Considered the most comprehensive 20 year retrospective of the Los Angeles–based artist Lari Pittman, an exhibition titled Lari Pittman: Declaration of Independence is now being shown for the first time at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Lari Pittman, he is a long revered and distinguished Professor at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. 

Lari Pittman, How Sweet the Day After This and That, Deep Sleep Is Truly Welcomed, 1988

Lari Pittman, How Sweet the Day After This and That, Deep Sleep Is Truly Welcomed, 1988

“From his earliest experiments with collage and decoration during his formative years at California Institute of the Arts, to the iconic paintings produced in response to the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the 1990s, to his present philosophical investigations into the history-telling of textiles, Pittman’s works have remained some of the most prescient and influential of any artist since the 1980s.”

Lari Pittman, Transfigurative and Needy, 1991

Walking through the galleries of his retrospective years, you can begin to unfold where much of his language and visual culture comes from. As the son of a Colombian mother and an American father, and fluent in both Spanish and English, he has the sensibility of being able to switch between both languages. In most of his artworks, this fluidity can be seen in the imagery and painting technique. He uses a lot of traditional oil paints with mixtures of spray-paint and stenciling. He renders bodies that at times take the form of silhouettes, and at times abstract forms that overthrow the conformity of binary genders. Vintage textiles, expressionistic flowers, lascivious imagery all speak within the same language to Lari’s additional identity as a queer male artist.

Lari Pittman, This Wholesomeness, Beloved and Despised, Continues Regardless, 1990

“Pittman generally works alone in the studio and has described painting as a physical activity that involves his entire body. His paintings are created without preliminary sketches, and their large scale mirrors the outsized, complex, and even mythic ideas that inform them. In contrast, his works on paper are more intimate and graphic, featuring fewer objects and a more pronounced flattening of illusionistic space. Still lushly colored and decorated, they offer a quieter counterpart to his paintings. A selection of these drawings spanning Pittman’s career comprises Orangerie, a stand-alone installation that provides an intimate space for viewing his works on paper.”

Lari Pittman, Compassion (Memento Mori), 1985

 

Lari Pittman, Untitled #8 (The Dining Room), 2005

If you would like to delve deeper into the world that is Lari Pittman, you can read THIS extraordinary Los Angeles Times article by Carolina Miranda for a much deeper understanding of Lari and Lari’s artworks.

Declaration of Independence is organized by the Hammer Museum’s Chief Curator Connie Butler and Curatorial Assistant Vanessa Arizmendi. Check Related Programs on the Hammer’s website for events associated with the exhibition. The exhibition will run from September 29, 2019 to January 5, 2020.

Following its run at the Hammer, Lari Pittman: Declaration of Independence will travel to Kistefos Museet in Jevnaker, Norway, from May 24 – Oct. 5. 2020.

Lari Pittman with the scale model replicating the layout of his upcoming Hammer Museum retrospective.(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Even with today’s technology, it still seems difficult to capture the exact moment you begin to fall down on your bum. But capturing that same exact moment in a live performance? Impossible. Chinese artist, Xu Zhen, proves us wrong though. Featured at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) at Grand Avenue, Xu focuses on that exact moment we’re unlikely to process.

Xu Zhen: In Just a Blink of an Eye, July 27–September 1, 2019 at MOCA Grand Avenue. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Myles Pettengill.

Suspended in midair and frozen in time, a group of performers float mysteriously as if defying the laws of physics. These performers are part of the exhibition titled, In Just a Blink of an Eye. As in, you were standing up straight one moment and in just a blink of an eye, you fall down on the floor trying to comprehend what just happened.

Curator of this exhibition, Amanda Hunt, explains the meaning behind the artworks:

The work engages notions of the body as material, and in turn the materiality of the body, testing the limits of physical and cognitive possibilities as the viewer tries to comprehend what we see. A prolific and experimental artist, Zhen’s conceptually-driven practice encompasses a vast range of media and often employs humor, irony, and sophisticated trickery. As the audience waits for movement, for the performer to stand up, or for them to continue to follow the rules of gravity, they instead experience time and stillness as moments extend and are stretched out on through these living sculptures. Xu Zhen explores fragility and balance, literally and metaphorically, spatially and temporally.

Photo by Myles Pettengill.

Apart from trying to find out how this illusion is achieved, these performance pieces really spark a series of deeper questions. Is this exhibit really a “performance piece”? Can these performers be considered “sculptures”?

