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Go to selected commentary by other ArtScene contributors, Other Voices of Art, Power and Collecting art LACMA

The buzzword coming from the Western United States’ largest encyclopedic museum today is “transform.” The first phase of LACMA’s redesigned campus is surely the most important of three announced phases simply because it does, in fact, dramatically alter the museum’s functional scale. Gone are Ogden Avenue, a little street that formerly bisected the property into two unrelated blocks; and gone is the old parking lot, now lowered beneath the street to allow for a unified campus that will make longsuffering Angelenos weep for joy. This shift creates a wholly new center of gravity, and places the footprint of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) in a prominent position—in more ways than one. Significantly, a quartet of Los Angeles’ most prominent artists, John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Barbara Kruger and Robert Irwin, are ascribed special status by having been commissioned to create original works that integrate into the very structure of the layout. Two of New York’s most aggressive post-war sculptors, Richard Serra and Tony Smith, fill enormous ground floor spaces with visual statements that swallow you up with their power and authority.

It adds up to a wholly new prosody for local art’s most visible public venue. The accented syllable of LACMA that was for decades so clearly “historical,” and especially “European,” and perhaps most specifically “Old Masters” is suddenly and decisively the “American Art of Our Time.” Frankly, it is a moment that a generation ago, perhaps even just a decade ago, anyone connected to the art world here could only imagine. If many of us were convinced that the art of our time had earned a position that historically equates it with the best of what has gone before, our most public repositories of that history had simply not caught up. Contemporary art’s program slot, so to speak, was 1am early Monday morning. The show has been re-slotted to prime time.

North facing facade of the new Broad
Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA.
Exterior scrim by John Baldessar, "BCAM
Born" and "LACMA Grows"; portion of "Palm
Garden" installation by Robert Irwin.

Chris Burden,
“Urban Light", with
a portion of Robert Irwin's "Palm
Garden" in the background.

Unveiling the new art (left to right): architect
Renzo Piano, Trustee Eli Broad, LACMA Director
Michael Govan, County Supervisor Zev
Yaraslovsky. Lobster podium: Jeff Koons.

We haven’t forgotten that the original game plan was to dispose of the entire body of existing architecture in favor of Rem Koolhaas’ visionary floating cloud. The prohibitive cost was credited with dooming its realization, but to me it raised the question whether there was a logic to erasing a host of architectural forms that signify a half-century of cultural history all at once. It’s a cliché that the existing buildings are a “mess,” a bit of sophistry aimed at an easy target: you have several buildings representing differing moments and styles grouped together, none of which is presently in synch with prevailing fashion.

But there is that slowly developing patina of historical use that would have been wiped clean.  The fact that Koolhaas’ plan was finally scrapped amounted to a second thought that perhaps, over time, would have been judged an epic blunder.  Thus the engagement of Italian architect Renzo Piano, introducing as it did a new overlaying structure that retains all of the existing buildings even as it pushes them back to a second tier, represents a fundamental rethinking, intended or not. Having seen the results to date, I shudder at how narrowly losing this history was avoided. I feel no shame in my sentimentality.

Richard Serra, "Bend," 2006,
153 x 846 x 440".

Installation view of BCAM's 3rd floor
west gallery. Forground: Jeff
Koons, "Balloon Dog (Blue)."
The most obvious cultural borrowing that is visible in Piano’s site plan, and felt almost immediately upon emerging from the elevator that rises from the new underground parking structure to the main plaza, is that of an Italian piazza. It is a social space large enough in scale to deny intimacy, but close enough in proximity to a host of buildings to create a comforting sense of enclosure, and protect pedestrians from through traffic. The opening to Wilshire Boulevard renders the ridiculous gated hole in the wall and rigorous stairway squeezed between the Bing Theater and what is now referred to at the Art of the Americas building obsolete. Bravo!

Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” a little forest of L.A. History in the form of over 200 restored cast-iron streetlamps occupies the plaza at its entrance from the street, a permeable membrane where everywhere else along the boulevard you encounter impenetrable mass. The initial encounter makes you want to play like a kid as you wind around the rows of lamp posts. From a distance on both street and plaza sides the triangular symmetry of its “roof” line calls to mind more than the warmth of a private home.  More significantly it is a nod to antiquity. If the lamp posts draw literally from our own shallow history, they metaphorically draw on the grand associations we make with ancient temples, the Parthenon in particular.  As a statement of homage, ambition, and historical coherence this is, frankly, uplifting, a symbol that permits a sense of optimism and expectation as one embarks on the larger journey held within the opaque buildings.

The relationship to Wilshire Boulevard remains, to be blunt, dysfunctional at best. “Urban Light,” intentionally or not, expresses it accurately: if Wilshire truly fed pedestrian traffic into the museum, to psychologically block the entrance would only make formal sense. From the inside it serves to protect you from the street’s visual and aural pollution. And with the new parking, only a tiny portion of museum visitors will actually make their entry here. Commuters passing the museum will, in turn, see something like another building that hides, or at least distracts the eye from the activity of the plaza. One approves of, even roots for this artery that connects the museum to the reality of Los Angeles. Yet, short of turning this stretch of Wilshire into a no-cars-allowed plaza itself, can it ever really work? We should not hold our collective breaths waiting for that to happen.

The impression that LACMA is turned in on itself is a powerful one. If it is an option to use transparent materials to project an open availability of the art inside, it is one that remains decisively rejected at LACMA.  Glass door and windows permit access to entryways and foyers, but do not peer into galleries. The stacked and tilted planes that add up to the entrance of the BCAM features a vertical transparent bar of glass that carries on a dialogue with an elevator, which itself carries on an active dialogue with visitors thanks to Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (Shaft).” The massive gallery spaces--nearly 20,000 feet on each of three levels--.are tucked out of sight until you actually enter the space. The escalator ride up the north side exterior provides a slow ascent featuring an urban panorama that is no more than pleasant, hardly awe inspiring.  If the gimmick calls to mind the Centre Pompidou, it equally (and will more popularly I have no doubt) refers to the Beverly Center, located all of three miles up La Cienega Boulevard. Seeing the foundation of the enormous phase two pavilion, which, we are told, will be a single story structure enclosing 60,000 square feet, allows for imagining the possibilities of the foreground landscape that are still in gestation.

The entire ground level of the BCAM is taken up with Richard Serra’s “Band” and “Sequence,” perhaps the culmination of the enormous steel tilted arcs that over the last decade have propelled Serra’s already stellar reputation to new heights. The sheer minimalist weight here could be oppressive; but the strolling through the undulating space is to be immersed in a calming flow of spacial volume that is labyrinthine, and radically distinct from the exterior views. But why take up 20,000 feet of interior space?  The enormous, unused lawn at the undeveloped north end of the campus would have us walk on grass instead of concrete, and when we look up there would be the sky rather than a dour ceiling. One can only imagine what a collaboration here with James Turrell might result in.

The problems in the more conventional exhibits on the upper two floors have more to do with the art than the galleries. Indeed, the most subtly dramatic component of the new building is the absence of any sort of column or permanent walls. Rooms separating one artist or grouping of works from another are the product of installed walls. The flexibility of the galleries is thus limitless. On the third floor, the glass ceiling is supported by a vast system of horizontal trusses. Above is a system of shades that permit control over the natural light entering the galleries. Given this, the rhythm of the scale and progression of the created spaces is plodding and unimaginative. The most dramatic moment occurs at the entrance of the third floor galleries, where you see into a grand space dominated by Jeff Koons’ oversized fabrications, “Cracked Egg (Red)” and “Balloon Dog (Blue).” They are hilarious, gratuitous (to me “Koons” is nearly synonymous with “gratuitous”), and force some very authoritative wall works rather deep into the background, at least at first.

