The Bad Art Walking Tour of Downtown (Part 1)

Yes, art is subjective. But I think it’s fair to say that most of our officially-sanctioned public art is quite bad. For all of its noble intentions of bringing high-minded culture to the masses, “public art” as official practice can never match the vitality of street art. It can never serve to challenge authority; it explicitly serves to validate authority, if not outright celebrate it. In the context of civic or corporate art, it is often wielded as a status symbol, which means it rarely comes up from the local community, but rather serves as a top-down expression of influence. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something that tries to be fun and playful, or at least just look pretty. But usually what you’ll end up with is a “statement piece,” and the result is usually either boring or baffling.

Downtown Los Angeles has a lot of bad public art (and a few good ones too), and we know enough about art to have some opinions about it. So we’ve put together this walking tour of Downtown’s most absurd, most nonsensical, and just most interesting pieces of public art. A few of these we actually quite like, but they’re silly enough to warrant placement on a “bad art” tour.

We’ve split this tour into two parts. This is part one, covering the public art of the civic center, starting in Little Tokyo and ending on Grand Avenue. Part two will cover the corporate public art of the financial district.

We’ll start at the intersection of 1st and Central in Little Tokyo, in front of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and across the street from the future underground Little Tokyo Metro station.

OOMO (Out Of Many, One), by Nicole Maloney, (Central & 1st St). Let’s start with a fun one. This giant Rubik’s cube has become somewhat of a Little Tokyo landmark, with its huge mix-and-match photographs of faces on the sides. This is the only artwork on this tour that was explicitly designed to be interactive, allowing you to actually rotate the giant cube and try to change the layout. Despite its size, it’s surprisingly easy to move. It’s a little gimmicky, but it’s hard not to like just because of how much fun people have with it.

Continue up the plaza, past JANM towards the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in the back. On your left, you’ll pass by the Aoyama Tree, a massive fig tree planted in 1920 on what at the time was one of the oldest and largest Buddhist temples in Los Angeles. In front of the Geffen, you’ll find the next artwork.

Airplane Parts, by Nancy Rubins, the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (in the entry plaza). It’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Rubins’ colossal work sits outside the entrance to the Geffen Contemporary, a massive sculpture made up of airplane parts held together by cables and suspended above the ground. It was recently moved to this location from the main MOCA campus on Grand, where pigeons were apparently roosting in the sculpture. While technically impressive, it feels lacking for something. I think the setting actually serves to diminish the work; framed by a parking lot and an old warehouse, it fails to really transcend the space. All of the sculpture’s dynamism and energy just gets swallowed up by the expanse of concrete and asphalt surrounding it.

Untitled (Questions), by Barbara Kruger, the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (on the wall facing Alameda and Temple St). Barbara Kruger has one trick, which she utilized to great effect in the ’80s and which the art world has since spent the last 40 years convincing everyone represents the height of profundity and searing social commentary. This is supposed to be the artwork that “challenges” you, the artwork that poses damning questions about the nature of our society, and not extremely basic observations about American culture that most people are capable of forming by age 15. Her work belongs to the same era of political consciousness as Adbusters, where posturing as radical and pointing out hypocrisy is deemed political action in and of itself. Maybe we’re still stuck in that era.

Continue past the Go For Broke Monument and cross the parking lot towards Temple Street. Turn left and then cross Temple Street at the intersection of Judge John Aliso Street.

Molecule Man, by Jonathan Borofsky (Temple & Judge John Aliso St). Standing at the entrance to the Edward Royal Federal Building complex are four colossal metallic figures locked in embrace, their forms studded with holes. Like Airplane Parts, this artwork suffers a little from its location. According to the artist, the holes are meant to represent the composition of the human body from molecules. But given the sculpture’s placement in front of a courthouse and prison complex, which itself has often been the site of Black Lives Matter protests, the site of a human body riddled with holes evokes more grim imagery. Nevertheless, the artwork really is impressive, especially if you take the time to walk under the legs and admire how the silhouettes change from light to shadow. Just viewing this one from the street really doesn’t do it justice, you have to get up close to admire it.

Continue up the stairs to the center of the building complex.

The New World, by Tom Otterness (center of Edward Roybal Federal Building complex). I swear this thing was designed to spawn conspiracy theories. It’s got everything you need: strange, ritualistic-looking figures, hidden meanings, and a rather unfortunate title. It has even drawn alarmist allegations of pedophilia. All I’m saying is, if you installed this today, every QAnon believer would be obsessed with it.

