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LACMA's Classy Redesign Puts Focus on Modern Art

Posted By Administration, Saturday, January 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

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 pleasant surprise.

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 done.

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 up.

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 drama.

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

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