David LaChapelle, Seismic Shift, 2012

David LaChapelle

Seismic Shift, 2012

Chromogenic Print

 

Profile

Essay by Andreas Blühm and Anna-Rosja Haveman

Groninger Museum, Netherlands

 

 

On 16 November 2017, a Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci was auctioned
at Christie’s New York for the exorbitant sum of US$ 450,312,500. Setting aside the
question of whether this work can be (partially) attributed to Leonardo, why was it
offered in an auction for modern and contemporary art, rather than in an auction with
other Old Masters? An expert answered that question in an interview with the sarcastic
comeback: ‘Because 90 percent of it was painted in the last 50 years.’[1]


Having recovered from the initial shock, perhaps we should also be glad that old art still
sparks such enthusiasm. Old art was once modern, and at a certain point modern art
becomes old. But even though factors such as style, the circumstances under which the
work is created, and the market situation are constantly shifting, the criteria that
determine the judgment of quality remain surprisingly stable. Many contemporary
artists measure themselves by their predecessors, handling altered historical
circumstances lightly. Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Caspar David Friedrich, Frida
Kahlo, and many others are easily claimed as brothers and sisters in art by younger
generations. And why not?


There are few people as aware of the transience of public interest and taste as the
American photographer David LaChapelle: ‘Well, if you knew what they were all saying
about Warhol in those days. In 1986 I took his last portrait. By that time critics were
writing terrible things about him and there wasn’t a soul who came to his
exhibitions.’[2]

 

David LaChapelle falls somewhere between the categories of popular

glamour photography and ‘serious’ art produced for museums. He does not conform to
standard classifications, which makes it slightly difficult for critics. His large flock of fans
makes him suspect for quite a number of snobs from the scene. And that is a shame,
because LaChapelle not only possesses a highly distinctive signature and a breathtaking
technique, but he also has something to say. Anyone who categorizes him as a man who
photographs celebrities is selling him short. He holds up a mirror to celebrities, but also
to us as self-appointed art lovers. And that mirror reveals more than just the attractive
sides of fame and wealth. Or, as was recently articulated by writer Dan Piepenbring in
The New Yorker: ‘Very popular people doing very unpopular things.’ [3] What on first
encounter seems like an overwhelming staging of his photos distracts from the fact that
strictly speaking David LaChapelle is a realist. He brings truths to light.


One of those truths is the aforementioned fickleness of taste, ethics, and morals.
LaChapelle walks with the curious eye of an artist and a gaze sharpened by training and
experience through museums and places of worship in order to admire works of art
from the Baroque and Renaissance eras. To draw inspiration from the astounding
technical virtuosity of many of these works is not his only reason to do this; these works
also tell stories about life’s great dramas and ageless human vicissitudes. For example,

LaChapelle manages to transpose the vanitas theme that was popular in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries to our time with profound insight and empathy. Between
2008 and 2011, he liked to quote from floral still-lifes by the Dutch Masters of the
Golden Age, in which a cell phone could take the place of a skull. The deluge is the
subject of a series in which he depicted flooded museums (2007). And in his Negative
Currency series (1990 to 2015) he lingered over the transience of paper money. His
team painstakingly constructed entire factoryscapes using plastic refuse, from which the
future – that of abandoned industrial parks – can already be read (the Refinery series,
2013). In 2009 and 2012, LaChapelle collected pieces of discarded wax figures in Dublin
and Hollywood, photographed them and thus gave them a new – albeit dubious – lease
of life.


A highlight in LaChapelle’s endeavor to gain an artistic hold on the changeability of
everything that must be or wants to be modern is his ambitious Seismic Shift from 2012.
An analysis of this photographic museum landscape can serve to gain a better insight
into the artist’s mode of thinking and working.


