THE PICTURE JUNE 3, 2009
Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture -- J. Paul Getty Museum
Hearst The Collector -- Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California -- J. Paul Getty Museum
Back when I was in college, there was a theory that the way to get a sense of how somebody felt deep inside was to ask whether they preferred Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The friend who was drawn to the ecstatic optimism of certain moments in War and Peace was one kind of person, and the friend who was consumed by the darkness of Crime and Punishment was another. The question that ought to have been asked of museumgoers in Los Angeles in recent months, infinitely less elegant but in its own way equally revealing, was whether they preferred Bernini or Koons. You could know a lot about people if you determined whether they were more sympathetic to Bernini's muscular seventeenth-century Roman Baroque, the subject of a luminous exhibition at the Getty, or to the techno-kitsch Baroque style of Jeff Koons, whose plan for a $25 million site-specific sculpture of a railroad locomotive at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) seems to have survived at least the first shock waves of the economic collapse. In Koonsland, there still is money.
Bernini or Koons: some will say this is preposterous, apples and oranges, especially considering that Bernini, who died more than three hundred years ago, is not around to accept commissions. The question, though, is whether anybody who has experienced the grandeur of Bernini would even consider giving a commission to Jeff Koons. Michael Govan, the director of LACMA, is said by his supporters to be a man who knows how to hold the interest of a Hollywood aristocracy that is notoriously indifferent to museums. Whatever Govan's private opinion of Koons, he may figure that his southern California audience will go for Koons's Hollywood Baroque. According to a report in The Art Newspaper, Govan is determined that Koons will produce his full-scale, seventy-foot-long steel-and-aluminum replica of a 1943 Baldwin steam locomotive, to be suspended from a 160-foot-tall crane outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Koons does not appear to go in for elaborate justifications of his work, but a $25 million project requires some explanation, so two years ago, when the locomotive was first under discussion, he described it as "a visceral, realistic experience," one with "tremendous sexual quality." It has been said to be a civic monument--like "a town square" or "a clock tower," according to Govan--and it has been variously described as a salute to the Industrial Age, to Western expansion spurred by the railroads, and to California before the advent of car culture.
This would be a hell of a pop icon for the city that did so much to define pop culture. Koons, an astute salesman, has insisted that it "will not be an amusementpark spectacle," but I cannot see it as anything else. If the power brokers at LACMA believe they have found the right monument for contemporary Los Angeles, it is because they are convinced that this is a city with some sort of insoluble problem when it comes to high culture, some permanent resistance or ambivalence or hostility. I am not convinced that this is true. The assumption that pop is all Los Angeles wants began to crumble for me, or to get quickly complicated, when I visited the stupendous show "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" in its closing days at the Getty last fall. Crowds filled the galleries, and they were energized and attentive and altogether avid. From what I could see, L.A. was in love with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which is a pretty sophisticated love affair. So perhaps my question--Bernini or Koons?--is not so easily answered.
So far as the museums in Los Angeles are concerned, the past year has been a pretty good time or a terrible time. It all depends on what you think matters. If you imagine, as many people do, that this cacophonous late-modern city ought to have nothing to do with pre-modern art, the L.A. story can look rather bleak. Last December brought the harrowing news of the near death of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), an institution with distinguished buildings by Arata Isozaki and Frank Gehry and the reputation of offering an aristocratic-bohemian riposte to LACMA, which the cognoscenti are inclined to regard as simultaneously hopelessly staid and irredeemably unsteady. Say what you will, Manhattan-centrism remains the default position in the art press, and L.A. can certainly lend credence to such a perspective when the big event of the new century so far turns out to have been the opening at LACMA a year or so ago of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), the brain child of the art collector Eli Broad and a monument to generic contemporary art collecting in a glum big box of a building designed by Renzo Piano. (BCAM has quite a selection of shiny baubles by Koons.)
