Richard Avedon’s Family Affairs at the National Museum of American Jewish History

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit.
Jerry Brown, Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and George H. W. Bush
photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather, the film version of Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel from three years earlier. Four years later he released The Godfather II. Both the novel and the films were more than just extraordinary successes, they became part of America’s cultural weltgiest. They were widely honored and celebrated and they spawned scores of imitations–some good, some not so good.

And for a while there, when one heard the word “the Family,” one reference came immediately to mind: organized crime.

So it was with not a little irony that Rolling Stone published sixty-nine Richard Avedon photos under the umbrella title “The Family.” The issue was published on October 21,1976–just before the 1976 election and little after the Bicentennial celebration that summer. The mood of the country was neither particularly joyous nor overly patriotic. It had been a rough eight years.  And Avedon’s portraits were of the U.S’s elite–the most powerful men (and a few woman) in the United States. Several would later move into even more powerful and influential roles

Avedon’s portraits are stark in their simplicity. The subjects stand before a white screen. There are no props (although Katherine Graham does hold her eye-glasses in her hands.) Most are straight-on, some slightly turned. And most stare straight into the camera.

They are revealing portraits.

So it was great fun strolling through these portraits on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History and thinking of what have become of some these powerful figures. (The exhibit ran until August 2.) More than a few of the subjects have had large effects on American life since these photos were taken in 1976.  There is George H. W. Bush, head of the CIA; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for Gerald Ford; Ralph Nader, described simply as a “Consumer Advocate”; Ronald Reagan, at the time simply the “Former Governor of California”; W. Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the FBI (and whom we know now was the infamous “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame); and Jerry Brown, in 1976 the youngest governor in California history. Thirty-five years later, Brown was again elected and became the oldest governor in California history.

Avedon who started out as I.D. photographer for the Merchant Marines, entered the world of fashion photography (he is the model for Fred Astaire’s character in Funny Face) and shot for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life. While still immersed in fashion photography, he began taking portraits of those involved in political dissidence and

Avedon--Self-Portrait 2 2006

Avedon–Self-Portrait 2 © Richard Avedon 2006

social issues, celebrities and workers, the demi-monde and the hard-scrabble. While his fashion photography may be timeless, it is these “social” portraits that are the most powerful and unforgettable

Such was Avedon’s reputation, that after “The Family” shoots, George H. W. Bush–America’s chief spy-master at the time–wrote the following to Rolling Stone:

It was a pleasure having Mr. Avedon out here at CIA… .  I don’t know if he was as scared to come out here as I was in posing for the great Avedon, but he sure has a neat way of putting his victims at ease and I enjoyed our short time together.

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for “Family Affairs” at NMAJH.

THE FAMILY

The following are the list of subjects of Rolling Stone’s photo-essay “The Family”. These photos were part of the National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit, Avedon: Family Affairs.

Bella Abzug             Carl Albert              James Angleton              Walter Annenberg
J. Paul Austin           Benjamin Bailar      Roger Baldwin                Daniel Boorstin
Jerry Brown              Gen. George Brown     Arthur Burns             George H. W. Bush
Earl Butz                    Joseph Califano       Jimmy Carter                 Emanuel Celler
César Chávez           Shirley Chisholm        Frank Church                Clark Clifford
John DeButts            Thomas Eagleton       W. Mark Felt               Frank Fitzsimmons
Gerald Ford               Thomas Gleason        Katherine Graham      F. Edward Hérbert
Adm. James Holloway     Hubert Humphrey     Daniel Inouye         Lady Bird Johnson
Gen. David Jones         Barbara Jordan          Edward “Ted” Kennedy
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy    Henry Kissinger     Richard Kleindienst    Melvin Laird
Mike Mansfield            Eugene McCarthy      George McGovern          George Meany
Arnold Miller            Herbert J. Miller, Jr.    Daniel Patrick Moynihan   Edmund Muskie
Ralph Nader           Thomas “Tip” O’Neill         William Paley          A. Philip Randolph
Ronald Reagan      Elliot Richardson    Admiral Hyman Rickover   Nelson Rockefeller
Peter Rodino            Felix Rohatyn          A.M.Rosenthal          Pete Rozelle
Donald Rumsfeld      Charles Shaffer         William Simon         Jules Stein
I. F. Stone                  Cyrus Vance             George Wallace      Gen. Fred C. Weyand
Edward Wilson           Gen. Louis Wilson      Leonard Woodcock    Rose Mary Woods
James Skelly Wright   Andrew Young

