A Compass for Surveyors in Los Angeles

Over spring break, I spent some time at my old haunt, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which boasts the largest permanent collection of art west of the Mississippi.  While at the museum, my love for the art of curating increased tremendously. What I saw proved that sometimes a truly fascinating exhibit might not appear to be particularly complex at first glance, and that the best exhibits are those that are simply truly well planned and clearly thought out.

“Compass For Surveyors” is a small exhibit, contained in a single room in the Art of the Americas building.  It is comprised of works from the museum’s permanent collection of late 19th century and early 20th century landscape photographs and paintings from both the east and west coasts of the United States.

As a museum and curatorial practices enthusiast, I was intrigued by this idea of combining permanent collection objects in a new way and exhibiting them under a new conceptual umbrella.  In this case, this use of the pieces allows the viewer to see how the different works interact with one another and to consider what they say together about the subject matter.  The exhibit seeks to highlight the differences and similarities in painted and photographic depictions of the east and west coasts during a period of major westward expansion and east coast urbanization—a time when the landscape of the United States was in constant flux.

The organization of the works is extremely relevant.  Each wall is a completely different experience in terms of medium, location, setting, place and style.  On one wall (the eastern wall of the gallery) east coast landscape paintings are exhibited salon-style; i.e. hung in many rows, covering nearly the whole wall.  The wall opposite (the west) features west coast landscape paintings hung in a more modern style: only one row across.  The southern wall in-between features west coast photographs arranged salon style highlighted by a single row of east coast photographs.

Further highlighting the themes of exploration and change and expansion, a compass was on display in the center of the room.  According to the exhibit blurb, the compass dates from 1856 and serves to reinforce and summarize visually the idea behind the exhibit. The blurb stated further that “the installation emphasizes the uneven and subjective nature of LACMA’s collection: the East Coast works, hung salon-style, dramatically outnumber the museum’s canvases portraying the West. Conversely, representations of the West abound in the museum’s holdings of early photography, while there are fewer photographs depicting the East.”  As a patron of the museum, I found it interesting that the museum views this set of its own collections as “uneven”.

In addition to the juxtaposition of photographs and paintings, the exhibit features the Thomas Eakins masterpiece “The Wrestlers”, as well as a sketch for the work, which date from the same time period as the landscapes.  At first glance, the inclusion of Eakins seems like an odd choice.  Why does a painting of two men wrestling belong in an exhibit concerned with landscapes?

Incredibly enough, while I was viewing the exhibit, the exhibit’s curator, José Luis Blondet, was giving a tour to a group of art students.  I had the chance to tag along somewhat surreptitiously and to have the eye-opening opportunity of hearing a curator explain his craft: what he conceived for the exhibit, how he went about arranging it to meet his purposes, and how he selected the works he included.

Mr. Blondet explained that with this exhibit, he sought to express the idea of landscapes as individual experiences and the museum as its own always-changing landscape.  Each wall, with its different types of works featured, is a different visual landscape.  He also explained that the photographs on display will change during the course of the show, creating an entirely new overall landscape: the exhibit itself is in a constant state of change.  Every person who views it will have a different experience.

When approaching this subject matter, Mr. Blondet explained that he thought he was going to see “progress” in east coast photographs with expansiveness in west coast pictures, but what he found contradicted his previous conceptions.  As a potential aspiring curator, it was personally interesting for me to hear how even the most seasoned museum professionals can approach an exhibit with preconceptions and have them challenged by the very pieces they are working with.

Mr. Blondet also discussed his process in setting up the exhibit itself.  For example, he described how he laid out the east coast salon-style works on the floor before hanging them up to see how they played against one another.  In a particularly amusing anecdote, he shared how he sought to find an appropriate color to paint the walls, finally deciding to match the color of the reflection on the water from one of the landscape paintings because he felt it would help to highlight the works without taking on a life of its own.

After Mr. Blondet completed his talk, I was left to consider the exhibit with a different set of eyes.  The power of this exhibit depends on the viewer’s ability to recognize and appreciate the specific contrasts created by the juxtaposition of the paintings and photographs.  Beyond the material level, there were thematic contrasts between the old and the new: the older world of the east coast and the new world of the west coast; the old way of displaying art (salon-style) and the new way of displaying art; and, of course, the old way of creating art (painting) and a new way of creating art (photography).

So why did the Eakins fit into this exhibit? The painting, because of its almost-photographic, naturalistic qualities, serves to unite the worlds of photography and painting.  In addition, in its subject matter, it shows the potential struggle between the east and west, and the old and the new.  In fact, the painting provides a summary of the exhibit: the passing of the artistic torch, so to speak, from old ways to new beginnings.

This set of works may appear to be a simple portrayal of life in the 19th century United States, but their combination encourages the viewer to think more deeply.   Being able to hear the curator describe his goal for the exhibit added a layer of understanding and appreciation for what, on the surface, may seem a simple landscape show.  Rather than a simple set of beautiful paintings and photographs, this exhibit has been created to display the ever-changing nature of artistic styles and visual landscapes.  Next time you are near LACMA, don’t pass up this room!

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