The new Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art flaunts original costumes and props, intricate set dioramas, furniture pieces, original scores, lined scripts, set photographs and several modern art pieces that inspired the director’s distinct vision during his 50-year career. The museum’s curators have added an element of artistry to the pieces by aggregating these artifacts and displaying them as individual artworks in their own right.
The theme of the show revitalizes the classic debate surrounding auteur theory: Can Kubrick’s name be stamped on all these various aspects of production? And can film artifacts like a letter from the Christian Authority calling for Kubrick to stop production on Lolita be displayed as art?
LACMA’s curators would argue yes.
If, as Kubrick asserts, the director’s role is that of an “idea and taste machine,” then the fact that Kubrick’s own hands did not form all the works in the gallery should not undermine his own artistry. His films’ ability to maintain a recognizable style despite heavy collaboration must then be lauded; he is the type of artist that must be acknowledged by contemporary art museums — and not just because it’s in fashion.
When walking into the intelligentsia-serving museum coffee shop, hearing the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” and seeing baristas in newsboy hats and bowties, it becomes clear that this season of LACMA will ooze hipness. The inclusion of long-censured photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work adds to this effect, but it also makes it clear that modern art museums today enjoy a freedom they were once denied.
Kubrick faced his own bout of societal pressures and government censorship on films like Lolita (1962) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), respectively. Kubrick went through the ringer after Clockwork — originally an Anthony Burgess novel years before Kubrick brought the characters to life — because several British boys committed crimes while dressed as the film’s fictional hooligans, the “Droogs.” Kubrick’s work, like his retrospective, had raised questions about the boundaries and responsibilities of art.
Many attempted to draw a line of artistic value and historicism between visual art and cinema in the early 1930s. Had MoMA failed to include film programming, a 16-year-old Stanley Kubrick taking photographs for Look magazine (which are displayed at LACMA) might not have developed into the filmmaker we admire today.
This interplay between visual art and film remains foundational for processing Kubrick’s work. Though the exhibition includes an opening video of noteworthy scenes from Kubrick’s films to acclimate museum-goers, a trip into the Ahmanson building to see the German Expressionism exhibition or to the permanent contemporary pop art gallery will better prepare novices and film buffs alike for the extensive Kubrick exhibition by providing a more in-depth explanation of Kubrick’s style.
Kubrick’s central questions of morality and themes of irrationality, insanity, violence and fear of institutional oppression can be traced to the German expressionists; Kubrick’s choice genres — noir, science fiction and horror — also sprung from the movement. Expressionism’s visual influences can be seen at LACMA in Kubrick’s expressive use of the color red a la Ernst Kirchner and the Commedia dell’Arte masks and other tropes in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Understanding the movement from pop-art gallery wall to silver screen is also imperative for a comprehensive understanding of Kubrick’s work. An obvious example is the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), rumored to appropriated from the works of John McCracken, one of which appears in the exhibition and another in the permanent collection. The gallery illuminates Kubrick’s sensibility of criticism toward popular culture, his style felt immediately in the irrationality of a Jackson Pollock drip painting (c. 1956) or pop of color and focus on form in Claus Oldenburg’s “Giant Pool Balls” (1967).
The exhibition on its own, though, serves as a fascinating romp through the life and work of this brilliant, visceral, detail-obsessed twenty-first century artist. It is completely immersive: The curators put you right in the middle of the Korova Milk Bar of Clockwork and the War Room of Dr. Strangelove (1964). There is a small room dedicated to soundtrack listening, and the helmet from 2001 comes to life with a tiny projector displaying the face of the astronaut.
Art necessitates a constant cycle of inspiration, borrowing and even outright theft. The exhibition, therefore, is a sophisticated, contemporary conception of the artist as a visionary vessel, rather than a craftsman. Does this mark the death of Kubrick or his postmodern rebirthing?
This is the challenging question surrounding cinema; it is a collaborative sport, and the rules constantly change. Kubrick never produced his own original material because he felt that reading a piece for the first time allowed him to “fall in love” with it. We might borrow from Kubrick as we walk the halls of LACMA this season, throwing away previous ideas of what constitutes art and whom we might label an artist. Instead, we might take the time to step back and allow ourselves to fall in love with cinema all over again.
“Stanley Kubrick” runs through June 30 at LACMA, which is located at 5905 Wilshire Blvd.