The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) takes up several whole blocks, its rolling campus nestled in the shabby/chic mid-city district of L.A. Driving down Wilshire, it’s hard to miss; just look for the telltale field of vintage lamps nestled between the La Brea Tar Pits and the Petersen Automotive Museum, that otherworldly tangle of red and silver undulating metallic strips that looks like a spaceship crashed in the middle of the city.
The largest museum on the West Coast, LACMA’s cluster of blocky and imposing buildings houses an impressive collection of art spanning continents and centuries, from antiquity to the present day. But where to even begin to admire its more than 57,000 pieces of art? Never fear! To make the trip a little less daunting, we’ve given LACMA the millennial treatment, handpicking a shortlist of work from the permanent collection and dusting them off for the digital age. So shimmy into your museum pants, pack a scarf because it gets chilly, fuel up with a matcha latte from Coffee & Milk and we’ll meet you at Urban Light at 11. It’s a date 😉
Chris Burden, Urban Lights (2008)
Enter LACMA from the Wilshire side to walk through one of the most iconic (read: Instagrammed) landmarks in all of L.A., Chris Burden’s Urban Light. Many a sorority girl has gone diving in this sea of 1920s and ‘30s vintage lampposts, fishing for the perfect shot with her formal date, and on any given day, you can spot a sizable gaggle of tourists wading through the 2008 assemblage, wielding selfie sticks, naturally. To offset the piece’s not insignificant energy demands, the 202 bulbs have recently gone LED just in time for the sculpture’s tenth anniversary, the green shift financed by none other than the Leonardo DiCaprio foundation (in addition to models, newsboy caps and beach volleyball, the man is passionate about saving the earth).
Get your snaps quick because we’ve got quite the trek ahead of us. On the docket today is the Modern Art floor of the Ahmanson Building, the museum’s central hub that houses an impressive collection of ancient, European and modern art, including a gallery devoted to German Expressionism, as well as art of the Pacific, Islamic art and South and Southeast Asian art. If that seems to cover most if not all of your Art History 101 textbook and you’re wondering what the hell is in the other five buildings, it’s not, unfortunately, a cat museum or an exhibit of every ice cream flavor in the world, complete with generous samples. Instead, it houses rotating exhibits, American art (including decorative, ancient and Latin American), contemporary art, Chinese, Japanese and Korean art, and photography.
Tony Smith, Smoke (1967, fabricated 2005)
Our tour kicks off on the second floor landing, but to get there, you’ll have to pass under the towering black sculpture watching over museum visitors, stern and pompous like a Brooklynn bouncer on his first day on the job. If we’re to believe the artist, the sculpture looks like “the skeleton of a cloud”; American minimalist sculptor Tony Smith’s grand oeuvre, Smoke was assembled for the first time in full in 2005, long after the artist’s death, here at LACMA.
Henri Matisse, La Gerbe (1953)
Glide under its tendrils, pause to admire the structured underbelly of the beast, then mount the stairs and take a right to find yourself face to face with Matisse’s La Gerbe, a ceramic wall commissioned for the patio of indomitable Frances L. Brody, OG badass who told herself, at age 14, “Well, you’re not going to be any beauty, so you’d better just be yourself and have a good time,” and her husband Sidney. The couple were big collectors, patrons and perennial fixtures on the L.A. art scene for decades. Though Matisse designed and executed the work in the last years of his life in his studio near Nice, the piece has a breezy Southern Californian air, clearly dreamed up with the region’s climate, flora and even specific breed of hazy sunlight in mind. Or maybe Matisse was inspired by a different local feature: a $15 salad from Greenleaf with eight different kinds of heirloom kale.
