April 27, 2011 | 12:15
This is the most iconic painting of French Decadence. Cultural critics in the 1980s saw Salome as this symbol of the femme fatale when, in fact, there is so much more at play here: a darker, richer sort of perversity. Moreau is bringing back religious subject matter, but instead of, say, a crucifixion he chooses one of the strangest stories of the New Testament, as if he’s going for shock value. The work is filled with this confusion of architectural styles and symbols, like the multi-breasted statue of Cybele, the Roman goddess whose followers included a castration cult. Then there’s the painting’s surface— globules of pure paint encased under these layers and layers of glaze until they glisten, like semi-precious stones. At a time when the Impressionists’ quest for immediacy had led them to abandon their studios and leave their tins of varnish behind, this kind of lacquered density feels very contrary. Moreau’s going for an arcane, even Byzantine fantasy of what the past might’ve—or should’ve—been.
— Artist Richard Hawkins, as told to Jori Finkel
Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1876. Oil on canvas. The Armand Hammer Collection at the Hammer Museum. Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation.
April 13, 2011 | 12:15
This is one of my favorite paintings in the Getty and in the world. It’s austere and subdued, both in terms of the figures in it and the light and shadow of the empty room. It’s almost Zen-like. There’s an incredible blood-red curtain in the back — I get goose bumps whenever I see it.The scene is internalized in a powerful way. Think of that beautiful Fra Angelico of ‘The Annunciation’ in San Marco in Florence, where Gabriel is walking onto the veranda and Mary is looking right at him. But here the communication is happening the way all sacred conversations happen, without eye contact and without dialogue. This stillness is what attracts me. And the subject is probably the most profound in human existence: the moment when a woman knows she’s pregnant. That’s when you go beyond Mary, Jesus and the Christian iconography and enter the universal language of mankind. This painting represents something universal and essential for our existence. Like Rumi said: “Woman is a ray of God, she is not that earthly beloved; she is creative, not created.”
—Artist Bill Viola, as told to Jori Finkel
Image: Dieric Bouts’ "The Annunciation," from about 1450-55; courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum.
March 30, 2011 | 10:00
Rebecca Campbell on Édouard Manet's 'The Ragpicker' at the Norton Simon Museum:
Manet was sort of a dandy, so I don’t know what he could have possibly known about the reality of being a ragpicker or homeless person. This is a very outside-in look at a subject. But for me what’s really compelling is that there’s a tiny still-life in the left-hand corner: a painting within the painting. You can make out a shard of glass, a lemon peel, a bit of garbage — but it looks like he’s only touched the canvas a few times. That brevity is something I find compelling about Manet. People think of him as a painter of great beauty, but when you see some marks up close, they are stingy and thin. Also, the palette is so restrictive: Everything has been stripped away. It’s like a man of few words. You have to take what he says and unpack it yourself.
— Artist Rebecca Campbell,
as told to Jori Finkel
Image: Édouard Manet's "Ragpicker," circa 1865-70, from the Norton Simon Foundation
February 23, 2011 | 8:30
This is one of the first things I was able to focus my eyes on when I visited the museum, which looks like a garage crammed with someone’s collection. You’re bombarded with so much stuff: wax figures of Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama, toys and knickknacks, slave artifacts and sports memorabilia. Pieces are in disarray too, like wax figures on their backsides somehow being worked on. The Thurgood Marshall figure was sitting behind a judge’s bench and dressed in a robe. Nearby, in the witness stand, was a figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Movieland Wax Museum, which went out of business, had originally built this set for the TV show “Perry Mason,” and it looks like it’s straight out of the 1950s. Oran Z himself, who arranged the installations with such care and devotion to his heroes, will take you on the tours. He’s a very passionate man and wants to educate everyone on his understanding of African American history. I haven’t been on a tour any shorter than three hours.
— Artist Kristen Morgin, as told to Jori Finkel
Image: The wax figure of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Oran Z’s Pan African Black Facts & Wax Museum in Los Angeles, which is open by appointment. Photograph by Glenn Koenig for the Times.
February 9, 2011 | 9:59
I had a print of this painting in my room when I was a teenager. I used to stare at it at night going to sleep. I think my mother bought it to give the room a splash of color. I didn’t know the whole Rothko mythology then: the romantic/modernist tormented painter who committed suicide. I didn’t know his role in the New York scene of the 1950s. And I wasn’t seduced by the spirituality, what I later saw in the Rothko Chapel. But I remember looking at it and thinking I wanted to do that; I wanted to make surfaces. Later on, after reading about his work and Abstract Expressionism, I remember looking at the painting and feeling nullified by it — how much is not there, no women and no people of color. So it’s perplexing. I don’t buy the romanticism or the idea of channeling an inner life right onto the surface. But I am an abstract painter. I never went through a figurative moment, even as a child.
