interview: curator Karin Breuer─“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” at the de Young through October 9, 2016
Sixty years ago, Ed Ruscha, moved across country from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to study art at what would become Cal Arts. Ever since, the celebrated artist, now 78, has been exploring the West’s expansive cultural and physical landscape. “Ed Rusha and the Great American West,” at the de Young Museum through October 9, 2016, examines Ruscha’s fascination with the Western United States, shifting emblems of American life, and the effects of time on this restless landscape. Ninety-nine of the artist’s prints, photos, paintings, and drawings fill the de Young’s Herbst exhibition galleries on the bottom floor, giving us an opportunity to see the originals of artworks we all know from prints and posters, including his mythic Hollywood signs and Standard gasoline stations.
“Ed Ruscha defies easy categorization,” says Karin Breuer, who curated the show and is curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, where she has worked for over 25 years, succeeding Robert Flynn Johnson. “He’s known as a pop artist, conceptual artist, surrealist and, early on, was identified with the West Coast pop movement, the so-called “cool school” of art. He’s adept at painting, photography, printmaking and has created wonderful artist’s books. He’s well known for using words as subjects in his imagery and letter forms.”
At the show’s press conference, I spoke with Breuer about Ed Ruscha and her framing of this expansive exhibit and our interview is below. I also spoke with Max Hollein, FAMSF’s new director, who headed Frankfurt’s Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection (2006-16) and the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2001-16). After 15 years in Deutschland, this German headed West to helm FAMSF, the largest public arts institution in Northern California, and officially began work on June 1. His impressive skill packet includes overseeing the Städel Museum’s expansion and its digital initiatives platform which entailed collaborating with the tech industry to make the museum’s collections fully and pleasantly accessible online. Naturally, he’s quite interested in working with the Bay Area’s tech industry as well. I asked him what attracted him to the Bay Area─
San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, right now, it’s filled with so much energy. There’s a real transformation occurring as it moves to an even higher level and our two museums will be a part of this rising tide. Basically, museums are not places that you visit; they are gathering places. I want to make our museums even more welcoming and relevant and part of that is making our education efforts even stronger and more connected to the contemporary culture.
There’s no better welcome to the Bay Area for Hollein, who says he has loved Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood signs “for ages”, than a huge show exploring Ruscha’s wry and poetic take American contemporary culture.
Here is my conversation with the savvy Karin Breur whose long-standing dialogue with Ruscha and hard work have produced a show with depth that is a delight to behold─
Why frame this show around the “Great American West”?
Karin Breuer: It was an easy and purposeful decision. I wanted to reverse a trend I’ve observed in exhibits with artists of Ed’s caliber─staying away from their ‘regionalism’ for fear that leads to a provincial look at an artist’s work. Instead, I thought, why not examine this. He’s been an artist who by choice went to school in Los Angeles and has lived there for 60 years and has depicted aspects of the West often in his work. As I kept looking more and more at the work, I realized there’s a story there from the very beginning, when he came out to art school at the age of 18 and traveled West from Oklahoma, all the way up to today where he’s looking at his Western environment and observing change. The show contains works from 1961 to 2014, a huge expanse of time, but it’s not a catch-all retrospective.
Has he drawn on the Bay Area at all?
Karin Breuer: No, not at all; it’s mostly the Southwest that has been his focus and stomping ground. Last night, however, I heard him say that it’s only recently that he’s come to appreciate San Francisco and the Bay Area. He’s decided that it’s the most beautiful city in the world but, he said, it may be ‘too beautiful’ for him to handle as subject in his art. There was kind a stay-tuned aspect to that though. He’s created a very interesting portfolio of prints called “Los Francisco San Angeles” where he combines street grids from both cities into one image and I think that’s the one effort that he’s made so far to connect the two cities. These are not in the exhibit.
Do you have a personal favorite?
Karin Breuer: I always thought I did but, every time I walk into the galleries, I seem to change my choice. I’m still very much in love with “Pyscho Spaghetti Western” and it’s because it depicts a roadway with a lot of garbage, trash, and debris that he has treated as beautifully as a still life. I find that so evocative of not only his quirky subject matter but also of the West and how it’s changed since he first took to the open roads in 1956.
What is the FAMSF’s collecting relationship with Ruscha? When did you really start building the collection?
