LACMA: Levitated Mass, Frank Gehry, Diana Thater 

At the end of my trip to NAMM, I always try to leave time for a museum visit in Los Angeles, more often than not to LACMA. This is a somewhat belated review of this year’s visit.

Since seeing the film on the Levitated Mass, it was an absolute priority to experience the giant sculpture by Michael Heizner in person. For those unfamiliar, it is a 340-ton boulder mounted above a concrete trench. The space underneath is open and thus viewers can walk under the boulder.

Levitated Mass

It is an impressive feat of engineering (as documented in minute detail in the film), and a visually interesting conceptual piece. It is definitely one has to experience in person to understand.

Under Levitated Mass

One of the main special exhibitions at LACMA in January was a retrospective on the work of Frank Gehry. While none of his actual buildings were on display (though it would have been appropriate in the context of Levitated Mass), there were many drawings and models, group into conceptual and chronological phases of his career.

Frank Gehry installation

Many of his most famous pieces, such as Disney Hall and Guggenheim Bilbao, were on display. But also large lesser-known buildings an smaller designs, some of which were never built. In the photo above, we see a building that combines the undulating organic structures for which Gehry is famous with a more traditionally modernist linear outer structure. The model in front is quite different, and more geometric and colorful that one sees in his iconic works.

It is also fun to see the small structures and private homes. I am envious of those who could have a Gehry-designed home like this one.

Frank Gehry house design

By sheer coincidence, Frank Gehry was present that afternoon to give a talk and Q&A session. I managed to get into the overflow audience to catch part of it.

Frank Gehry

The wide-ranging discussion including a bit of his personal history, his interest in biology and particularly in fish, and his disdain for computer modeling – he agreed that it was an amazing tool, but not for visually understanding a piece of architecture. On the topic of fish, they reviewed a few purely sculptural pieces of his that were meant to represent the swimming motion of a single fish or an entire school. Though he perhaps his voice sounded a bit gruff – something which bothers me not at all – he was very much engaged with the questioners and supportive.

In the modern pavilion, it did stop to see a few familiar large installations. I enjoy walking inside of this large-scale Richard Serra sculpture and find it quite meditative. It was also interesting to contemplate its curving structure in terms of what I had just seen and heard from Frank Gehry.

Richard Serra

From the curving structure I then moved on to straight lines. This familiar light installation reflects onto the window facing Wilshire Blvd and makes for great self-portraits.

AC and light installation, LACMA

I also had a bit of fun with self portraiture in the retrospective exhibition for Diana Thater, which featured several room-sized pieces with multiple projections of moving images.

AC in Diana Thater installation

Though that was fun, the piece itself was dead serious, looking at the aftermath of war through ruined buildings.

Diana Thater

There were some pieces in the exhibition that were less dark, as in Butterflies that features both lights and video bathed in red ambient lighting.

Diana Thater, Butterfly
[Diana Thater, Untitled Videowall (Butterflies), 2008. Six video monitors, player, one fluorescent light fixture, and Lee filters . Installation Photograph, Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Diana Thater]

One doesn’t always know what to expect on a on-afternoon trip whose date is not timed to a particular exhibit, but I am never disappointed with what I encounter at LACMA, and that was true again this year.

New Topographics, SFMOMA

If one were to construct a photography exhibition for me to attend, it might look something like New Topographics at SFMOMA. Indeed, “construction” is an apt term, as most of the photos explore the human alterations to the natural landscape, particularly in the western United States but in other locations as well. Yet, the natural landscape does continue to play a central role in the environments and in the images. It shapes how the human-made structures are constructed and arranged, and how they decay. The exhibition was originally presented in at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York in 1975.

“A turning point in the history of photography, the 1975 exhibition New Topographics signaled a radical shift away from traditional depictions of landscape. Pictures of transcendent natural vistas gave way to unromanticized views of stark industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl, and everyday scenes not usually given a second glance. This restaging of the exhibition includes the work of all 10 photographers from the original show: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel.”

It is hard to imagine that such a portrayal of landscape was new to art photography at the time. The ideas and subjects in much of the contemporary photography that commands my attention, as well as my own photographs that often appear on this site for Wordless Wednesday. But it was certainly a sharp contrast to the traditional views of landscape in photographs, especially view of the American West, which tended to be not just natural but a romanticized form of nature. One only need step beyond the exhibition to SFMOMA’s main photography collection to see the changing views of landscape and romantic imagery.