The building that is on the point of collapse in Seismic Shift is the Broad Contemporary
Art Museum (BCAM), which is part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art
(LACMA). The steel girders with their bright red color are an unmistakable feature. This
building was designed by Renzo Piano, who, after creating the Centre Pompidou (1977)
in Paris and the Fondation Beyeler (1997) near Basel, became one of the most popular
museum architects in the world. Museums have long been the new cathedrals, used by
countries and cities to compete with one another. With its striking ensemble of buildings
designed by Alessandro Mendini, Michele de Lucchi, Philippe Starck, and Coop
Himmelb(l)au, the Groninger Museum (1994) commands a place in the tradition of
iconic architecture that has become the norm in the modern-day museumscape. The
newest in the series is the Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel, which may soon be the
home of Leonardo’s (?) aforementioned Salvator Mundi.


Eli Broad is one of the wealthiest businessmen in the world, and has also gained a
reputation as a fervent art collector and serves on the boards of the Museum of Modern
Art in New York and the LACMA. In the build-up to the BCAM’s construction, for which
Broad donated US$ 60,000,000, many people presumed that this funding was an
indication for the donation of a large portion of his famous collection of contemporary
art to the museum. When the new building opened in 2008, no fewer than 160 of the
200 works were owned by the Broads and a mere 40 came from the collection of the
LACMA. However, shortly before the new building’s inauguration, Broad explained in an
interview that his collection would remain under the ownership of The Broad Art
Foundation.


Given the sky-high prices, the Broad collection typified a tricky dilemma for museums
that collect contemporary art. Museums are on the one hand dependent on private
donations and want to please lenders to ensure future bequests; on the other, there are
the perils of conflicts of interest, and the extent to which a museum should allow itself to
be guided by the wishes of collectors remains open to debate.


In Seismic Shift it is not just the building, but also many of the works of art represented
within it that belong to the collection of the philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad. In

hindsight, the fact that the Broad couple retained management of the collection could be
seen as a pre-indicator for their decision to establish their own museum: since 5
September 2015, the Broad collection has been on show in the private museum named
The Broad in Downtown Los Angeles. A portion of the works were location-specific and
have therefore remained in the LACMA, while several works in Seismic Shift are no
longer located in the LACMA, but in The Broad. Business details of this nature have
already prompted the customary critique, but there was even greater criticism of the
collection itself: ‘Did the Broads shape the market or follow it?’ Holland Cotter wondered
in The New York Times of 28 October 2015: ‘Either way, their collection follows the
commercial mainstream so closely as to read less like a “personal choice” than an
investment portfolio.’ [4].


Let’s start on the left side of the image: The Nurse of Greenmeadow painting by Richard
Prince (b. 1949) is grafted onto the eponymous romance novel by Jane Colby from 1964.
The typical artistic strategy that brought Prince to fame, namely the appropriation of
existing, often commercial images, is present in the reference to the stereotype of the
sexualized female nurse, though on closer inspection the obscured nurse on the canvas
is not as seductive as the woman who initially graced the cover of a paperback novel.
The Naughty Nurse series, to which the painting belongs, also served as the basis for the
Spring/Summer 2008 collection by Louis Vuitton, for which fashion designer Marc
Jacobs invited Richard Prince as a creative collaborator.


While Prince used an inkjet printer to mechanically transpose the image of the novel to
his canvas, David LaChapelle physically constructed the museum environment. He not
only recreated the diverse artworks, but paid attention to many details. Note that in
Seismic Shift the earthquake has transplanted also the surroundings into the gallery. To
the left in the background, alongside the work by Richard Prince, there is a lone
mammoth that, together with automobiles and architectural elements smeared in tar,
has broken in. Such mammoths are exhibited at the La Brea Tar Pits adjacent to the
LACMA, a famous and much-visited location with fossil remains.


In the foreground stands one of the iconic Balloon Dogs by Jeff Koons (b. 1955),
rendered here in red. The blue Balloon Dog is part of The Broad Collection and from
2008 was exhibited at LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum. (In 2015 the blue
Balloon Dog was transferred to The Broad in downtown Los Angeles.) Over the last two
decades, Koons has probably become the symbolic figurehead of commercial modern
art. With major exhibitions in leading museums and the millions that are paid out for his
art, the work of Koons, initially a critical commentary on consumer culture, has become
an example of the worldwide demand among super-rich buyers for whom art is a brand.

