After 20 years awaiting, Los Angeles has a dramatic new flagship structure for modern art. It is, of course, the County Museum of Art’s Robert O. Anderson Building, which opens to a curious, eager and slightly apprehensive public next Sunday. It is the culmination of a dream harbored by art folks here ever since the museum located in Hancock Park on Wilshire Boulevard in 1965.

The original three-building complex by William Pereira was an immediate disappointment on several counts, one of which was that it had no special facility for modern and contemporary art at a time when Los Angeles was earning an international reputation as center for the making of cool, advanced art. Ever since, all interested parties have waited, hoped and grown gray. Now at last the solution. To greet this grand event with anything short of slightly woozy enthusiasm would be off the mark.

A massive stone and glass-brick pile by the New York architectural firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer is the central wedge of the museum’s master renovation plan. It not only focuses on the art of our time but weaves LACMA’s scattered three-building plant into a museum that is historically coherent, practically workable and aesthetically distinguished.


The results feel like--well--remember your first trip to New York, that first walk down Fifth Avenue? The great puppeteer in the sky seemed to have your chin on a string. Head bobbed up and mouth fell open at least once in every block. Rockefeller Center soared, St. Patrick’s gestured magisterially and Tiffany’s twinkled with aristocratic distance. The architectural assault excited agreeable giddiness and maybe a slight feeling of being bullied in a friendly way.

Back in Los Angeles you remembered what an exotic place this is compared to the North and East. The light makes us look forever freshly pastel painted. Palms sway sexily and freeways crawl with Sting-Ray Chevys and old scarred tom-cat Cadillacs, and every car is driven by somebody of a different race or tribe, so the place seems like some nomadic crossroads on the edge of the galaxy.

Somehow Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer managed to blend those two sensibilities in this new Anderson Building. Its assertive urban pizazz, crammed up against Wilshire Boulevard, makes it visually inescapable, but that may turn out to be the aspect of the building that is hardest to live with. Aesthetically, the facade is uncomfortably aggressive.

After that everything gets better, especially as one contemplates the practical necessity behind the sheer, street-tight front. They needed maximum interior space for galleries. The facing is of warm tan stone relieved with ornamental strips of green glazed ceramic and glass brick strip-windows that evoke Art Deco. The three-story main entrance which no one will ever again miss, is a grandiose rectilinear gate. Great and outrageous old L.A. buildings swim to mind--Bullocks Wilshire, the old “Assyrian Castle” rubber factory on the Santa Ana Freeway, the long-regretted gold-and-black Atlantic Richfield tower. (Poetic justice afoot here, as Arco provided the seed grant for the $35 million project.)

Los Angeles tends to be short of landmark structures and such as we have lean to the flamboyant. Thanks to the revivalism and hybridization of Post-Modernism, we have a new one at LACMA blending the ornamental with the industrial as architectural historian Robert Winter points out in fine essays in a monograph on the building.

Once inside the great gate you mosey up between an undulating wall of pinkish white glazed aluminum panels on one side and a graceful, splashy stepped fountain and donors wall on the other. Slender green glazed piers soar four stories to a ceiling of saw-toothed, factory-style translucent skylights. The Times Mirror Central Court feels like an oasis in an Egyptian temple, both calm and exhilarating. Here the visitor buys tickets, checks coats and generally gets himself sorted out.


Start toward the old Ahmanson Building and you encounter what may be the most bracing of several fine architectural views as the Anderson Building angles precipitously towards Wilshire. A bridge ramp overhead is also a nice bit and a reminder that the visitor can now enter any building and see the whole museum without going outside again.

If you like chronology, go first to the third level of the Anderson Building and track the history of Western art right up to the present.

Before all that, however, one notices with some dismay that the new buildings really don’t blend with the old Pereira structures. Attempts made to match proportions and echo the old wall piers don’t quite integrate visually. The museum is perfectly well aware of the problem and has long range plans to reface the old buildings, but in the meantime there is a false note that can only grow more dissonant as yet another building in yet another style rises in the northeast sculpture garden. When this pavilion for Japanese art designed in offbeat style by the late architect Bruce Goff is finished, the museum may well have to decide that the old buildings at least need a coat of paint to match them to Anderson.

One heads for the galleries energized by bold new architecture and nagged by worries that this iron-pumping hunk of a building may appear a trifle too mid-’80s, too “Miami Vice” 10 years down the line. Well, the old buildings taught us what blandness achieves. Time tends to side with daring and flourish, especially in museum buildings because it makes them lovable. Think of the affection everybody bears Boston’s Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum, or, for that matter, the Getty’s Pompeian palazzo in Malibu.

Excuse me. I think I am in the wrong place. This can’t be the interior of the Robert O. Anderson Building for Modern and Contemporary art.

Once inside the new building, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer stepped back and produced what is essentially an enfilade of traditional Beaux-Arts galleries proportioned to match the earlier renovation that pulled LACMA’s historical collections into shape. This does not play like a sour contradiction, but an appropriate and subtle adjustment that harmonizes the interiors while leaving nice reminders of where we really are in time and space.

