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A Place For Modern Art To Hang Out

November 16, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

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.

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