Performance art can be traditionally defined as “Live Art,” a performance presented in front of an audience that can be either scripted, unscripted, random, carefully orchestrated, spontaneous or otherwise planned with or without audience participation. It can also take form via media where the performer can be either present or absent.

In In Just a Blink of an Eye, the performers are frozen in mid-action, restricted from any movement other than blinking. In this case, it could be defined as “Live Art,” but the very stillness of each performer begs the question of where and when the “performance” aspect kicks in. The blurred lines get further stretched out when we start referring to the performers as “sculptures”. Because they are suspended and frozen in time, they take on the visual aspect of sculptures. It is only until the performer starts blinking when you realize that this is a live person taking the shape of a sculpture.

However you would like to interpret it, Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye is being exhibited for one last weekend at MOCA Grand Avenue this Saturday and Sunday, August 31st and September 1st from 11am-5pm. Free with purchase of regular admission.

To learn more about this exhibit, check out this video by MOCA:

When news of infuriated rejected artists protesting the Salon jury of 1863 reached the ears of Napoleon III, his office issued the statement: “Numerous complaints have come to the Emperor on the subject of the works of art which were refused by the Jury of the Exposition. His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, have decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry” (Published in Le Moniteur on 24 April 1863). On May 11th, 1863, the Palace of Industry opened its doors to exhibit the artworks of rejected artists, titling it the Salon des Refusés. No one at that time knew how important this exhibit would become to the art world in the years that followed, as thousands of visitors pushed to get into the crowded galleries where the refused paintings were hung. At that very moment in history, however,  journalist Émile Zola tells us how the rooms were filled with laughter from the spectators.

The Palais de l’Industrie, where the event took place. Photo by Édouard Baldus.

Critics and the public ridiculed the refusés from the get-go. For the longest time, the Academy’s strict hierarchy for painting genres ranked historical scenes at the very top of the pyramid. Following these historical scenes were portraits, then landscapes, and finally still lifes at the very bottom. Previous generations of artists worked almost exclusively on commissions from either the church, state, or wealthy patrons. But it was at this turn of the century that we begin to see artists becoming increasingly autonomous, establishing their own unique visions in their artworks. 

Édouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1863 Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Enter Édouard Manet and his painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. This painting became the succès de scandale at the exhibition, stirring up lots of controversy amongst spectators. This painting depicts two fully-dressed men and two women; one is nude and at the center of the painting, and the other half-dressed and washing herself by the river in the background. But why the controversy? For one, the painting’s composition drew from studies of old masters such as the Pastoral Concert (ca. 1510) by Giorgone or Titian. The painting is thought to depict an allegory of poetry and music. The two women in the painting would be the imaginary apparitions stemming from the two men’s fantasy and inspiration. In a similar composition and subject matter, Manet turns a mythological scene from the old masters of the Renaissance into the tableau of somewhat suggestive, vulgar Parisian travelers.

Giorgione or Titian, Concert in the Open Air, ca. 1510 Musée du Louvre, Paris

As an art historian, Therese Dolan describes, “What Manet does is take on each category… borrowing iconography from Old Master paintings and changing it so dramatically that it looks like a mockery.” The subjects appear to have sneaked out of their homes for a late-night rendezvous, as the title hints at sexual undertones. Manet therefore amplifies these undertones even more by making his central female nude look directly into the viewer’s eyes. Such explicit lust in this painting is what therefore shocked audiences at first glance, never mind the fact that the clothed men seem to be cavorting with women who are most likely none other than sex workers. 

Giorgione, The Tempest, ca. 1506 Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice

With this painting, Manet set a platform for modernist enterprise. “People realized painting was old and needed to change, and Manet was changing it,” Dolan said. “He kicked dirt in the face of the academics.” In the years following its first exhibition, artists from Claude Monet to Pablo Picasso made Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe an integral part of their artistic practices, rendering their own versions at one point. 

Claude Monet, Luncheon on the Grass, Central Panel, 1865-66. Legion of Honor

To end, Alina Cohen from Artsy states: 

“Perhaps one of the reasons that the painting has generated such a bevy of scholarship is its uncanny narrative quality. The lusty foursome in a beautiful but unplaceable setting contains all the elements of a captivating story. The characters have escaped the civilized city for the wild woods, enjoyed some sort of sexual activity, and all but forgotten the meal they’ve packed—no one, it seems, has touched the bread, cherries, or other fruit that falls out of the basket on the lower-left-hand side of the painting. 

