Rank #1: Broken Back, Unbroken Spirit
The best time to enjoy – and even marvel – at the gigantic sculpture by Mark di Suvero on Venice Beach is sunset. That’s when his 60-foot-tall steel work, titled Declaration, looks the most imposing. It’s been there since 2001, in honor of the nonprofit Venice Family Clinic. The artist, and LA Louver gallery, which represents him, has loaned this work for almost two decades to the city without a fee.Unfortunately, the city was unable to find donors to help it acquire the piece, and so in late 2019 the sculpture will be removed and sent back to di Suvero’s studio in Northern California.
But, the good news is that right now LA Louver has a mini-retrospective showing the diversity and strength of his work over the last two decades. The steel sculptures selected are all of small scale, but each of them has a big story to tell. And a big surprise, as well… Take a look at the video of one of these sculptures, and you will be awestruck watching this super-macho, aggressive metal form moving in a most elegant dance. It’s as if male and female counterparts, in perfect balance, perform for your pleasure.
One appreciates the work even more with the understanding that di Suvero, now 85 years old, continues to work like nothing happened to him. Actually, most of his life, he had to deal with a dramatic back injury that left doctors doubtful he’d ever walk again. Be sure that you ask the gallery assistant permission to spin each of his sculptures, which will make you dizzy with delight, watching it dance.
And, talking about a mini-retrospective… LACMA just opened an exhibition of 10 works by Frank Stella – all of them, from the museum’s permanent collection. Some of these works haven’t been on display in over 30 years.
The exhibition reveals the amazing range of Frank Stella’s work, from his groundbreaking “black” paintings from the late 50s to his most recent monumental wall sculptures exploding into our space, making you take a cautious step back. At 82 years old, Stella doesn’t stop for a second…
And now, my smart and adventurous listeners, I want to tell you about two theatre productions I saw over the weekend that I think you will find intriguing. At Odyssey Theatre, I saw the play by Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015), “Faith Healer,” in which three characters, one after another, tell the same story from three different perspectives. Directed by Ron Sossi, all three actors – Ron Bottitta, Diana Cignoni, and Paul Norwood – deliver their monologues with such passion and eloquence, you never want them to stop.
And of course, I was not able to resist the temptation to see the adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, “Crime and Punishment” at Edgemar Center for the Arts. The long novel about Raskolnikov killing an old lady, both of them neighbors in the shady streets of St. Petersburg, is compressed into a 90-minute production with three actors playing multiple roles. What made me particularly glued to the stage was the fact that I was born in the very neighborhood where Dostoyevky’s story takes place.
Rank #2: A Tale of Two Museums: MOCA and LACMA
This is a tale of two museums, The Museum of Contemporary Art and the L.A. County Museum of Art.
I’ll admit it. I am a booster for L.A. art. When I moved here in 1979, I started writing about it because I realized that the quality and originality was very little understood or even recognized outside Southern California. Certainly not in New York or Europe. There was no Museum of Contemporary Art.
L.A.’s first free-standing art museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had opened in 1966. Being a general rather than a contemporary museum, it could not, at times would not, dedicate its programs solely to post-war art or art being made here.
As a result, a truly dedicated group of local art collectors came together to make MOCA a reality in 1979. What is now the Geffen opened with The First Show in 1983 and proved that those collectors who genuinely did not want to give their art to a New York museum had made stunningly generous donations.
They also hammered out the deal to erect the MOCA building on Grand Avenue in 1986.
Four tumultuous decades later, that history is being celebrated with MOCA's sixth director, Klaus Biesenbach. On the job seven months, he was able to announce a $10 million dollar gift by MOCA president Carolyn Powers to help fund free admission.
A benefit dinner last Saturday was underwritten by Marina Kellen French so that some 300 artists and others could attend gratis. The exhibition titled The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA's Collection is a snapshot of the staggering commitment of past directors and curators to building one of best contemporary collections in the country.
So Biesenbach is off to a running start. The night of the benefit, he spoke to the crowd about being of service, about art as a force within society, about being a family.
Given the spin cycle of directors, curators and board members at MOCA in the last decade, he has a lot of ruffled feathers to smooth. He seems remarkably willing to perform that uneviable task. A collective sigh of relief seemed to permeate the evening, which was attended by past directors and curators in a gesture of reconciliation.
