Artists on Art Audio Transcript
Mon, 10/18/2021 – 12:50
Artists on Art Audio Transcript
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Intro: montage of interview excerpts overlapping, with music
HOCKNEY: If your eyes are still, you’re dead!
HASSINGER: How do we deal with the future?
KIENHOLZ:. I lived in a studio that cost $10 a month. I kept painting away.
LAWRENCE: It was myself I was putting down on paper.
SAAR: But I did have a weapon, and that was art!
NOGUCHI: I change with the work.
BALDESSARI: It all sounds very mystical I know, but I think that’s what drives me.
HOCKNEY: It was sunny and sex. Sexy! People have more joy in the sun…you make the lines dance and flow.
NARRATOR: Welcome to LACMA. This audio tour is a little bit different; we’ll hear directly from artists, in their own words, a stream-of-consciousness dialogue that goes wherever the mind of the artist takes us. This tour concentrates on the latter series of galleries, with art made after 1950.
We’re going to begin at the midpoint in our modern art galleries, in the bridge gallery with several video monitors. Pause this soundtrack and resume when you get there. Look for a large painting by David Hockney and you’ll know you’re in the right spot.
Ready to resume? You should be standing near the Hockney painting called Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio.. Here he is, in his own words.
David Hockney, Mulholland Drive The Road to the Studio
HOCKNEY: I moved to California just on a hunch that I would like it. When I got there it turned out to be three times better than I thought it would be!
In 1979 I moved up…just off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills. And I had a studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. Up to that time, the only wiggly line that I’d had in my LA paintings were those on water. Buildings, roads, sidewalks were all straight lines, because that’s what LA looks like in the flatlands. But after I made this drive every day, the wiggly lines became part of Los Angeles for me. It’s what I was feeling on this drive. After awhile it became a subject.
What’s happening of course is that…the more you use pure color, the more you draw the person into the space.
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Mulholland Drive is a highway that twists around. Patterns are drawn from the map of the San Fernando Valley….there’s a vanishing point. In reverse perspective, infinity is everywhere, including in the viewer. You’re looking there, then you’re looking there. Remember, our eyes never stay still. If your eyes are still, you’re dead!
We always see with memory. Seeing as each person’s memory is a bit different, we can’t be seeing the same things. We’re all on our own!
PASHGIAN: A number of years ago I had a long conversation with David Hockney at a dinner party
NARRATOR: Helen Pashgian is an artist whose work is also in our collection:
PASHGIAN: …and near the end of the conversation, I asked him, who he thought was the true owner of a work of art…Is it the artist who makes it? Is it the collector who buys it? Is it the museum that becomes a recipient of it? Or perhaps is it the government, who eventually declares it to be national treasure…
And he said, oh no, none of those, the true owner of a work of art is the viewer.
[Navigate to McCracken, Plank]
NARRATOR: Now, turn around. Nearby, you’ll see a red plank leaning against the wall. The piece was a gift from architect Frank Gehry. He talks about living with it, and why he gave it to LACMA.
GEHRY: It’s a magical, magical piece of wood covered with McCracken’s beautiful red finish that he was working on. This was at the beginning of his plank work. He had only done a few of them by then. And I fell in love with it and I bought it.
It’s so simple and it’s so in your face. You gotta be careful with it! It’s not like hanging a painting on the wall. It becomes part of your life in a way that’s different than a painting. Over the years, people would look at it and say why do you have that? (laughs). I told them I loved it. It was a piece of work by a friend. He wasn’t that well known back then. He had a nice smile!
It had its own presence that was very powerful and got your attention. Why was it so simple? How could something that simple and kind of stupid in a way be so impactful and powerful and become part of your life to the point where I never thought of..
He was very quiet. He knew I loved his work I would tell people about it. I used to say look, this guy is really doing something. It’s very special. He’s very quite, he’s not self-promotional. He was like the turtle in the race, he went slow, but he came far! And today it’s very special. That’s why I decided to give it to the county museum, because I think it’s a very special piece. Those pieces are vulnerable and I think they belong in museums.
