A new one-room permanent collection installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on view for the rest of 2013, raises provocative questions in skillfully astute ways. The subject is 19th century American landscape art, and the artists range from the relatively obscure to the celebrated -- Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, George Inness, John F. Kensett, Winslow Homer and more.
The west wall has a spare lineup of all five LACMA paintings that show the American West, hung to create a continuous horizon line. The east wall is entirely covered, floor to ceiling and corner to corner, by a salon-style installation of 25 of its East Coast views, installed chronologically. (LACMA owns a few more of these, but they are away in a touring show.)
The face-off is stark between Eastern profusion and Western scarcity, the East Coast as unfolding history and the West as an elusive border.
Partly the numbers reflect 19th century population-densities. Partly they show where working artists were clustered. And partly they represent patterns of private and public art collecting -- of where concepts of “museum quality” have put historic emphasis in acquiring art.
Those notions of population, labor and value are of course fluid and contested rather than eternal and fixed. The show suggests that in a witty way. Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece “The Wrestlers,” which shows two white men grappling on the floor for dominance, hangs in splendid isolation between east and west on the room’s north wall.
By implication, a new century likewise hangs in the balance. Look across the room to see how.
Directly opposite on the south wall is the small oil study for the 1899 Eakins wrestler painting, which LACMA also owns. It’s flanked by a representative sample from the museum’s collection of 19th century American landscape photographs, including prints by Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins and others. Eakins was a dedicated photographer as well as painter, and he used camera images to develop his paintings’ compositions.
Six photographs show Eastern landscapes, while 24 depict the West. That’s a nearly exact reversal of the numbers in the two walls of paintings.
These flip-flop ratios demonstrate how old and new landscapes are identified with old and new technologies of image-making -- unique paint on canvas versus multiple photographs on paper. Paintings are “back there,” photographs are “out here.”
Watkins, a photographer rather than a painter, ranks as California’s first great artist, while Los Angeles is the first great city substantially created by cameras.
Former LACMA curator Austen Bailly and José Luis Blondet, the museum’s curator of special initiatives, have anchored their smartly thought-out installation with a 19th century surveyor’s compass, borrowed from the Autry National Center of the American West. The elegant brass apparatus is set atop a stand in the center of the room, creating a land-surveyor’s axis around which all the pictures revolve.
The salon hanging makes it difficult to scrutinize individual paintings and photographs up near the ceiling or down near the floor, so this isn’t an installation one would want to be permanent.
Yet the show cleverly navigates a dense landscape of revealing artistic and institutional propositions. Through sharp selection and temporary display of objects and images -- and with very little text -- we get a fascinating one-room schoolhouse.
“Compass for Surveyors: Nineteenth-Century American Landscapes from LACMA’s Painting and Photography Collections” remains on view through Dec. 31. www.lacma.org