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Since the Louvre, Museums Cut Art Off From Life, But Getty . . .

August 09, 1998|Victoria Newhouse | Victoria Newhouse is the author of "Towards a New Museum."

Ironically, even though it sits smack in the middle of downtown Los Angeles (as many felt the Getty should have), the Museum of Contemporary Art's plain, windowless, white galleries are far more like a secluded sacred space than the museum on the hill. What saves MOCA from the mausoleum syndrome is the skillful way its Japanese architect, Arata Izosaki, has animated galleries with different kinds of natural light and varied the spaces by proportioning them differently. In its reinvention of abstract modern galleries, the building provides an appropriate setting for the modern masters of this collection of art from 1940 to the present.

More attuned, however, to the enormous scale and unconventional mediums of much contemporary art--such as site-specific installations and earthworks--are two commercial sheds renovated by Gehry for MOCA's additional galleries nearby. Created as temporary exhibition space, the now permanent Geffen Contemporary has been remarkably successful due, in large part, to its gritty, real-life quality. The sheds' generous proportions and industrial materials are similar to the spaces in which many artists live and work. Indeed, for centuries artists have shown work in their studios--Peter Paul Rubens is reputed to have done so with particular elegance. The studio is an optimum place to view art in because it provides the same light in which the object was created and offers some evidence of the creative process.

For the current installation at the Geffen of Richard Serra's monumental steel sculptures (one piece alone weighs over 200 tons), the sculptor is able to work just as he does outdoors. MOCA director Richard Koshalek explains, "This is a building that almost doesn't exist because of its complete openness of access." For this coming show, which opens in September, a 30-by-30-foot hole was easily cut in one wall to allow trucks and cranes to drive in, a dramatic acknowledgment of the realities of today's art.

Gehry's recent restructuring of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena doesn't achieve that kind of flexibility, nor is it meant to, for an extraordinary collection of Eastern art and of Western art from the early Renaissance through the modern period. What it has produced is a more lifelike setting, akin to the conditions for which these objects were created. Using relatively modest means, Gehry has installed skylights to enhance paintings meant to be seen in natural illumination. He has replaced undifferentiated corridor-like spaces with intimate rooms painted different colors, he has lightened floor colors and added rugs to end galleries which now punctuate the museum's narrative. Unfortunately, Gehry's wish to introduce more of the world--by adding views to the exterior--was rejected.

In New York, life is less about entertainment than it is in Los Angeles, and more about communication and movement. An architecture student graduating from the City College of New York this spring neatly caught that spirit with a proposal for an Andy Warhol Museum that would be integrated with Manhattan's Astor Place subway station. The underground origins of Pop Art prompted Ghiora Aharoni's prize-winning design that pulls visitors three levels below the street, allowing them views of moving subway cars, while riders in turn are offered glimpses into the museum. Tall, narrow spaces (with exposed ductwork) encourage people to move with the same alacrity with which the art was created.

By making many of the galleries visible from the exterior, Aharoni feels he has brought Warhol's art back to the street, from which the artist originally drew his inspiration. At the same time, Aharoni is subverting the idea of the museum as an impenetrable treasure house. So this proposed rough, subterranean Warhol Museum and the refined hilltop Getty Museum, each in its own way, are bringing art and life together again.

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