For art world rubberneckers fascinated by the fact that MOCA's endowment shrank in recent years from $50 million to $6 million, it hardly mattered that LACMA recently received the Lazarof collection, with its fine holdings in early twentieth-century art, or that the Getty has been responsible for what may well be the most important shows of Baroque art and nineteenth-century photography seen in this country in the last year. As is so often the case in corporate America, in the museum world process has all but trumped product. People who had no idea what shows MOCA had mounted or what the museum's permanent collection contained were eager to discuss the fact that Broad had come up with a $30 million donation to get the museum back on its feet (and perhaps turn it into another Broad franchise). At least that put an end to some earlier talk of merging MOCA with LACMA, a prospect that had inspired Govan to speak of a "partnership" and his unwillingness "to diminish MOCA's brand."
Branding, of course, is a big part of the problem. The people who are looking for brand identification are the same people who never quite believe that a work of art can attract an audience, if only you give it a chance. New Yorkers have just now been reminded of the artistic riches of southern California by a small show at the Frick Collection of five masterworks from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, an exhibition that brought one of Zurbaran's greatest paintings to Manhattan--a painting that cannot be branded because it is sui generis, the work of a man who, as Adam Zagajewski wrote in a recent poem, "painted by turns/Spanish saints/and still lifes," so that "his still lifes/are likewise holy." The Norton Simon has always been treasured by people who care about what painters do, and to see some of the Pasadena paintings at the Frick could serve to underscore the extent to which Pasadena can offer Frick-quality pleasures.
In Los Angeles now, Govan may look like the wise and deliberate guy, at least compared to Jeremy Strick, MOCA's director, who was hustled out of his job in disgrace. But whenever I am at LACMA I have the uncomfortable feeling that Govan, like a number of the people who have been in charge of this museum, is embarrassed by the many wonderful works that the museum contains--by the little Watteau figure group, or the Picassos in the Lazarof collection, or the museum's superb Indian sculpture. If Govan had a deeper appreciation for the classics at LACMA, maybe he would be less sympathetic to Koons's harebrained scheme. If it is actually built, Koons's locomotive will set some new art world standard for conspicuous consumption. It is reported to be the most expensive commission ever proposed by an American museum.
Some might say that excess is the very nature of LACMA, where one of the early benefactors was none other than William Randolph Hearst, a man whose avidities as a collector were given a dark Baroque twist in Citizen Kane. One of the fascinations this winter in Los Angeles was a brilliant show at LACMA called "Hearst the Collector," in which the newspaperman's tastes were carefully anatomized. While the exhibition made no effort to present Hearst as a connoisseur of the highest order, one did see that he was a man whose taste had shadings and nuances and complexities. "Hearst the Collector" was a real California story, albeit with scenes set in Europe and on the East Coast. But then California, like any actual place, is also a state of mind. The portrait busts by Bernini, the seventeenth-century artist whose opulent Mediterranean genius dominates Rome, looked right at home in southern California. Bernini, that master of sun-struck public spaces and proto-cinematic spectacle, makes a lot of sense in Los Angeles, much as the dark Northern spirit of Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Gerard David makes a lot of sense in New York.
At the Getty, even as they were presenting the work of Bernini--who might be thought of, only half whimsically, as an honorary southern Californian--they were also honoring the achievement of Carleton Watkins, the photographer whose career cannot be separated from nineteenth-century America's growing interest in the California landscape. I would rank Watkins in the company of the nineteenth-century photographers who can be said to have seen the world anew. His studies of Yosemite and the rivers and farms and coastline of California and Oregon are a commanding (though mysterious) achievement. While we know very little about Watkins's artistic ideas, we can see that the cool eye he cast over the world around him was a harbinger of modernity. Taken together, the Bernini, Watkins, and Hearst shows tell their own kind of L.A. story, a story of genuine artistic sophistication, and of the many ways that art can take root on American soil.
"Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" was an extraordinarily intelligent and self-assured exhibition. Curator Catherine Hess--in collaboration with the scholars Andrea Bacchi and Jennifer Montagu--demonstrated a connoisseur's instincts, combining scholarly probity with a sure sense of what it is in the art of the past that can be brought alive for museumgoers in the present. The power of this exhibition--which was co-organized by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where it traveled over the winter--lay in the way that the marble portrait bust, with its aristocratic hauteur and slippery virtuosity, was brought to life for the democratic audience. While the exhibition contained major works by Alessandro Algardi and Giuliano Finelli, many of them miracles of sculptural subtlety and force, Bernini was very much the protagonist. I think visitors to the Getty recognized the challenges that artists faced when they set out to give human warmth to marble or bronze, which are chilly materials; and it was fascinating to see the different ways that Bernini and some of his collaborators and contemporaries rose to the challenge.
The shimmering theatricality of Bernini's work can all too easily be mistaken for superficiality. Modern sensibilities have rarely responded to Bernini as immediately as to the work of more tenebrous and disquieting seventeenth-century masters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt. In part this is because museumgoers do not have all that many opportunities to get to know Bernini's sculptures and paintings and drawings, of which the preponderance are located in Rome. If given a chance, however, visitors to the Eternal City will almost invariably fall under Bernini's spell, discovering in the super-charged energy of the Four Rivers Fountain in the Piazza Navona, or the David in the Villa Borghese, or the Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, a physicality that has its own purchase on modernity.
In the Getty exhibition, which focused on only one aspect of this achievement, it was easy to see that Bernini's theatricality was fueled by deep reserves of formal intelligence, an intelligence in its own way as compelling as Rembrandt's. Portrait busts have been done with great skill since ancient times, and although it would be too much to say that nobody before Bernini had infused a marble portrait with such psychological urgency, there can be little doubt that it was with Bernini that the mask of power gave way to studies in the mentality of power. Like Velazquez and Rubens, Bernini knows how to bring us into the presence of the men (and sometimes the women) who shape the destinies of others. His realism, like theirs, is perfectly consistent with the imperatives of a pre-democratic society. When Bernini renders the face of a Cardinal or a Pope, we see how psychologically fraught power can be in an aristocratic world.
Contemporary accounts of Bernini's working methods help us understand how he achieved, while working in marble, an extraordinary spontaneity. His son wrote that "Bernini does not want the subject to remain stationary, but to move and speak naturally, because ... the subject does not ever resemble himself as much when he is immobile as when he is in motion." When Bernini was in France, the architect Charles Perrault observed that "he worked on the marble first, making no clay model whatsoever, as other sculptors are accustomed to doing; he limited himself to drawing two or three portraits of the kind in pastel, not, as he said, in order to copy them for his bust, but merely to refresh his mind from time to time." Others reported that Bernini did make clay models, but whether he did or not, what he was looking for was an expressive gesture. Like Leonardo before him, he was fascinated with the art of caricature, with the possibility that a personality could be defined through the abstract power of a single line or form. While Finelli or Algardi were inclined to construct a personality through an accretion of detail, Bernini took what might be called a painterly approach to marble, giving the forms a broadness, a fluidity.
It was in the 1630s, when Bernini was in his thirties, that he revolutionized the portrait bust. His sitters became actors in the theater of life, rhetoricians with their own unique styles, their own ways of holding their heads and opening their eyes and parting their lips. In the greatest portraits of the decade, those of Cardinal Scipione Borghese and of Bernini's mistress Costanza Bonarelli, fleeting impressions are given lasting shape. Bernini reveals a particular human temperament through a close study of the play of muscles and nerves beneath the elasticity of flesh. Matter becomes an uncanny objectification of spirit. The softness of the flesh in the portrait of Costanza, together with the simplicity of her short hair and her loose, unadorned blouse, define a pinnacle of Baroque expressiveness without betraying the underlying formality of Baroque art. It has been said that all the eroticism of rococo art is prefigured in Bernini's portrait of Costanza, and there is some truth to this--except that Bernini, for all his love of informality, also wants the inklings of eternity that are implicit in the very act of cutting a figure out of stone.