The Other Families

Besides the portraits from the Rolling Stone piece, the exhibit “Avedon: Family Affairs” also contained several large scale murals of other different “families.”  His portrait of the Chicago Seven is notable because of the absence of Bobby Seale, who had been jailed the day before the group shot was to be taken. There is a large mural of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” denizens, notable here for containing two portraits of Joe Dallesandro–one nude, one clothed. And there is a wonderful portrait, the largest of all of them, of Allen Ginsberg’s family. The family–celebrating the publication of Ginsberg’s father’s collection of poems–is a wonderful group, disparate like all families, but very much connected. Some hold plates with cake, some hold coffee cups, one sits, the rest stand, some stare at the camera, some look away.

It is a honest family shot of an American icon.

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg's Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).  Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg’s Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).
Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

L.A. … the rain … and the raving Jesus

 

Alexei von Jawlensky "Young Christ" (1919-1920)

Alexei von Jawlensky
“Young Christ”
(1919-1920)

In late February I had the chance to be in Los Angeles for a long weekend. It promised to be a sweet respite from the Northeastern winter we had all been going through, a winter that alternated sub-arctic temperatures with crippling snow storms. And when I left the weather reporters were gearing up their apocalyptic terms for yet another storm which was to arrive.

Anyway, Southern California seemed a treat in February.

In 2013, Los Angeles received about 3 inches of rain for the entire year. The Friday I was there, it received a little more than 6—with much more in the San Berandino valley.

But what the rain does do is it forces one inside and we spent an enormous amount of time in the wonderful LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When we arrived we walked into a free exhibit of Diane von Furstenberg’s design. I know little of fashion, but I did recognize the name. The entrance of the exhibit was papered with oversize advertisements, movies, and photos of people wearing von Furstenberg’s dresses–particularly her iconic wrap-around dress.

The next room presented a phalanx of white mannequins clothed in Von Furstenberg’s dresses. In many ways, it resembled a scene from a bad science-fiction film:

The von Furstenberg exhibit at LACMA

The von Furstenberg exhibit at LACMA

The floors and walls were painted in continuous patterns, so that it appeared that one entered the pattern itself. It was all very op-art-ish. (In fact, Von Fustenberg, the LACMA and the Andy Warhol museum had collaborated to create special edition t-shirts–which were way out of my t-shirt budget category!)

The floor of the von Furstenberg exhibit..and my boot.

The floor of the von Furstenberg exhibit…and my boot.

We moved from one gallery to another–running through pouring rain from one building to the next. We entered the Linda and Stewart Resnick pavilion (for whom I once worked) where a small Hockney exhibit was being mounted. We visited the Mexican gallery with its Riveras and Kahlos. We visited an exciting exhibit on soccer–gearing up for the 2014 World Cup. And we delighted in the funky moving sculptures:  Chris Burden’s “Metropolis II, a city of 1,100 Hot-Wheels, and Jesus Rafael Soto’s remarkable “Penetrable,”  kinetic sculpture of yellow plastic ribbons that hangs from ceiling to floor in the hundreds and which one can walk through.

But it was in the modern art gallery, in the early 20th-century Eastern European room, that I discovered a delightful artist and painting that I had never known before. It was Alexei von Jawlenski’s “Young Christ.”  Working boldly apart from the long tradition of Christ portraits, this work was brightly colored and freely drawn, and it popped with excitement.

