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.

Chelsea Galleries, December 2013

My visits to New York almost always include an afternoon wandering the galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood. And I was able to get back again this year and see how the neighborhood had rebounded from Sandy last year. The area was hit hard with flooding, and last November many galleries were closed, while others were physically open as crews removed drywall and ran industrial fans. There was little outward evidence of the damage this year, save for a musty aroma in a couple of galleries. Thus, the focus was on the art itself.

The major event in the neighborhood appeared to be Yayoi Kusama’s solo exhibition at David Zwirner. The large exhibition including both paintings by Kusama as well as several installations. A large video installation Manhattan Suicide Addict featured the artist with bright red hair and outfit greeting visitors in front of changing psychedelic patterns. Nearby was a visually captivating immersive installation Love Is Calling featuring light, sound, sculpture and mirrors. The experience within the space was disorienting, but not at all disturbing with the large softly curving forms and cool colors.


Because of the limited space inside, access to the installation was limited. However, there was no line for Love Is Calling when I visited, while the wait for Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013 was several hours long. There was no wait at all to see Kusama’s paintings, which while equally loud, had more of a cartoonish or folk-art quality to them compared to the overt technological nature of the installations.


A surprise discovery was Piece of Silence, an exhibition of new drawings, paintings and sculptures by Sandra Cinto at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Among the major themes in her show was music, and indeed the entire lower gallery featured a series of elaborately illustrated cellos and other musical instruments mounted onto walls covered in musical staff systems. The illustrations featured elaborate naturalistic landscapes and water, themes that were also used into Cinto’s other sections of the exhibition. As the gallery was not too crowded, it was possible to linger in the stark gallery and take in the “silence.”


We then go from something unexpected to something completely as expected. There wasn’t much surprise in Richard Serra’s monumental sculptures at Gagosian Gallery’s two Chelsea locations, but they are nonetheless favorites of mine for the scale, metal texture and industrial quality. (I have heard is work derided as macho in the past, but that is a topic for another day.) At the 21st Street location, there was a single installation made from huge undulating sheets of rusting metal. One could walk through and explore the interior spaces, which ranged from round chambers to narrow passageways.


The pieces at the 24th Street, by contrast, were very linear in nature. I did particularly like this set of rectangular slabs.


Michel de Broin’s sculptures at bitforms featured industrial elements, but on a human scale and constructed from existing utilitarian (or formerly utilitarian) objects. Tires, utility boxes, broken light bulbs, are all fair game in de Broin’s work, which is arranged quite minimally and efficiently around the gallery’s space. There is also a playful quality to these pieces.


Found machinery and industrial objects are also the essential elements of Hidden Tracks, a solo exhibition by Reinhard Mucha at Luhring Augustine. The large pieces in the exhibition included working elements such as model railroads and old TV screens playing videos of similar industrial apocrypha.


In reflection, the industrial and the technological dominated the art that I focused on during this particular tour. But that is not surprising. It also was a major part of Michael Light’s photography exhibition at Danziger Gallery. The show focused on human technology set against the natural landscapes of the western United States, as seen from the air. That included several images of large freeway interchanges, including some classics from California and Arizona that we have included in our “Fun with Highways” series here at CatSynth.


As always, my Chelsea gallery walk ended with a visit to The Red Cat for a Manhattan and some samples from their menu. This time, that included a season soup with sausage confit that was highly recommended by my server and definitely worth enjoying slowly between sips of the cocktail and reflecting the days activities.

Richard Serra Drawing and Sharon Lockhart Lunch Break, SFMOMA

Today we look at two current exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that opened in October and continue through mid-January: Richard Serra Drawing and Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break. I had the opportunity to attend the museum’s press preview for both of these exhibitions and posted live updates via my Twitter feed @catsynth (the hashtag was #serrapreview).

The main event of the day was the opening of Richard Serra Drawing. I have long been fond of Serra’s large-scall metal sculptures. The minimalist yet strong constructions of flat steel planes or gently curving metal are instantly recognizable as his. This exhibition was my first experience with his drawings and sketches. Many of the pieces had the same characteristics as his sculptures, the reliance on strong geometric forms in a minimal presentation, such as his 1973 piece Untitled. One could see this piece as the shadow of one of his sculptures.

