Friday, February 26, 2010

The Getty Center vs. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: From Exhilarating to Depressing

I spent a few days in Los Angeles last week and came away with many highs and lows that can be summed up by the two major museums in the city. I’ll be posting on the Culver City gallery scene later.

Architect Richard Meier’s Getty Center, like the Acropolis, sits on a hill in harmonious balance with nature and itself. A tram brings visitors from a street-level parking structure into this perfect, self-contained world filled with light. It’s a visual delight from every angle.

On the other hand, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA - even the acronym is inharmonious: Lak-Ma - ech) is a mishmash of clashing architectural styles jumbled together into a chaotic mess. The buildings are out of scale and proportion, the galleries are shabby - -the whole place is depressing. There were so few people there it felt like a shunned resort that had seen better days or an old-fashioned natural history museum. Even great art (and there is some) looked pathetic in that environment.

Most surprising was the lack of natural light both inside and OUTSIDE -- almost every courtyard and walkway was covered and/or surrounded by high, blank walls that blocked the light. The run-down galleries housing the permanent collection have dark floors and no natural light -- this in Southern California yet!

The Getty, on the other hand, revels in light. The buildings are clad with creamy white Italian travertine that softly reflects the sun. Strategically placed glass not only allows in light, but reveals some spectacular views (none intrude on the art though). And best of all, a computer-assisted system of louvers and shades adjusts the light so that the it is never direct or blindingly bright.

The light is so glorious, and makes the art look so good, I kept thinking the work was over- restored or fake! Paul Cezanne's Young Italian Woman at a Table absolutely glowed. I guess I never saw a Cezanne under such beautiful natural light before because the simultaneous effects were astounding. I kept telling a friend I was with that I never saw Cezanne paint with such a bright blue before, and he pointed out that I was actually looking at an unpainted area between her fingers and on her scarf, and the color was a simultaneous effect from the adjacent oranges and yellows. Knocked me out.

Paul Cezanne, Young Italian Woman at a Table, c. 1895-1900

And, to top everything off, their dining room served the best food I ever had in a museum (including the Neue Museum’s CafĂ© Sabarsky which is really good), served in a beautiful, large, airy room with spectacular views. It’s a little pricy, but definitely worth it.

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