Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Anthony James's Cosmic 80" Great Rhombicosidodecahedron

The Palm Springs Art Museum reopened for the first time during this pandemic a couple of weeks ago, and in the lobby area there is a startlingly trippy sculpture by the British born, Los Angeles based artist Anthony James.
At his website, in the Works section (click here), the artist has written absurdly oracular descriptions of his various painting and sculpture series. Here's an example: "I’m interested in revealing and sharing truth. My intention is to bring an impossible concept like the idea of infinity, or the cosmos, into physical objective existence. I am attempting to express science, spirituality, and philosophy in an object the purest and most honest way I know how."
Visual artists, with a few major exceptions, are not good with written descriptions, which is probably why they are visual artists in the first place. Check out the Photos section (click here) and marvel at the remarkable work he's been creating over the last couple of decades, none the same as the last.
This latest series of three-dimensional kaleidescopes really does hint at a visual approximation of infinity.
The only sculptures I have seen that are remotely similar are the work of Taiwan-born, Oakland-based Nick Dong (click here). I am glad California is still attracting visionary artists from around the world.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Agnes Pelton's Desert Transcendentalism

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), a little-known 20th century American artist and mystic, is finally being rediscovered. In 2019, an exhibition of 45 paintings was organized by Gilbert Vicario at the Phoenix Art Museum. It traveled to New Mexico in the latter part of that year, and opened triumphantly at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City on March 13th, 2020. Two days later, the museum shut down along with the rest of the world on account of a new pandemic. Over a year later, the exhibit has reopened to the public at its final destination, the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Pelton had an interesting family background, detailed by Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell in an informative interview with Andrew Goldstein at artnet (click here). [After a family scandal in the late 19th century], "the Tiltons sent their daughter, Florence, to Europe...where she met a wealthy expatriate from Louisiana who was something of a ne’er-do-well, and they had Agnes Pelton in Stuttgart. They moved back to Brooklyn, but Florence’s husband was unhappy and Agnes rarely saw her father. He died when she was 10 from a morphine overdose." Florence supported the two of them by opening a music school in Brooklyn where they mingled with the bohemian artistic intelligentsia of the day. Florence died in 1920 and in 1922, Agnes moved alone to an abandoned windmill on eastern Long Island. (Above is the 1928 Ecstasy.)
Pelton was deeply drawn to religious mysticism, principally through Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophist movement combining Eastern and Western traditions. A fascinating painter/archeologist/anthropologist Russian couple, Nicholas and Helena Roerich, brought Agni Yoga from Central Asia to the West, and Agnes became one of its adherents. (The above painting is the 1932 Messengers.)
The American Southwest, particularly New Mexico and Southern California, was a major Theosophist gathering spot in the first half of the 20th century, with Pelton visiting Mabel Dodge Luhan's artistic salon in Taos and spiritual gatherings in Pasadena in 1928. (The above painting is 1933's The Primal Wing.)
On one of those Pasadena visits, she stumbled onto the Coachella Valley where she immediately felt in tune with the light, the twin mountain peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, and the overall energy of the place. (The above painting is 1934's Orbits.)
In 1931, at the age of 50, she moved into a cabin in what was then the village of Cathedral City, six miles down a two-lane road from the small town of Palm Springs. (The painting above is 1942's My Cabin.)
She then set about creating her unique, abstract style of paintings with identifiable shapes and images. Gaskell at the Whitney relates: "Once she establishes her vocabulary in 1925, she does not stray from it. She didn’t paint for other people. She didn’t paint for the marketplace. In fact, to make money, she painted realistic portraits and desert paintings that she sold to tourists." (The painting above is 1938's Red and Blue.)
Gaskell continues: "The abstract work was the real work, and it was difficult for her to do. She would sometimes only be able to paint one day a week. It wasn’t as if she would go into her studio and think, okay, today I’m going to have an inspiration. She had to wait for those inspirations to come." (The painting above is 1940's Challenge.)
In conjunction with the "transcendental" paintings, the Palm Springs Art Museum has added an exhibit of some of those realist landscapes designed for the tourists, including 1950's Smoke Tree above.
My friend Grant Wilson actually prefers her landscapes to her strange, flat, mystical abstracts.
Seeing a whole collection of the transcendentals is disconcerting, partly because they look so much like New Age, hippie-dippie art of the 1960s and 1970s. (Above is 1943's Awakening (Memory of Father).)
The oddness is that her paintings predate those eras by 20 to 50 years, and have an originality and integrity that is unmistakable. (Above is 1952's Idyll.)
Haskell again: "Most of her paintings are very different, she never worked in series. Because she brought them out of her own visions, each time it was a different experience with a different set of problems." The Palm Springs Art Museum just reopened a couple of weeks ago for the first time since the pandemic began. The exhibit will be up until September, so if you're in the Coachella Valley between now and then, do check it out. Plus, admission is free every Thursday from 5 to 7PM. (The infinite circles in the painting above are 1954's Departure.)

