(Nam June Paik’s “Video Flag Z”)
Sometimes you have to leave Ohio — and Cincinnati — to discover how many interesting and unusual connections there are between the Buckeye State and the larger world of modern/contemporary arts and design.
That was brought home to me, in varied and stimulating ways, when I ventured to Los Angeles recently to see Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. This massive show, years in the planning, involved 60-some cultural institutions and looked at the evolution and worldwide impact of Southern California art and design. Going to Los Angeles for the show also gave me the opportunity to see one major museum building, new since I moved from there in 2007 — the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Broad displays some of the largest contemporary pieces in L.A. public collections. And on the main floor was Nam June Paik’s 1987 “Video Flag Z.” This museum-owned work, in which TV monitors show video images that comprise a large American flag, has pride of place on a central wall — at least during a show called Human Nature — because it has just undergone restoration.
“Video Flag Z,” it turns out, exists because of a working relationship Paik had with Cincinnati’s Carl Solway at the time.
“The piece was built in Cincinnati, first exhibited at Chicago Art Fair in 1985,” Solway explained in an email. “There were three versions — ‘Flag X,’ the Chicago-exhibited version, sold to Detroit Art Institute; the Chase Bank purchased ‘Flag Y’ for their collection; and LA County Museum purchased ‘Flag Z.’ ”
Moving from that into LACMA’s Pacific Standard Time-related show, California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, I quickly was confronted with another Ohio connection. Perhaps the key iconic piece in the exhibit is from an Ohio company, Airstream of Jackson Center. Modernist in form and in its vision of the American open road, the 1936 aluminum-body Airstream Clipper on display was designed by the company’s founder, Wally Byam. He created Airstream trailers in L.A., where they were manufactured from 1932-1979. But the company opened its Ohio plant in 1952, part of its post-World War II expansion. In an odd case of reverse migration, that’s where it is located today.
Probably the most interesting connection of all — another Cincinnati one — occurred at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Standard Time entry, Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. Weegee (Arthur Fellig), the New York crime/street-life photographer who was propelled to fame after a 1945 book, Naked City, became a best-seller and prompted a movie, used the proceeds to move to L.A. and pursue a career.
I was struck by the fact that the 1945 clothbound copy of Naked City on display — the edition that triggered his fame — had been published by Zebra Picture Books of Cincinnati. According to MOCA, it sold through six printings, at 25 cents a copy, in its first year. (The unabridged hardbound version, also published in 1945, was from New York’s Essential Books.)
And in trying to learn about Zebra Picture Books, I discovered George S. Rosenthal, part of the printing/publishing family that owned S. Rosenthal & Co. (Richard Rosenthal was his cousin.) He died young, not yet 45, in 1967, but his legacy is preserved by his wife, Jean Bloch of Cincinnati. She has provided his work to Cincinnati Historical Society and recently spoke to me about him in a phone call.
In 1944, when he was about to enter the family business and already interested in photography, he attended a summer session at Chicago’s Bauhaus-inspired Institute of Design under photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which inspired his subsequent work.
Collaborating with editor Frank Zachary, soon after the war he published a beautiful one-time magazine/yearbook called Jazzways. It was followed by the way-ahead-of-its-time graphic-arts magazine Portfolio, which apparently lasted three issues and featured work by Charles Eames, Alexander Calder, Richard Avedon, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn and others.
Rosenthal, meanwhile, pursued his own photo projects, such as one of Mexican ruins and another documenting the pre-expressway architecture of the West End. The Historical Society has these.
Zebra Picture Books seems to have been more pop-oriented — besides Naked City, other titles were Life and Death in Hollywood and Murder Incorporated (about the Mafia). I looked through Jazzways at the Historical Society and it’s extremely impressive, with articles and photographs devoted to New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere.
I look forward to finding out more about his work — he deserves renewed attention. Thanks, L.A., for introducing him to me
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org