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The Broad Museum of Contemporary Art

The Broad Museum of Contemporary Art

Dec. 14, 2015

The Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened September 20 in Downtown Los Angeles, will be, its benefactor Eli Broad hopes, the crown jewel of a reconfigured Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill, the long-awaited “civic and cultural center for a region of 15 million people.” Broad and his wife, Edythe, have invested considerable capital in making this notion a reality, spending $800 million over the years on LA’s cultural institutions, much of it on Grand Avenue, including major gifts to the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street and Walt Disney Concert Hall next door, for which they led the construction capital campaign in the 1990s. (These in addition to giving $60 million to build the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the LA County Museum of Art campus on Wilshire Boulevard.)

What the $140 million building isn’t is a contribution to the LA’s cultural life in the 21st century. Instead it represents the final monument to the powerful institutions that dominated Southern California in the last century: the region’s Growth Machine, an interlocking suburban industrial complex made up of developers, banks, insurance companies, newspapers, and the government agencies that supplied the services and infrastructure to support their business model.

Eli Broad made his money first in mass-producing suburban tract houses, beginning in 1957 in the Detroit suburbs, before moving on to Phoenix and Los Angeles. He used the stock market to leverage his wealth, taking his company KB Homes public, as he later did with SunAmerica, the insurance and retirement savings giant he founded in 1971 and sold to AIG in 1999 for $18 billion. His name-plated museum will be in good company on Grand, joining the three original 1967 buildings of the Music Center: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, paid for by the family fortune anchored by the virulently pro-development Los Angeles Times, the Ahmanson Theater, funded by Howard Ahmanson, the owner of Home Savings & Loan, a major financier of Southern California’s suburban expansion, and the Mark Taper Forum, named for the housing tract developer who built the city of Lakewood, and swaths of Norwalk and Compton, before founding a Beverly Hills bank. The Music Center’s fourth venue, Disney Hall, is named for the man who sited Disneyland in 1955 in a bulldozed orange grove alongside the brand-new Interstate 5 being extended from Downtown LA into the new suburban frontier of Orange County.

These benefactors got fabulously wealthy by cracking the code of postwar American development: obtaining cheap land on the periphery of cities, financing on good terms (owning one’s own bank helped), and getting the government to underwrite the highways, electricity, mortgage insurance, tax deductions, and defense industry jobs that made suburbia possible. Possible, that is, for white people exclusively—in the era of unchallenged white supremacy, suburbia was closed to others, and was in no small part fueled by White Flight away from the diversity of central cities to areas where “good schools” and “low crime” were watchwords for racial and class homogeneity.

The irony is that the only immediate progress for racial equality achieved in those decades didn’t come with the Civil Rights laws aimed at black Americans—since that revolution hasn’t even yet fully paid off for millions—but the grudging acceptance of Jews as “white,” especially if they were if wealthy enough. In the mid-60s, WASP socialite Dorothy Chandler reached out to Mark Taper, a Jew born in Poland, for a million dollars to complete the Music Center. Eli Broad, born in the Bronx to Lithuanian Jewish parents, follows his footsteps down Grand Avenue.

It is useful to recall that Bunker Hill was once a diverse working class neighborhood, bulldozed in the 60s at taxpayer expense to build high-rise banks and freeway ramps for the white-collar suburbanites who worked in them. It is appropriate that the true jewel of Downtown’s civic crown is the Department of Water and Power building, a 1961 modernist icon that dominates the hill. City Hall’s position at the low end of Grand Park makes clear where power has lain since the days of William Mulholland. This infrastructural legacy is honored a few blocks down First Street by the CalTrans District 7 HQ, whose plaza is unsurprisingly named for Eli & Edythe Broad.

Lining both sides of Grand Park and the crossing streets below Grand Avenue is a parade of stolid buildings housing the rest of the government apparatus that maintains order

in this “region of 15 million people”—making up what Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, called the “carceral universe” of police, courts, prisons, and probation, immigration, and administrative agencies. On the main axis are the LA County Sheriff, LA Superior Court, Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, and LA County Superior Court; just off the park are the US District Court, Hall of Justice, US Bankruptcy Court, Roybal Federal Building containing the US Marshall’s Service, the General Services Administration, Citizenship and Immigration Service, LA Fire Department, LA Police Department’s new headquarters building and old one at Parker Center, and of course, the Los Angeles Times building. Not far away is the densest concentration of prisons in America: the Men’s Central Jail, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, and the Metropolitan Detention Center.

