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Masters of Deceit

As the sprawling but elegant ”Drawn From Artists Collections“ and the echo-chambered and peyote-riddled ”Lee Mullican: Selected Drawings“ shows were winding out their last days, the Armand Hammer opened three new exhibitions clustered around the current popular and academic fascination with all things Victorian. Two of the shows -- ”Secret Victorians,“ organized by London‘s Hayward Gallery, and Kara Walker’s large-scale installation ”No Mere Words . . .“ -- are worth a quick run-through. While it contains some excellent pieces, such as Steven Pippin‘s train-toilet experiments in photography and the late Helen Chadwick’s sleek pop body art, ”Secret Victorians“ suffers from a vaporous inclusiveness -- too much mediocre work that is so secretly Victorian it requires a laborious text-panel justification to make any sense. If you like Kara Walker‘s work, which I don’t, here‘s a roomful of the same old same old: Pittmanesque silhouettes of Chapmanesque monstrosities caricaturing last century’s grievous social injustices for Peter and Eileen Norton. The pairing of Walker and Victoriana was handled substantially better at the Huntington Beach Art Center two years ago, when curator Meg Linton‘s Notions of the 19th Century shared the space with Walker’s first West Coast solo exhibition.

Apparently organized as an afterthought, the third exhibit is a documentary exegesis on the life and work of that most quintessential Victorian, Oscar Wilde. UCLA‘s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts culled the extensive Wilde holdings of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library downtown for the material included in this unassuming but rewarding agglomeration of ephemera. Presented in a straightforward museological form firmly rooted in 19th-century ways of seeing and understanding the world, ”Oscar Wilde“ consists of manuscripts, photographs, letters, paintings, caricatures, opulent book covers and illustrations, relics and artifacts, grave-marker maquette, all soberly vitrined and text-paneled into an object lesson cautioning tolerance and contrition.

Rather than re-configuring Wilde in the context of the flamboyance and irreverence he inspired, this show feels like a retroactive vindication, outfitted in particulars that would have been most meaningful at the time of his death, without aspiring to the presumptuous flattery of mimicry. While currently widespread and trendy (Museum as Muse, etc.), this form of institutional nostalgia often seems like a tacked-on pseudo-conceptual banner, about as meaningful as a Styrofoam car-aerial ball in the great parking lot of cultural discourse. The decorum with which ”Oscar Wilde“ is nestled in dusty display vernacular is, by contrast, a sign of the deep conceptual integrity of this show.

Wilde’s relevance to contemporary art is based on two things: his brilliance as a writer, particularly in his role as a disciple of John Ruskin, the English man of letters who invented art criticism; and on turning his own sweeping aesthetic philosophy into practice as the first ”out“ celebrity. In essays such as ”The Decay of Lying“ and ”The Artist as Critic,“ Wilde laid the foundations for the current hot debate on the meaning and value of ”authenticity.“ As a dandy, Wilde pioneered the paradoxically superficial and passionate art of self-creation that has been a hallmark of queer identity, and subsequently the default mode for survival as a creative intellectual in postmodern times. Would that we were all so ruthless, compassionate and bon with the mots.

it was another UCLA exhibit that brought to my attention a parallel collection of objects which, while deserving of a similarly scrupulous and earnest exposure, has remained literally closeted for over 25 years. While visiting Los Angeles from her home in Arlington, Virginia, to attend the opening of an exhibit of the woodcuts of Edgar Dorsey Taylor -- at UCLA‘s department of special collections, to which she had loaned some of her late husband’s collection -- Corcoran Gallery of Art curator emeritus Linda Crocker Simmons brought along a bulky parcel. In it were documents pertaining to ”the other Edgar,“ representing the single major unrealized curatorial vision of her husband‘s second career. Robert Hilton Simmons, a longtime naval intelligence officer and merchant marine with an art-history degree from Berkeley, was an avid art collector and founding trustee of the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Retiring from maritime duty in the late ’60s, Mr. Simmons became a freelance journalist reporting on the ”federal art scene,“ and a semiprofessional curator.

While his collecting focused on early Chinese and Japanese ceramics, one of his journalist friends tipped him off in 1973 to a secret lot put up at Sloan & Co., a D.C. auction house. Hoping to avoid publicity, Clyde Tolson, bereaved partner of recently departed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, had offered a selection of ”artistic“ knickknacks from his inheritance, identified only by the grease-penciled code letters JET, for J. Edgar Tolson. Sensing an important opportunity, Mr. Simmons attended the auction and successfully outbid tearful ex-bureau men for almost the entire collection. (One exception, a ceramic pig cookie jar, reportedly found its way into Andy Warhol‘s infamous tchotchke warehouse.)

 

Running the gamut from authentically collectible pop-culture memorabilia (a pair of Stork Club figurines), to Koonsian kitsch (chrome-plated ”peeing boy“ sculpture, The Purple Cow porcelain sculpture), to the pathetic (Popsicle Stick Basket, ”fashioned from 288 used popsicle sticks; attributed to Clyde Tolson“), the 50-odd pieces in the Hoover Art Collection are 100 percent cheese. Whether old-maid dainty like the Molded Paste Vase Decorated With Raised Flowers, archly hetero-vulgar like the ”Bending Nude Maiden“--handled rain-barrel salt-and-pepper shakers, generically exotic like the mysterious J. Edgar Hoover as the Buddha, or faux-opulent, as in the enamel and false-jewel musical cigarette box ”in the shape of the Celestial Sphere“ that rotates while playing the theme from Around the World in 80 Days, the objects reflect a pre-Sontag-ified camp sensibility, dense with ornamentation and sentimentality. While Simmons never revised his catalog to incorporate the revelations about red-dressed and feather-boaed ”Mary“ Hoover’s rubber-glove-job orgies with Roy Cohn at the Plaza, rumors of Hoover‘s sexual preferences went back to the ’30s, and Simmons scrupulously avoids the issue, letting the collection‘s convoluted cartography of an obviously tormented libido speak for itself.

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.

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