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L.A.'s New Getty: High Art

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 1997; Page E01


J. Paul Getty Museum
The J. Paul Getty Museum, part of the $1 billion Getty Center, houses a collection of art that makes up in quality what it lacks in breadth.
Photo by Tom Bonner
Many visitors come to gaze at Hollywood stars. Others arrive with plans to watch beautiful people at the beach. Within a few days, however, a new group of travelers will start descending on Los Angeles with expectations of catching a view of a Monet, a Cezanne or an exhibit of French decorative arts.

That at least is the fervent hope of directors at the J. Paul Getty Museum. After 13 years of planning and construction, the Getty Center complex, which includes the museum and sprawls over 110 acres above the posh neighborhood of Brentwood, is scheduled to open its doors Dec. 16.

In this era of mega productions, of $100 million movies and hubcap-size hamburgers, the Getty was conceived to exceed all of its competition in stature and presence. When oil baron J. Paul Getty died in 1974, he left a small fortune and decreed that some of it be used for the construction of an arts center. Thanks to favorable investment conditions in the 1980s, the sum has ballooned to $4.2 billion, six times the endowment of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Given broad leeway on what kind of museum they should create, the directors of the Getty Trust seemed as intent on making a statement as constructing a place to exhibit art. And on many counts, they succeeded. The $1 billion construction price has secured the place of the final product among the most expensive arts centers ever built in America. The elaborate design makes it one of the most striking American museums since Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim went up in the 1950s in New York. Created by architect Richard Meier, it is highlighted by the Italian travertine stone covering parts of the exterior and a garden featuring hundreds of flowering plants.

The interior, too, has a unique aura. Most inviting are 14 galleries containing one of the world's most extensive collections of decorative arts. Designer Thierry Despont, who just completed billionaire Bill Gates's home outside Seattle, was so careful to re-create the rooms as period pieces that he used actual 18th-century paneling in several of them. A lighting system that allows only the natural rays of the sun to fall on the paintings is another special touch. As a work of architecture, the museum has been compared to such structures as the campus of the University of Virginia, whose look, inspired by classical design, became a model for college campuses all over the country.

For all of its stature, the place is nonetheless human and accessible. In a half-day preview tour, I found groovy California style warmth, lots of inviting nooks and spectacular creations displayed all around. There is more than enough to attract casual visitors or art experts alike, and even enough to merit a special trip to L.A.

For novice art fans like me, a visit to a museum usually means two to three hours gazing at paintings and sculpture. The Getty's array of European masters, Greek and Roman antiquities, decorative arts, photographs, manuscripts and other exhibition pieces certainly allows ample opportunity for that kind of tour. James Ensor's "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889," one of the most critically acclaimed pieces in the collection, is a refreshing combination of bold color and elegant composition; van Gogh's "Irises" and Monet's "Wheatstack, Snow Effect, Morning" also left me standing agape for a good while.

But there is much more here than the art displayed on the walls. The museum complex itself, an assembly of aluminum, glass and stone spread across five pavilions, is a feat worth taking the time to behold. Perched on a hillside overlooking some of L.A.'s finest mansions and gardens, it is a collection of gleaming white structures that could inspire the creation of good art as well as house it. An hour in the surrounding gardens, honed to fit in with the Southern California setting, is an essential part of the experience of a Getty visit. Complete with a waterfall flowing down the hillside and a floating maze of azaleas, it was enough to set me daydreaming. An ongoing series of lectures and presentations, designed to help connect the museum to the L.A. arts scene and the international community of arts scholars, are also worth working into a visit.

To be sure, the Getty's galleries do not showcase anywhere near the breadth of works available at Washington's National Gallery or other leading museums of the world. In spite of the museum's multibillion-dollar endowment, its curators have managed to accumulate only a few great Old Masters. In today's market, building a collection on the order of that owned by the Louvre or the Metropolitan would require many times more than what the Getty has in its coffers.