[Richard Serra, Untitled, 1973; paintstick and charcoal on paper; 50 x 38 inches; collection of Mary and Harold Zlot; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Ben Blackwell]

Several of the pieces rivaled his sculptures in scale.

[Richard Serra, Blank, 1978; paintstick on Belgian linen; 2 parts, each 120 ¼ x 120 ¼ inches; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni]

However, to simply describe the work in this exhibition as Serra’s sculptures flattened to two dimensions would miss most of what makes it unique and surprising. Many of the large black pieces are done with painstick, and the large geometric shapes which smooth from a distance have a very rich and rough texture. However, to simply describe the work in this exhibition as Serra’s sculptures flattened to two dimensions would miss most of what makes it unique and surprising.  Many of the large black pieces are done with painstick, and the large geometric shapes which smooth from a distance have a very rich and rough texture.  It was something I referred to while visiting as “liquidy roughness.” The texture and medium also allowed Serra to move beyond basic geometry into forms that cannot easily be realized as sculpture. In out-of-round X, an exaggerated texture is present in the main circular shapes, and continues to diffuse out past its edges. It is not a simple graduation where the texture becomes more diffuse from the center, there is still some semblance of a geometric shape in the image. But it is nonetheless unlike any of his sculptures, and I would not have automatically marked this as Serra’s if I saw it from a distance outside of the exhibition.

[Richard Serra, out-of-round X, 1999; paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper; 79 ½ x 79 inches; collection of the artist; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever]

Indeed, more organic circular shapes and ambiguous edges abound in Serra’s drawings. He also escapes from the solid or semisolid forms with line drawings that add more empty space. In these drawings, he reduces the drawings to one-dimensional forms in a way similar to his use of planes in three-dimensional space.

The gallery presentation provided a chance to see the diversity of the works side-by-side, but also left a large amount of empty space that abstract pieces truly need to be appreciated. I liked this location which featured Diamond (1974/2011) in the foreground and the circular Institutionalized Abstract Art (1976/2011) around the corner. Both were redrawn on the walls for this exhibition. They are perhaps the most minimal of all the pieces, and as such benefited the most from the context of gallery and the association with the other works. They provided a contrast to more roughly drawn or textured pieces. The spacious presentation also allowed room to explore the shapes in a personal manner. One wall of pieces entitled Drawings after circuit featured simple lines against aging paper, and seemed ripe for interpretation as a Hipstamatic photo.

[Click image to enlarge.]

The notebooks, while not as monumental, presented another dimension of Serra distinct from both his large drawings and his sculpture. We see the freedom to explore shapes and ideas that don’t yet need to stand up in large scale.

[Richard Serra, notebook: Double Torqued Ellipses; Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, 2005; paintstick on paper; sheet: 12 ¼ x 14 ½ inches; collection of the artist; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever]

There are not only small sketches of ideas that could be used in larger works, but energetic and curving sribbles and even playful human shapes.  The notebooks serve more as inspiration for visitors (particular visitors who are themselves artists) than as works unto themselves.

Perhaps the most unusual piece was the list of verbs that appeared at the beginning of the exhibition.

[Click image to enlarge.]

It could serve as both an artist statement as well as an art piece.

At the end of the tour, Richard Serra was present to discuss the exhibition and take questions from the press. He had a very clear and accessible way of describing his work and process, as much engineer as artist.

It was interesting to hear him describe traditional architecture he saw in Spain and Turkey as sources of inspiration for his work. I associate stylized form and intricate detail with such architecture, and what attracts me to Serra’s work is its break with these traditions for a more simple focus on large-scale textures and geometries, and the exploration of asymmetry. I did not get a chance to ask any questions myself, squished among members of the established art press, but it still good to just be present and listen.

Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break is quite a contrast to the Serra drawings in media, style and subject matter. Through photographs and film, Lockhart presents a personal-scale view of industrial labor at the Bath Iron Works, a large naval shipyard in Maine. The artist spent a year in the town and at the shipyard, “interacting with workers and gaining their trust and collaboration.” The result is a portrait that is both intimate and detached. In the photographs we see everyday objects and elements of the “shadow” economy among the workers, such has makeshift cafes and lunch stands. The film meanwhile turns a short period of the workers on lunch break into a monumental portrait of industrial life.

