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Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1929, Oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, 78.7. © 2006 C. Herscovici, London, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © 2006 Museum Associates/LACMA.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, the first major exhibition to explore the impact of Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte’s (1898–1967) work on U.S. and European artists of the post-war generation. Featuring sixty-eight paintings and drawings by Magritte, including many international loans of his signature works, and sixty-eight works in diverse media by thirty-one contemporary artists such as Richard Artschwager, John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, Robert Gober, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, and Andy Warhol, the exhibition examines the different and sometimes unconscious ways that pop, conceptual, and post-modern sensibilities have referenced Magritte’s ideas and imagery. In addition, the exhibition installation is specially designed by conceptual artist John Baldessari and includes an inventive presentation that is playful and humorous, yet provides a deep visual understanding of Magritte’s work. Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images is on view at LACMA through March 4, 2007, and will not travel to other venues.

Co-curated by Stephanie Barron, LACMA Senior Curator of Modern Art, and Michel Draguet, Director of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, with cooperation from the Magritte Foundation, Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images goes beyond overt analogies between the work of Magritte and contemporary artists to explore the more idiosyncratic and subtle connections of visual, thematic, and philosophical references. Looking at works in a range of media from a number of decades, the exhibition reveals the ways in which Magritte’s visual vocabulary and artistic strategies have seeped into our culture, and demonstrates how his subversive juxtaposition of words and images, flat painting style, and constant exploration of perception have profoundly affected subsequent generations of artists. The exhibition features works by contemporary artists Eleanor Antin, Art and Language, Richard Artschwager, John Baldessari, Mel Bochner, Marcel Broodthaers, Vija Celmins, Robert Gober, Philip Guston, Douglas Huebler, Jasper Johns, Ray Johnson, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Joseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Raymond Pettibon, Sigmar Polke, Richard Prince, Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Ray, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, David Salle, Jim Shaw, Andy Warhol, and Lawrence Weiner.

At the center of the exhibition is LACMA’s Magritte masterpiece––The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe) (1929)––a seminal painting and popular cultural icon. Although the artist has been more commonly associated with surrealism, he was mainly fascinated by the arbitrary relationship between everyday objects, abstract images, and language. The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe) is his most well-known and groundbreaking word-and-image painting and features an image of a pipe with a simple accompanying phrase in French saying, “This is not a pipe.” Magritte’s juxtaposition of the object and text undermines the presumed interpretation of the painting and these philosophical approaches attracted many post-war artists.

As contemporary art evolved in the 1960s, Magritte’s increased exposure in the United States coincided with the rise of a number of artists expressing similar themes and attitudes in their work. Jasper Johns’ Figure 7 (1955) shares Magritte’s interest in visual perception and the paradoxes between objects and words. However, Johns updates this exploration by applying it to flat objects, signs, alphabets, or numbers—staples of pop art production. The larger-than-life-size sculptures made by Claes Oldenburg, like his Baked Potato #1 (1967), parallel Magritte’s use of everyday objects and alterations in scale, such as Personal Values (1952) and The Listening Room (1952), but Oldenburg’s choice of a mundane and perishable baked potato more aggressively attacks the sanctity of art. Roy Lichtenstein’s Stretcher Frame (1968) questions the traditional use of the picture frame—a motif that Magritte explored in works like The Six Elements (1929).

The theoretical ideas proposed in The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe) became widely known through an important text by philosopher Michel Foucault and attracted conceptual artists of the late 1960s and 1970s. John Baldessari’s Wrong (1967) features a photograph of the artist with the word “WRONG” underneath, explaining how not to take a photograph. Joseph Kosuth literally defines words in his “definition” paintings, which explain to the viewer what they are seeing or experiencing, in Definition (“Thing”) (1968). Mel Bochner’s wall painting, Language Is Not Transparent (1970), is the artist’s manifesto that linguistic meaning is unstable. Ed Ruscha’s Lion in Oil (2002) evokes his fascination with word play and can be related to Magritte’s application of random and unrelated titles to paintings.

Magritte’s brief experimental phases are alluded through works by artists of the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1940s, Magritte abruptly changed his recognized flat painting style to “sunlit surrealism,” a manner of painting inspired by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renior. Later that decade, he switched to loud, clashing colors and deliberately dark themes known as the période vache. Even though Magritte’s critics lambasted these artistic styles, these disquieting paintings took on a new resonance and importance in relation to the work of post-modern artists. Jim Shaw’s appropriation of Magritte’s “sunlit surrealism” can be seen in his naive depiction of radiating lines beaming from a floating rock in Red Rock (1990). Martin Kippenberger’s violent brushstrokes in the vibrant yet disturbing painting Punch VIII (Kasperle VIII) (1993) suggests a période vache-style rebellion that seeks to broaden artistic expression by attacking the ideals of good taste and craftsmanship.

The exhibition also features a few works by contemporary artists who make direct visual reference to Magritte. Playing on the idea of artistic influence, Un tableau Magritte (1967), by Marcel Broodthaers, features a photograph of Magritte reading a book by Broodthaers with the word “Magritte” painted on the side of the canvas imitating the artist’s signature. Taken in LACMA’s gallery during her 1999 retrospective, Eleanor Antin’s photograph This Is Not 100 BOOTS (LACMA, March 17, 1999, 4:32pm) (1999) shows some of her boots contemplating The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) and signals Antin’s awareness of her own work’s entrance into art history. When talking about her oversized sculpture Untitled (Comb) (1970), Vija Celmins remembers a real comb that belonged to her parents, but she is emphatic about the importance of Magritte’s painting. The artist notes, “By having snatched the comb out of it (Personal Values), I figured that when I showed (the comb) upright in a corner of a room, this painting would come to mind . . . always.”

Catalogue - Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images is accompanied by a 256-page, fully illustrated catalogue co-published by LACMA and Ludion in Belgium. The catalogue contains major essays by exhibition co-curators Stephanie Barron and Michel Draguet, as well as texts by Richard Armstrong, Roberta Bernstein, Sara Cochran, Thierry de Duve, Pepe Karmel, Noëllie Roussel, Dickran Tashjian, and Lynn Zelavansky.

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