By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Coincidentally, Simmons was inspired by the Armand Hammer Art Collection, then touring the USSR, to write the Soviet Ministry of Culture, offering Selected Works From the J. Edgar Hoover Art Collection as a touring show in the spirit of cultural detente. After a Russian tour, Simmons predicted, the works would undoubtedly be permanently installed in a memorial gallery at the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn Museum. It was not to be. Not only was he tersely rebuffed (in Cyrillic) by the Russians, the federal museum system‘s support was also decidedly unforthcoming. Repeated approaches to major exhibition spaces proved futile, and Simmons turned instead to the taxonomic elucidation of his Hooverabilia.
As intriguing a cross section of Hoover’s psyche as the collection is, the real proof of Simmons‘ intuitive grasp of the subtle cultural narrative embedded within it unfolds in the lengthy catalog that became the focus of his Hooverania energies. Weighing in at a little over 3 pounds, Secrets of J. Edgar Hoover’s Art Collection: A Factual Account of a Little-Known Side of the First Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is an erudite and restrained examination, detailing Hoover‘s attitudes toward society and culture, arguing that his notorious ”secret files,“ and even the FBI’s repository of fingerprints, were indicative of a deep and complex commitment to his role as collector and preserver.
Scholarly art-historical research alternates with almost cinematic postmodern passages of speculative a critical fiction that envisions the roles these objects played in the director‘s daily struggles. Punctuated with conspicuously outrageous quotes by and about Hoover (LBJ: ”I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in“) that belie the careful, ironically reverent tone of the main text, the catalog -- even its revised 1993 version -- retains a whiff of the rage inspired by Hoover‘s media-savvy Machiavellianism, which must have been boiling below the surface of the Washington press community for decades.
Following the main essay, selected objects are pictured and analyzed in depth, with academic citations from the likes of animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz and elaborate, sometimes far-fetched, art-historical pedigrees and speculative provenances. In all, a remarkable, and as yet unpublished, volume. For although versions were already completed in the mid-’70s, and Mr. Simmons tried to publish excerpts in any number of journals, including Reader‘s Digest, the sheaf of polite declinations that accompanies the manuscript testifies to the bewildered incomprehension with which his project continued to meet.
This was mostly a matter of timing and targeting. The mid-’70s, Andy Kaufman notwithstanding, were not a time truly conducive to multivalent indeterminacy in the construction of popular reality. And in steadfastly approaching only the most established and conservative media venues, Simmons may have painted himself into a deadpan corner. Had he tried a decade later, in a less appropriate forum, the collection and catalog could have ridden the wave of institutional pranksterism exemplified by Jeffrey Vallance‘s Nixon Museum, one of the signal pieces of contemporary West Coast art. Instead, it languished as Simmons succumbed to Parkinson’s, passing away less than a year ago, his dream unfulfilled, but his legacy safe in the keeping of his widow.
What is the connection between Hoover and Wilde, apart from the fact that they are archetypal fairies, one good and one evil, whose reputations have sustained diametric inversions since their deaths? These two public figures were consummate liars -- masters of artifice whose main points of difference were in the ethics and cojones departments. The self-consciousness with which curatorial scholars and exhibition designers currently ply their trades is an acknowledgment of the power of presentation to magnify or undermine the force and beauty of the falsehoods in question, to bestow or withhold authority, credence or collusion. Wilde‘s mastery of lies did not prevent his martyrdom. Hoover’s amazing longevity and ability to suppress the truth of his sexuality are, contrariwise, indicative of his indentured servitude to disinformation.
In spite of their popularity among wannabe art stars, questions of meta-aesthetics (art about art about art about . . .) are often more successfully navigated by institutions than by individual artists and scholars. Both exhibitions -- one a reverent, humble and heartfelt amplification of the genuinely artificial baroque facade that was Wilde‘s life and greatest work, presented with the full weight of three established institutions, the other a wandering wiseass orphan, wryly dissecting the artificially genuine aesthetic underpinnings of perhaps the most schizophrenically American popular politician with unflappable scholarly regard -- are examples of the kind of solid, integrated curatorial intelligence that makes curation (in woefully few cases) an art practice all its own.