This Beauty's Looking at You, Kid

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Every time I'm in New York, I never miss the chance to visit the most elegant salon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to pay my respects to its charming hostess, famous for her beauty as well as her repose. A woman of few words, she greets you in the foyer, and you cannot help but notice that even with the passing years, her youthful glow and aura of mystique have hardly changed. She travels very rarely, but when she does, it makes the news. So when she recently accepted an invitation to come to Southern California, her friends and admirers made sure to set aside time to visit with her.

at091103a.jpgIf you have never met this young French noblewoman who resides at the Frick mansion on 5th Avenue, here is your chance to make her acquaintance, while she winters in style and comfort in a charming residence in the heart of Pasadena. Allow me to present the incomparable Comtesse d' Haussonville, whose likeness was immortalized by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, a celebrated 19th century French artist and unsurpassed master of portraiture of the rich and famous. I went on Saturday to the Norton Simon Museum, which is hosting the Comtesse, wanting to see if here, under the California sun, I would learn something new about her. The shimmering blue satin gown is as dazzling as always, and you can still catch in the mirror behind her a glimpse of neck and bare shoulders. But I did notice, for the first time, a lovely detail: the opera glasses resting on the table she is leaning against, implying an evening spent at the theater.

at091103b.jpgTo keep the Comtesse d' Haussonville company, the Norton Simon curators came up with the clever idea of gathering a rich variety of portraits from the museum's permanent collection, including a number of works I'd never seen before. The resulting exhibition, Portraiture after Ingres, is full of wonderful surprises and titillating juxtapositions of 19th and 20th century paintings, drawings, prints and photographs.

at091103c.jpgSure enough, the only artist who unabashedly steals the show is the 20-year-old Picasso, whose bravura ink sketch of demimonde characters enjoying a performance at the Moulin Rouge tells you all you need to know about the excitement the young fellow from Barcelona experienced on his first trip to Paris in 1901.

at091103d.jpgLeaving Pasadena on Cloud Nine, I drove back to Los Angeles and stopped by the ACME Gallery to see the exhibition of Jennifer Steinkamp's recent video installations. I wonder what the beautiful Comtesse would say upon entering the dark galleries, each wall completely covered with a panoply of flowers projected onto it. Would it remind her of the elaborate Aubusson tapestries in her elegant house in Paris? The digitally created flowers and trees in Steinkamp's videos move and morph in front of your eyes, and before long you're totally hypnotized – almost tripping out.

at091103e.jpgA good way to come down is by visiting the exhibition of new paper collages by Roy Dowell at Margo Leavin Gallery, where the artist revisits the high points of 20th century modernism starting with Cubism and the Russian Avant-Garde – and does it with his customary precision and cool detachment. For Dowell, seducing the viewer is not the name of the game; instead, one is offered a quiet, meditative look at the commotion that abstract art brought to the last century.

Ingres' 'Comtesse d'Haussonville' from The Frick Collection
On view at the Norton Simon Museum through January 25, 2010

Gaze: Portraiture after Ingres
On view at the Norton Simon Museum through April 5, 2010

Jennifer Steinkamp: Orbit
On view at ACME Gallery hrough November 14

Roy Dowell: New Works on Paper
On view at Margo Leavin Gallery through November 14

Banner image: Visitors admiring Jennifer Steinkamp's video installation at ACME Gallery