NARRATOR: Now, look for a seven-foot tall white sculpture at the other end of the room. It’s by Anne Truitt. The sculpture, called White: Four, is deceptively simple. Notice the incised lines on the front, dividing its face into four separate segments, all equal in size and width. Truitt wrote about her work in a journal that she reads from here:
TRUITT: January. The east, west, north, south longitude and latitude coordinates of my sculptures exactly reflect my concern with my position in space. My location. This concern and obsession since earliest childhood must have been the root of my 1961 decision, taken unconsciously, in a wave of conviction so total as to have been unchallenged by logic, to place my sculptures on their own feet, as I have on mine. This is a straight clear line between my life and my work.
Fourteen January. Yesterday, I wrote the lecture that I am to give at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The shape of my work’s development becomes a little clearer every time I am forced to articulate it. I noticed for the first time yesterday in reviewing my slides how rapidly the scale of the earliest work changed from that of fence to that of human beings and then to that which comprehended human beings as incidental within its own range.
At my back, I always feel the cave of womanhood. I can retreat into it and lick my wounds, cooking and tending my children, and, when I was married, sheltering under my husband. And I also know that I have to guard against allowing myself to be defined in traditional sociological terms. The nub of my discomfort is a feeling that it is unbecoming for a woman to feel broad scoped ambition at all, much less to try to achieve it.
NARRATOR: Now, turn to the right, and continue into the next room. As you enter, turn left. Look for a painting of a pipe by René Magritte.
[Navigate to Rene Magritte, Treachery of Images]
NARRATOR: John Baldessari, a renowned artist and art professor here in LA, loved this painting.
BALDESSARI: I used to be a pipe smoker, so I have a whole collection of fifty or so pipes somewhere in storage. It’s all about feeling something, making contact with your hand and that object and holding something. That’s a classic pipe image for you.
I find it an incredibly intriguing painting because it has none of the earmarks of painting. It has no brushstrokes. It’s like commercial artists could have done it. And then I like the idea of the fly paper aspect of saying “This is not a pipe.” The idea of denial, that this is not what you think it is. I love that. It really intrigues me and informs a lot of my work. I can’t say what an important piece it is to me. If I could do that in my own art I would feel really accomplished. It would bring up a whole question of what art is, absolutely.
NARRATOR: Now, turn to the right. In the center of the adjacent wall is a painting of a woman in a blue hat and red gloves against a dark background. It’s by Jacob Lawrence. Born and raised in Harlem during a renaissance of Black American culture, he started painting at 15 years old.
[Navigate to Jacob Lawrence, Woman With Groceries]
LAWRENCE: Some have said my art is social commentary or it’s protest. It couldn’t be anything else if I grew up in the Harlem community and that was the source of my content, if you want to interpret it that way.
NARRATOR: Lawrence painted vibrant narratives with exaggerated gestures and bright expressive color.
LAWRENCE: I think Harlem, generally, was a community of hope.
I would walk along the streets and I would hear the Garveyites talk about the Back to Africa movement. I would hear the church people talk about the importance of some sort of religious affiliation. I would hear the communists talk about what was going on in the communist countries. I would hear the street corner orators speak about revolution….very fiery speakers.
NARRATOR: This image is called Woman With Groceries.
LAWRENCE: I was not on the outside looking in, but on the inside, and I was painting that inside. So I didn’t think about why I was painting a certain way, what I was trying to say…
It was myself I was putting down on paper. I can only think in those terms now. But maybe that’s what it was. What else would I be doing?
…there’s this element of struggle that goes on that adds a further quality and dimension to a life. I don’t think a struggle has to be overly dramatic. It can be a creative thing. It can be a search. It can be very quiet.
I think the value of being involved in the arts in general is that it adds a quality of life that anyone can appreciate…It opens up an entire dimension. I dread to think, if we didn’t have this experience what would happen. What would we not have?
NARRATOR: Now, head into the next room. Look for a tall bronze sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, of organic forms suspended in space.
[Navigate to Isamu Noguchi, Cronos 1947 (bronze)]
Excerpts from 1972 Michael Blackwood Productions film
NARRATOR: In 1972, Noguchi was interviewed about his work. He talked about the element of time and timelessness in his sculpture.
NOGUCHI :01 I never thought of myself as being in a movement—you know, the expressionist movement, or any other movements. I’m always being torn from opposite ends. I gyrate, between yesterday, today and tomorrow. Between Japan and New York. I’m obliged to find my way as a sculptor in relation to place and use, and not because of any preconceived attitude about sculpture. I go from one piece to the next. It’s continuous development. It’s not something that I have intellectually arrived at as a way of doing things. I change with the work.
