LA Up Close

With more museums than any other city in the United States, Los Angeles is a magnet for art-lovers.

We begin our art tour in Downtown LA at the top of Bunker Hill, where two of the city’s most popular art museums are almost directly opposite each other on Grand Avenue near the “starchitect” Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, one of the largest performing arts centres in the United States.

LA’s newest art museum (it opened in 2015), The Broad (it rhymes with road) houses one of the foremost collections of post-war and contemporary art in the world, assembled by the late businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad and his widow Edythe. Said Eli Broad: “I like the fact that art reflects what’s happening in the world and how artists see the world.”

The Broad in its honeycomb-like cladding

Enveloped in a white, honeycomb-like exterior “skin”, the large, angular building by the architects Diller, Scofido & Renfro (Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Museum of Modern Art extension in New York, The Shed cultural centre in New York) displays over 2,000 works at any one time.

Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Interior with African Mask’ (The Broad)

The many highlights include: Robert Therrien’s nearly ten feet tall Under the Table, which invites visitors to walk under it, recalling childhood memories of being literally ‘under the table’; an extensive selection by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein; Jeff Koons’ giant, stainless steel bouquet of tulips and scarily big porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and pet chimpanzee Bubbles; iconic images by Andy Warhol such as Liz Taylor, Campbell’s soup cans, Jackie Kennedy and Elvis; a roomful of Ed Ruschas; huge optical colour studies by Ellsworth Kelly; and two rooms dedicated to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Exiting by the stairwell, visitors get a peek into the vault, where part of the collection not on display is stored.

Robert Therrien’s ‘Under the Table’ fuses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Marcel Duchamp’s tradition of the ready-made. (The Broad)

Designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki (Kyoto Concert Hall, CaixaForum in Barcelona), the red brick Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA Grand Avenue, collects mainly American and European art from the 1940s onward. There are rotating selections from the permanent collection as well as a regular series of monographic and themed exhibitions.

Carlos Cruz-Diez’s installation ‘Cromosaturacion’ is an example of his experimentation in visual perception and colour theory. Diaz said colour “acts on the human being with the same intensity as cold, heat and sound”. (MOCA Grand Avenue)

The permanent collection comprises over 7,000 works by stellar names such as (deep breath) Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Mark Rothko, Antoni Tapies, Dan Flavin, Julian Schnabel, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Ruth Asawa, Richard Serra, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney and Robert Motherwell. As the Los Angeles Times declared: ‘There isn’t a city in America…where a more impressive museum collection of contemporary art can be seen.’

Visitors get up close to Mark Rothko’s paintings at MOCA Grand Avenue. Wishing to communicate basic human emotions based largely on colour effects, Rothko encouraged viewers to stand close to his paintings so that they would be ‘in the picture’.

A mile or so down 1st Street past the iconic Los Angeles City Hall and impressive Los Angeles Police Department HQ, Geffen Contemporary at MOCA occupies a former warehouse in Little Tokyo transformed by Frank Gehry and initially intended as a temporary exhibit space while the main facility was being built. It also drew high praise, this time from the New York Times, which wrote that: ‘more than any event in recent decades, (the Geffen Contemporary) changed the cultural face of Los Angeles’. It is named after the entertainment mogul and benefactor David Geffen.

The 55,000-square-foot space gives enormous latitude to artists and encourages experimentation. It is ideally suited to large scale sculptural works and conceptual, multi-media or electronic installations and is typically used to display more recent works, often by lesser known artists, some designed especially for the space.

A section of Judith F. Baca’s ‘World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear’ on display at Geffen Contemporary at MOCA

Over now to Wilshire Boulevard, where there are three attractions for art-lovers within a few minutes of each other on “Museum Mile”.

Chief among them is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which is hard to beat for sheer volume and diversity of art in one location. The largest art museum in the western United States, its collection ranges from pre-history to contemporary art with over 150,000 objects illuminating 6,000 years of artistic expression across the globe. Displays are divided by region, media and era and spread across a number of buildings.

Visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) are greeted by Chris Burden’s ‘Urban Light’, made from over 200 restored cast iron streetlamps, many of which originally stood on Los Angeles streets.

To house its growing collection, the complex has grown over the years after proposed, approved, abandoned and partially completed projects by various architects, among them Renzo Piano, Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas, while current plans under Pritzker Prize laureate Peter Zumthor call for a controversial wing to be constructed over Wilshire Boulevard.

