Los Angeles museums guide: The Getty Center

A visit to the vast Getty Center can be dizzying. Only have a couple hours to spare? Here's how to turn a mid-day break at this LA museum into an enchanting escape.

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Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

Enlightenment begins upon boarding the tram, which rises 881 feet above sea level, as it ascends to architect Richard Meier’s modernist masterpiece. In his words, the tram serves to “elevate” the viewer out of his or her day-to-day.

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Be sure to sit facing the 405 with your back to the mountain for the best views of Bel-Air, the mountains and the cityscape. (Hint: The stone wall and parking garage elevators sit between you and the 405.)

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Upon debarking, hang back and let the crowds rush onward. You can ascend the stairs slowly in order to appreciate the sounds of the water fountains...

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...and to acclimate to the brightness of the LA sun reflecting off the white stone. Skip the introductory movie—an advertisement for the museum’s educational programs. Instead, enjoy the plaza atmosphere and fountains as you meander toward the South Pavilion.

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Before entering the museum entrance hall, observe the courtyard from different angles to take in the architectural grid: the walls, windows, stone floor work, trees and landscaping are symmetrically aligned in 30-inch squares.

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The bright-white travertine stone was drawn from the same quarry used to build the Roman Coliseum, and Meier directed the placement of each and every stone to ensure their inherent fossils were visible in highly trafficked areas. Ever the perfectionist, Meier lived on-site during the Getty’s 11-year construction in order to oversee small details like this. So give him his due, and linger at the free-standing wall in front of the East Pavilion entrance and make a game out of seeing who can identify the most fossilized leaves, fish bones and shells.

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Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

At the stair’s summit, sculptor Marino Marini’s Angel of the Citadel best illustrates the feeling of the grand views. The angel sits atop his horse facing the Hollywood Hills. You can’t miss his arms extended in ecstasy—and that’s not the only body part erect and at attention! 

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The impressionist and post-impressionist paintings are among the strongest on view in the permanent collection, located on the upper level of the West Pavilion. 

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Here you’ll have a chance to compare and contrast the composition, color and techniques used by Van Gogh in Irises and...

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...Monet in The Portal of the Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light. This Monet is one in a 30-painting series of the Rouen, each painted en plein-air (in the open air) at different times and seasons.

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Van Gogh’s Irises is a source of much gossip and speculation. Many scholars argue that the lone white iris in the field of blue represents Van Gogh’s isolation from society in the mental institution and his impending suicide. Others say it illustrates his nuanced understanding of color, and his awareness of the quiet subtlety within Japanese polychromed ukiyo-e prints.

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Be sure to check out the vibrantly colored, large-scale painting Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, by James Ensor. Big in Brussels' masquerade scene, Ensor worked in a loft studio, located above his mother’s gift shop where she sold masks such as the ones depicted here. In a sea of chaos and grotesque masks, look closely and you might discover the artist’s self-portrait (Hint: Some say Ensor is the middle-aged, brown-haired man looking directly at you in the lower-right portion of this, his largest, painting. Others argue that Ensor has actually depicted Christ with his own facial features.)

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Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

Small terraces in the rear of the West Pavilion offer the best views of the South Promontory, located at the southernmost tip of the grounds, and flowered with flora representative of the Southern California landscape. Toward the north, lush trees and shrubs allude, naturally, to Northern California. In fact, Meier built the complex in its entirety to flow into the curves and contours of the mountainside so as to enhance rather than disrupt its natural beauty.

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If decorative arts are your thing—or if you just enjoy imagining what life was like in centuries of old—make a quick stop in the East Pavilion for the Cabinet on Stand.

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Its intricate design is a feat in furniture-making, especially considering the designer’s effective blend of oak, ebony, tortoiseshell, brass, ivory, pewter, horn and various other woods.

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Cabinet on Stand at the Getty Center.

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Be sure to keep an eye out for the pink Bed, by Jean-Baptiste Tilliard. Wealthy, 17th- and 18th-century Europeans spent lavish amounts on textiles and room furnishings that had a look of exotic opulence. The lady of the house would be awoken in this Turkish bed, by servants rousting her to begin her morning rituals.

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Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

Just upstairs, don’t miss Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume—who glances furtively off to the side, as if he’s about to step into action. 

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Aglow from the magic of the cityscape, art and architecture, now it’s time for a stroll through the Robert Irwin–designed gardens. The best way to get there is to head back out of the museum entrance hall and take the stairs directly to your left upon exiting. (On your way, check out the exaggeratedly attenuated figure of Giacometti’s Standing Woman I.)

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Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

Before heading downstairs, consider the subtle hint of lilac on the awning just outside. Meier decided that this was the perfect hue—only after several years of ordering the painting, stripping and repainting of subtle variations of the color in his search for the right lilac hue to complement both the travertine and the Los Angeles skyline. 

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Begin your tour of the central garden at the fountain and follow the zig-zagging path along the stream. Stop to watch the rushing water or sit on a bench in this natural ravine.

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The central pond and garden opens at the end of the trail where you can view the maze of floating azaleas in the shape of the Getty logo.

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Return visits to Irwin’s specialty gardens encircling the pool are always rewarded because of the designer’s unique request that new flowers and plants constantly be added to the palette.

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Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

Stop by the lawn south of the path, which combines the best views of the pond and city.

Looking to picnic? The quality of food at the Getty does not match the high prices, so BYO is the way to go. Just be warned that BYO alcohol is prohibited (although many a stealthy picnicker has been seen giddily pouring beverages from thermoses into plastic cups).

Vistas, art, architecture, green lawns and gardens! One could spend the entire day at the Getty Center and never cease to be wowed. But the Getty is great in small doses, too. If you’ve only got a couple hours to spare at this Los Angeles museum, our handy Getty-to-go insider’s guide points out the big highlights—and small details—you don’t want to miss. Also, be sure to check out these 7 must-see works at the Getty Center.


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