High Comedy at LACMA
A County Museum of Art’s Black Flower


Art is serious business even when it’s funny.  As Mr. Mike, a character of humorist Michael O'Donoghue, told us, “making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” So it follows, that laughing loudly at art is in bad form.  But sometimes I can’t help myself.

In that regard, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (or LACMA, as it’s called) is a high haunt for my own big laughs.  For starters, the museum was built atop the La Brea Tar Pits in Mid-Wilshire Los Angeles. What better place for the capitol of car culture to store its artistic treasures than on asphalt ooze? 

LACMA is a place that addresses the significance of light, space and form by making erector set installations with hot wheels, inviting us to stroll through yellow plastic strip forests, projecting Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons as indecipherable blurred glows shaped like TVs, and transporting 340-ton granite bolders (which, in turn, we call “rock stars”) from the quarries of Jurupa Valley to a gravel art yard at 6th and Fairfax.

That rock star (entitled “Levitated Mass”) has, for the moment, devolved into a forced-perpective selfie prop.  So, LACMA is now focusing its hilarity on Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s Black Flower — a proposed major new museum building that, from the air, looks like a giant gleaming tar pit— a tar pit among tar pits. 

From ground level, Black Flower is a massive three-story-high corporate coffin of darkness.  The most striking characteristic about this $650 million bloom is that it offers no additional square footage for the museum’s collection — the paintings , installations and what-not that we call “art.”  Black Flower simply tears down the existing William Periera designed international style complex and replaces it with a massive black Gary Larson Far Side amoeba — with no gain in floor space.  The completion time for the $650 million transformation is roughly 10 years.  Both estimates may turn out to be very funny.

But, the scientists at the adjacent tar pits aren’t laughing. Why?  Zumthor’s black art house construction could upset research at their La Brea Tar Pits paleontological headquarters.  It’s the perfect juxtaposition.  While the scientists talk earth and bones, LACMA’s governing board talks sky — weighing the aesthetic value of complexity and contradiction inherent in Zumthor’s freakish theoretical design.

Will Levitated Mass look like a pebble from the air next to the tar pond of the Black Flower? 

Will Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation of street lamps disappear under a biomorphic sable hood? 

Will the international artistic community embrace our SoCal eclecticism? 

I have some questions of my own about LACMA’s comedy.  Isn’t there a better way to spend this kind of cash?  Wouldn’t gutting the existing Periera structures and hanging art under the beams and concrete supports give us more of a high humor artistic rush?  Wouldn’t we then be forced to confront our own ridiculous tear-down history, not a Swiss architect’s translation of what it means to showcase art on an old oil field?

So much of art is about visual perspective.  Ethical perspective is often another matter. It’s rich that LACMA takes Peter Zumthor’s Black Flower seriously — $650 million rich.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast November 15, 2013

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