LACMA: Levitated Mass, Frank Gehry, Diana Thater 

At the end of my trip to NAMM, I always try to leave time for a museum visit in Los Angeles, more often than not to LACMA. This is a somewhat belated review of this year’s visit.

Since seeing the film on the Levitated Mass, it was an absolute priority to experience the giant sculpture by Michael Heizner in person. For those unfamiliar, it is a 340-ton boulder mounted above a concrete trench. The space underneath is open and thus viewers can walk under the boulder.

Levitated Mass

It is an impressive feat of engineering (as documented in minute detail in the film), and a visually interesting conceptual piece. It is definitely one has to experience in person to understand.

Under Levitated Mass

One of the main special exhibitions at LACMA in January was a retrospective on the work of Frank Gehry. While none of his actual buildings were on display (though it would have been appropriate in the context of Levitated Mass), there were many drawings and models, group into conceptual and chronological phases of his career.

Frank Gehry installation

Many of his most famous pieces, such as Disney Hall and Guggenheim Bilbao, were on display. But also large lesser-known buildings an smaller designs, some of which were never built. In the photo above, we see a building that combines the undulating organic structures for which Gehry is famous with a more traditionally modernist linear outer structure. The model in front is quite different, and more geometric and colorful that one sees in his iconic works.

It is also fun to see the small structures and private homes. I am envious of those who could have a Gehry-designed home like this one.

Frank Gehry house design

By sheer coincidence, Frank Gehry was present that afternoon to give a talk and Q&A session. I managed to get into the overflow audience to catch part of it.

Frank Gehry

The wide-ranging discussion including a bit of his personal history, his interest in biology and particularly in fish, and his disdain for computer modeling – he agreed that it was an amazing tool, but not for visually understanding a piece of architecture. On the topic of fish, they reviewed a few purely sculptural pieces of his that were meant to represent the swimming motion of a single fish or an entire school. Though he perhaps his voice sounded a bit gruff – something which bothers me not at all – he was very much engaged with the questioners and supportive.

In the modern pavilion, it did stop to see a few familiar large installations. I enjoy walking inside of this large-scale Richard Serra sculpture and find it quite meditative. It was also interesting to contemplate its curving structure in terms of what I had just seen and heard from Frank Gehry.

Richard Serra

From the curving structure I then moved on to straight lines. This familiar light installation reflects onto the window facing Wilshire Blvd and makes for great self-portraits.

AC and light installation, LACMA

I also had a bit of fun with self portraiture in the retrospective exhibition for Diana Thater, which featured several room-sized pieces with multiple projections of moving images.

AC in Diana Thater installation

Though that was fun, the piece itself was dead serious, looking at the aftermath of war through ruined buildings.

Diana Thater

There were some pieces in the exhibition that were less dark, as in Butterflies that features both lights and video bathed in red ambient lighting.

Diana Thater, Butterfly
[Diana Thater, Untitled Videowall (Butterflies), 2008. Six video monitors, player, one fluorescent light fixture, and Lee filters . Installation Photograph, Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Diana Thater]

One doesn’t always know what to expect on a on-afternoon trip whose date is not timed to a particular exhibit, but I am never disappointed with what I encounter at LACMA, and that was true again this year.

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

We lost another of our art heroes yesterday. Ellsworth Kelly, known for his iconic works composed of color fields, passed away.

Luna with Ellsworth Kelly book

The above photo features the catalog from his large-scale solo show at SFMOMA in 2002-2003. The exhibition was a bright spot, both aesthetically and emotionally, in an otherwise depressing period of time and made quite an impression. I kept intersecting with his work during my numerous art adventures in California. His paintings featured large color fields, sometimes combined together into a single whole, while other times separated, as in Blue Green Black Red (1996) on display as part of the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA. I had the opportunity to see a large retrospective of his prints and paintings at LACMA in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This, too, was revelatory as it showed other aspects of his work, including black-and-white pieces and connections of his abstract style to nature.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

 

It is still, however, the color fields that I most instantly recognized as his.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

Kelly himself resisted being described as “abstract” or “minimal” or any other label that intersected with his career.  But I think this statement quoted in the New York Times obituary describes his art very well, and is a fitting conclusion.

“My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said in 1996. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.”

 

Wordless Wednesday: Variety (LACMA)

As always, check the comments for some info on the picture. But please also check out the associated review of my LACMA visit.

