Exhibitions That Rock

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When last year the Pompidou Centre in Paris organized the exhibition celebrating LA art, it was monumental, overwhelming, and slightly tedious in its academic intention to miss nothing, no matter how minor. When last week the Orange County Museum of Art opened its exhibition celebrating California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury, it turned out to be not too big, not too small –- just right in size. With about 150 objects, including paintings, photographs, TV footage, furniture, and architectural pottery, this exhibition tells the captivating story of how California -– thousands of miles from New York and light-years from Europe –- came, artistically speaking, into its own.

Smartly designed and sharply focused, it presents a specific moment in cultural history when Art and Design shed the traditional notion of High and Low and instead, became dance partners to the soulful sounds of Miles Davis. Hard-edged paintings by Karl Benjamin and Frederick Hammersley simply cannot be understood and fully appreciated without close proximity to Charles and Ray Eames' design and architecture. Among other highlights: Julius Schulman's iconic images of Los Angeles at its best and William Claxton's portraits of Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Dinah Washington, the coolest of the cool of American jazz. All that and more are echoed in the perfect title of this exhibition, Birth of the Cool. The exhibition, organized by the museum's chief curator Elizabeth Armstrong, is scheduled to travel across the country to three more venues.

Meanwhile, another traveling exhibition, this one organized by the Tate Modern in London, just opened at LACMA and if, like me, you thought of Salvador Dalí as a tiresome trickster, here is a chance for all of us to fall in love with his art and his pranks all over again. By sending a startling holographic postcard announcing the opening, LACMA let it be known that the Dalí exhibition would not be business as usual. First you see a close-up of a woman's face, her eye about to be sliced by a razor, then –- with a slight shift of the card –- a totally different image appears: a huge eye, like a malevolent UFO, hovers over the landscape in anticipation of Judgment Day.

Focusing on his collaboration with the great film directors Luis Buñuel in the 1920's and Hitchcock in the 1940's, the exhibition presents Dalí at the height of his artistic powers, when his feverish imagination gave to Surrealism its most recognizable, most persuasive images. In his paintings, tangled sexual fantasies -– a trademark of his art –- are often accompanied by a palpable sense of frustration and death. His most famous canvas, Persistence of Memory, created in 1931, with its ominous images of melting clocks, anticipates the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the cataclysm of World War II.

To do this exhibition justice, one should plan to see it more than once to be able to absorb the wealth of visual information, including early drawings, numerous photographs, actual film footage, and sketches for Disney's animated movies. Whether it was intentional or not, the story ends with a banal, flat-footed portrait of Jack Warner, painted in 1951. Unfortunately, the last decades of Dalí's life were a sad story of artistic decline, and this portrait is a hint of things to come.

Birth of the Cool
On view at Orange County Museum of Art
Through January 6, 2008

Dalí: Painting & Film
On view at LACMA
Through January 6, 2008

Banner image: Miles Davis backstage at the "Just Jazz" Concert (detail),
Shrine Auditorium, Hollywood, 1950 © Bob Willoughby