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ARCHITECTURE : REVIEW : Danger: Walls With an Attitude : The design firm Coop Himmelblau combines European modernism and California experimentation in two LACMA installations

December 19, 1993|THOMAS S. HINES | Thomas S. Hines is professor of history and architecture at UCLA. His books include "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture" (1982).

Whereas the "Utopias" installation supports that show's frequently mystical aura of sublime Expressionist fantasy, the Heartfield installation is appropriately more direct and loud. Choosing starkly painted walls rather than the natural surfaces of the "Utopias" installation, the designers display the original Heartfield materials on tilted surfaces while projecting overhead vast enlargements of the same startling images. While MOMA's New York installation was a noncommittal lineup of objects along the gallery's walls, the LACMA-Himmelblau installation heightens the explosive, in-your-face nature of Heartfield's confrontational art.

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In this complex double installation, several flaws mar an otherwise perfect achievement. In both shows, certain labels and texts are difficult to read because they are placed out of convenient eye range or because they are printed in too small a typeface on transparent, reflecting surfaces. In the visually compelling and historically edifying slide show at the rear of the exhibit, wretched acoustics render the narration almost inaudible.

The curators claim that high costs prevented the proper acoustical insulation--a problem that in better financial times could have been easily solved with a call to a sympathetic board member or museum patron. Even, however, in these worst of times, the relatively generous funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and other agencies should have been stretched to cover such essential educational items.

When 4-year-old Allyson Onoye recently visited the Heartfield exhibition with her grandfather, she nearly bumped her head on a sharply protruding wall and made the observation that this was a "dangerous" show. While the museum should try to "childproof" its exhibitions if it wishes to engage the coming generation, Allyson's characterization of the show as dangerous was more complexly insightful than she knew.

The savage truths of Heartfield's montages would indeed seem dangerous to the Nazis he would ridicule so mercilessly in the 1930s. They would also seem dangerous to the rulers of East Germany, where Heartfield, the socialist, languished as a non-person until his lonely death in the 1960s. Likewise, many of the Expressionist utopian visions would seem so dangerous to the Nazis for many of the same reasons that they declared them degenerate and banished them from sight.

In other ways, ironically, various Expressionist motifs, especially the use of "columns of light," seem dangerous in retrospect in predicting the Nazi spectacles of Goebbels, Speer, and Riefenstahl.

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For anyone interested in the potential of design in both its brighter and darker moments, from the early-20th-Century objects on view to the late-20th installation of them, "Expressionist Utopias" and "John Heartfield" are not to be missed. LACMA, particularly, in its winter of discontent, should be applauded for such an adventurous and successful achievement. In fact, the convergence of talents in the conception and installations of these remarkable exhibitions constitutes a memorable event in the city's cultural history.

* "John Heartfield: Photomontages," through Jan. 2, and "Expressionist Utopias: Paradise, Metropolis, Architectural Fantasy," through Jan. 16, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Wed.-Thur., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Call for holiday hours: (213) 857-6000.

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