Friday, February 25, 2011

More Ahht

Azusa, California

Friday, February 25, 2011

It's not just what you've done, but what you've done lately that counts. I've been neglecting the blog, but I've been busy, and it's time for an update.

Lots and lots of art. Or ahht, as they say in the east. There are far more museums in the LA area than it's possible to attend to in one visit. The eye wearies even of great paintings and sculptures, and needs a respite. Since the last post I've visited three more--the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Huntington Library and Museum.

LACMA, as it's known, dwarfs the Getty, at least in terms of the size of its collection. Located on Wilshire Boulevard in LA not far from Beverly Hills, it comprises half a dozen large buildings, featuring European, Asian, and contemporary art of all kinds. It would take more than a day to see it all, but my interest in ancient and Asian art is limited, so I was able to cover all of it that I cared to see.

There are plenty of European paintings from centuries past, including a few of the obligatory Rembrandts, but the LACMA's collection of "contemporary art" is particularly good. I don't know the exact parameters of that term, but for simplicity's sake let's say it's European and American stuff from the early 20th century to the present. Some of it is in the Ahmanson Building, some in the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, and some in the Arts of the Americas building. Picasso, Modigliani, Magritte, Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons. A large exhibition of the drawings of the German George Grosz. Pieces by Edward Kienholtz. Listing the high points of a museum like the LACMA is rather like doing so for the Met in New York or the Louvre; in other words, impossible.

Next day came the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA, to which I traveled via the Metro from Pasadena, arriving downtown at the 1939 Mission Revival-style Union Station. Inside you get the sense that you've seen it before, because you have. Shots of Union Station have been used in any number of movies. Sitting in the stuffed chairs under the ever so slightly cracked and peeling three-story-high ceilings, you can imagine yourself in the middle of a Raymond Chandler mystery or any of a dozen noir films about post-war LA: men in fedoras rushing to catch trains, other men following them, worried women in wide hats with veils.

On the walk to the MOCA I passed the Pueblo de Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles--Village of Our Lady Queen of the Angels, built in 1781 as the initial point of formal Spanish Settlement here, and the beginning of LA as a city. Up Temple Street from there is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a sprawling yellowish pile built in 2002 in something called the "postmodern" style. I won't even attempt to describe it except to say that it's large. I've always wondered about the term "postmodern," though. How modern does something have to be to be postmodern, anyway? It's a little like the concept of giving 110 percent or the current astronomical theory that there are multiple universes. Ideas at war with the language and with logic.

Walking down Grand Street, I passed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and also the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in the 1990s, a conglomeration of huge parabolic surfaces resembling a chaotic collection of wind-filled sails. Originally they were made of highly reflective stainless steel, but had to be toned down after intense glare from the reflection of the sun caused hot spots on the sidewalks and made residents of nearby condominiums complain that their homes were intolerably hot at certain times of day and that their air conditioning bills were skyrocketing.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, a comparatively conservative-looking red building entered below ground level, houses a collection of works by many of the same artists featured at the LACMA--Warhol, Pollock, Lichtenstein, Robert Irwin, Sam Francis. Much of the museum was closed for renovation. Either that or I missed a few rooms.

Tuesday I hiked up a hill near the San Gabriel Dam above Azusa, just for a break from looking at paintings and to see if I was still up for a strenuous walk. It was a beautiful quiet respite from the busy metropolitan area. But the next day I was back at it again, this time visiting the Huntington Library in the wealthy suburb of San Marino, south of Pasadena. I vaguely remembered the name of the library as a place that housed rare books, but was unprepared for the other things I found. It was a garden of earthly delights.

The Huntington was the property of Henry Huntington, an heir and railroad magnate and collector of art and rare books, who in the early 20th century built a mansion on several hundred acres. Today the property consists of 207 acres, over half of which are devoted to incredibly rich and varied botanical gardens--a desert section, a tropical section, and a Japanese garden, among other things. The density and attention to detail in the meticulously maintained collection of plants and trees from around the world puts most other such gardens to shame. I took a guided tour of the grounds, which was enjoyable but used up much of the time between my late arrival and the rather early 4:30 closing time.

The mansion now houses the European art collection, chiefly comprised of British portraits and landscapes by the likes of Joshua Reynolds, Van Dyck, George Romney, Turner, Constable, and Gainsborough. The most famous painting is Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy, which Huntington bought for $700,000, the most money paid for a painting up to that time. Amid the paintings are all sorts of furniture, glassware, silver, and sculptures. And the sumbitch even has a Rembrandt. I'm guessing that half the Rembrandts in the world are either fakes or are mistakenly attributed to him, being instead the work of his students.

Another building holds the American art collection, which features the portraiture of Gilbert Stuart, Copley, and members of the Peale family, and includes some famous pictures of George Washington. More recent paintings include items by Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, and even a bent beef noodle soup can by Andy Warhol.

Then there's the Huntington Library itself, the exhibition room of which contains a Gutenburg Bible from 1455, a 1400 illuminated manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and numerous other first editions of books, from Shakespeare to Milton to Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson.

I ran out of time at the library, where I could have remained for at least another two hours, and I also hurried a bit through the paintings. But what the hell. It's better to leave 'em wanting more than to feel like they've stayed too long. Another visit to the Huntington is definitely in order, maybe later this year.

In case you're growing weary of all this culture and wondering when I'm going to see another dead animal on the roadside, have no fear. On the way back from the Huntington, in quiet and stately San Marino, I spotted a freshly-killed cat. My immediate thought was that it belonged hung up by its hind leg in a painting by a 17th century Dutchman. "Still Life with Dead Cat and Fruit."

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