Spring sprang so gloriously in Los Angeles that I astonished myself by not ever being terrified—driving my rented Mitsubishi up and down freeways, cutting in and out of lanes with the worst of them. My motivation was to see as much of that Southland art cornucopia as I could in three days. Lots.
And I don’t mean parking, although I stumbled upon the greatest boon of all in L.A.—a cheap, convenient (and safe) parking lot. It’s the Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent secret at its Frank Gehry-rehabbed Temporary Contemporary. Just look for Joe’s (I’m not kidding) at the corner of Central and First Streets.
Incidentally, there is DASH bus service from the Union Station that covers, in two intersecting routes, almost everything of interest in downtown L.A. Don’t believe the myth that you’re helpless in L.A. without a car.
But my itinerary that day was from Getty’s old museum in Malibu to Gehry’s new one on Main Street in Santa Monica. The Getty caught my eye because it was capitalizing on the coincidence of Christian Good Friday and the Jewish Passover with a splendid gloss on the Passion of Christ, using its legendary collection of illuminated manuscripts to dazzle the eyes of even this no-longer-believing but nonetheless helpless Romanesque Romantic.
But listen to the curator speak in catalog: “The word ‘passion’ is derived from passio, the Latin word for suffering, of the physical and emotional trials he endured in the days before his death… For Christians in late medieval Europe, the Passion was possibly the Bible’s most significant sequence of events. As in the early Middle Ages, his death was interpreted as a sacrifice for the redemption of mankind, but there was a new meaning as well.
Beginning in the 12th Century, emphasis on Christ’s divinity yielded to a concentration on his humanity, a humanity that found its fullest expression in his death on the cross. Christ was God made man, and his terrible suffering allowed mortals to identify with him and to feel sympathy for him.” Good theology, good history, good English.
This was my first visit to the Getty, and I’d heard so much about how its profligate wealth was destabilizing the art market that I was unprepared for its pedagogical genius. The captions explicating the individual images were, to put it bluntly, the best art crit I’ve encountered anywhere, ever.
Take my favorite image of the 26 in the show (with throwaway side shows around the periphery so good in themselves that you’d gladly go to Malibu just to see them): “The Flagellation” (Psalter, probably Bruges, mid-13th Century).
The captious critic directs he untutored eye to the static Christ, suffering passively. He then shows how the twisted torsos of the whippers add kinetic pain to the composition, even observing shrewdly that the whip of the soldier on the left is all the more painful appearing because of the tip of it breaks through the frame. I do swear, Art 101 at the University of Detroit (1949) was never like that.
Stunned into catatonic euphoria by this brilliance, I ambled into the main hall to see James Ensor’s great diatribe against Belgian Christian complacency, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1889”—painted with mock prophecy in 1888. What curatorial canniness. Just juxtasuppose that the viewers got it.
I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, my mind abuzz with this visual feast, not even wondering which of this seafront manses was Johnny Carson’s, or which was Barbra Streisand’s.
But it’s still L.A., and you have to watch where you shouldn’t be going—in this case the right-hand lane, because you need to spin off left to get into the town proper. Finding Main Street is even trickier, though you end up going past the loveliest Art Deco City Hall in the Far West.
Gehry’s new Santa Monica Art Museum (1989) funkily wraps a diverse strand of shops around the entranceway. It’s almost difficult to find the front door! That’s how Mr. PoMo West removes the curse of overcultivation. (He and Mr. PoMo East, Robert Venturi, actually think that way when they’re designing cultural centers! Don’t dump on me.)
I got sweetly distracted by these forecourt foreplays. Take the Gallery of Functional Art. They were holding their fourth annual hootenanny on “the chair”—99% of which were distinctively abrasive to your median bottom (I insist that you should judge any and every chair a posteriori).
Or the Mercedes Lasarte Gallery, where Ms. Lasarte paints away in plein air for the delectation of the passersby and the burgeoning of her bank balance. Her marvelously lugubrious “Polo in Blue,” which is in the Thyssen Collection, had been black-T-shirted, so I promptly added a copy to my growing collection—now easily the worlds largest such gathering of sartorial trivia.
There is also a Ben and Jerry’s with bovine murals. I amused the hip Maliboob who served me a politically-correct Amazon RainForest Crunch ice cream cone (delicious, despite its ambiguous provenance) by deriding those Ludwig Mies van der Rohe minimalist surfaces as a case of “Less is Moo.” Jokes that bad actually sell in L.A.
Inside, the museum was a different story. The main exhibition rooms featured also-rans from the Helter Skelter show at the Temp Contemp—a survey of the freshest, funkiest visual art now coming out of L.A.
But the back room held the greatest Santa Monica treat: an installation exploring the complex harm wreaked by both anthropologists and tourists on pre-industrial cultures. I’m not much of a site-sculpture fancier, but this one was superb, using light and diverse materials with convincing eloquence.
From medieval Passion to PoMo empassionment, that’s the road you take when you go form the Old Getty to the new Gehry. Exhilarating stuff.
And fly into Burbank, instead of onto tarmacky tacky LAX. Southwest offers seniles like me absurdly cheap flights ($29 from Oakland or Las Vegas). And for booking ahead, Budget gave me a Mitsubishi Gallant for less than $18 a day, mileage free. (And believe me, those miles add up when you’re riding around L.A.)
You don’t even have to plot your moves ahead of time. Pick up the Friday L.A. Times or the Daily News for their great weekend guides. And the L.A. Express or Weekly will give you the more offbeat things that the mainstream media ignore.
I stayed with a girlfriend in L.A., but there are excellent moderately-priced chains with 800 numbers. Travelodge and Econolodge were the two I tried in both Vegas and San Francisco with great satisfaction.
I’ve always felt, when visiting L.A., like a water diviner who fears his magic stick will unwittingly douse him right into a septic tank. Yet I’ve never had a visit in the past 30 years which didn’t provide a few solid and memorable epiphanies.
I assure you the road from Getty to Gehry is like that every season. And probably always will be, as L.A. consolidates its future as the archetypical city of the 21st Century.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 21, 1993