Bernini's greatest portraits catch the many-sidedness of a personality within the singularity of an image. They are definitive improvisations. Bernini is one of the supreme realists, but this is a ritualized realism--hortatory, operatic. The portrait of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, his mouth open as if he were beginning to speak, can seem self-important one moment, easygoing the next. And one of Bernini's last portraits, the bust of Pope Clement X Altieri, executed when the artist was nearly eighty, has a new kind of playfulness, almost a liquidity in the way aging flesh is handled. You feel that this man is at home in his drooping jowls, and that Bernini, even as he is saluting the Pope's power, appreciates the comic possibilities of turning the Pope's sagging face into a series of roiling arabesques.
Although the Getty is not generally associated with Bernini, "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" felt right in this museum where there has always been a strong interest in pre-modern sculpture, an area of collecting not always pursued with great enthusiasm in American museums. Bernini, a master of over-the-top effects, is at home in the travertine-clad halls of Richard Meier's extended exploration of over-the-top modernist opulence. While Meier's array of interlocking pavilions does not look any better than it did when it opened a decade ago, over the years the buildings have been so lovingly cared for that they have taken on a sort of friendly patina. As a staging ground for Bernini's smiling aristocratic aplomb, the Getty was just about perfect. The Getty has always had a bit of the air of a high modern folly, but it seems to be turning into a beloved one, too.
Folly, of course, is never far from the heart of the artistic enterprise. Even the loftiest art has about it an element of absurdity. Surely there is something of folly in the very attempt to give stone the liveliness of flesh. Perhaps it is one of the obligations of a museum to show us the difference between divine follies and lesser follies, between Bernini's splashing fountains, say, and one of the water ballets in a Busby Berkeley movie. Those distinctions are not always so easy to make, but Mary L. Levkoff, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, reveals a sensibly fluid approach to the vexed relations between high taste and popular taste--to the whole question of where Roman Baroque ends and Hollywood Baroque begins-- in "Hearst the Collector," the exhibition that she recently organized at LACMA.
William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon and famously restless collector, was revealed in this show to have been something more than the indiscriminate art addict of legend, although he probably never exactly knew where connoisseurship ended and showmanship began. Levkoff is extremely judicious about Hearst, writing that he "did not collect with the intense forethought of J.P. Morgan, Isabella Gardner, or Henry Clay Frick. He was not focused, analytical, introspective, or cerebral. He was extravagant, amusing, intuitive, and voracious." The surprise of her exhibition and its catalogue was that they revealed a real aesthetic imagination at work, a sensibility animating the showmanship. Visitors to San Simeon, Hearst's fairytale castle on the coast north of Los Angeles, have sometimes sensed true passion behind the newspaperman's incredible bombast. And anybody who went through "Hearst the Collector" saw that Hearst could not be dismissed as a man who wanted to show the world that he had the wherewithal to buy a ceiling from one castle and a choir stall from another monastery and put them together with a couple of dozen suits of armor. Levkoff has attempted to determine exactly what Hearst collected--not a simple matter, in part because the collections are now widely dispersed, a process that began in the second half of the 1930s, when the Hearst Corporation was feeling deep financial strains. Among the recent discoveries is that a sumptuously detailed bust of a woman attributed to Giuliano Finelli, now in the Getty's collection and included in the Bernini show, was once owned by Hearst.
Hearst's life is a California story. He was born in San Francisco in 1863, the only child in a family where social advancement and cultural aspirations were closely intertwined. His father made a fortune in the mining business. His mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, became an important philanthropist. She was involved with the early development of the University of California, becoming its first female regent; and she sponsored archeological and anthropological research and public libraries. Hearst's interest in the arts began early, spurred by the long periods he spent in Europe with his mother. Conspicuous consumption was important to the Hearsts, but collecting went hand in hand with a strenuous project of self-education. His mother pushed the young Hearst to learn German and French. Years later he explained to the managing director of his British subsidiary, who was impressed by his knowledge of art, that his mother had insisted that a "bored and impatient" boy study these things, "and gradually came knowledge, and with knowledge enjoyment, that increased over the years."