Sometimes I feel that I’m part of this world today. Sometimes I feel that maybe I belong in history or prehistory or that there is no such thing as time. If you are caught in time—the immediate present time–then your choice is very limited, you can only do certain things correctly belonging to that time. If you want to escape from that time constraint, then the whole world….is someplace where you belong.
NARRATOR: Now, look for the swinging doors set into the long wall of the gallery. Inside is an immersive installation by Michael McMillen.
[Navigate to Michael McMIllen, Central Meridian]
NARRATOR: What you’re about to see is an environment, based on a garage in a suburban mid twentieth century home, like the one where the artist grew up. The piece includes sound so before you enter, let’s take a moment to hear from McMillen himself.
MCMILLEN: It’s really not a garage. It’s an illusion of a garage. But it’s based on a lot of places I visited when I was younger. The actual genesis of the piece, years ago, in 1981, Stephanie Barron asked me to participate in an exhibition…called The Museum as Site: 16 Installations. I wanted to do a portrait of Los Angeles. I thought about what a perfect metaphor is the car…then I was thinking about cars and where you keep them and I was making a parallel between the American garage and the Egyptian tomb of the pharaohs…In the Egyptian tombs they buried the pharaoh and all his possessions for the afterlife. The metaphor in America would be retirement and your leisure years….We have this parallel analogy between Egyptian architecture and the American garage. So in this case I have the car elevated to the status of the funereal barge with these kind of mystical sayings alluding to some kind of spiritual future…A lot of things are better left unexplained so that the viewer can free associate. I don’t like to lock things down too specifically because the whole essence of the work is to have people interact and form their own associations.
By entering into this piece you become part of it. It takes you out of the museum setting and out of the current year very quickly and transports the viewer to another time and place of their choosing. It’s an open-ended narrative where the viewer finishes the story. In that sense, the viewer is a very active part of the art experience.
NARRATOR: Pause the tour and take as much time as you like in the garage. Resume when you’re ready.
Ready to continue? Head into the next gallery. Look for the side gallery on the left. We’ll start there. This gallery is dedicated to assemblage, art made from found materials. At the far end, there’s an excellent example of assemblage in a work by Ed Kienholz. It looks like a chair, surrounded by various objects.
[Navigate to Kienholz, The Illegal Operation]
NARRATOR: The buckets, bedpan, the footstool, and the dirty rags all represent the scene of a back alley abortion. Kienholz made the work in the early 1960s, a decade before it became legal to end a pregnancy. Kienholz never shied away from controversy. Viewers sometimes balked at his unconventional and confrontational approach as they did during a 1966 exhibition of his work at LACMA.
Ed Kienholz on Exhibit (1966 June Steel film)
VISITOR VOICE I don’t see anything but a bunch of junk thrown together, and he calls that art!
VISITOR (CONT): This kind of junk just thrown together with a bunch of gobby paint on it…I think it’s horrible! I think the man’s sick!
I don’t feel that this exhibit is junk at all. I feel that the artist has felt something and defined it in no other way that any contemporary has ever explored and for this I respect and admire him.
NARRATOR: Kienholz was interviewed for a film by William Kronick and he talked about his work this way:
KIENHOLZ: I arrived in Los Angeles about ten years ago, flat broke…I’d haunt the thrift stores and the junkyards looking for things I could use. Clothes I could wear. I lived in a studio that cost $10 a month. I kept painting away. Finally the environment that I was in, and that I had created, changed the kind of painting that I do. I decided it was more honest to take a head and paint it than to paint a head on canvas on a two dimensional plane. 3:05 So I started putting together various objects that I’d find from the time to time in things that have been called constructions. Perhaps an unconventional type of art expression but it seems to fit what I do and the way I think the best.
I like Los Angeles. It’s easy. A city of this size, where people throw so much stuff away, you can get almost anything you want for no money at all if you’re a good hustler.
It’s pretty strange that people call these things art. I don’t know if they’re art or not. Maybe they’re cartoons. Maybe they are neo-Dada sculptures, like some of the critics say. I do know that I work as hard and as well as I could on each one….I do them because I think that the prime mover in all of our lives is death and the fear of death. Whatever you can do that involves you completely so that you forget about time and death coming closer, these are the things that really make you happy.
