(1) Vasily Kandinsky, "Composition"
(2) Vasily Kandinsky, "Composition"
(3) David Hammons, "Injustice Case", mixed media monoprint on paper, 60 1/2 x 40", 1970. Photo courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from the exhibition "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art" at the UCLA /Armand Hammer Museum of Art.
(4) Jeffery Vallance, "The King of Tonga"
Summer is the best time of the year to review and assess the past season. Good catalogues refresh and sustain the life of memorable shows. This year, some of the best publications did not originate as exhibition catalogues, however. Accompanying his show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMOA), The World of Jeffery Vallance (Los Angeles: Art Issues, 1995) is not a catalogue but a collection of essays by the artist that engage in myth, legend, folklore, and painstakingly researched historical data, all intermingled with droll recountings of his adventures in other parts of the world. Underlaid by the fertile imagination, insatiable curiosity, and chuzpah that might mask a modicum of absurdity, the earnest disposition that once underlay a tie-exchange with U.S. senators is solemnly dispatched. The book documents more recent exploits and explorations like the burial and disinterment of Blinky the Friendly Hen, a meeting with the King of Tonga (that land "a paradise for the overweight"), a visit with Icelandic President Finnbogadotter, and, if he failed to meet the Pope, a scrupulous investigation of religious relics, in particular, the Holy Lance and the Veil of Veronica, and finding the latter reflected in the work of Hermann Nitsch. Prefaced by Dave Hickey's witty view of Vallance's world, i.e., the San Fernando Valley, Vallance's perceptions and their consequences make his narrations, even the meticulously entered definitions, tantalizing.
Another artist who scores high in print is Buzz Spector. The Book Maker's Desire (Los Angeles, Umbrella, 1995) is modestly proportioned, but it is formidable as a vehicle to inform and illuminate the reader, if not provoke interest in his subject. This may take the form of altered books like those of Ann Hamilton and Margaret Wharton, or of original publications such as Anselm Kiefer's weighty tomes and John Baldessari's illustrations for Sterne's Tristam Shandy, the latter lauded as a counterpart to the bawdy text. In these previously published essays, along with an enlightening interview with Neva Lindburg Munos, Spector is unfailing in his capacity for image provoking words that contribute to deepened insights. And there's a bonus here, too: a recipe for cleaning mussels!
Another aritst who writes in Martin Mull. What? You thought he was only on film and TV? Well, the profusely illustrated Martin Mull: Paintings, Drawings and Words (Boston & Tokyo: Journey, 1995), with a foreword by Newport Harbor Art Museum (NHAM) curator, Bruce Guenther, will tell you that Mull's talent stretches much further. Mull, who writes in a friendly, confiding vein, confesses that art was his chosen profession--he holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design--and shares his feelings and views on the subject along with biographical data and an account of his process. Humor, if less than hilarious, punctuates the text, but wit and whimsy spread over much of the work like the punning New York Fall (two examples). Mull's Piano Lesson, an homage to Matisse, retains the metronome but introduces a dog and a little girl--dogs and kids abound in his work. You might mull over that!
Another volume on hand, not by an artist, is Carol Doumani's Untitled, Nude (Los Angeles: Wave, 1995), a lively art-whodunit that is bound to grab your interest and hold it. Not only is there a murder to be solved, but characters based on artworld personalities will also have you guessing. With a denouement that knits all together beautifully, while you nod and murmur, "of course, why didn't I see that?," it is very well crafted. A few troubling things to me, though, include the word statue (I know it's OK with Robert Graham, but artists I polled sided with me) and the rather problematic image of a woman carrying a Diebenkorn Ocean Park, be it real or phoney, under one arm!
Getting down to catalogues, if you've been to LACMA lately, you will want to sharpen your focus on a master who was central to modernism and the onset of an abstract tradition by reading MOMA curator Magdalena Dabrowski's fully illustrated text in Kandinsky Compositions (NY/LA: Abrams/MOMA, 1995). From the more free-flowing, if premeditated, pre-World War I Compositions, through the geometricized examples of the twenties, to the biomorphic and amorphous work of the thirties, his evolution from the apocalyptical to the spiritual and "pure painting" is detailed. With interpretations by several scholars, the substance of the Compositions (not all are extant) is clarified, along with influences ranging from Jugenstil and Symbolism, to Theosophy, Schopenhauer, Goethe, and more, the impact of music--to Kandinsky, the superior art--stands out, with Wagner and Schoenberg, the latter a close friend the most significant composers.
