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By John Thomason
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Has any 20th-century artist exerted a more ruthless, relentless hold on the public imagination than Salvador Dalí? I doubt it. Even Picasso occasionally stepped out of the limelight. Not so Dalí, the perennial showman, the unapologetic huckster. Dalí always seemed to be on.
Dalí at his most flamboyant is the subject of "A Surreal Friendship: Photographic Collaborations by Salvador Dalí and Philippe Halsman," a small but entertaining show now in the upstairs galleries at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.
The 30 or so photographs, on loan from the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, are culled from three decades' worth of artful tomfoolery between Dalí and Halsman. The two met in the early 1940s after Halsman, a Latvian working out of Paris, fled the invading Nazis. Halsman went on to become a world-famous photographer, best known for the record 101 covers he shot for Life magazine. (His work also appeared in Esquire, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, and Paris Match.)
All but one of the photos here are in black and white, and they're modest in size, unlike the mammoth canvases of which Dalí grew increasingly fond over the years. A number of the pictures from this collaboration were collected in 1954 for the whimsical book Dalí's Mustache, which is available in reprint in the museum's lobby.
The titles are mostly straightforward and descriptive: Dalí Fishing, Dalí Cyclops, Dalí Clock Face, Dalí With Mustache to His Eyes. Some of the images have accumulated layers of in-jokes. Dalí Perfume Bottle, with the artist's eyes and mustache forming the bottle's label, can be seen as a sort of prescient allusion to a later commercial venture in which Dalí issued his own designer fragrance.
Dalí Covered by Money and Ocelot teasingly mocks both Dalí's eccentricities and his shameless pursuit of wealth. Similarly Dollar Sign gives us the artist's face in closeup, surrounded by shiny coins, with his mustache and a pair of thin paintbrushes forming the title symbol.
The best picture -- and probably the most famous -- is Dalí Atomicus,one of an astonishing series the pair produced in which an array of objects appears to defy gravity, wafting through the images like streams of smoke through the air. It's one thing for Dalí to create such illusions in paint, as he did in the 1956 oil Nature Morte Vivante. It's quite another for Halsman to do so in the studio.
In Dalí Atomicus, the artist himself, grimacing and brandishing a paintbrush, is somehow suspended in midair, surrounded by a chair, three cats, a dramatic jet of water, a step stool, and an easel, all likewise unanchored. (To the right of the image is Dalí's 1949 painting Atomic Leda, in which he inserts his wife, Gala, into the Leda and the Swan myth.) Even with a sort of footnote alongside the photograph -- a series of six smaller photos documenting how the final shot was created -- I still have no idea how Halsman managed it.
Think of the Dalí show as an artistic appetizer, then move on to the main course, a more ambitious show in the downstairs galleries called "Graphicstudio: Art Stars in Hollywood." The exhibition brings together roughly 30 works from Graphicstudio, founded in 1968 at the University of South Florida in Tampa as a place for artists to experiment with limited-edition media such as prints and photogravures.
Graphicstudio invites artists to its state-of-the-art facilities, where they then spend a period of residence working on whatever strikes their fancy. The rediscovered medium of photogravure, developed in 1870 but rarely used since the 1920s, is one of several esoteric methods available. It involves a highly complicated process using photographic negatives and positives, gelatin relief tissue, copper plates, acid, ink, and paper to create a fascinating hybrid of photograph and print.
As evident from the 15 photogravures on display in the museum's middle gallery downstairs, this medium has tantalizing possibilities. Joel-Peter Witkin uses it to create his distinctively ancient-looking, bizarre compositions, such as Venus, Pan and Time (1985), with its reclining satyr and androgynous odalisque jarringly set off by a replica of the Empire State Building floating in the background.
Robert Mapplethorpe's Tampa Orchid (1986) juxtaposes a large black-and-white photogravure of a flower in closeup with the same orchid screen printed in pale blue on a silvery surface. For Drunk (1998), filmmaker John Waters joins two grainy color images of stars Edie and Divine boozing it up in one of his early movies.
There's often an otherworldly air to photogravures, as well as a three-dimensional quality that's difficult to pinpoint. Graphicstudio curator Bob Hanning provides an explanation posted at one end of the gallery: "Photogravures have a matte surface, an infinite capacity for detail, tones from velvety blacks to whispery grays, and will not fade over their long life of hundreds of years."
Two other large Mapplethorpe photogravures from 1986 -- Orchidand Irises-- are included in the main gallery. But the emphasis in the rest of the show is on other graphic media, and it's clear that Graphicstudio's invitation to experiment has stimulated the artists who have spent time there.
During one of his stays at the studio, Robert Rauschenberg played with the idea of etchings printed on fabric, as in the '70s relief/intaglio/collage Sheephead, which combines reversed type, a wooden ruler, and one of the artist's neckties. His Araucan Mastaba, created more than a decade later, is a showier mixed-media piece in the form of a Maya-style pyramid incorporating sterling silver, lapis lazuli, screen-printed enamel, and hand-applied acrylic on polished natural aluminum.
The American artist Philip Pearlstein, better known as a painter, took advantage of Graphicstudio to produce one of the largest wood-block prints ever made, a roughly four-foot-by-ten-foot piece called Jerusalem, Kidron Valley (1989), a wonderfully detailed landscape in pale desert colors.
Op artist Richard Anuszkiewicz, on the other hand, stuck to familiar territory with his Graphicstudio piece Translumina -- Spring Hues (1992). It's a two-part, cast-polyurethane relief with a hand-painted grid of ridges in the vibrant colors of classic op.
For me the show's big surprise is Brushstroke Chair and Ottoman, a 1987 Roy Lichtenstein piece rarely exhibited outside of Graphicstudio. Forget everything you know about Lichtenstein's trademark cartoon-style paintings and marvel at the sinuous lines of this life-size sculpture, which is made of laminated birch veneer painted with wavy ribbons of blue. It's a fine example of how an atmosphere conducive to experimentation such as Graphicstudio's can inspire artists to unexpected heights.