The baronial interiors to which Hearst was addicted in later years have become the stuff of legend, and there is something more than a little ludicrous, an element of parvenu taste gone mad, about the vast hall lined with tapestries and armor in his huge penthouse apartment on 86th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Yet these magnificent stage sets were created at the behest of a man whose feeling for the past was acquired in the oldfashioned way, through study and reflection. If Hearst does not have a place among the greatest collectors, it is probably because he had little sympathy for the imaginary worlds that artists create, and almost no sympathy for the art of painting, where so many of those imaginary worlds have flourished. To painting's parallel universes he preferred the immediate sensual excitement of beautiful shapes and materials, in metal, stone, wood, glass, ceramic, or textile; his collections of Renaissance armor, Greek vases, and Italian majolica are of enormous distinction.
There was honor in Hearst's love for dark wood and gleaming metal. He was always engaged by the artisanal dimension of the artistic act. He admired beautifully shaped suits of armor, the glazes on ceramics, the quality of color enameled on a mid-fourteenth-century Egyptian or Syrian piece of glass. These rare objects represented not only financial value but also ethical value: the merit of the thing well done. Among the treasures in "Hearst the Collector" was a series of Limoges enameled plates from the second half of the sixteenth century, with scenes of country life rendered in a moody chiaroscuro. Executed by Martial Courteys after designs by Etienne Delaune, they bring to the playful narratives that one knows from medieval tapestries a twilight foreboding, a Mannerist feeling for the uncanny in everyday life. This complete set of plates, now in LACMA's collection, is a unique survival.
The most impressive single work in "Hearst the Collector" was probably Canova's Venus Italica, carved in the early years of the nineteenth century and now at San Simeon. That great sculpture should have touched Hearst more deeply than great painting comes as no surprise. He must have loved the unabashedness of sculpture, its frank physicality. Some years before he purchased Canova's Venus, Hearst was offered another version of the same statue, significantly inferior, and Levkoff sees it as a sure sign of Hearst's discernment that he chose to wait until he could acquire what is the finest version of one of Canova's most persuasive essays in classical beauty. There is a mesmerizing uneasiness about the pose of Canova's Venus, who is coming out of her bath, clutching to her breast a drape that falls across her thigh to the ground. For Canova, the economies of classicism, with its smoothly worked surfaces and tautly simplified contours, are set in a daring tension with the frank eroticism of this beautiful woman. Canova takes us to the point where the senses are in disarray, where erotic heat and classical cool are joined in a single intensity, administering shocks to the system so strong that they cannot be told apart. The man who carried on a very public affair with Marion Davies, for whose Santa Monica beach house he bought paintings by Boucher, could certainly be trusted to understand the power of Canova's Venus.
Hearst's interests extended to the art of the New World as well as the Old. His mother collected American Indian textiles, and he shared her interest, building a very important collection of Navajo rugs. When it came to architecture, he again moved in directions laid out by Mrs. Hearst, who had commissioned Bernard Maybeck, one of the most original California architects of the turn of the twentieth century, to design a country house for her in Northern California. Julia Morgan, the architect who worked with Hearst on San Simeon and a number of other projects, had studied with Maybeck; it was Hearst's mother who had first taken an interest in Morgan, the only woman in the civil-engineering program at Berkeley. The Spanish-style architecture that Morgan designed for San Simeon was no mere replica of Renaissance or Baroque buildings, but an original invention, free in its use of older forms--a New World interpretation of Old World ideas that incorporated a great many European elements into something that had an integrity of its own, even as it echoed the Spanish Baroque that was part of the history of Mexico and, indeed, of California.
As Levkoff sees it, the Hearst interiors that were stuffed with the spoils of his European travels were also imaginative constructions in their own right--collages, or montages. Levkoff, who makes a comparison between San Simeon and King Ludwig's castles, those monuments to a madcap nineteenth-century aestheticism, says that Julia Morgan "adapted elements from a religious vernacular to a set piece in a residential estate that resembles a village of fabulous luxury in Renaissance Spain. She realized Hearst's vision. His son commented, 'He did it with something not even a fortune could buy: his imagination.'" Beyond the crazy bombast of William Randolph Hearst's collecting you may glimpse a nostalgia that has its own modern integrity. This man who embraced democratic and populist values, and played an essential role in the creation of the twentieth-century media world, must have found some sense of security in the materiality of the preindustrial world, before the assembly line had eliminated the maker's mark.
