The art of the last-minute project

Times Staff Writer

LACMA director Michael Govan squinted into the sun and watched a weathered forklift cradle a Charles Ray sculpture -- a toy firetruck blown up to the size of a real one and intended to be confused for the real thing. As the sculpture settled into position on the plaza, a Los Angeles firetruck pulled up behind it and a fire marshal climbed out for an inspection.

"I love it that the first visitor was the fire marshal," Govan said. "It was like some kind of apparition."

So was LACMA. On Wednesday, just a day before its unveiling for media from around the world, the museum's revamped campus was still a work in progress. Buzzing around its centerpiece, the $56-million Renzo Piano-designed, travertine-covered Broad Contemporary Art Museum, an army of workers fine-tuned metalwork from cherry pickers, dealt with a forest of two-story palms and worked all night on an elevator shaft that frames a Barbara Kruger mural with haunted eyes and a George Orwell warning from "1984": "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever."

In this maelstrom, the Jeff Koons sculpture "New Hoover Deluxe shampoo polishers" -- aesthetically anointed cleaning equipment lined up on a blanket on a gallery floor -- was easy to confuse with one of the piles belonging to the construction crew.

Jasper Johns' iconic 1967 painting of an American flag was accompanied by a dissonant anthem that could have inspired John Cage. Drills whined, hammers pounded and loud unidentified booms resonated as workers consummated the myriad details that will culminate in the "Birth of BCAM," which opens to the public Feb. 16.

"It's exciting," said Lynn Zelevansky, contemporary art curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"A little too exciting?" Govan asked.

Apparently not. The night before, "with great trepidation," Govan said, he and his staff had asked installers who had hung and labeled works by Warhol and John Baldessari to switch the paintings to opposite ends of the vast third-floor gallery.

Now, Warhol's sexually charged, gunslinging Elvis ambushes viewers at close range, leaning against a wall to the right as they walk in, instead of far across the gallery, where a Baldessari now proclaims: "Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work."

Out on the plaza, the 46 1/2 -foot-long "Firetruck" rested on its big rubber tires, while its sculptor meditated on the uses of his art.

"I haven't seen it in a while, with kids climbing on it and jumping and breaking it," the blue-jeaned Ray said. "They always end up doing it. It kind of invites you to. It can always be fixed. Originally, I thought it could be a kids toy.

"But I don't own it," he reminded himself. It belongs to the Broad Art Foundation.

Was the installation going as planned? "There is no plan," Ray shrugged, making way for the forklift. "Just whatever works."

But Govan and Zelevansky seemed to have a number of plans as they walked briskly through BCAM.

Upstairs, men in heavy construction boots swarmed around the three-story elevator shaft and Kruger mural, called "Untitled (Shafted)." Elevator workers had worked 8 p.m.-to-5 a.m. shifts so the piece could be carefully installed by day.

"We knew it would be last-minute, but I didn't know how last-minute," Govan said. "You're hit with a thousand things at the end. There's the drama."

Still to come? "Last Chance Lost," a Jack Pierson neon sculpture whose title is spelled out in mismatching neon letters that seem to have dropped off one of the forlorn nighttime diners painted by Edward Hopper. Just this week, Govan and his staff changed their mind about where to put it, to give it more impact.

"You can work with models, but they fall short," Govan explained, before walking away to deal with a cellphone call.

Out of the fray are the finished galleries. Zelevansky walked through a quiet assemblage of Ed Ruscha works, then a gallery holding the comic-styled book Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein, pausing before the plaintive young woman of "I . . . I'm Sorry."

It seemed unnaturally still.

"Once art gets on a wall, it's reified somehow," Zelevansky said. "We're having a good time. This is the best time."

Back at the elevator, Govan stopped before a worker who was vigorously rubbing a prominent spot on a central white wall.

"The donor plaque," Govan said with a meaningful look.

A particular donor?

"Guess," he challenged, smiling. "You have one guess."

The plaque was for Edythe and Eli Broad, who recently announced they were lending, not giving, their art to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum -- an 11th-hour revelation that still seems to dwarf every other last-minute detail.

Govan surveyed the vast white walls of the cavernous space. "There's room for more names," he said.

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anne-marie.oconnor@ latimes.com

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