Category: LACMA

Libya, BP, & LACMA

Map of Libya showing oil fields under exploration by BP. Graphic from the BP website.

Map of Libya showing oil fields under exploration by BP. The oil giant struck a $900 million deal with Gaddafi's Libya in 2007. Illustration/BP.

The regime of Muammar Gaddafi is fighting to crush a popular uprising that has taken control over much of Libya; it appears the Gaddafi government rules only in the capital of Tripoli.

As of this writing it is alleged that some 1,000 Libyans have been killed by Gaddafi’s soldiers who have used tanks, aircraft, and mercenary troops in their attempt to quash the rebellion.

But this article is not about the violence now sweeping the North African country, nor is it about the reign of Gaddafi, rather, it is about those who have helped sustain him. As world leaders and the international press rush to condemn Gaddafi, few mention the support his government has received from Western oil companies since 2004, when the U.S. and the United Kingdom lifted commercial sanctions against Libya. One oil giant that invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya was BP (British Petroleum).

In May of 2007, BP signed an agreement with Libya worth $900 million. The deal was signed in Sirt, Libya, by BP’s then chief executive Tony Hayward and the chairman of the National Oil Company of Libya, Shokri Ghanem. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, Tony Blair, attended the signing. The official BP web site published a report detailing the agreement, even publishing a special online edition with the unintended prescient title of “Libya Rising.” A jubilant Tony Haywood would utter the following at the signing, words that should haunt BP until the end of time:

“We are delighted to be working with the National Oil Company of Libya to develop their natural resources for domestic and international markets. Our agreement is the start of an enduring, long-term and mutually beneficial partnership with Libya. With its potentially large resources of gas, favourable geographic location and improving investment climate, Libya has an enormous opportunity to be a source of cleaner energy for the world. This is a welcome return to the country for BP after more than 30 years and represents a significant opportunity for both BP and Libya to deliver our long term growth aspirations. It is BP’s single biggest exploration commitment. The agreement reached today is a great success for Libya, the NOC and also for BP.”

The 2007 deal allows BP to explore for oil and natural gas, offshore as well as onshore, giving the company access to three of Libya’s most promising but unexplored tracts - one area alone is the size of Kuwait. According to the agreement, BP will invest a minimum of $2 billion in Libya in the coming years, with expectations of boosting the nation’s oil production from the current 1.8 million barrels a day, to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2020.

As part of its pact with the Gaddafi regime, BP is preparing to sink an oil well in the Gulf of Sidra, around 125 miles from the coastal city of Benghazi. Despite BP’s liability for the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster - the biggest environmental accident in world history - BP is slated to begin drilling in the Gulf of Sidra by June 2011. The undersea well will be drilled into the seabed at a depth of 1700 meters, making the Sidra well 200 meters deeper than the blown-out Gulf of Mexico well. It was the depth of the Deepwater Horizon well that made it next to impossible to repair or close, leading to hundreds of millions of gallons of crude gushing into the ocean. One can only imagine the environmental repercussions to the Mediterranean Sea if a comparable accident where to take place at BP’s Gulf of Sidra well.

BP plans to build at least five deep water drilling platforms in the Gulf of Sidra. In August of 2010, Italy’s environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, expressed opposition to BP’s drilling in the Mediterranean, saying “A moratorium could be a right approach for potentially dangerous drilling.” The chairman of the Italian Senate’s environment commission, Antonio D’Alli, said he was “very worried” about BP’s plans. Mr. D’Alì said, “The problem is not BP or Libya. The sea has no boundaries and when accidents happen, in national or international waters, effects are felt in the whole Mediterranean. Considering it is already one of the most oil-polluted seas in the world, the impact of a major spill could be irreversible.”

Archaeologists and historians are fearful of what might happen to Libya’s archaeological treasures if a major accident takes place at the Sidra well. Innumerable ships have sunk in the Gulf of Sidra over millennia, and the shipwrecks would suffer incalculable damage in the event of a spill. The ancient city sites that dot the coastline of the Gulf would also be devastated by such a spill; the city of Apollonia being a prime example. Founded in the 7th century by Greeks, Apollonia became a major Roman city, and its ruins are some of the most well-preserved examples of Roman architecture to be found anywhere in the world. Most of the city has not been excavated, and the site extends right into the ocean, with the larger part of it laying beneath the sea as a result of an earthquake in 365 AD. In the event of a spill, crude oil would accumulate on the seafloor, covering ancient artifacts and underwater city ruins. Oily waves washing-up onshore would seep into the porous stone and be impossible to clean off.

BP is not the only foreign oil company in Libya; U.S. corporations like Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, Conoco Phillips, Marathon Oil, Hess Corp., and Halliburton all run profitable operations there. European nations are also well represented by Eni SpA (Italy: the largest foreign producer), Total S.A. (France: one of the six largest oil companies in the world), OMV AG (Austria), Repsol YPF SA (Spain’s largest oil company), Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands), Statoil (Netherlands), BG Group (U.K.), Wintershall (Germany). China’s largest oil producer, CNPC, also drill for oil in Libya. Most if not all foreign companies are shutting down their Libyan operations for the moment. The chief executive for Eni said that his company will cut production “because of difficulty loading the tankers to export the oil,” inconvenient difficulties like Gaddafi’s army mowing down the Libyan people with machine gun fire.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

Alternative BP logo - Anonymous. Submission from the BP "Logo Makeover" contest sponsored by Greenpeace UK in May of 2010. © All rights reserved/Greenpeace UK.