The majority were built in the decades of the postwar suburban boom in some variation of neo-classical modernism—a dull idiom of white, symmetrical facades studded with regular windows and no ornamentation, often employing precast concrete panels. Think of the buildings of William Perreira, who designed half of the short, white skyscrapers on Wilshire Boulevard, or those ubiquitous Home Savings branches around the region, white boxes livened up with cheerfully bright mosaics of suburban families having fun at the beach. The Broad, despite its promoters’ rhetoric of innovative design, is of a piece: a box wrapped in white, precast panels—the “veil” that hides the “vault” within, a dark concrete bunker where the art is stored. It not only looks like a 1960s bank, it acts like a 1960s bank, this one for billionaire art collectors. The art collection is a perfect match: canonical examples from all the usual suspects of the American Century—Abstract Expressionists like Rauschenberg and Johns, Pop Artists like Warhol and Liechtenstein, and their Postmodern offspring, like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Setting aside the fact that the collection, while made up of quality art from quality artists, feels like a children’s version of contemporary art history: each work being among the easiest, and most colorful, of each artist’s oeuvre, so that the whole feels like a department store version of New York’sMoMA collection: super-bright and sticky-sweet. There is little that is new, little that is from Los Angeles, even less that is from the current century.

In spite of its splash, The Broad is already largely irrelevant to the cultural life of the vast majority of Angelenos, and will have little to say about their future. It may be a fitting monument to last century’s power structure, but the Growth Machine that it implicitly celebrates has broken down. A few blocks away the freeways are gridlocked and crumbling, homeless camps and luxury lofts alike proliferate, while affordable housing is a disappearing dream and the public schools lack the resources to teach art in the classroom. What LA needs isn’t more fancy architecture on top of the hill, but a new blueprint for building a 21st century global city, integrating its civic-minded elite and its broadest cultural ambitions. Art institutions ought to be down in the city, where real people live, and be about making, not buying; about inspiring, not showing off. They should be about art, not architecture—like the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, an old warehouse simply redesigned for what it can stage, not for what it owns. Or better yet, like Inner City Arts, in Skid Row, an (admittedly high-architectural) arts campus where thousands of school children are given the opportunity to learn about, and make their own, art, every year, in a city where arts education has been largely stripped from the public schools.

Let’s enjoy the billionaire’s $140 million gift, and then move on to creating a truly vibrant Los Angeles, with a creative built environment to match its artistic and cultural diversity.

James Turrell at LACMA

Review by Wade Graham,


for The Santa Barbara Independent



James Turrell: A Retrospective


Los Angeles County Museum of Art

On View: May 26, 2013 – April 6, 2014



2013 is looking to be the Year of Turrell. As the biggest and first of six concurrent, separately-curated exhibitions about to open—also at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 9-September 22, 2013), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (June 21-September 25, 2013), LACMA’s show anchors a sort of national retrospective of the artist’s five-decade career. It is truly enormous: with nearly 50 works, occupying 33,000 square feet—the entire 2nd floor of the museum’s Broad Contemporary building and a third of its Resnick Pavilion.

Moreso than almost any artist besides Christo, Turrell’s work requires leagues of real estate—because it is about space itself, using carefully controlled light effects to explore how we experience the dimensional world. Several of the exhibition rooms are taken up with fairly conventional, small objects: prints, holograms, photographs, or models, such as those of Turrell’s unfinished magnum opus in the Arizona desert, the Roden Crater Project. But the main events at LACMA are the light spaces: a typical Turrell exhibit features one; here there are 10, each work a room of its own, some the size of a theater.

Turrell became interested in the processes of human perception in the 1960s, when he formed part of a loose group of LA artists dubbed the Light & Space movement, centered around the Santa Monica neighborhood of Ocean Park. There, in 1966, Turrell rented the Mendota Hotel and began experimenting: painting over windows, then opening apertures in the building’s skin to allow selections of outside light inside a room, changing with the passage of day and night.  Then he learned to “materialize” light: projecting it to make depth and volume appear where none is. LACMA has several elegant examples from this period, including: “Afrum (White)” 1966, where a cube appears to extend from a wall; and “Juke, Green” (1968), where light seems to pour into an open window where there is really just a wall.

He moved on to creating the appearance of flatness where there is depth, such as in his

famous “Skyspaces” which frame a piece of sky, flattening it into a plane—there are none in the show, but a room is devoted to pictures and plans of the more than 75 he has made all over the world. But three works in a row provide some of the show’s highlights: “Key Lime,” “Wide Glass,” and “St Elmo’s Breath” are eerie rooms in which one is challenged to tell whether an apparently flat surface is actually a large room, or an apparently deep room in fact a flat surface. Inside these conundrums, the confusion and evolving awareness are exhilarating.