All of which brings me to LACMA and its director Michael Govan, who has completely transformed a moribund museum into one of the most popular places in the city. Under his direction, the museum installed the one of the most selfied works of public art, the grove of vintage lights by one of the city’s most revered artists, the late Chris Burden. At this point, I could go on and on about their excellent recent exhibitions with an unprecedented focus on contemporary art, including Robert Rauschenberg’s previously unseen opus 1/4 Mile, closing June 9.
Prior to Govan’s 2006 hire, Renzo Piano, an esteemed architect of museums, was on board to complete what is now the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art and the Resnick Pavilion. Even at that time, it was clear that it was not going to be cost effective or aesthetically desireable to renovate the 1966 LACMA buildings, a William Pereira design that had proved problematic and unwieldy. Curators, historians and artists have have been complaining about it since the day it opened. The 1986 attempt to disguise it with a giant facade and courtyard by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer didn’t help.
Govan could have let Piano continue building, which also entailed tearing down the old museum. He chose the more difficult path.
From the outset, he wanted the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and that decision has been controversial ever since. He set the bar higher with a fundraising goal of more than $600 million.
Now that he is nearing that goal and new models of Zumthor’s design are on view, there is a belated bellow of complaint about its curvilinear design, the amount of glass, the bridge over Wilshire, the concrete exhibition walls. Suddenly, people love the existing LACMA that they have been bad-mouthing since the day it opened.
Every daring museum design has faced similar fights. Without single-minded, stubborn directors, there wouldn’t be Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao (or even the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim in New York). This is not to say that there can’t be questions about the design or that there can’t be improvements.
But at this point, given a stellar track record as a museum director on so many levels, Govan should be allowed to finish the job he was hired to do.
Same for Biesenbach at MOCA. Give the guy a chance.
Sometimes a museum needs a leader with singular focus, like Govan. Sometimes, it needs someone who can unify and motivate demoralized staff and supporters. One hopes that will be Biesenbach.
In this time of nationwide fury and schisms and internet-fueled psycho babble, I’d like to see a return to sort of civic minded perspective and loyalty to L.A. that enabled these museums to be built in the first place.
Rank #3: Disappearing—California c. 1970
We tend to think of artists as people with sorts of egos that make them want to stay in the spotlight, to get attention. An exhibition of three important L.A. artists focuses, instead, on their various of methods of making themselves disappear. Aptly titled, Disappearing—California c. 1970 at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, this show is the first to look in detail at the conceptually-based art of Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein and Bas Jan Ader.
All of the artists are considered major figures in the art of their time and though they all lived in L.A. when it was a hot-house of great talents, they weren’t particularly close friends. In a way, that makes their sui generis obsessions more fascinating and undeniably connected to who they were as people.
Most of the art is based in an action, as opposed to performance, though all of them made certain that it was photographed, filmed or video-taped. In short, they knew they were making art and expected it to have a life beyond the action itself. This was part of a larger movement of performance-based art in the 1970s and what was called the “de-materialization of art,” a way to move away from the production line of saleable paintings and sculptures. Made in the shadow of the Summer of Love, in the waning years of the Vietnam War, the show has something of a somber tone.
The best known of the three is the American artist Chris Burden, who had spent much time on the East Coast and in Europe before attending Pomona College and then U.C. Irvine, both of which were crucibles of permissivity for new art. His now notorious graduate piece was hiding in a school locker for five days and nights with nothing but water and bottle for his urine.
People could talk to him while he was in the locker but he could not be seen or heard. He had hidden himself away at the very time that most art students were preparing to make themselves known.
That daring piece ultimately contributed to making him one of the best known artists and the exhibition includes photographs of later manifestations of his extreme art. This includes the time that his art White Heat, White Light, (1975) consisted of the apparently empty Ronald Feldman gallery in New York where he lay on a white shelf near the ceiling where no one could see or hear him for weeks. His presence, felt by them or not, was the show.
Canadian Jack Goldstein was a charismatic figure in the early years of Cal Arts gaining attention for his 1972 Burial Piece, where he had himself interred in a coffin with breathing holes while teachers and students observed. Other art had a more marked connection to popular culture, especially his short movies. One gallery features a number of projectors running his simple black and white films notably one in which the artist runs around his darkened studio attempting to evade a big spot light, disappearing from unwanted attention.
Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader was either the most reckless or the most committed to his art. His is the first work in the show, a 1969 wall text that says “Please Don’t Leave Me,” with a string of electric lights tumbling over it. Black and white films of his stunts can seem both slapstick and dangerous, like rolling off the roof of his house or riding his bicycle along a Dutch canal and tumbling into the water. In some ways, his work is the most moving since it includes evidence of what he called “The search for the miraculous.” Photographs document him with his wife, Mary Sue Anderson Ader, preparing for his solo 1975 voyage across the Atlantic from Chatham, Massachusetts to England in a used sailboat. His body was never recovered and the boat was discovered a year later off the coast of Ireland. He just…disappeared.
Was Ader naive? Did he have a death wish? He was the most extreme but all of the artists were exploring the effects of extreme actions on themselves first and foremost. All the documentation and relics can make the actions seem like theater or magic. Burden has long claimed that his most extreme act, of having himself shot, was a misfire. He wanted to know the fear of being shot at, not the pain of being hit. Perhaps Ader wanted to know the feeling of being lost at sea, the feeling of praying for and receiving a miracle. But his project, too, went tragically off course.
Goldstein wound up being a super star in the New York art scene for his 1980s paintings of nocturnal cities illuminated by exploding bombs of white light. Yet, he died an impoverished addict in 2003. His saga was compellingly told in Richard Hertz’s book Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia.
Burden produced the most work including the always pleasing grove of vintage street lamps in front of LACMA. He died of cancer at his home in Topanga just four years ago. This show connects his early extreme actions to his lifelong curiosity about the extreme effects of change in industrialization or military research, topics on which he had informed and off-beat opinions.
Organized by Philipp Kaiser, the exhibition captures a time when disappearance was an edgy new concept. It also serves as an elegy for three extraordinary artists who live on through their art. It is on view in Fort Worth through August 11.
If you can’t make it to Texas, a show of work by Ader, Water’s Edge, is at Meliksetian Briggs gallery in the mid- Wilshire area through July 27.
Rank #4: Getty Villa Welcomes Its Ancient Ancestors
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD is a well-known tragedy of the ancient world. Two nearby cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, were destroyed, along with their populations. Everything was covered in layers upon layers of lava and ash. But somehow, this tragedy has a silver lining. Since the mid-18th century, archeological excavations of both cities have uncovered an unprecedented amount of artistic treasures – bronze and marble sculptures, well-preserved frescoes and mosaics, and the list goes on.
The Getty Villa as it was envisioned in the early 1970s by J. Paul Getty is a copy of Villa dei Papiri, one of the best-known archeological discoveries in the outskirts of Herculaneum. Its name comes from the very fact that this villa had a unique library of more than 1000 papyrus scrolls, the only such surviving library from antiquity.
Some of these papyrus scrolls are on view in the exhibition, Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri, which just opened at the Getty Villa and will run until October 28. This unique exhibition is the result of years of collaboration with the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
I trust that you, my friends, have been to the Getty Villa many times, admiring contemporary copies of Roman frescoes and bronze sculpture in its outdoor gardens. Now, in this exhibition of treasures from Villa dei Papiri, we have the rare privilege to look at and study two-thousand-year-old originals. The most famous of these treasures is a life-size statue of a Drunken Satyr, the mythical character from the legends of the wine god Bacchus. The contemporary copy of this sculpture has been in the pool of the Getty Villa since its opening in 1974. Now, for the first time, we have a chance to come very close and look at the happily drunken face of the original Satyr.
Like me, you probably passed many times by two bronze sculptures of naked Runners by the pool without looking at them closely. Now that I’ve had the chance to look at the originals, I realized these youths have personalities and character.
Take a look at the images on our site – their faces, with remarkably well-preserved eyes made from stone and bone, makes one think of contemporary photography of Olympic runners.
Guilty as charged – after seeing this exhibition, I had a glass of good red wine, another way to pay respect to these ancient guests visiting LA. Actually, The Getty Villa is hosting a whole series of related events, Bacchus Uncorked, inviting visitors to taste, drink, and think like an ancient Roman.
