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INTERACTIVE: It Speaks to me

Artists discuss a work from local museums and explain why it means something to him or her.

In this series staff writer Jori Finkel asks a local artist to discuss an artwork from a local museum. Since the series began in 2010, more than two dozen artists have participated in this conversation.

Click on the images below for a sampling of their picks.

John Baldessari on Rene Magritte's 'The Treachery of Images' at LACMA
Lari Pittman on Henri Matisse's 'The Black Shawl' at the Norton Simon
Sam Durant on a Cold War poster at the Wende
Billy Al Bengston on Calder's 'Hello Girls' at LACMA
Monique Prieto on John Altoon
Suzanne Lacy on Andrea Bowers'
Eleanor Antin on Fragonard's 'Blindman's Bluff' at the Timken
William Leavitt on James Rosenquist's 'Waves' at MOCA
Alison Saar on Hermann Scherer's 'Sleeping Woman With Boy' at LACMA
It Speaks to Me: Mark Bradford on Mark Rothko's 'No. 61 (Rust and Blue)' at MOCA
Bill Viola on Dieric Bouts' 'The Annunciation' at the Getty Museum

It speaks to me

Lari Pittman on Henri Matisse's 'The Black Shawl' at the Norton Simon

This painting has a physical muscularity that we don't always associate with Matisse. There's a perception of his work as a type of "lite" decoration, but here -- as in the recent MOMA show -- he is a rather ruthless painter.

Look at the lace, which a Dutch Master would have approached very differently. Matisse almost claws at the lace -- he drags and stabs the brush. There's a roughness to the surface that contradicts the traditional bourgeois subject.

I think the painting feels very contemporary, with the figure serving as an armature for color, pattern, texture, movement, transparency, opacity. For me the painting is not about the woman but about that tornado of a dress. I probably visit it three times a year.

— Lari Pittman, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Henri Matisse's "The Black Shawl (Lorette VII)," 1918; Oil on canvas. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It speaks to me

Billy Al Bengston on Calder's 'Hello Girls' at LACMA

Calder was extremely gifted, and if you look at all of his art, I'm not sure he didn't discover and invent modern art -- forget about Duchamp.

Still to this day, I don't think anybody completely understands his ability to capture and control space: the big stabiles, the big mobiles, the little teeny-weeny ones, hand-sized. I'm fascinated by everything he does because he seems to do it all with such ease, and nobody has ever made dumber shapes than that. He's just brave. It's sort of like Philip Guston, who is a flat-footed painter, and you wonder why he does silly stuff like cigar smokers. This work is a group of three mobiles built into a pond near the Japanese Pavilion — you can go up on a knoll and walk around it. It's not like going to look at a painting where you've got 20 spotlights 30 feet up in the air burning holes in the wall. ["Hello Girls"] is in situ, natural lighting. It will move with the wind. It will change color with the light, whether it's a gray depressing day or a sunny day. This is a very unusual thing and something I try to emulate myself — I think art should change with the light.

— Billy Al Bengston, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Alexander Calder's "Hello Girls," 1964, Painted metal. Alexander Calder Estate/Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy 2011 Museum Association/LACMA.

It speaks to me

Monique Prieto on John Altoon's 'Ocean Park Series #8' at the Norton Simon

This painting has a great, long approach so you see it from a distance at first, like you're viewing a moment in a film. And its forms are very large, unlike anything else in the room. The shapes are like hieroglyphics: they seem to be representing something, but it's not clear what.

Then you read the title, and you realize it is a landscape but one that's untethered, where all the elements are floating. That's the real fun of it: Altoon gives us a sky and dirty fog over ocean with a weird ice plant or cactus greenery in the sand. It's a strange sort of landscape, but familiar to me because I grew up here in Los Angeles and was born in 1962, the year it was made. I perceive a temperature in the magenta that comes up from behind the forms -- like hot-white L.A. air. He has somehow nailed down something very ephemeral and fleeting, and that's beautiful. He was clearly aware of the New York Abstract Expressionists but this is a West Coast sybaritic form, less puritanical. I think he really enjoyed the sun on his skin.

— Monique Prieto, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Ocean Park Series #8, 1962, by John Altoon, 81-1/2 x 84 in.Norton Simon Museum. © 2011 Estate of John Altoon, Braunstein/Quay Gallery.