 

Behind Koons’s Balloon Dog you can discern a painting by Chinese artist Yue Minjun (b.
1962). He was one of the first artists to be highly successful on the Western market in a
country that was busy throwing off the chains of the rigid socialistic doctrine. Yue’s
trademark is male figures that smirk hysterically. In the background of Seismic Shift, the
laughing figures seem to add an additional uncomfortable layer to the situation. Are the
men roaring with laughter from satisfaction or are they laughing because of
embarrassment?


Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), who is sometimes dubbed the Japanese Andy Warhol, is
renowned for his style in which ‘high art’ is fused with ‘low art’ such as Japanese anime
films and manga cartoon culture. Tongari-kun, nicknamed Mr. Pointy, brings together
diverse real and imaginary cultures. For example, the artist imagined the antenna on the
head of the sculpture as a communications center with alien beings, and the sculpture’s
numerous arms allude to various religions, including Buddhism. Murakami does not shy
away from commercial collaborations and the associated mass production, but actually
seeks them out, as shown by his collaboration with the fashion giant Louis Vuitton. A
gallery in the background of Seismic Shift is wallpapered with the so-called Multicolore
Louis Vuitton pattern, which arose from the collaboration between Takashi Murakami
and Marc Jacobs in 2003. Floating in the water are several Louis Vuitton bags, which
were also created thanks to the collaboration between the fashion brand and the
Japanese artist. In response to an exhibition by Murakami at the Museum of
Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007 and the Brooklyn Museum in 2008, where a
huge selection of expensive Louis Vuitton merchandise was on sale in the museum shop,
the artist’s intertwining of art and commerce was subjected to a barrage of criticism.
According to the artist, the merchandise is in fact an extension of his art and he even
described the shop as ‘the heart of the exhibition.’ [5]


With his large-scale, detailed, and colorful works of everyday and global scenes, Andreas
Gursky (b. 1955) is one of the most famous photographers from around the turn of the
century. This photo, visible just behind Murakami, captures endless rows of 99-cent
bargains in an American supermarket. Ironically enough, a similar work by Gursky, 99
Cent II Diptychon, a diptych of the depiction of cheap goods, was auctioned by Sotheby’s
London in 2007 for the then record amount for photography of GBP 1,700,000.
Consumer society is an important and frequently recurring theme, in the work of Gursky
as well as LaChapelle. While Gursky’s work is an ostensibly objective reflection on the
scale of the global economy, here in Seismic Shift LaChapelle introduces a more dramatic
twist to the whole. With his inclusion of 99 Cent, is he trying to conjoin the untenability
of the art system and consumer society in general?


Barely discernible, alongside the Gursky hangs one of David LaChapelle’s own works. In
keeping with the subject of a museum as ruin, we see his After the Deluge: Museum. This
photo could be understood as the classic pendant of the contemporary Seismic Shift. (In
a more recent print of Seismic Shift this photo has, incidentally, been switched with 99
Cents, so that the former is in a more prominent place.)


Around the corner, fairly centrally positioned, lies a pile of several classic street lamps
that belong to the Urban Light installation by Chris Burden (1946–2015). This
installation was realized in 2008 in the LACMA’s forecourt on the occasion of the
opening of the new BCAM building and is composed of 202 restored street lamps of the
1920s and 1930s from Los Angeles. The restored lamps have become a favorite spot,
where many tourists pause to take a selfie. In Seismic Shift this is no longer possible,
except in the case of disaster tourism, as a number of these lamps have ended up in the
exhibition space due to the fictitious earthquake. The installation by Burden is a late
work by this artist, who in the 1970s rose to fame with performances, of which the most
notorious was Shoot (1971). While the artist himself was the center of attention when he
had himself shot in the arm during this mythic and transient performance, with Urban
Light he invites visitors to enter into the work of art themselves. The artist restored the
lamps and turned them into art with the intention of them being preserved for ever.
Most recently in 2018 it has been announced that another Leonardo, Leonardo DiCaprio,

will pay the museum to swap the work’s 309 incandescent lights with more energy-
efficient LED bulbs.


