The contrast couldn't be starker.
Earlier this week came disappointing news that prominent collectors Eli
and Edythe Broad had reversed gear, deciding against giving any of their
contemporary art to the building bearing their name that will open at
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next month. Meanwhile, on Sunday,
LACMA will unveil a smashing new installation of its permanent
collection of Modern art, including the extraordinarily munificent gift
of 130 works from Janice and Henri Lazarof, hitherto virtually anonymous
Los Angeles collectors.
Talk about night and day. A perusal of the new
installation is a clear demonstration that a new building is nice, and
it can have beneficial effects for art, but a transformative art
collection is infinitely superior.
LACMA's Modern collection doesn't have a new building, but it does have
22,000 square feet of expansive, handsomely redesigned galleries that
take up the entire plaza level of the Ahmanson Building. (The collection
was formerly in the awkward Anderson Building, which is becoming the
new home to art of the Americas.) An airily uncluttered entry, dark wood
floors, pale gray walls and high ceilings painted jet black yield a
These rooms, sober but not somber, possess an unexpected degree of
elegant stateliness. Interior architectural design has been marshaled to
say, "This matters." The design privileges art, not itself. Neatly
And soon, the atrium that pierces the Ahmanson Building's heart will
reopen with a new grand staircase, running the width of the space. It
leads from the plaza entrance down to ground level and the pathway to a
fresh entry pavilion next door; beyond is the Broad Contemporary Art
Museum, opening next month. Marvelously rethought by architect Renzo
Piano, who is rearranging LACMA's master plan, this historically awkward
atrium -- a volume of nothingness, slicing through the museum's core --
has become a sleek, modern processional space.
The plaza level galleries used to hold a jumble of ancient and American
art, and before that a hodgepodge of English silver and Italian
decorative art. The Modern collection streamlines things. It begins with
20th century European art and continues into postwar American
abstraction, through the early 1970s.
Curator Stephanie Barron has arranged the collection in a predictable
but nonetheless atypical way. As a rule, Modern art history is told from
a French perspective. But LACMA has an enviable track record with
presentations that look east toward avant-garde developments in Germany,
Austria and Russia. Two entrances flanking the atrium direct visitors
into the suite of galleries, one beginning with Paris, the other with
Berlin, Vienna and Moscow. Parity is asserted -- and it certainly holds
The natural circulation path goes left -- which is where the German
Expressionist galleries are, thus smartly italicizing LACMA's difference
from other large museums. The first room is the first prominent,
dedicated space for the impressive graphics collection of the museum's
Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies. (Don't miss
the clips and surprising vintage photographs from the classic film "The
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," shown in a former utility closet.) The
holdings are so extensive that the greatest-hits installation of prints,
drawings and posters by Emil Nolde, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann
and many others constitutes the proverbial iceberg's tip.
In the main German Expressionist gallery, announced by a magnificent
Schmidt-Rottluff painting of a banshee dance, is the museum's remarkable
lineup of four paintings by Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner. A condensed history
of the movement between 1910 and 1922 is told through the work of its
great Berlin master.
An exceptional Kirchner carved-wood figure, on extended loan from a
private collection, adds significantly to the group. It underscores the
power of the museum's own sculptural masterpiece, Hermann Scherer's
"Sleeping Woman With Boy" (1926), in which a traditional Christian
Madonna and Child is reconfigured as a moving totem of pagan urbanity.
There's also the monumental Kurt Schwitters collage "Constellation for
Noble Ladies," which looks as if it could date from 1959 rather than
1919. It's perhaps the finest Schwitters in America. The work's
incorporation of manufactured objects -- a wheel, a light fixture --
connects to the period furniture and other decorative arts incorporated
into the display of painting and sculpture.
The early French Modern art claims some familiar gems, including fine
examples by "the big three." A brooding Blue Period Picasso and
Matisse's five bronze heads of Jeannette (1910-13), plus his great 1919
garden painting, "Tea," are well known. But it's easy to forget that
five years ago, LACMA acquired the artist's proof of Marcel Duchamp's
clever Dada edition "With Hidden Noise" (1916/64).
A ball of twine is held between brass plates, with an unknown object
concealed inside. It's like a child's rattle, mocking the internal,
secret mysteries of art.