Wassily Kandinsky, Untitled Improvisation III (1914)
Next up is the bright, acidic, otherworldly palette of the German Expressionism and Bauhaus gallery. Pause from a quick meditation in front of Kandinsky’s Untitled Improvisation III. An expressionist who, like your elementary school art teacher, was a firm believer in the freestyle technique of “paint your feelings,” Kandinsky leaves us to wonder just what was on his mind and in his heart while he made this abstract work. My guesses are: he just finished his first SoulCycle class where he didn’t have to pretend to “add a quarter turn” when the overzealous performer-turned-fitness instructor-turned-spiritual gangster barks “I can see you!” over a Lady Gaga remix; he just got back from a week-long trip to Bali where he “found himself,” took up basket weaving and got a tattoo of an infinity sign to commemorate his new awakening; he just found four perfectly ripe avocados at the market, on sale for under $1 each.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Two Nudes in a Room (1914)
Wander around the same gallery until you spot a cat casually doing yoga in the corner of a bright, purple-toned canvas. Kirchner’s Two Nudes in a Room features, as you might expect, two naked women standing in a room (note to self: rock the bush). A pretty straightforward composition at first glance, but a deeper look might dredge up some hidden mysteries. For one thing, where exactly is this room? The two women look like they’re chatting in the locker room after hot yoga, the one on the right dishing about how hard it was to keep up her new vegan diet while traveling through the Greek islands with her mid-level executive husband and two children (Max is applying to middle schools right now and you will not believe the competition for New Haven Prep this season, especially coming from a Montessori!), her friend doing her best to keep her eyes from glazing over too obviously while she makes a mental list of Cosmo sex tips to try with her finance bro husband to “spice it up in the bedroom.”
I’m pretty convinced at this point, only what’s with the hat? Is she going to the races later and waiting for her body butter to dry so it doesn’t get her DVF wrap dress oily? And where are these ladies, exactly? The locker room of a very posh, old-school city gym (like the LAAC in downtown LA)? How did the cat get there, then? And there’s one little macabre detail casting a shadow over what otherwise looks like a light and cheerful scene: beneath the cat, there’s a burnt orange glob that looks suspiciously like a memento mori, Kirchner’s little reminder that all of this, from gossip to indigo sun hats to awkwardly posed felines, is temporary.
Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space (1927)
Once you’ve come up with your own interpretation of Two Nudes in a Room, make your way to the back of the gallery and you’ll find yourself face to face with LACMA’s Brancusi sculpture, Bird in Space. A visual metaphor, according to the in-house art historians, for “what it might actually feel like to fly,” this piece is not, in fact, a very long and pointy dildo.
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Jacqueline) (1961-62)
Onward. Loop around to find yourself in a hall stuffed with Frenchies like Degas and Vuillard. In the back nook, you’ll discover one of the most charming if not extensive Picasso collections outside of Paris and Barcelona, including my favorite personal favorite, Head of a Woman (Jacqueline), a portrait of Picasso’s first wife and muse whose duality of character he captured in soft, sensuous strokes. Whatever her inner turmoil, the “ooookay” that Jackie is throwing reminds us of Eight Grade‘s Kayla signing off her videos with her signature, cringey “Gucci!”, raising a very deep and probing question that we must now ask ourselves: we all credit Picasso as being such a visionary, but was his wife actually the world’s first vlogger? Some food for thought as we make our way onward…
Alberto Giacometti, Woman of Venice VIII (1956)
In the corner of the next gallery, you’ll find a cluster of tall, lanky figures. Nope, this isn’t your freshman year art school dorm party, filled with barely post-pubescent art bros-to-be choking on Marlboro Golds by the fire escape as they argue passionately about Jeff Koons. These are Giacometti sculptures. Lumpy play-dough skulls stretching mournfully towards private heavens, this Italian artist’s work is heavily tinged with the existentialist philosophy that fascinated him his whole life. Linger too long in front of them at your own risk—you wouldn’t want a repeat of your sophomore year Marxism-fueled angst spiral, the one that made you the single most awful person on campus (and arguably in the world) to be around as you evangelized about crisis theory to anyone that would listen (basically just your roommate, who had no choice, and the Poli Sci major with horn-rimmed glasses who sat next to you in Political Thought), now would you? That’s what I thought. Move along.
David Hockney, A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967)
Fast forward a few decades and you’ll land smack in the middle of West Coast Pop, land of soup cans (there’s one in the corner) and the Ferus Gang. In addition to the requisite Ruscha and Warhol, peep this Hockney, a graphic visual rumination on suburban homogenization and cookie-cutter sprawl. If this picture doesn’t send you back deep into your childhood, well, you probably had a much more exciting childhood than I did (although a world with an age cutoff for running through the sprinklers is a world I do not want to live in).