The film is based on ten minutes of footage tracking along the a 1,200 foot hallway, without any panning, zooming or any other motion of the camera besides the steady forward progression. Along the hallway, workers go about the normal routines during lunch break, sitting, standing, eating, reading, talking However, what we ultimately see is anything but routine. The film is slowed down to 80 minutes (one eighth the speed of the original). The result is a stretched out abstract industrial exploration, which emphasizes the expanse and straight lines of the hallway as we pass by the workers.

[Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break (Assembly Hall, Bath Iron Works, November 5, 2007, Bath, Maine) (still), 2008; 35mm film transferred to HD, 80 min.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; © Sharon Lockhart]

The music, a similarly slowed down mixture of sounds collected from the factory space by filmmaker James Benning and composer Becky Allen, gives a heightened sense of a fictionalized industrial landscape. Of course, I immediately started deconstructing the sound, which appeared to be a combination of pitch and time shifting and granular synthesis, but this did not detract from the overall presentation of the film, which was projected on the wall of a dark elongated room with surround sound for an immersive experience and other worldly experience. Although the film itself was interesting to watch, it was the music that kept my attention for an extended period of time. I tended less to see the details of workers in the visual and focused more on the big picture of the hallway, while in the music I kept looking for details, little bits of metallic or machinery sounds, or the occasional hint of human activity, amidst the overall drone of low-frequency noise.  It is hard to give a sense of the piece, with just an image. It should be experienced in person with the full sound.

The photographs that accompanied the film were not altered and presented images of the lives of the workers at the shipyard that would normally be hidden to outsiders. Several of the workers have set up small shops that sell coffee and food and operate as a shadow economy, where people leave money in boxes on an honor system.

[Sharon Lockhart, Dirty Don’s Delicious Dogs, 2008; chromogenic print; 41 1/16 x 51 1/16 in.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Gladstone Gallery, New York, and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; © Sharon Lockhart]

The images are impersonal in the sense that they do not include any people, but the personalities of the workers who created the objects and spaces are indirectly present. In contrast to the film, with the industrial sounds of the music and scale of hallway dominate the viewer’s attention, the images and silence leave the viewer free to imagine the people who wrote the signs on the shops or attached the stickers to the lunch boxes. In particular, that was my impression from the sign “Please don’t forget to put money in the bank” with its accompanying smiley face. This sign forms the cover for exhibition catalog as well.

[Sharon Lockhart, Handley’s Snack Shop, 2008; chromogenic print; 41 1/16 x 51 1/16 in.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Gladstone Gallery, New York, and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; © Sharon Lockhart]

Although Lunch Break presents it subject with a certain detachment and abstraction, it is hard to separate it completely from the economic and political reality of contemporary life in the U.S. As stated in the official release, “The project’s attention to the local and to the rarely portrayed experience of the working class take on a particular social and political relevance in the context of global capitalism, war, and economic recession.” The opening was occurring at the same time that the Bay Area incarnations of the Occupy movement were just picking up momentum (my first visit to OccupySF was just a few days earlier.) The combination leads to interesting questions about how protest, art, and the daily routines of working people intersect (and how they often don’t).

It was interesting to have seen both of these exhibitions together, and then reflect on them side-by-side several weeks later. My experience of Serra’s drawings is defined by shape and texture, and leads to more internal contemplation and fewer words that reflect the scale and space of the exhibition. By contrast, Lockhart’s Lunch Break speaks to me on a technical level with music, film and photography, and is on a personal scale. As such, it leads to more words and thoughts upon reflection. Both are valuable experiences and ways of seeing art.

Both exhibitions will be on view at SFMOMA through January 16, 2012. I strongly recommend checking them out if you are in the Bay Area.

[All captioned images are provided courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Images marked “” were taken by the author during the press preview.]

