The return of Walter de Maria’s The 2000 Sculpture to the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the second time the huge sculpture has made the vast, warehouse-sized gallery shine. In the months leading up to the opening of the Resnick two years ago and before any interior walls were installed in the 45,000-square-foot, one-story building, The 2000 Sculpture was on display.
Those of us fortunate enough to have seen it cling to the radiant vision of those 2,000 solid white plaster logs, laid out in 20 rows on the black floor in a herringbone pattern measuring 33 feet by 164 feet. The work harmonized perfectly with Renzo Piano’s virtually blank space, as the city’s soft, even light filtered through the sawtooth, north-facing skylights, illuminating the nearly flawless faceted rods. The building seemed to disappear, or more accurately, became an unimposing nimbus; the geometric plaster, as white as gypsum, pulsed with mathematical rigor.
Between then and now, Piano’s building has not fared so well. A succession of exhibits—from a display of colossal pre-Columbian Olmec heads, carved of basalt and peering back at us across an unbridgeable gap of time and human spirit, to David Smith’s raw, muscular metal works—have not reciprocated the contemplative energy of the room. The museum’s curators seem to be having a hard time bringing all that emptiness to heel. When opera set designer Pier Luigi Pizzi took hold of the Resnick’s private collection of 18th-century French opulence and the museum’s magnificent fashion collection, the building simply faded into all too much ovolo molding and silk tassels.
As Los Angeles architect Craig Hodgetts said when the museum summoned him to find a way to slice up the room for the 2011 show Living in a Modern Way, “This is a very difficult space to work with.” His solution was to build a meandering, tilting aluminum divider that was designed to carve out an arena of intimacy while, through his choice of materials, reflecting the postwar design world’s enthusiasm for materials and materiality. The leaning snake, comprised of exposed framing, felt right for the show; yet, the show never felt right in the space. You felt simply that the room and its contents were like partners who divorce, not talking to each other.
And so it went. Until now, with the reinstallation of a work that the director, Michael Govan, would like to bring permanently to LACMA. (It was another de Maria piece, 360° I Ching, that began the conversation between Govan and Peter Zumthor that led to LACMA’s commissioning the Pritzker Prize winner to redesign its campus.) De Maria, an American artist born in Albany, California, in 1935, is one of the pioneers of land art. Unlike the works of his better-known contemporary Robert Smithson, de Maria’s pieces readily suit interior spaces. The plaster rods, laid out in a precise processional of 800 five-sided, 800 seven-sided, and 400 nine-sided castings, act together like a moiré pattern. Stare at them for even a brief time, then start moving around them, and new, unforeseen patterns begin to emerge.
Oddly, the tension between Piano’s unintrusive, permissive space and the seemingly shifting formations creates a pool of calm. Both the piece and the building provide an ideal backdrop for friendly chitchat; you drink both in, unaware. And then when you exit the Resnick, you realize the power of both the art and the architecture. At last—or for the first time for many LACMA patrons—the building has found a muse.