The plans BP had to exploit Libyan oil have of course been interrupted by the Libyan people’s revolution, part of the wave of pro-democracy movements sweeping across the Arab world.

BP made the decision to “suspend” oil exploration in Libya on Feb. 21., and company spokesman David Nicholas said that all non-essential staff would be evacuated from the Libyan desert. The company has around 140 staff in Libya, most of which are Libyans. BP’s 40 expatriate personnel have been evacuated.

BP chief executive Bob Dudley would only say that “We have some people there. Dependents have left the country but we remain committed to doing business there.” There were no statements concerning the deplorable violence engulfing the nation, nor comments regarding the safety and welfare of the Libyan people, just an affirmation of wanting to conduct “business”.

I have been writing about the relationship the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) maintains with BP since March 14, 2007, when it was first announced the museum accepted $25 million dollars from the multinational oil company. It would only be two months later that BP would arrange its May 2007 deal with Muammar Gaddafi. LACMA used BP’s millions to renovate and expand its campus, and the museum constructed a new entry gate and pavilion it christened, the “BP Grand Entrance.”

At the time LACMA’s Director Michael Goven billed BP as a “green” company, saying: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” One does not need to imagine what the Gaddafi regime did with the initial $900 million BP bestowed upon it, or if by chance it survives, what it would do with the billions BP has agreed to invest in Libya. As far as having a “commitment to sustainable energy,” just think of BP’s projected goal of raising Libyan crude output to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2020.

Tony Hayward, the bungling multi-millionaire former CEO of BP, has so far been remembered for complaining about the disruption the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster had on his personal life, saying at the time, “I would like my life back.” With Colonel Gaddafi presently drowning Libya in blood, Haywood and BP should instead be remembered for cutting a major oil and gas deal with Gaddafi - and gloating about it.

Art Contest: BP Logo Redesign

BP: Broken Promises – Logo design submitted by Foye. 2010. The artist had the following to say about the design, "'Back to Black' is a term aimed at maximum brand damage – BP have spent hundreds of millions re-branding themselves as the good green oil company. The helios in this image is fading, petals falling to the ground – creating a sense of behind the brand image."

BP: Broken Promises – Logo design by Foye. 2010. The artist said the following about the design, "'Back to Black' is a term aimed at maximum brand damage – BP have spent hundreds of millions re-branding themselves as the good green oil company. The helios in this image is fading, petals falling to the ground – creating a sense of behind the brand image."

As BP’s broken underwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico continues to gush over 100,000 barrels of oil per day into the fragile ecosystem, and as sheets of the thick sticky crude start to fill the delicate marsh lands of the Mississippi Delta – Greenpeace UK has launched an art competition to redesign the BP corporate logo.

The contest is open to professional and non-professional artists from around the world. Greenpeace UK says that the current corporate logo needs “a makeover to better suit a company that invests in tar sands and other unconventional oil sources like deep water oil,” and that a redesigned logo should better reflect BP’s “dirty business.”

Starting on May 20, 2010, the design contest will run for six weeks, ending on June 28, 2010. The environmental group says the winning logo design will be “used by us in innovative and exciting ways as part of our international campaign against the oil company,” and will be placed in high profile locations, as well as featured in newspaper and magazine advertisements. Entries will be judged by a panel of artists from the design and marketing professions, whose identities will be revealed as the competition draws to a close.

Submitted artworks can be created in any media, the only criteria being that the re-worked logo adheres to the concept of exposing BP, and that the logo is easy to comprehend and reproduce. Non-professional artists and students are encouraged to submit their ideas and concepts, as Greenpeace UK will provide such a contest winner “a day with a top graphic designer to transform your idea into a final product.”

BP: Bitumen Pilferers – Anonymous. 2010. The designer turned BP’s radiant green sunflower icon into a dead flower dripping with oil. Bitumen of course is the hydrocarbon obtained by the distillation of petroleum or coal; the substance commonly being used as a component of tar and asphalt.

BP: Bitumen Pilferers – Anonymous. 2010. The designer turned BP’s green sunflower icon into a dead flower dripping with oil. Bitumen of course is the hydrocarbon obtained by distilling petroleum or coal; the substance is commonly used as a component of tar and asphalt.

John Sauven, the Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, said the following regarding the launch of the logo competition; “BP’s famous green logo is there to distract us from what this company really stands for. This company has chosen to extract the last drops of oil from deep sea wells and the tar sands of Canada, instead of developing the clean technologies that can actually help beat climate change. That’s why we’re calling in the experts. We’re hoping that the design community and the public will help us come up with a logo that will actually reflect BP’s obsession with dirty oil. This is a competition with a difference, because we’re planning to use the winning entry all over Britain in a high profile Greenpeace campaign that the company will find impossible to spin.”

Complete details on the competition and how to submit an entry, are available on the Greenpeace website, at:

It should be noted that Greenpeace UK launched the design competition by simultaneously deploying trained climbers to scale the front entrance of BP’s London headquarters, where the Greenpeace activists replaced BP’s large corporate flag with a redesigned banner of their own.

Greenpeace UK released the following statement to the public regarding the event; “Our climbers have scaled the front of BP’s London HQ to present them with a logo that we think might suit them a little better. Our logo has been ‘improved’ with the addition of a bit of oil and a tagline that reads ‘British polluters.’ It’s an OK effort, but we’re sure you can do much better. So today we’re launching a competition to get you to redesign BP’s logo to suit a company that’s investing in unconventional oil like the Canadian tar sands.”

