I was in San Francisco during the holidays and was able to experience The Political Line at the De Young Museum. This retrospective of Keith Haring took a curatorial deep dive into the artist’s creative psyche. The show highlights his portfolio of work that addresses race, power, sex, political conflict, the environment and technology. This is a refreshing departure from his whimsical persona epitomized by the Pop Shop or his brave mission to humanize the ravages of AIDS in the 80’s. The Political Line shows Haring as an artist who emerged from the shadows of Warhol to deftly straddle the line between commerce and his disdain for money and the corruption of power it causes.
In the weeks following my visit to the show I have been reflecting on how art has played a prominent role in crystallizing the emotions circling our current tragedies. Whether it is the distrust and unrest around the U.S. militarized police complex in Ferguson, Mo, the horrific assassinations in Paris, or the tragic, massive bloodshed taking place in Nigeria, artists have played a cathartic role in articulating emotions that are often too difficult to put into words. In this way, Haring’s artistic eye acted as a mirror into the cultural zeitgeist of the time. I was most struck by the elaborate totems and large-scale installations depicting wealth, power and control. One standout piece was “the Great White Way, 1888”.
It is a fantastical piece depicting a vicious cycle of power, corruption, money, false idolatry, enslavement, and brutality. I am not linking to the piece here, as it is simply something that should be experienced in person, nevertheless a simple Google search (NSFW/adult content) will give you a sense of scale.
Here are just a few of my favorite pieces from the show juxtaposed with quotes from Keith Haring’s Journals. I was particularly interested in Haring’s prescient fear of media/technology, which was a prominent theme in the show.
An artist is a spokesman for a society at any given point in history. His language is determined by his perception of the world we all live in. He is a medium between ‘what is” and ‘what could be’.”
“All of the officers who killed Michael Stewart were again dismissed of charges. Continually dismissed, but in their minds they will never forget. They know they killed him. They will never forget his screams, his face, his blood. they must live with that forever.” ~ on Michael Stewart, March 28, 1987
“Business is only another name for control. Control of mind, body and spirit.”
“The image maker may be more important now than at any other time in the history of man because he possesses qualities that are uniquely human. The human imagination cannot be programmed by a computer. Our imagination is our greatest hope for survival.”
Keith Haring: The Political Line is on view at the De Young Museum in San Francisco now through February 26, 2015 (the 25th anniversary of Haring’s death).
In what appeared to be a desperate attempt to remain culturally relevant, CNN published an opinion piece by Senior Travel editor James Durston titled, “Why I Hate Museums”. The essay makes an attempt to stoke the fires among the ranks of museum administrators who apparently don’t do enough to stimulate museum goers.
“Worst of all, there’s a climate of snobbery surrounding this whole industry. Confess that rather than stare glumly at an old beer chalice on a plinth you’d prefer to drink happily from a shiny new one in a pub, and you risk being outed as an ignoramus. Well, I’m outing myself. I’m a museum-phobe.”
Durston chides museums as disengaged, boring, academic “graveyards” of stuff lacking a cohesive narrative to help visitors understand what they are looking at and experiencing. For an editor whose career is built on writing about travel and tourism, I find it odd that he would choose to lambaste a subset of an industry that’s worth $192 billion (but I don’t want to get “academic” here). I don’t work in a cultural institution, but I sure love visiting them. Some are good and many need work. The problem with Durston’s piece is that it enables a certain lack of curiosity that is just shameful. Rather than highlighting the museums that get it right, he stubbornly remains in a comfort zone of the “museums are boring” mantra while refusing to consider or highlight the alternatives. There are museums out there who are engaging their public, harnessing digital media, curating and co-curating shows that highlight specific art movements and span the careers of artists and their process. Why not talk about the ones who are doing it right, and how? This is where Durston’s piece falls flat on its face. I can think of a few specific shows that managed to highlight artists and movements in very specific ways that resonated with me.
The De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA: A few years ago I attended their Impressionists show and was pleasantly surprised by how the exhibit was curated. The exhibit told the story of Impressionists artists as a collective of rebels, fighting the rigid artistic standards of the Salon and the Académie des Beaux-Arts.Admittedly, prior to attending this show, I always thought that Impressionist artists were the gold standard by which all subsequent movements were compared, and to hear the story of the Impressionist artists struggle and their ability to coalesce and turn the tables on the artistic establishment was fascinating. The museum’s curation and narrative made the experience much more enjoyable to me (and I was previously a skeptic of this particular museum).
The Getty, Los Angeles, CA: In my opinion the Getty has something for everyone; an amazing sculpture garden, an incredible botanical garden, stunning views, unique architecture, and Van Gogh’s Irises (which is the one piece that keeps me coming back). Years ago the Getty introduced me to visual artist Bill Viola and their photography shows have been brilliantly presented. Recently the Getty has taken to utilizing social media to engage viewers through their first person accounts of art creation, curation, and conservation through their guest posters on their “Getty Voices” site. The topics have been very interesting and I love the way their guests engage with readers.
The Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA: From a screen-printing mobile App to a 24 hr webcam from Warhol’s grave, the Warhol Museum not only engages their audience through social media, they do a great job bridging their digital content with their programs and performances. My favorite is the “Out of the Box” series where museum staff open up one of the artist’s boxed time capsules. It’s a fun pop culture archaeological dig and you’re invited!