What will happen when they return to Paris? Manet catches the quartet at a quiet moment before the pressures of society, propriety, and class once again constrict their lives. It’s no wonder that French writer Émile Zola was a major advocate of both Manet and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe—the novel nearly writes itself.”

Pablo Picasso, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe d’après Manet (Luncheon on the the Grass, After Manet), 1960 Musée Picasso Paris.

Even though we don’t know the exact point in history when the practice of art dealing began, we do know that by the Italian Renaissance (1300s-1600s), there were already vendors acting as middlemen between collectors and artists. Those origins can be traced to Giovanni Battista della Palla, who is said to have sold work by the greatest artists of his day to the king of France as mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists.  

Throughout much of the early history of art dealing, many artists didn’t expect to make a living solely by selling their artworks. For example, the 18th century French merchant Lazare Duvaux was one of the first reported artists to offer a mix of luxurious furniture, jewelry, sculptures, paintings, and ceramics to his wealthy clients. This created a parallel between artworks and luxurious home furnishings that continued well into the 19th century. Boston craftsman John Doggett, who opened his shop in 1810, was one of the first recorded art dealers in America to sell both paintings and frames. His gallery would go on to become one of the most important art galleries in America at the time, known as Williams and Everett. But, as was mentioned above, artworks were not the only thing in Doggett’s business plan. We can still see this happening in many of today’s galleries, where a mix of art and design objects are exhibited.

Illustration for Williams & Everett gallery, 1882. Image via Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The turning point in the relationship between artist and dealer can really be seen with the arrival of French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in the late 19th and early 20th century. He is considered to be one of the first modern art dealers to have supported his artists with monthly stipends and solo exhibitions. He first started with the painters of the Barbizon school, who would later come to be known as the “Impressionists”. This was a huge gamble for Durand-Ruel, as the Impressionists had been widely ignored and ridiculed in the art world for decades. But Durand-Ruel persisted in exhibiting their artworks in Paris, London, and New York, in the hopes of gaining recognition amongst elite buyers. Eventually he won the public’s eye for these kinds of artworks, and managed to make generous profits from selling the artwork.

Photograph of Paul Durand-Ruel in his gallery, about 1910 “Inventing Impressionism” at the National Gallery, London (2015)

From this point forward in the history of art dealing, we can now see a split between art dealers working to promote relatively unknown artists, and art dealers who prefer to sell works by well-established artists. This new split, focusing solely on well-established artists, came in the form of Joseph Duveen. In the early 20th century, Duveen exercised his excessively charming and exuberant salesman skills on his wealthy clientele by dramatically choking up a story about how he could not possibly part with the old master paintings he had recently acquired from some duke or count in Europe. He talked up the story about his wife’s deep attachment to the pieces, which was how he frequently got his clients to offer him even more money for the artwork. When Duveen was pleased with the offer price, he would accept in a sad tone and say that he would have to break the bad news to his wife about the painting later. Some of these wealthy clients that fell for his theatrical storytelling included Henry Clay Frick, William Randolph Hearst, J. P. Morgan, Henry E. Huntington, and John D. Rockefeller.

Portrait of art dealer Joseph Duveen by Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images.

While Duveen was making a lot of dough off of long-dead artists, two of his contemporaries in the early 20th century were working tirelessly to gain the attention of living artists – Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. It is with these two where we see the first instance of an art dealer buying large quantities of artworks from an artist, and then selling them for an astounding profit which he kept to himself. Kahnweiler worked in a similar manner to Vollard, but was more respected among artists, critics, and collectors; this was mostly due to the fact that he was also a well-respected art historian, and one of the first people to recognize the importance of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. At this point in the history of art dealing, Kahnweiler was one of the first reported art connoisseurs.

Portrait of Art Dealer Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939), Spring 1910. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Today, art dealing can be compared to the stock market in the way it operates. Those who can afford to purchase a Banksy for $200,000 will hold on to the piece for a few years, then sell it to make twice as much as what they paid for it. This unfortunately leaves a huge gap between the artist and art dealer, who eventually sells only to make a profit, often leaving the artists with no rights to the profits. This begs a question which many art historians have discussed – is the price tag solely connected to the impact of the artwork, or is it in the artist’s name itself?