Accelerated Decay – Logo design submitted by Frank. 2010. The artist had the following to say about his design, "My approach shows both the tarnishing of the BP brand itself and the accelerated decay certain practices of it may cause the globe. While to many the damage may seem as though it's minimal or not impacting them, the ultimate destination is the witherment of life."

Accelerated Decay – Logo design submitted by Frank. 2010. The artist said the following about his design, "My approach shows both the tarnishing of the BP brand itself and the accelerated decay certain practices of it may cause the globe. While to many the damage may seem as though it's minimal or not impacting them, the ultimate destination is the witherment of life."

One of the Greenpeace climbers, Ben Stewart, made the following statement;

“The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be traced back to decisions made in this building. Under Tony Hayward’s leadership (the company’s chief executive) BP has taken huge risks to pump oil from ever more remote places, while slashing investment in the clean energy projects that could actually help reduce our dependence on oil and beat climate change.

BP’s bright green logo is a pathetic attempt to distract our attention from the reality of what this company is doing, both in the Gulf of Mexico but also in places like the tar sands of Canada. Tony Hayward’s reckless approach will cause more disasters unless action is taken to stop him.”

On a related note, at last someone aside from me has bothered to mention the financial relationship between BP and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which I have been writing about in great detail since March 2007.

In his brief May 18, 2010 article, BP Grand Entrance at LACMA looking not-quite-so-grand, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight noted the ongoing “epic environmental tragedy” caused in the Gulf by BP, and playfully suggested that “LACMA might want to think about commissioning a work of art that would be apt for the BP Grand Entrance.”

An architectural design for a "BP Grand Entrance" at LACMA more in keeping with the oil company’s terrible record of environmental destruction. First proposed by this writer in October 2007.

An architectural design for a "BP Grand Entrance" at LACMA more in keeping with the oil company’s terrible record of environmental destruction. First proposed by this writer in October 2007.

Of course, in October of 2007 I had proposed just such an artwork in my article, Another Oil Slick at LACMA, which detailed BP having to “pay a whopping $373 million in an out of court settlement designed to stop U.S. Justice Department criminal indictments against the global energy giant’s law-breaking in the United States.” In that piece I proposed an architectural design (shown at right) for a “BP Grand Entrance” at LACMA more in keeping with the oil company’s terrible record of environmental destruction.

But Knight’s article also mentioned that BP funded the creation of an exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which has officially been dubbed, the “BP Sea Otter Habitat.” Now that is a concept difficult to imagine.

Four years ago BP gave a $1 million “donation” to the Aquarium of the Pacific, which used the petro dollars to build its new BP Sea Otter Habitat, an attraction that “transports visitors to California’s Central Coast,” providing a recreation of a rocky coastline where visitors can “peer underwater and discover the busy world of sea otters as they swim and interact amongst kelp and fish.” The BP Sea Otter Habitat presents an accurate peek at the pristine environment of California’s Central Coast, with its crystalline waters and giant kelp beds filled with mollusks, crustaceans, and innumerable fish. As a former scuba diver, that ecosystem is well familiar to me, and it has long been a source of constant inspiration and awe. But that unspoiled natural beauty is a far cry from the “Dead Zone” now being created in the Gulf of Mexico by BP.

The Louisiana governor's office released this aerial photograph showing thick streams of heavy crude oil as it penetrates the marsh lands of the Louisiana coastline at the Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal toured the Mississippi Delta by boat on Wednesday, May 19,saying of the BP spill; "This is serious - this is the heavy oil that everyone has been fearing. It is hear now. This is one of the oldest wildlife mangagement areas here in Louisiana, and now it is covered in oil."

The Louisiana governor's office released this aerial photograph showing thick streams of heavy crude oil as it penetrates the marsh lands of the Louisiana coastline at the Pass a Loutre Wildlife Management Area. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal toured the Mississippi Delta by boat on Wednesday, May 19, saying of the BP spill; "This is serious - this is the heavy oil that everyone has been fearing. It is here now. This is one of the oldest wildlife mangagement areas here in Louisiana, and now it is covered in oil."

While sea otters do not live in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says that 600 animal species are directly imperiled by BP’s ongoing ecological disaster; 445 species of fish, 45 mammals, 32 reptiles and amphibians, and 134 bird species.

On May 20, biologists of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge found the first oil covered brown pelican to have died from exposure to BP’s massive oil spill – and there are some 4,500 pelicans nesting at the refuge; which brings me back to the BP Sea Otter Habitat at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

To launch its new BP exhibit, the Aquarium of the Pacific announced its “Sea Otter Poetry Contest.” Commencing May 20, 2010, and running until August 15, 2010, contestants worldwide are being asked to submit a poem no longer than 300 words on the theme of sea otters. Poems are to be judged in two categories: those penned by writers’ ages 13 through 20, and those written by authors over 21. All entries must be submitted digitally or by mail, by midnight Aug. 15, 2010. First Prize winners will have their works published in the Aquarium’s magazine and on the Aquarium’s website, plus assorted prizes for Second and Third Prize winners. The Aquarium of the Pacific will announce the winners on October 27, 2010. Details on entering the BP sponsored Poetry Contest can be found on the Aquarium’s website.

Poetry has always provided a means to touch the heart as well as the intellect, and many a poet has dedicated verse and rhyme to excoriate the evils of the day, using the evocative language of poetry as social protest – the BP sponsored Aquarium of the Pacific’s Sea Otter Poetry Contest presents no less an opportunity. I believe that every lover of the written word should submit a poem to this contest, as it is a creative way to denounce BP’s role in destroying our planet, as well as expressing our vision of humanity truly at peace with the natural world.