There are two components to this sculpture. On a pergola connecting the various buildings of the complex is a frieze depicting numerous little figures in the act of construction, cooperation, destruction, and violence, depending on which set you look at. It is truly impressive how much movement is conveyed by the frieze; the figures are really animated and child-like. As you move towards the center, the activity on the frieze culminates with the disposal of a king, with a strange figure holding the severed head of the king aloft. Directly below this is a niche depicting a nude woman, crouched next to a stack of books and chained to the wall. The other component of the artwork sits in the center of the plaza, where a sculpture of an infant lays on its back, holding a globe aloft in one of its hands.

The sculpture of the infant is what drew the most controversy when the artwork was installed in 1991. A District Court Judge working in the building deemed it “a shrine to pedophiles” and congressman Edward Roybal, for whom the courthouse building is named, claimed that he saw two boys touch the infant’s genitals and argued that the sculpture would attract perverts. The sculpture of the infant and the nude woman in the niche were removed, prompting an uproar in the art community and turning the piece into the culture war issue of the day. Following the backlash, both components were reinstalled, with a railing around the infant to keep anyone from getting too close.

Viewing it is a surreal experience, and if you visit during the afternoon, the noise from the prison yard behind the adjacent Metropolitan Detention Center only adds to the strangeness of being in this space.

Return to Temple Street and continue up the street towards City Hall. Past Los Angeles Street, enter the plaza on your right.

Triforium, by Joseph Young (Temple & Main St). Even if we’re including this on the “bad art” tour, we’re actually big fans of this one. It’s pure Space Age kitschy charm, much maligned when it was built but widely beloved nowadays. Built as a light and music sculpture to draw visitors to the partially-underground Los Angeles Mall just to the north, the Triforium has had a difficult life. On top of being panned by art critics upon its opening, the sculpture never quite worked as intended, with the light and musical components being a little too complex for the technology that was available in the 1970s. The original carillon has long since been removed (replaced by speakers), and over the decades the sculpture was left to deteriorate.

There was reason to be optimistic in 2018, when a restoration project realized the original vision of the Triforium, with new LED lights installed in the colorful Venetian glass boxes, designed to synchronize with music being played. A series of public performances in the fall of 2018 brought the Triforium back to life, but there has been little activity since then. Hopefully as we stumble into our new post-pandemic normal, we’ll be able to spare some attention for this wonderful artwork again.

Continue up Temple Street a couple blocks, crossing Temple as you go. On your left past Broadway is the next artwork.

Topographical Map of Water Sources in County of Los Angeles, by Joseph Young (County of Los Angeles Hall of Records, facing Temple St). The creator of the Triforium has another brilliant piece of public art just a couple blocks away. And while this one never achieved anything close to the fame or notoriety of the Triforium, it is arguably more successful in achieving Joseph Young’s original vision. On the Temple Street side of the County Hall of Records is a mural which acts as a topographical map of Los Angeles County, with mountains, valleys, rivers, and the Pacific Ocean indicated in varied forms, from rough craggy rocks representing the mountains to smooth blue and green tile representing the ocean. Originally, a couple of small fountains sent water down the “rivers” to the fountain below, although these were turned off as a water-saving measure at some point.

At the next block, turn left onto Hill Street, walk a block, then turn right into Grand Park and continue uphill. The next artwork will be on the building to your right.

The Law Givers, by Albert Stewart (Hall of Administration). Grand Park, stretching from City Hall to the Music Center at the top of the hill, has the typical sort of civic monuments you would expect of a public square: memorials to the war fallen, historic markers, flag courts, statues of famous people, the usual.

The strangest example of the latter comes in the form of two gilded statues mounted on the park-facing façade of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration. The Law Givers is Albert Stewart’s tribute to what he saw as the most important creators of the legal tradition, specifically Moses and Thomas Jefferson (a stone version around the corner facing Grand Avenue also includes the creator of the Magna Carta). The best I can say for it is that its strong angular forms do harken back to classical architecture, which lends it a certain sort of stoic dignity, but they just look so out of place tacked on such a boring modern building that it ruins the effect.

