LA Artists on Fire

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For almost one hundred years, people around the world have known Los Angeles primarily as the place where movies are made. But in the last couple of decades, something else has entered into the equation: a few LA artists have achieved such international acclaim that they've become our de facto cultural ambassadors to the world at large. I'm talking here about - who else? - Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, two artists whose flourishing careers enjoy staying power that should make many Hollywood stars green with envy.

at091020a.jpgAt this year's Venice Biennale, the 78-year-old John Baldessari became the recipient of a coveted Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement. And if you're traveling to London in the next couple of months, you must not miss the sprawling retrospective of his works at the Tate Modern, the world's most visited museum of modern and contemporary art.

at091020b.jpgMeanwhile, 72-year-old Ed Ruscha is getting his big share of the limelight on the London art scene, with a retrospective at Hayward Gallery and an exhibition of new work at the Gagosian outpost in London. And though Ruscha hasn't yet received his Golden Lion, one of his paintings was chosen by the White House for display in the First Family's private quarters. I especially appreciate the fact that this painting, borrowed from the National Gallery in Washington, was donated to the museum by a famous Los Angeles collector and founder of MOCA, Marcia Weisman. Considering that among the other works picked by the Obamas for the White House, instead of the obligatory images of cowboys roaming the prairies are samples of abstract art by such artists as Susan Rothenberg, Sam Francis, and Richard Diebenkorn, one wonders how long it will be before Fox News declares these choices to be a betrayal of American family values.

at091020c.jpgHere on the home front, things are relatively quiet, with no particular museum or gallery exhibition grabbing headlines. When some time ago I got the announcements about this fall's major exhibitions at LACMA and the Hammer, I scratched my head, because to be completely honest, neither the name of Spanish 18th century painter Luis Melendez nor the name of mid-20th century American artist Charles Burchfield rang a bell. The two dozen still lifes of fruits and vegetables by Luis Melendez (1715-1780), in a handsome installation at LACMA, show him to be a superb – if not very original – practitioner of this genre. In comparison with 17th century Dutch still life artists, or such Melendez contemporaries as French painter Chardin, the Spanish master comes across as a dutiful, but not inspiring artist.

at091020d.jpgAmerican modernist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) once enjoyed success, and in 1930, his exhibition at the newly minted Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first solo exhibition there. His small and medium size landscapes, mostly executed in watercolor, are intriguing arenas in which natural forces are engaged in a primordial battle, often too dangerous for human habitation. During the Depression and World War II, Burchfield's career fell into a slump, which ironically recharged his art with new energy. He started to work on a larger scale, and his landscapes shed much of their regional, slightly parochial qualities. In the last gallery of the Hammer exhibition, devoted to his later works, one cannot help but feel a sort of liberation achieved by the artist; a lighter touch and more peaceful spirit permeate the work of his last decades. Well-known American artist Robert Gober, a big fan of Charles Burchfield's art, played the role of curator for this exhibition. For many years Burchfield made a living as a designer of commercial wallpaper, which understandably, appeals to Gober, known for making wallpaper of his own design. Here at the Hammer, Gober arranged to have some of Burchfield's patterns reproduced, resulting in a marriage of the two artists' sensibilities and a whimsical display full of quirky appeal.

John Baldessari: Pure Beauty
On view at the Tate Modern through January 10, 2010

Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting
On view at the Hayward Gallery (London) through January 10, 2010

Ed Ruscha: On the Road: An Artist Book of the Classic Novel by Jack Kerouac
On view at Gagosian (Davies Street, London) through November 28

Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life
On view at LACMA through January 3, 2010

Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield
On view at the Hammer Museum through January 3, 2010

Banner image: Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968; Oil on canvas, 53 1/2" H x 133 1/2" W