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Palm Springs Spring Break

Austin celebrated our first two-week vacation by inventing an artisanal cocktail, the Desert Sands Cosmo, while I cooled down my core temperature in our Palm Springs pool.
We have been attempting to eat light and healthy after putting on dozens of pounds during the pandemic...
...and have played on a half a dozen golf courses, both funky and fancy.
This year I joined Stonewall Golfers, a gay and lesbian organization in the Coachella Valley who put on about 100 outings at courses around the area.
They are more upscale than my usual milieu, but seem to have the usual mixture of delightful and dreary characters that populate most volunteer groups.
The Great Geriatric Gay Migration to Palm Springs continues apace.
Every other person I have met during the last two weeks seems to have moved here within the last three years, including a huge influx fleeing Trumplandias across the country. The pandemic also seems to have given a push to people considering a change in their living situations.
Even the great Salinas painter, John Cerney, has gotten into the act. He contributed a wonderful pop-up plywood painting/sculpture, Popsicles, for a barren stretch of the Sunny Dunes neighborhood, not far from the Tool Shed leather bar. Click here for a Desert Sun article about the people's public art installation.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Asian Art Museum Reopens

The Asian Art Museum has reopened in Civic Center, and it feels marvelously safe, partly because so few people visit it. We went on the first FREE Sunday two weeks ago, and it was a joy to see a bunch of old friends, like the 10th Century Cambodian Vishnu sandstone sculpture above.
The permanent collection on floors two and three were redesigned and relit just before the pandemic arrived, and it's a well-done job, brighter and refreshed. The giant Kumbhakarna battling the monkeys in an 11th century Thai sandstone relief looks better than ever.
We genuflected in front of the 19th century Thai temple sculpture that billionaire heiress Doris Duke picked up during her ill-fated, round-the-world honeymoon cruise in the 1930s (click here for salacious stories of decadent capitalism).
The core of the permanent collection is from another problematic historical character, Avery Brundage, a Chicago real estate developer in the skyscraper age at the turn of the century, a seminal character in the modern Olympics movement as an athlete and authoritarian leader, and a prescient real estate buyer during World War Two of much of Santa Barbara and Montecito when people were terrified of a Japanese invasion.
There have been a few hints in Asian Art Museum publications during the BLM movement about a hard, second look at the potentially racist character of their founding donor, but what I'm hoping for is an exhibition that is an honest, historically informed examination detailing how an American real estate capitalist sent minions all over Asia to find treasures for him.
It could be a great uncovering, rather like The Dig on Netflix, of the real geniuses who negotiated for the first Buddha sculpture in China with a date on it, above.
My favorite piece in the museum, a 12th century Chinese wooden sculpture of the bhodisattva Guanyin, looking at the moon and the world and its illusory nature with perfect serenity, is now framed by a dark red wall that suits him.
Guanyin makes another appearance in the 17th century wood sculpture above, except now he has 1,000 arms. The signage explains. "It is said that because this bhottisattva previously did not have enough power to reach out to all those who needed help, the Buddha enabled him to have 11 heads and 1,000 arms to provide assistance to all those in need."
Random violence against Asians in America is finally in the news after an upward progression for the last, pandemic year while the racists in charge were and continue to poison the airwaves with "China Virus" and "Kung Flu."
Looking at photos of those attacking elderly Asians on urban sidewalks around the country, half of them look like street people schizophrenics who are hearing scary voices in their head saying "Hurt Asians."
Almost all of the interesting younger people I know in the San Francisco Bay Area are Asian-American. Brilliantly juggling at least three cultures simultaneously, they strike me as potential saviors of the world.
They are also freaking out right now. Reverence for elders is a foundational value, and it's being violated increasingly, daily, publicly. So please, make a point while in public to watch out for your fellow Asian citizens, particularly the elderly, who are right now at risk from the unleashed crazies.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Tulips and Kitesurfing