Continue up Grand Park, which itself is often home to temporary public art displays, most of which are quite good and actually reflect the communities of Los Angeles. Past the fountain, cross Grand Avenue and take the escalator up to the Music Center plaza.

Peace on Earth, by Jacques Lipchitz (west side of the Music Center plaza). I don’t have anything bad to say about this artwork. In fact, I think it’s great. What I will say is that the Music Center apparently doesn’t recognize a good thing when they see it.

Created by Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who fled the Nazi occupation of Paris, Peace on Earth was commissioned in the 1960s by the major donors behind the construction of the Music Center. Lipchitz was asked to create a larger version of an earlier work, Between Heaven and Earth, and the artist took to the task with relish. He even went so far as to visit the Music Center so that he could design his work with the scale of the plaza in mind. The result was a widely beloved sculpture that occupied a prominent place in the middle of the fountain at the center of the plaza. Just before its unveiling, Lipchitz told the press, “If peace does not come, it’s a bad sculpture.”

But the artwork never satisfied some members of the Music Center board, who wanted something more contemporary to match their buildings. In the ’80s, the large sunken fountain the statue had originally been installed in was replaced with a giant spray fountain, which wound up severely damaging the artwork and corroding its surface. As a final insult, the sculpture was moved a few years ago during the renovation of the plaza and now sits partially obscured behind some utility buildings on the western edge of the plaza. It’s visible from the street at the back, but inexplicably turned facing away from the street.

Dance Door, by Robert Graham (southeast corner of the Music Center plaza). Tucked in a gravel bed sitting in the shadow of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is the Music Center’s other piece of public art, which likewise was moved from a more prominent location during the plaza’s recent renovation. But unlike Peace on Earth, I don’t mind this one being tucked away. I get that it was made as a playful tribute to performance art, but it just looks so foreboding. The disembodied limbs and figures impressed upon the bronze surface really don’t make me think of the wonders of the stage.

Now, in fairness to the artist, Dance Door wasn’t actually commissioned as public art. Rather, it was commissioned by noted modern art collector Frederick Weisman to go in the backyard of his Beverly Hills mansion (which is now a museum, by the way), and Weisman just donated it to the Music Center a few years later (I can only assume that he didn’t like it much either). On the other hand, this is the same artist who made those weird headless figures at the entrance to the Coliseum in Expo Park, so I don’t want to let him off the hook entirely.

Cross back over Grand Avenue, then turn right and continue south on Grand.

Abraham Lincoln bust, by Merrell Gage (Grand & 1st St). In a tiny pocket park outside the county courthouse, on the northeast corner of the intersection, is a simple bronze bust of the Great Emancipator. Statues of political leaders are common in and around Grand Park, but this particular one is part of the legacy of a rather unusual artist.

You may not know of Merrell Gage, but you’ve undoubtedly seen his work in the landscape of Los Angeles. He was a prolific sculptor who was commissioned to do many prominent works across the city, including the Electric Fountain in Beverly Hills, the Art Deco façades of the Los Angeles Times Building and the Edison Building, and the sculptures adorning the façade of the South Pasadena Public Library.

But Merrell also had a deep fascination with Abraham Lincoln, and over the course of his life created hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of busts and statues of the guy. In fact, he became so familiar with the lines of Lincoln’s face that he could sculpt it in mere minutes, a feat he demonstrated in the short film The Face of Lincoln, in which he narrates the life of our 16th president while sculpting a stunningly accurate model of his face in a mere 20 minutes.

At Grand and 1st, cross the intersection towards the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Walk up 1st for a block, then when you reach Hope Street climb the stairs on your left behind the concert hall.

We’ll conclude Part One of our tour with a visit to the Blue Ribbon Garden, the beautiful public garden perched on the back of the concert hall. It’s generally only open during daylight hours and it’s pretty hidden away from the street, but the word has definitely gotten out. The one piece of public art up here is A Rose for Lilly, an absolutely gorgeous tile fountain shaped like a flower.

Up here, you can sit down in the shade, play around with the reflective hallway, or enjoy the view down into the construction site of the future underground Grand Avenue Metro station. And if you poke around long enough, you should find the stairway that leads up to the observation deck that wraps around the front of the building facing Grand Avenue. Not only is it a great view, but it also gives you a chance to admire the architecture of the concert hall from a pretty unusual perspective. From here, you can look down at the financial district and the art institutions of Grand Avenue, which will the subject of Part Two of our tour.

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