LACMA Collectors Buy 10 Works: Max Ernst, Theaster Gates & More

Spanish Capital, 11th century. LACMA, gift of the 2023 Collectors Committee. Photo courtesy David Aaron Ltd.

LACMA's Collectors Committee has acquired 10 works for the museum, spanning Peru, Polynesia, and Islamic Spain; Max Ernst, Theaster Gates, and Nick Cave. 

Unlike most American museums of its size, LACMA does not have a significant endowment for art acquisition. The Collectors Committee is a group of LACMA supporters who gather annually to buy art for the permanent collection. Curators pitch potential acquisitions, and then committee members vote. Artworks are purchased in order of popularity, until the collective bankroll is exhausted. Members can also dedicate special funds to buy favored works, guaranteeing their acquisition. 

This year nine works were offered. The committee raised over $2 million, enough to buy all nine. The leftover funds were used, on Michael Govan's suggestion, to buy a work by Argentine-born L.A. conceptualist Analia Saban.

The earliest 2023 Collectors Committee gift is an 11th-century Umayyad capital believed to be from the site of Alhambra (the one in Spain). It's at least a couple of centuries older than the famous Alhambra palace, though, and may be from an earlier palace on Sabikah Hill. Columns and other architectural elements were often repurposed. The LACMA capital is green limestone, about 11.4 inches high. 

Bernardo Polo, Still Life with an Ebony and Ivory Cabinet, Tortoiseshell Chest, and Sweets, late 17th century, LACMA. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

The Spanish baroque still life painter Bernardo Polo (???–c. 1700) was rediscovered only in 2009, when the identification of a signature allowed scholars to attribute about 40 paintings to him. In 2013 a Polo still life sold for $141,496.

Despite his recent obscurity, Polo must have been successful in his time, running a sizable studio supplying the Zaragoza bourgeoisie. The known Polo paintings include studio copies as well as superior works that must be autograph. LACMA's example is said to be one of Polo's best. The LACMA painting is a hauntingly symmetrical display of riches (and calories) from when the New World was Spain's oyster.

Unidentified artists, Cabinet (Papelera), last quarter of the 17th century. LACMA. Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

This silver-ornamented cabinet advertised the precious metal that was the basis of colonial Peru's wealth. The cabinet itself, in ebonized wood, was probably made in Antwerp and sent to Lima for the silverwork. A central medallion identifies the cabinet as commissioned by the Viceroy of Peru, Don Melchor Portocarrero Lasso de la Vega. Known as "Brazo de Plata," he lost his right arm in battle and replaced it with a silver one. 

Detail of medallion

Bedcover (kapa moe), Hawaii, early 19th century. LACMA. Photo © 2010 Blackburn Collection, Marfa, Texas

There is also an aristocratic provenance to a kapa cloth bedcover once owned by Hawaii's Queen Ka'ahumanu (1768–1832), wife of Kamehameha I. It's one of five early Polynesian tapa cloth textiles that have been acquired from the Blackburn collection. Others are from Samoa, Futuna, and Niue. 

Barkcloth (kapa), Hawaii, 18th century. LACMA. Photo © 2010 Blackburn Collection, Marfa, Texas

This one is also from Hawaii and was collected by the ship artist of Captain Cook's third expedition (which took Omai home).

Max Ernst, The Entire City (La Ville Entière), 1935. LACMA, gift of the 2023 Collectors Committee with additional funds provided by the Ducommun and Gross Endowment, the Robert Gore Rifkind Foundation, Beverly Hills, CA, and Wendy Stark. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Max Ernst's The Entire City is among the most abstract of a dozen or so works bearing that title. It is similar to the version in the Tate Gallery. Both were created with a technique Ernst called grattage, in which a canvas, wet with paint, was placed on a rough surface and scraped to reveal interesting textures and forms. Here the brooding, apocalyptic landscape invites connections to post-war abstraction and process art. For Ernst it was likely about the rise of Nazism.

This becomes the only Ernst painting in L.A. LACMA deaccessioned a lesser Ernst, among other works, to help finance the gift-purchase of the Lazarof collection. MOCA has two sculptures by Ernst, one of them (Lunar Asparagus) from 1935, the same year as the LACMA painting.

Miyoko Ito, Sea Chest, 1972. LACMA. © Estate of Miyoko Ito, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Chicago abstractionist Miyoko Ito (1918–83) is another rediscovery, subject of recent shows in Berkeley and New York. A month before graduating from Berkeley she and her husband were sent to the internment camp at Tanforan. She was released in 1943 and continued her studies at Smith College and the Art Institute of Chicago. She drew on Synthetic Cubism but "Chicago gave me a sense of surrealism," she said. Sea Chest is oil on canvas, 47×45 in.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit 8:46, 2021. LACMA gift of the 2023 Collectors Committee with additional funds provided by The Buddy Taub Foundation. © Nick Cave, photo courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Nick Cave's Soundsuits were originally a reaction to the 1991 Rodney King beating. The Soundsuit would protect the Black body from the police. LACMA's Soundsuit 8:46 references the reported time that a police officer kneeled on George Floyd's neck. It's the only Soundsuit in a public L.A. collection.

Theaster Gates, Vessel #12, 2020. LACMA. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Vessel #12 becomes LACMA's first work by Theaster Gates. The inscribed vessel references the ceramics tradition of Tokoname, Japan (where Gates studied) and David Drake, the enslaved American potter who wrote poetry on his pots.

Moriguchi Kunihiko, Woman’s Kimono, ‘Isō amine monji (Topological Mesh Pattern)’, 2000. LACMA. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
Op art provided one inspiration for this contemporary kimono by Moriguchi Kunihiko, designated a Living National Treasure of Japan. The snowy resist-dye pattern was created using zinc paste and crushed rice. Moriguchi reverse-engineered a technique that had been used in the Edo period and then forgotten. 
Analia Saban, View Count, 2021. LACMA
Unlike most artworks, Analia Saban's View Count comes with an eraser. The idea is that the number, written on a chalkboard strip, is to be updated according to a running count of how many people have viewed the work. Saban studied with John Baldessari, and View Count is certainly an homage to the latter's A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation. It's also an steampunk dissent on the view counts that rule social media.

The $2 million raised this year is well short of the pre-pandemic maximum ($6.4 million in 2016, for a 30-year anniversary). Most of this year's purchases record the clash and cross-pollination of cultures, from colonialism to globalism. That would fit in with Govan's vision of the Peter Zumthor/David Geffen building as a Museum of Global Interconnections.

Less easy to pigeonhole is this fact. Three of this year's 10 acquisitions are by Chicago artists—a rival second city that has commanded little attention on this coast. 


Anonymous said…
Stories like this are why it's exasperating that the Zumthor/Govan building will be smaller, not larger, than the previous 1965/1986 buildings were.
My jaw dropped on seeing the early Spanish capital.
Is it published? Are there siblings in other collections?
Is it black basalt? Or black-painted something else?
I knew it couldn’t be from the current proto-Renaissance palace. Granted, I haven't visited the Alhambra since I lived in Spain in the 1970's. But I remember the fabric like it was yesterday...possibly the most impressive building in Spain.
I think the hill on which the palace is sited is/was known as Sabikah.
Ted: Good questions. The David Aaron website says it's green limestone and supplies further details, including a provenance from 1853 to the Spanish export license. It was in the family of Mariano Contreras Granda, 19th-century architect and director of conservation of the Alhambra. Aaron favors a date of 10th to 11th century. The height is 29 cm (11 inches). I've amended the post for the material and height.

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