A quick shout-out to LACMA for putting on at least four very interesting temporary exhibitions while the main campus is closed for construction (2024 seems an optimistic completion date). The main attraction for me was the show of the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) that came from the Crocker in Sacramento and is, apparently, the first of its kind. Unlike many “schools” of art that are cobbled together ex post facto by critics and historians, the TPG was a self-acknowledged group with teachers, students and a philosophy. There were, I think, eight artists in the exhibition, and they all worked in New Mexico starting in 1938. The exhibition gave a wall, at least, to each. Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson were the two principals (one with an extra consonant, the other missing one). I have recently seen Bisttram’s work at auctions, especially Shannon’s, but I had not been able to recognize a style. The works at LACMA, with one exception, were consistent, sharp-edged and geometric, like the Kandinskys I admire. “Dynamic symmetry” was a watchword that conveyed Bisttram’s works, illuminated by the New Mexico light.
Jonson’s paintings, by contrast, were flat and comparatively uninteresting. As much as I like Bisttram, I felt I could skip over Jonson. My main interest, however, was neither man but Agnes Pelton, who has ridden the recent wave of “overlooked female artists” to the million-dollar auction level. Her works were just as beautiful as Bisttram’s but much more ethereal, calling to mind, in more ways than one, Hilda An Klimf. And as with Klimf and Gego, it will henceforth be disrespectful, if not impossible, to recount the history of Abstraction, at least in American Art, without including her. The other artists were lesser, in terms of output as well as quality; but Flora Miller Pierce was notable.
Next door to “Another World” was “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” which I intended to breeze by until I realized that this was a joint enterprise with the National Gallery and the museums in Houston, Dallas and Sao Paulo, with an assist from the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Chelsea. I didn’t put effort into the themes of the show but was attracted to standout pieces by familiar artists, such as Betye Saar, Barkley Hendricks, Horace Pippin, Clementine Hunter and Frederic Bazille. The other big show in the Resnick Pavilion was the intriguing “Women Defining Women in Contemporary Art of the Middle East and Beyond.” Again, there was no need to look at everything, but the overall feel of feminine self-assertion was notable, and Shirin Neshat’s photograph-drawings were knockouts.
The big show at BCAM was “Sam Francis and Japan: Emptiness and Overflowing.” The relationship between Francis’s work and the Japanese esthetic hit me over the head: once shown it was obvious. The show was a good excuse to bring works from LACMA’s Japanese collection out of storage, and most of the Francis works, which included many prints, were from home as well. Sam Francis, though, is one of those artists who look best when seen in a single example. Too many together and the work loses its punch, becomes repetitive and boring. “Light, Space, Surface,” a display of California light artists, was also drawn exclusively from LACMA’s holdings. Again, the fewer the better; and this show got it about right, spacing out individual objects from each artist to good effect.