Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Archive for the ‘Norton Simon’ Category

Chapter 2 (Part 3): Venture Philanthropy & Other Styles of Giving

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“Andrew Carnegie said, ‘He who dies with wealth dies in shame.’ And someone once said, ‘He who gives while he lives also knows where it goes.’”[i]Eli Broad

Eli Broad’s power is tolerated because it remains remarkably unchallenged. This seemingly monopoly of philanthropic power led Christopher Knight to compare Broad to another infamous, Los Angeles art patron:

[Norton] Simon’s flirtations with giving [his] collection away (to at least seven institutions); distrust of traditional museum management; engineering of a bailout of an artistically adventuresome but financially faltering institution (the old Pasadena Museum for Simon, MOCA for Broad); later deciding to open his own museum, and more…[ii]

Another similarity to Broad: Before Norton Simon’s takeover of the Pasadena Art Museum, Simon had intended to establish his collection as a lending organization. Taking control of the Pasadena Art Museum proved irresistible to Simon, and today the Norton Simon Museum rarely loans works.  I seriously doubt unfounded rumors that Broad has some kind of evil master plan to takeover or somehow combine his collections with MOCA.

Walter De Maria's "The 2000 Sculpture" installed in the Resnick Pavilion.

Walter De Maria’s “The 2000 Sculpture” installed in the Resnick Pavilion.

Broad can also be measured to his contemporaries. Los Angeles is not actually a one-philanthropist town.  “Pomegranate QueenLynda Resnick is an easy comparison.  Like Broad, Resnick is a long-time donor and trustee of LACMA.  Like Broad, she and her husband provided funds ($54 million) for a Renzo-Piano-designed building at LACMA.  The Lynda and Stuart Resnick Pavilion was part of Phase 2 of LACMA’s Transformation and sits directly north of BCAM.  When the pavilion opened in October of 2010, one of three inaugural shows was gleaned from the Resnick’s private collection.

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Four Facts: Significant Objects

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Norton Simon Museum

As I was finishing up in this exhibition, I overheard a tour being given to what I presumed was a UCLA summer painting course.  “We have the Getty in our own backyard, but the Getty’s collection kinda sucks.  The Norton Simon’s is the really great collection of LA,” the teacher harped. I am paraphrasing.  While I detest uninformed and unnecessary opinions (especially from arts educators) about which museum has the “best” collection, I can’t deny the Norton Simon has a pretty amazing one, and I don’t even like ImpressionismSignificant Objects: The Spell of the Still Life presents a thematic cross section of the museum’s diverse collections and is an examination of “the ways in which these ostensibly mundane and insignificant subjects [harsh!] portrayed in painting and sculpture and works on paper are indeed significant.” Significant Objects does not present groundbreaking, paradigm shift-type discoveries or research, but is a huge success as a rich, educational opportunity for general audiences utilizing the permanent collection.  Permanent collection show hurray! Here are the facts:

Scholar's books and objects (chaekkeori), Korean, Joseon dynasty, 19th c - LACMA

A Korean wunderkammer lent by LACMA.

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Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve

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Restitution Issue: Norton Simon Museum

Adam and Eve, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in c. 1530, are a pair of panel paintings currently on view in Pasadena, at the Norton Simon Museum.  There hasn’t been an update on the painted pair since October, but the ownership of the Adam and Eve remains an unresolved dispute.  Marei Von Saher is the daughter-in-law of Jacques Goudstikker, a previous owner of the Adam and Eve.  During the 1940s, Goudstikker fled Holland and was forced to sell the panels to the Nazis under duress.  The issue of restitution would seem clear if this case was that simple.  A questionable, century-long provenance and a legal tangle both complicate the case.  Let’s explore.

Adam and Eve have hung at the Norton Simon since 1977.