Though sea otters do not live in the Gulf of Mexico, creative writers will no doubt be able to pen verse that connects the aquatic mammal with the crimes against nature being committed by BP. For those who wish to submit a poem of outrage to the Sea Otter Poetry Contest, but hesitate to do so out of concern that the BP sponsored Aquarium will simply ignore the entry, simply “CC” an e-mail copy of your poem to Art For A Change – where I will post the best submissions on October 27, 2010, the very day the winners of the BP sponsored Poetry Contest are announced by the Aquarium of the Pacific.

BP’s Oil Slick: LACMA Woes

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

If you think the eerie green photograph shown at left is just another postmodern artwork to be found in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), then you are not too far off the mark. While the weird image was certainly not conjured up by one of today’s fashionable art stars, it is in a manner of speaking, one of LACMA’s most recent acquisitions, and it has been supplied by one of the museum’s leading benefactors.

In March of 2007, LACMA’s Director Michael Govan struck a deal with oil giant BP (British Petroleum). Govan agreed to accept a $25 million “donation” from BP that would help in the renovation of the museum, and in return the entry way on LACMA’s newly expanded campus would be christened, “The BP Grand Entrance.” At the time Govan touted BP as a “green” company, telling the Los Angeles Times that he accepted the oil company’s money because: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy (….) We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Since that March 2007 deal I have unremittingly covered the oily relationship between LACMA and BP – and the story only continues to worsen. The above photograph is not part of LACMA’s collection, though it could be included in an exhibit that explores just exactly what a “commitment to sustainable energy” means to the museum and its director. In actuality the photo was taken by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it shows a broken underwater oil pipe that is presently spewing over 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico per day. That particular oil drilling operation gone awry is run by none other than LACMA’s major patron, British Petroleum. LACMA has not acquired a work of art, but the stain of collaborating with one of the planet’s most rapacious polluters.

You may have heard about the tragic fire and explosion on the huge Deepwater Horizon oil rig located in the Gulf of Mexico, if not, ask Michael Govan about it. The oil rig was owned and operated by the Swiss based firm Transocean; however, its operations were under lease to British Petroleum. Transocean was drilling an exploration well for BP when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank on April 26, 2010 – killing eleven workers. The capsized rig, with a platform larger than a football field, broke away from the pipe that connected it to the oil well 5,000 feet below the ocean surface; the broken underwater drilling infrastructure is now pouring out 1,000 barrels of crude oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of this writing, the growing oil slick covers well over 3,360 square miles of ocean, and there are fears the massive slick will affect the coastal communities of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

BP’s enormous oil slick, less than 36 miles from the Louisiana coast, is directly threatening the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and the Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Located off the coast of Louisiana, Breton Refuge is the second oldest wildlife refugee in the U.S. Founded in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is accessible only by boat and it provides habitat and colonies for over twenty-three species of seabirds and shorebirds. Delta Refuge is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Established in 1934, its 49,000 acres provides habitat to huge numbers of fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds. If the oil slick were to reach these nature reserves, the result would be a catastrophe of unparalleled dimension. As it is, BP’s oil slick will cause tremendous devastation to the fragile marine ecosystem found in the Gulf of Mexico, and untold numbers of fish, birds, mammals, and crustaceans that live in the Gulf will die.

The Gulf of Mexico oil slick confirms BP actually stands for “Big Profits” and not “Beyond Petroleum.” On April 27, as the U.S. Coast Guard struggled to contain the ecological disaster in the Gulf, BP posted a huge surge in its earnings – a phenomenal increase in profits from last year’s $2.39 billion to this year’s $6.08 billion. Now that BP is glutted with oil and flush with cash, perhaps LACMA’s Michael Govan can ask them for another “donation.” I am sure BP could use an excellent public relations gimmick right about now, so I would like to suggest that LACMA construct “The Grand Deepwater Horizon Exit Gate” as part of their new BP financed campus.

While Govan and BP run for political cover in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, they will not be alone in doing so. Just days after millions of people in the U.S. celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, what is left of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is gushing crude into the Gulf in a slick so massive it is larger than the state of Rhode Island. NASA has photographed the gigantic slick from space. And what is the response from President Obama, especially since he has announced a plan to open over 500,000 square miles of U.S. coastal waters to oil drilling – including a vast area in the Gulf of Mexico that has never before been drilled? On April 23 President Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs alleged there is no reason to give up plans to expand offshore oil drilling, declaring; “In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last.” Perhaps when Michael Govan leaves LACMA in disgrace, he can get a job in the Obama administration.


 On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition ( to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition ( to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

Updates, May 20 through 29, 2010: On Saturday, May 29, the Associated Press reported that BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles admitted that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the oil leak was a complete failure. Suttles commented, “This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.”

On May 27, national and international media, taking information from BP and the Obama administration’s U.S. Coast Guard, reported that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the torrent of oil from gushing into the ocean was a “success” and that “industry and government engineers had pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well.”

Yahoo News and CBS News both reported that at President Obama’s May 28th press conference on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, an event meant to show the president was “in control” of response efforts, BP bused in hundreds of temporary workers to clean-up oil off the beach. After Obama left the scene, BP dismissed the workers.