NARRATOR: Mario Ybarra Jr. is an artist living and working in Los Angeles today. He finds inspiration in this piece.
MARIO YBARRA: There are relationships there, there are roads and channels between our material world and what we consider a poetic….So if we think about…a shopping cart as our material, a baby doll as our material, a lamp as our material. The little orange stool as a material. Such a painterly gesture! With somebody like Kienholz he’s pushing the limits of what materiality could be. I think that’s what artists should do. They should really push things. That’s what gets exciting about contemporary art! Because contemporary art uses everything, it uses the world. And that’s what we get to see….Everything is a material and everything can be infused with the poetic to create art.
NARRATOR: Now, turn around. On the long wall of this side gallery, you’ll find a leather pouch with fringe.
This is a piece called Mojo Bag #1 Hand by Betye Saar.
In 1976, LACMA held a panel discussion about Black American art on the occasion of an important exhibition. Betye Saar was part of that panel. This is a recording from that historic conversation. She was asked about the dynamics of Black art and her work as an art teacher.
SAAR: 20:28 Those who know my work know that it’s very personal and very intimate. I can only communicate on a one to one to one, one between me, to one, my material to one, whoever looks at it….I feel very strongly about teaching. Unfortunately I do not have many Black students, I teach in a semi-private art institute and the majority of the students are white…but I am interested in teaching the same thing, communicating one to one to one. Having students get in touch with themselves, with their center part, and hopefully from that point, communicating what they’re about.
NARRATOR: Years later, Saar was honored at LACMA with a focused solo exhibition. At that time, she reflected on the inspiration behind pieces like this one.
From 2019 Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business Directed by Christine Turner
SAAR: There were very few Black artists in Los Angeles. There was a larger community, a national community. They were having a conference in Chicago. So David Hammons and I decided that we wanted to go. During our spare time, we went to the Field Museum. African art, Oceanic art, Primitive art and Folk art, they were not really considered art, so they were down in the basement. And it was weird down there! Because there was all this energy from these tribal kinds of materials. When we came back to California, that was when I started doing the ancestral past kind of pieces, working with objects from Africa, and organic things.
I was always interested in alternative beliefs. Palmistry, phrenology, astrology and soforth. In the sixties, I became more interested in what was happening about feminism and racism. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, his murder was something that was really horrific for me and shocking. I remember how I felt physically, just really angry and upset. But I was a mother with young children. I couldn’t walk in protests. But I did have a weapon, and that was art!
NARRATOR: Now turn around. Enter the main room. On the wall to the left, look for a painting with the word SPAM spelled out in bright yellow. This is a painting by Ed Ruscha from 1962. Ruscha took his subject matter from everyday consumer culture. The top part of the painting shows the brand name in supersize, while the lower part shows a can of spam in its actual size. Ruscha reflected on his career in Los Angeles.
RUSCHA: I always had it in the back of my mind that movies had it over painting in a way because you had this rectangle where everything moved….It’s not a frozen thing on the wall. That’s what I make is frozen things that stay in place. They don’t move. I mean, there’s salvation in that too.
When I got ready to leave Oklahoma I knew that Los Angeles was swank and it sparkled and twinkled. It just had some great magnetic attraction for me. So I knew that this was going to be a place to come to.
I think I could have almost made my art anywhere I settled. But the city is the backbone to what I’m up to….Words seem to affect me in some way I guess. I’m guilty of linguistic kleptomania. I just see things out there and they just become part of my art.
NARRATOR: Near the Ruscha painting, you’ll see a giant comb leaning against the wall. Vija Celmins made this sculpture in 1970.
[Navigate to Vija Celmins, Comb ]
CELMINS: I had just been married and I made the comb about the size of my husband, 6’ 4”, for some bizarre unknown reason. I drew the comb on this piece of wood and then I thought, well, how am I going to cut it? So I had a lumber yard, I took it in, and I had them roughly cut the shape in. And then I got a file, 2, 3 files, and I started filing. I like the physical labor. My work is pretty physical anyway. I like the physical labor of it, you know? I sprayed—I can’t believe I did this!—this is sprayed with lacquer, without a mask or anything. But I’m still here! I didn’t know. When I get on to something, my brain is ticking and I’m trying to figure out how to make it! I had someone write on there. Because I never could write on things. It took a couple of years, on and off.
