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Those surprise encounters

Museums' greatest hits often end up on the covers of guidebooks and among "collection highlights," but curators have other ideas about works that deserve special notice.

June 01, 2006

"Untitled (Comb),"

1970 sculpture by Vija Celmins, at LACMA

As a young artist in L.A. in 1970, Celmins fashioned a 6-foot-5 tortoiseshell comb of enamel on wood. It's a tribute to Rene Magritte based on "Personal Values," his painting of an oversize comb standing on a bed.

Celmins is better known for mesmerizing drawings of skies and water, but the giant comb is a Pop landmark, now on view in "Los Angeles 1955-1985," a major survey at the Pompidou Center in Paris. It will return to LACMA in August.

"The comb demonstrates the particular L.A. connection between Pop and Surrealism," said Andrew Perchuk, head of contemporary programs at the Getty Research Institute. "It's Surreal in its weirdness and size, but it's an everyday Pop object."

Kongo "Nkisi Nkondi" power figure, 18th to 19th century, at the UCLA Fowler Museum

Festooned with fabric and string and pierced with nails and blades, this figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo is loaded with history that will never be known in detail. But to Polly Nooter Roberts, an African art specialist and chief curator at the UCLA Fowler Museum, it's "a powerhouse" of expressive force and practical use.

"This object has myriad accumulations of materials resulting from years of use, most likely for swearing oaths in a judicial context," she says. "It embodies the idea of the work of art, a kind of double-entendre on objects of aesthetic power and beauty that also intervene in people's lives."

"A View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southwest From the Pizzofalcone Toward Capo di Posilippo,"

1791 watercolor by Giovanni Batista Lusieri, at the Getty Center

"Whenever this is shown, it's a huge hit, because it's such a mind-blowing object, about 4 feet high, 9 feet wide and overwhelmingly beautiful," said Kevin Salatino, LACMA's curator of prints and drawings. "The palace was William Hamilton's, when he was ambassador to Naples and having the great love affair of his life with Emma Hamilton, but it's a magnificent watercolor that's all about sky and sea and coast.... Watercolors can only be shown occasionally, and when it is shown, it's put in the pastels gallery, which is dimly lit, very small and sort of hidden away, but it's one of the most extraordinary objects in the Getty's collection." (It's likely to go on view near year's end.)

"Agassiz Column, Yosemite,"

1878 photograph by Carleton Watkins, at the Getty Center

"Watkins made this photograph at a key turning point in his life," says Weston Naef, Getty curator of photography. "He had just lost all the work he had created, from 1858 to 1878, in a bankruptcy. He couldn't pay the rent, and the property owner took all his negatives in payment. He had to start over. But at 50, he had just fallen in love with a 22-year-old woman whom he married.

"This is the first photograph I know where a deeply subliminal content is forcefully expressed in the subject and composition. You have the ultimately male, the rock, and the ultimately female, Yosemite Falls, brought together in a picture that expresses Watkins' state of mind. It's a very poignant picture that doesn't exist anywhere else, and it's a landmark in the history of photography."

"Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham," 1758-59 painting by Pompeo Batoni, at LACMA

"It says everything there is to say about what is now called the 'swagger portrait,' the Grand Tour portrait at its most exuberant and self-confident, when the English were really getting into their stride," Salatino says. "He is wearing this wonderful Van Dyck cloak, which places him in a larger historical context, back 100 years, but he is in a contemporary setting in Rome with remnants of antiquity in the background. It's about celebrating stuff, celebrating travel, celebrating youth. It's among Batoni's best works."

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