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Michael C. McMillen, Central Meridian (The Garage), 1981
Photograph: Time Out/Michael JulianoMichael C. McMillen, Central Meridian (The Garage), 1981.

LACMA’s modern art collection finds a bright new home (and a dark creepy garage)

A major part of the museum’s permanent collection is back on display.

By
Michael Juliano
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LACMA is looking a little different compared to the last time you probably visited: Collections have been shuffled around, a sizable chunk of the museum is now a construction site and one of its galleries has an immersive installation that seems like the kind of place you might run into a B-movie murderer—but more on that later.

The entire eastern half of the museum campus, home to much of the permanent collection, began to close in 2019 so that construction could begin on a single-building replacement. With that part of the property now a dirt pit, its highlights have gradually made their way over to the pair of buildings on the western half that have typically been reserved for special exhibitions.

Most notably, that now includes the reopening of LACMA’s modern art collection, a freshly-arranged and re-curated version of which debuts to the public on Sunday on the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. The BCAM presentation isn’t permanent, since the pieces will eventually go on display in LACMA’s under-construction amoeba-shaped building, but that’s not slated to open until 2024.

We can’t really know yet whether or not scrapping the old campus in favor of its forthcoming, controversial replacement will be the right call in the long run, but we can pretty definitively say that the modern art show on display right now in BCAM’s bright, spacious galleries is an undeniable upgrade over the dark, creaky confines of the former Ahmanson Building, where most of the works used to be housed. It all comes with a new audio tour and some dublab-curated soundtrack pairings (just BYO headphones for now). Moreover, senior curator Stephanie Barron and assistant curator Katia Zavistovski have managed to tie tons of context into 20th-century art’s nonlinear journey and to fold more modernists into the mix than just the ones plastered on tote bags.

LACMA
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano
Installation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
Photo © Fredrik NilsenInstallation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.

The floor is split in two, with modern art on one side and contemporary on the other (David Hockney’s wonderfully colorful Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio bridges the two along with a half-hour film about LACMA exhibitions through the decades). It’s all arranged loosely chronologically, so you’ll start with works from the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Henri Matisse before moving onto Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Helen Frankenthaler and Jakcson Pollock, and then finally local luminaries like John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, David Hammons, Ed Ruscha and Betye Saar. That only hints at the complete list of the 250-plus works from 200 or so artists on display here, which have been pulled mostly from the former Ahmanson Building, with additional selections that were once in the Art of the Americas building and even pieces that’ve rarely left the archives.

The didactics paired with most pieces manage to expand the sometimes myopic mythology of modern art without eating into precious wall space. Brief passages on women in early-20th-century Germany, Paris’s role as the nexus of international avant-garde artists and Southern California’s assemblage movement provide just enough context to tie together the corner of the gallery that you’re exploring. And on a per-piece level, both regulars and first-time visitors should be able to come away with a deeper understanding of what they’re seeing.

LACMA
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

Take, for example, Picasso, from which 20 works now occupy an entire gallery. In terms of palatability, Picasso may seem pretty mild to art enthusiasts, but his later period paintings in particular can be a bit spicy for some museumgoers. On a surface level, the wall text next to about half of the canvases deciphers some of the painter’s more surrealist pieces. But the didactics also don’t shy away from Picasso’s colonialist engagements with African culture or his abusive treatment of women; the text for Bust of a Seated Woman, a portrait of one of his mistresses, quotes his granddaughter Marina in describing how he “crushed them onto his canvas” before disposing of his lovers, while Man and Woman reaffirms that, yep, that’s indeed a pretty phallic sword stabbing a woman’s genitals.

Installation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
Photo © Fredrik NilsenInstallation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
Installation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
Photo © Fredrik NilsenInstallation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.

But let’s move on to more uplifting territory and talk about the murder garage. Alright, it’s not really called that, but the popped-tire car, rusty tools and a chandelier of mannequin arms certainly make the dimly-lit shed seem straight out of a horror movie. In actuality, Michael C. McMillen’s Central Meridian (The Garage) is a remarkably detailed walkthrough that uses midcentury detritus to create an air that’s thick with the smell of oil cans and personal history; it conjures an image of its owner without ever actually seeing them in person.

The piece premiered at LACMA in 1981 and hasn’t been on display in 20 years. Since then the museum hasn’t shied away from blockbuster immersive installations, whether via yellow and blue spaghetti, the permanent acquisition of Rain Room or, to paraphrase Drake, f*cking with Turrell. But in comparison to other spectacle pieces around town, the tight, dark confines of The Garage feel like a defiantly selfie-free space to get lost in.

LACMA’s new modern art presentation opens to the public on June 13. Advance tickets are currently required to visit the museum and they cost $20 for L.A. County residents (who can also visit for free after 3pm on weekdays). Check out some more photos of the show below.

Installation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
Photo © Fredrik NilsenInstallation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
Installation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
Photo © Fredrik NilsenInstallation view of the new Modern Art presentation on BCAM level 3, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 13, 2021–ongoing.
LACMA
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

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