NARRATOR: Celmins moved to Los Angeles in 1962 to attend graduate school at UCLA.
CELMINS: I came from Indiana. Most of the time, the work I saw was in magazines. So it would be people that were pretty well known. And I think when I came to LA, I thought it was like a new beginning. I found this studio at 701 Venice Blvd. Venice was so wonderful! It was almost totally empty. There was very little traffic. I moved to the studio in 1963. I lived there for thirteen years…
Now, turn to the black and white image of a man standing on a sidewalk, just next to the right of the comb. The word “wrong” appears beneath the figure.
[Navigate to John Baldessari, Wrong]
NARRATOR: The artist John Baldessari appears in his own work here, standing stiffly in the foreground with a palm tree looming behind him. The composition is intentionally off, violating conventions of what makes a so-called “good” photograph. Baldessari talked about the work in an interview in 2009.
BALDESSARI: Doing art is the only thing I’ve come across that gives me any idea that I’m anywhere close to understanding what the universe is about. It all sounds very mystical I know, but I think that’s what drives me.
Getting interested in photography and reading books about photography and how do you take a good picture. How do you prove your photographs? You know, it’s still out there. Don’t pose your subject in front of a tree because the tree will look like it’s growing out of a person’s head. Well, that’s kind of cool! You can do that? So I just put the two together. A picture of me standing in front of a tree, labeled Wrong. Everywhere I look, I’m looking at ways of seeing what I’m looking at. It’s just to escape boredom.
NARRATOR: We’re nearing the end of this tour. But as you exit the galleries, we’ll hear from two more artists, whose work is installed in the lobby.
Exit the gallery. In the lobby, find the narrow corridor on your right leading to the restrooms. There’s a text installed there, by the artist Lawrence Weiner. He traded it to his friend, John Baldessari, from whom we just heard. Baldessari installed this text in the shower in his studio in west LA. And that’s where Weiner often encountered it.
WEINER: I used to sleep at John’s sometimes when I was in California. It would be on the wall…behind the shower curtain. I thought it was a nice place to put an installation. But it had nothing to do with the piece.
Art is something that doesn’t have a place. It’s put out into the world. And in making a place, it bangs against this side, bangs against that side. Eventually it settles in and fits. Art is made by people for other people. If they don’t want to accept it, they don’t have to…It is what it is. It’s an informal structure that is about a specific object and it doesn’t have a specific form.
I loved John. John was my friend.
There’s one more stop on this tour. In the lobby, look for a large metal sculpture that looks like a sea anemone. This work is by Maren Hassinger.
[Navigate to Maren Hassinger, Untitled (Sea Anemone)]
HASSENGER: Sea Anemone was one of my very first experiments with wire rope. And then I used it almost exclusively for years and years…30:27 It’s very reluctant. It has a total mind of its own. And its in quotes a man made material, extruded steel. I kind of think of it like you put meat in a meat grinder and then you grind it and it comes out of the holes in the grinder in those round strips. That’s kind of the thing about wire rope. It…becomes these units, these links, and these links because of the machine that they’re put through have this established curl. If you took an individual ply of wire rope and put it on the wall it would look like a hieroglyph of water running or a river flowing. I use that image so much to talk about the earth and ongoing-ness of the earth, and the earth. And I use it in different sizes and different capacities. I haven’t always unwound it…It can be made to last indefinitely outdoors…It’s a wonderful, wonderful material. But, it has a mind of its own! And having a mind of its own helped me make things. It wasn’t flowing like water. It already started in some kind of way.
It has anemone qualities. (laughs) I feel like by putting it high on the wall like that, I feel like it’s floating toward the surface of the water. And the rest of it is floating downward to balance it so it can do that. ..It’s coming up hig, high, high so it can communicate with everything above the water.
I think I was really influenced by…what I feel is around me, not only the visual part, but the intellectual part or the emotional part. And I feel like, for most of my life, for most of the time I was growing up…and afterwards, most of the issues have been about the loss of nature. How do we deal with the future?
The point of art is to be a conduit between my heart and soul and yours. And in that conduit, there’s a communication that could be helpful in getting through life or understanding your position in the world…I want to be helpful. That’s what I’m finally ending up seeing. That art can be helpful.
NARRATOR: This concludes our tour. For other tours in this series, visit lacma.org/moderntours.