Archive for March 2009
A lengthy, lively and powerful review by Roberta Smith was published in today’s New York Times. As I read it, I vowed to attend the exhibit, “Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay.” (Ms. Smith calls it “close to groundbreaking.”) It’s amazing to read a respected authority’s enthusiastic view of the show, to be sure, and to be dazzled by a veteran wordsmith’s prose. But what I like about the review is something more: it contains some of the strongest statements on record about the viability of the medium of ceramics. Here are just a couple of choice quotes from the review, titled “Crucible of Creativity, Stoking Earth Into Art.”:
“It reminds us that the art form incorporates quite a bit of painting and sculpture, thank you, and has one of the richest histories of any medium on the planet. Ceramics also plays well with all kinds of artistic ideas and needs no propping up by supposedly serious fine art…”
” It can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers or artisans. But this timely, satisfying show proves it once more. It also suggests that while ceramics is just another art medium, there is no art medium quite like ceramics.”
A strong and positive review in the New York Times is a good time for a gallerist to point to his own artists, or “toot your own horn.” (Out of 22 artists in the exhibition, we have presented the work of 8: Viola Frey, Ron Nagle, George Ohr, Ken Price, Adrian Saxe, Peter Voulkos, Beatrice Wood, and Betty Woodman). I can’t resist the opportunity to quote what Ms. Smith wrote about Adrian Saxe:
“Mr. Price’s and Ms. Butterly’s work can have the exquisiteness of fine jewelry, as can Adrian Saxe’s high-style amalgams. His commanding “Sweet Dreams” is a vaguely Chinese-influenced lidded jar with ormolu handles and a rock-crystal finial that, in a kind of scholar’s-rock touch, sits on what appears to be a large, multitiered fungus.”
For anyone who has been following contemporary art, the crisis at the Museum of Contemporary Art was a compelling story. I tracked the unfolding events during the late fall and early winter of 2008, by staying tuned to the excellent coverage in the Los Angeles Times, their site Culture Monster, and the constant commentary provided by many blogs. I posted some of my reactions with links here and here.
Always at the forefront of the story was Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes, and yesterday he provided something of great interest again: an interview with Paul Schimmel, Chief Curator at MOCA. It’s a welcome look from a curatorial vantage point, following the huge administrative and funding changes. In late January, I was invited to a community meeting at MOCA, to hear and understand the transition, with new CEO Charles Young. I want to see MOCA succeed.
I am looking forward to part two of this interview with Paul Schimmel. Just as I believe in listening to the words of the artist, I think there is no substitute for hearing directly from the curators. I went to LACMA last Saturday for the curator’s walk-through with Stephanie Barron of her Two Germanys show. There is no substitute for a tour of an exhibit with the principal curator. Art lovers should take advantage of any opportunity to hear things directly from a major curator.
Several people have been asking, “When did you start writing for publication?” Does the work I did for my junior high school newspaper count? Well, probably not. But since some folks are curious, and since others seem to be reading the “About” page on this blog, I thought I would post some of my early work as an art critic. Here’s a text (unaltered) published Friday, March 18, 1983 in the Orange County Register, Weekend Accent section.
Irony of ironies: a Ruscha retrospective
By Frank Lloyd
Special to the Register
“I Don’t Want No Retrospective,” claimed Ed Ruscha in a 1979 pastel drawing. Nevertheless, it’s here. And it should prove to be the show of the year in Los Angeles. Taking images, signs, and phrases from mass culture, Ruscha has incisively revealed our values and our viewpoints.
This exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art traces the development of Ruscha’s poignant and resonant blend of words and images, from 1959 to the present. Organized by Anne Livet for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the retrospective includes over 150 paintings, collages, drawings, graphics, and books. Several recent works, shown for the first time anywhere, will be added to the show at LACMA.
The work is filled with irony, wry wit and humor. But once we’re past the humor and the familiar rhythm (it’s like “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”), the work becomes surprisingly personal. Or consider the irony involved in the inclusion of Ruscha’s “Los Angeles County Museum of Fire” (1965-1968). Brashly poking fun at the hall of culture, the young artist had envisioned damage to the pretentious edifice. Now the museum rightfully regards Ruscha as one of its best.
When he first arrived in L.A. in 1956, Ed Ruscha had driven west on Route 66 in a lowered 1950 Ford with his friend Mason Williams. Although they intended to enroll in art school, the dream of becoming artists was not their reason for leaving Oklahoma City. What they were looking for was a region filled with cruising hot-rods, cute girls and hip street culture. Eventually, the life of Southern California became the source for Ruscha’s work.
