José Clemente Orozco was one of 20th century Mexico’s great socially minded muralists. A stark 1929 easel painting made at the dawn of the Great Depression helps to show how. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought the modestly sized tempera and oil painting last year -- its first painting by the artist -- and today it hangs on the fourth floor of the Art of the Americas building.
The museum raised money to make the purchase by selling other works from its encyclopedic art collection, a practice formally known as deaccessioning. These days, no museum topic is more fraught with potential land mines than deaccessioning. Public firestorms in recent years and months have engulfed institutions in Tennessee, Virginia, Iowa, New York (upstate and Manhattan), Massachusetts and elsewhere.
That’s really no surprise. Building a collection is why an art museum exists, so removing any work strikes at the mission’s core.
But it’s also a shame. Deaccessioning to improve a collection’s quality and scope is a critical part of American museum work. It’s called the permanent collection, but permanent doesn’t mean dead. Unlike in Europe, where many art museums are government treasure houses and nothing is sold, American museum collections are living organisms. They take shape over time.
Indeed, it’s actually a routine feature of prudent museum management. When done with care and skill, deaccessioning benefits current and future generations of museum-goers. Consider the small but telling Orozco at LACMA, one of 43 Latin American works bought in the last four years with funds raised by selling other art.
Painted in New York around the time of the 1929 stock market crash, the nighttime scene shoves the sharp corner of a tenement building squarely into a viewer’s face. It has the blunt force of an ax-head slicing through a city block. Grids on windows make the tenement prison-like; the zigzag fire escape seems as much a jagged threat as a route to safety. Two hunched silhouettes lumber away from each other in the night, urbanites silent and alone. Harshness and alienation characterize Orozco’s vision of the city, an omnipotent symbol of modern life.
The dour painting is a modest but fine example of the work Orozco made in Manhattan during his U.S. sojourn from 1927 to 1934. It also resonates for Los Angeles because it just predates Orozco’s fiery and tumultuous 1930 mural, “Prometheus,” painted on a wall at Pomona College in Claremont.
Prometheus, the ancient Greek titan, was the thief of fire -- the “means of life,” in the poet Hesiod’s memorable phrase -- caught and eternally punished by Zeus for stealing the secret from Mt. Olympus. Power will exact revenge, the ancient myth suggests, even in retaliation for actions necessary to survival.
A landmark, Orozco’s “Prometheus” is the first work of the Mexican mural movement executed in the U.S. In the darkening hours of the Great Depression, its monumental image of endless struggle is a defiant public shriek. And that cry is being made against the more private human brutalities symbolized in the easel painting from the year before.
The label next to LACMA’s painting says, “Purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund.” It was an excellent exchange.
The museum acquired the Lewin collection with great fanfare 12 years ago. At the time, one of its treasures was said to be an Orozco painting of revolutionary Mexicans moving through a landscape marked by buzz-saw-shaped agave.
Not long after, though, and no doubt to the donors’ chagrin, that picture was determined to be a fake. The 1929 painting “Street Corner (Brick Building)” replaces it. In one swoop, LACMA’s collection was improved, our understanding of a major artistic monument in the region expanded and the donors’ original advocacy for Latin American art was bolstered.
That is smart deaccessioning.
Happily, it has been repeated many times since 2005, when LACMA made its first purchase with Lewin deaccession funds. Forty-three acquisitions, with more to come, span Colonial, Modern and contemporary Latin American art.
The late couple made their fortune with furniture stores in the San Fernando Valley and Glendale, but they also operated galleries specializing in Modern Mexican art. Some 4,000 paintings, drawings and prints were in their LACMA gift, reportedly valued at around $25 million, for which the museum paid the couple an undisclosed annuity until their deaths.
The art’s quality was mixed, as a modest 1997 LACMA “best of” exhibition showed. An art dealer’s inventory is rarely a coherent collection, least of all for a museum. Knowing that, LACMA staff worked with the donors in managing the gift to make it possible to maximize their personal enthusiasm for Latin American art in a publicly beneficial way, without making a fetish of every individual work in the bequest.
According to a museum spokesman, the primary restriction on the gift was that nothing could be sold during the donors’ lifetimes, without written permission. In fact no deaccessions were made until November 2004, after both were deceased.
The Lewins are also said to have approved of expanding the scope beyond modern Mexico to all of Latin America in the 500 years following the European conquest -- Colonial, Modernist and contemporary art. Ilona Katzew, a curator who specializes in that field, was added to the museum staff. The 43 new acquisitions cannot fully encompass so vast a territory; but in tandem with additional gifts from individuals and foundations, the purchases made so far have utterly transformed LACMA’s Latin American holdings.
The first purchase was an extraordinary four-panel Mexican painting (two more panels are long missing), dating from around 1690 and made by an unidentified artist. Painted on a folding screen, typical of Japan and China but largely unheard of in the West, it embodies the profound Asian influence in Colonial-era Mexico -- a trading crossroads for Spain’s far-flung empire in the Philippines.
The densely populated genre scene shows an Indian celebration in a village just outside Mexico City. Dancers perform in an Aztec style before an enthusiastic crowd. An entertainer juggles a wooden log with his feet. Men tethered by ropes at the ankles whirl around a tall “flying pole” -- a sort of Maypole for aerial daredevils. At the right, a flower-bedecked bride and groom emerge from a lavishly decorated church -- evidence to a client for the screen back in Spain that, amid all the Indian festivities, the New World was embracing Christian sacraments.
Light-years away -- but maybe not so far, surprisingly enough -- is Wifredo Lam’s superlative 1947 painting, “Tropic.” The smoky gray-green canvas by the gifted Afro-Chinese-Cuban painter seems to resonate with the cross-cultural, late-17th century Mexican folding screen. Fusing carefully structured Cubist space with wildly Surrealist improbability, Lam’s dense cast of fantastic figures -- part animal, part human and part vegetable -- darts in and out of view like ancient spirits lurking in a modern world.
Themes run through it
So does an 18th century painted and gilded Peruvian sculpture of the Virgin and Child, which employs alabaster to imitate the more precious ivory carvings being imported from Asia. An early 18th century painting of San Bernardino de Siena performing miracles is by the major Colonial painter José de Ibarra. Painter Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz based six late-18th century landscape views on engravings of paintings of a port in Southwestern France by Claude-Joseph Vernet, now in the Louvre.
Francis Alÿs, a Belgian expatriate to Mexico, merges politics and poetry in a 2007 video installation. So does Spanish expatriate sculptor Pedro Xuárez de Mayorga in a mid-16th century masterpiece of ritual decoration -- a rare and elaborate Guatemalan gilt-silver altar cross.
There’s much more. The Lewins’ best and most important works, including paintings by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, are gaining richer context.
LACMA’s example shows that the recent deaccession scandals churning the news are not about the probity of selling museum art. (Calls for “no deaccessioning, ever,” are a fringe view.) The real conflict is over the quality of what is being sold and how the income is spent.
When a cash-strapped institution sells major art to raise operating funds -- as most of the recent, truly awful examples have proposed (or even done) -- the world turns up- side down. Professional standards prohibit it because museums exist to support art, not the other way around.
Given all the recent hollering, though, deaccessioning can seem like a drastic measure that can come to no good. LACMA’s inspired transformation of the Lewin collection shows that nothing could be further from the truth.