LACMA Opens Modern Art Galleries

For the first time in two years, LACMA is offering a systematic display of its permanent collection. That's the collection of 20th-century art of Europe and the Americas, anyway. Curated by Stephanie Barron and Katia Zavistovski, the new modern galleries occupy the top floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. This light-filled space is the literal high point of what has been called Renzo Piano's least successful museum commission. Frank Gehry and Associations collaborated on the installation design.

The resulting galleries are nuanced, accessible, and grounded in scholarship. They could be called conventional in the sense that they are guided by chronology and geography (as opposed to ventriloquism). Like the previous installation, this one starts with German Expressionism, offering a counter-narrative to the familiar Paris-New York history of modernism. But now it mainstreams Latin American modernism with that of Europe and the U.S. coasts and ends with a more California-focused take on assemblage, pop, and conceptualism, with notably more African-American and women artists.

The biggest change is the light. The collection's previous installation in the Ahamanson Building had a basement game room vibe, with almost no natural light. There were many paintings I thought I knew well that now look completely different (and better).

It's unusual for one Pritzker laureate to do a long-term make-over of another's building. Gehry's gallery design is subtle and less stark than Piano's: Think Gehry in the Norton Simon Museum mode. 

The once-sepulchral room of Giacomettis now has a plum accent wall and blonde wood flooring. You can see new details in the sculptures' surfaces.

Piano designed BCAM for the likes of Jeff Koons and Ellsworth Kelly. Some spaces now have additional light-diffusing screens to accommodate more light-sensitive works. There are two dark rooms with no overhead light, for works on paper from the Robert Gore Rifkind and Lazarof collections. 

The Rifkind space currently has a display of graphic work by women Expressionists in Germany. This includes a number of new acquisitions by intriguing though little-known artists. One is Jeanne Mammen, whose pictures of lesbian life in the Weimar Republic are sympathetic, funny, and tart.

Jeanne Mammen, Lesbian Bar, 1930-1932
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Sebastià Junyer Vidal, 1903

A single room shows 20 Picassos in chronological order, clockwise. It's both chronological and not (for the works span 1903 to 1970, nearly the whole timeline of the modern installation). There is still no classic cubist painting by Picasso, but there are half a dozen first-rate works, starting with the great Blue Period Portrait of Sebastià Junyer Vidal.  

Matta's Burn, Baby, Burn, 1965-1966 (background), with Chris Burden's L.A.P.D. Uniforms, 1993, and John. T. Riddle Jr.'s America's Problem Solver, c. 1970. Foreground: Wallace Berman, Topanga Seed, 1969-1970

The surprising nexus of the installation is Matta's Burn Baby Burn, which was previously shown in the Latin American galleries. The cosmopolitan Chilean surrealist never visited L.A., yet his 32-ft. painting was created in reaction to the burning of Watts. It's shown next to a gallery of California Assemblage, a movement born in the ashes.

Surrealism by René Magritte, Pierre Roy (The Storm, 1928), and Yves Tanguy
There are numerous works acquired in the past few years. They're not all great works—LACMA almost never has the budget for that, not since it bought Magritte's Perfidy of Images at auction. The latter is now shown next to a newly added Pierre Roy, a Magic Realist who was once more famous than he is now.
Melvin Edwards, Go, 1980
As shown here, LACMA has made the most progress with mid-20th-century women and artists of color: its first Jacob Lawrence, an early acrylic airbrush painting by Judy Chicago, a small Melvin Edwards Lynch Fragment, assemblages by Betye and Alison Saar, and a large Maren Hassinger, shown effectively in the lobby. Hassinger's wire Sea Anemone rhymes with the Brancusi Bird in Space at the other end of the lobby and marks the enduring influence of biomorphism. Elsewhere an Anne Truitt is wittily juxtaposed with a John McCracken plank.
Installation view of Maren Hassinger's Untitled (Sea Anemone), 1971. Photo (c) by Fredrik Nilsen

Stuart Davis, Premier, 1957; Vija Celmins, Comb, 1970; Judy Chicago, Pasadena Life Savers, Yellow #4, 1969-1970

Ruth Asawa's Untitled (S.027, Hanging), and exterior of Michael McMillan's The Central Meridian, 1981

Franklin Williams, Sixteen Sweet Moments, 1972. Williams received renewed attention in MOCA's 2019 Pattern & Decoration show
Above doorway: Theo van Doesburg, Stained-Glass Composition VIII, 1918-1919
The easiest-to-miss of the new additions is a small panel of modernist stained glass by Theo van Doesburg, the De Stijl rival of Piet Mondrian. Created for a public housing project in Rotterdam, the panel now surmounts the view from Mattise's Tea to Kirchner's Two Women
Installation view, looking past Matisse Jeanettes to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Two Women, 1911-1912/1922

Henri Matisse, Tea, 1919; Cecil de Blaquière Howard, Guitarist, 1915-1917
P.S. I am pretty sure that LACMA is the only place where you can see a first-rate Matisse next to a sculpture by quirky Canadian cubist Cecil de Blaquière Howard; likewise a Verzuz battle between East Coast and West Coast drip painters Jackson Pollock and Knud Merrild.

Jackson Pollock, No. 15, 1950, and Knud Merrild, To Theo Van Gogh, 1951


Anonymous said…
I'm still impressed by how much the Lazarof collection has added to the museum.
Anonymous said…
Wait until LACMA finally puts the Perenchio collection on display and you’ll be even more impressed
Anonymous said…
> They're not all great works — LACMA almost never
> has the budget for that, not since it bought
> Magritte's Perfidy of Images at auction.

If the Govan-Zumthor debacle at least weren't squeezing the black ink out of the museum's budget, the project's flaws and indulgences could be somewhat forgiven. Or if the makeover at least involved an unassailable design, then the cost could be somewhat forgiven. Or if the project didn't run roughshod over some of the museum's supporters through the decades, then the expense and technical flaws could be forgiven.

Marie Antoinette meets three-card monte.
Anonymous said…
Is it too much to hope for the Geffen collection in the Geffen galleries? That and the Perenchino collection would move LACMA to another tier.
Anonymous said…
Jerry Perenchio stated his collection will go to LACMA once he passed away and the museum opened its new campus. He died in 2017 (RIP) and the building is still under construction so hopefully LACMA acquires the collection. However, LACMA has been promised other collections before (Norton Simon, Hammer and Broad) and we know how that went so we'll see...
Anonymous said…
I will say the new modern art galleries are miles ahead of their older galleries in the Ahmanson building. Gone is the dark storage room feeling. It's incredible how much good lighting and clean walls can improve an experience. I really wish LACMA would use a similar setup in the Resnick building for their European and Latin American art. Why so much focus on modern/contemporary art?
Anonymous said…
Is it too much to hope for the Geffen collection in the Geffen galleries? That and the Perenchino collection would move LACMA to another tier.

That's a big hope. Every museum across the country is probably trying to court him into a relationship, no doubt for his collection, and he sees through it. He's given $100M to MOMA so he's got a strong relationship with institutions on the east coast.
Anonymous said…
I have a feeling Geffen will probably have his art sold and the money given to his foundation.