May 27, national and international media report the U.S. government’s pronouncement that the BP catastrophe is the worst eco-disaster in U.S. history – with U.S. Geological Survey scientists calculating that the broken BP pipeline is spewing more than one million gallons of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico, the gusher will no doubt become the worst eco-disaster in world history. Starting on May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition to redesign the BP corporate logo.

Updates, May 15, 2010: The U.K. Telegraph reported that President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency gave BP permission to use massive amounts of a chemical dispersant underwater, despite there being no scientific knowledge regarding the ecological dangers posed by such a huge application of the toxic chemical known as “Corexit.” The New York Times reported that to date, BP has applied more than 400,000 gallons of Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico, and it has 805,000 gallons of the chemical on order. The New York Times also revealed that “of the 18 dispersants whose use EPA has approved, 12 were found to be more effective” than Corexit. The toxicity of the 12 alternatives was in some cases “10 or 20 times less” than Corexit. Nalco manufactures Corexit, and that company’s current leadership includes executives from BP and Exxon - LACMA and its director Michael Govan continue to remain silent regarding their ongoing financial relationship to BP.

UPDATES, May 5 through 14, 2010: A National Day of Protest against BP was called for May 12, 2010, with protests held in U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York City - Both NPR and the New York Times have reported that scientists are saying the BP broken rig is spilling, not 5,000 barrels a day, but up to 100,000 barrels a reported that President Obama has “received a total of $77,051″ from BP over the last 20 years, making him “the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money.” -  McClatchy Newspapers reports that “Since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico.”

[ Friends of the Earth are asking people to sign their online petition calling for President Obama to abandon his plans for expanded offshore oil drilling. ]

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.

The LACMA Train Wreck

Train - by Koons

"Train" - Jeff Koons. Work in progress. The Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, has compared the $25 million 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 23, 2009, Bloomberg News filed a report titled “Koon’s $25 Million Dangling Train Derailed by LACMA Shortfall.” The story covered the now delayed collaboration between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and artist Jeff Koons, whose monumental “sculpture” titled Train, LACMA continues to insist will be erected at the museum’s entrance.

With a projected price tag of $25 million, the work by Koons - if undertaken - will be one of the most expensive public art projects ever to be mounted. However, the collapsing economy continues to incapacitate museums and galleries across the U.S., and LACMA is no exception.

In a Nov. 21, Los Angeles Times article titled “Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hard hit by recession“, writer Mike Boehm reported that the museum’s endowments and donations shrank from a total of $129.7 million in 2007-08, to $29 million in 2008-09, a stunning loss of over $100 million!

As a result LACMA has pushed back plans to build and install Koons’ Train until 2014 at the earliest, as the museum simply does not have the required financial resources to construct the ridiculous thing.

The Bloomberg article quoted LACMA’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, Barbara Pflaumer;

“We wouldn’t do it unless someone funds it; someone has to write us a check. This is a very tough economy. (….) The train is something on our to-do list. There’s no question we’d like it to happen. It’s a question of whether we can make it happen.”

Some things should just not be made to happen. On more than a few occasions I have inveighed against Koons and the Director of LACMA, Michael Govan, so I will not bore you stiff by reiterating critiques already made - though a reading of past fulminations would provide some necessary background to this story. Mr. Govan has persistently worked at making the Koons project a reality, but one really has to ask - why? Is it that Govan, LACMA’s Board of Directors and wealthy contributors, actually believe Koons to be the preeminent artist of our time? I shudder to think that is so, but no other conclusion seems possible.

Considering LACMA’s shaky finances during this exceedingly difficult economic period, not to mention the hard luck millions of Americans have fallen upon - who can sympathize with squandering so much money on something so frightfully banal and stupefyingly crass? That LACMA intends to commission and install Koons’ Train to the tune of $25 million, is analogous to proposing that our great libraries be emptied of the classics and filled up with romance novels, pulp fiction, and comic books.

There is another aspect to this tale. On a surface level the Koons Train sculpture bears a close resemblance to two other train artworks; these were created in Scotland and Brazil respectively, well before Koons drew up his Train proposal for LACMA. The Scottish and Brazilian train projects are little known in the United States, so a close examination is in order. Comparing the three train projects, one is not so much left with the suspicion that Koons simply lifted his idea from others, as one is given insight into just how much Koons’ Train is totally uninspired and lifeless.

Straw Locomotive - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

"Straw Locomotive" - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

Scottish artist George Wyllie produced a public art installation and performance piece in 1987 titled, Straw Train. Wyllie paid tribute to the history of the Scottish Railway industry by building a full-sized steam engine locomotive out of straw. The work of building an accurate replica train from straw took place at the abandoned Hyde Park Works in Springburn, Scotland, where the nation’s first private locomotive company built steam engine trains for export and domestic use. At its peak the massive train factory covered 60 acres, employed 8,000 workers, and constructed 600 trains a year.

Upon completion, Wyllie’s Straw Train was paraded through the streets in a public procession that followed the route real engines would have taken as they were transported to the shipping docks at the Finnieston port. Once at the port, Wyllie’s Straw Train was suspended from the famous Finnieston Crane, a prominent landmark in Glasgow, Scotland, celebrating the city’s industrial heritage. The Finnieston Crane once loaded untold numbers of the massive locomotives produced at the Hyde Park Works onto transport ships for export. Wyllie’s whimsical sculpture remained suspended from the massive crane for several months as part of the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988 – attended by some 3 million people.

Following the Glasgow Garden Festival, Straw Train was transported back to the Hyde Park Works in Springburn, where it was set ablaze in a public performance. As flames consumed the dry straw, the sculpture’s metal armature was exposed. When the straw was reduced to ashes and only the metal framework remained, one could plainly see that the artist had incorporated a giant metal question mark into the structure – the artist’s emblematic signature but also a query as to the fate of Scotland’s industrial past.