The desert tends to be my favorite natural landscape (along with the coast), and is prominently featured in many of photographs. It has a stark beauty, but it also acts as a vessel for human artifacts. Set in the desert landscape, one can linger on the contrasts and similarities between artificial and natural. The straight lines and simple textures don’t get lost in the landscape, and are in fact amplified by it. In Joe Deal’s Untitled View (Boulder City), the roads, buildings and the trailer are partially obscured by natural elements. In a sense, they are distilled down to the lines , which are emphasized by the wires and shadows that traverse the image. At the same time, the natural landscape also seems to follow the straight lines, and in turn the soft undulations of the terrain and reflected in shallow peaks of the partially hidden houses.

[Joe Deal (American, b. 1947), Untitled View (Boulder City), 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Joe Deal.]

The lines (no pun intended) between the natural and artificial aspects of the landscape are further blurred in Frank Gohlke’s Irrigation Canal, Abuquerque, New Mexico. Here we see a completely artificial environment, the concrete-sided canal with vegetation establishing itself at the edges of the water.

[Frank Gohlke (American, b. 1942), Irrigation Canal, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Frank Gohlke.]

At first glance, the mud and vegetation seem to mar the otherwise smooth and clean surface of the canal. But in reality, they are part of the environment, and thus part of the image as well. One could say the same thing about the reverse situation in Deal’s photograph, where the human-made elements have become part of the natural landscape.

Lewis Baltz takes the theme of straight lines to its aesthetic extreme in both the artificial and natural aspects of the environment. His images feature perfectly rectangular buildings set against the flat landscape in Orange County, California.

[Lewis Baltz (American, b. 1945), Jamboree Road Between Beckman and Richter Avenues, Looking Northwest, George Eastman House collections. © Lewis Baltz.]

Some of Baltz’s other photographs feature facades of rectangular commercial buildings either straight on or at angles. Close-up and with less context from the landscape, they begin to feel more abstract. This is particularly true of East Wall, McGraw Laboratories with its extremely high contrast black and white rectangles. In South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine, the landscape is seen only in the reflection of a window, once again a rectangle inside another.

The sharp contrast and combination of architecture, landscape and abstraction made Baltz’s pieces among my favorite in the exhibition. Similarly, my attention was also drawn to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their photographs featured industrial and mining buildings in Pennsylvania. Some of the buildings were in states of disrepair, such as Loomis coal Breaker/Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania (1974), or even seemed on the verge of collapse as in the image below:

[Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, 1931-2007 and b. 1934), Pit Head, Bear Valley, Pennsylvania, 1974
© Hilla Becher, 2009.]

The structure seems to melt back into the natural environment, and at the same time provides a series of straight (albeit somewhat distorted) lines and geometric shapes. Once again, the high contrast of the image allows one to focus on the abstract elements without completely losing the context that it is a building on a hillside. It would be easy to dismiss these photographs (and indeed many in the exhibition) as social commentary or socially-inspired art, but they have detached quality and the emphasis is on the visuals details – in particular those details that I look for in when viewing and evaluating modern art. The Bechers’ images in particular have a sculptural quality, something that comes out even more directly in their book Anonyme Sculpturen.

Nicholas Nixon (American, b. 1947), Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston, 1975; George Eastman House collections; © Nicholas Nixon

Nicholas Nixon’s work stands apart from the others in the exhibition in that depicts urban landscapes from Boston and Cambridge. His Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston depicts a classic 20th century vertical city image of tall and densely packed but quite detailed buildings. Nixon’s image Boston City Hall, Covernment Center Square and Faneuil Hall provides another type of contrast in the landscape that is particular to cities, a tension between modern and traditional architecture. Set against a backdrop of larger buildings, one see a popular older landmark contrasted with the modernist and rather controversial Boston City Hall. It’s a building I actually quite like visually, and it brings us back the rectangular shapes in Baltz’s southern California images.

I conclude with this quote from the exhibition catalog – a rather extensive volume that includes not only the images but a detailed discussion as well as a reproduction of the original catalog – that I find illuminating in thinking about the work of these artists as well as my own photographic interests:

Photography based on attraction to, even love of, the subject while neither revealing that motivation nor imposing it on viewers – it may confuse viewers accustomed to being seduced or sermonized. Adding another degree of complexity is the likelihood that the attraction and love were likely not pure, but instead joined to anxiety and repulsion. Reconciling these opposing forces was an exercise undertaken by each of the New Topographics photographers in different ways.

