LA Expanded

When Good Taste is Good Enough

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Mad Men Season 5 Billboard in West Hollywood. Courtesy DailyBillboard.blogspot

“It was mainly about trying to escape my own good taste, or good taste in general,” said John Baldessari, when asked why, in the 1970s, he first took his own photographs, then had someone take photos of him, then started using photos he’d found. Fashion matriarch Miuccia Prada has said the same thing, more or less: she’s always battling her own tastefulness to come up with something different, and new.

The fifth season of Mad Men, a show that’s tastefulness has won it accolades for art direction and design, premiers on Sunday. This means everywhere in this city and others, there are pictures of Don Draper staring at two mannequins in a window display. The girl mannequin is naked; the guy wears a robe and slippers. A married couple? A man and mistress? Don’s back is to us, but we can see his face reflected in the glass. As usual, he looks cool, untouchable, though slightly dubious. “This is a dreamlike image,” Matt Weiner, who conceived the show and designed the poster, apparently said. He thought it looked sort of like a De Chirico painting, and I suppose he was thinking of the Italian artist’s renderings of sculpted, bald, faceless figures that loom on pedestals. “By the end of the season… I guarantee you’ll know what it is about.” Weiner and AMC clearly trust theirs viewers to want to know. It’s such a vague and high-handed teaser, so full of  “significance”: Don, the ad man, looking at an ad, a fantasy version of the coupledom that keeps eluding him, while his reflection stares back at him. It feels kind of like a soap, which means it’s let its tastefulness slide. But not in a provocative way.

Still from 'The Good Wife' on CBS

Sometimes, tastefulness shouldn’t be “escaped.” Right now, I am particularly fond of  The Good Wife, a CBS show where everyone is a little bit prettier than anyone in real life.  Julianna Margulies plays a lawyer married to a politician. She always has a cagey facial expression and hardly ever says anything about herself.  But unlike in Mad Men, where unpacking Don Draper’s tight-lipped demeanor is part of the schtick, the maintenance of Margulies’ control is key to keeping up the show’s appearance. This actually makes The Good Wife seem self-aware: instead of delving into flimsy personal side plots, like so many so-so law dramas do, the characters’ resistance to such detours defines the show. In a recent episode, a lawyer from a rival firm, played by Michael J. Fox, tries to woo Marguiles’ character to his firm. She wants the extra money, but not to leave her current firm. So uses his offer to leverage a fairly significant raise. All this happens without no exposition. She never tells anyone how she feels, just acts smoothly. Her overly big eyes make you think she’s flinching a little inside. But you’ll never know for sure, because the plot is too doggedly tasteful to go there.

Mark Bradford, "Smite," 2007, mixed media collage on canvas. Hammer Museum, Promised gift of Susan and Larry Marx. © Mark Bradford. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Collectors Susan and Larry Marx have good taste. Because they have pledged their art to the UCLA Hammer Museum, the museum stated the exhibition Intimate Immensities, to show off their collection. None of the work is very big, and all of it is concisely composed. Even the Joan Mitchell painting, only 27 x 26 in. and with all its drama pulling your eye to the middle, feels particularly efficient. The Ed Ruscha topography pieces, the Cy Twombly drawings, and the Mark Bradford collage look more modest and “aesthetically appealing” in this show than they usually do.  Wrote William Poundstone on ArtInfo, “[E]very artist and work is a smart, relevant choice. (There aren’t many single-collection shows for which you can make those two claims.)”

If collecting is itself a medium of expression — and, of course, it is –, then the Marx’s are aware of and comfortable with  the medium’s limitations. By not trying to stretch themselves beyond their own, consistent taste, they’re actually exposing more about the partial, confining nature of human desire and perception than they would otherwise.