Black Male, accompanying the UCLA/Hammer Museum exhibition (discussed in the June issue by Betty Brown) is a catalogue and more. In addition to curator Thelma Golden's provocative discussion of the stereotyping of the black African-American male by media and society, a number of writers contribute their insights in examining relevant issues, principally in relation to popular culture--collaborators Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julian stressing "blaxploitation"--while Greg Tate covers black male genius in the arts. Elizabeth Alexander focuses on events like the recent violence inflicted on Rodney King as shown on video, and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in press photographs. bell hooks examines the image of the black male body historically and in contemporary culture, while Hennan Gray takes on black masculinity as it is represented today.
In Cy Twombly: A Retrospective (New York: MOMA 1995), accompanying the recent show at MOCA, Kirk Varnedoe traces the evolution of the artists who began his studies at the age of fourteen and whose work reflects his deep response to literature and history, to nature and art, in a continuing engagement with both ancient and modern. From the "symbols abstracted, but nevertheless humanistic" of the early '50s through the familiar handwriting, to the spare monochromes with dabs of color suggesting narrative before arriving at looping lines and finally, in the '80s, the delicate flower motifs with their suggestion of sea and sky--these last suggesting "flight" and "floating" according to Varnedoe --Twombly's artistic journey is documented.
Also from LACMA comes American Impressionism and Realism: the Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 (New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1994), a collaboration of H. Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger and David Park Curry, offering both excellent analyses of works and plates located where you want them--in the text. close to their references! This highly informative and immensely readable book clarifies the concerns of the two schools, the one contemplative and objective; the other socially-concerned and subjective, exploring affinities and differences, overlaps and oppositions. Artists' personalities are viewed in terms of vision, values and tastes as well as whatever quirks (John Sloan was a social climber) may inform their canvases, with their choices of environment--lmpressionists favoring the countryside, the urbanite Realists venturing no further than Coney Island or Far Rockaway!
R.B. Kitaj: A Retrospective (London: Tate, 1994) focuses on the one-time merchant seaman, featured in retrospective several months back at LACMA, who turned away from modernism in favor of a proto-conceptual stance. Kitaj, an artist who, to borrow his own words, "wallows in ideas," is much like the artist/writers discussed above: he seems to have as much to say verbally as pictorially. The richly illustrated catalogue edited by Richard Morphet, with a reminiscence by Richard Wollheim and a visit with Kitaj by John Richardson, invites frequent reviewings of the potent images in the show, for a closer acquaintance with a figure whose assimilation of literature, both great and small, layers the content of his art, along with elements of his Jewish heritage and the facts of the Holocaust.
LAX/94 is a multi-catalogue documenting the second Biennial here to embrace group exhibitions at several non-profit venues. Prefaced by notes from "Mappings from the 'cultural fringe'," a round table held at MOCA last July intended to probe L.A.'s "identity," it points to the role of cultural institutions to bring this about while maintaining diversity.
Then there are some slimmer volumes covering recent exhibitions that are well worth perusing. Ecstatic Visions and Unnatural Acts, Margaret Nielsen's show at SMMOA, has a penetrating and eye-opening text by Getty Trust Editor Bill Hackman. Roland Reiss, Paintings 1994/95 at CSULA, will acquaint you with the work this former sculptor is doing now, with a text by David Pagel. Newport Harbor's sculpture show of last fall, The Essential Gesture, is documented by Curator Bruce Guenther, and from MOCA, if you wondered what Piero Manzoni's Line Drawings are about, essays by curator Alma Ruiz and Angela Vetesse will help open your imagination to appreciate what the artists originally wished retained in their cardboard tubes. Narcissistic Disturbance, from Otis, is saturated in a sensuous pink, but it doesn't affect the color reproductions. Texts are by curator Michael Cohen and guest essayists.
A couple of catalogues that represent shows not expected to come here are nonetheless worthy of your attention. An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital (New York: Abrams, 1995 ), surveying photography here from pinhole to hi-tech in the Hallmark Photographic Collection, offers a detailed history. Precisionism in America 1915-1941: Reordering Reality (New York: Abrams, 1994) accompanies a show that originated at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, and was curated by Gail Stavitsky. This catalogue will fill you in on this important movement in 20th Century American art between the wars.
Returning to non-catalogues, if you have curiosity in this direction there is Folk Erotica: Celebrating Centuries of Erotic Americana (New York: Harper Collins, 1984), authored by Milton Simpson, and rather delightful. Also, and finally, there's a local publication, with the lengthy title, Guide to Artists in Southern Califomia: Meet the artists in their studios, buy art directly (Santa Monica: ART Resources, 1994). Edited by Vanessa Obten, it should be a help to artist-gallery connections, although there are some with affiliations in there, too. Illustrated, with several in color, it also lists galleries and museums.