Prices Sell Japanese Paintings Coveted by LACMA

Ito Jakuchu (?), Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants (one of two six-fold screens)
Joe and Etsuko Price have sold 190 Edo-period Japanese paintings to the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo. They are not the works promised to LACMA, but they do include at least some paintings long on loan to the museum, such as a unique and famous pair of screens, Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants attributed to Ito Jakuchu. Also in the sale are paintings by Maruyama Okyo, Sakai Hoitsu, and Suzuki Kiitsu.

The backstory: In 1980 the Prices donated $5 million towards construction of the Bruce Goff-designed Japanese Pavilion and pledged their collection of approximately 160 Edo-period paintings as future gifts to LACMA. A promised gift is not necessarily binding, but reportage indicated that this agreement was formalized in a contract. The Prices retained a life estate in the collection, and (as they continued to collect actively) their post-1980 acquisitions were excluded from the intended gift. At its 1988 opening, the Japanese Pavilion showed rotations of works from the Price collection, with no distinction between promised and not-promised works (naturally it was hoped that the entire collection might one day come to the museum). LACMA published a book on the Price collection, Masterpieces from the Shin'enkan Collection: Japanese Painting from the Edo Period. The Jakuchu Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants, which the Prices purchased in 1985, was featured on the cover.

Within a few years the Prices had a falling out with LACMA. Joe Price felt that the paintings needed brighter light than LACMA's conservation-minded curators supplied. He also objected to the museum creating office space in the basement of the Pavilion. In 1993 the Prices sued LACMA for a laundry list of grievances, demanding return of the works that weren't promised gifts. LACMA made some concessions, and the lawsuit was dropped.

The loans of Price works stopped however. Former LACMA director Graham Beal made overtures to the Prices, to no avail. His successor Michael Govan brokered a detente, and the Price collection was again shown at LACMA in a large 2008 exhibition. It included a lighting system that varied in brightness, "compressing a day's sunlight into a few minutes." Govan reasserted hope that the more recently acquired Price works would also be donated to the museum one day: "It is essential that more of the collection stay here."

A few years later the Prices had become estranged yet again. They floated the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery as a possible home for the works not already committed to LACMA. Joe Price said that any museum that wanted the collection would have to hire one of their daughters as curator: "She comes with the art."
Also among the Price works sold to the Idemitsu Museum: Maruyama Okyo (attributed to), Tiger, 1785; Sakai Hoitsu, September and October from a set of Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months
The Prices weren't, of course, the first LACMA patrons to take their art, or some of it, and leave. Eli Broad, Armand Hammer, and Norton Simon each put their collection on long-term loan to LACMA, then withdrew it. More recently the Ahmanson Foundation parted ways with LACMA over the planned display of European art in the Peter Zumthor building. But the situation with the Price collection is unique. Japanese art is to be the one part of the permanent collection to have dedicated display space in Govan's vision for the future LACMA. Furthermore it was the Prices themselves who commissioned Bruce Goff to design an ideal (and idiosyncratic) space for their collection. They came to LACMA only after the Metropolitan Museum passed on building a Japanese Pavilion in Central Park.
Ito Jakuchu, Rooster, Hen, and Hydrangeas. Price Collection
LACMA received approximately 0 percent of the Broad, Hammer, and Simon troves. But as far as I can tell, the Price's promised gift is still on track. According to LACMA's Jessica Youn, the Prices' promised works include 11 paintings by Ito Jakuchu. Among them is the spectacular Rooster, Hen, and Hydrangeas, a work whose meticulous style is close to the famous series of nature paintings in the Imperial Household Collection, the Colorful Realm of Living Beings.

Joe Price was ahead of the curve in appreciating middle- and late-Edo painting. He began collecting actively in the mid 1960s, when such art was available and relatively inexpensive. Several exhibitions in Japan in the 1970s spurred interest in Jakuchu and Edo painting. In the 1990s Takashi Murakami declared Jakuchu to be a Superflat artist before the fact. As appreciation of Edo painting burgeoned, prices caught up with the Prices.

Thus many of the most important works in the Price collection were acquired before 1980. This includes Nagasawa Rosetsu's Bull and Elephant screens; Sakai Hoitsu's The Thirty-Six Poets on a Field of Flowers and Grasses; Suzuki Kiitsu's Paulownia and Maple.

The attribution of the Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants screens sold to the Idemitsu Museum is controversial. The screens are unsigned (i.e., don't have Jakuchu's seals). They're executed in a mosaic of colored squares, something like the pixels of a digital screen. The attribution is based on the similarity to a smaller mosaic-technique painting of a White Elephant and Other Beasts, in a Japanese private collection, that does have Jakuchu's seals and may have been owned by the artist's family.

The technique is so unlike Jakuchu's, or anyone else's, usual work that an attribution solely on stylistic grounds is problematic. The catalog to LACMA's 1989 Jakuchu show argued that the Price screens were not autograph and were more likely to date from the 19th century (Jakuchu died in 1800). The screens are nonetheless famous enough to have inspired a digital piece by teamLab that was shown in last year's "Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art." Takashi Murakami's 82-foot-long painting at the Broad, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of the Rainbow, includes a version of Jakuchu's white elephant.

The Price works sold to the Idemitsu Museum are currently scheduled to debut in Tokyo Sep. 19 through Dec. 20, 2020.
Nagasawa Rosetsu, Bull. Price Collection

Nagasawa Rosetsu, Elephant. Price Collection


Anonymous said…
Just as well.

LACMA now exists in memory more than reality.

Thanks, Michael.
Anonymous said…
It would have been so nice to have so many more lovely artworks here in Los Angeles. I am glad, though, that they were sold to a museum which has plans in place to exhibit them.
Anonymous said…
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) suggests the Save-LACMA mob is old, cranky, and narrow-minded:

"All of this is intended to further expand the museum’s representation of all the cultures of the world and dissolve what Hollein [MMA Director] describes in his catalogue essay for Making the Met as the “outdated taxonomies” of the Enlightenment model of the encyclopaedic museum. The programmes are also intended to open up the institution to more perspectives, whereas historically its vantage points were dictated by the limited tastes of wealthy New York collectors.

See "New York's Met renounces 'outdated' divisions' of encyclopaedic museums for its 150th anniversary,"

Anonymous said…
^^^How dare you! That’s ageist! If you had to drink Ensure every morning and Metamucil every night you’d be cranky too!^^^