Architecture review: The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at LACMA
Over the spring and summer, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan opened the freshly completed but still under-wraps Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, the second gallery building on the LACMA campus designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, for a series of tours for collectors, curators, critics and donors -- and on a handful of days to the general public.
For the occasion, he arranged to put on display a remarkable piece of minimalist art, Walter De Maria's sprawling, floor-hugging and rarely seen "The 2000 Sculpture," and kept the rest of Piano's single-level building uncluttered.
Now that the $54-million pavilion is ready for a clutch of celebratory galas this weekend and an official public opening Oct. 2 and 3, it's evident that Govan's decision to arrange for the building to be viewed -- and written about -- at that preliminary stage was, if not a risk, then at least strategically something of a double-edged sword.
In showing off the Resnick Pavilion when it was beautifully cavernous, its north-facing skylights throwing crisp light across the full expanse of its concrete floors, Govan underscored how much more tightly executed and focused the building is than Piano's initial effort at LACMA, the 2008 Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Even if it doesn't rise to the level of Piano's art-world masterpieces, the Menil Collection in Houston or the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, the Resnick Pavilion has a restrained confidence and assured posture that reminds us why he has been the world's most sought-after museum architect for much of the last decade.
Nonetheless, all of us who saw the Resnick in such a pristine state now carry around a mental snapshot of what the building is capable of, architecturally and in the service of art. And now that the pavilion is organized in a more traditional way -- in a way more indicative of how it will be used from here on out, with temporary walls dividing its 45,000 square feet into thirds -- it suffers a bit from the comparison. The building's balance between repose and strength -- between serenity and personality -- is now a good deal tougher to appreciate.
Indeed, what seems most clear, on seeing the interior expanse sliced up to make room for a trio of inaugural exhibitions -- one on massive ancient Mexican artworks, one on European dressmaking and the third, called " Eye for the Sensual," full of European art from the collections of the Resnicks themselves -- is that the building is not quite the supremely efficient and thoroughly adaptable "machine" for displaying art that Govan and Piano suggested it would be. Instead, it is a space that appears to work markedly better for muscular art, and art that can stand up to natural light from those skylights, than for more delicate or intimate works.
The inaugural exhibitions, in fact, operate as a series of tests of the pavilion's flexibility and architectural personality, with mixed results. The show of Mesoamerican antiquities, which includes a huge stone head facing visitors directly as they enter the new building, has a frankness and strength that match the best elements of the architecture. The fashion exhibition works with the building nearly as well, the seriality of its rows of dresses unexpectedly recalling the rows of De Maria's artwork.
As for "Eye for the Sensual," well, let's just say that while Govan has proven his skill in working with architects over the years, dealing with the demands and hopes of donors is trickier still. For him, keeping the building's concrete floors uncovered in the "Sensual" exhibition -- while the rest of the show unfolds inside a riot of sugary domesticity, complete with pilasters and wallpaper -- offers a measure of detachment, a reassuring message that he and his curators see the entire display not in art-historical earnest but as a stage set. But the icing is laid on thickly enough here to overwhelm any sense of irony.
To be sure, I say all of this as someone who prefers museum design with serious backbone, whether the architectural forms are exuberant, quiet or somewhere in between. The "Sensual" show may well be an anomaly, hardly indicative of the kind of exhibition Govan and LACMA curators decide will work well inside the Resnick Pavilion. At least I hope that's the case.
Along the travertine-wrapped exterior of the new building, landscape design by the artist Robert Irwin has finally rounded into final shape. The interaction among BCAM, the Resnick Pavilion, a covered walkway between them and the collection of potted and unpotted palms selected by Irwin has created a remarkable series of open-air spaces, some tucked away and others quite conspicuous. And now that a lawn to the north of the Resnick, toward 6th Street, is in place -- even as the installation of a massive sculpture by Michael Heizer on that side of the campus remains a full year away -- it is evident just how much Piano's building is oriented not just toward BCAM but also away from it. Its symmetry and openness toward 6th make it a space that offers curators a kind of multidirectional freedom, allowing them to arrange artwork to face not just the southern entry but the northern one as well.
In the end, judging the Resnick Pavilion is a more relative exercise than is usually the case with new buildings; it all depends on how you frame the question of its architectural achievement. Compared to BCAM it is a clear, confident improvement. Compared to Piano's standout museum work it is hardly transporting, if also undeniably assured. And compared to the way it looked earlier this year, when it was gloriously empty save the De Maria sculpture, it has regressed by a modest but noticeable half-step.
-- Christopher Hawthorne
Top: A giant head, part of "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," greets visitors to the inaugural exhibitions at the Resnick Pavilion. Lower: A walkway on the south side of the new pavilion, with Robert Irwin's palm garden at right. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times.