Karin Breuer: Our relationship goes back to 2000, when we acquired Ruscha’s print archive and we came into a collection of over 350 prints at that time. He continues to contribute to this: each time he makes a print and it’s published, we get an impression of that print. He’s very prolific and we love that. We now have about 450 prints, one drawing, and one beautiful painting. For the new de Young building, we commissioned Ed to create a tripych─two panels that would be added to his 1983 painting “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” which we already had in our possession. You will see a lot of these works in the galleries.
What was his reaction to the show’s concept?
Karin Breuer: I pitched it to him early on and he liked it and he lent us works from his personal collection and helped facilitate loans from private collectors. Now that the show is up, he’s been very positive. This is a very appropriate time for this show as its Ed’s 60th anniversary in California.
Do you know if he has a favorite word?
Karin Breuer: No, and I think if you ask him, you won’t get a straight answer either. There are some words that appear in different forms. The word “adiós,” for example, also “rancho” and “rodeo”…those are three words that appear in different forms in my show, that he took on the in the 1960’s. I wouldn’t say that he continues to use them but they percolate in his vocabulary.
When did his fascination with words begin?
Karin Breuer: I know that in college, he had a job in a topography workshop and later he worked as a graphic designer, so words have been a part of his thinking for a very long time. He keeps lists of words that have captured his attention in notebooks and has said that words have temperatures and when those words become really hot that’s when he uses them in his art.
Now that you’ve spent a lot of time with his work, what makes it so powerful for you?
Karin Breuer: I think it’s the sense of humor that is in almost every single image; it’s wonderful─very dry, very laconic. He’s that kind of a personality too. I never cease to be amazed when I see something new coming from him─he’s got such a fertile mind, always thinking, always looking and discovering, and then reacting. Some of his latest paintings feature exploded tire treads that are called ‘gators’ by truckers. He treats these as beautiful objects and they almost look like angels’ wings. I just think to myself, that’s really unexpected, brilliant.
What sparked your interest in becoming a curator?
Karin Breuer: I’m the curator of prints and drawings and the inspiration came in college. I was a college as an art history student during the Vietnam War and there was a lot of social protest on campus. I was scratching my head thinking what does art history have to do with this? The world is changing, am I doing the right thing? A beloved professor of mine showed slides of Goya’s “Los Caprichos” and “The Disasters of War” and the light bulb went off. I said to myself ‘prints!’…they can have a political impact and everyone can afford prints…this is a very democratic medium. So, I went to graduate school to focus on prints and drawings, a realm of socially relevant art history.
What about your career at the de Young?
Karin Breuer: I’ve been here 31 years. When I joined in 1985 as an assistant curator, it was a pretty sleepy institution, as many museums were back in the day. I stayed on and worked my way up, which is kind of unheard of in the younger generations now days, but the Achenbach has only had three professional curators (E. Gunter Troche (1956-71); Robert Flynn Johnson (1975-2007), including myself. We’ve changed dramatically and dynamically and I have to say that I am absolutely thrilled about Max Hollein’s arrival here. Already, his energy and enthusiasm are having an impact on us.
Details: “Ed Rusha and the Great American West” closes October 9, 2016. Hours: The de Young is open Tues-Sun 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. and on Fridays (through November 25) until 8:45 p.m. Admission $22; with discounts for seniors, college students. Audio guides: $8. The de Young Museum is located in Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Street parking is available for 4 hours and there is a paid parking lot with direct access to the museum.
Sandra Ericson, creator, Center for Pattern Design, talks about Balenciaga, the de Young exhibition and her “Balenciaga in Depth” seminar this weekend at CCA
In the course of researching the de Young Museum’s amazing Balenciaga and Spain exhibition, I had questions about the precise techniques that made Cristóbal Balenciaga the consummate designer and master sculptor in textiles that he was. I turned to Sandra Ericson for answers. Sandra taught fashion design, pattern design, and textile courses at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) for 31 years. In 2006, after retiring, she established the Center for Pattern Design (CFPD) in her hometown of St. Helena, CA, as a way to focus on the people in the fashion industry who actually cut the cloth. At CFPD, Ericson teaches advanced courses in cutting, draping, pattern design and construction and also takes these courses on the road. She is the turn-to resource for a lot of fashion insiders and museum curators and is a respected authority on French designer Madeleine Vionnet who pioneered draping on the bias, the bias cut and ruled haute couture in the 1930’s, designing sensual gowns for Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo that did marvelous things for their bodies. What a pleasure to have Sandra explain Balenciaga with an insider’s detail to attention.