To the right of Burden’s soon to be eco-friendly installation stands Untitled (Shafted) by
Barbara Kruger (b. 1945). This installation consists of a huge digital print, specially
designed for the location in the elevator shaft, and was first presented when the BCAM
opened in 2008. The red, black, and white texts in Kruger’s signature style are echoes of
contemporary advertising slogans, with words like SNEAKERS, CELL PHONES,
SWEATERS, and LIPSTICK. Kruger is renowned for her powerful visual motifs, often
combined with black-and-white photographs, with which she critically pokes fun at
consumer culture and power structures in society. The slogan in what is perhaps her
most famous work is: I shop, therefore I am (1987). If you take a careful look at the red
words in Seismic Shift, there are literary references to be found in this text. The word
PICTURE is part of a quote from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984: ‘If you want a
picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ The quote
above it has an older source and alludes to the poem When We Two Parted by English
Romanticist Lord Byron (1788–1824): ‘The dew of the morning, / Sunk chill on my brow
/ It felt like the warning, / Of what I feel now. // Thy vows are all broken, / And light is
thy fame, / I hear thy name spoken, / And share in its shame.’ Both these quotes seem to

be a textual equivalent of the ominous imagery that LaChapelle has created in Seismic
Shift.


To the right of Kruger’s elevator shaft there are two paintings by Jeff Koons hanging on
the wall. The three basketballs also belong to Koons’s iconic oeuvre, floating as part of
Three Ball 50/50 Tank (Two Spalding Dr J Silver Series, Wilson Supershot), normally
perfectly centered within the black frame, but here in Seismic Shift they have broken
free. This work is emblematic of Koons’s approach, in which everyday American objects
as symbols of capitalist society are elevated to the realm of high art. Like a modern-day
Marcel Duchamp, Koons is unsurpassed in taking up commonplace motifs and selling the
resulting art to illustrious collectors for astronomical sums. There are, for example,
different versions of the three basketballs in the Broad collection, the collection of the
Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Tate London. The yellow-green caterpillar
entangled in a ladder, which borrows its motif from inflatable water toys, that is, the
‘inflatables’, is also a work by Koons and likewise part of the Broad couple’s collection.

This caterpillar treads across the pink painting from the Camouflage series by Andy
Warhol (1928–1987) that is floating in the water. Warhol produced the painting from
this series in 1986, the year in which LaChapelle captured his last portrait prior to his
death in February 1987. Andy Warhol can be regarded as the spiritual father of all
artists whose work is critical of consumerism as well as market-driven. As an artist he
did not shrink from the cross-connection between art and the economy; Warhol actually
sought out the borderline territory and thought ‘business’ was highly intriguing, going
by one of his famous statements: ‘Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of
art.’ LaChapelle’s choice of a work from the Camouflage series may well have a deeper
meaning. Warhol lies behind the force of the new commercial art. According to a
relatively plausible legend, seeing the patterns of military clothing that were meant to
protect soldiers in natural environments once prompted Picasso to exclaim: ‘We came
up with that!’ An artistic pattern assumed a utilitarian purpose. Warhol won back the
pattern for art. With pink camouflage you are bound to stand out in a forest, but in a
museum not so much.