My daughter said it looked as if Christ had been to a “rave,” so that is what we christened it:  The Raving Jesus.

Renoir…Cotton Candy…and Barbie’s Bordello

photo Ralph Crane

photo Ralph Crane

We probably all can imagine that little boy or girl at a fair, a carnival, or an amusement park, who seeing an enormous pompadour of pink or blue cotton candy (spun sugar to some of you) insists on getting the largest size. We can see further the sticky stains upon their faces, the crazed shock of sugar in their eyes. And we can empathize with them and their queasy stomachs that a night filled with cotton candy is certain to produce.

That’s how I feel about Renoir and his nudes.

Pierre Renoir "The Bathing Group (1916)" Barnes Foundation

Pierre Renoir
“The Bathing Group (1916)”
Barnes Foundation

I spent more than three hours at the Barnes Foundation last Friday night. And as always, it is a mind-boggling collection of early modern art, African sculpture, and American furniture, decorative and industrial arts. I could spend a lifetime looking at the Modglianis and Mattisses. I am fascinated by Chaim Soutaine and George Seurat. And Henri Rousseau I find thoroughly relaxing and amusing.

But it is the Renoirs that I find cloying.

Barnes owns 181 Renoirs that encompass the span of the artist’s career. Now, there is much that I like about Renoir: his early works, the group portraits and the early nudes. But the more famous nudes, those cotton candy swirls of creams, oranges, pinks and yellows, I find difficult to look at.

By contrast, one of my favorite paintings in the collection is also a nude: Amadeo Modgliani’s Reclining Nude from Back. Is it lifelike?  No.  But it is sensuous and intriguing and narrative and appealing and pleasing. And what more could a person want from a work of art?

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Reclining Nude from the Back by Amadeo Modgliani

Modgliani’s attenuated figures with their mask-like visages, I find fascinating. I find a story in each of their stony faces. Likewise, I delight in the classical innocence of Picasso’s Girl with a Goat or the bold outlines and patterns of Mattisse’s Reclining Nude with Blue Eyes.  Each is so distinct in itself, so original in its view of the human body.

Renoir’s nudes, on the other hand, I find distracting in their busyness. I find them tiring and I tend to pass over them quickly.

To me, they look like how Barbie would decorate a bordello if she ever became a Madam.

Barbie and the Bordello

Barbie and the Bordello

Roasted Picasso, Braised Mattise, Charred Freud: Art in the Oven

Harlequin's Head

Picasso’s Harlequin’s Head

Woman with Eyes Closed

Woman with Eyes Closed

Reading Girl in White and Yellow

Reading Girl in White and Yellow

I was up and about the other night, unable to sleep, not ready to start a new book, and mindlessly checking out  things on-line. I checked my e-mails, paged through my Zite selections, spun through scores of Twitter and Tumblr postings. And I came upon this very intriguing headline:

Stolen Picasso and Monet art ‘burned’ in Romanian oven 

And the lead paragraph read thus:

Romanian investigators have found the remains of paint, canvas and nails in the oven of a woman whose son is charged with stealing masterpieces from a Dutch gallery in October last year.

(click headline to read original article)

Authorities believe that these are the remains of a cache of paintings that were stolen from a Dutch museum in October 2012 and which included Picasso’s Harlequin Head, Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Mattise’s  Reading Girl in White and Yellow, and Lucien Freud’s Woman with Eyes Closed.

The burnt remains–pigments, bits of wood, nails–were found in the home of a Romanian woman whose son had been arrested in connection with the heist.The woman, Olga Dogaru, told authorities that she had burned the paintings to destroy any evidence that linked her son to the theft. The paintings, which are valued between $130 and $250 million, have not yet been officially identified with the remains in Mrs. Dogaru’s oven, but the likelihood is great.

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 And so I began thinking and wondering.