It’s tempting to refer to Ed Ruscha as the quintessential Los Angeles artist. But his work, like the confusing megalopolis, simply defies categorical description. And, as catalog contributor Peter Plagens notes, “Ruscha is not a symptom of his time or place, but a commentator on it.” The work seems to function simultaneously as sign, symbol, word and image. The title becomes the painting, the word becomes the image, and the subject becomes the meaning. The phrases may seem as thin as a one-line joke, but sometimes that joke is so multidimensional as to reveal a cultured attitude. A work from 1973, painted with ketchup on canvas, is an example. Bold block letters on a diagonal spell out the message of phony concern, “Listen, I’d like to help out, but—.” And consider the superficial admission of guilt in “Those of Us Who Have Double Parked” from 1976.
Ruscha’s work was first shown at the Pasadena Museum in 1962. Organized by Walter Hopps, “New Painting of Common Objects” included many of the artists who would be associated with Pop Art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dine, and Theibaud). Ruscha’s painting, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” (1963) belongs to this period. In a daring diagonal composition, Ruscha has taken the commonplace out of its context. The result is a striking, stark contemporary icon. The work not only relates to the Pop Art movement, but ties to the vision of America in Edward Hopper’s work.
The artist’s self-published books were highly innovative. “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations” (1962) documented a trip along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. Each gas station is photographed from across the street, in a seemingly amateur style, and is captioned with name and location. Other books, such as “Real Estate Opportunities”, “Some Los Angeles Apartments”, and “Every Building on Sunset Strip”, follow the same format. These books just present the bare facts of the unpeopled landscape but wind up reporting on the activities of the region.
Ruscha brought his innovative attitude to printmaking, experimenting with substances like cherry stain, Metrecal, carrot juice, and chocolate. Isolated and ambiguous words and phrases were rendered in prints and as unique works. “Now Then, As I Was About to Say…” (1973) uses shellac on moiré. “Baby Cakes” (1974) is rendered in blueberry extract and egg yolk on moiré.
The more recent work uses a grand horizontal format. In a vast, empty void, Ruscha floats words and phrases that hover. “The Fifties” (1980) shows a sweeping progression of the years from upper left-hand corner to the lower right foreground. The serene and placid sky is in contrast to his vision in “The Nineties” (1980), which seems much more menacing and fiery.
Ed Ruscha’s work subverts our normal perception of life and talk in the fast lane. Occasionally obscure, the work is accessible not only because of the subject, but because he has isolated the ironies and made us laugh. And anyone who can comment on corruption and vice with a sense of humor is a welcome relief. As Ruscha said, “There’s No End to the Things Made out of Human Talk.”
The preparation for the exhibit of Jennifer Lee’s work has begun. As a result, I am anticipating lots of questions about the subtle coloration of Jennifer’s pots. The work resembles natural processes, and yet is clearly an artifact. Viewers are always curious about the materials and the methods.
There are two main things to remember. First, all of the pots are formed by hand, and second, Jennifer does not use any glaze. All of the coloration comes from her use of oxides. The lines and haloes are also from the metallic oxides, which are fused into the clay. Thus, the color continues on the inside of the piece, uniting and animating the interior with the exterior.
But why read more? One can easily watch and listen to the artist describe her work here:
I am lucky to have Jennifer Lee’s work in my collection. I have a sense of solitude when I look at the small pot, and a feeling of balance, a kind of stillness. Her quiet, contemplative work has an intimacy, communicated by the scale and surface. The pot in my collection is a darker olive-brown form and shows Lee’s use of banding, haloes and painterly color. Nature, perhaps the dry desert landscape or the sedimentation in geologic forms, seems to be a source. Jennifer’s work also has a sense of personal poetry and tremendous presence. I am looking forward to her show at the gallery, opening April 4.
Right now, Jennifer is part of an amazing exhibit in Tokyo. The Issey Miyake Foundation in Tokyo, 21_21 Design Sight, currently hosts an exhibition that features 100 works by 3 different artists. It is organized by Issey Miyake and the installation is designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.
Miyake had previously encountered Lucie Rie’s work, and was impressed by its presence. When describing Lucie Rie’s work, the world-renowned designer Miyake noted the simplicity, nobility and natural character. “The appeal of her work lies in the warmth and nostalgia of the hand-work that floods our hearts,” he wrote. For this Tokyo show, Miyake included the work of two more contemporary artists. Jennifer Lee, “who has inherited Lucie’s sensibility and who has given modern ceramics a new direction” has been presented on a huge table of water, as if the perfectly balanced works were floating. Tadao Ando frequently uses pools of water in his architectural designs. As Miyake notes, “photographer Hiroshi Iwasaki has captured the cosmic beauty of the vessels.”
Writing about Lee’s work in a recent publication, Alun Graves of the Victoria and Albert Museum noted: “Lee’s pots have frequently and not unreasonably been compared to landscape, their tilted horizontal striations appearing like geological strata. Yet unlike some of the freer branches of organic sculpture, these are clearly not objects formed by natural processes, brought into being through the chance accumulation and manipulation of earth and rock. For the viewer who knew nothing of their age and origins, their status and human artifacts would be immediately apparent.”
