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DISNEY HALL: THE OPENING

Rooted in art

As his buildings demonstrate, architect Frank Gehry has learned much about the flow of space from his friendships with painters and sculptors.

October 19, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Back in the 1980s, when interest in the potential for collaboration between architects and artists was running high, the late art collector Fred Weisman sponsored a private two-day symposium on the perplexing subject. Several dozen international architects, artists, curators, historians and critics gathered around a long rectangular table in a Santa Monica hotel conference room, where discussion ranged wide about the possibilities and pitfalls inherent in the enterprise.

Soon, however, a slightly different agenda emerged. The general concept of collaboration evaporated. The more pressing and pointed issue seemed to be: Could architect Frank Gehry and sculptor Donald Judd collaborate?

Gehry and Judd, seated across from each other, were the twin suns around which the rest of the conference participants orbited. Gehry, famously inspired in his own work as an architect by his many friendships with artists, allowed that he wanted nothing more in his mushrooming career than to work with a sculptor of Judd's exacting gifts. Judd, notoriously contentious, dug in his heels, insisting that the only acceptable way to avoid artistic compromise would be for the architect to be subservient to the artist -- and chances of that happening were nil.

Needless to say, no collaboration between Gehry and Judd, who died in 1994, ever came to pass. But as Gehry's design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall nears its public debut, the influence of the artist on the architect -- whether direct or oblique -- is clear.

Part of Judd's artistic stature derives from his radical invention in the 1960s of a rigorous new conception of sculptural space. His signature form is the open box, variously made from sheet metal, plexiglass, plywood, concrete or some refined combination of rough construction materials.

Sculpture before Judd, whether figurative or abstract, almost invariably took its cue from the human body: The inside was distinct from the outside -- the body as material container for an ineffable soul. Judd eradicated that division. His sculpture has no inside and no outside. Put another way, the inside and the outside are indistinguishable from each other.

Space "inside" a Judd box flows "outside" and vice versa. The boundary between them is erased. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the boundary is all there is -- that the sculpture's objective form is the articulation of a boundary, stripped of its common function as a dividing line.

The implications for such a spatial conception are as much philosophical as formal. For if it is supposed that a work of art is the outer expression of an artist's inner life, what does it mean when terms like "outer" and "inner" no longer apply? What does it mean when body and soul are inseparable? Gone is Aristotle's universe, where matter is the container for an idea. In its place, matter and idea are one.

Gehry's architecture is partly built on conundrums such as this. Yes, it started with the great tradition of Los Angeles domestic architecture, where separations between indoors and outdoors have been blurred since the days of the Spanish hacienda. But Gehry's buildings are of a different order of magnitude. Take his own famous 1978 house on an unremarkable Santa Monica street.

Walls are dismantled, underlying studs exposed and compositions of chain-link fence describe permeable borders. Stand on the kitchen's asphalt floor, reminiscent of an outdoor driveway to the garage, and look into the living room through the picture window in what was formerly an outdoor clapboard wall. The traditional picture-window view is reversed, the distinction between inside and outside erased.

In Gehry's house, you experience being inside and outside simultaneously. Because it happens in a home, where the social dynamics of a family seem exposed, the wondrous experience assumes emotional and psychological colorations. A reflective feeling of unease mingles with a refreshing sense of unfinished possibility.

Gehry has long acknowledged the importance of his friendships with painters and sculptors, and it shows in his buildings. Disney Hall's glamorous skin of stainless steel plates is emblematic. The metal cladding recalls an evocative series of house-sculptures begun in the 1960s by Tony Berlant, covered in carefully nailed sheets of metal snipped from cookie tins, TV trays and other commercial products. In 1965, when painter Billy Al Bengston took whacks at sheet metal with a ball-peen hammer and spray-lacquered the results, the commitment to voluptuous precision from unexpected materials and improbable methods found a receptive audience in Gehry -- who later designed the installations for both of the artist's museum retrospectives.

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