Viewing a Turrell installation is all about seeing how we see: the color and intensity of light continuously change, near the limits of perceptibility, sometimes subtly manipulated by the artist, often produced by our own brains. It is hard to tell, and this is the point—the uncertainty that illuminates perception. Turrell explained: “We all know the sky is blue, but it’s blue because we give it its blueness. We all have prejudiced perception, or perception that we’ve learned. And I like to push that a bit.”

It is also about being: being in the work, that is. Commitment is required: of time, physical presence, and awareness—not exactly anything as effortfull as attention, but simple attendance. To attend means both to be there and to wait. At LACMA, waiting is literally part of the show, as several of the works are designed to be seen by only a few people at a time, and staff limit the number allowed inside. “Breathing Light,” a species of what the artist calls a “Ganzfeld,” accommodates only four at a time, for as long as one likes. My advice is, take the time: the longer you attend, the more the seemingly flat field of color before you subtly gathers depth, and gradually the boundaries between it and the rest of the room begin to blur, and flicker, and who knows what else, given enough time. These are lucid hallucinations.

Befitting its ‘60s roots, Turrell’s art is like a drug experience, without the drug: you take it, wait for it to come on, and marvel as odd things happen in your mind. The medical analogy is not accidental: Turrell’s art is fundamentally somatic. The point is driven home in “Light Reinfall” (1969) a species of what the artist calls a “Perceptual Cell”: a sphere illuminated inside by blue neon light into which two young women in white lab coats slide a single, shoeless person on a tray—just like a CT scan. Each viewer is allotted 12 minutes inside. Tickets are allocated for three people per hour. With such limitations on attendance required to ensure full immersive attendance in the works, one can see why the museum plans to keep the show open for 10 months.   

Though the artist has continued to fine-tune his techniques in producing such effects and insights, the art remains firmly rooted in the ‘60s, when a fascination with individual sensory experience gripped the art world and the larger culture. Being immersed in a large, expensive installation all by oneself is a rare luxury these days, and surely the height of solipsism—especially when the culture and the planet have more pressing issues to confront. And yet Turrell’s art is a solipsism of awareness—of a demanding, even monastic type we struggle to attain in this twitter universe of fast-twitch continuous self-promotion, aspiration and dissatisfaction. It can be thought of as a kind of practice, not unlike meditation, that promises to reconnect us to the world by making us aware of how we experience it, and in so doing, shape it.



Published April 11th, 2012 by Wade Graham

LETTER FROM LONDON: David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at London’s Royal Academy (closed Apr. 9) was a smash hit even in a London season inundated with blockbuster exhibitions ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Francis Bacon. An astonishing number of Hockney landscapes — more than 150 — filled the walls. Some of them, like “Winter Timber” (2009), which covers 15 canvasses, are huge — a bigger picture indeed. Others of more modest size were hung in vast phalanxes. There was a whole wall of watercolors, for instance, and 50-odd iPad works printed on large paper covered three enormous gallery walls in floor-to-ceiling grids. And, except for one smaller room containing a retrospective of landscapes that Hockney had painted elsewhere, the show was made up entirely of recent work depicting the fields and woods of Hockney’s native Yorkshire, in the north of England, where the artist had returned in recent years to tend to his ailing mother.

This is East Yorkshire as it has surely never been seen before: bright and sunny, its blue skies crowded with white scudding clouds, its woods, copses, and banks of flowering hedges open and inviting. In contrast to some of his earlier, psychologically more complex works, these are simple, almost childlike celebrations of country roadside scenes, made exuberant by their intense color. “Tunnels,” or views down tree-lined dirt lanes, are rendered in striped purples and oranges, as if in Van Gogh’s Arles. Especially wonderful are the hawthorn hedges covered in creaming flowers, the most orgasmic of them like frothing masses of caterpillars, irresistible and (unintentionally?) comic. The expressions of an old man confronting mortality as he cares for his declining mother, these works celebrate life and fecundity and the continued promise of fertility of the natal place.

the arrival of spring in woldgate, e yorkshire, in 2001

the arrival of spring in woldgate, e yorkshire, in 2001

But questions grew as I stumbled along, trying not to bump into the other, seemingly equally perplexed visitors to this crowded exhibition. Hockney’s pop-inspired appropriation of impressionism is certainly facile, but it’s uninteresting without some social observation, intervention, or purpose. Perhaps the works are subversive, but how far does rendering the English countryside in colors normally reserved for tropical effects go in helping us see the North of England not just in a new color scheme, but in a new light? The relentlessness of Hockney’s summery effect is suspect: There are few deep shadows or dark clouds, and even the autumn scenes are sun-bright. Every Hockney tunnel has a light at the end of it; those that aren’t sunstruck are perhaps gray but never dark, and none are even remotely foreboding.