-- Artist Mark Bradford, as told to Jori Finkel
Image: Mark Rothko's "No. 61 (Rust and Blue)" [Brown Blue, Brown on Blue], 1953, oil on canvas. Credit: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Panza Collection, © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. [Updated: The image provided by the museum was upside down and appeared that way in a previous version of this post; this is the correct orientation.]
January 26, 2011 | 2:51
This Fragonard canvas isn’t much larger than a sheet of typing paper. It shows a pastel-colored company of elegant ladies and gentlemen in a garden landscape, overhung by a blue-gray mist that either predicts a lowering storm or is simply the underpainting. The game of blindman’s bluff has been interrupted. No one is paying attention to the "blindman," who waits under a parasol in his blindfold while everyone, including a marble statue, is looking out to the left toward something we cannot see, something that is either coming or leaving. But every coming is also a leaving, as every leaving is also a coming. Is it the dark cloud of 1789 coming or the twilit glow of the ancien regime leaving? The painting is a puzzle without a solution that reminds me of my own “Last Days of Pompeii” photographs. Is the postmodern rococo or is the rococo postmodern?
— Artist Eleanor Antin, as told to Jori Finkel
Image: Jean-Honoré Fragonard's Blindman's Bluff (Le Colin-Maillard), circa 1775-80, oil on canvas. The Putnam Foundation Collection, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego.
January 11, 2011 | 4:45
"I’ve always been drawn to this piece -- a prime example of a modernist looking at ethnographic imagery and translating it into avant-garde sculpture. From what I’ve read, Lipchitz was looking at Senufo rhythm pounders from the Ivory Coast, fertility symbols pounded against the ground during rituals.
"When I first saw this piece as a student, it seemed alien and wild to me, and from certain angles completely abstract. But you can also see a standing woman, with an oval head and two eyes on each side. And the more I look, the more sensual and erotic it becomes. For my new gallery show at Cherry and Martin, I sculpted a version of it in clay and cast it in recycled aluminum -- turning it into a fountain that cries from all eyes."
-- Artist Nathan Mabry, as told to Jori Finkel
Image: Jacques Lipchitz's "Figure," 1926-30; bronze, edition of 7, cast No. 2; Norton Simon Art Foundation; © Estate of Jacques Lipchitz /Marlborough Gallery, New York
December 28, 2010 | 3:00
James Ensor is often described by art historians as an artist who disdained the crowd or “mob.” But 10 years ago, Swedish critic Stefan Jonsson studied the context of the painting and turned that argument on its head. Ensor is in fact celebrating a radical egalitarian vision, close to Catholic working-class anarchist and socialist values strongly present in late 19th-century Belgium. Christ enters Brussels on a donkey: Palm Sunday becomes a carnival of masks on the centenary of the French Revolution. What Ensor does is to adapt the sweeping overviews that we find in Brueghel and Bosch, drawing energy from the vitality of peasant culture. In this urban parade, Ensor pushes physiognomic caricature to animal extremes and gives us a more fluid and crazier picture than anything else painted at the time. In 1958, Los Angeles enacted a municipal ordinance prohibiting carnivals on city streets. So there is extra irony in the painting overlooking the city from the Getty hilltop.
-- Allan Sekula, as told to Jori Finkel
James Ensor's "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889," painted in 1888; The J. Paul Getty Museum. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels
December 15, 2010 | 3:13
R.B. Kitaj did a series of screen prints by photographing 50 book covers from his own library. There’s a wide variety of titles, from “The Wording of Police Charges” and the Penguin version of Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” to this Ezra Pound cover of “How to Read.” Kitaj was a bibliophile, if not a bibliomaniac, and saw reading as a fundamental part of his practice as an artist.
The beautiful thing about these images is that every book is well worn and well read. In the prints you can see the physical traces of reading: The book jackets are stained, worn or torn at the corners. When I was a teenager, Kitaj’s commitment to reading as a source for his work helped me understand the bridge that art can serve between the physical world and the intellectual.
— Alexandra Grant, as told to Jori Finkel
Image: R.B. Kitaj, "How to Read, 1969." Courtesy LACMA/Museum Associates.