Beyond Buildings


Better than the Buildings: LACMA's Sculptures

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Sometimes buildings with the best intentions are boring. That certainly is the case with the latest additions to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s collection of completely disparate objects trying not to sink into the La Brea Tar Pits. For all their smoothly functioning blandness, about which I will write this spring for an art publication, what struck me on a visit last weekend was how good the additions made one particular kind of art look: public sculpture. Three of those big objects looked so good that they gave lie to the ability of architecture to frame and define space.


Chris Burden's Urban Lights. Photo: Stefano Paltera, Los Angeles Times


The most visible of these is Chris Burden’s Urban Lights. This forest of salvaged street lamps stands between the back of William Pereira’s Ahmanson Building and its grossly overscaled and ridiculously detailed Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates addition and the new Renzo Piano–designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum wing, defining LACMA’s new entrance plaza. It is a fever dream of LA noir, evoking Bogie and bogeymen lurking behind each lamppost. It is also a good modernist array of identical objects whose repetition creates an order that is as much about the idea of system as it is a reference to anything else. Finally, it presents a kind of horror vacui, a moment of intensity in LA’s distention. If only the rest ofthe  LACMA (including the original buildings) were this full of associations, references, and spatial clarity.


Tony Smith's Smoke. Courtesy: Artnet

Against the frenetic quality of Burden’s system, Tony Smith’s sculpture, Smoke, from 1968 and refabricated in 2005, presents a twist: Polyhedral members form a lattice work that almost completely fills Ahmanson’s lower lobby. For those who enter the museum complex from the east, the Smith is a marker in the motion through this cross between a modernist box and a classical monument (with few of the good qualities of either), plus the latest additions. Steps taking up the whole atrium sweep you down right into the claws of this black beast. Its geometry seems to me to be an extraction or residue of the building’s skeleton, having shed its veneer of stone and stucco, as well as the many walls that make it into a rabbit warren, emerging as a carbon crystal of crazed perfection.


Band by Richard Serra. Courtesy LACMA.


Sequence by Richard Serra. Photo: Lorenz Kienzle, courtesy ArtInfo.


The most expressive of this monumental triad is the duo of Richard Serra sculptures that occupy, probably for all eternity, the first floor of the Broad building. Called Band and Sequence, these spiraling constructions take the sculptor’s swags of cor-ten steel into the realm of the rococo. Instead of the usual single spiral, S-curve, or boat shape, these pieces are labyrinths in which you find yourself tracing paths that lead you to hidden chambers within layers of leaning walls. As always, the sense of space and form unwrapping in a continuous movement, with the steel’s mottled skin reinforcing the sense of a plane without focus, always refuses to establish one perspective. The curves intimate geometry without ever stating it, and liquefy your perception of space. The difference here is the architectural marche, or movement through a sequence of spaces to a central holy of holies.

There are other monumental sculptures at LACMA, and someday these three will be joined by the biggest of all of them, Jeff Koons’ train hanging above our heads from a crane, but for now these three pieces make a major contribution to our understanding of how to make space, form, and place.  I know, I know, they do not have toilets, they do not keep the rain or sun out, and they do not do many of the other things buildings do. But if we can learn the essential lessons of these structures, perhaps our buildings might be better.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.