LACMA, Los Angeles, CA: Of all the museums in Los Angeles, LACMA is probably the one where you can literally spend a day there and not be bored. They have the perfect balance of on trendy photo-op moments (Urban Light, Levitated Mass) and a diverse, global offering of art from all genres and regions including modern, contemporary, African, American, European, Japanese and Latin American art.
MOCA, Los Angeles, CA: If MOCA has one thing going for it, they are always “interesting”, so maybe the tabloid-esque, celebrity laden, drama-filled MOCA may be up Durston’s alley. Sadly we were all too preoccupied with the internal strife between board members, Jeffrey Deitch and administrative woes that they eclipsed some good programming and a very strong permanent collection of Contemporary Art. Time will tell if MOCA can shore up their financing, strengthen their board and implement some strong leadership to move this institution forward. In the case of MOCA, style does not trump substance.
Norton Simon, Pasadena, CA: I just visited the Norton Simon last week and I can thank a museum guard for heightening my experience. While viewing some Flemish artists in one of the galleries, the guard came over to talk about a specific Rembrandt piece. Had he NOT shared that story, I would have superficially viewed the piece. This man taught us so much and it was clear he was passionate about the works in the museum. That kind of passion and enthusiasm is contagious. Not only did we learn more about Rembrandt, Norton Simon’s collecting habits and the conservatorship of the works in the museum, but it also inspired me to learn more later at home. The Norton Simon is low on gimmicks and could be viewed as “stuffy” by some, but if you are lucky and you keep your eyes and minds open, you are certain to experience something very special.
It’s my wish that everyone can find something that resonates with them whenever they step foot in a museum, and it all starts with an open mind and willingness to surrender to curiosity.
Disclaimer: I am not an art critic, and did not study Art History. I’m simply crazy about Contemporary Art. In my quest for knowledge I slowly learn as I go, and while I’m not going to love, understand or appreciate everything I see, each museum exhibit or gallery visit I attend opens my eyes and expands my broader view of the arts. My love for Art is a close second to my love for FOOD. Because I live in the hinterlands north of Los Angeles, my access to quality restaurants is quite limited and as a result I am slightly obsessed with food shows on Bravo and the Travel Network. I’ll connect the dots between these two loves in a minute, but first I want to share my thoughts on the De Young Museum’s “Birth Of Impressionism”, an exhibit I saw in San Francisco last month.
This was a beautifully curated collection of over 100 works of art on loan from the world renown Museum D’Orsay in Paris. For neophytes to Impressionism, the exhibit takes visitors on a tour of the artistic landscape of Paris. At that time the art world was ruled by the legendary Salon. They called the shots and dictated the accepted forms of art at the time.
The Salon was literally the key to an artist’s success; to be shown here meant that your work would have a legitimate prominence in the art community. The Salon consisted of critics and juries who developed the strict guidelines by which artist’s work was judged. As a result descendents of Baroque art were the hailed as the golden children and disparate art forms were publicly shunned. As the number of rejects grew, a smoldering cauldron of discontent among those rejected artists was forming. Their work was deemed too crude, pedantic, common and vulgar for the sophisticated sensibilities of Paris’ art community. Those cast away artists included Manet, Monet, Whistler, and the father of Modern Art, Cezanne. It was amazing to me that these artistic masters where once shunned and dismissed as miscreants by critics and the Salon.
These misfits formed a loose fraternity founded on the insecurity of rejection yet fueled by their desire to show the world their unconventional approach to composition, color and light. They mentored each other, collaborated with one another and painted together; they even banned together for group shows located across the street from the Salon. The controversial splinter group was satirically dubbed the “Impressionists” by critics, a slur that the artists later embraced as their own and revolutionized the world of art.
While the Impressionists had their distinct styles in their approach they shared a consistent commonality rooted in frenetic brush strokes. The style evoked a palpable kinetic energy that illuminates the time and the conditions they were painting in. To see the foundation for the genre of Art that I most relate to really gave me a more comprehensive appreciation for Modern Art and its fascinating roots.
So, what does this have to do with food? Today while I was finishing this post, I watched the 100th episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. The show was shot in Paris and explored the origins of a “dining revolution” pitting the culinary old guard dedicated to Michelin stars against a group of up and coming culinary rebels dedicated to changing our view of dining establishments. It was a fascinating look into a growing movement that exposes people to fine dining without the pretension associated with a Michelin rated restaurant. Some of the chefs featured on the show were not classically trained yet they presented beautifully prepared dishes at affordable prices. Their prix fixe menus change daily based on what is available. The origins of this rebel group go back 10 years when young chefs would come together with DJs and graphic artists in spontaneous, festive gatherings of good food, art and music. To these chefs who put their heart and soul into the dishes they prepare, “food” and “feeling” are inextricably tied, and “Le Fooding” was born. Le Fooding grew into food festivals and later a publication that showcases the burgeoning talent of these otherwise unknown chefs all seeking to challenge the status quo in fine dining.
If you’re in Los Angeles and ever visited a Gourmet Food Truck, an Underground restaurant or one of chef Ludo Lefebvre’s “Pop Up” restaurants, then you’ve scratched the surface of what this movement is about. While I think Los Angeles’ foray into this space is more economic and trendy vs philosophical, it’s an interesting glimpse into the changes that are slowly taking place in the Los Angeles arts and dining scene.