Small Pleasures in the Permanent Collection

October 3, 2008
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The first time I wandered through LACMA's modern art galleries (when they were reinstalled back in January) was almost overwhelmingly stimulating. Perhaps that's why, as I walked from a gallery of twenty Picassos to a gallery of eleven imposing Giacommettis, I turned a corner and halted at a small, 5x4 inch scrap of stationery with nothing more than a list of words neatly written down the left side:

The list was one of ten similar notepad sketches, each a variation on a group of shapes with or without these ten words crammed inside. I must have stared at these drawings for ten minutes, transfixed by the repetition and variation.

Stuart Davis, Studies for Package Deal, 1956, gift of Earl Davis

I took the drawings in as if they were an artwork in and of themselves; it wasn't until I went back to the gallery later that week that I realized these were preparatory sketches for Stuart Davis's Premiere—merely one of the most well-known paintings in LACMA's collection, and hanging on the opposite wall!

Stuart Davis, Premiere, 1957, museum purchase, Art Museum Council Fund

Don't tell anyone, but I like the sketches more than the painting. Maybe it's the simplicity, the unconsciousness of the blue ballpoint pen on the yellowing notepaper, with the notations in the margins, ink smudges, and wobbly lines; maybe it's seeing them as a group. I could pore over these drawings all day looking at the small differences.

I went back to look at them yet again before writing this post, and my favorite—that simple list—was gone. It took me a few moments to realize that there were now ten entirely new sketches, still in preparation for the same painting. A quick check reveals that we actually have twenty-eight of Davis's sketches in our collection—all of which you can see here (though the smudged ink looks nicer in person).

Scott Tennent