[New Topographics, copublished by Steidl Publishers and Center for Creative Photography in cooperation with George Eastman House, page 18.]

The exhibition will be on display at SFMOMA through October 3.

[All images used in this article were provided courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Individual copyrights displayed in captions.]

Art and music notes from the past week

During one of my long walks this weekend, I stopped in at Crown Point Press and found in the hallway several prints from Changes and Disappearances by the composer John Cage, a hero of ours here at CatSynth. My first impression was that these were graphical scores (i.e., scores where the performers interpret visual images), but they are in fact intended as independent works of visual art. However, many of the same compositional techniques can be found in both Cage’s music and visual art, as described in this essay by Ray Kass:

It occurred to me that his etchings had an extraordinary correspondence to the methods he utilized in composing his music – and that they were visual counterparts of sorts, related in a manner that one might not have expected…But the connection between Cage’s use of “chance” methodology in his various kinds of work (composing, writing, installation & performance art, & now printmaking) made sense in a way that awakened me to the great scope of his work.

I don’t think this was a special exhibition per se, as Cage had a longstanding relationship with Crown Point Press and they have displayed his work on several occasions. The main exhibition was a series of works by Tom Marioni.


Both Marioni and Cage were featured in The Art of Participation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Among the works in the exhibition were Marioni’s Free Beer (sadly, no free beer was being dispensed at the time, even though it was “Superbowl Sunday”), and John Cage’s most famous piece 4′ 33″. The full score was posted on a wall, and it was also displayed on a grand piano in its original form. I can’t say this was presented as a “participatory work”, however. Simply looking at the piano and listening to the museum commotion for the alloted time does not constitute a proper performance of the piece.

There were, however, plenty of other interactive pieces in the exhibition to explore, such as Lygia Clark’s Diálogo: Óculos (Dialogue, Goggles):


Last week, I attended an evening of electronic-music performances at the Climate Theatre, part of the regular Music Box Series. This series usually does not feature electronic music, but this time they darkened the room and presented “electronic soundspaces.”

Christopher Fleeger opened the evening with lively performance featuring a touch screen, percussion controller and laptop. The music mixed synthesized and other familiar electronic sounds with some odd and amusing recordings, such as a rap extolling the virtues of Tallahassee, Florida as a center for faiths of all kinds, and a very memorable piece of “stand-up tragedy” about one man’s experience with “the store” – in the poem, every line ended with “the store” and often included other references.

The second performance was by James Goode and featured a mixture of acoustic sources (percussion, toys, etc.) with sampling and looping, and reminded me a bit of my own performances at the Santa Cruz Looping Festival and other venues (it reminds me that I haven’t written about that). It can sometimes be a challenge to sustain full energy for an entire solo set of this nature, but Goode made this seem easy.

Goode and Fleeger closed with an extended duet improvisation. At least one balloon went flying into the audience.


I also attended the Saturday performance of the 2009 San Francisco Tape Music Festival, which I will discuss in a separate article.

Weekend in Shanghai (updated)

This weekend included a 30-hour but still too brief visit to Shanghai. Shanghai is of course a massive city, and an increasingly vertical one, and probably reminds me more of New York than most cities I visit.

This photo captures both the old and new of the city. In the background is the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower. In the front, we see a high-rise building on side, and one of the tenement buildings that line many streets, with five or more stories of clothes (and the occasional cooked duck) hanging to dry.

It was taken while walking east from a downtown neighborhood towards The Bund, the riverfront in an older part of the city One can look across the river and see the new Pudong district that is most visually associated with Shanghai and features it’s tallest, newest buildings.

Visibility was relatively poor on both days, and I did not cross to the other side of the river to see the view of the Bund.

Food was a major part of day (as it has been throughout my stay in China), and Saturday featured both a snack of “soup buns” at small hole-in-the-wall shop where the upper level was barely tall enough to stand in, and an extraordinary Japanese-fusion meal at which my friends and I over-indulged for a couple of hours. After that, we headed to a local jazz club called the Cotton Club (I wonder where they got that name from?), where we heard what I would describe as a “typical jazz-club combo” that wouldn’t be very memorable except of course that it was at a jazz club in China.

