The official opening was nearly two months ago, but the big bang still resonates: the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – and the closely related debut of LACMA’s reinstallation of its own collection of 20th century art. BCAM, as the Broad is “officially” initialed, is big news because it’s big everything. The Renzo Piano box built to house the display of recent-vintage art is expansive and capacious; it feels like a converted warehouse – a European one, to be exact, a row of what resemble external hoists crenellating the edge of its roof. These jagged pointers are in fact the profiles of the skylights that fill BCAM’s top floor with natural light. All the building’s floors are airy with high ceilings, however, and its floor plan(s) lead the viewer on a simple stroll around a central core. It’s hard to get lost in the building (although several middle rooms on the second floor can get slightly disorienting, adding a certain frisson of adventure).
Piano’s BCAM building continues the Wilshire wall LACMA erected when it inaugurated its Anderson Pavilion in 1986, but re-opens it with a somewhat long window that echoes the May Company façade at the Fairfax corner. (That Art Deco monument will be fully integrated into the LACMA campus as part of the development project’s stage two.) It’s the BP (British Petroleum) Plaza that truly punches a hole in this daunting barricade, by opening up the campus at street level and now serving as entrance to both BCAM and LACMA. Still, for its infelicities, Piano’s design serves the art, its visitors, and architecture well. More modest than other recent mega-buildings such as Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall and Cesar Pelli’s Pacific Design Center, Piano’s structure should be celebrated as much for its relative modesty as for its relative monumentality.
The exhibition itself, of work chiefly but not entirely drawn from the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation and the personal collection of the billionaire philanthropist and civic leader, reaches as far back as the 1950s and as far forward as – as, well, the several sculptures commissioned or acquired for strategic sites in and around Piano’s structure. The ground floor’s two immense rooms are each occupied by a Richard Serra “maze” sculpture (talk about getting lost); Barbara Kruger has festooned the central elevator shaft with an especially busy cascade of provocative phrases; and the grounds behind, beside, and before the building – not least in the BP Plaza – feature such immensities as Charles Ray’s gargantuan toy fire engine, a Jeff Koons balloon sculpture blown up to Oldenburgian scale, Robert Irwin’s species-sampling collection of potted palms, and the giddily improbable forest of old Los Angeles streetlights assembled by Chris Burden and kept ablaze (with new wattage-saving bulbs) all night.
These over-scale anti-monuments of course outsize anything inside BCAM, but more than a few items come close: the Broads have lent LACMA some pretty vast sculptures, and paintings, by the likes of Koons and Damien Hirst, and paintings and photomontages of similar size by no less than Andy Warhol and John Baldessari, for starters. But beyond the bigness, the BCAM debut is graced with boldness, brazenness, and beauty, to occasional excess but more often to the heights of the handsome. The selection champions several generations of cutting-edge heroes, from Cy Twombly to Cindy Sherman, and also featuring Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Ed Ruscha, political figurative painter Leon Golub and hallucinatory installationist Mike Kelley.
But before you get lost in the funhouse, before recent art history takes over all your sense of time and space, you must escape BCAM, cross the BP Plaza, and enter what used to be the butt end of LACMA’s main cluster of buildings. The Ahmanson Pavilion, sitting there filled rather indiscriminately with treasures since 1965, now invites you to enter it through a sculpture that dwarfs even the Serra rings and the Koons balloons, the quasi-architectural masterpiece Smoke by Tony Smith, one of the great figures of 1960s Minimal art. Smoke ushers you into another whole dimension of modern art and thought: LACMA’s own collection of 20th century art, now reinstalled on Ahmanson’s ground floor. This display, as currently configured, serves two purposes: to show the museum’s near-encyclopedic holdings of modern art to maximum effect and to introduce and integrate the museum’s latest acquisition coup, the Janice and Henri Lazarof Collection.
The Lazarofs are no Broads – Henri Lazarof is a well-known composer and professor emeritus in UCLA’s music department – but somehow they compiled a hoard of modern masterwork that could quite comfortably comprise its own museum. A dramatic cluster of Alberto Giacometti’s haunting sculptures is the centerpiece, but forceful late-period paintings by Picasso, sprightly geometric works by Fernand Léger and Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee’s little bursts of imagination, and similarly delicious and magical conjurations – many small, but none minor – by various of your modern-art gods comprise an assembly you can’t imagine hung only recently in a house in Westwood. This is where they logically belong, integrated into LACMA’s already impressive chronicle of the modern era.
And, at long last, that chronicle gets its own gracious and exciting treatment. Once hung perfunctorily in the Anderson Pavilion’s upstairs reaches, LACMA’s moderns now bask in the limelight, hung so that they interact and contrast with one another, their correspondence telling what happened, when and where. Two whole rooms toward the front are now devoted to dynamic selections – paintings to posters – from the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionism. And in the back, in galleries as lucid and comfortable as any in BCAM, modernism marches on, from Matisse to Morris Louis, tracing the multiple strands of abstraction and imagination as they interwove through the first two thirds of the last century. If BCAM does a bang-up job of surveying the last four decades, LACMA now does a spectacular show of returning, or at least keeping, the heroes of our youth on their pedestals. Indeed, those old enough to remember the former pre-1980s Museum of Modern Art in New York – the one before even the last makeover, the one whose postwar configuration nurtured art-mad baby-boomers the world over – will see and feel that temple of modernist perfection echoing through this display. Although there’s no Guernica to come sit down in front of in worshipful meditation, there is the same sense of an art-history book come to full, extravagant life, the words swept away by beautiful pictures and expanses of brushstrokes. If BCAM is eye-popping, LACMA’s modern wing is itself now eye-filling – and mind-nourishing.
Words: Peter Frank