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Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Notebook: Art on an architectural scale at LACMA

Critic’s Notebook: Art on an architectural scale at LACMA
Artist Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
(Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)

The campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has changed markedly since Michael Govan took over as director in 2006.

Two gallery buildings by Renzo Piano have opened their doors: the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in 2008 and the Resnick Pavilion two years later. The old May Co. building anchoring the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, which LACMA had for a time planned to renovate for its own use, is slated to hold a film museum run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Govan has meanwhile been working on plans for the eastern side of LACMA with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

None of those projects, though, gives an especially clear view of Govan’s architectural sensibility. The Piano buildings were part of a master plan commissioned from the Italian architect in 2003 by Andrea Rich, Govan’s predecessor, and billionaire art collector and LACMA trustee Eli Broad. The film museum and the Zumthor designs are at this point largely conceptual, years from completion.

So what’s the best way to get a sense of Govan’s architectural priorities for LACMA? Visiting Michael Heizer’s newly installed artwork “Levitated Mass,” surprisingly enough, is a pretty good place to start.

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The huge Heizer piece, which just opened near the northwestern corner of the museum, is the latest of several indications that Govan is seeking to transform the character of the LACMA campus not with architecture in itself but with massive artworks that operate at an architectural scale. In four instances over the last four years, Govan has commissioned or installed pieces of art that are muscular enough to compete with the museum’s gallery buildings.

Designed to be walked across, under, around or through, these works use a range of architectural strategies to win attention. They’re far bigger and more visually dramatic than your average outdoor sculpture, not to mention far more expensive.

Some are connected — directly or indirectly — to the legacy of Land art, the movement that is now the focus of a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary annex in Little Tokyo. You could even argue that Govan is shaping the LACMA campus by relying in part on strategies taken from the Land art playbook: breaking determinedly out of a traditional gallery setting and — in the case of “Levitated Mass” — using chunks of earth as raw material.

That’s not entirely surprising given that before coming to LACMA, Govan ran the New York-based Dia Art Foundation, a major Land art patron from its founding in 1974.

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In an age of rather mindless museum expansion, there is something refreshing about LACMA’s approach. The gigantism of recent art-world buildings, from Seattle to Philadelphia, has grown tiresome. Govan’s idea has been to go for size in the art itself — and then to let that art stand alone.

First came Chris Burden’s “Urban Light,” a collection of cast-iron lampposts painted gray and arranged outside in 2008, along Wilshire, as a kind of abstract, open-air temple. Though Govan would never admit as much publicly, the placement of the artwork, along one edge of an open space that Piano had imagined as a handsome, European-style piazza, signaled that Govan was willing to challenge and even undermine the polite axial symmetry of the master plan he inherited from Piano and his LACMA patrons.

That same year, Govan decided to squeeze Tony Smith’s “Smoke,” a 24-foot-high, 48-foot-wide sculpture made of faceted black-painted aluminum, into the atrium of the Ahmanson Building, newly remade by Piano as an indoor gathering place. The effect there was similar to the one “Urban Light” produced outside. Piano’s design went from foreground to background, from star to supporting player.

A third gesture in the same direction arrived with the 2010 installation of a palm garden by Robert Irwin along the perimeter of the Resnick Pavilion. Anyone familiar with Irwin’s garden at the Getty Center — and his repeated clashes with the Getty’s architect, Richard Meier — could have predicted that his palms were hardly destined to operate as a pretty and neutral backdrop for the pavilion and its travertine facade. Instead, they hold their own against the architecture; growing from raised beds edged in Cor-Ten steel, they suggest a vertical counterpoint to the low-slung Piano building.

Govan has tried to bring other large-scale installations to the museum, though their fate is uncertain. These include a pair of artworks by James Turrell, originally planned for the roof of the May Co. building, and Jeff Koons’ “Train,” a sculpture featuring a 70-foot-long locomotive dangling from a 160-foot-tall crane.

And now there’s “Levitated Mass.” Heizer’s piece, installed directly north of the Resnick Pavilion, is dominated by a boulder, pulled from a Riverside quarry, that is 21 feet tall and 21 feet wide and weighs 340 tons. The rock is suspended over a narrow concrete ramp that descends 15 feet. When you add the depth of the ramp to the height of the rock itself, you have an artwork that as seen from its lowest point is taller than a three-story building.

On a campus with artworks that approach architectural scale, “Levitated Mass” is among the most architectural of all. Like any well-designed building, it doesn’t really come to life until you move through it.

Its character is determined not just by the color and texture of the boulder itself but also by the detailing and proportions of the ramp. To experience the piece, you descend the ramp, you stand in the shadow of the rock and then you ascend. That trajectory is an architectural one; in fact, Heizer has been upfront that he takes cues in his work directly from architecture.

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Heizer was a Land art pioneer, and “Levitated Mass,” drawn from an idea he first sketched out in 1969, relies on some of that movement’s basic philosophy.

But considered alongside the works featured in the MOCA show, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” the Heizer feels tamed, even brought to heel. The most influential Land art breakthroughs — Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” in Utah, or Walter De Maria’s “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico — cover a vast terrain and require a serious pilgrimage to be seen up close.

“Levitated Mass” trades that sense of mystery and isolation for accessibility. You can walk right up to the boulder and touch it, and two minutes later you can be sitting at the outdoor bar at Ray’s, the LACMA restaurant, sipping a drink. This is Land art as Pop, or vice versa: a crowd-pleasing and faintly cartoonish version of the sublime, an earthwork domesticated. The boundaries of the LACMA campus act as the frame that Land art was supposed to be eager to do without.

Still, “Levitated Mass” is an encouraging symbol of LACMA’s direction under Govan. As American museums, seemingly undeterred by the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, continue to expand at a rapid clip, they too often seem to be pursuing square footage for its own sake.

But a few museums are taking a less predictable route. One is the Menil Collection in Houston, which has added to its superb Piano building in careful, measured steps and recently announced that it had chosen the up-and-coming L.A. firm Johnston Marklee to design a small free-standing gallery for works on paper.

Another is LACMA. It’s unclear how Govan’s strategy of commissioning artworks for the museum that are nearly as big as new buildings will turn out in the end. And it may be that the Zumthor expansion, if it is ever built, will overshadow or even overwhelm the pieces by Burden, Smith, Irwin and Heizer as physical landmarks on the LACMA campus.

For the time being, however, Govan’s architectural track record is being forged not by buildings but by art — piece by gigantic piece.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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