The night concluded with brief stops at a few of the dance clubs. One featured two sections, an upstairs with a mixed-crowd of foreigners and locals, and a downstairs that was almost exclusively local. The latter definitely had better music (deep synth trance and beats). Of course, one of the main attractions of the nightlife (which continues well beyond the hour when almost every city in the U.S. closes down) is the people watching. Without dwelling upon it too much in this article, Shanghai did afford great opportunities for people watching, starting with our walk along the extremely crowded Nanjing Road and concluding as we departed the last club well into the morning.

I did have an opportunity to explore more on my own Sunday. I began in some of the quieter neighborhoods near where I was staying, and experienced a more local view of the city.
A walk through Zhongshan Park was in some was a more aural experience than visual. The park was already relatively crowded, with numerous groups practicing traditional Chinese exercises, dance lessons, and band practicing for the upcoming New Years celebrations:

The “music” of the park would change every few meter, as one moved from the metallic percussion of the band to a group dancing to disco from the 1970s. A few feet later, the disco and 1950s pop is overtaken by slower more meditative traditional Chinese music that serves as the background for exercises. Finally, a small portable player of low quality provides something akin to circuit bending.

Regular readers of this site know that I am fond of urban side streets and alleys, so I spent a few minutes in the narrower side streets of the neigbhorhood:

This alley reminded me of a photo I took not far from home in San Francisco last summer.

Along Ding Xi Road, I met the proprietor of a small boutique clothing store and her cat. Look for them to be featured in the next “Weekend Cat Blogging.”

After lunch together with friends again (one really cannot dine alone here), I headed back downtown via the Metro. I pride myself on being able to get around a city when I have a good subway system, a map and a general sense of direction. I was able make my way back to the Bund and Nanjing Road to see them during the daytime. I think the one word description of this area would be “crowded.” And I mean crowded on a level one rarely would see even in New York, and with far more dangerous street crossings. Plus, unlike my earlier walks, people expect foreigners in this district and are constantly on the look for sales opportunities. It is relatively easy to simply ignore them, but the crowds and constant interaction did become a little draining at times. It’s something to consider, I am a “city person” and I don’t mind crowds, but I do need breaks.

At Peoples Square, I did brave one last round of crowds to arrive at the Shanghai Art Museum. Even though it was only a block from one of the busiest open spaces and transit hubs in the city, the courtyard was a remarkable oasis of calm. After taking a moment to relax, I went inside to see the current exhibition, a retrospective of Wu Guanzhong. His work, which includes both oil painting and ink painting, and often focuses on Chinese scenes and themes. Many of paintings are of clearly of landscapes, animals and architecture of China, with an impressionist quality but also more minimal. However, many of later works were more abstract, although with Chinese themes. This was especially true of his ink paintings, some of which were quite large in size and reminded me of the “Autumn Rhythm” series of Jackson Pollock. One of the abstract in paintings called Entanglement relates back to the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, which I had the opportunity to visit before heading into Shanghai and will be the subject of the next article…

Wordless Wednesday: MoMA Atrium, NYC

MoMA, Miró, Modernism and Theremins

In addition to my adventures on the F train, I did have a small amount of time to enjoy art and music while was in New York for the Thanksgiving holiday.


One of the featured exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927–1937. Miró often appears in my artistic travels – I have been to multiple retrospectives and visited the Miró Museum in Barcelona. This exhibition was more specific, focusing on a single decade of his career, during which he challenged the definition of “painting.” It opens with his declaration in 1927 “I want to assassinate painting” and features several examples of “non-painting”, including collages (such as Composition with Wire, shown to the right) and wooden sculptures. At the same time, however, many of the works are things we would consider paintings. Some of the canvases are unprimed, and several use new media such as masonite. But there are still primarily two-dimensional works involving paint on a surface. And most of the paintings and non-paintings include Miró’s signature elements in his more famous works such as bulbous abstract figures, curing shapes, stars, and scarabs. In addition to the theme of “anti-painting”, the exhibition follows the events in Europe, and particularly in Spain, in the late 1920s and 1930s, with the impending civil war and rise of Fascism. It ends with the Fascists coming to dominance in 1937 and the painting Still Life with Old Shoe that marks the end of Miró’s period of anti-painting.

The MoMA’s website includes a detailed online exhibition.