Bringing the history of the arts in California into clearer perspective is something that comes naturally to California's museums, and Levkoff's exhibition and catalogue were extraordinarily measured, refusing to deny the flamboyance that was an aspect of Hearst's taste while stepping away from the temptation to explain away his preferences as mere kitsch. Perhaps art-for-art's-sake and art-as-conspicuous-consumption cannot always be as neatly separated as some of the early moderns liked to believe. For both impulses, in their very different ways, derived from nineteenth-century ideas about the power that inheres in art. And if the moderns saw themselves as reclaiming a feeling for the fundamental beauty of materials that had been lost in the academies of the nineteenth century, the relative absence of academic training and academic standards in the American West could sometimes seem to give the creative spirits who were working there a more direct access to the central concerns of modernity--to the intrinsic force of aesthetic experience. True, Julia Morgan studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the great nineteenthcentury photographer Carleton Watkins, the subject of a major show at the Getty that opened shortly before the Bernini show closed, exhibited his work at the Paris International Exposition of 1868. And yet much of what is interesting about their work depends on the immense distance that they traveled from Old World standards. The places where they worked and the situations in which they found themselves made the search for the new not a choice, but an inevitability.
"Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California," organized by Weston Naef at the Getty, was a celebration of the natural beauty of California and what pioneering photographers were able to make of it. The dialogue of the title was between Watkins and a number of other photographers who worked in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Eadweard J. Muybridge being the most important. Both Watkins and Muybridge made a specialty of photographing in Yosemite, with Watkins going there first, before 1860. Naef's show at the Getty was in many respects an extension of the work he began in 1975, when he was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the prime mover behind an exhibition called "Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885." That unforgettable show marked a turning point not only in the reputations of Watkins and Muybridge but also of Timothy O'Sullivan, Andrew Joseph Russell, and William Henry Jackson. At the Getty, where Naef built the photography department, Watkins has been an ongoing concern. Naef is currently at work on a catalogue raisonne of Watkins's mammoth plate photographs, those roughly eighteen-by-twenty-two-inch images made from glass negatives of that size which include astonishing views of Yosemite. In the quarter century and more that separated "Era of Exploration" and "Dialogue Among Giants," the history of photography has become an essential subject of study in art history departments and museums, and when it was announced recently that Naef was retiring, this astonishing Watkins show could not help but seem to mark the end of an era--what might be called the era of exploration in photographic history.
Watkins was born in 1829 in Oneonta, and was a child in the years when photography was in its infancy. Like so many of the early figures in the medium, he was something of an adventurer and an entrepreneur, involved in a trading enterprise in Panama in 1849, after which he spent time in South America, where it is thought that he trained with the photographer Robert Vance, probably in Lima or Valparaiso. By the 1860s Watkins was photographing extensively in Yosemite, ultimately creating nearly seven hundred images of the valley, the peaks, the waterfalls, the streams, and the meadows. The physical demands of such work were daunting. Nearly a ton of equipment had to be brought into Yosemite. "Sometimes," Naef explains, "the equipment was carried by hand up and down steep terrain to record such places as Upper Yosemite Fall." Wherever the photographer went, chemicals had to be mixed so that the large glass plates could be developed, often under the most difficult conditions.
In later years Watkins photographed all up and down the Pacific Coast, his subjects embracing not only natural wonders but railroads, farms, and mining and logging sites. The photographs also had to be marketed, and Watkins did not prove to be much of a businessman. He lost control of his elaborate Yosemite Art Gallery, opened in San Francisco in 1872, during the economic troubles of that decade. With his negatives now belonging to a competitor, he returned to Yosemite to recreate his original images, but his luck was never good for very long. The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 wiped out his negatives and his files of prints.