I wrote about John Mason’s large-scale work in my last post. As I thought more about Mason’s huge walls and massive installations, I recalled the beginning of the artist’s large-scale pieces. There is a definite place and time for the development of Mason’s sculptural work. It’s at the studio he shared with Peter Voulkos on Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, in 1957. As Mason was making his first really large sculpture, he says that the work took its own form. “After it was finished, I looked at it, and it looked familiar to me. It did not directly refer to anything I knew. So the familiarity came from some kind of internal recognition of the form, which is specific and ambiguous,” he later stated in an interview. That first large sculpture is shown here, from both sides. It is a roughly human-scale form, as are many of Mason’s sculptural works. Of particular interest to me is the relationship of the glaze-defined surface form to the shape of the piece. As I’ve written before, Mason’s own words are readily available. Here is what the artist states in the Oral history interview with John Mason, 2006 August 28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution:
“But once we were in the Glendale Boulevard studio, the thing was, let’s make some sculpture. And Pete started making sculpture, and his method was to make a variety of thrown forms, to let them cure to the leather state, and then to begin to assemble them, construct and stack them. What am I going to do? I don’t know what I’m going to do. And I’m going to let it develop as I go. So the first big sculpture I did was in 1957 and it became a simple monolithic form. It looked like a projectile point of some sort. But it had two areas which were colored. The rest of it was pretty gray. There was a blue-grey shape on one side, and a more gold-brown shape on the other side. It was five and a half feet tall, and it was hollow. But it was totally closed.”
My gallery published a catalogue of Mason’s 2000 exhibition, which included some of the newer Spear forms. As shown in this image, an observer can easily see the relationship to the earliest large-scale sculpture. During the summer and early fall of 2000, freelance writer Ben Marks spoke with John Mason on numerous occasions about the evolution of the artist’s work from the mid-1950s to 2000. These conversations culminated in an interview on September 23, 2000, which Marks transcribed and then edited. The interview began with a discussion of one of Mason’s earliest forms, the spear, which has reasserted itself in the artist’s recent sculptures:
Mason: “There’s certain imagery that seems to reoccur in my own thinking. The new work turns out to be another way to make sculpture that both relates to the older and separates from the older work. The Spears actually began in the late ’50s with a series of pieces that I made on the wheel. And of course they have reoccurred in different forms with the later work. But you know, even calling it a Spear, people sometimes say “are you calling it a spear? It doesn’t look like a spear.” (Laughs) It may be incorrectly titled. But the 1957 Spear, which was the first big one I made, was actually the first large sculpture I made.”
As I wrote in a previous post, cultural maturity has come to Los Angeles. One indication is that The Getty Research Institute has funded research by many museums, leading to a series of exhibits in 2011 to 2012. I am beginning to receive inquiries from several researchers.
Today an art historian came to the gallery. Her questions were directed to me. She asked when I started the gallery, and why. In conversation, I gave several reasons for starting this gallery, and recalled that one primary motivation was to present the large scale sculpture of John Mason. I felt that the younger audience had probably never seen the awesome monumental sculpture Mason built in the early 1960s. It was Mason who told me, after all, that to do the job right I would need a larger space.
One of the most powerful shows that this gallery ever produced was an exhibition of John Mason’s works, including the massive X-Wall, 1965. Our web-archived record of this exhibit includes installation photographs and several texts by prominent critics and curators (Suzanne Foley, Barbara Haskell, and John Coplans). As we begin to receive inquiries about the history of Los Angeles art and the place of ceramic sculpture in the development of the art of the 1960s, I feel proud to have presented this show in 2000—nine years ago.
Another exhibit of Mason’s work included a major installation from the 1970s. The work titled Grand Rapids was completed in 1973 as an installation for the Sculpture Off The Pedestal exhibition at Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was included in the Mason survey exhibition in 1974 at the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art and again in 1976 in the 200 Years of American Sculpture exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Here is a statement about the piece by noted critic Rosalind Krauss:
“It has been said that in adopting firebrick as his new medium, Mason was bringing his formation as a ceramist forward-if only symbolically-into the recent work, for firebrick is what is used in the building of kilns. Mason himself denies this, stating simply that when ceramics ceased to be appropriate to the sculpture he wanted to make, he stopped using it and turned to the most efficient material that would “work.” The beauty of firebrick as an aggregative unit is its absolute regularity of shape and, as an aesthetic material, its diffusion of light. But beyond this question of whether or not firebrick retains any associations with the medium of ceramics, is the undeniable connection of this material to building, and hence, to the architectural. It becomes a medium, that is, in which it is possible to think the sculptural in relation to architecture without any conflict.”
—Rosalind Krauss, John Mason: Installations from the Hudson River Series, The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York, 1978 p.13.