Once again, LAAFA shined at the 108th Annual Gold Medal Exhibition held by the California Art Club. This year brought an array of diverse artworks as well as a handful of LAAFA affiliated artists – Rohini Sen, Nikita Budkov, Adam Matano, Andrea Mosley, Rodolfo Rivademar, and Leon Okun. This year, the CAC returns to the building of the former Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) for their 108th exhibition, and CAC members couldn’t feel more at home.

(Left to right) Nikita Budkov, Rohini Sen, and Leon Okun at the 108th Annual Gold Medal Exhibition Artists’ Gala Reception.

I myself had the pleasure to attend this year’s Artists’ Gala Reception, and it was an amazing experience witnessing all the talent around the gallery spaces. What I found most fascinating was the amount of hours of work each artist poured into their artworks, creating these amazing pieces of art that uphold the traditional qualities and craftsmanship.

Below is a gallery of images at the Artists Gala Reception for your viewing. As the month continues, I will be featuring LAAFA affiliated artists on our blog with their very own post!

 

CAC Educational Programs coming up:

 


The 108th Annual Gold Medal Exhibition will be exhibiting from March 3rd to March 29th at the former location of the Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E Union St, Pasadena, CA 91101. Museum is open from Wednesday through Sunday, 11am-5pm and admission is FREE. For more information, visit californiaartclub.org.

In the history of art, marble has always signified something we call “High Art.” Famous artists such as Michelangelo, Bernini, and Brâncusi masterfully used marble to create works of art that have literally made me cry in person (it was Michelangelo’s David (1501-4), if you must know). I was entranced by the beauty and smoothness of how the artist tried to replicate the human skin, very much like the ancient Greeks and Romans did. But nowadays, marble has acquired new degrading purposes, being used as kitchen counter-tops for the rich and famous, and as decorations for tacky Las Vegas hotel lobbies (looking at you, Caesars Palace).

Below I’d like to present three of my favorite artists that are smashing the expectations of what marble can be, whether it be with traditional techniques or CNC carving machines.

Milena Naef

Based in Mexico City, Milena is the latest of four generations to sculpt in stone, but her most recent practices in her art has taken this medium in new and “unorthodox” directions. As you can tell by the images, Milena carves out shapes into slabs of marble and inserts her body parts through the openings. She calls this series “Fleeting Parts,” and the effect is incredible – from the marble emerges soft, human skin reminiscent of the mythic stories of transformation, such as Pygmalion and Galatea. “The hardness of stone in general is an interesting characteristic to work with,” Naef said. “It demands time and patience, which stands in contrast to my fast-paced life. It’s a hard material that, at the same time, is very fragile.” Instead of mimicking flesh like past artists wanted to achieve, Milena’s work is blurring the line between what an artist can do between their material and their body, a subject and an object. But these artworks also serve as a marker for us humans, as a sort of memento mori – remember you will die, but stone will live forever.

Matthew Simmonds

Even though most of his sculptures stand at less than 2 feet tall, each are carved from a single block of marble and look as if they are remnants of ancient structures. In addition to appearing like existing structures, many of the designs are entirely invented by Simmonds! “I tend to work things out in measured plan, creating elevation drawings first, considering how [the carving] will interact with the natural shape of the stone. Usually, I don’t know exactly what a sculpture should look like when I begin, and during the working process, there are often several points where I can decide on a change in the design before a piece is finished.” As we can note, Simmonds has always been fascinated by ancient architecture, particularly those that served a sacred or religious purpose.

Nevine Mahmoud

Juicy and squishy aren’t the usual adjectives you’d use to describe what marble looks or feels like. Yet these sculptures by Nevine Mahmoud express all of the descriptions surrounding these delightful words. At first glance, her artworks seem to be pliable and soft, like Blue Doughnut (2017) for example, which looks like a puffy, delicious pastry. What we see Mahmoud doing is contradicting a long standing history of an ancient material by carving them into desirable shapes with an almost “Pop Art” sensibility. This is what drives her to create something delicate out of something so strong. “On the one hand, there is a relative force required to move the stone, break it, hollow it, shape it into the sculpture” Mahmoud says. “At the same time, one needs a minute-by-minute sensitivity in order to understand the limits of the rock in front of you—its unique fractures, curves, and hidden layers.”

 

Remember those Pee-Chee folders you’d stuff your math notes in? And how they usually depicted young high school students playing sports or doing other school related activities? I vaguely remember them, but I bet it brings back memories for many Americans who grew up in public school systems.