Damien Hirst (b. 1965) is the best represented artist in Seismic Shift, in which several of
the depicted works are part of the Broad couple’s collection. The Englishman caused a
furor in the art world of the 1990s as one of the Young British Artists who rose to fame
via the collection of the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi and his ‘Sensation’ exhibition
in London in 1997. Death is a frequently recurring theme in Hirst’s oeuvre, as is evident
in several works in Seismic Shift, such as the medicine cabinets and even more blatantly
in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), which is
literally made from a dead shark that floats in a formaldehyde solution. Unlike the
floating basketballs by Koons, the shark is a less durable material that ended up aging
quickly despite preservation in a special solution. The shark was replaced in 2006,
because the rotting process was unstoppable. Perhaps that is why the shark looks
especially frightening and decayed in Seismic Shift. Despite its perishability, Hirst’s work
is also sold for the top price on the art market. In 2008 he also organized an infamous
auction, sidestepping his gallery. It is a somewhat incredible coincidence that the
auction was held on the day Lehman Brothers was declared bankrupt, yet Hirst’s work
generated sales to the tune of GBP 111,000,000. Likewise, with his most recent
exhibition in Venice in the summer of 2017, Hirst managed to hold his controversial
image high. This ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ exhibition presented
new work that Damien Hirst and his studio worked on for a decade. Knowing Hirst’s
entanglement with the market, it is no surprise that the two museums where the
exhibition was held, Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, are the property of
billionaire François-Henri Pinault, who is also a collector and a shareholder in Christie’s
auction house. So he probably earned a few cents from the sale of the Salvator Mundi as
well. As one of France’s richest collectors, Pinault is a notorious rival and the greatest
competitor of Bernard Arnault, founder of the luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët
Hennessy. While the result of the most recent collaboration between Louis Vuitton
(Arnault) and Jeff Koons was a new series of bags, Hirst is the showpiece of Pinault,
which glaringly demonstrates the closeness of the ties between these major artists and
their investors.

LaChapelle’s perspective on the art scene is that of a man who is simultaneously insider
and outsider. With Seismic Shift LaChapelle has created a work that could be a symbol
for the state of art at the start of the twenty-first century. Typical of the period around
2000 was the coexistence of faith in progress and skepticism, as in the fin de siècle
period. Around the turn of the twentieth century people thought that the possibilities of
modern technology were more or less exhausted, and in a certain sense that outlook is
also evident in our computer era. Information technology can never process data more
quickly than the human brain is able to conceive it, and space travel is for the time being
held back by the physical limitations of what humans can engineer.
Just like around 1900, it was the ultra-rich benefactors who made their mark on the art
world and decked out their villas with work by great names. Public collections hobbled

along behind the taste of the bourgeoisie, and were of course also drawn by the well-
filled wallets of the lead actors among the upper class. That is still the case. Eli and

Edythe Broad as representatives of the financiers and Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst on
the side of the artistic creators are the dubious heroes chosen by LaChapelle in that
narrative.


Yet fame is ephemeral. LaChapelle transports us into a partly dilapidated ruin of a
modern museum gallery. The costly building and its even costlier contents have been
severely damaged by a devastating earthquake, which is a real possibility in Los Angeles.
Some works of art might still be saved, while others are a ‘total loss.’ The vast majority of
LaChapelle’s photos are populated by a great many people, but here – fortunately – the
human figures are lacking. We can but hope that all the museum’s visitors and staff were
able to reach safety.


Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) had previously depicted a ravaged LACMA in The Los Angeles
County Museum on Fire. He painted the museum shortly after the opening on Wilshire
Boulevard in 1965, with its new, modernistic, but unpopular accommodation designed
by William Pereira. This painting is seen as an example of work by artists who were
increasingly distancing themselves from museums, and thus this painting adorns the
cover of the book Institutional Critique and After (2006), though the artist had not
created the work with that intention.


With Seismic Shift and its modern museum in ruins, LaChapelle harks back – consciously
or unconsciously – to a much older art-historical source: In the 1790s, French
ornamental and landscape painter Hubert Robert (1733–1808) produced a series of
views of the royal palace that had just been converted into the Louvre museum. He
painted several variants of his subject: as a magnificent new building but also as a
decayed ruin. There has been plenty of speculation about the reason for Robert choosing
this disturbing vista into an uncertain future. It seems plausible that this ties in with the

revolution, which cost tens of thousands of people their lives and unleashed an
iconoclastic outbreak of unprecedented scope. The revolutionaries rejected the cultural
legacy of the detested political regime, but also appropriated cultural heritage. The
revolution thus became the mother of all our present-day museums.