In a small house in Romania, we have fragments of painting primer, paint, wood, canvass and nails. In a way, these famous paintings have been “deconstructed” to their most basic elements. What element is missing? Genius? Kind of nebulous. Inspiration? Maybe even more so. Certainly execution and vision.

But what was once one thing is now something else. (In many ways, isn’t that a way of defining art itself.)

One of the officials working on the case stated that if these oven remains are indeed the paintings they are looking for then Olga Dogaru’s actions are a “crime against humanity.”

Come on, now.  After the horrors of the Holocaust, the crimes of Pol Pot, various tribal genocides, corporate environmental rape, the atrocities of the twentieth century and the new horrors of the young twenty-first, I think calling this a “crime against humanity” is a bit overstated and a bit overdramatic.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no philistine. I  love art. It is a very important and crucial part of my life, day in and day out.  I love amateurish, clunky student art and exquisite paintings by the Old Masters. I love rough draft architectural models and elegant Brancusi Birds in Space.  I love the avant garde and the mainstream.

And yet, my life is not appreciably diminished by the loss of these individual paintings. There are paintings that I love, that I am lucky to be able to visit often. But if they were gone, life would go on.  For me, as well as most of the other 7 billion people on earth.

Undoubtedly, it is a shame that these paintings are gone forever. (A bit amusing that they were destroyed by a mother trying to protect her ne’er-do-well son and probably unaware of the magnitude of her actions.) The monetary loss is arbitrary…and irrelevant. And the fact they they will never be seen in the original is regrettable.

But the entire story has me thinking hard about Art. What is it? What is it for? What is its relationship with society? What are the tiers?  And what and who determines them?

To be honest, I don’t know the answers. But they are important questions to ask.

The Getty Museum, Los Angeles– “a work of art with a museum inside”

20130716-223355.jpgWhen I think of art museums, I think of urban spaces. In my experience, most large cities ensconce their major museums within the city landscape itself.  And often times, the buildings themselves are as impressive as the art they house: the majesty of the Louvre, the edgy hipness of the MOMA, the serenity of the capital’s Hirschhorn, the classical grandeur of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, the modernity of the Tate. Yet, again, each is an urban creation, set upon city streets.

The Getty Center of Los Angeles, however, is something wonderfully different. To get there one must drive–as one always must in Los Angeles–along some congested stretch of highway ( the 405) and pull into a car park. From there you take a tram car 900 feet up a mountain and when you disembark at the mountaintop, you feel you have arrived on Olympus itself.

A sculpture "running" next to the tram car

A sculpture “running” next to the tram car

The museum is open-aired. As you move from wing to wing, from gallery to gallery, you walk into the California sunlight–the San Bernadino and San Gabriel Mountains stretching out to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the blue sky all around you. The buildings are constructed in beautiful white block with striated stone quarried in Israel and Italy that mutates in color from brown to gold to sandstone in the changing light. Large panels of glass and open-air passageways further blur the distinction between outside and in. As one museum docent said, “People come here with the idea that they’re going to a museum with works of art on the inside, but they’re really visiting a work of art with a museum inside.”

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“Air” by Aristide Maillol

Sculptures both modern and contemporary are scattered throughout the grounds, so as you move from a special exhibition on Renaissance gardens to the Getty’s renowned permanent photography collection you must walk past Giocometti and Magritte and Henry Moore as well as Barbara Hepworth, Aristide Maillol and Charles Day.

Boy with a Frog, by Alexander Day

“Boy with a Frog” by Charles Day

Torso of a woman by Rene Magritte

“Delusions of Grandeur” by Rene Magritte

The holdings –and the special exhibits–that the Getty museum houses are world-class and extraordinary. From Van Gogh’s Irises to Mapplethorpe’s photos, from Titian to Rembrandt to Monet, the Getty is a magnificent collection.

But I could spend the entire day there and never walk inside.

by the way…

In case I didn’t say, there is also extraordinary art inside:

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“Specimen (after Durer)” by John Baldessari

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