There is a zingy outdoor sculpture balcony and handsome wedge-shaped glass brick spaces in what the museum folks call the “prow” of the building. These will be punctuated with such sculpture as Jon Borofsky’s ominous cartoon figure, “Hammering Man,” and a commemorative column designed for the museum by Robert Graham. Front galleries have chunky big square windows whose views of Wilshire bring the art into the city and vice versa. Here the New York sensibility works to remind us that we too are a cosmopolitan place.

Chronologically, modern art starts on the top floor and works down to the special-exhibitionsspace, where the inaugural exhibition is “The Spiritual in Art.” Before getting to that (next week), a major question is whether the museum’s modern holdings amount to anything worthwhile, if anything at all. It has all been stored, moved around and underdisplayed for so long as to cause concern as to whether there would be anything to put in this bright new building.

LACMA’s commitment to modern art--to be fairly weighed--has to be seen in the context of the museum’s relative youth and its role and a general history of art museum. The 73,000 square feet of exhibition space here devoted to modern art constitutes about a quarter of the whole display area of the museum. That is a generous bite into 10,000 years of art history. When the separate new Museum of Contemporary Art opens downtown next month, Los Angeles should at last have an institutional profile to match its creative energy.

As to content, LACMA’s modern holdings compare favorably to any U.S. museum of its age and status and are astonishingly improved with each of some 25 rooms including at least one work of considerable note and another couple new to the collection.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the collection has to do with the layout of the rooms, which were installed with great care and intelligence by curator Stephanie Barron.

In the beginning there was the Russian Avant-Garde according to LACMA’s floor plan of the gospel of modernism. That is a piquant idea that sets us thinking again about the kinship between modern art and political revolutions. A handsome small new classic Kandinsky opens a wall to outer space.

From that room we can choose between doors leading to the traditional modernist roots in the school of Paris or another headed for German Expressionism--the great alternate tradition. Choose Deutschland and find a particularly solid representation, including an offbeat masterpiece of wood sculpture by Herman Scherer. French holdings are now graced with an important, elegantly cool Georges Braque analytic Cubist still life.

The whole of Barron’s installation is characterized by thoughtful juxtaposition. The Surrealist gallery, for example, brackets the movement between the ripping Dadaist wit of Man Ray’s nail-studded iron, “Cadeau,” and Picasso’s absorption of Surreal ideas in “Crying Woman” a treasure of the collection.

Sometimes you get the feeling that there just wasn’t enough art of one kind to fill up a gallery so Barron was forced to couple mismatched styles. What has that splendid Stuart Davis to do with that Baroque Diego Rivera? We are gently reminded that these guys were contemporaries whose art was profoundly affected by the left-wing politics that characterized their era.

OK, score one for Barron, but certainly decor overcame history when she plopped one of Giacometti’s incinerated figures down in the Minimalist gallery. It’s pretty interesting on its own the way it weaves together the style’s sources in David Smith’s sculpture, its gorgeous (somewhat vacuous) apogee in Morris Louis and its links to Sam Francis and Richard Diebenkorn. But Giacometti must be here because Minimalist galleries just always look, well, empty . Wrong again. Giacometti was alive and working and he might be considered a Figurative Expressionist Minimalist. That’s a good chew for the mind.

Lets face it. When a collection this young is able to line up prime late Jackson Pollock, vintage Willem de Kooning and passionate Hans Hoffman on one wall, we know we are in an uptown joint.

And California is no mean part of it. One flight down, things get even more contemporary as Barron unfurls the ‘60s and beyond. There are thundering Stellas, spiffy crowd-pleasers from Claes Oldenburg’s giant pool balls to Lucas Samaras’ walk-in hall of mirrors and chic chuckles like Roy Lichtenstein’s “Hello.” But the best of it is a representation of L.A. art more solid than we thought the museum possesed.

Local pride and politics would make it right to celebrate the indigenous on this occasion even if it were not quite so deserving. But a quick pan from Ed Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ‘38” past the Bells, Bengstons, Alexanders, ceramics, post-classic abstractionist et al. comes to rest on Robert Irwin’s famous floating disc, and we are reminded that art has been made here that resonated around the world.

In fact, if this collection gels anywhere it is right here on our own art and that’s right. Travel these days and there is a terrible sameness in the modern galleries. Everybody has their ritual Rothko and their chic Chia. Such works are of course necessary for education and delight, but the only thing that makes museums different is quality, installation and local art. In Germany we want German Expressionism to shine. In Los Angeles you should see L.A. art.

Lets go, I’m wrung out. That was some stimulating museum jaunt but there is this one other detail that bothers. . . .

Stop. You have committed the classic error attendant to new phenomena. You have overlooked the plain existence of the thing.

It is here. It wasn’t here before. That museum visit was impossible last year. Now it is going to be possible all the time. We are wedded to a new partner. We will quibble and bicker and giggle and wonder together. The existence of this thing is going to change the life of this city for the better.