Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blown Away at LACMA, But ...

Above: Broad Contemporary Art Museum.. Below: Resnick Pavillion (opening Fall 2010)

Everyone admits that LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) is a sprawling collective mess; the administration is developing a master plan to correct its deficiencies. However, LACMA does possess some stunning jewels. I want to focus on one of them.

My recent visit to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a stand alone structure adjacent to Hancock Park facing Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile, possesses 60,000 square feet of exhibition space on three floors. The yet-to-open Resnick Pavilion for temporary exhibitions abuts its rear flank. Both buildings were designed by Renzo Piano. From my perspective, the Broad Museum is an exceptionally successful museum design. Here, the architectural design does not detract from the art on display; it enhances it. The galleries are spacious, occupying a full floor without any structural impediments. On the top floor, natural light filtering in from the skylights above provides what might be described as "art friendly" natural illumination. Such clarity of design with obvious sympathy to the art to be presented is a rare commodity.

With so many boards of trustees, civic leaders and museum directors seeking to replicate the "Bilboa effect," (http://www.guggenheim.org/bilbao) a number of curiosities have joined the global inventory of art museums. Many of them are manifestations of an egocentric architectural style - planned to enhance the reputation of the designer - hardly satisfactory environments in which to display works of art. Although I have yet to see it, I am willing to accept Michael Kimmelman's (The New York Times roving European cultural critic) negative assessment of MAXXI, Rome's new museum of 21st Century Arts, designed by starchitect Zaha Hadid. Kimmelman found it to already look dated and out of style. Beyond that, I would say that the design of the exhibition galleries appears to overwhelm anything that might be displayed in them.

Above: MAXXI, Rome, exterior and interior.

Above : Third floor gallery, Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

Not so at the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art. Having a positive assessment of its architecture, I want to turn to the art on display. My knowledge and familiarity with the contemporary international art scene is like a piece of Swiss cheese. However, I can recognize the names and work of some of the major players. Andy Warhol has always been an admired favorite. Although they can't be seen in the photo above, there is a group of his Kellogg's Corn Flakes stenciled corrugated paper boxes stacked lazily in a corner of the gallery. Seeing these boxes, reminded me of an opening in Leo Castelll's gallery. Andy had just completed his cow wallpaper. It covered the walls of the tight little space. There were silver helium filled balloons floating through the gallery space. The installation of the Kellogg's corn flakes boxes at the Broad successfully captured the informality with which much of Andy's work was displayed.

Thanks to a flawless installation in a majestically neutral space, I found my indifference to Jeff Koons' work obliterated and transformed into admiration. On a generational basis, he is an inheritor of Duchamp / Warhol traditions. In the gallery view above, it is possible to see his inflatable blue puppy. Although banal, I found myself standing in the middle of the gallery admiring it. Having seen Koon's work in cramped locations in New York competing with other artists, it always looked a bit tacky. Not here. To me, it made a clear and forceful statement in the land of Disney. More than the inflatable, I was struck by his multi-colored ceramic Bernini simulation. It echoed the sculptural figures adorning Bernini's fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome. It was "Bernini enhanced."

"Pure Beauty," the work of the prolific John Baldesdari, occupied the entire second floor. Having heard his name in the context of the LA art scene, I had never seen any of his work.

This is a very impressive installation of an innovative multi-faceted artist who manages to make a series of unique statements of considerable import. To say that it is a visually stunning exhibition, would be an understatement. To stay that the exhibition confirms his stature as a major American artist would be honest.

Several of Richard Serra's grandiose sculptures occupy the entire first floor. Again, the neutrality of the space, adds to the majesty of the experience.

So, I was blown away by the quality and power of the art and architecture at the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art. What's the but? How does this museum and the art presented rate in relation to a New York museum experience. As good as it might be, the LA museum experience remains thin. Flash predominates substance. Whenever you go to an exhibition at MoMA or The Met in New York, you are exposed to layers of art - some masterpieces, some not - going to and from your chosen exhibition. Even though you might not pause to view any art along the way, you know that what you are going to see or have seen fits into the context of human creativity. The same could be said of viewing exhibitions in major museums or equally suitable venues in London, Paris, Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome, Berlin and Vienna.

In 1964, Walter Mondale adopted "Where's the Beef?" as his campaign mantra in an effort to defeat the insurgent Gary Hart who was seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination. As exhilarating as my experience at the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art might have been, I am afraid there was no "beef" there.

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