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Finding Inspiration... from the Outside In

There’s something extraordinary in seeing art break out from beyond the interior limitations of a museum. Even before setting foot inside the Broad, it felt as if the artwork inside was seeping into the outer complexion and architecture of the building. In much the same way modern art challenges the viewer through the use of unconventional materials, content, and techniques, the Broad challenges the visitor with its unconventional exterior.

The Broad Exterior (image credit

Other than a large indented “eye”, the building is devoid of conventional windows. Rather than entering from the side of the building, visitors enter from a raised corner of the building. Furthermore, the building doesn’t appear to have a “front”, “back” or visible “stories”. While there is much to admire in the Broad’s architectural facade, I stayed for what it held inside.

With its opening on September 20, 2015, the museum is one of Los Angeles’ more recent additions to its ever popping art culture. Named in honor of philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad who financed the $140 million building, the museum houses The Broad art collections featuring artists from the 1950s to present day. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler, the porous, white, coral-like exoskeleton of the building is described as a “veil” that provides filtered natural lighting to the building lobby and exhibition space. Beneath the veil lies the “vault,” a sculpted opaque structure hovering inside of the airy exterior that houses the collection of artworks not on display . The Broad is home to more than 2,000 works in the Broad collection, which includes more than 200 artists, and is one of the world’s leading collections of postwar and contemporary art. The museum offers free general admission and features an active program of rotating temporary exhibitions and innovative audience engagement from prominent artists of our time, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Cindy Sherman.

A window looking into the vault. The Broad unashamedly displays what many museums don't; their behind-the-scenes collection.

During our recent visit, the featured exhibition was entitled “Invisible Sun.” Developed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the groundswell of demands for social justice and racial equity, this exhibition featured works that resonated with this unprecedented period of rupture and unrest. The exhibition’s title is taken from Julie Mehretu’s painting Invisible Sun (algorithm 8, fable form), 2015. While not created in response to these specific events, the works on view speak to profound transitions both personal and global and form an appeal for healing.

Each of the featured artists creates artwork from their own unique experiences and artistic language. Much like spoken language, we may not always understand all of the elements, but we can relate to the emotion and meaning of the piece through our own unique experience.

Julie Mehretu: Above Left - Invisible Sun (Algorithm 8, Fable Form), Acrylic and Ink on Canvas, 119.5" x 167" (2015). Above Right - Congress, Acrylic and Ink on Canvas, 72" x 96" (2003).

Julie Mehretu simultaneously embraces and breaks from abstract modernist composition in her works, which combine multiple layers of drawing and painting. Her paintings are embedded with appropriated cultural references ranging from corporate logos and architectural structures to art history, comics, and graffiti.

Mehretu's "Invisible Sun (Algorithm 8, Fable Form) is part of a series of "algorithms", numbered from 2 through 8 that feature soft brushstrokes, smudges, graffiti and scripting reminiscent of ancient cave paintings or petroglyphs. Mehretu views each mark of her works as a conduit and catalyst for change, with the moment of pause – the resistance to participate – being a revolutionary act in itself.

Mehretu's "Congress", the painting is “anchored” on a set of orthogonal lines that recede to a single vanishing point. From this structured base, the painting seems to explode upwards to an increasingly chaotic collection of curved lines, colors, assorted letters and dense patterns rendered in black ink.

El Anatsui: Intermittent Signals, found aluminum and copper wire, 132" x 420" (2009)

El Anatsui crafts bottle caps, reused aluminum commercial packaging, copper wire, and other materials into giant shimmering sheets of what he calls “cloths.” These metallic cloths are pliable and change according to how they are displayed in a gallery. In many ways, Anatsui’s work recalls traditional African kente cloth, which is made by weaving long strips into a patchwork whole. For the artist, as the son and brother of professional kente weavers, the kente cloth has both personal meaning and symbolic power.

In addition to the featured exhibition, I would like to share a few pieces from the general exhibition that caught my attention…and imagination.

Mark Bradford: Yellow Bird, mixed media on canvas, 120" x 199" (2012)

Mark Bradford is best known for his collaged, grid-like abstract works, constructed from paint and layers of paper sourced from a variety of sources including comic books, newspapers, and billboards. These heavily layered works are then scored, cut and peeled to reveal different aspects of the source materials. Yellow Bird reminded me of the ArcGIS map of the 2017 Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa where different layers can be added or removed to display the fire's progression.

Jeff Koons: Above Left - Tulips, , mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 80" x 180" x 205" (1995-2004)

Above Center - Party Hat, oil on canvas, 114 3/8" x 127 5/8" (1995-97)

Above Right - Balloon Dog (Blue), mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 121 x 143 x 45 in (1994-2000)

Jeff Koons is known for deriving inspiration from everyday items, such as children's toys, cartoon characters, porcelain figurines, and party decorations. His “Celebration” series is an ongoing collection of sixteen paintings and twenty sculptures, rejoices in the rituals and images surrounding birthdays, holidays, and other party occasions.

Tulips” is among the most striking and technically complex sculptures in Koons' “Celebration” series, providing a perfect illusion of balloon flowers, constructed of seamless and mirror-polished stainless steel. I like how the scale of the sculpture plays with our sense of perception. I also like how the highly polished and reflective surface of “Tulips” captures the surrounding light and movement of people around the piece. Even though it is inanimate, it provides a reflection of life around it.

“Party Hat” celebrates…and elevates the inexpensive conical paper party hats available at party supply and dollar stores across the country. The scale of the painting is impressive, and I thought the “house of mirrors” presentation of the subject was clever and fitting for the festive nature of the image.

The “Balloon Dog” pieces are probably among the most familiar of Koons’ “Celebration” series works. By sculpting a ‘balloon animal’ from polished stainless steel, Koons has frozen a moment in time, exaggerating both scale and material. Like the “Tulips” piece, “Balloon Dog (Blue)” is literal (i.e. a balloon dog) from a distance and abstract (i.e. light and reflections) close-up. I appreciated how the surroundings of the piece literally become part of it through the reflected images that you see.

Robert Therrien: Under the Table, wood, metal and enamel, 117" x 312" x 216" (1994)

In “Under the Table” the viewer is transported back to a remembered childhood experience…and a world of imaginary giants…or being shrunk in size. As I walked under the perfectly constructed chairs and table, I couldn’t help thinking of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. It was like walking into a land of giants. Unlike Jeff Koons' balloon sculptures, Therrien's piece doesn't give the illusion of something it isn't. Rather, it present something familiar….but on a much larger scale so we can see it in a new way…or from a different perspective.

Art can connect with its audience through different outlets, but the way certain pieces can leave an impression on us is remarkable. It’s the unspoken things in life that stand for the bigger picture. Take Under the Table, as an example. An ordinary object many people may walk past or habitually sit at without any thought becomes something they get to walk under - it stretches beyond its visual and societal components and becomes a sensational experience that recalls memories of a separate time. From far away, the small things are bequeathed irrelevant tables, tulips, balloons, aluminum and are defined by its ability to remain substantial yet invisible for most of our lives. But when we look closer, truly closer at these objects, we can immerse ourselves in the bigger picture. Much like Anatsui’s reused bottle caps, something greater is waiting to be felt. The Broad and its porous veil of walls calls its visitants to understand that.

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