Geneva Anderson: Does “pattern designer” accurately capture what you do and what your center emphasizes?
Sandra Ericson: I am a pattern designer and after 31 years of teaching at City College, I established the Center for Pattern Design in 2006 as a way to bring the focus back to those persons who actually cut the cloth, an important part of the fashion industry. Before the recession, which brought back a return to value, the fashion industry and the discipline of fashion got very theatrical and celebrity-driven
and concentrated on the designer as the single figure in the fashion company. Often, the designer did not cut his own work and it really became a situation where the credit did not go to the craft people who did it. Primary among those craft people are the people who actually understand fabric, the body and who can interpret design and cut a two-dimensional pattern that looks amazing in three dimensions. I wanted to focus on people who could do that and this requires a special skill set.
This requires spatial visualization so that you can imagine what something lying flat on the table in an odd shape will look like in three dimensions. You have to have a good grasp of all the textile characteristics so you know what will happen when you hang the fabric and gravity and body motion come into play. You also need a good sense of anatomy and how the body moves and what makes clothes functional, not just decorative. When you look around the world for people who can do really that well, there are few. Balenciaga is one of the most important from the past who we can look to. When something like the Balenciaga and Spain exhibition comes along, I get excited because I want people to understand what made his clothes terrific–it was his ability to cut and his meticulous attention to detail and construction and, finally, his eye—discerning how the overall effect is going to been seen and thought about and how it accentuates the wearer.
Geneva Anderson: Balenciaga is known for the balloon skirt, the baby doll, the sack dress, the 7/8 length bracelet sleeve, his masterful manipulation of the waist, and he’s been called the “king of dissymmetry.” Explain these.
Sandra Ericson: All of those are related to a singular skill—the ability to sculpt. His medium was textiles and he was particularly famous for using textiles that were sculptural in nature, especially silk gazar, a heavy silk with a very springy quality. He also worked with silk “zagar” but it’s very rare and you can’t find it these days. When I do the Balenciaga draping class, I will look for something comparable to the gazar for us to work with. Because we will be draping on the half-scale dress form, which is 36 inches high and all the measurement are exactly half of a size ten person, I will be able to go out and find something that will have the qualities that Balenciaga’s fabrics had. A very heavy satin, duchess satin, (made from silk fibers) is an example—it’s stiffer, fuller, heavier, and has a lot more body than full silk has. In his coats, he used fabrics that might have been double woven, fabrics that could retain their dimensions even though they were folded or manipulated or gathered.
Balenciaga was a person who inspired a lot of designers who came after him in the architectural mode–André Courrèges, Ronaldus Shamask. In the mid-1970’s I actually took a class in architectural design and one of the presenters, interestingly, enough was a guy named Salvatore, who was Balenciaga’s right hand man and he gave our group several patterns that belonged to Balenciaga but were not out there in circulation. I kept those and when I do my class, I will be bringing those in.
I’ve also made several of the pieces myself that he made famous. He was strong, very architectural but careful –he had a way of doing a coat so that he set the collar on the neckline back a little bit so that if you were a lady who was no longer standing up too straight, you looked as if you had perfect posture in the coat.
I’ve made that coat several times and will be bringing one in. He had a way of working with a woman’s body so that whatever was a perceived negative about her figure disappeared and you focused on the most wonderful parts. In the 1950’s you have to remember that people with money were not necessarily young. Ladies might have thick waists or necks, but the wrist is the last to go. The 7/8 length (or bracelet) sleeve made the wrist look delicate and drew attention there. He also lowered the waist in the back so you had a beautiful curve in the back.
Geneva Anderson: In terms of construction, these ideas are incorporated right as the fabric as being cut?
Sandra Ericson: His clothes were created either for the runway model or specific clients, so he knew what needed to be done on a body by body basis. In terms of the general construction of the pieces, he was ever committed to cutting the cloth in the way that women would be exhibited in the best possible way, cutting off a line just before a beautiful physical curve on the body would take the eye into unflattering proportions. Kind of design by restraint! Likewise, he would suggest or replace a shape rather than define it as it was on a particular person – again bearing in mind that his clothes were created either for the runway model or specific clients whose proportions he knew.