Norton Simon bought the Cranach panels from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff , a Russian, in 1971.  Stroganoff-Scherbatoff was the heir of an aristocratic family who claimed to have owned the paintings prior to 1917.  Stroganoff-Scherbatoff received/bought the paintings from the Dutch Government in a restitution agreement in 1966.  The Dutch Government was restituted the paintings (remember Goudstikker fled Holland during WWII) after WWII.  The Nazis forced Goudstikker to sell them in the 1940s.  Goudstikker had bought the paintings from the Soviet government at an auction in 1931.  The Russian government had confiscated Adam and Eve from the family of Stroganoff-Scherbatoff prior to 1917.  Seems like a resolved case of restitution: Russian heir gets stolen paintings back and then sells them to a collector (Norton Simon).

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Plants, Flowers and Fruits: Ellsworth Kelly Lithographs

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Norton Simon Museum

As the title suggests, the Norton Simon currently has a display of Ellsworth Kelly lithographs.  The Plants, Flowers and Fruits have been installed into the Norton Simon’s small, first floor, temporary exhibition space.  The room, while only slightly smaller than my studio apartment, is packed full of 20 Kelly lithographs (all from the museum’s permanent collection).

Chaffing frames

On all of the walls the works are hung so close together that the frames literally chaff each other.  The result of this tightness feels like entering into a large coloring book: the stark black lines of the lithographs beg to be attacked by comically large crayons.

Gimme a crayon; I promise to color in the lines.

This coloring book can also seem like stepping into a monumental artist’s book.  The mass of white pages that make up this “book” are balanced out by the wall color: a strong royal blue.  Above each print, in white text, is a label simply stating the flora featured in each work (which is also the title): “Cyclamen I,” “Camellia I” and “Camellia III.”  With the addition of these words the oversized coloring book has been turned into abstracted horticultural study.

An almost-inconspicuous door, can you see it?

It seemed that there was an effort to create a special room for this exhibition, an effort that attempted to remove the room from the viewer’s experience.  The works are so large and packed in so tight, that the room seems to disappear, and one gets lost in blue.  This effort was not done without some fudging.  On the back wall of the room was a door that, along with its molding, had been painted the same royal blue.  This was the only inconsistency in the otherwise uninterrupted experience of the room.

Blue on blue—barely visible leaf

Another design element of the exhibition was the non-distracting, lightly-painted reproduction of leafs from one of the lithograph.  The subtle, barely visible leafs hid behind the white title of the exhibition.

Comparing lemons to lemons

The subject matter of the prints (fruits, plants and flowers) reminded me of the magnificent still lifes elsewhere in the Norton Simon and begged comparison.  A visitor only needs to walk a few steps to see Zurbaran’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose from 1633.  Or a few steps in the other direction and see Peter Benoit’s Flowers in a Glass Beaker from 1620.

Trompe-l'œil, or just barely recognizable?

The proximity of these baroque paintings to the Kelly lithographs creates a dialogue about the evolution of the still life in art.  At one end is the almost maniacal urge to render in life-like detail every vein in a petal, and every drop of condensation on a glass vase.  And on the other end are the Kelly lithographs, the subtraction of the baroque elements and the abstraction of the same forms.

– H.I.

Divine Demons: Wraithful Deities in Buddhist Art

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Norton Simon Museum

The “Fierce deities with bared teeth, flame-like tongues, and wicked expressions” of this exhibition are contained to a small concise space, but the show itself is rich and meaningful.  The show is unavoidable because of where it is located.  At the bottom of the staircase down to the Asian galleries of the Norton Simon, there it is: a nice little alcove of a space, nicely tucked away.

Can’t miss this exhibition

Can’t miss this exhibition

Only approximately 20 works make up the exhibition, most of them are small-scale and necessitate a closer, intimate inspection.  The Norton Simon has also done an amazing job with the education of this show.  There is a large wall text which nicely explains the items in the exhibition:

“These powerful figures also destroy demons and inner obstacles to enlightenment, such as greed and anger. Their frightening appearance belie the good deeds they perform in protecting individual devotees, monasteries and Buddhist doctrine…In the photo below, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, holding a ritual thunderbolt and bell, performs an initiation ceremony seated in front of a large appliquéd image depicting wrathful gods.”