And, if all that hasn’t piqued your interest to see the exhibition, how about this? All these treasures from Napoli place us at only 1 degree of separation from Julius Caesar – yes, Julius Caesar – whose father-in-law was the supposed owner of the original Villa dei Papiri.
Rank #5: All about Dilexi Gallery, 1958-1969
When talking about the L.A art scene in the 1960s, the name of the Ferus Gallery is foremost. Founded in 1957 by Walter Hopps with artist Ed Kienholz, it was a free-wheeling operation initially showing artists from the Bay Area alongside the L.A. set.
But Ferus was not the first gallery started by Hopps. That would have been Syndell, opened in 1954 in West L.A. with his friend Jim Newman. They had become friends a few years earlier while students at Stanford where they spent as much time organizing jazz concerts as studying.
After his first year, Hopps returned to his native L.A. to attend UCLA, Newman went on to Oberlin College. They remained friends. Neither expected to become a conventional art dealer but opened Syndell with the idea of supporting the artists they knew who were challenging ideas about making art in the 1950s, especially in abstract sculpture or assemblage. After his experience at Syndell, Newman and Beat poet Bob Alexander started Dilexi in San Francisco in 1955. At that time, the city was considered the apex of culture with a museum dedicated to modern art as well as a growing counter culture.
Though Hopps had left Ferus to become curator and director of the Pasadena Art Museum, many of the Ferus artists continued to show at Dilexi in San Francisco. Newman opened a short- lived L.A. venue down the street from Ferus in 1963 with the Rolf Nelson as director. Newman, who parted from Alexander after the first year, remained closer to artists who lived and worked in the Bay Area.
This summer, the fascinating but rarely studied history of Dilexi Gallery (1958-1969) is the focus of a group of shows in four galleries in L.A. and two in San Francisco.
Some of the artists are well-known, others deserve to be. Co- organized by Laura Whitcomb, an independent curator, a catalog is forthcoming.
The largest portion of the exhibition opens this Saturday, June 22, at The Landing, a large warehouse of a space on Jefferson Blvd.. Titled Disparate Ontologies, the exhibition includes a wide-ranging group of works by more than two dozen artists that conveys the taste for experimentation that Newman embraced.
The progressive nature of San Francisco, with artist-run exhibition spaces and progressive art schools, meant that there was a growing interest in dance, Happenings and film-related art. One of the big moments in this show is a rare 1958 expressive abstract painting by Robert Morris just as his choreographer wife, Simone Forti had interested him in dance and movement. Soon after, they moved to New York, where those interests evolved as key components of his Minimalist art of the ‘60s.
The interest in abstract expressionist painting that dominated the Bay Area can be seen in powerful pieces by Hassel Smith and Frank Lobdell. It can also be seen in the early work of L.A.- based artists like Ed Moses and Craig Kauffman. All showed at Ferus so the show proves the regular migration of artists and the constant recycling of ideas between the two cities.
The Landing show also includes a major 1963 Milk Bottle painting by Joe Goode, who had his first solo show at the Dilexi in L.A. But Newman’s enduring legacy turned out to be his support of music, film and performance. After closing Dilexi in 1969, he funded 35 Happenings and produced films of work by Terry Riley, Sun Ra and Walter De Maria which were shown on KQED in San Francisco in the years before such work could be seen in any sort of public way. Many of these programs and some live performances will be held at The Landing over the course of the show, which continues to August 10.
At Parker Gallery, which is located in a series of rooms on the ground floor of a large Tudor style h ouse in Los Feliz, the selection of 14 works is titled Seeking The Unknown. On a pedestal near the front door stands an exceptional tablet-shaped sculpture by the mystic artist Jess, which remains in Newman’s own collection.
This work of collaged panels of black and white illustrations is set within a voluptuous bronze-colored frame. Peach-colored velvet on the reverse is set with silver sequins that state the title: Variations on Durer’s Melancholia (1960).
An icon of the Bay Area scene, Jess was known for his “paste- ups,” collages of carefully cut-out bits of illustrations and photographs. Along with his partner, poet Robert Duncan, he pursued research on arcane theories from the distant and recent past.
A fascination with arcane and ancient spiritual beliefs was embraced by poets, artists and musicians of the Bay Area. The very name of Dilexi was taken from the Latin, “to select, to value highly, to love.” The show at Parker includes a 1965 Verifax collage by Wallace Berman, whose inaugural show at Ferus was shut down as erotic by the LAPD, which prompted his move to Northern California.