A lot of his high fashion clothes though were reproduced in one way or another for the mass market and became ready to wear. I used to send my students down to the Sunset Market in the Sunset district in the City when I teaching over there because the Balenciaga coat would still be going up and down the aisles pushing the grocery cart. It was such a popular style coat with a small stand-up folded over collar, straight in the back and the sleeves were usually cut in one and looked sort of molded and stopped short of your wrists. Sometimes, it had fur on the collar.
Geneva Anderson: Who was buying and wearing Balenciaga back in the day?
Sandra Ericson: Socialites. The celebrities in that period were mainly people who had social stature and there were film and theatrical people as well. It was the Babe Paley era, debutants, wives of important men. They went to Paris for their fittings. In the Bay Area, they would have had fittings at I Magnin. When the whole architectural trend waned, and things went to the tight denim of the 1970’s, his influence and that way of working faded and he closed his house in 1968 and he died way too young in 1972. A lot of designers from that era and this is what happened to Madeleine Vionnet too– they are exquisite, perfect, in what they do — but they are so finely attuned to a certain way of working that is very difficult to follow fashion. A lot of them feel philosophically committed to the aesthetic they have been enthralled by and when that no longer is the fashion it is very difficult to change that philosophy and that’s what happened to Vionnet. Balenciaga was also a very private person, so once he had done it and he saw the way the world was moving in the 1960’s, a lot of factors contributed to the closing of the house.
Geneva Anderson: How strong were Basque and Spanish influences on him?
Sandra Ericson: He was from Spain and he, of course, was living in a Catholic country. In those days, before Vatican II which ushered in a new era for the Church, Catholicism was very old-fashioned, formal, and rigid. The Church vestments were very sculptural, things were done in platinum, and there was an air of solemnity about everything. There’s the sense of a very heavy structure laid over the religion and the dress code and that a strong influence on Balenciaga, living in a strongly Catholic society. Fashion designers become translators of their era: they are masters of the zeitgeist who interpret everything that’s going on in an aesthetic way. And because fashion is for human beings, it becomes almost a complete mirror of the society a designer is living in.
A lot of the pieces in Balenciaga and Spain are definitely ecclesiastical or nationalistic without reservation — a strong indicator of his identity with his culture certainly. There are two other factors too–one, a presentation of the idea that women could be members of the clergy, or bullfighters, or run a country as royalty. None of this was even remotely possible in general for women. The second thing is that it shows he was not beyond co-opting a design concept and using it for his own — maybe evidence of his business pressures. Familiar ideas sell.
Geneva Anderson: What is the significance of the re-emergence of the House of Balenciaga under the ownership of Gucci and the design influence of Nicholas Ghesquière, who is supposed to be like Balenciaga because he is a self-taught designer. He’s known for hip interpretations of Balenciaga classics, such as the semi-fitted jacket and the sack dress and is worn by celebrities like Madonna and Sinéad O’Connor. How do you see transitions like this?
Sandra Ericson: Anytime somebody buys a house that had a very strong leader, designer and a strong aesthetic, they are doing it primarily for business reasons. It’s not as if anyone is going to resurrect Balenciaga or copy him and the person who is coming to fill those shoes is going to be who he is in his own time. He or she can’t be anything else because everybody can only be who they are in their own time. What the house is hoping is that the brand, the name, will carry enough social cache that it will allow them to be financially successful in a completely different time. It’s kind of akin to hitchhiking on a name–if it works, that’s great but it’s very difficult for a new designer to come in and interpret another person’s work that is that personal. So far, they’ve had three designers come to house of Vionnet and it hasn’t clicked. If the person is good in his own interpretation of his own time, then they’ve got something to work with. If the talent is short, then that won’t happen because staking it on Balenciaga’s name isn’t enough.
Geneva Anderson: Tell me more about the “Balenciaga in Depth” event you’ve organized.
Sandra Ericson: I’m doing a 3 day series of events and it all starts on Friday May 20 with a morning tour of the Balenciaga and Spain exhibition with someone who worked on the exhibition and this followed by an elegant box lunch. In the evening, there will be a reception at CCA followed by a slide presentation explaining more of the history and chronology of Balenciaga. I will talk about the design issues, pattern, fabric, and construction pattern and an overview. On Saturday and Sunday, at CCA, there will be a master class in draping where we will do two Balenciaga classics. We each work on our own dress forms and there is room for 15 people
in the class. Each person will work with a half-scale dress form, which is 36 inches high, and all the measurements are exactly half of a size ten person. I am certainly not planning on duplicating the talent of Balenciaga but I want people to understand how he worked, how to cut cloth the way in a similar way and how to work with similar cloth so that they can begin to embrace fashion design as a more sculptural activity, as a form of art.