Original cover of a Pee-Chee portfolio.

These Pee-Chee folders were first produced in 1943 and immediately became a common American stationary item up until the early 2000’s. The illustrations were done by artist Francis Golden, who was best known for his watercolors of fishing and hunting. It is no secret that defacing these illustrations became popular among young adult students. It’s what they do best! But one artist is taking these classic illustrations and giving them a new socio-political context.

Patrick Martinez posing with his re-imagined Pee-Chee paintings. Photo by Liz Ohanesian.

Meet Patrick Martinez, a Los Angeles-based artist born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley with a diverse cultural background (Filipino, Mexican, and Native American). Through his artworks that span a wide variety of media (painting, neon, ceramic, and sculpture), Martinez colorfully examines otherwise everyday realities of suburban and urban life in L.A. with humor, sensitivity, and wit. Take for example his piece titled, The Most Violent Week in America (2016), an 8’x5′ piece that at a glance looks like the covers of the classic Pee-Chee folders, but when closely examined, you start to notice that the figures are involved in acts of violence.

The Most Violent Week in America, 2016

The Most Violent Week in America witnesses the most horrific events that took place in just one week in July of 2016. Starting on July 3rd, 19-year-old Pedro Villanueva was shot and killed by undercover CHP officers in Fullerton, who had followed the unarmed teenager from a street racing event to a dead-end street. Two days later, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 37-year-old CD vendor Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police officers. The following day in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castile, just shy of his 33rd birthday, was shot and killed by police officers during a traffic stop. The next day, Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

In the top left corner of the painting, you can see the portrait of Castile, who Martinez felt the need to commemorate above all else. In the top right corner, Villaneuva sits on the bed of a pick-up truck holding a guitar, as he did in a photo that accompanied news reporting of his death. Underneath that, Martinez recreated the image of Sterling shot by an officer. Along the bottom, he painted police scenes from Dallas.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Martinez, 2005.

Martinez has been documenting these instances of social violence in the U.S. since 2015, mostly depicting police brutality and death at the hands of police officers in Pee-Chee style paintings. But his first Pee-Chee piece was in the form of a screen print back in 2005, where he depicted cops chasing a person, pushing someone, and running with an armed gun. He showed this work from 2005-2007, then put the idea aside.

All American Class of 2016, courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles.

Pan to ten years after his first screen print, and we start to see how technology drastically changes the way news is reported and distributed. For the first time in history, people could use their cell phones to document any acts of police brutality, and upload photos and videos to sites like Youtube and other social networks. This allowed the general population to witness firsthand the violent and sometimes lethal force that has been used in cities across the country.

Po-lice Misconduct Misprint – Lost Colors Series (pink), 2016.

After the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Martinez says he felt compelled to revive the Pee-Chee concept. “I had reference now,” he explains. And as the news cycle continued to turn out stories of one tragic death after the next, Martinez continued to paint. “There was always content,” he says.

Rodney, 2016.

But Martinez also looked to the past for inspiration. In “Nine Deuce,” he recalls the beating of Rodney King and subsequent uprising in Los Angeles, using Lakers shades of purple and gold. In “Vintage Throwback Po-Lice,” he pays tribute to Ruben Salazar, the Mexican-American journalist who was killed inside an East Los Angeles bar when he was hit by a tear gas canister on the day of the Chicano Moratorium march in 1970.

Ruben Salazar, 2016.

Martinez plans to continue making more of these “time stamps,” as he describes them, “It’s just something to record history and present it in a creative way.” And in addition to recording history, Martinez adds that it is also a way to preserve the memory of those whose lives were cut short. “I want to represent everybody and have their story at least be acknowledged,” he says. “That’s why I’m doing a lot of them.”

Photo courtesy of Patrick Martinez.

Po-lice Misconduct Misprint – Lost Colors Series (natural blue), 2016.

Po-lice Misconduct Misprint – Lost Colors Series (natural yellow), 2016.

Po-lice Misconduct Misprint – Lost Colors Series (turquoise), 2016.

The “valley girl,” like the Valley itself, cannot be contained in a stereotype. However, it can be argued that any Valley Girl’s sense of self has been informed by the cinematic ideal imposed on them. In fact, with little effort one can see that the “valley girl” has left an indelible mark on the global identity of womanhood while only representing a small minority. This exhibition endeavors to look past the myopic lens of popular culture that created the “valley girl” and delve into the true identities and diversity of Women in the Valley through the contemporary artwork they produce.

