The scene could come from a Sofia Coppola movie: Coolly casual Parisian artist, hanging artwork in a stunning Modernist house overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir, while a clutch of young, European-accented hipsters with cameras and video recorders swarm around him to capture his every utterance. Before long, new music composed by a member of the electronica band Air drifts across the place.
But unlike in "Lost in Translation" or "Somewhere,"this is a set on which it's possible to trip over a large aluminum sculpture of California. It's part of the diabolical plan of Xavier Veilhan, a genial Frenchman here installing an art exhibition that responds to the life and work of ground-breaking architect Richard Neutra. Though his pieces — called "Architectones," a term coined by Russian abstract painter Kazimir Malevich — are for sale, they're site-specific works designed for VDL House, Neutra's old home and office on West Silver Lake Drive.
Some of the artworks, silhouettes of various Neutras, a map of the architect's native Austria, a sculpture of the young architect riding a horse while nude, relate directly to Neutra's biography; others fit more loosely. A graceful metallic mobile, for instance, reflects the architect's temperament more than his life story.
FOR THE RECORD:
Richard Neutra: An Aug. 19 article about an art installation at Richard Neutra's VDL House said the home is on West Silver Lake Drive; it's on Silver Lake Boulevard. —
"It's pretty much all about the ambience," says Veilhan, 49, a sculptor and installation artist with a substantial European profile, wearing a plain gray T-shirt and the aviator shades likely passed out free to Parisians. "And there is nothing like the ambience of Los Angeles at night."
He's talking about the show's opening, which will take place later that evening when VDL House, which Neutra built in 1932 and lived and worked in with his family until his death in 1970, will be even more packed, with a crowd of artists, expats and actors. Partway through a small plane will fly over, pulling a black banner that expresses, in the same way as the show's black silhouettes, the big theme: blankness. "I'm interested in the effect of those outlines," he says, "which are sort of blank so people can project something."
All this is part of Veilhan's larger ambition to set up this sort of "intervention" — art that reimagines a space or existing artwork, a tradition that goes back to Dada but which has acquired a recent cachet among contemporary artists trying to get beyond the standard white cube gallery show — in Modernist houses across the U.S. and Europe. (
VDL House is simultaneously one of the masterpieces of Modernist architecture — it stares across the reservoir at several others, including John Lautner's Silver Top house — and a neglected child who's been allowed to run wild now and again. (VDL comes from the name of Case H. Van der Leeuw, a patron whose loan helped finance the house.)
Over the years, it's been in various shades of disrepair, and Neutra enthusiasts have both praised its owner Cal Poly Pomona for the house's stewardship and criticized the school for not putting enough money and care into its upkeep. Veilhan's show includes a mirrored piece of the architect's family, whose sale will help fund work on the house's long-troubled roof, and comes during a period of renovation.
Ray Neutra, one of the architect's sons, spoke to a small audience before the opening and recalled growing up as "a guinea pig" in the house. With several structures and more than a dozen entrances, the place resembled, he said, "a pinwheel." He recalled a long list of intellectual and artistic visitors over the years, including a party for Fernand Leger at which Man Ray and Isamu Noguchi showed up.
Speaking of French artists: The genesis of Veilhan's work at Neutra house began with Francois Perrin, an architect and curator who invited Veilhan to visit a number of Modernist homes. "The artist is especially intrigued by the way VDL House suits Le Corbusier's description of a house as "a machine for living in." Several of Veilhan's pieces — including a small car from the year the house was built — nod toward that relationship. He's also struck by the way VDL, with its built-in shelving and minimal external furniture, resembles the self-enclosed design of a car or a boat.
And Perrin thought, after seeing the statues of architects Veilhan installed at the Palace of Versailles in 2009, an excursion into California modernism seemed like a natural.
Veilhan has an interest not only in modernism in general but in how the Southern California variety derived from European models: He sees, for instance, in the lines of Austrian architect Adolf Loos the roots of artist Ed Ruscha's more sensual style.
"When I visited some of the houses I'd seen in books, I felt what we call the Stendhal syndrome," he says, referring to the disorienting feeling the French novelist felt while visiting the wonders of Florence. "You're almost crying, your emotions are so strong. Feeling the cool wind in Los Angeles gave me a power I could not get from a book. All the things you experience as a physical person in a place."
A Parisian's L.A.
Soon after Veilhan arrived with his family in July he bought a '69 Cadillac Coupe De Ville. Like previous European visitors to Los Angeles, such as the late British architecture writer Reyner Banham, he's fascinated with the city's automobile culture.
"Lots of people live half their lives in their car," he says, "so it's like a second home." He's not being scornful. "One of the best family experiences we've had is driving around and listening to cool music and … not saying anything. Because we're cruising."
Part of what drives the artist's installations — and the artist's vision of the house — is the idea of the city as an eternal Midcentury paradise in which nature and culture are both held in exquisite balance. As the Parisian speaks about the gentle climate and open vistas of California, the spell starts to break a bit: It's a blisteringly hot, uncharacteristically humid day next to a serene body of water that could soon be drained or torn up … and it all starts to seem for a moment like a European's deluded fantasy.
But fantasy or not, Veilhan will be continuing his Architectones in California and elsewhere after his installation closes at VDL House on Sept. 16. Last weekend he installed work at perhaps Los Angeles' most beautifully photographed house: Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #21. Next he will be on to Europe, including a project at Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse in Marseille in the spring.
As for hustling, brash, economically polarized L.A., a very different city than the one Neutra or Leger or Banham encountered in decades past, a month here has captivated him. "I love it," he says. "Could be more than a one-night stand."