A few of the smaller exhibits also caught my attention. Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s featured experiments in architecture, primarily centered around New York, or the modernist urban ideal of New York, as seen be architects. Some of the ideas, such as those in Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, can be quite fantastic, such as an island oasis in a glass bubble atop a highway. Others were not only more realistic, but also realized, including some impressive homes in the country surrounding New York. It’s always great to see a celebration of modernism as it once was, before contemporary design and architecture took a turn away towards more mundane ideas.

Keeping with the idea of the 1960s and 1970s as particularly modern decades, the exhibit Looking at Music features visualizations of music from the era. This includes direction visualizations, such as the scores of John Cage, as well as early media works by Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, Steven Reich and others.


I did have a chance to hear some music as well. The weekend after Thanksgiving is often low on opportunities for new music (which is probably why I was able to book an NYC show without much difficulty after Thanksgiving in 2005). But the reliable Issue Project Room in Brooklyn hosted a show sponsored by the New York Theremin Society. The first set featured rather graphic stereo photos from World War I – still a horrific war when viewed a century later – with theremin accompaniment, presented by Robert Munn and Sara Cook. By Munn’s own admittance, this was not a performance for the faint of heart. The second set featured “Master Thereminist” Kip Rosser, who treated us to a series of jazz and pop standards that would be very much at home at a wedding or bar-mitzvah. It is interesting to think about a hybrid program featuring Rosser’s light jazz on theremin against Munn and Cook’s disturbing images from the Great War. But perhaps that would be a bit too ironic.

Weekend in New Orleans Part 2: City views and Scultpure Garden

My second excursion focused on walking, art and photography. I began by heading downtown from the hotel along St. Charles Avenue, following the inactive streetcar route. The hotel clerk later advised me that this may not have been the wisest action because of some rather sketchy blocks along the way. Personally, I don't think there was much of issue during the day – a lot of times such concerns are exaggerated. In addition to the “stately mansions” of the Garden district and the occasional boarded-up business, the walk along St Charles affording an opportunity to sample some of the local politics. Something called “Amendment 7”, which I gather has something to do with assessors, seems to be a big deal in this neighborhood. And of course, there are reminders that depite some of New Orlean's reputation, we are still deep in the south and “red America”:

Apparently “fundamental values” don't include keeping the streets free of litter. These flyers were scattered all over the sidewalk, and probably made a nice paste in the rains on Monday.

St. Charles passes under Highway 90 and empties out onto Robert E. Lee square. I'm guessing this was a significant central point in the past, but it seems to be a rather seedy area on the edge of downtown. I kinda like the irony of that. One notable landmark is the Circle Bar, which I hope to visit before the end of the trip. Moving west, one enters the “arts-warehouse” district that attempts to be the downtown of art galleries and clubs one finds in other cities. Not a lot seemed to open early on Sunday, it is good to see alternatives to tourist center of French Quarter getting built up. Here we see a Cat Noir, a cabaret-style club compete with one of my favorite of the old Toulouse Lautrec posters.

I did finally locate not only a source for the transit day-passes, but also a working streetcar on Canal Street. Here zip and I catch a ride:

Actually, these are the historic cars from the non-functional St. Charles line, but moved over to the new Canal Street line because its cars were flooded.

Heading up Canal street, more of the damaged and closed businesses can be seen. On one block will be luxury hotels or appartments, on the next a boarded up department store or theatre:

As the streetcar continues north past the I-10 overpass, more severe physical and social damange becomes apparent, with shuttered businesses and entire blocks empty or in ruins:


Click on the lower photos to view them in more detail. Notable on the lower right are the ubiquitous spray-paint symbols indicating that the house was checked after the storm, and the first roaming kitty cat of the trip.

Our ultimate destination was the city park, home to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and the city sculpture garden. The city park is close to Lake Pontchartrain and the Lakeview neighborhood, and suffered extensive damage, from which it is still recovering. However, the museum weathered the storm with little damage, and reopened in February.

One scultpure in the garden was topped during the hurricane, is is currently being repaired by the artist. Otherwise, it faired well and reopened last December. They have an impressive collection of modernist and contemporary figurative works. I have included a few of my photos here. (A few of the best photos from the garden and the trip in general will be included in my photography section when I get a chance to update it). Again, you can click on any of the photos below for a more detailed view:



I think the wedding photo session on the bridge adds a nice contrast to the tower of violins in the lower right.

In addition to finding good art within the city, I also sought and found good music outside the main tourist destinates. My brief experiences with music and nightlife will be explored in part 3…