As things stand, the often confusing layout comprises sections dedicated to American and Latin American art, 20th century art, Asian art, Greek, Roman and Etruscan art, Islamic art, Japanese art, contemporary art, decorative arts and film and photography and includes the largest purpose-built, naturally lit, open-plan museum space in the world, the Resnick Pavilion. There is also a sculpture garden of Rodin bronzes.

Across the street from LACMA is The Wall Project comprising ten sections of the original Berlin Wall and at nearly 40 feet the longest section of the wall outside Berlin. First assembled in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the German Demoratic Republic (East Germany), it recalls a stretch of the Berlin Wall known as the East Side Gallery, which was made famous by a group of international artists. Four segments contain original graffiti from Cold War-era Berlin.

The Wall Project

Completing a trio of art attractions along this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard is Craft Contemporary, which champions art made from craft media and processes with seven or eight shows a year, around 70 per cent of them showcasing established and emerging Los Angeles or California artists who are often under-represented in larger art institutions.

Installation view of Lezley Saar’s ‘Diorama Drama’ at Craft Contemporary

Also on Wilshire Boulevard, albeit it a further 12 miles further along one of the longest streets in this sprawling city, the collection at the Hammer Museum at UCLA reflects the taste of the museum’s founder and namesake, the late American oil magnate Armand Hammer. It ranges from the Renaissance to the early 20th century, with special emphasis on French paintings of the 1800s by giants of the era such as Cassatt, Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. Other highlights include Titian’s Portrait of a Man in Armour, Rembrandt’s Juno and Gustave Moreau’s Salome Dancing Before Herod, possibly the artist’s signature masterpiece.

A recent refurb has resulted in a new ground level gallery inaugurated by Rita McBride’s Particulates, an installation composed of high-intensity laser beams capturing water molecules and dust particles in the air, while a new sculpture terrace features Sanford Biggers’ Oracle, a monumental, 25 foot-tall cast bronze seated figure inspired by elements of both Greco-Roman and African iconography. There is a series of rotating exhibits from the collection.

Rita McBride’s ‘Particulates’ at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, Photo: Joshua White

High on a hill in Brentwood on the very edge of LA’s urban sprawl, the J. Paul Getty Museum houses the late oil tycoon’s fine art and photography collections. (His antiquities are at the Getty Villa in Malibu.)

From the reception area just off the teeming freeway, visitors are conveyed on a small white tram which winds its way to the museum complex at the top of the hill, where they are greeted in the arrival plaza by Charles Ray’s sculpture Boy with Frog in his white fibreglass nakedness. Once inside the soaring entrance hall of the gleaming white complex, the feeling is not unlike being in a particularly fancy shopping mall.

Part of the sculpture collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum

A series of adjoining galleries on two levels leads viewers on a journey through the history of pre-20th century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts as well as photography from the inception of the medium to the present day.

Visitors view Belgian artist James Ensor’s satirical ‘Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

From a broad terrace and jutting promontory there are spectacular views over LA and the Pacific coast, while from the expansive museum courtyard visitors can descend to a beautifully landscaped central garden with water features and sculptures.

J. Paul Getty Museum

On the east side of Downtown, the Arts District is a fiercely original, urban neighbourhood with its beginnings in the 1970s, when a group of artists, many of whom were being priced out of the increasingly expensive Venice and Hollywood art scenes, saw opportunity in vacant industrial buildings which provided massive live/work spaces at low prices.

Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha is immortaliased on a mural in the Arts District.

Today the district is home to galleries and other creative businesses, many of them in converted warehouses and factories, giving the district its hip urban vibe. The surrounding streets are rich in character, as local street artists have turned building walls into canvases to showcase their work.

In a huge former flour mill, the Hauser and Wirth gallery has several exhibition spaces for both established greats and newcomers arrayed around a large inner courtyard which serves as a sculpture court. Landmark exhibitions have included a retrospective on the sculptor Alexander Calder, a selection of photographs from the early career of Annie Leibovitz and post-war abstract sculpture by women. There is a dedicated space for performance artists and, in keeping with its emphasis on sustainability, the large indoor/outdoor restaurant is supplied from the on-site vegetable garden and chicken coop.

Installation view from the exhibition Calder: Nonspace at Hauser and Wirth

Housed in a large, renovated industrial building, the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (ICALA) has a lively exhibition programme which acts as an ‘incubator’ to support the production of new work and spotlight emerging and ‘unseen’ contemporary artists.

Other galleries in the Arts District include Over the Influence, where the influence is on colourful, playful work, Luis de Jesus Los Angeles, which specialises in work by Latino artists, and The Box, where abstract and surrealist works are popular.

One of the many murals in the Arts Dstrict