Eccentricity was in large supply especially in the paintings of Roy De Forest, who had the most shows at Dilexi. One of his early constructions Napoleon on St. Helena (1961) is a collection of molded and painted organic shapes mounted on a rectangle of painted white wood. The show continues through August 10.
Another aspect of Dilexi is called Totems and Phenomenology at Parrasch Heijnin downtown, opening Saturday, June 22.
With work by five artists, it highlights the interest in perception that activated the work of Tony DeLap and Charles Ross. These artists were interested in ideas about mindfulness and seeing and spiritual presence. The show continues to Aug. 10.
A key figure of LA and San Francisco art of the 1960s was Jay De Feo. A show of her work will open on July 13 at Marc Selwyn Fine Art.
Meanwhile, Dilexi Gallery: The Early Years is at Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco through July 27. Also in San Francisco, Crown Point Press is featuring Fred Martin’s 1967 publication Beulah Land.
Taken together, these exhibitions complicate and fulfill a history that is still being written. All the galleries deserve credit for starting to fill in those large gaps in the story.
Rank #6: Terry Allen at L.A. Louver
If you had come from Lubbock, Texas to Los Angeles in 1962, as did artist Terry Allen, you’d come to believe that anything was possible. You could be an artist, or a songwriter or a musician. Allen became all of the above.
You can see it all in a survey of his art at a galllery in Venice. The Exact Moment it Happens in the West: Stories, Pictures and Songs from the 1960s to Now.
Most of the drawings on view have not been shown before and they clarify the purpose of his serpentine art with its various detours and road blocks.
Allen, now 76, calls Lubbock a place “so flat that if you look in any direction really hard on a clear day you can see the back of your own head.” Son of a major league baseball player and a piano player, he married his high school sweetheart Jo Harvey and drove west. Like so many of the major artists to emerge in L.A. in the 1960s, he studied at Chouinard Art Institute, now Cal Arts. From the outset, his art had an animated, even goofy aspect that belied its biting content.
He was encouraged by slightly older artists like Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston who had similar Western backgrounds and who had attended Chouinard, as well. Allen was already writing songs and he performed his own country-style Redbird on a 1965 episode of the TV show Shindig. His solution was to consider his songs and his visual art parallel but equally considered pursuits.
For his 1968 series Cowboy and the Stranger, he attached a packaged reel to reel recording of a song to the back of each framed drawing. He called them “paper listening movies.”
Distorted and comical illustrations of scenes from the West tend towards the erotic and psychedelic, styles at large in the popular culture of that time. His music is country western but twisted to its own ends. In this show, posted next to each section of drawings, is a pair of headphones so you can listen to a song pertinent to that body of work.
By then, his wife Jo Harvey Allen was a part of the dynamic, performing works with him or on her own. They had their own radio show on KPPC, a broadcast that took place in the basement of the Pasadena Presbiterian Church, where she was the first female country and western dj.
Most of Allen’s art has a narrative underpinning: tales of love, loss, violence and just plain weirdness. For example, an installation of a video monitor shows Jo Harvey’s first performance as part of a wrestling match inspired by Terry’s father who promoted small time wrestling gigs, along with running a nightclub where he booked rock acts traveling through Lubbock. (When I ran into Terry at the gallery yesterday, he told me that his father was such good friends with the flamboyant wrestler Gorgeous George that every Thanksiving, the famous blond would send him a turkey stuffed with a packet of gold- plated bobby pins from his ranch north of San Bernadino.) The point is that Allen’s appreciation for the off beat is genuine. It is not a speculation about some lost part of American culture. It is the culture he got to live.
Allen’s 1975 concept record Juarez is a complex narrative about two couples and a border town told in songs and in drawings.
Juarez is a piece very much of our times but Allen’s politics are always rooted in the personal.
The Vietnam War affected so many of his family and friends that he spent a decade on the project Youth in Asia, which not only sounds like the word euthansia but encompasses the death toll on Allen’s generation. He wrote his texts in type fonts on sheets of lead, a material but malleable and deadly. Some of the drawings have objects and talismans attached to them, smaller versions of the installations that he was evolving.