Straw Train had great resonance for the people of Scotland, making direct reference to their proud history and accomplishments even as the artist posed relevant questions about capitalist economic restructuring and the resultant deindustrialization of society. Conversely, Koons’ work is altogether bereft of social import. It fails to challenge or advocate and does not lead to any meaningful introspection, it has no connection to history; in fact it makes absolutely no claims about anything whatsoever, it simply exists, like the faux Matterhorn Mountain at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Koons said of his project; “It’s very visceral. It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life.” Just what exactly does that mean? Such a statement could be used to describe a pile of junked automobiles - if one’s intent was obfuscation. And what can be said of those at LACMA who find profundity in Koons’ gobbledygook explication?

Train at the entrance to Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The train at the entrance of Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The popular theme park Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) in Canela, Brazil, incorporates a life-sized steam engine train into its entry way in much the same manner that LACMA looks forward to doing - although only L.A.’s museum has pretensions of presenting “high art.”

Canela is a small picturesque city situated in the mountainous region of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Mundo A Vapor is a charming theme park that presents the history of the steam engine, from toys and crafts to productive technology and train transport – it offers informative displays and fun for the whole family, including a miniature train kiddy ride. The theme park is internationally famous for its unconventional entrance façade which makes use of a full-scale replicated steam engine locomotive; a life-size reconstruction of the 1895 train crash in Montparnasse, Paris. The train’s steam powered whistle actually screams on the hour as the train’s chimney discharges billowing clouds of steam to the great delight of tourists, who crowd around the locomotive to take still photos and shoot videos (one such amateur video can be viewed on YouTube).

Chances are only a handful of people know, or care about, the name of the architectural engineer commissioned to design the entrance façade at Mundo A Vapor, and it is my educated guess that the professional was not awarded $25 million. It never occurs to the jovial tourists flocking around the steam engine behemoth - marooned at the theme park doorway like a beached whale - that the tableau was designed by a specialist; that detail is simply irrelevant. To the cheerful multitudes the train façade offers only a fantastic setting for photographs, nothing more, and that is how it should be seen. If those gathered around the train were told that the locomotive was in fact a majestic sculpture of paramount importance, created by a modern master of unsurpassed vision, and that the objet d’art was worth ten of millions of dollars, they would most likely laugh out loud at the preposterous tall tale.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

So then what precisely is the difference between the locomotive at Mundo A Vapor and Koons’ Train? Aside from the fact that the Brazilian train does not spin its mighty iron wheels as the LACMA train is being designed to do, the one and only distinction is that LACMA’s Train is linked to brand Koons; declared by inordinately powerful individuals with exceedingly bad taste to be the finest high-end commodity available on the “art market” today. Museum culture is undergoing a transformation where a sham populism guided by market forces is quickly becoming the norm. Some museums are developing into zones for the appreciation of the kitsch, shallow, and gaudy; there is no better example of this than the relationship LACMA has cultivated with the likes of Koons.

The train at Mundo A Vapor is a real crowd pleaser to be sure, and undoubtedly millions have stood beside it to have their pictures taken, but does anyone think of it as a magnificent artwork? Would anyone in their right mind say of the train; “It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life”? Well… perhaps some would, just as they might say the same thing about that thrilling roller coaster ride at Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain - but that does not add up to momentous art or a thoughtful art experience.

LACMA’s $25 Million Choo-Choo Train

The March 2009 edition of The Art Newspaper reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is funding the building of a monumental sculpture by postmodernist artist Jeff Koons - at a cost of $25 million. Titled Train, the “sculpture” consists of an actual 70-foot long steam locomotive hung from an immense 161-foot construction crane. If the project actually proceeds, it will become, in the words of The Art Newspaper - “the most expensive artwork ever commissioned by a museum.” It should be restated once again that President Obama’s economic stimulus bill contains $50 million to service the needs of art institutions for the entire United States of America.

In my April 2007 article, Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New, I detailed the collaboration between LACMA and Koons when it was merely at its formative stage. At the time, the Annenberg Foundation provided LACMA and Koons with funds for engineering studies concerning the feasibility of such an edifice. As it turns out, The Art Newspaper reported; “LACMA has already spent about $1.75 of $2 million pledged by trustee Wallis Annenberg for preliminary studies.” In my ‘07 article I wrote:

“Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, ‘A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.’ There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think!

(….) Koons supposedly represents the ‘best and brightest’ from the national cultural scene - a sad ‘fact’ I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; ‘Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’”

In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Modern art enthusiast and critic, Waldemar Januszczak, wrote an article for the TimesOnline of the U.K., in which he describes his waning love affair with postmodern art. He was specifically writing of the U.K’s conceptual Young British Artists and the Tate Modern, but his words can just as easily apply to LACMA, Koons, and postmodern art in general. Significantly, Januszczak took great pains in his article to describe himself as a booster of contemporary art, writing that “it’s been my life, my career, my sustenance” and that when he offers a critique - “you can be confident it’s serious.” Januszczak wrote:

“What we have here today is a situation that parallels events in France in the 1860s, when the Paris salon became too powerful and the impressionist revolt needed to happen to revive art. The Tate is the salon of today: pompous, arrogant, all-powerful and utterly convinced of its superiority. What began as a force for progress and coherence has turned into a cultural despot that has the government’s ear.

