Show and Tell

MOCA'S Julie Lazar and Robert Irwin's Central Garden (1997) at the Getty LIVING WITH AN ARTWORK IS DIFFERENT FROM visiting one in a museum. The formality of the gallery setting prohibits intimacy: You can't sit down with the object of interest, you usually can't be alone with it, and you certainly can't touch it. Visiting an institutionalized artwork is frustrating: You can see it, but you can't know it.

The luxury of such knowledge is one of the privileges of working at a museum. Museum people have a backstage pass to high culture. They get to see great works as often as they like, on and off the walls, and in ever-changing contexts. "This is a great job," says David Zeidberg, Avery director of the Huntington Library. "When you're preparing an exhibition on George Washington and you hold in your hand a letter he actually wrote, and you know it was in his hand 220 years ago, you can't help but have an emotional response. You never get blasé about these things, and having contact with these materials is thrilling."

It's a thrill, however, that comes with restrictions: "I'm very careful not to collect personally -- that's verboten for curators, because there are moral issues involved with collecting what you also collect for a museum," says Amy Meyers, the curator of American Art at the Huntington Museum. "I never want to find myself compromising what I do for my collection because I so desire something for myself personally. Generally, though, my work is so fulfilling that I don't find myself coveting things. As a curator, I'm constantly seeing works be redefined in relation to new works that enter the collection. I think a lot about the interrelationship between the works, and how they relate to the complex Anglo-American history which is so much a part of the Huntington."

The Getty's Weston Naef and Edward Weston's Pepper No. 30 (1930) All this begs a question: Do curators see art differently? Does the kind of intimacy they have with the works they oversee result in a qualitatively different relationship with art? "Yes and no," says Gloria Williams, a curator at the Norton Simon Museum. "I respond to the works at the Norton Simon as immediately as someone from any profession would, but there's another layer to my response, depending on how much I know about a particular work. To see a great work of art unframed, on an easel or a table, with a very good light and nothing between you and the work, is a phenomenal experience, and I think it does add another dimension to how I see the piece."

With good art, it seems, familiarity breeds respect. And so we asked some of the city's best-known curators and museum heads to talk about a favorite piece in their own collections. We also asked them to identify a work they loved somewhere else in town. This is what they had to say.


Kurt Schwitters did a series of large collages, and LACMA has one called Construction for Noble Ladies, from 1919, that's arguably the best of the series. It's made from found materials, including the wheel of a child's carriage, wire netting, string and cotton, and a woman's face is painted in profile on the surface. It prefigures the work of Johns and Rauschenberg in key ways, and if you looked at the piece knowing nothing about it, you'd never guess it was done in 1919. I'm moved by the audacious modernity of its scale and materials, and for me it has a heroic quality.

Museum of Jurassic Technology's David Wilson and Hagop Sandaldjian's Napolean (Circa 1984) I've always been drawn to Francisco de Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, at the Norton Simon. Zurbarán painted it in 1633, yet it speaks to a modernist sensibility because of the astonishing confidence he showed in selecting these everyday objects. Even more astonishing is the monumental quality he imbued them â with. Zurbarán was a monastic painter who made most of his work for the church, and he made just a few nonreligious works. His incredible handling of color and light, however, transforms this secular painting into something mystical and transcendent. These lemons are larger than life-size, and you can really feel their skin and smell the fragrance of the blossoms.


Foirades/Fizzles is an artist's book by Jasper Johns and Samuel Beckett that I love. It was published in 1976, in an edition of 250, and includes five texts by Beckett and 33 etchings and one lithograph by Johns. I love the book because it says so much about printmaking, which is by nature a collaborative medium. Johns takes printmaking to a whole new level, and this is a particularly beautiful and complex book. You can't experience it by looking at it in a case; you have to sit and go through it.  

There's a terrific Seurat drawing called Poplars at the Getty. It's a landscape of trees made in the early 1880s using Conte crayon and textured paper, and it's almost an abstraction. Seurat often used textured paper to create a pointillist effect in his drawings, and it really works in this piece, which has incredible atmosphere.