Theater had been an influence since Terry and Jo Harvey saw the experimental Living Theater perform Frankenstein in the 1960s. The writings of Antonin Artaud not only affected their thinking about theater’s potential, it inspired Allen’s major installation, Ghost Ship (2010), which is not in the Venice location but can be seen by appointment at L.A. Louver’s warehouse location on Jefferson Blvd.
Incomprehensibly, there has never been a museum retrospective devoted to the work of Terry Allen. While this show is not a substitute, it is a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in the alternative universe of his thinking and creating.
Allen has had a long career recording and playing music with his Panhandle Mystery Band with his son Bukka Allen and they will be playing at Zebulon on July 18 and 19. Also, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen will be interviewed by Aram Moshayedi at the Hammer on August 7.
On another note, some galleries are starting to observe summer hours. L.A. Louver, a block from Venice Beach, is not open on Saturdays but otherwise, Tuesday to Friday. The show is continues through September 28.
Rank #7: Agnes Pelton at the Phoenix Art Museum
Georgia O’Keeffe may be the best known of the modern artists who also happened to be a women. Agnes Pelton, who had a similar education and traveled in the same circles, has remained on the periphery of art history. Thanks to mounting pressure and scholarship about artists who have been overlooked due to gender or race, Pelton is receiving new attention.
A spectacular exhibition, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, is on view at the Phoenix Art Museum through September 8. It travels to the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, the Whitney Museum in New York and the Palm Springs Art Museum, where the first big reappraisal of her work was staged in 1995. In fact, Pelton lived in Cathedral City for most of her adult life.
During the research for my 2004 biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, Full Bloom, I came across Pelton’s art many times and was struck by the many parallels. Pelton lived from 1881- 1961. O’Keeffe from 1887 to 1986. Pelton was born in Germany of American parents but raised in Brooklyn after the age of seven. O’Keeffe was an outspoken Midwesterner.
Both studied in New York under the massively influential teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, who emphasized the seductive power of decorative motifs, especially as used in traditional Japanese art. He encouraged the curving lines of art nouveau and warm, even pastel colors in modern painting.
Pelton was considered enough of a rising star to be included in the historic 1913 Armory show at the invitation of Walt Kuhn.
O’Keeffe did not see that show but her own career was propelled by her love affair and then marriage to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the most zealous promoter of American modern art.
Pelton also made art out of her experiences in the south west, invited by patron Mabel Dodge Luhan to Taos in 1919. O’Keeffe didn’t make that pilgrimmage until 1929. By then, she was a superstar, with her flower paintings commanding huge sums.
Pelton, however, was on a spiritual quest. O’Keeffe remained more tethered to earthly concerns.
This exhibition focuses on Pelton’s abstract paintings that began to emerge in the 1920s, initially influenced by Kandinsky’s ideas about the synesthesia, the vibrational power of music and color.
In 1928, Pelton came to Pasadena to do deeper studies with the Theosophy Society. That is likely when she first visited Palm Springs. In 1932, she moved to Cathedral City where views of Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio inspired paintings of the desert landscape melded with her urge to find higher meaning through abstraction. Sand Storm (1932) layers the mists of the storms clouds that swept the desert with an emerging rainbow.
She was pursuing deeper spiritual experiences through Agni Yoga, a branch of Theosophy. She developed friendships with the Transcendental Modernists of New Mexico, an informal coterie of artists led by Raymond Jonson who sought alternatives to the strictly formal view of mid-century abstract painting. Though she had not returned to New Mexico since 1919, her work was shown with theirs at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Orbits (1934) shows the stars traveling paths of light at night above the horizon of Mount San Jacinto.
Through the 1940s, she studied the writings of Krishnamurti and continued to integrate her spiritual beliefs with her painting but also pursued more realistic landscapes of the desert, which were easier to sell. Both were inspired by her long walks through the desert, then still largely undeveloped.
Pelton’s physical health failed in the 1950s and she died of liver cancer in 1961. The show includes her last painting Light Center (1960-61), which attempts to capture the transition from life to afterlife. After her death, her work was dispersed recklessly by distant heirs and her legacy all but lost until the work of art historians in the late 1980s. Her work was included in LACMA’s groundbreaking The Spiritual in Art exhibition of 1986.