Hubert Robert was himself a member of a committee that was responsible for the layout,
the selection, and the hanging of the works in the Louvre. The overhead lighting of the
Grande Galerie is reputed to have been his idea. At that time the Louvre was largely
unused, because the kings of France, starting with Louis XIV, preferred to reside in
Versailles. The annual or biennial exhibition of the Salon, named after the Salon Carré of
what was still the Palais du Louvre, was staged here. Long before the revolution there
was already open discussion about whether it would be a good idea to exhibit sections of
the royal art collections permanently. Young artists would then be able to study the art
of painting in the galleries, with works by masters of the Renaissance as their examples.
Under pressure from an articulate public many monarchs, not just those in France,
undertook steps to make their art accessible to a broader circle. During the French
Revolution, the initially hesitant undertaking of increasing art’s accessibility continued
apace. Most especially, royal art treasures were for the first time transferred into public
ownership.


More than two centuries later, the private collection of Eli and Edythe Broad has
likewise been made accessible to the general public, albeit without ownership being
transferred from private to public. But that could still happen. Hubert Robert and David
LaChapelle may not be comparable as artists, but what connects them is that they have
at some point rendered their visions of an important art collection in decay in a large
format. Everything that was once fine and valuable – or was in any case regarded as such
– has tumbled, been exposed to the elements. With Robert we see a budding artist
contemplating and sketching studies in the middle the rubble. The Classical works –
among them a bronze cast of the Apollo Belvedere and Michelangelo’s Dying Slave –
continue to be founts of inspiration today, points of reference for contemporary artists.
We cannot know whether that will ever apply to Koons, Hirst, and Louis Vuitton’s bags.
LaChapelle does not open up a vista to a more distant future either. The ravages of time
have gnawed at Robert’s Louvre and whole eras have now passed. But the Seismic Shift
could happen at any time. Perhaps even tomorrow.


Should we want to search for art-historical sources, then perhaps we should not be
looking to the Louvre visions by Hubert Robert but to Thomas Couture’s Les Romains de
la décadence of 1847. With its many characters, living people and statues, the
architectural backdrop, and the social critique that Couture’s contemporaries
immediately recognized, this gigantic work resembles a LaChapelle avant la lettre. We
are still children of the Enlightenment – in the West, at least – and that also applies to
our artists and the re-evaluation of art’s function that was mobilized by that
Enlightenment. What connects artists of then and now is that they search for the sense
and meaning of creation and preservation, for what determines good taste and how art
relates to fashion, modernity, and eternal validity. Robert personally witnessed and
participated in a radical upheaval of all sorts of values and norms, of which we are still

feeling the effects. Thomas Couture was also present on the eve of a major revolution
(1848). And LaChapelle? To see what major upheaval he is foretelling we will have to
bide our time.

 

 

 


Notes
1. Jerry Saltz, ‘Christie’s Is Selling This Painting for $100 Million. They Say It’s by
Leonardo. I Have Doubts. Big Doubts.’ Vulture, 14 November 2017.
2. David LaChapelle, quoted in Wim Denolf, ‘Sterfotograaf David LaChapelle: “Een
slechte recensie verknalt misschien mijn ontbijt, maar niet de lunch.”’ Knack
Weekend, 7 November 2017.
3. Dan Piepenbring, ‘What Can David LaChapelle’s Celebrity-Fuelled Fantasias Tell
Us Now,’ The New Yorker, 18 December 2017.
4. Holland Cotter, ‘Toward a Museum of the 21st Century.’ The New York Times, 28
October 2015.
5. Takashi Murakami, quoted in Carol Vogel, ‘Watch Out, Warhol, Here’s Japanese
Shock Pop.’ The New York Times, 2 April 2008

Essay ©2018 Groninger Museum, All Rights Reserved

Groninger Museum acquired David LaChapelle, Seismic Shift, 2012, Chromogenic print, 183 x 452 cm, in 2018 with the support of the Rembrandt Association.