LACMA'S Stephanie Barron and Kurt Schwitters' Construction for Noble Ladies (1919). CONNIE BUTLER ASSOCIATE CURATOR, MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

Michael Heizer's Double Negative is an earthwork from 1969-70 that's described in MOCA's collection catalog as "a 240,000-ton displacement in rhyolite and sandstone at the Mormon Mesa in Nevada." It's basically two large cuts in the ground on opposite sides of a canyon, located about five hours northeast of Las Vegas. It was a gift from [art dealer] Virginia Dwan, and that MOCA accepted it into its collection and took on the issues that go with it shows great vision. Heizer wanted it to change with time and for the land to eventually return to its original state, so his instructions were to just let it live. I'm moved by the Americanness of earthworks, and the ambition of these sculptures in the desert.

The Getty owns a group of Charles Sheeler photographs made in 1917 that are absolutely beautiful. They're stark images of buildings in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and they're so reductive they almost look Cubist. I love them because I'm interested in American vernacular architecture, and these are early abstractions of that subject.


MOCA's series of photographs by Robert Frank, The Americans Portfolio, is always moving to me. Every one of these photographs is incredible, and they introduced a new way of looking at the American landscape and society.

Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?), by Jacopo Pontormo, at the Getty, is a beautiful painting by a truly strange artist. It's a portrait done in 1528­30 of an aristocratic young man in a buff-colored jerkin who's holding a weapon in his right hand. There's an enigmatic sketch in the background that may represent the city walls of Florence, but it's so reduced it looks like a geometric abstraction. Pontormo was one of the founders of the Mannerist style in Italy, and he allows an element of distortion into his work that gives it a very personal flavor. It also prefigures much of what was to come in Italian painting later in the 16th century. At that point, the technical skills of the best artists were so advanced that people began to ask themselves, where do we go from here now that we've achieved such an astonishing level of representation? This particular Pontormo is relatively tame compared with his religious paintings, but you can see elements of his personal style here, a subtle elongation of the figure, for instance, and a peculiar rounding of the eye.


We have a terrific double portrait from 1926 by the German artist Max Liebermann called Portrait of the Artist's Wife and Granddaughter. Liebermann was the leader of the Berlin Secession, and he brought Impressionism to Germany, which is a chapter of history that's not well-known. Most of Liebermann's work is in Germany, and he's almost entirely unknown in the U.S. This piece shows a woman sitting in a chair with a young girl sitting on the arm of the chair, and they're reading something together. It's loosely painted, and at the time it was made, it was considered quite outrageous in Berlin, which wasn't at all avant-garde compared with Paris and other European cities. A much more conservative point of view prevailed there.


We have a large painting of a holy man from around the 15th century, which is early Ming dynasty, that's spectacular. It's called Lohan and Attendant, which is a word for a holy man, and it's painted in transparent colors on silk. It's an elegant depiction of a man with a wonderful smile on his face, and behind him an aura emanates from his head. The aura is transparent, and through it you see beautiful trees and leaves. An attendant kneels in front of the lohan, who's rendered in a strong, individualistic style -- this is obviously a specific person being portrayed and not a generic wise man. There's lots of furniture in the painting, and the robes the lohan wears are rendered with such detail that the piece tells us a great deal about how people lived in this period.  

There's a small still life from 1654 called Vase of Flowers, by Jan Davidz de Heem, at the Norton Simon that's exquisite. They have a wonderful collection of Dutch still lifes at the Norton Simon, which is such an unsung institution. The quality of their collection is so superb that it's legendary among museum people.


George Stuart's historical figures are my favorite things in our collection. They're only 18 inches high, but they're so remarkably lifelike that they really give you a sense of the personality of the individual being represented. We have 19 of them and right now Louis XIV French Court and The Last of the Manchus are on display. Stuart starts with an armature, like a skeleton, and builds the figure up from there. His painting and costuming are magnificent, and everything is duplicated down to the last detail. Stuart considers himself a historian and performer, and he uses his figures when he lectures on history.


To acquire a work that will eventually be only a memory is a bold thing to do, but that's what MOCA did when it accepted Michael Heizer's Double Negative into its collection. The question of museums taking responsibility for temporal works that aren't meant to be permanent, yet are part of contemporary art history, is complex and important, and it was raised very beautifully in Double Negative, which is essentially a drawing on the earth. I love the challenge it presented, and that MOCA's board was adaptable enough to accommodate it.

Robert Irwin's garden at the Getty reminds me of Monet's Waterlilies at Giverny -- it's like a three-dimensional painting rendered in light and plant life. I love the sensitivity Irwin brought to his handling of the water and sounds of the piece -- it's as if he tuned the bridges that cross the stream -- and the constant change is thrilling.


Our collection focuses on painting, and one of my favorite works is Mar de Lurin, by a Peruvian painter named Fernando de Szyszlo. He was born in 1925 and raised in Lima, then spent a lot of time in Europe, and the result of those two influences is a style that combines a romantic interpretation of pre-Hispanic culture with contemporary lyrical abstraction. Mar de Lurin is an architectural element in an abstracted landscape, and it's painted in dramatic colors that are evocative of indigenous Peruvian textiles. It has an eternal quality that for me evokes the dignity of a very old heritage.

James Ensor's Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889 at the Getty is a fantastic painting. It's so potent and satirical, and considering that Ensor painted it in 1888, it's amazingly progressive. It's a painting of â a religious subject done in an Expressionistic style, but it has humor and social commentary running through it that are really gutsy. It's one of Ensor's most important pieces, and it's wonderful the Getty has it.


We have a work called The Avranches Psalter that's an exceptional example of French Gothic manuscript painting. It was made northeast of Paris in the first decade of the 13th century, and includes nine painted illuminations inspired by the Book of Psalms. I love it because my discipline is literature, and this book tells us a lot about family life in the medieval period; the paintings are mostly religious imagery, but depictions of country life are interspersed in the compositions. Shortly after I started working at the Getty, the dealer who sold it to us came to show it, and there he was in the bowels of the organization with this manuscript in an old beaten-up attaché case. He was a master of the theater curators like to indulge in -- the white gloves, the foam-rubber cradle positioned just so -- and when I finally saw this staggeringly beautiful object, I was speechless. The privilege of having that kind of intimacy with artworks of this caliber is the joy of this job.

I'm amazed by the Ardabil Carpet, which is a Persian work from the 16th century at LACMA. Its design -- a central medallion with radiating pendants -- is derived from earlier manuscript illumination, and it's a huge, gorgeous rug. I also love the Shakespeare folios and the Gutenberg Bible at the Huntington, which has great books and an exquisite setting.


I'm always moved by the intelligence and emotion of Carleton E. Watkins' work. His reputation is as a landscape photographer, because he was one of the first artists to take a mammoth camera into Yosemite, but he also did extraordinary genre studies, portraits and still lifes. We have over 1,200 of his pictures, and my favorite is a photograph from 1889 of the mother of all Thompson's seedless grapes. Watkins found his way to the very vine in Bakersfield that transformed agriculture in California, and made a still-life study of it that has the monumental presence of a Cézanne. To me, it's one of the great bridges between documentary and fine-art photography.  

A work of profound historical importance is Edward Weston's Pepper #30, from 1930, at LACMA. Form and emotion come together in this photograph in an amazing way, and when you first look at it, it appears to be two intertwined human forms. Initially, you don't recognize it as a pepper, because Weston imbued a quality of intense sensuality to something we normally consider as sexless as a stone.


One of the most emotional works at the Autry is a painting from 1875 by Thomas Moran called Mountain of the Holy Cross. It's an idealized landscape depicting fissures in the side of a mountain that are filled with snow so as to create the image of a cross. People who've been raised in a Christian environment often interpret the painting as a symbol of God's presence in nature, but many other people respond to it simply because it's a great work of art. We also have a movie camera made in the early 20th century by the Schustek Company that I love. It was used by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, which produced 20 silent films, including three Westerns, that were cast entirely with African-Americans. The Norman family wasn't black, and that they had the vision to make these films 75 years ago is remarkable. The Westerns have unfortunately been lost, but we have posters, lobby cards, stills and the camera.

The Southwest Museum has sensational Navajo blankets. The quality and extent of the collection is staggering, and several of their pieces are the only ones of their type in existence. Many of these weavings were produced by cultures in states of extreme duress, and for me they represent the resilience of those cultures in a moving and beautiful way.


We have a J.M.W. Turner painting from the 1830s called The Grand Canal, Venice that's a breathtaking work by a master of landscape and atmospheric effect. It was recently cleaned by the Getty and was transformed; suddenly one saw that magnificent Venetian light that engaged so many artists over the centuries. There's a representation of Shylock in the lower right-hand corner that alludes to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Turner frequently added those kinds of details to his landscapes, and in a sense they transform the work into a kind of history painting.

The Getty has a Théodore Géricault from 1818-19 called Portrait Study that's just gorgeous. It's the head of a black man, and Gericault rendered it with such lusciousness in terms of the handling of the paint that it's simply unforgettable.


We have a drum that's rich in meaning for me, because I knew the carver of the drum -- Osei Bonsu -- and went to the village of Abofo, Ghana, where it was made in 1935. As is often the case with works of this type, the entire surface of the body of the drum is in relief, with images relating to traditional proverbs and beliefs in Ashanti society. Bonsu was a carver to several Ashanti kings, but this isn't a royal drum; rather, it was made for use by people getting together to drum for their own entertainment.

The Getty has a work by Jan Brueghel the Elder from 1613 called The Entry of the Animals Into Noah's Ark that's just a sweet painting. It's not very large, and you can barely see the ark in the background, but the foreground of the piece depicts a rich assortment of animals, each wonderfully drawn and detailed. The Getty published a guide to this particular painting for children that's really charming. â


We have a work in our collection that provided the foundation for all contemporary art, and that's No. 1, 1949 by Jackson Pollock. Pollock changed the very nature of what constitutes the production of a work of art; the process became the subject of work after Pollock, and how the artist worked became what you saw. He broke the ice for performance art, body work, idiosyncratic personal languages -- it all came after him, and 1949 is the year he broke through. No. 1 is the first painting where what he's painting and how he's painting it are inseparable, and there's nothing like this work on the West Coast.  

The Norton Simon's The Coronation of the Virgin Altarpiece, by Guariento di Arpo, is a work of such complexity that you can sit in front of it for hours and never come to grips with it. It's a Gothic-style altarpiece from 1344, and, like the Pollock, it's a key work that introduced a radical change in Venetian painting of its period. It's also the epitome of what Norton Simon and great collecting are about. This isn't "school of," or a minor work by a major figure -- it's a singular masterpiece without equal. I recently looked at it with my 9-year-old son, and it was fascinating to try and reconcile contemporary culture with the narrative of this painting. The coronation of the Virgin, the Immaculate Conception -- what do these things mean to us today? It's a piece that raises questions that continue to be relevant, and that's what makes it ageless.


Edgar Degas' The Bellelli Sisters, from 1862­64, was a key work in the shift that took place in portraiture as the 19th century gave way to Modernism, and to the greater understanding of human psychology that came in the 20th century. The way this affected portraiture is that artists began interpreting their sitters, as opposed to simply trying to depict them as realistically as possible. Qualities of uncertainty and fluidity began to appear in portraiture, and Degas handles all this beautifully in that painting.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology's Garden of Eden on Wheels is an exquisitely presented display of collectibles -- plates, pin cushions, tchotchkes -- acquired at a mobile-home park, that really made me laugh. I love that museum for the questions it raises in terms of what is art and how it's presented to a public. It's a phenomenal place and a real treasure, and I hope we can keep it here.


We have an incredible drawing by Jim Shaw called Dreams: Chris Wilder's Mom . . ., from a series he did in the mid-'90s. What I like about the series is that everything and everyone seem to be in his dreams all the time. It's a small piece done in pencil, and I like the tension created between the care taken in the rendering of the drawing, and the casual quality of an erasable medium like pencil.

There's a piece called Duck's Breath in an exhibition at the Jurassic Museum called "Tell the Bees . . .: Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition . . ." that I've thought a lot about. It's a life-size wax cast of a child's head facing a taxidermy duck head with its bill stuck in the child's mouth. It refers to the fact that people once believed various maladies could be alleviated by having a duck breathe into a child's mouth. The exhibition is about belief systems, which I find fascinating, and as an object the piece has a strange, erotic beauty.


Jasper Johns' Map is an incredibly gorgeous and subtle painting. Basically, it's a map of the United States rendered in gray tones, and it's made of collage, newspaper on canvas and encaustic, which is a wax medium infused with pigment. Each state is delineated, then the name of the state, or an abbreviation of the name, is painted onto it in a simple typeface. Maps are tremendously evocative things that incite curiosity and reflection, and Johns evokes that mood quite beautifully in this great work.

