The Veil and Vault: The Broad Museum in Los Angeles
The Broad is a commanding addition to Los Angeles’ downtown cultural artery along Grand Avenue, situated beside the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall, and across from the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MOCA). The Broad, nearly 10 years in the making, opened its doors to the public last month, presenting Edith and Eli’s massive collection of blue-chip artworks free of charge. Preceding the construction of their name-sake, the Broads had established historical ties to every major Los Angeles museum, including LA MOCA, the Hammer, and more recently the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) — a sizable gallery built on-site at the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) in 2008. The permanent collection exhibited at Grand Avenue will be familiar to Angelenos from earlier presentations at LACMA’s Renzo Piano-designed BCAM wing.
In terms of the building itself, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro refer to the Broad’s unique design as a “veil-and-vault” structure, consisting of a fiber-reinforced concrete façade, or veil, that allows for controlled, natural light to permeate the gallery spaces surrounding the “vault” — a state of the art climate-controlled storage unit at the building’s core.
For the inaugural exhibition, Joanne Heyler, a 20-year Broad Foundation veteran and director of the nascent museum, has selected more than 250 works by some 60 artists in what she refers to as “a sweeping, chronological journey.” This presentation is indeed a journey, one that communicates the history of the international art market of the past 30 years, reified by these artists’ positions within such an axiomatically authoritative institution as the Broad. Heyler’s insistence on a chronological presentation further reinforces this point.
Ed Ruscha’s companion pieces, Old Tech Chem Building (2003) and Blue Collar Tech Chem (1992), open an exhibition of recently acquired works on the museum’s first floor. The works depict the 11-year transformation of a fictional “Tech Chem” facility into a space newly named “Fat Boy.” The 1992 work depicts a grey night sky, which in 2003 bleeds red. The phrase “Fat Boy” recalls the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 — nicknamed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” respectively. These paintings serve as an intense opening to the show: while the present is foreboding, the future perhaps radioactive, Ruscha instructs us not to be nostalgic for the past. Tech Chem limns our present experience as a product of our dark origins.
Following Ruscha’s powerful introduction, I was disappointed that the curators failed to draw any relationship between Mark Grotjahn’s poignant formal studies and the more explicitly political works on display. Grotjahn’s 2007 Untitled (Dancing Black Butterflies) consists of a series of rotating mathematical grids — vertical lines become horizontal and vantage points slant and skew. The artist’s black geometric shapes flutter to life along the length of the series, creating optical impressions that change as the viewer moves in the space. The wall text reads that these shifting vantage points provide “room for many perceptions of and points of entry into the work.” It is precisely this awareness of the capacity of artworks to read multiply, for meaning to bend and shift, which could have successfully brought historically disparate works in dialogue with one another.
The museum’s main gallery upstairs opens with Jeff Koons’ monumental Tulips (1995-2004), surrounded on all sides by Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1990), a nine-panel installation in which the words “Run Dog Run” are stenciled in repetition using black enamel on aluminum. Wool breaks apart the words themselves, the R and U placed above the N, the D and O placed above the G. With the dismemberment of these three-letter words, Wool highlights their semiotic function, encouraging the viewer to understand them as formal signifiers divorced from their meaning within the phrase.
This relationship between signifiers and concepts was explored by American artist Jasper Johns 30 years prior with his masterpiece, Watchman. This 1964 assemblage highlights the artist’s radical refusal of any single identification: how exactly is his composition ordered? Which paints are laid down first? Which are stripped away? Do his colors prefigure their descriptions? Johns’ Watchman mirrors the scale of the human form — reinforced by the cast of a human leg in the upper register — and, as such, demands to be understood as contingent upon the viewer’s own physicality, identity and experience.
Glenn Ligon also works at this intersection of language and identity, as evidenced by his series Runaways from 1993. For these works, Ligon asked friends to draft descriptions of him as though they were reporting a missing person to the police, and was shocked to find that they recalled the 19th-century runaway-slave ads he had researched for the series. The descriptions vary widely from piece to piece — different features are highlighted, others glossed over. While the exhibition privileges formal and historical relationships over conceptual ones, it would have been inspiring to examine Wool, Johns and Ligon’s work side-by-side, as a means of highlighting the discursive production of meaning in all three. Instead, Ligon’s installation is predictably flattened, reduced to what the curators call “the parallel senses of insider and outsider in us all.”
Mysteriously, the late activist-artist David Wojnarowicz shares one of the final galleries with art star Julian Schnabel, an odd juxtaposition that the wall text fails to engage with or defend. The Wojnarowicz works are striking and impassioned, in particular The Newspaper as National Voodoo: A Brief History of The U.S.A., from 1986. Here, a crucified figure is undergirded by layers of painted-over newsprint with the phrases “10 years,” “life and death,” “in the womb” and “foul” left bare. Veins extend from the voodoo figure and wrap around images of mosquitos, cowboys, blood red steak and a hand literally covered in a blood. This is a work about AIDS, homophobia, fear of infection and government inaction resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands.
Like other works in the exhibition, Wojnarowicz’ pulsing political message is tamped down by Heyler’s insistence on a chronological presentation that resists social-historical examination. The Broad falls victim to a universalizing narrative that presupposes that the meaning attached to these artworks is fixed, conveyed to a disembodied spectator that approaches the work in isolation, divorced from her own social experience. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “veil-and-vault” concept then serves as a poignant lens through which to understand The Broad’s political stakes. It’s all right there in the architecture — the museum’s surface appears porous, penetrable and malleable. However, this veil is merely a symbol of access that instead serves to reinforce the institutionally fixed, guarded and rich marrow within.