We know a great deal about some of the nineteenth-century photographers. Muybridge is as vivid as a character in a novel, famous not only for his work in Yosemite but also for his ambitious collaborations with Leland Stanford on the mysteries of animal locomotion, and for the sexual passions that led him to murder his wife's lover, a scandal that precipitated a famous trial and his acquittal. Watkins, a very different case, has remained in many respects as elusive as one of the Sienese masters of the Renaissance. At the Getty, where Watkins's photographs were presented in all their sumptuous abundance, an artistic personality did emerge, but with nothing of Muybridge's swashbuckling boldness. I think there may be a useful analogy between Watkins's achievement in nineteenth-century California and Atget's achievement in early twentieth-century Paris. The poetry of Watkins's work--this is true of Atget as well--is so closely bound up with the documentary instinct that it can be difficult to say where the document ends and the lyric begins. The authority of their work--although we can see that it is associated with ideas about composition and structure that are surely derived from the older pictorial arts--seems to emerge not so much out of the high art traditions as from the photographer's attention to the circumstances of time and place, a taste that is not imposed on the situation but extracted from it. For Watkins, sublimity was to be found in reality.
The European Romantics first spoke about natural wonders as having the miraculous completeness of works of art, and this idea was eagerly embraced by American painters in the generation before Watkins came of age. Yosemite, a discovery of the mid-century years, turned out to be America's most astonishing demonstration of this naturalistic spectacle, with peaks and valleys and cliffs and waterfalls arrayed as if by the hand and the eye of some superhuman artistic spirit. Yosemite was almost impossibly grand, and the beauty of Watkins's work there has everything to do with the serene vision that he brings to his studies of nature's outrageous opulence. Although it is too easy to make general comparisons between the work of Watkins and Muybridge, I think Naef, as long ago as the catalogue of "Era of Exploration," was right to see in Muybridge the more romantic spirit, with his emphasis on "Rembrandtesque" contrasts of light and dark, and the cloud-swept skies, printed from separate negatives, which he began to employ in the late 1860s. Watkins's work at Yosemite is a little cooler, aiming for a sense of integration, wholeness, balance. Although they were working at roughly the same time, Watkins's photographs are touched with what I can only describe as a quality of earliness, a plainspokenness that suggests the photographer's lack of preconceptions. Watkins is less inclined than Muybridge to dramatize a scene by developing a pitched battle between foreground and background, between light and dark.
Naef is interested in Watkins's particular qualities of attentiveness, not only in the work he did in Yosemite but also later, in less immediately dramatic settings. In the "Era of Exploration" catalogue, he pointed to Watkins's affinity for studies of solitary trees, and found there "early examples of the pursuit of pure form." At the Getty, Naef labeled one gallery "Form and Emotion in Nature," urging museumgoers to observe Watkins's genius for revealing the emotions that are submerged in the very shape of things. Although Naef is not much inclined to speculate about Watkins's art, he does want to underscore the photographer's magnificent clear-headedness. Watkins knows how to anatomize his subjects, discovering an underlying structure, an order almost crystalline in its elegance, whether in a study of a stretch of train track in Oregon, or a glimpse of a farm in southern California, or a panorama of wood houses crowding the San Francisco hills.
I have always found something particularly moving about the later work, mostly from the 1870s and early 1880s, where you feel Watkins's tirelessness, his curiosity about new things. Contemplating a rapidly changing landscape--he has a good eye for vernacular architecture and the temporary arrangements in mining or lumbering operations--he finds his particular poetic cadence in the effort to give a definite form to a world that would not for long remain the same. In Watkins's photographs, now merges with forever. At times there are premonitions of Paul Strand or Edward Weston or Walker Evans in his work, in the sense of the photographer as a truth teller, in the lyricism of a story told straight on. Some of Carleton Watkins's photographs are as bluntly and unexpectedly powerful as a poem by Emily Dickinson.
