In Gold We Trust

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Bad weather, with its strong winds and rain, can sure put a damper on weekend plans, unless you get a little bit creative – after all, there are always museums out there waiting for us. It was pouring when I hit the Pacific Coast Highway last Sunday, but all of a sudden, the celestial authorities had a change of heart, and the rest of the drive to Malibu was smooth sailing: few cars and plenty of sunshine.

at090210b.jpg The Weisman Museum at Pepperdine University recently unveiled an intriguing exhibition of paintings by Robert Dowd (1936 – 1996), one of the first Pop artists in Los Angeles in the 1960's. Almost 50 years ago, in a groundbreaking exhibition of Pop Art at the Pasadena Art Museum, his paintings of American dollars were shown alongside works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Jim Dine. And large and small paintings of the American green dollar in all denominations he did indeed, again and again, but each time with yet another surprising twist on an extremely familiar subject.

at090210a.jpg There is something ironic and deliciously subversive in Robert Dowd's treatment of the currency in which we trust; in his paintings you see it folded, crumpled, fragmented, often with misspelled or incomplete words. And when he seemingly ran out of tricks, he would substitute Vincent van Gogh for George Washington, making Vincent stare at you from the center of the dollar bill. The current financial calamity adds yet another layer of bitter irony to these paintings of the once indestructible symbol of American might. Today, in money we trust no more, but art - that's another matter. Unfortunately for Robert Dowd, his early success didn't extend beyond the 60's, and the few later works included in the exhibition show him still a skillful technician, continuing to search for a new, worthy subject, but nothing seems to click, and his art ultimately runs out of steam.

at090210c.jpg Going to the Getty Center, I was less fortunate with the weather, but still it was worth the trip. As I hadn't yet seen the important exhibition of a seminal California artist, 19th century photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), I wanted to be sure that I didn't miss it, as the show closes on March 1. Watkins' long career as a photographer started in 1850 when he arrived in California during the gold rush. He was only 20 years old, but even his earliest images of miners at work and at rest were already sophisticated and compositionally complex.

at090210e.jpg In the 1860's, Watkins himself struck gold by creating a series of definitive images of Yosemite Valley with the help of a specially made oversized camera, which allowed him to produce prints exceptionally large for their time. Ever since, photographers attempting to capture the expanse and enormity of the American West have had to come to terms with the fact that Watkins not only preceded them, but most of the time created images of such iconic power that succeeding generations of photographers have been left with little else to add. These Yosemite photographs brought the artist international fame, but it lasted only for about a decade, and though he lived and worked another 50 years, he died in poverty, completely forgotten. The Getty exhibition, thoroughly researched and expertly installed, succeeds in expanding our understanding and appreciation of the legacy of this remarkable artist.

at090210d.jpg Going to LACMA to see another photography exhibition also scheduled to close March 1, I couldn't help but be disappointed. The traveling exhibition of portraits published in Vanity Fair magazine since 1913, presents a panoply of the most famous faces of the last century, captured through the lenses of the most acclaimed photographers. But somehow it doesn't add up. One would think that the very subject of the exhibition requires an imaginative, maybe even theatrical presentation; instead, we look at endless rows of evenly spaced portraits looking somehow lost in the too big and slightly shabby galleries. And yet, with a good eye and time on your side, you can still dig up some gold.

Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California
On view at the Getty Center through March 1

Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008
On view at LACMA through March 1

Robert Dowd: Pop Art Money
On view at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, through April 5

Banner image: Robert Dowd, Vincent Dollar (detail), 1965; Acrylic on canvas, 18 x 36 inches; Collection of Joni and Monte Gordon; Courtesy Newspace Resales, Los Angeles