For the last couple of months, friends and colleagues returning from New York kept raving about one particular exhibition, the one at the Metropolitan Museum, Savage Beauty, devoted to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. These friends and colleagues of mine are not particularly fashionistas. What they responded to was the imaginative, highly theatrical presentation of the works of this immensely talented designer. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to New York to see the show, but even just looking at the installation shots, I felt the temperature in the room rising at least ten degrees. It's simply... fabulous. And God knows, that's not a word I use often, if ever. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that this turned out to be one of the best attended exhibitions in the history of the Met, with a record crowd of well over half a million visitors.
Another big success this year was the exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, devoted to the works of Balenciaga, the uniquely talented Spanish designer who revolutionized fashion. Cecil Beaton famously called him "fashion's Picasso." Once again, looking at the installation shots of the exhibition, it's impossible not to be seduced by the sheer theatricality of the presentation.
A few months ago, we, in Los Angeles, had our own good fashion show at LACMA, presented with panache and imagination and devoted to the history of European fashion. I find it slightly disappointing that LACMA hasn't managed to bring either the New York or San Francisco fashion show to L.A. Wouldn't it be great to see Alexander McQueen going mano a mano with Tim Burton?
But wait a moment. At least one good museum show has traveled all the way from New York to L.A. I'm talking about Houdini: Art and Magic, the exhibition which tells the story of a rabbi's son who became a world famous magician. Last year, around Christmas, I saw it at the Jewish Museum in New York and was amused by the presentation. Now it's on display here at the Skirball Cultural Center, where it casts a spell over visitors with its portrayal of Harry Houdini (1874-1926), the magician, escape artist and showman extraordinaire.
And talking about showmanship, big time showmanship: Santa Monica Museum of Art once again invited painter Stephen Keene to exhibit his particular brand of theatrics and exhibitionism. Starting Monday and going all the way through Saturday, Keene is mass-producing hundreds of small paintings on plywood. Visitors are welcome to observe him during this heroic labor of love. All the paintings are for sale for literally just a few bucks, with proceeds benefiting the museum.
It's easy to be cynical about this whole enterprise, but, truth be told, ten years ago, when Keene had a similar exhibition at this museum, I actually bought one of his paintings. It cost only $15, and I was not all that serious about the purchase. However, ten years later, this small, funny painting by Keene still hangs on the wall in my living room, surrounded by more "serious" artworks but, nevertheless, holding its own surprisingly well.
Houdini: Art and Magic on view at the Skirball Cultural Center through September 4. Art Marathon by Stephen Keene at Santa Monica Museum of Art, August 8-13.To see images discussed in Art Talk, go to KCRW.com/ArtTalk.
Banner image: Balenciaga and Spain at de Young Museum in San Francisco, 2011, Installation view. Courtesy of the de Young Museum.