I heard one visitor say that “these paintings are lifting my mood,” and indeed many in the crowd seemed to want to feel that happiness. Bright color can do that — witness the shared palette of children’s TV and eye-candy advertising. Here, the relentlessness of the cheer works like Prozac — this is Pharmaceutical Art.

Hockney has made me want to see East Yorkshire, but not because I want to locate his sunny views. The Daily Telegraph reports that the actual landscapes Hockney worked in are often choked in litter from “fly-tipping” — illegal trash dumping. And nowhere in these happy scenes of rural splendor are there any complications of people (not a one), or buildings, or actions economic, political, historical, or psychological. There is a total absence of real life, rain, and vexation. Absent, too — and probably not coincidentally — are complications like aging and death. Many of these pictures will no doubt become perennial favorites in print shops everywhere, next to their impressionist models. But I wonder whether the industrious Hockney, who worked so busily on these that he turned down an offer to paint the Queen, is guilty of the sin of omission, or far worse, of evasion. Surely it is a missed chance for landscape painting to reflect on landscape, not just on the painter.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture will be at Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao from May 15 until September 30 and at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, from October 29 until February 4, 2013.

“Hand Eye Heart” E Yorkshire watercolor

“Hand Eye Heart” E Yorkshire watercolor

Victor Hugo Zayas

Victor Hugo Zayas

February 27, 2012

Like his name, the paintings of Victor Hugo Zayas recall the passions of late 19th century art: his oils are bold, romantic, luminous and seemingly in motion, alive with an astonishing energy. The pigment is layered on in thick, wavelike swirls of deep contrast and color so saturated that it appears wet, as though the paint had not finished drying. (It has: the canvases in this show—landscapes, cityscapes, still lives, and figures—are selected from 20 years’ of the artists’ work.)

Born in Mazatlan in 1961, Zayas came to the United States in 1979, receiving BFAs from United States International University and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. For over 20 years, he has lived and worked around Downtown LA. Painting on rooftops at night, and in Elysian Park and along the Los Angeles River by day, Zayas has captured a wide range of expressionist scenes of the city swathed in fog, smoke, and light. Many of these paintings recall Turner’s darkest Thames riverscapes, rendering an emphatically urban world as a darkly enchanted landscape, a kind of industrial pastoral of constant change and rough vitality.

Nearly a decade ago, Victor Hugo Zayas was offered studio space in South-Central Los Angeles at a rent he couldn’t refuse. There he found himself painting in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the US, an area riven by gangs and violence. In response to the need that she saw there, his then-girlfriend opened a community-oriented café in his studio space. Zayas himself turned down a teaching position at Art Center and instead asked the school to fund him to start the Maestro Fine Art Program in 2005, teaching art to 50 local kids.

Officers of the LAPD soon took note, and came in to offer their encouragement. They included Charlie Beck, then a division commander and since 2009 LA’s chief of police, who befriended Zayas, discussing with him the possibility of making art from some of the guns that the police department was collecting off of the streets in its Gun Buyback program. It took four years. Then, earlier this year, two tons of the guns, shredded and crushed down into a mass of twisted metal, were delivered to the artist’s studio.

He began welding and assembling, wondering, “How do I take something negative and make it positive?” Gradually, portraits began to appear—visages, and profiles, often of people he knew. From Francisco Goya on, Zayas said “the idea of making a portrait of violence is a tradition.” Yet, he asked himself: “How do I make portraits out of metal? Portraits have an energy—how do I capture it?”

The results are arresting: flowing coagulations of twisted metal gunbarrels, revolver cylinders, and shafts, looking at first like improbable trees. On closer inspection, faces emerge from the wreckage. They are equal parts the Terminator and Alberto Giacommetti—eerily realistic and oddly touching. In Victor Hugo’s hands, the guns have become bodies, fluid, vital, and alive. No longer capable of taking life, they’ve been transformed into something life-affirming—the faces of friends and loved-ones. Like the proverbial transformation of swords into ploughshares, this is a patient, deliberate, and necessary alchemy, a demonstration of art’s power to transform consciousness and lives.

Guest Curator Gregorio Luke saw this power demonstrated at an event for relatives of crime victims at which a photograph of one of Zayas’ gun sculptures was shown. He was worried at first about the crowd’s reaction. “These are people who have lost brothers, sons, daughters, parents. No amount of longer sentencing, no number of increased arrests, can heal their hearts. How could a sculpture not seem trivial?” Yet, when the image was unveiled, “The energy in the room completely changed,” he said. “I felt a transformation in the content of the conversation. I never realized art could be so meaningful.“


Victor Hugo Zalas: Mi Obra at the Laguna Museum of Art through April 29