Critic's Notebook: Matthew Marks Gallery design blurs line between art, architecture

The new Matthew Marks Gallery in West Hollywood isn't just the first ground-up building by the 42-year-old Los Angeles architect Peter Zellner. A clean-lined, windowless stucco box on Orange Grove Avenue just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, it is also almost entirely free-standing. Attached on one of its four sides to a mortuary, it is otherwise visible in the round, making it one of the most conspicuous architectural debuts to appear in Southern California in a number of years.

At the same time, Zellner's design operates in large part as the straightforward and accommodating backdrop for an artwork by the 88-year-old artist Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly, who has frequently tiptoed up to and over the line dividing art from architecture during his seven-decade career, designed a simple black rectangular bar, 8 feet high and 40 feet long, to hang along the top of the building. Made of painted aluminum, the untitled sculpture is the culmination of experiments he began in the 1950s, with a collage called "Study for Black and White Panels," and continued in a 1966 painting called "Black Over White."

The result of those facts is a piece of architecture marked by a curious combination of prominence and restraint — and by a certain sublimated ambition. Given a site and client that many young architects would kill for, Zellner was then asked by Marks to turn the front of the gallery into a discreet canvas for a work by an artist twice his age and endlessly better known.

Zellner's design for the gallery is nearly bursting with themes and cultural references, nodding in the direction of artists and architects, including Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi and Ed Ruscha; it is eager to build on the rich and complicated legacy of the architecture of the Los Angeles strip. But its architectural imagination is hidden almost entirely beneath its sprayed-on white-stucco skin.

The inside of the gallery, covering 3,000 square feet, is nearly as simple. A free-standing structure holding bathrooms divides a foyer just inside the front door from a small gallery in the northwest corner; from there you walk into the main exhibition space, an impressive 2,000-square-foot room with walls 16 feet high. Here as in the front, sunlight from chunky, squared-off skylights pours onto a concrete floor. The Edison Price light fixtures overhead are the same ones Kelly uses in his studio in upstate New York. Zellner, who has designed several art studios and galleries, including Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects in Culver City, is entirely familiar with the language of contemporary art and its display.

In a number of ways, the building's plain, carefully rendered stucco skin is a throwback to the Los Angeles art and architecture of the 1960s. Zellner has made a careful study of the stucco boxes produced in that period by Gehry and other architects as well as by anonymous speculative builders. (Gehry's deadpan Danziger Studio on Melrose Avenue near La Brea is an obvious point of reference.) Zellner told me he's also been looking at Venturi's early projects and at Ruscha's seminal study of Los Angeles commercial architecture, "Every Building on the Sunset Strip."

In that sense, the gallery is a time machine set to the mid-1960s. "Black Over White" — which like "Study for Black and White Panels" is now on view inside the gallery, part of an opening show dedicated to Kelly — dates from 1966, as does Ruscha's "Every Building" and Venturi's hugely influential first book, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture." The Danziger Studio, an early breakthrough for Gehry, was completed in 1965, the same year the Ferus Gallery gave Kelly his first solo show in L.A.

I'm ambivalent about the nostalgic vein that so clearly runs through Zellner's design. I share his appreciation for the importance of that work and can see the appeal of celebrating, even valorizing, the relationship between stucco facades and Southern California mass culture. The building is also an effective abstract homage to the billboards of Los Angeles, with the Kelly piece suggesting wordless signage — a strip of black tape over the mouth of a famously chatty streetscape.

The constraints that Marks asked Zellner to work under, to give Kelly pride of place here, are clear enough. (Forget "Black Over White"; the title of this building could be "art over architecture.") But it's rare these days to see a young L.A. architect given such a public stage. It's a pity that the design has nothing new to say about architectural form, design and construction techniques or materials.

The building also has the simple, broad-shouldered profile of a Roman triumphal arch, and its tight-lipped, windowless exterior has something in common with the architecture of crypts, temples and secret societies. But since it's executed in single-story, stucco form, it acts more as a sendup of grandiosity than as something imposing in its own right; it's a Skull and Bones for the region that gave us drive-in doughnut shops and dingbat apartments.

Zellner calls the gallery a "wee monument," and looking at it from the parking lot across the street I was reminded of that scene in "This Is Spinal Tap" in which the band thinks it has commissioned a towering 18-foot-high replica of Stonehenge and instead gets an 18-inch version.

Seen from the alley that runs along its southern edge, meanwhile, the building appears to emerge from a tangle of power lines as a vision of unadorned, snow-white abstraction. From that angle the design suggests the work of many young Tokyo architects, who often shoehorn small but ambitious pieces of stripped-down architecture into tiny sites crowded by wires, signs and generic buildings.

Architectural minimalism of this kind is tough to achieve, especially in West Hollywood and cities like it where design-review boards have a say in a good deal of new construction. John Chase, the chief urban designer for West Hollywood until his sudden death in summer 2010, worked with Zellner to prepare the design for approval; without Chase's influence there might have been serious pressure to trim the roofline with contextually appropriate red tiles.

Despite a couple of small hiccups, including an awkward hood running over the large sliding door near the southeast corner of the building, Zellner has managed to produce a careful, unruffled tribute to several varieties of abstraction.

In the end, what he's tried to pull off is a kind of architectural ventriloquism, saying a good deal about Los Angeles architecture and his own sensibility without letting his building's lips move. Zellner is working furiously to impress but within an exceedingly, almost punitively narrow range. Think of him as a performer who is auditioning for the circus and asked to juggle exactly one ball.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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