Pelton was dedicated to channeling presence, intuition and energy into visible form. This is a path leading directly into bad kitsch for many an artist but Pelton’s paintings always hover in the realm of ethereal radiance. You can scarcely help being pulled into their power, as though they operated as visual mantras.
Curator Gilbert Vicario has organized the show in Phoenix while two of the catalog essays were written by former directors of the Palm Springs Art Museum, Michael Zakian and Elizbeth Armstrong, where her reputation began to be restored. This is no exercise in compare and contrast between O’Keeffe and Pelton but an opportunity to expand our awareness of artists being welcomed into a more inclusive history.
Rank #8: LACMA Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Art is A Winner
Any good exhibition of contemporary art that presents cultural developments abroad is a welcome and important way to better understand our allies and adversaries. The ambitious traveling exhibition that opened last month at LACMA, Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, is an excellent example of artistic and cultural collaboration at a time of an ongoing trade war between the US and China.
An article from ARTnews quotes Pace Gallery’s founder Arne Glimcher as saying, “It’s impossible to do business in mainland China right now… the last straw is Trump’s duty on Chinese art coming into this country and Xi Jinping’s duty on American art coming into China.”
As a result, when I went to see this exhibition, I was surprised and challenged by the diversity of artworks and their dramatic presentation. The exhibition covers the last 40 years of Chinese contemporary art and focuses on a group of the most influential Chinese artists today – among them, Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang.
The artists in the exhibition use rather wide range of materials in their practices – from wood to plastic, water, hair, tobacco, and Coca-Cola. A monumental bowl-shaped wood sculpture by Ai Weiwei, Divine Proportion, references both Leonardo Da Vinci’s illustrations and, believe it or not, cat toys. In a gallery with a four-channel video by Song Dong, we see the artist using a brush dipped in water to make marks on stone which slowly evaporate. In the same gallery, we are invited to dip our fingers into liquid and make our own marks onto a metal column and watch them disappear.
A large mixed-media diptych by Ma Qiusha is titled Wonderland: Black Square, and a wonder it is. The first impression when you put your nose to the surface is that it’s composed of shimmering brushstrokes from silver to deep black. But, once you read the label for the artwork, you understand that the main material is dark nylon stockings stretched over cement shards.
I spent most of my time in a gallery with 8000 black porcelain sculptures on the floor. The artist Liu Jianhua calls this installation Black Flame, and if you take a look at the photo on our website, you can see how this black flame spreads over the floor. Somehow, I interpreted it not as danger, but as imagination expanding without any limitations. On a gray wall in the same gallery hang three rectangular objects appearing to be white paper. But, come close and you will be astonished to realize they are actually thin white porcelain wall sculptures.
Entering a house built by gu wenda, I found myself surrounded by different cultures. The title of this immense installation is united nations: american code, and it’s made from human hair, collected from all over the world. This artwork emanates a sense of harmony among different cultures, and reminds us that the US is a “nation of immigrants and mixed ethnic identities” (LACMA).
Rank #9: My Fantasies About Film, Literature, and Architecture
Looking at last Sunday’s issue of the New York Times and seeing a photo of the famous 1948 chair by Charles and Ray Eames, La Chaise, I felt that this magnificent object reminded me of something – but what was it? The whole day, I was fantasizing about the chair’s sensual floating shape, with a mysterious oval hole in the middle of it.
All of a sudden, I realized that one of the most idiosyncratic architectural buildings in Los Angeles, The Broad museum, has a similarly indented oval window in its façade. The architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro describe it as an “oculus,” the classic architectural term from the Latin word for “eye.”
This association somehow opened my mind and triggered memories… As a little boy growing up in Russia, I learned to read when I was 6 years old. The first book I ever read was – believe it or not – a Russian translation of Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”. I had no understanding then that it was my introduction to American culture. - ТОМ! Нет ответа. - ТОМ! Нет ответа. - Удивительно, куда. мог деваться этот мальчишка!... ТОМ! Нет ответа. I can hear you, my friends, wondering what the hell Edward was saying in Russian. Let me say the same, but in English - "TOM!" No answer. "TOM!" No answer. "What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!" No answer. Yes, these are the opening lines of “Tom Sawyer,” the only book I brought with me to America as a keepsake of my Russian childhood.