We each work on our own dress forms and there is room for 15 people in the class. Each person will have a half-scale dress form
Center for Pattern Design Details: for further information, contact Sandra Ericson, Director, Center for Pattern Design, St. Helena, California 94574, 707-967-0852
Balenciaga and Spain Details: The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA. Admission to Balenciaga and Spain is $25 adults and free for members and children 5 and under. There is a $5 discount for purchasing tickets in advance. For a complete listing of the numerous special events associated with the exhibition visit its webpage Balenciaga and Spain.
ARThound’s previous coverage of Balenciaga:
What is Balenciaga really all about? St. Helena pattern designer Sandra Ericson is offering a chance to cut, fit and sew two Balenciaga masterpieces this weekend at San Francisco’s CCA
Has the de Young Museum’s sumptuous Balenciaga and Spain exhibition which runs through July 4, 2011 left you hungering for more detailed information about how Cristóbal Balenciaga actually crafted his exquisite dresses and coats? For a fabulous indulgence in the core of Balenciaga’s talents, Sandra Ericson, the delightful and very knowledgeable founder of St. Helena’s Center for Pattern Design has organized four special events, taking place this weekend (May 20-22, 2011) at California College of the Arts that will illuminate the way Balenciaga designed, cut and worked with fabric. Ericson has 31 years of teaching experience in pattern design and is a respected authority on 1930’s French designer Madeleine Vionnet who pioneered draping on the bias. If you heard the exhibition’s curator Hamish Bowles interviewed by Michael Krasny on KQED’s forum, on March 22, 2011, (click here) you’ll recall there wasn’t much discussion of the actual techniques Balenciaga used. Ericson has organized the activities so that they build from an informative private walk-through and lecture on Friday to hands-on cutting and draping courses on the weekend.
Private tour: Balenciaga and Spain at the De Young Museum, May 20, 10 – 11 AM. A private tour of Balenciaga and Spain at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, guided by a knowledgeable docent and Sandra Ericson. This tour will emphasize the fabrics, cut and construction of the pieces shown. Afterward, the group will meet for a no-host lunch and a Q & A with Sandra on the patio of the Museum Cafe.
Lecture: Balenciaga’s Cut and Construction, May 20, 7 – 9 PM. ($45) Sandra Ericson gives a visual presentation and exploration of how Balenciaga actually worked. The focus will be on identifying the fabrics (with samples to touch), the cutting and construction techniques for his sculptural masterpieces and the design theory behind the genius of Cristobal Balenciaga.
Draping Class: The Red Coat, May 21, 2011, 9 AM – 5 PM ($159 or $259 for both) This class will focus upon the Red Coat and will be draped half-scale in taffeta as the original was in full scale. Half-scale dress forms (with arms) are supplied as is all student fabric. Class is from 9 AM to 5 PM with breaks and lunch on your own. You will need to bring basic sewing supplies for this class.
Details will be provided to all attendees. Limited to a total of 15 students. (8 students for a single day and 7 students taking both days.) Experience level: beginning to intermediate. The designs are not highly fitted nor do they have multiple pieces or unusual fabric effects; they are, however, dramatic and require some fabric familiarity and some sewing experience to understand assembly. Sandra tries to bring each student along based upon the student’s own starting point, often grouping people together at similar levels for extra instruction during the class.
Draping Class: The Pleated Paletot May 22, 2011, 9 AM – 5 PM ($159 or $259 for both) This event will focus upon the Paletot jacket, said to be created for Marlene Dietrich, and will be draped half-scale in crepe just as the original was in full scale. Half-scale dress forms (with arms) are supplied as is all student fabric. Class is from 9 AM to 5 PM with breaks and lunch on your own. You will need to bring basic sewing supplies for this class.
Register and buy tickets here (Each event is ticketed separately; the lecture and the classes will be held at California College of the Arts, , 111 8th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107)
Details CFPD: for further information, contact Sandra Ericson, Director, Center for Pattern Design, St. Helena, California 94574, 707-967-0852.
Details: Balenciaga and Spain: Balenciaga and Spain ends July 4, 2011. The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA. Admission to Balenciaga and Spain is $25 adults and free for members and children 5 and under. There is a $5 discount for purchasing tickets in advance.
ARThound’s other coverage of Balenciaga: