Public Art in Los Angeles

Vol 4, Issue 1

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Public Art in Los Angeles

By Sarah Schrank

Los Angeles has a rich history of public art, ranging from civic projects and corporate sculpture to folk art, murals, and graffiti. With literally thousands of examples in the metropolitan area, Los Angeles’ public art reflects the city’s geography of crisscrossing freeways, urban sprawl, and hidden neighborhoods. To tour Los Angeles’ public art sites is to view official and unofficial visual markers of the city’s history. Many of the art sites are purposely geared towards drivers while others are for public transit riders and walking urban travelers.

Currently, Los Angeles’ public art offerings intersect nicely with Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, the Getty initiative to foster the collaboration of more than sixty museums, galleries, schools, and community art centers. With postwar Los Angeles art the focus of over one hundred exhibits, 2012 is a particularly exciting time to explore southern California’s cultural offerings. For more on Pacific Standard Time, the website www.pacificstandardtime.org offers schedules, directions, and contact information for all involved sites, many (not all) of which are free. While not specifically focusing on public art, many of the Pacific Standard Time shows reflect the concerns of the field by emphasizing site, access, cultural diversity, and the issue of multiple publics.

One of the earliest efforts to create a public art center for Los Angeles was the 1920s art colony envisioned by oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. Iconoclastic, independent, and incredibly wealthy, Barnsdall commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a series of buildings that would allow her to foster the visual and performing arts on her Olive Hill estate in the middle of Hollywood. Fallings-out ensued between architect and heiress and only a few buildings were constructed, including Barnsdall’s own estate, Hollyhock House. It is worth a visit for the beauty of the grounds and the amazing view of the city, as well as for the contemporary art collections and special exhibitions. Today Barnsdall Art Park stands as an original, and peculiar, monument to Los Angeles’ brand of architectural and artistic modernism. Through February 12, the Municipal Art Gallery, housed at Barnsdall Park, hosts the Pacific Standard Time-sponsored exhibit, “Civic Virtue” which explores the complicated role of the municipal government in supporting a decentralized and publicly accessible art culture.

Downtown Los Angeles is full of sites that bring together the efforts of private groups and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) public art program. These include the Victor Clothing Company, whose largest mural (70’x 60’), The Pope of Broadway (Eloy Torres, 1985, as seen in the cover image in this issue of the
newsletter) depicts actor Anthony Quinn embracing the neighborhood. Just south of the Victor Clothing Company is the Bradbury Building, an architectural landmark constructed in 1893 that is well known for its ornate cast iron, polished wood, and its wrought-iron cage elevators. A national historic landmark, the Bradbury Building is most famous for being a set in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s post apocalyptic futuristic vision of Los Angeles. Exiting from the rear of the Bradbury Building, one finds Biddy Mason park, a monument to one of Los Angeles’ first African American residents, a slave who petitioned the California courts to successfully win freedom for herself and her children. The park features works by Betye Saar and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and was the outcome of Dolores Hayden’s Los Angeles project: The Power of Place, an effort to combine the spaces of urban history with public art. For those interested in learning more about the African American history of the city, the California African American Museum in Exposition Park (itself an interesting site) is hosting a Pacific Standard Time-sponsored survey of black visual arts production in Los Angeles through April 12.

A short distance from this downtown core is the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the site of the city’s 1781 founding. Here you can find the Los Angeles Plaza and Olvera Street, a multiethnic neighborhood that was turned into a Mexican-themed tourist attraction for Anglo visitors in the 1930s. Above the street is a temporary reproduction of David Siqueiros’ 1932 mural, América Tropical. Commissioned by civic elites wishing to promote the commercial district, the enormous mural was meant to feature plants and animals and lend the street a tropical allure. Angered by the 1930s repatriation of the city’s Mexican workers and frustrated by United States imperialism abroad, Siqueiros instead painted a mural whose centerpiece featured a crucified Indian under a stylized American eagle. It was promptly whitewashed and Siqueiros’ six-month visit to Los Angeles came to an abrupt end. The mural disappeared for decades until organized efforts in the 1970s helped resurrect it. Those preservation attempts continue today with the help of the Getty Conservation Institute. A short walking distance from Olvera Street, is the Chinese American Museum, a lovely new space, which is hosting its own Pacific Standard Time exhibition on Chinese American architecture through June 3.

Possibly the best known artwork in the city is Nuestro Pueblo, or the Watts Towers, which the artist Sabato Rodia built in his backyard between 1921 and 1954. Located south of downtown Los Angeles (easily accessed by the Metro Rail Blue Line), Nuestro Pueblo consists of towers made of steel rebar (the tallest reaching almost 100 feet), an ornately decorated wall, and various structures including a boat, fountain, and kiln all of which are coated in broken tile, glass, shells and found objects that were pressed into Rodia’s handmade mortar. Barely escaping the city’s wrecking ball in 1959, and bearing witness to two urban uprisings, the Watts Towers stand as a complex and beautiful monument to Los Angeles’ fraught urban history. Next door is the Watts Towers Art Center, a youth cultural facility that offers art and music classes and hosts rotating exhibits of photography and sculpture. As part of Pacific Standard Time, the Watts Towers Art Center is hosting the other half of “Civic Virtue,” examining the more than fifty years that the Center has spent as a critical, and underfunded, community space.

For those who want to explore a little further, the Great Wall of Los Angeles in the Tujunga Wash Flood Control Channel in the San Fernando Valley is one of the longest murals in the world. Painted in the 1970s by Judy Baca and hundreds of local kids, the Great Wall tells a people’s history of California, including Native American land claims, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and labor activism. Free, newly restored, and a delight to photograph, the Great Wall is accessible by public transit (the Orange Line train) and a must-see for public art aficionados.

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