Exhibitions that Engage instead of Lecture

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If you are an architecture buff and Los Angeles is your hunting ground, then you are in luck. Over the last few months, thanks to the Getty initiative, a number of cultural institutions here have been able to organize well-researched exhibitions with a focus on LA architecture.


A. Quincy Jones, Whitney Smith and Edgardo Contini, Architects and Engineer
Schneidman House, Mutual Housing Association (Crestwood Hills), Los Angeles, 1946-1950
Photograph by Jason Schmidt, 2012

However, such exhibitions have one obstacle, one inherent disadvantage. In museums, we are never able to experience the building itself; instead we can only see models, photographs, and architectural plans. As a result, most of the architectural exhibitions try to overcompensate the lack of direct experience by crowding the galleries with too much research and documentation.


Installation view of "A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living"
Hammer Museum

The latest example of such a predicament — an exhibition bursting with information while suffering from a lack of editing — opened over the weekend at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary. Titled A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California, it has been a subject of earlier controversy due to Frank Gehry's unexpected withdrawal shortly before the opening of the exhibition. After friendly persuasion from his friends and colleagues, Gehry was back in the show but on his own terms, with his projects presented in a separate room away from the rest of the exhibition.


Installation view of "A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living"
Hammer Museum

Ironically, the exhibition's sumptuous catalog published by Skira Rizzoli has everything that the exhibition itself lacks: elegant design, smart editing and plenty of excellent photographs. This catalog is simply a must-have for architecture buffs.


Installation view of "A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living"
Hammer Museum

With all that being said, I was delighted to discover a rare example of a museum exhibition that did manage to bridge the gap between the viewer and the architecture itself. The Hammer Museum just opened the friendliest architectural exhibition I've seen in years, the one devoted to A. Quincy Jones (1913-1979), the "it" architect of mid-century LA. Each gallery greets you with a huge wall-size photograph, inviting you to "step into" the interior of one of Jones' famous residential buildings. After such generous emotional introduction, the accompanying documentation comes across much less as an academic lecture and more as a friendly conversation. And in the middle of all this, Quincy Jones himself smiles and greets you in the form of an over-sized photo portrait. It shouldn't come as a surprise that so many of his iconic buildings have become prized possessions of the rich and famous.


Installation view of "Richard Artschwager!"
Hammer Museum

The second must-see exhibition now at the Hammer is an enticing retrospective of one of the "giants" of American art, Richard Artschwager (1923-2013), who passed away this year shortly before his 90th birthday. My colleague Hunter Drohojowska-Philp has already spoken admiringly about the exhibition last week, so let me concentrate on its design, the one particular aspect of this exhibition that made it so special for me.


Installation view of "Richard Artschwager!"
Hammer Museum

With the rare exception, most American museums use the color white for their exhibition walls, thus turning galleries into white cubes. But in the last few years, curators and designers have started to experiment with an interesting choice of colors applied to the walls, complementing the artwork and — smartly and ever so slightly — raising the temperature of the whole experience. The Artschwager exhibition is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of such creative presentation, turning this show into a fascinating encounter with a remarkable artist instead of delivering merely a respectful academic lecture about his career.


Richard Artschwager, "Logus" (Blue Logus), 1967
Wood and formica
Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Peter and Irene Ludwig Stiftung. © Richard Artschwager

Banner image: (L) Richard Artschwager, Self Portrait, 2003. Private collection; (C) Richard Artschwager, Osama, 2003. Private collection; (R) Richard Artschwager, George W. Bush, 2002. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. All photos by Edward Goldman and courtesy of the Hammer Museum, unless otherwise noted.