Still, the collection is not to be sniffed at. It is built around some dazzling masterpieces, many of which were acquired at handsome prices. Among them: van Gogh's "Irises," which was bought for a reported $54 million; Cezanne's "Still Life With Apples," which cost an estimated $30 million; and Rembrandt's "The Abduction of Europa," a fine example of the Dutch master's famous use of darkness and light, also said to have been bought for $30 million.

But to visit the Getty for a viewing of the paintings alone would be to fail to take full advantage of all it has to offer.

True to its California base, it is poised to bring something new and refreshing to the experience of visiting a museum. At best, it can help transform what is often a passive look-see into an exercise that demands something of all of the senses. After an hour or so wandering through the decorative-arts galleries, I was delighted to mosey into the courtyard and take in a panoramic view of L.A., from Brentwood to Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Century City and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

Even those who browse at a brisk pace will take a good half-day to take in the sweep of the Getty Center. Based on my tour and research, I recommend the following to get the most out of a visit.

Familiarize yourself with the museum's offerings before arrival. When touring a place I have never visited, I try to decide beforehand what I want to see. Randomly touring the Getty could prove exhausting to anyone. In order to help you get a feel for the place, the museum will be happy to send a prospectus that includes a map (see below).

All paintings are displayed in the upper levels of the north, south, east and west pavilions. Besides van Gogh, Rembrandt and Cezanne, the European gallery displays dozens of works by other artists from the Continent, including Michelangelo, Rubens, Van Dyck, Manet and Titian.

Much of the collection was transferred from the original Getty Villa, which was built in Malibu to showcase its founder's artistic acquisitions. Now closed for renovation, the villa will display only Greek and Roman antiquities when it reopens in 2001. The new structure also displays hundreds of more recent acquisitions.

Devote part of the visit to appreciation of the structure itself. Meier, a giant of postmodern architecture who also created the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona and the Frankfurt Museum of Decorative Arts, designed every turn and twist in careful detail. When I toured the place a few weeks ago, I stumbled across him taking exterior photographs, in an apparent attempt to iron out a few last minute wrinkles. Known for his striking white facades, Meier made a concession to the surrounding community, which wanted the center to fit in with others in the area, by making the predominant color at the Getty off-white.

Among the various elements of the design, the most remarkable is the travertine, hauled by the ton from a quarry in Tivoli, Italy. Covering the base of most of the museum buildings, it gives the place the feel of a mountainside monument somewhere in the Mediterranean. The Getty Center's non-museum buildings are mostly surfaced with the enameled aluminum panels for which Meier is noted.

While away some time in the surrounding greenery. Created by Los Angeles conceptual artist Robert Irwin, the garden includes a canopy of London plane trees and crape myrtle and hundreds of other exotic flowering plants, including geraniums, and hydrangeas. Splash your face with water from the fountain, breath in the bougainvillea, take in the spectacular view. After all, the garden has "lots to appreciate with your feet, nose, hands, and eyes," Getty Director John Walsh told the Los Angeles Times.

Don't expect the kind of panoramic display of art that you would find at the Louvre or the Metropolitan. The Getty's setting, in exclusive, hard-to-reach Brentwood, and its concentration of European works have prompted some critics to label it elitist.

The Getty's managers, in turn, have made special efforts to make the L.A. community part of its plans and projects.

Make plans to visit well in advance. The Getty Center is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free. The location, off the San Diego and Santa Monica freeways, makes it harder to drop in spontaneously. Drivers should take Interstate 405 and exit at Getty Center Drive. With only 1,200 spaces available, however, parking will be limited and available only by advanced booking. It costs $5.

Visitors to L.A. on other business who find themselves with a little extra time can also get there by taxi or bus. The former option will cost $25 or so from Hollywood hotels. The latter option, although time-consuming, is easy enough. L.A. Metro Transit Authority Bus Route 561 and Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus Line 14 stop at the center's front door.

For parking reservations or further information, call the Getty Center, 310/440-7300,

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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