(….) Just as the Paris salon favoured the conceptual over the actual - pretentious history painting over vivid snapshots of everyday life - so the Tate supports art that imagines it is on a higher plane than the everyday.”

It is entirely appropriate for Januszczak to compare today’s postmodern art elites with the entrenched French Academy of the 1860s and its attempts to suppress Impressionism. But LACMA’s patronage of Koons reminds one not so much of the French Salon as it does the insensitivity and pitilessness of France’s Ancien Régime just before it was overthrown by the revolution of 1789. At the same time as American museums layoff staff and cancel exhibits, as galleries go out of business and artists struggle to stay alive, while millions across America lose their jobs, homes, or both - LACMA fritters away tens of millions on what can only be seen as a monument to triviality. How many thousands of artists could LACMA commission with $25 million? How many art workshops could it subsidize in underserved communities? Let them eat cake indeed.

On March 4, 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of its research on artist unemployment rates, a report that concludes joblessness is not only skyrocketing for artists, but that the artist workforce has “contracted” and that “artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers.” The NEA found that in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 129,000 artists were unemployed nationally, a 63% increase from the previous year. While the NEA report did not give a state-by-state breakdown on unemployment rates for artists, a previous NEA study found that more artists live in California than in any other state of the union (some 140,620 working artists), even ranking above New York, which came in fourth. It is therefore not unreasonable to surmise that there are huge numbers of artists now unemployed in the state of California.

According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, California is presently last when it comes to contributing to arts funding. The national average for state arts funding comes to $1.35 per capita - but California’s funding for the arts comes to a trifling 15 cents per citizen each year. The California Arts Council (CAC) is the state’s arts policy-setting agency, administering grant programs and directly supporting arts programs for all of the state’s citizens. It has a budget of only $5.6 million to administrate cultural affairs for the entire state of California.

A February 28, 2009 article by the Los Angeles Times reported that the unemployment rate for workers in the state of California has reached 10.1%, the state’s highest jobless rate in twenty-six years. Statistics from the Employment Development Department of the State of California show that as of January of this year, 1,954,900 Californians are out of work, with 537,000 now jobless in Los Angeles. Those are the official statistics, but how many Californians are underemployed or have simply given up looking for employment? The aforementioned Los Angeles Times piece quoted one economist as saying, “California is hemorrhaging faster than the U.S. economy.”

In light of these facts, a price-tag of $25 million for the LACMA-Koons Train boondoggle verges upon lunacy, and it most assuredly is an indication of an arts institution profoundly out of touch with the realities lived by the vast majority of the working population of California and the nation. I should reiterate here that the base salary of LACMA director Michael Govan is $600,000 while the total annual compensation for a sitting president of the United States is $400,000.

Arts professionals have some soul searching to do. It is transparently obvious why a greater part of the U.S. population feels alienated from and at variance with contemporary art. In short the public’s gut reaction that art has nothing to do with them and that it is only for the privileged few, is in fact an astute observation based upon the circumstances before us. It is high time that American artists begin to create the new works and institutions that will help free the public of such an erroneous opinion.

Armed Guards at LACMA

Armed guards carrying clubs and loaded guns now patrol the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), the latest addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. No less than three armed guards have been seen patrolling the BCAM, with one security officer assigned to watch over Damien Hirst’s installation Away from the Flock - a dead lamb pickled in formaldehyde that Eli Broad purchased in 2006 for $3.38 million.

The armed guards do not patrol any of LACMA’s other galleries, where the museum’s invaluable collection of masterworks by artists from around the world and throughout time are housed; only the pricey postmodern collection of billionaire Eli Broad amassed under the BCAM rooftop are afforded protection by uniformed, gun-toting private security men. Is this part of the supposed “visionary leadership” provided by LACMA Director, Michael Govan?

The open presence of uniformed armed men in a major art museum is abhorrant and contradictory to the very spirit of art - there are certainly wiser and more effective ways of protecting museum collections than the filling of galleries with gun wielding sentries.

LACMA hired the armed guards from Inter-Con Security Systems, Inc., which in its own words is a “leading U.S. security company, providing a full range of physical security services to commercial and industrial customers on four continents. (…) Inter-Con has achieved a position of international leadership in the field of diplomatic security provided to the U.S. and foreign governments.” Once can only imagine what this means, since Inter-Con does not provide a list of its clients. I am not the only one to be annoyed by this development. In his article, Under the gun is no way to view art, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight writes;

“It’s hard to imagine almost any scenario in which an art museum guard might shoot someone, but that bizarre thought keeps bumping around in your brain at BCAM. Needless to say, it has a less than salutary effect on the art experience. As a rule, art museums don’t discuss their security precautions. For obvious reasons, they prefer them to be as unobtrusive as possible. That institutional reticence is what makes this glaring aberration so weird. Visual intimidation by gun- and baton-toting guards shouts that security is a pressing issue — and that BCAM requires more than any museum in town.”

Having set the precedent of introducing uniformed armed security personnel into the galleries of LACMA, perhaps in the near future Mr. Govan will hire Blackwater Worldwide to provide protection for the museum’s so-called “BP Grand Entrance“.

