Without apparent warning, an iconic mural by artist Kent Twitchell depicting fellow artist Ed Ruscha was painted over Friday, a move Twitchell described as a shock and a violation of laws protecting works of art.
By Friday afternoon, "Ed Ruscha Monument" near the intersection of South Hill Street and Olympic Boulevard had been painted over, but it could not be determined who had ordered the painting or why.
The building where the mural had been houses a Job Corps training center for young adults, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, although local branches often are run by contractors.
Twitchell, a pioneering figure in Los Angeles' relationship to freeway and roadside art, created the six-story work in acrylic paint in the late 1970s and '80s.
"It's always been such a popular piece in the art world and in Los Angeles. I had no idea it was in danger in any way," he said from Sausalito, where he had gone for his daughter's wedding. "To not be notified, to have it be a fait accompli.... It will take a while for the shock to wear off. It was sort of my 'Mona Lisa'; I worked on it for nine years."
Twitchell, who lives and works in Los Angeles, said he had contacted a lawyer and planned to file a lawsuit.
The artist said he was alerted by conservationist Nathan Zakheim, who had been in the early stages of restoring the work and had gone by to see it Friday morning. "I went to get more pictures and take samples," Zakheim said, "and guess what: It was completely painted out."
Zakheim said the piece is nearly unrecoverable.
"Once it's painted over, it's almost impossible to get the paint off," said Zakheim, who has helped restore numerous Southern California murals. "The mural will have to be 80% repainted."
Zakheim said he spoke to an on-site superintendent who referred him to Southern California Contractors. Company President Robert Bustamante declined to comment and referred a reporter to the Labor Department, where a spokesman said he was looking into the matter.
Works of public art are protected by law, including the federal Visual Artists Rights Act. Zakheim said creators of murals typically must be given 90 days to respond before a work can be destroyed.
"We could have protected the piece, we could have protected the paint, we could have hibernated it," Zakheim said, referring to a technique by which a mural is treated with paint that can be removed later. "There are a whole bunch of options besides destroying it."
It was not the first time one of Twitchell's murals had been endangered. His 1974 "Our Woman of the Freeway," visible from the northbound lanes of the 101 Freeway, was painted out by a billboard company in 1986 and vandalized during restoration in 2000. The first incident led to a lawsuit, which the artist won.
Zakheim said the Ruscha piece was equally important. "The mural is published in about 100 art books and periodicals," he said. "It's probably his most known mural. Career-wise, it's like a kick in the gut."