kester (1928-2018), himself an artist represented by textiles and ceramics in the museum's collection. Additional support came from the American Art Council, the Robert Halff Endowment Fund, and four other funds, of which the last listed is the American Art Deaccession Fund.
Is there any message for Baltimore, Brooklyn, Syracuse, and Palm Springs? Los Angeles has more wealth and collectors than these cities (borough). But LACMA competes with many other L.A. museums for philanthropic dollars and has no large, general-purpose acquisition fund. Like museums in smaller cities, LACMA is dependent on its curators' ability to talk wealthy supporters into making gifts that move the collection in the directions they think it should go. Gender and ethnic diversity is a key part of that, as demonstrated by recent Collectors Committee presentations.
|Julie Mehretu, untitled, 2012. Promised gift of Ann Colgin and Joe Wender|
Exhibitions like "Julie Mehretu" (co-organized with the Whitney) signal the organizing museums' commitment to the artist. At LACMA that led to the Collectors Committee buying a multi-panel print, Epigraph, Damascus, in advance of the show; the pledge of a small graphite and acrylic painting as a promised gift of Ann Colgin and Joe Wender; and the gift of Haka (and Riot).
One of the "rules" of deaccessioning, back when they had rules, was that the purchased works should generally be older than the works sold. Jacob Lawrence came to attention 80 years ago, with the Migration series. This makes it possible to evaluate his achievement from a historical perspective. Museums need to be cautious in using deaccession funds, and Lawrence is presumably a safer bet than more recent artists. The chance of buying or being given a Lawrence are declining; with contemporary artists there are more opportunities.
The LACMA Woman with Groceries is from Lawrence's crucial decade. One shopping bag's red-and-white stripes, next to the blue hat, is surely intended as an American flag, and the woman's embrace is ambivalent. It anticipates the conflicted flags of David Hammons and William Pope.L.
|William Pope.L, Trinket, 2015. Museum of Contemporary Art installation view|
|Haka (and Riot) as installed in last year's "Julie Mehretu" at LACMA|