As a sidenote, in the same gallery, be sure to check out two lesser known, but by no means less impressive, works: Breach by Alison Saar and I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break by her mother Betye Saar, a notable feminist artist of the L.A. scene in the ‘70s. A bit of a standout in a gallery of otherwise very predictable works from the Pop period, the presence of these two recently acquired pieces shows LACMA making an effort to showcase more women artists, especially those lesser known to the public, so kudos to the board.
Helen Frankenthaler, Winter Hunt (1958)
In the Abstract Expressionist gallery, stuffed with grandiose, floor-to-ceiling canvases of the infamously hard-drinking and -partying gang of virtuosos like Pollock and Rothko, one canvas proves that women artists could more than hang (pun intended) with the boys: Helen Frankenthaler’s jarring color field painting, Winter Hunt. Now, this movement is notorious for its highly subjective work, the meaning practically impenetrable to all but the artist herself, so we hope that Frankenthaler gives us a pass for taking a few liberties with interpreting her picture. Here’s the real story behind the abstract (not clickbait!): Hannah, in classic misunderstood artiste form, got into an argument with some stuffy relatives criticizing her lifestyle at a summer barbecue (don’t forget that this was the heyday of the bored, domesticated and often heavily medicated housewife in America, when the slightest whiff of female freedom was basically punishable by death—or by getting a washing machine for your birthday, which is arguably worse). As she defended herself, Hannah gestured wildly with her hands, splattering a nearby canvas with with specks of ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce and topping it off with a huge smear of coal from the grill. Et voilà!
Edward Keinholz, The Illegal Operation (1962)
Exist through the left and you’ll find yourself… in an anonymous kitchen in the San Fernando Valley. Just out of the frame is a man your friend said was a doctor that handles “this sort of thing” as she slid a Post-It note with his number on it across the corner table of Cecconi’s patio. The year is 1962, abortion is still a decade out from legalization in the US, and West Coast assemblage artist Edward Kienholz just created this powerful piece, The Illegal Operation, to hint at the grim realities of the procedure that countless women underwent in secret, risking their lives in the process. Against the backdrop of renewed debates about women’s reproductive rights in the U.S., the work could represent a chilling dystopia as much as a distant past.
Dorothea Tanning, Xmas (1969)
Good news: we’re reached the final leg of our tour, but before we cross the finish line, there’s one more room we have yet to explore: Dada, Surrealism, De Stijl and European and American art of 1940-1960. After you pay your obligatory respects to Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe/Ceci n’est pas une pipe) and the Picasso painting that you’ll find, without fail, on every single museum highlight guide, Weeping Woman with Handkerchief, you might notice a very strange, teetering mass that looks a bit like a pale, stretched out rotisserie chicken made out of craft felt in the center of the room. This is Dorothea Tanning’s Xmas, her surrealist take on the ubiquitous female nude (so, not a chicken at all—I was just sneakily prepping your appetite for our end-of-tour feast at the award-winning museum restaurant and bar). Working during second wave feminism in the 60s, Tanning took traditional, “feminine” materials like textiles, which symbolized domestic work, and infused them with fresh meaning, hence the wool.
Idelle Weber, Jump Rope (1967-68)
Finally, in the back of the hall, peep the small room of new acquisitions, a little reward for sticking it out through the canon. Inside, you’ll find several pieces of contemporary artwork exploring identity in one way or another, many of them made by women and artists of color. We especially love Idelle Weber’s Jump Rope, a Pop-inspired piece that plays with the idea of modern anonymity (think advertising, but also airports and train stations) by turning people, even the ones engaged in joyful play like jumping rope, into plastic forms which could be mass produced as easily as, say, a soup can. We can definitely imagine this piece decorating Kardashians walls one day… we all know how they feel about neon.
Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of LACMA’s modern art floor. Coming soon: the second installment of our museum tour series featuring more exciting art and, as always, riveting commentary from yours truly. In the meantime, I strongly suggest you head down to the inner courtyard and buy yourself a well-deserved croissant at Coffee & Milk, stopping by Jeff Koons’ Balloon Monkey on the way. Or, if all this intellectual activity has left you feeling particularly famished, allow me to recommend the vegan Cali Burger at Ray’s & Stark Bar, because, well, when in Rome.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Monkey (Orange) (2006-2013)
Images via Savvy California, Pomona College, Flickr/Heather David, WikiArt, Wikimedia Commons, Pinterest, LACMA, Painter’s Table and the author