Art in the Age of Wood

There's a massive wooden structure over the entryway to a building at the L.A. County Museum of Art. It is composed of what appear to be thin strips of overlapping pine held up by 2-by-4s bolted to an interlocking substructure.

When I asked a woman at the information booth what the scaffolding was for, she said, "That isn't scaffolding, that's primal spirit Japanese art."

"Oh," I said. "And that concrete thing attached to it. Is that primal spirit Japanese concrete?"

"That's a walkway," she said.

"A walkway," I said thoughtfully. "It has potential."

I felt a tugging at my arm. It was Cinelli, pulling me away.

"Just leave everyone alone," she said, sighing. "You know that's art, you know that's a walkway, you know that's a building. Stay civil and I'll buy you a taco and a martini later."

Sunday. We had come to the museum not to tease the docents but to view the sculptures of Rodin. Well, Cinelli had come to view the sculptures of Rodin. I had come to see what was new, if anything, in artistic obscenity.

I am sorry to say that the museum is relatively free of moral filth, except for the woman kissing the guy on the stomach and the fat lady doing a kind of dirty boogie in the (gasp) Times Mirror Central Court.

L.A. is falling behind again when it comes to human degradation.

But first, wooden art of the primal spirit.

I want to say at the outset that I like the Japanese. I forgive them for World War II and all that.

They are a smart, industrious people who, rumor has it, continue to be low bidders on the Statue of Liberty and just a yen away from acquiring a controlling interest in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But when it comes to art, they are better at making cars, compact disc players and sashimi. One so-called masterpiece, for instance, is a stack of kindling torn from fish crates, fences, flooring, chairs and kitchen cupboards. I even thought I saw a wooden leg in the pile.

Another is a circle of rocks. Period. Kids make things like that without thinking and Satanists slap them together to sacrifice dogs in. We used to make circles of rocks around flagpoles in the Marine Corps and paint them white. We called them a lot of things, but never art.

"If you read the program," Cinelli said, "you would know these works reflect each artist's attempt to engage the forces and cycles in nature. It's right here on Page 2."

"I don't have to read Page 2 to know it's a put-on," I said, "like the guy who wrapped Utah in plastic and called it art."

"That was Christo and he didn't wrap Utah. He wrapped a building and maybe a mountain or two."

"What's going to happen," I said, "is that any day now, while we are distracted by their wood piles, the Japanese are going to go after Pearl Harbor again. This time they're going to buy it."

She shook her head. "Move on, Blithe Spirit of the Metro Page."

"They'll probably buy that too. Someday, I'll be working for Toshikatsu Kuniyami."

Rodin is something else. His bronze sculptures gleam under the lights of the Ahmanson Building, celebrating the glory of the human form.

Cinelli saw me write that sentence in my notes and said, "You've always been able to understand nudes."

"The outstretched arms and head-back glory of 'Prodigal Son,' " I said, "is not nudity. It's art."

"What about the woman kissing the man on the stomach?"

"I like her attitude."

"I'm not asking that. I'm trying to get to your method of evaluating what you consider art and what you consider wood piles."

"If I like it, it's art. If I don't like it, it's chopped liver."

"What about the Reagan toilet seat. You think that's art?"

I bought it at a yard sale. You lift the lid and there's a painting of Our Former President, the actor.

"That's Americana," I replied, not knowing exactly what I meant. Not knowing exactly what you mean is also art.

Then we viewed the works of Monet and Cezanne, Van Gogh and Pissarro, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

"Not bad," I said.

"Not bad?"

"I like them."

"The curator will be pleased to know that."

Later, we listened to the terrific big band music of Bob Florence in the central courtyard. They did a jazz rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" that blew me back to a rainy night in San Francisco.

A fat lady in the audience danced to the last tune, and after that we left. Cinelli bought me a martini at Kate Mantilini's. It was nice, but it wasn't art. Next time I'll paint my own.

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