Monica Sandoval

A new exhibit at the Brand Library and Art Center has been causing quite a buzz in the L.A. Art scene. This exhibit includes artists such as the famous Judy Baca, Rachel Apthorp, and Christina Ramos.

Ever since the 1983 film, the stereotype of a valley girl has been pretty distinguishable. For example, saying “like” after every other word and being noticeably white while doing so. But in this exhibit, you learn that it is not all about that. It gives you a glimpse at the many diverse stories that these contemporary artists have to tell, from growing up in the barrios of the valley, to making a place your new home.

Triptych: Las Tres Marias by Judy Baca

One of the special highlighted pieces in the exhibit is the 1975 portraits of Judy Baca by filmmaker Donna Deitch. In these, Judy projects the Pachuca character that she so feared from her childhood growing up in Pacoima. “Walking with their arms linked in full makeup, ‘ratted hair’ and ‘raccoon eyes’, the girls commanded the streets and the school yard of Pacoima Junior High School where I went to school.” She mentions whenever people saw them, they would step aside because they represented the image of powerful, dangerous women, which she so much aspired to be. The reason she chose these pieces was because the “Pachuca” is a woman of color from Pacoima, who is the counter narrative to the “Valley Girl”.

Christina Ramos

Another series of paintings that you’ll find within the exhibit are the paintings by our very own Acrylics instructor, Christina Ramos. In her artist statement, she talks about her experience growing up in Sunland. “I was surrounded by horses and other livestock,” she mentions, “I think people always associate the Valley with the city of suburbs, when in fact there is a lot more rural areas on the outskirts of the town.” In the painting above, her daughter and her chicken, Frida, can be seen painted in profile, mirroring the master painting Whistler’s Mother (1871) by James Whistler, which hangs on the wall in the background.

Rachel Apthorp

You can catch this exhibition running from January 26 – March 22, 2019 at the Brand Library & Art Center, 1601 W Mountain St, Glendale, CA 91201. There is also a Pop Up ZINE Newsstand curated by San Fernando Valley Zine Fest, featuring over 30 zines with Valley-centric, female-centric, and intersectional content.

 

 

Judging by the title, you might begin to wonder what kind of pigments could possibly be defined as rare? Let me introduce you to the Forbes Pigment Collection that is housed under the greater umbrella of the Harvard Art Museum.

 

The collection began in the early 20th century, started by Edward Waldo Forbes, director of the Fogg Art Museum from 1909 to 1944. Forbes’ fascination with painting’s colors and their binding medium fueled his desire to use science to understand and study great works of art. He is often cited as the father of the field of art conservation in the U.S.

By the 1920s, Forbes had amassed many containers of deep blues, rich purples, vibrant yellows, and myriad other colors from his travels to Europe and the Far East. Through the years, word of mouth helped the collection to grow as other art lovers and experts donated their own pigments. The museum’s collection, which is still continually being added to, now contains more than 2,500 samples. For years, the pigments have helped art experts to research and authenticate paintings. Samples from the collection have been sent to the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Library of Congress, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of New Delhi, India, etc.

So what are some of the rarest pigments? Conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar says his personal favorite is a big lump of Indian Yellow from as early as the 16th century, which was made from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves. It was banned by the British government in the early 20th century on the grounds that its production constituted animal cruelty.

Among others is the rarest of them all — Mummy Brown. What is it made out of? It’s in the title! It’s a pigment produced by grinding up the flesh of Egyptian mummies, a practice that also appeared as early as the 16th century. The production continued until the 1960s when the supply of embalmed bodies finally petered out. While historical records confirm that artists purchased this paint, Khandekar says researchers have yet to find an artwork with the pigment present; however a life-size portrait of King Philip III of Spain by 17th-century court artist Pantoja de la Cruz lists Mummy Brown among his supplies. If accurate, this portrait will be the first to confirm the use of pigment.

Tyrian purple is another rare one. It was an ancient Phoenician dye that required 10,000 mollusks to produce a single gram of pigment and is said to have been discovered by Hercules’s dog as he snuffed along the beach.

The collection is still growing to this day as conservation students research newly manufactured pigments. Forbes’ pigments are a window to the past, shedding light on the working methods and preferred materials of renowned artists. But it still makes me wonder if there are even rarer pigments than what Khandekar is highlighting. Any guesses?