The Fisher Collection at SFMOMA: Calder to Warhol

I have been meaning to write reviews on some recent exhibitions I have seen set SFMOMA: the selections from Fisher Collection and New Topographics photography exhibition, both of which I have actually seen multiple times. This article covers the Fisher Collection, which will be closing this coming Sunday, September 19.

I have been spending some time thinking about what it means to write “CatSynth reviews” for a major exhibition like this about which so much has already been written. In the end, it’s about personal significance. It was really a microcosm of many of the exhibitions and artists that I have followed or discovered over many years – indeed, the exhibition included artists that i had first discovered through retrospectives at SFMOMA including William Kentridge and Chuck Close, or artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Sol LeWitt whom I have gotten to know better through the museum’s programs. It is also an opportunity to explore what does (and does not) captivator me with modern art.

One of the things I find most compelling about modern art is the simplicity and sense of calmness I can feel in its presence. This is particularly true of the more minimalist and geometrically inspired works shown on the upper floor of the exhibition. This included those labeled formally as minimalism like Sol LeWitt, but also the large monochromatic panels of Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra’s geometric metal sculptures.

[Installation view with Janus by Gerhard Richter (1983) and multiple pieces by Richard Serra. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.]

There is something about this type of art that I find very comforting, especially in a large scale presentation like this. I can focus on lines and curves and colors and nothing else. I can get absorbed into the repeating variations in Sol LeWitt’s drawings and sculpture, or allow my mind to go blank in Ellsworth Kelly’s simple series of panels. (Perhaps this is what made the placement of Anselm Kiefer’s straw-infused works inspired by the Holocaust in the middle of the same gallery all the more jarring.)

[Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Black Red (1996). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]

Even Alexender Calder’s more organic forms fit into this category and were placed together with the others on the upper floor of the exhibit. It would be interesting to consider Calder’s curving but solid mobiles next to the intricate and delcate straight lines in LeWitt’s Hanging Structure 28c and Antony Gormley’s Quantum Cloud VIII.

[Alexander Calder, Eighteen Numbered Black (1953) . Sol LeWitt, Hanging Structure 28c (1989).]

LeWitt also touches on my interest in mathematics and algorithms (and technology) in art, and conceptual art, most notably in his Wall Drawing, which was created directly on the wall of the gallery in colored pencil from the artist’s specifications.

Gerhard Richter was a bridge between the minimalist and geometric art and the other parts of the collection. His Farben 256 with its array of solid-color rectangles was closer to the previously described works (and although I liked it I couldn’t help but think of a paint chart). Other pieces were more photographic – my favorite of these was Verwaltungsgebaude with its modern arctecture and motion.

The other direction that my artist interests tend is towards urban environments, including graffiti or industrial scenes. Cy Twombly’s large paintings in the exhibition feature repeated curving scribbles that remind me of the graffiti that I often photograph. The white scribbles on gray background in Untitled (Rome) reminded me specifically of walls I saw shooting photos in Warm Water Cove.

Twombly was placed along other works from the middle of the century. A large-scale piece by Lee Krasner was prominently featured (I have yet to see a solo retrospective of her work). A canvas with bright blue by Sam Francis caught my attention. The permanent collection of SFMOMA prominently features works by Richard Diebenkorn, and I think I liked those more than his work in this collection.

In addition to minimalist and geometric works, I also tend to notice art with a playful or surreal nature, or things that are particularly unique. William Kentridge’s installation based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute falls in this category. He built an entire miniature stage with archival photographs and moving images set to selections from the opera. While much more elaborate and complex than the previous works, the performance was still very arresting.

Strictly speaking, there was relatively little photography in the exhibition (although many of the paintings seemed derived from photographic sources). Of the few photographs, the strongest was an image by Sophie Calle which depicted a decaying bed in a courtyard of an apartment building, and was accompanied by a rather morbid story. Another of the featured photos, John Baldessari’s Blue Moon Yellow Window, Ghost Chair was quite painting-like with its extreme contrast and colored overlays.

I certainly did not touch upon everything within the exhibition in this brief review, so those who are interested are encouraged to check out the online exhibition page, or visit if you are in the area in the next five days.

[The photos in this article can be seen on flickr.  You can also see photos by others tagged SFMOMA on flickr or via SFMOMA’s online communities page.]