It speaks to me

Suzanne Lacy on Andrea Bowers' 'Nonviolent Civil Disobedience..." at the Hammer Museum

Elvira Arellano was an immigrant whose son, a U.S. citizen, was born in this country. After years here she faced deportation because she was not do — video and drawings — around Elvira, exploring one of the most contentious debates in the United States: immigration reform.

On this large sheet of paper is an incredibly labor-intensive pencil drawing -- a seductive image that draws you in. You wonder: Is this a drawing or a photograph? The large white space and the size and placement of the figure draw us close, to see her humanity and strength in spite of overwhelming social forces. Bowers uses white space and the seductiveness of her craft to engage our imagination, to question our beliefs.

I see this as an eloquent plea to pay attention and confront the reality of immigration.

— Suzanne Lacy, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: detail from Andrea Bowers' Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Drawing--Elvira Arellano in Sanctuary at Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago as Protest Against Deportation, 2007, 2007 Colored pencil on paper, 30" x 22 1/4" paper size. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter; Photo by Robert Wedemeyer. Collection of Hammer Museum.

It speaks to me

Eleanor Antin on Fragonard's 'Blindman's Bluff' at the Timken Museum in San Diego

This Fragonard canvas isn't much larger than a sheet of typing paper. It shows a pastel-colored company of elegant ladies and gentlemen in a garden landscape, overhung by a blue-gray mist that either predicts a lowering storm or is simply the underpainting. The game of blindman's bluff has been interrupted. No one is paying attention to the "blindman," who waits under a parasol in his blindfold while everyone, including a marble statue, is looking out to the left toward something we cannot see, something that is either coming or leaving.

But every coming is also a leaving, as every leaving is also a coming. Is it the dark cloud of 1789 coming or the twilit glow of the ancien regime leaving? The painting is a puzzle without a solution that reminds me of my own "Last Days of Pompeii" photographs. Is the postmodern rococo or is the rococo postmodern?

— Eleanor Antin, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Jean-Honoré Fragonard's Blindman's Bluff (Le Colin-Maillard), circa 1775-80, oil on canvas. The Putnam Foundation Collection, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego.

It speaks to me

William Leavitt on James Rosenquist's 'Waves' at MOCA

I 've been going to MOCA often for my show, and this painting of a Cyclops-like head caught my attention. What Rosenquist is doing here on one level is pretty obvious: a guy is in an embrace with a woman, and he's thinking about her skirt.

But she's not shown, only her hands. And instead of a thought bubble, it's a thought rectangle -- not above his head, but in his head. Also, he's represented only in pink, the color of lipstick, while her green skirt and creamy legs are in full color in the screen of his mind. This twangy color relationship contributes to the mood of unease in the painting. Plus, when you get up close and see that the "waves" are made of bailing twine threaded through the canvas, it adds to the feeling of tension.

— William Leavitt, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: James Rosenquist's Waves, 1962, Oil on canvas, 56 x 77 in; Art © James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, from the Panza Collection.

It speaks to me

Alison Saar on Hermann Scherer's 'Sleeping Woman With Boy' at LACMA

This piece, part of the Expressionist collection at LACMA, was pivotal early on in my choice to become a sculptor, giving me the freedom not to be overly concerned with realism and technique.

Initially the work seems ghoulish -- the coloring, the contortion of the figures, the mother's arm, which is twisted up in such a way it looks broken. Her neck looks broken too. The piece feels very pained, until you think of the artist working within the confines of the original wood log. I love that the sculpture reflects its genesis -- the shape of the log, the mark of the chisels.

Now that I'm a mother, I also think of times when you are so dead tired, you grab your kid and you fall asleep together. In that respect I see the work as less painful and more peaceful.

— Alison Saar, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Hermann A. Scherer's "Sleeping Woman with Boy," 1926; painted wood. Gift of Anna Bing Arnold. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It speaks to me

Mark Bradford on Mark Rothko's 'No. 61 (Rust and Blue)' at MOCA

I had a print of this painting in my room when I was a teenager. I used to stare at it at night going to sleep. I think my mother bought it to give the room a splash of color. I didn't know the whole Rothko mythology then: the romantic/modernist tormented painter who committed suicide. I didn't know his role in the New York scene of the 1950s. And I wasn't seduced by the spirituality, what I later saw in the Rothko Chapel.