Ellsworth Kelly and Metropolis II at LACMA

While in southern California for NAMM last month, I made a point of stopping at the LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The museum and the trip to get there through downtown LA were the perfect coda to the overload of NAMM. And by chance, it was the opening day for a retrospective exhibit of works by Ellsworth Kelly.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

I am quite familiar with Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings through SFMOMA (see my review of the Fisher Collection show from 2010 which featured several large pieces). His large panels in single colors with rectangular or curvilinear shapes are quite iconic, as are his grids of colored squares. But in LACMA’s comprehensive exhibition, which focused on Kelly’s printmaking along with some drawings and paintings, I was exposed to different and unexpected directions in his work. There was a room of minimalist panels, but all in black and white instead of his usual bright colors. There were also pieces with organic and complex patterns based on plants and rivers. In between there were brightly colored abstract works that seem to bridge the gap between the organic and the minimalist.

An example of the familiar and unfamiliar in Kelly’s work appears in the first gallery. Around the corner from a large set of four solid shapes is a piece with a similar curvilinear shape but a rougher and more natural looking texture.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next section featured Kelly’s studies in abstraction, influenced from his time in Paris in the 1950s. Here were see experiments with different pairs of colors on the same shape, with simple titles such as Orange over Blue (Orange sur Bleu). The shapes, rounded rectangles and arrows, seem manually cut and have the imperfections of natural (or at least handmade) forms. But through the medium of printing with different colors, they become more mechanized.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

The next room was the most surprising. All the works here were in black and white, something which I had not associated with Kelly up until this moment. One wall featured the same curvilinear or angular shapes as his more colorful abstract works, but in monochrome they are far more severe. But this is good thing. In monochrome, he plays with contrasts and positive and negative space with the shapes without the distraction of color.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

But even more unexpected were his monochrome prints based on natural forms, which were in this same room. He did a series of lithographs of botanical forms in the late 1960s that featured simple line drawings that capture the imperfections of natural subjects. I would never have guessed these pieces were his without the labels. More recently, he did a series of large monochrome prints based on the texture of the moving water in the some of the world’s most famous rivers.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

So how does one fit these in the context of Kelly’s more colorful abstractions? Certainly, the black fields can be seen as simply another color study; and the rivers can be seen as abstract but complex textures informed by nature. The textures of the rivers can be seen reflected in abstract piece Red Curve (State I) from the first room of the exhibit. The botanical pieces are the ones that are the most difficult to place in context aesthetically, the artist himself states that “the drawings from plant life seem to be a bridge to the way of seeing that brought about the paintings of 1949 that are the bases for all my later work.” It is possible to see the repeated curving shapes in his abstract work as inspired by plant forms.

The final room featured more of the style that I most associated with Kelly: angular solid fields and color grids.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

It was in this last room that another museum visitor came up to me and asked, “Why is this good? What do you see in it?” I’m sure I was gazing rather intently at various pieces which probably signaled to her that I had a genuine interest in this work. I did my best to try and answer her question, which seemed to be as much about minimalist artist general as Ellsworth Kelly in particular. For me, good abstract and minimalist art captures my attention and “arrests the mind” (with apologies to James Joyce). Additionally, all art and perception of art has context. There was the context of each piece, even if a single-color panel, within the greater body of work on display. There was context of my experience, and joy in looking at these works in the quiet gallery, the calming effect. There is also the execution, choosing the right colors and the right proportions for shape and size of each piece, that Kelly was able to do consistently. I’m not sure the woman was particularly satisfied with my answers. She walked away saying “I guess I just don’t understand why this belongs in a museum.” I did my best – I do truly want to share the enjoyment of modern art, and especially abstract art, with others, which is why I write articles like this.


Also on view at LACMA was Metropolis II, large kinetic installation by Chris Burden. It features stacks of highways weaving their way among densely packed buildings. A continuous stream of cars speed along the highways, some of which are six lanes across. The result is a frenetic pulsating vision of a future city, or an imagining of the pace and anxiety of a contemporary city. This piece is best experienced in motion, and you see a bit of it in this video:

This piece of course appealed to me as a person who loves cities and the urban landscape and who has a fascination with the patterns of roads and highways. Looking from above, the traffic is simply a current like moving water and provides none of the stress that one experiences on actual city streets. I can also admire the amount of work that must go into making something like this. The toylike scale of the installation also gives it a playful quality. It was just fun to experience.

Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings will be on display through April 22, and Metropolis II is ongoing. Both are worth seeing if you are in Los Angeles.

Wordless Wednesday: LACMA