Hey Beautiful People! Day one in Los Angeles was all about the show I wanted most to see - a show curated by LA County Museum of Art's Stephanie Barron and Michel Draguet (Director of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique) and with cooperation from the Magritte Foundation, about the surrealist painter Rene Magritte and Contemporary Art. I read about this in the New York Times several months ago and was thrilled that it was still going to be showing when I knew I'd be down here. The thing that made this show exciting was not only the fact that it's the first to link Magritte's influence on over thirty contemporary artists, but Barron asked artist John Baldessari to design the show itself. I saw the images of Magritte's clouds made into a carpet that covered the show floor and I knew I was there.
I've never seen a show quite like this before. It could easily be labeled as "gimmicky" with Magritte-ish details like all the gallery guards dressed in bowler hats, etc. but the show was so smart that you instead just feel like you've actually entered into the fantasy world of Magritte. The best example of this is the work of Robert Gober - I knew several of his pieces going into this, but had no idea that he had made a giant cigar (with real tobacco inside) that was a direct reference to a Magritte painting called "State of Grace" where he compares it in scale to a bicycle. This is almost the first piece of art you see when you enter the show, and that room explored Magritte's interest in words and images. (Best exemplified in the painting that the show was subtitled - the Treachery of Images - you know....the "this is not a pipe" painting?) This painting was in the room, but fortunately you had to work your way back to it via a fair amount of other pieces. So by the time I got there, I really had a much broader understanding of why Magritte painted that piece and why it's one of his most important, recognized, and parodied works.
Elements of Magritte's paintings continued throughout the rooms of the show. Not only was the floor carpeted in clouds, but Baldessari put images of freeways on the ceilings. (Referring to Magritte's night and day paintings, most directly) Recurring elements such as a giant turned spindle were blown up and used as architectural elements in one room, which nicely referred back to pieces like Gober's cigar or Vija Celmins' giant comb that she made with a direct nod to another Magritte painting, "Personal Values" where items from someone's personal bath kit are blown up to human scale and filling a room like a still life.
I knew most of the artists in the show, but a nice new discovery for me was the work of Richard Artschwager, who is a pop artist who somehow slipped through the cracks for me. He had some really compelling pieces in this show, such as RA-26, which looked like a crate for an upright piano, except that it was also obviously made from wood too thick to enclose said piano. Pop art has always been my favorite movement, and the show had plenty of its most famous heavy hitters like Warhol and Lichtenstein and the like, but I really liked the way that Artschwager's pieces connected that movement with surrealism so neatly. It's kind of like the way that Magritte's life work explained surrealism so simply. The other thing I like about this piece by Artschwager being in the show is the connection the curator made with some of Magritte's most hilarious works - the sitting coffins. My favorite is this one which is a direct hommage to David's painting "Madame Recamier."
There were also a few things in the show that talked about Magritte's influence on contemporary design, such as a series of record album covers, some of which were direct references like Jeff Beck's 1969 album, "Beck-Ola," which features "The Listening Room" (1952) – a green apple dominating an otherwise empty room – on its cover. Or Jackson Browne's "Late for the Sky" with the night scene below, day sky above Magritte theme.
I saw a retrospective of Magritte's work about a decade ago at SFMoma and that show had a lot of Magritte's more famous paintings. I loved the way this show pulled out work I hadn't thought much about. One was these floating orbs in "The Voice of the Air" that recur in many of his paintings. I thought they looked like lead fishing weights, but I guess they are mouths. Probably both, knowing Magritte's brain. I wonder why nobody made the connection between that image and the Geffen logo???
Another piece that my cousin Lulie pointed out to me was by John Baldessari himself - a list of "terms most useful in describing creative works of art." This was so perfect for this show, and I read somewhere that Baldessari always intended this piece to be shown in a group show. It's so curious to me being an artist and reading this list, because there are so many words I wouldn't dream of using to describe art. But maybe that's the point. It reminds me of a story my mom told me about a group of students from the University of Oregon coming into her gallery with their teacher. The instructor was pushing mom into using words that he had taught his students to use to describe art, but that just wasn't the way my mom talked or felt, really, about what she showed at Opus 5. It felt too stiff or formal to her. Knowing a little about Baldessari, I guess he might think the same thing.
Which brings me to my last big thought about this show--it's pretty interesting to see how Magritte has made such an impact on art world with some rather simple but intuitive concepts like the "this is not a pipe" kind of work. Of course any major artist will be able to rattle off a handful of names of other artists whose work inspired them. Something I thought about while I looked at this work was the way that the art world is so self-referential and how that often shuts out the general public from many discussions. It's hard if you don't know much about art to jump in and start to learn why some pieces are homages and some are too much of a direct knock-off. I think this show was successful because so many of Magritte's images are so well-known and yet the show was really about his concepts and recurring visual themes and how he influenced other artists.I'd love to get a survey of who goes to these shows and what percentage of them are visual artists themselves. You can often tell if someone's an artist by the way they look at work in a gallery - the length of time they stay and the distance they put between themselves and a piece. Is it the image that's captivating or the technique and/or materials? I can't look at any piece of art and not think about my own work on some level. I also really love visiting museums because it inspires me to hear people who don't seem to be artists discussing the work they see. It gives me hope that the art world isn't just speaking/preaching to itself. This show seems to address that gap between the makers and the viewers and it amazes me that it took this long for someone to recognize Magritte's huge impact with a major museum exhibition. I wish more museums had the energy (although I realize it's probably financial to some degree, but I'll make the case anyhow) to do more survey shows like this that make you think about more than just the artist's work itself, but the larger context as well.