'This is something I really enjoy, because it allows me to work with Modern and contemporary art, and I love all of it," says Carol Eliel, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Most curators tend to focus on one or the other, so I guess I am an unusual bird."
This unusual bird has flown far and wide in the 13 years that she has been working in the museum's Department of Modern and Contemporary Art on exhibitions as varied as "Degas to Picasso: Modern Masters From the Smooke Collection" in 1987 to the critically acclaimed survey of works by contemporary French artist Annette Messager in 1995. Aspects of both undertakings can be seen in her most recent exhibition, "From Head to Toe: Concepts of the Body in Twentieth Century Art," a selection of works from LACMA's permanent collection, on view through April 27 at the museum.
The wide-ranging show includes works by Cubists, Conceptual artists and some who are locally based. "I think the show relates to my eclectic interests as an art historian in that it is not a show that focuses very narrowly on one part of the century or on one medium," says Eliel. "I've done exhibitions on everything from early Modern art to very contemporary art. So I have very eclectic tastes, and this is a beautiful way to accommodate those tastes."
The exhibition is pioneering in another way. It is one of the first to draw from the collections of many different departments at the museum--photography, prints and drawings, decorative arts, costumes and textiles, as well as 20th century painting and sculpture--in service of a larger analysis of the ways in which Modern and contemporary artists have conceived the body.
A petite woman of 43, with short chestnut hair and large blue eyes, Eliel admits that the museum has never before undertaken an interdepartmental collaboration of this scale--57 works are included in the show. Standing in a partially installed exhibition gallery, with the deafening sounds of preparators' hammer blows in the background, she calmly says, "I think it tells us that the museum has broad holdings. The permanent collection tends, in the normal course of events, to be installed by department, each in its own galleries. This was a nice way to integrate things in ways that they are not normally seen. It was more interesting and more fun.
"It's also a way for us to toot our own horn a little bit and show the community what we have," she adds. "People come and see the temporary exhibitions but may not spend as much time with the permanent collection. Ultimately, museums are as great as their collections. This is the backbone.
"We were thinking of issues that 20th century artists have faced and at the moment, the body is at the forefront," Eliel says to explain how the topic for the show came about. "We were looking at ways that we could use our collection more. I had to sit down with my colleagues and ask for their suggestions of what would work from their departments."
As a result, the exhibition juxtaposes a photograph of a female nude by Edward Weston with Picasso's drawing of a face composed of lines and planes. L.A.-based artist Jim Shaw's computer-generated self-portrait is morphed into Cubistic shards. Brightly colored prints from Matisse's 1947 book "Jazz" show the shape of the body alongside the shape of a vase.
Eliel hopes that visitors will be pleasantly surprised by such unexpected visual collisions. For the first time, the museum will be able to present a few works recently added to the permanent collection, among them two photographs and a sculpture by New York-based Kiki Smith and a bronze figure by the early 20th century master Alberto Giacometti.
A surprise of a different sort is the inclusion of fashion items, such as the pleated silver dress by designer Issey Miyake and a topless bathing suit by Rudi Gernreich.
"Particularly when you are dealing with the body, fashion is not an unreasonable direction to look," says Eliel. "There are a number of designers who think of their work not simply as clothing to be worn. They think of how it exists sculpturally in space. Gernreich and Miyake are two who very much think of their creations in those terms, so it seemed a logical and great addition."
According to Eliel, until the end of the 19th century, the human figure was treated by artists as a subject to be depicted as a portrait, as a nude, or within a narrative context. During the 20th century, however, artists have conceived rather than depicted the body. Eliel says, "There is a more calculated notion of deconstructing the body currently, but in the early 20th century, artists already were conceiving the body rather than depicting it.