The German and French galleries lead to rooms that display the
exceptional collection of the Lazarofs, whose important paintings,
drawings and sculptures by Kandinsky, Klee, Schwitters, Picasso,
Brancusi, Léger and others are instrumental in greatly elevating the
museum's Modern holdings. Take Brancusi's iconic "Bird," the attenuated,
phallic bronze form atop a white marble cylinder.
There are two versions, one from 1925-26 and the other from 1927, and
the subtle variations between them are fascinating. The sizes differ,
and some proportions, but so do the scale relationships between figure
and pedestal. One sculpture feels balanced, poised, like an elegant
creature in liftoff; the other almost broods, with a quiet, precarious
These are the first works by Brancusi to enter LACMA's collection. To
have that long-awaited addition happen in this unusual, provocative
pairing is remarkable.
The 20 Picasso drawings and paintings span the artist's working life. A
small 1905 ink drawing, "Blind Beggar," shows a poor youth with a black
inkblot for an eye, his pants open and his genitals exposed, as if sex
will be his worldly avenue of perception.
Nearby hangs the large 1969 painting "Man and Woman," dominated by an
electrifying palette of chrome yellow, black and white. The vivid,
almost violent rendering of sexual congress completes the
six-decade-long arc begun with the beggar.
In between is my immediate favorite -- a modest, Iberian-style head of a
woman, made in the run-up to 1907's landmark painting, "Les Demoiselles
d'Avignon." It's surprising for its gentle poignancy. Blue, Rose and
imminent Cubist-period Picasso seem jampacked inside.
And speaking of Cubism, Georges Braque's gorgeous little 1912 still
life, rendered on an oval canvas that recalls both a cafe tabletop and a
mirror, is a marvelous complement to LACMA's 1913 Cubist Braque oval
still life. The latter is larger and more imposing, but a bit dull,
while the new addition sparkles.
As the Brancusi works might suggest, the collection is exceptionally
rich in sculpture. Matisse's classical, even archaic 1929 bronze head,
"Henriette III," amplifies the five heads of Jeannette already in the
collection. A comparable elaboration is something that happens time and
again here, not least with Alberto Giacometti.
Seven Giacometti bronzes, spanning 1934 to 1960, now join the two
standing women LACMA owned. (One quibble: The platform on which the
extraordinary group is shown should be moved out from the wall, so a
visitor could see the attenuated sculptures in the round.) The earliest
is a small Cubist skull, a death's head crossed with an almost
geological formation, like a rock, and the most recent is a waist-high
man's head that mysteriously billows up from the floor.
Surprisingly, the object labels reveal that LACMA acquired the Lazarof
collection in 2005 -- news kept under wraps until its public
announcement Dec. 12. The museum had no place to show the works then,
and waiting for this reinstallation was a good idea.
The three Lazarof galleries will remain for the foreseeable future,
since works on paper need to be rotated for conservation purposes, and
that will give us a welcome chance to get acquainted with the gift.
(About 80 of the 130 works are currently up.) But there are no
restrictions on integrating the collection into LACMA's holdings.
European Modern art is not exhaustively chronicled, of course, and there
is much work left for the museum to do. The collection has no paintings
by Kazimir Malevich or Edvard Munch, for example, to name just two
prominent missing persons. But it's certainly more than respectable, and
in some areas considerably more. The distinctive parity granted Eastern
and Western Europe is a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps someday that breeze will blow through the postwar Modern
American galleries, currently overwhelmed with New York School paintings
and sculptures, some of them quite fine. In the same way LACMA gives
equivalence to France and Germany before the war, making for a curiously
appealing presentation, it would be a singular achievement to track
postwar American avant-garde developments on the East and West Coasts.
There is a nice nook with terrific Bay Area figurative paintings by
David Park and Joan Brown, capped by Jay DeFeo's monumental 1959
starburst, "The Jewel." And since abstract painting and sculpture is the
focus, it's nice that the sequence ends with three excellent Hard-edge
paintings by the great John McLaughlin.
He was L.A.'s premier postwar master. From there, head on over to the
Hammer Wing, where "SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and 70s
From LACMA's Collection" is on view through March 30.
By Christopher Knight
For The Los Angeles TImes