Robert Irwin’s palm garden takes shape at LACMA


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The palm garden that artist Robert Irwin is designing for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a long-term work-in-progress. It won’t be finished for a few years, developing as the ongoing expansion and renovation of the sprawling museum-campus proceed. But since the fencing has started to come down around the new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, set to debut in October, Irwin’s palm garden has started to come into clearer focus. And it looks fantastic.

As he did with the magnificent garden at the Getty Center, Irwin is here inserting plants into a structure articulated by Cor-ten steel walls, rusted to a soft, luxurious, velvety chestnut color. The walls at LACMA are low, never rising more than about knee-high. Along one side of the building they form bays to accommodate seating.


They also serve to level the grassy field at the sloping site, on which sits the travertine-clad new pavilion, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. So from north to south the garden gently rises to become the building’s podium, as in a classical temple. An indentation around the pavilion’s base at the level of the foundation reads as a long, dark, horizontal shadow -- a sharp line that subtly enhances the illusion of a building floating on the landscape.

The plantings are very different from the Getty’s, with its floral abundance. The palms come in numerous varieties, sizes, colors and shapes. Many are set in Cor-ten steel boxes that mimic wooden containers partially sunken into the ground. Palms don’t have enormous root systems, but since a parking garage is directly beneath the building and its surrounding landscape, the raised ground was necessary to form a planting bed.

Clusters of yellowish agave and purplish bromeliads work with the green, blue and grayish fronds of the assorted palms to create a quiet aura of slow, even expanded time. Ancient tropical ornamentals, the plantings evoke an antediluvian past, in keeping with the prehistoric sludge of the surrounding La Brea tar pits. They also exude an almost Victorian decorative sense, filtered through a clarifying lens of contemporary Minimalism.
More photographs of Irwin’s evolving LACMA palm garden are below. Since Friday is National Public Gardens Day, why not use the opportunity to visit the work-in-progress or see the Irwin Garden at the Getty?

--Christopher Knight

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight on Twitter: @KnightLAT