Spiral Jetty, Big Oil, & LACMA

Spiral Jetty - Robert Smithson

[ Spiral Jetty - Robert Smithson. 1970. The famous earthwork construction in Utah imperiled by oil drilling. ]

A story by Kirk Johnson titled Plans to Mix Oil Drilling and Art Clash in Utah, appeared in the March 27th edition of the New York Times. The article details how oil drilling in the Great Salt Lake of Utah may threaten Spiral Jetty, the famous earthwork construction created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. Quoting the NYT’s piece:

“A fierce debate, with equal parts art, environmentalism and economics, has erupted over a plan by the state to allow oil drilling about five miles across the lake. The owner of ‘Spiral Jetty,’ the Dia Art Foundation in New York, in an alliance with a conservation group called Friends of Great Salt Lake, says the oil rigs would harm the work’s aesthetic experience. Led by their drumbeat of protest, more than 3,000 e-mail messages, mostly against the drilling plan, were received by the state during a public comment period last month. A decision by the state about whether to let the drilling go forward is expected in April.”

But it’s not just concern over Smithson’s artwork that has made oil drilling in the Great Salt Lake a hot button issue. Environmentalist groups like The Nature Conservatory explain that the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands “provide important nesting and foraging habitat for over 250 species of birds.” In fact the lake is a critical stopover for some six million migrating birds that fly annually from North to South America. Eco-tourists have been flocking to the lake for some of the best bird watching in the United States. It’s difficult to believe that oil drilling will not have a negative impact upon the migratory bird population and the associated booming eco-tourist industry.

The Friends of Great Salt Lake have spearheaded the resistance to the proposed oil drilling by Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, LTD., and the environmental group elicited the help of Mr. Smithson’s widow, artist Nancy Holt, who wrote an appeal to action that resulted in the State of Utah receiving over 3,000 letters protesting the anticipated oil drilling. I too am opposed to the despoiling of the Great Salt Lake area by the oil industry, and I have nothing but admiration for the coalition of art enthusiasts and environmentalists who, through democratic grass roots activism, have stood up to defend Smithson’s artwork as well as the Great Salt Lake environs.

It is interesting to note that the Dia Art Foundation of New York City, which is one of the major organizations opposed to the oil drilling, had Michael Govan as its President and Director from 1994 to 2006. Govan left the foundation in ‘06 to become the Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). One of his first moves as Director of LACMA was to broker a funding arrangement between the museum and BP (British Petroleum). The oil giant agreed to make a “gift” of $25 million dollars to LACMA, and in return the museum’s new entry gate would be christened the “BP Grand Entrance”.

In a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times Mr. Govan justified taking BP’s money by saying, “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy”, a statement rendered ludicrous by a recent news report published by MSN Money on March 26, 2008. Titled Oil giant backs off green push, reporter Michael Brush’s article draws attention to the fact that BP’s “energy production declined 3% in 2007, and operating profits were down 6.4%”, which has “brought growing pressure from analysts to build oil reserves fast.” As a result BP is beginning to tap Canada’s oil sands, vast tracts of land in Alberta and Saskatchewan that contain a “hydrocarbon-rich mixture of bitumen, sand, water and clay” (….) These huge deposits give Canada the second-largest petroleum holdings in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia.”

As the MSN Money report points out, “producing oil from tar sands requires so much energy that it creates three to five times as much carbon dioxide as production from wells.” The extraction process “requires roads and pipelines that slice up forests - a huge impact on the local ecosystem.” And “production of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide linked to mining tar sands has caused a spike in acid rain in Western Canada.”

Commenting on BP’s move to extract oil from Canadian sand, Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council is quoted in the MSN Money article as having said, “There was this one shining moment where they (BP) looked like they were going to be the good guys, and they’ve just rapidly moved away from it. (….) This is an issue of how they portray themselves in the media compared to what they are doing to impact the rest of the world. They could live up to the image they portray. But they chose not to.” LACMA’s Michael Govan should pay attention to those words and return the $25 million he accepted from BP.

Broad Contemporary Art Museum Soirée

Tables at the elite soirée cost $25,000 (silver), $50,000 (gold) or $100,000 (platinum). Guests included Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger and California’s first lady Maria Shriver, as well as Tom Cruise, Christina Aguilera and a bevy of Hollywood stars. And what was the occasion? - the ostentatious debut party for the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), which houses the modern art collection of billionaire Eli Broad at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art.

Some 1,000 high-falootin’ bigwigs swarmed the grounds at LACMA on the evening of Feb. 9th, rubbing elbows with museum directors like Sir Nicholas Serota of Britain’s Tate Gallery, and a number of postmodernist art stars like Chris Burden, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst. LACMA director Michael Govan (Shhh!… don’t mention BP funding or the Feds raiding LACMA!), was on hand to talk about the museum’s “rebirth”.

In his evaluation of the BCAM collection, Big names, big works… big checkbook, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote: “mostly the exhibition just looks expensive. Really, really expensive. In deciding what to exhibit, art museums everywhere now strongly favor wealthy collectors over artists and art professionals, and slashed government spending at every level (except defense) keeps contemporary cultural institutions hostage to private interests. Ours is an era of supply-side aesthetics, trickling down on the public. BCAM’s loan-show debut is emblematic of the economic elitism humming loudly this presidential election year.”

And where was I during this tedious evening of art world ballyhoo? - at home reading Mark the Music, the wonderful biography of American composer Marc Blitzstein, written by friend and associate, Eric A. Gordon. A passage from Gordon’s book made me think of the raffish fête thrown for BCAM, and how much I’d like to read a few paragraphs of Mark the Music to the celebrity superstars and pin-ups who attended the BCAM gala party. During the height of McCarthyism, Blitzstein gave a 1956 public address that was broadcast on a Boston radio station, in which the composer lambasted the complacency of the American art scene. “A little adventure, please, a little air, a little gut.”