But I remember looking at it and thinking I wanted to do that; I wanted to make surfaces. Later on, after reading about his work and Abstract Expressionism, I remember looking at the painting and feeling nullified by it — how much is not there, no women and no people of color. So it's perplexing. I don't buy the romanticism or the idea of channeling an inner life right onto the surface. But I am an abstract painter. I never went through a figurative moment, even as a child.

— Mark Bradford, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Mark Rothko's "No. 61 (Rust and Blue)" [Brown Blue, Brown on Blue], 1953, oil on canvas. Credit: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Panza Collection, © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It speaks to me

Bill Viola on Dieric Bouts' 'The Annunciation' at the Getty Museum

This is one of my favorite paintings in the Getty and in the world. It's austere and subdued, both in terms of the figures in it and the light and shadow of the empty room. It's almost Zen-like.

There's an incredible blood-red curtain in the back — I get goose bumps whenever I see it.The scene is internalized in a powerful way. Think of that beautiful Fra Angelico of 'The Annunciation' in San Marco in Florence, where Gabriel is walking onto the veranda and Mary is looking right at him. But here the communication is happening the way all sacred conversations happen, without eye contact and without dialogue. This stillness is what attracts me.

And the subject is probably the most profound in human existence: the moment when a woman knows she's pregnant. That's when you go beyond Mary, Jesus and the Christian iconography and enter the universal language of mankind. This painting represents something universal and essential for our existence. Like Rumi said: "Woman is a ray of God, she is not that earthly beloved; she is creative, not created."

— Bill Viola, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Dieric Bouts' "The Annunciation," from about 1450-55; courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum.

It speaks to me

John Baldessari on Rene Magritte's 'The Treachery of Images' at LACMA

This is not a great painting. I would call it an illustration, and like Norman Rockwell images, it looks better in reproduction. But it's a great lesson of a painting. I've always felt that a word and image are of equal value, and that's certainly what this painting is about.

I think about my own piece in the LACMA collection, "Wrong," also a balance of visual and verbal information. It's the image where I'm standing in front of the palm tree and there's just one word below: WRONG. Kodak used to have a printing guide of common picture-taking mistakes. One of the things it said is don't stand in front of a tree, it would look like the tree is growing out of your head.

Now I don't know if kids today know what a pipe is, besides something you smoke dope in, and Magritte's pipe is certainly not one of those. It would be more au courant to say this is not a cigarette, maybe. Or it could be a doorknob, a glass, a coffee cup, anything really. Last night I was having dinner with an artist friend of mine and he said Magritte had a pipe in the shape of a shoe. If that was the case, and he painted that, then people would really get confused.

— Artist John Baldessari , as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: Tony Conrad, Yellow Movie 2/27-28/73, 1973. Emulsion: Citron tinted low lustre enamel, Speedflex Latex Colorizer, Brooklyn Paint & Varnish Co. Base: Studio white seamless paper. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

It speaks to me

Sam Durant on a 1953 Cold War poster at the Wende Museum in Culver City

This Soviet propaganda poster from 1953 depicts an American child looking at a sign that says "school closed." It shows America as a sort of crumbling, Third World-looking country, very dark and ominous — probably close to the way we thought of Russia at the time.

The poster says that the USA spends 1% of its budget on education and 74% on the military, and more than 10 million people here are illiterate. So this is something of an exaggeration. But I'm interested in it because of what's going on right now in the U.S. with the defunding of public education and the vilification of unionized schoolteachers. As a child of public education when it was maybe at its strongest point in the '60s and early '70s, what's happening today really angers me.

I'm not planning on using this particular piece in my own work, but after doing a show and book with Emory Douglas, the Black Panther artist, I've had a keen interest in political propaganda and its relationship to culture. And I'm interested in the transitional historic moment that the Wende Museum represents. It's dedicated to the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989 and has all types of material culture from East Germany and the Soviet Union -- everything from chunks of the Berlin Wall to paintings. It also has a huge collection of surveillance equipment, which is fascinating.

— Artist Sam Durant, as told to @JoriFinkel.

Image: K. Ivanov and V. Briskin's Soviet Union poster: "In the U.S.A." from 1953. Courtesy the Wende Museum in Culver City, open by appointment Monday through Thursday and without appointment 10am-5pm on Friday.

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