Most, though not all of the works included in this installation come from the Broad Art Foundation, which Eli Broad last month announced would not be gifted to LACMA—after having been on record on prior occasions that it would. Speaking with Broad and several senior staff at the museum, including its youthful director Michael Govan, I found that what they want to put on record has shifted. When asked, Broad praises LACMA as “the major encyclopedic museum of art west of the Mississippi. It is my intent to support that.” Having asserted his own notion of a “new museum paradigm” to a New York Times reporter in early January—we are told at his initiative—that calls for the steward of a major collection to keep it under the roof of his own foundation, I see nothing radical or fresh in the idea that a man of extraordinary wealth possesses the dual impulse to exercise control and largess. Broad’s implicit insecurity that historical judgment in the persons of the museum’s curatorial staff of the future might result in works being “only up 10 percent or 20 percent of the time, or not being shown at all” is surely unenlightened. The donor who chooses to place their trust in hands beyond their control is not only more confident by virtue of that trust; they are subscribing to their standing as a participant in the unfolding development of our culture, rather than seeking to arrest it.

Robert Therrien, "Under the Table," 1994,
wood, metal and enamel, 117 x 312 x 216".

Ed Ruscha, "Actual Size," 1962,
oil on canvas, 67 1/8 x 72 1/8".

Damian Hirst, "The Collector," mixed
media installation with animatronic
figure, 98 x 155 7/8 x 119 7/8".

Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Untitled,"
1981, acrylic and mixed media
on canvas, 81 x 69 1/4".

That Broad is a bombastic collector more than an incisive one is, frankly, the message conveyed in this inaugural installation, which is predominantly but not entirely drawn from his holdings. Much of it I could indeed see consigned to storage in coming years. I will never accept, for instance, that the large scale works produced by John Baldessari are anywhere near as interesting as a good number of smaller and more complex and challenging works done many years earlier. Strolling through the galleries in which the recently acquired Lazarof collection is on display, a group of us watched curator Stephanie Baron open a drawer to reveal a book by Oskar Schlemmer and Johannes Itten, “Utopia:  Documents of Reality,” barely a foot high. Baron’s feeling for the work was obvious, and I could not help but feel the greater aesthetic energy and meaning in this small series of bound lithographs than in too many of the grand scaled works I had seen in the BCAM moments prior. For every Cindy Sherman image that exuded engagement and meaning, there were surprisingly wan signature works by visual blowhards like Julian Schnabel and David Salle.

The Broad story sticks with me not merely because of its dreadful timing, which may well have been perfect from Broad’s own perspective, but because of the unfortunate initial reaction on the part of Govan. Down the road we may all be able to agree as to whether Broad got it right or not, but today it distracts from and somewhat deflates a moment of great significance. Reread my second paragraph if you need to be reminded. Our knowing whether or not LACMA would ever receive another work from Broad does not alter or diminish this moment; and only over time can we truly judge whether it has a measurable impact for good or ill. But the hesitant and obsequious words and tone expressed by Govan are troubling. He attempted to pass this off as a positive development; I don’t know of anyone who is buying that. To quote: “. . . from the public perspective, I don't think most people care when they walk in the door whether the museum owns the works or not, as long as they don't lose them" [to private sales.] "He's got 2,000 works, so there is plenty to go around." Why he could not respectfully disagree with Broad’s pronoucement, but express confidence that the museum will survive and thrive in any case makes no sense; he comes across as working for Broad at least as much as for the public institution.

After a short interview with Govan, I am persuaded that a harsh view of his mistake is not entirely fair. He is young, has been here not two years, and more importantly he has a passion for art. Listening to him wax about the impression Baldessari left on him as a student, I felt reassured that if we have a man at the helm who possesses the skill set to deal with the numerous aspects of directing a major museum, he is rooted in the art. It is a well known buzz that the curators feel they have in him a curators’ director. As time goes on it will be essential that Govan, should he remain here, can move beyond reverence for the art and people he admires in favor of asserting a purposeful direction for the new LACMA.