And, I will never forget the magic of the very moment I saw Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, at about the same time as I read “Tom Sawyer”. I was breathless, watching this animation – but not on a large movie theatre screen, but on a tiny, black and white screen of the first generation Soviet-era TV.
In the height of the Cold War, in the late 50s, the epic Hollywood film by King Vidor, War and Peace, was released in the Soviet Union. Just think, this American movie based on the famous Russian novel by Leo Tolstoy, was made in 1956, more than a decade before the Soviet Union released its own adaptation. My mother took me to see Vidor’s movie when I was 12 years old, years before I even read the novel. Ever since, when I think about the main character Natasha Rostova, I am thinking about Audrey Hepburn…
After 40 years of living in Los Angeles, I continue to try to see as many classic and contemporary films as possible – and, the Laemmle Theatres, particularly the Royal in West LA, offers the most diverse and surprising screenings. Once a month, film critic Stephen Farber introduces a special screening of a classic film. This Thursday night, he invited me to choose my favorite classic film to screen at the Royal, and to briefly talk with him about it. I chose the 1959 film Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton and starring the incomparable Simone Signoret, who received an Oscar for her performance in this film. I fell in love with her then, and I am still in love with her decades later. I look forward to seeing some of you at the screening, to talk with you about the magic of this movie.
Rank #10: Skirball and Vielmetter Los Angeles: Art, Fashion, Politics
When I visit Skirball Cultural Center to see the latest exhibitions there, I expect to be informed, surprised, and challenged. That definitely was the case last year, with exhibitions celebrating composer Leonard Bernstein and Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Instead of speaking at the visitors, Skirball exhibitions speak to the visitors in a very friendly, accessible way. Two new exhibitions have the same easy-going approach to sharing their stories, and both are very elegantly installed.
The exhibition Black is Beautiful by photographer Kwame Braithwaite (b. 1938) presents over 40 photographs of black women and men “during an era when segregation still prevailed across the United States” (Skirball). Images by Braithwaite chosen for this exhibition celebrate black beauty and pride at a time when mainstream beauty standards excluded people of color. Brathwaite and his art helped to coin the term “Black is Beautiful,” planting the seeds for contemporary political movements like Black Lives Matter. This is the first major museum exhibition dedicated to this important artist, though here in Los Angeles, we were lucky enough to have seen a smaller exhibition of his work at Philip Martin Gallery last year.
Another exhibition at Skirball I want to urge you to see is Fearless Fashion, celebrating the famous fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (1922-1985). And fearless, he was… He gained notoriety for his jaw-dropping and innovative designs, including the “monokini,” a women’s topless swimsuit and pantsuits for women. Born in Austria in 1938 as a Viennese Jew, he fled the country due to its anti-Semitic policies. He found sanctuary in Los Angeles, where he was able to “challenge conventional beauty standards and redefine style” (Skirball).
The presentation of this exhibition is unusually theatrical, with mannequins modeling his designs in dramatic poses, as if in the middle of a dance – a reminder of Gernreich’s association with a well-known interracial and socially engaged dance troupe, Lester Horton Dance Theater. Seductive and Sexy would be the best way to describe not only Gernreich’s fashion, but this beautifully designed exhibition, as well.
Across town in the Arts District, I went to see Vielmetter Los Angeles, the new, ambitious gallery by Susanne Vielmetter, who still has her gallery in Culver City, though it’s scheduled to close in Autumn. There are two exhibitions that will grab your attention from the get-go. The exhibition by New York-based sculptor Arlene Shechet (b. 1951) is a dramatic confrontation of geometric shapes and a variety of materials – wood, ceramic, metal – rarely combined in one sculpture. In spite of their small to medium scale, their energy fills the entire gallery. The works are so surprisingly diverse that if I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was a group show.
The second exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles is by Austin-based artist Deborah Roberts (b. 1962), presenting a series of her signature style mixed-media collages on canvas. Most of the images are of young black boys who experience an inescapable sense of danger. Many of Roberts’ works references the “tragic case of Tamir Rice… the twelve- year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun in a park… and shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer” (Vielmetter). The title of one artwork, I do solemnly swear (Nessun Dorma Series), was inspired by the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from a Puccini opera. Like most Italian operas, life and death are the fodder for Deborah Roberts’ poignant art.