Watkins died in 1916 in the Napa State Hospital, "blind and penniless" as Naef describes him, a pioneer in the art of photography who could scarcely have hoped to keep up with the technology of his medium. There was something especially sweet about seeing his work presented so generously in California, to which he gave so much and received, at least in his lifetime, so little in return. That he would be the subject of museum exhibitions and a catalogue raisonne might have been unimaginable to him, but then art museums would have been unimaginable to most of the artists whose work is now displayed there. Certainly the phenomenon of Bernini's portrait busts attracting crowds in California would have seemed sheer fantasy to their creator, for whom America may have been little more than an allegorical figure representing the Rio de la Plata on the Four Rivers Fountain. As for the appearance of nineteenthcentury photographs and seventeenth-century marble portrait busts in the same place at the same time, we take this as a matter of course in the modern museum, although in some sense it is as strange as the encounter of the sewing machine and the umbrella that the Surrealists loved to quote from Lautreamont.
We are all eclecticists now, and this will perhaps make us more sympathetic to William Randolph Hearst, who could take an interest in European armor and Navajo rugs. In the museum world, the word used to describe the institution that embraces all manner of artwork is of course not "eclectic" but "encyclopedic." There is not a museum in California that can lay claim to being truly encyclopedic, certainly not in the sense of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wide-ranging in its collection, lacks a more comprehensive depth, and the Getty has explicitly rejected the idea of the encyclopedic museum, choosing to focus on certain areas and to excel within them, as is the case with photography. The danger in Los Angeles has always been that its museums can be accused of looking a bit like high-end smorgasbords, their wonders and amazements as ill assorted as the variously French provincial and Italianate and Spanish style houses in L.A.'s high-end neighborhoods. The strength of Mary Levkoff's "Hearst the Collector" was in the way that she worked to make sense of the smorgasbord as a whole, to seek some controlling principle at work. I think she found it in the value that Hearst placed on artistic virtuosity--and this, in turn, is a value that deserves to have a more general import.
Virtuosity is an unfashionable value, but the shows I saw in Los Angeles gave it a fresh relevance. Visiting "Hearst the Collector" one weekday evening, I was interested to find a youngish crowd ambling through the galleries, absorbed by the magnificent workmanship on display. "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture" was a feast of virtuosity. At the Hearst, Bernini, and Watkins exhibitions, I could see that many museumgoers were asking themselves the same big question: how was it done? And the curators wanted to offer answers to this question, some of them quite basic. At the Watkins show, you could see it slowly dawning on visitors what sheer technical know-how and aplomb were involved in creating these serenely magisterial images in portable darkrooms in the most difficult mountain terrain. The show included a beautiful camera used to take mammoth plate photographs, an object several feet wide and high, all polished wood and brass. As for the Bernini exhibition, here the curators included a gallery designed to give visitors a sense of how a marble bust is made, complete with tools, hunks of stone, and a video demonstration. (It was set right in the middle of the show--the organizers' one false move.)
Taken together, the Bernini, Hearst, and Watkins exhibitions could have been titled "Some Versions of Virtuosity." At each exhibition, museumgoers were able to see that it was through a fascination with purely artisanal matters, through the struggle to achieve virtuosity within the terms of a particular medium, that formal values emerged. And so virtuosity--the effort to do something in the best possible way--turned out to lie at the heart of the artistic process. Of course everybody has their own ideas about what constitutes virtuosity. If Jeff Koons ever succeeds in hanging that full-scale reproduction of a locomotive off of a crane outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, there will be those who hail this behemoth manufactured in some workshop to the artist's specifications as an example of virtuosity triumphant. And this brings us back to where we began: Bernini or Koons? The choice is not as ridiculous as it might seem, when we consider that the Palace of Versailles, home to Bernini's bust of Louis XIV, was recently the site of an exhibition of work by none other than Koons, including his own self-portrait bust executed in white marble. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy to tell the real from the mock. But at least in Los Angeles there are curators who want to build a public that can recognize virtuosity when they see it. Will the curators succeed? Will the public rise to the challenge? This, too, is an L.A. story.
Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.