This wall text was very informative, though some sentences were constructed awkwardly. The mention of the Dalai Lama seemed to be a reference to something from Tibetan culture which perhaps was somewhat recognizable the audience of museum.  Along with the introductory wall text, every item in the exhibition had an accompanying wall label with an educational paragraph

Interesting to me was the color chosen in this room.  The medium-tone blue paint was too-odd-to-be-a-coincidence similar to the blue-colored walls in LACMA’s Tibetan galleries.  To be fare the color was located elsewhere in that level of the museum, but I’m curious as to why this color is so popular in being partnered with Tibetan art.

Blue on blue, nice frames

Blue on blue, nice frames

The museum has provided two small, wooden, yet comfortable benches in the small space. The only medium not present in the small exhibition was stone sculpture, but these works were displayed right outside this space, and were all very large.  The show was focused on the close inspection of small intimate objects.

Show and tell of Buddhist treasures

Show and tell of Buddhist treasures

The exhibition was strikingly symmetrical.  The C-shaped exhibition was reflective on left and right.  Along the right wall were watercolors and small sculptures.  One watercolor was framed in a blue mat and ark wood frame, which matched another watercolor across the room which made me think that the works might have been acquired by the same time, or come from the same place.

It's in the details: flames and skulls, very rock & roll

It's in the details: flames and skulls, very rock & roll

The display case along this wall contained six objects.  The objects are made from a wide range of medium, from different times, but all from Tibet.  An accompanying diagram to the right of the case provided the labels for these objects as well as more educational information.  This small case was like a treasure chest full of precious objects. The workmanship and the details were beautiful in this case, including the carving of a conch shell, and the small inlaid eyes of a skull.

Chakrasamuara: decapitated-head necklaces are so in right now

Chakrasamuara: decapitated-head necklaces are so in right now

Another example of small scale details was in another small plexiglass display case.  The small bronze sculpture of Chakrasamuara & Vajravarchi (China, lat 18th c.) invited close inspection.  The wall text described in detail the gruesome nature of the details: “Each of Chakrasamuara’s four faces has a fierce expression, a fierce eye and a skull tiara. In addition he wears garlands of skulls and severed heads and in his 12 arms holds various attributes: a lasso, and arrows, as well as a thunderbolt and bell.”  This description encouraged further investigation of the piece, were those really garlands of heads draped around the figures neck?—Why yes there were, isn’t that precious…

Mandala at the center of the universe / exhibition

Mandala at the center of the universe / exhibition

This work led to the central (in terms of location) work of the exhibition.  The Mandala of Chakrasamuara (Nepal, Kathmandu, 1648) is a large painting featuring the same demonic character as the sculpture directly to the right.  Again, a beautiful description accompanies: “surrounding the palace are eight graveyards, separated by stylized waves representing rivers. These charnel grounds…” All of the wording of these texts is very vivid, and helps to explain not only what we are seeing, but also utilizing colorful language which achieves a grim effect integral to this installation examining violence and demons.

From the prop shop?—No, from the Norton Simon

From the prop shop?—No, from the Norton Simon

Speaking of violence, the case to the left of the Mandala painting holds some sensational objects, which honestly look like props from a Hollywood movie.  The case with ritual weapons holds a Ritual Staff or Club (Tibet 20th c.) and a Ritual Axe (Tibet 20th c.).  These objects finalize and literalize the exhibition’s theme of violence.

Orange is the new white box

Orange is the new white box

Among the hall of blue were accent colors.  Three items were distinguished by their special mounting in the exhibition.  A wooden ritual sword from Tibet, a bronze sculpture of Hayagriva, and a mask of Bhairara were displayed differently from the rest of the works in the room.  All of them were displayed in specially made shadow boxes.  The frames clearly had been made specially for this exhibition because they were made to look like they were attached to the walls permanently, and painted the same blue color.  However, the accent was the orange color used on the interiors of these frames.  But why the bright orange color? To admit the first thing I thought of when I saw the color in this context was that it was the color of Buddhist monastic robes (which could be seen in the images of the Dalai Lama in the exhibition). The orange accents did a lot to subtly highlight these works.

Diagram of back wall, thanks Microsoft paint

Diagram of back wall, thanks Microsoft paint

These objects fit nicely into the symmetry of the exhibition.  All in all the small show was informative and beautiful, showing that even topics of violence can be beautiful.

– H.I.