We told our friends to meet us at the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden in Golden Gate Park last Sunday.
It was a foolish choice because seemingly everyone else in San Francisco was meeting friends there.
The signage now says "Queen Wilhelmina Garden," excising the word "Tulip," possibly because somebody has decided there will be diversity in the annual spring planting.
We quickly made our way to Ocean Beach on the cold, windy day and stumbled across an amazing display of athleticism...
...from a contingent of kitesurfers...
...who were somehow harnessing both the winds and the waves... times defying gravity as they flew into thin air above the sea.
I have never been coordinated or fit enough in this lifetime to even think about attempting something like this...
...but our companions were athletic mountain bikers in their 50s who gazed at the extreme sports action longingly.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

SFMOMA Reopens

SFMOMA reopened to visitors this weekend after an aborted reopening last fall was shuttered by winter's pandemic surge.
The museum has weathered a tough year. Early in the pandemic the institution laid off 135 employees, and recently laid off another 55. Neal Benezra, the Director for the last 19 years, has just announced that he's stepping down. (Click here for a Hyperallergic article by Valentina di Liscia).
Then there was a BLM/Instagram controversy in May that was yet another cautionary lesson in the perils of social media use by institutions that want to be woke but are as establishment as they come. (Click here for a roundup of the mess by Jonathan Curiel at SF Weekly.) People seem to forget that the main benefactors of SFMOMA are the San Francisco family dynasties of Don Fisher and Charles Schwab, right-wing Republicans in a one-party Democrat town. The photo above is me in front of a painting by the late Philip Guston, who has been in the center of another racially charged art world controversy. (Click here for a great Peter Schjeldahl article in The New Yorker on the subject.)
The limited attendance really did make the place feel safe on the Members Only opening Saturday, and we took an empty elevator to the top, seventh floor. However, the only installations there were two videos in enclosed rooms, with an actual line to get into them which struck me as the last thing I wanted to do during the still extant pandemic, vaccinated or not. We made our way to the Photography third floor where the opening signage was more artful than the exhibit.
I was hoping for wild, off-the-wall installations but instead each of the five artists' rooms were actively dull.
We made our way to the Permanent Collection second floor and went in the back way rather than the entrance with Matisse's la femme au chapeau. We wandered through the ultimate modern art installation, completely blank white walls, and got slightly lost before a museum guard pointed the way to the paintings.
There were some great new pieces, including the 22-year-old Jordan Casteel's 2020 Aurora.
These rooms all have silly mini-themes like "Beauty" or "People, Places and Things," but the art transcends the labels, like Yinka Shonibare's 1999 Gay Victorians cloth sculpture, framed by Mickalene Thomas' 2011 Qusuquzah, une très belle négresse 1.
Thomas's painting is part of the new collection made possible by a controversial deaccessioning of a Mark Rothko painting two years ago (click here for an artnet article). Also recently purchased is the 2018 Elder Sun Benjamin by the 87-year-old Guyanese painter Frank Bowling, which looks like a warmer, happier, African Rothko.
It was a joy to see a few old California favorites like Wayne Thiebaud's 1975 Buffet... of my favorite Richard Diebenkorn paintings...
...and Joan Brown's 1964 Noel in the Kitchen.
Austin perversely sat on the bench in front of the major Rothko the museum owns with his back to the painting, while I dodged fierce ancient Filipina museum guards who had finally noticed I was carrying a plastic bottle of water because there were no drinking fountains open on account of the pandemic. "You can't have that water bottle in the galleries." "I'm not drinking from it." "Then put it in your bag." "I don't have a bag." "You can't have that water bottle in the galleries." I was no match for them and fled.