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Artist Xavier Veilhan casts Richard Neutra's VDL House in a new light

In his latest attempt at reimagining a space, the Parisian creates 'Architectone' pieces that encapsulate the Austrian architect's vision at VDL House.

August 18, 2012|By Scott Timberg
  • Xavier Veilhan is photographed with "Mobile (Neutra)," 2012, one of the artworks of his installation "Architectones" on display at the Neutra VDL Research House in Silverlake.
Xavier Veilhan is photographed with "Mobile (Neutra)," 2012,… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The scene could come from a Sofia Coppola movie: Coolly casual Parisian artist, hanging artwork in a stunning Modernist house overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir, while a clutch of young, European-accented hipsters with cameras and video recorders swarm around him to capture his every utterance. Before long, new music composed by a member of the electronica band Air drifts across the place.

But unlike in "Lost in Translation" or "Somewhere,"this is a set on which it's possible to trip over a large aluminum sculpture of California. It's part of the diabolical plan of Xavier Veilhan, a genial Frenchman here installing an art exhibition that responds to the life and work of ground-breaking architect Richard Neutra. Though his pieces — called "Architectones," a term coined by Russian abstract painter Kazimir Malevich — are for sale, they're site-specific works designed for VDL House, Neutra's old home and office on West Silver Lake Drive.

Some of the artworks, silhouettes of various Neutras, a map of the architect's native Austria, a sculpture of the young architect riding a horse while nude, relate directly to Neutra's biography; others fit more loosely. A graceful metallic mobile, for instance, reflects the architect's temperament more than his life story.

Richard Neutra: An Aug. 19 article about an art installation at Richard Neutra's VDL House said the home is on West Silver Lake Drive; it's on Silver Lake Boulevard. —

"It's pretty much all about the ambience," says Veilhan, 49, a sculptor and installation artist with a substantial European profile, wearing a plain gray T-shirt and the aviator shades likely passed out free to Parisians. "And there is nothing like the ambience of Los Angeles at night."

He's talking about the show's opening, which will take place later that evening when VDL House, which Neutra built in 1932 and lived and worked in with his family until his death in 1970, will be even more packed, with a crowd of artists, expats and actors. Partway through a small plane will fly over, pulling a black banner that expresses, in the same way as the show's black silhouettes, the big theme: blankness. "I'm interested in the effect of those outlines," he says, "which are sort of blank so people can project something."

Open House

All this is part of Veilhan's larger ambition to set up this sort of "intervention" — art that reimagines a space or existing artwork, a tradition that goes back to Dada but which has acquired a recent cachet among contemporary artists trying to get beyond the standard white cube gallery show — in Modernist houses across the U.S. and Europe. (

VDL House is simultaneously one of the masterpieces of Modernist architecture — it stares across the reservoir at several others, including John Lautner's Silver Top house — and a neglected child who's been allowed to run wild now and again. (VDL comes from the name of Case H. Van der Leeuw, a patron whose loan helped finance the house.)

Over the years, it's been in various shades of disrepair, and Neutra enthusiasts have both praised its owner Cal Poly Pomona for the house's stewardship and criticized the school for not putting enough money and care into its upkeep. Veilhan's show includes a mirrored piece of the architect's family, whose sale will help fund work on the house's long-troubled roof, and comes during a period of renovation.

Ray Neutra, one of the architect's sons, spoke to a small audience before the opening and recalled growing up as "a guinea pig" in the house. With several structures and more than a dozen entrances, the place resembled, he said, "a pinwheel." He recalled a long list of intellectual and artistic visitors over the years, including a party for Fernand Leger at which Man Ray and Isamu Noguchi showed up.

Speaking of French artists: The genesis of Veilhan's work at Neutra house began with Francois Perrin, an architect and curator who invited Veilhan to visit a number of Modernist homes. "The artist is especially intrigued by the way VDL House suits Le Corbusier's description of a house as "a machine for living in." Several of Veilhan's pieces — including a small car from the year the house was built — nod toward that relationship. He's also struck by the way VDL, with its built-in shelving and minimal external furniture, resembles the self-enclosed design of a car or a boat.

And Perrin thought, after seeing the statues of architects Veilhan installed at the Palace of Versailles in 2009, an excursion into California modernism seemed like a natural.

Veilhan has an interest not only in modernism in general but in how the Southern California variety derived from European models: He sees, for instance, in the lines of Austrian architect Adolf Loos the roots of artist Ed Ruscha's more sensual style.

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