The Zurbarán at the Norton Simon is extraordinary, because it combines the most precise realism with pure abstract values. The subject of the painting is ostensibly mundane objects, but they're rendered with such intensity that they edge into another realm that's ultimately spiritual. It's been suggested that the objects are presented as if on an altar, but there's nothing overt about it; what's important is your sense of the harmony and absolute order of these objects.


Martha Rebuking Mary Magdalene for Her Vanity is a large narrative painting from the mid­17th century by Guido Cagnacci that's full of invention. In the foreground, Mary Magdalene is sprawled on the ground in tears, and her sister, Martha, is seated above her reading her the riot act for her way of life as a prostitute. They're surrounded by a profusion of Mary's jewels, silk slippers and brocade robes, and two maids are leaving the room, one crying and penitent with sorrow, the other â frankly annoyed. In the background is a symbolic spiritual world inhabited by a nude angel with a stick in his hand. The angel is beating away a devil who's biting his index finger, which is an Italian gesture for rage -- he's mad, one assumes, because Mary Magdalene is about to stop sinning. It's a very sensual work, and part of the tension in the painting resides in the fact that it's presenting a cautionary tale against the dangers of physical pleasure, yet the painting itself is an intensely pleasurable physical object -- it has a real erotic jolt! Cagnacci isn't well-known, perhaps because much of his work is of lesser quality. He turned out respectable religious paintings for a period, then began to specialize in swooning Magdalenes, and Cleopatras plunging daggers into their breasts -- in other words, pinups. This is one of his most ambitious paintings, and he must've known that, because he signed himself as "inventor."  

LACMA has a Baroque painting by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione called Noah's Sacrifice After the Deluge that's delightful. It's a biblical-pastoral painting; the flood has receded, Noah has left the ark and is about to make a sacrifice giving thanks for the fact that he and his family have been saved. All this is in the distant background, however. What you see in the foreground is a scruffy old man who's emptying the pantry of the ark, and is surrounded by heaps of copper pots, ceramic bowls, clothing and animals. Cats, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits -- they're all right there in front, sort of laid across the painting horizontally. There was a period of Italian painting when things were often turned around, and what was important went in back; Castiglione specialized in this, and was often playful to the point of irreverence in his handling of biblical themes.


My favorite works in our collection are the microminiature sculptures by Hagop Sandaldjian, an artist who made sculpture out of human hair. You have to look through a magnifying lens to see his pieces, and his statue of Napoleon is probably my favorite -- I find a certain poetic justice in Napoleon being depicted this way. There's something intensely personal about viewing Hagop's work, because it demands a unique kind of focus.

I love the illuminated manuscripts at the Getty, both for the material and for the perfection with which they're displayed. I also love the Gems and Minerals Hall at the Natural History Museum, because it represents the apex of a certain era of exhibition design, which is something I feel has gone downhill. The integration of artworks and display can add up to something quite magical, but it's rarely done with much imagination these days.


We have a 1965 sculpture from Paul Thek's Technological Reliquaries series that feels especially important to me because of the period it evokes. As we approach the end of the century, we seem to be doing a lot of catch-up in terms of plugging holes in our history, and Thek is a wonderful artist from the '60s who warrants more attention. In the '60s, he left the U.S. for Europe, where he did lots of collaborative performances and had a big career up through the early '70s. When he returned to America in the late '70s, he felt he'd been passed over, and he had been. His work has never been seen in depth in L.A. The Technological Reliquaries are pieces of meat made of wax and displayed in Plexiglas cases. A thread of Catholic spirituality runs through all of Thek's work, so the piece is both a critique of Minimalism, and a reference to Catholicism in its suggestion of human life bereft of spirit and reduced to an inert hunk of meat.

There's a piece I love at the Getty called The Annunciation, by the Flemish painter Dieric Bouts. One of the things I love about Bouts is that he's such a modest, restrained artist; his colors tend to be muted, and the archangel in this painting appears in a simple white robe as opposed to an ornate robe. Mary's chamber is intensely palpable, because it's so stark -- you really get the sense this is her room -- and the composition is dominated by a brilliant red canopy that's the only strong color in the piece. I have a background in photography, and I think I have an affinity for Bouts' work because it has an almost photographic clarity.


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