Public Art in Los Angeles

By Sarah Schrank, History Department California State University, Long Beach

One of the earliest efforts to create a public art center for L.A. 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.

Downtown L.A. 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) 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 also famous for being a set in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's post-apocalyptic futuristic vision of L.A. Exiting from the rear of the Bradbury Building, one finds Biddy Mason Park, a monument to one of L.A.'s 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.

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 multi-ethnic 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 L.A. 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.

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 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 L.A.'s fraught urban history. Located 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. The current project to watch is the “Watts House Project,” by Edgar Arceneaux. The Los Angeles-based artist is working with neighborhood residents on an interactive community art experience involving the renovation of twenty private homes near the Watts Towers. Together they are literarily incorporating the neighborhood into an artwork much like Rodia incorporated pieces of daily life into Nuestro Pueblo.

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Winter 2009 | Vol 1, Issue 1
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