The Bad Art Walking Tour of Downtown (Part 2)

In our last post, we took you on a walking tour of the public art that Downtown’s civic center has to offer. This time we continue our tour into the flashier financial district of the city center, with its gleaming skyscrapers and corporate plazas.

In contrast to the civic center, where the public art tends to be more about upholding noble civic values or honoring certain public figures, the art of the financial district functions more as glittering trophies attesting to the wealth and influence of these corporate institutions. The Community Redevelopment Agency, the now-defunct public agency responsible for the demolition of the old Bunker Hill neighborhood and its redevelopment into its current form of office towers and corporate plazas, mandated that a percentage of the cost of each development go towards public art. The simplest way to accomplish that was to simply purchase a few very expensive units of art, usually in the form of a few sculptures, and plop them down somewhere on the premises.

As such, there’s a lot of very high-profile names here and the themes of the artworks themselves vary pretty widely. In contrast to the civic center, the art of the financial district tends to be more playful, but similar, with a lot of abstract sculpture. Quality-wise, it’s a pretty mixed bag. There are some genuinely enjoyable pieces we included here, along with a lot of high-profile junk.

Starting from where we left off at the end of Part 1, in front of the Walt Disney Concert Hall at the corner of Grand Avenue and 2nd Street:

The Broad (Grand & 2nd St). This popular honeycomb-shaped museum (often likened to a cheese grater or a laundry basket) is technically home to a lot of private art, but it warrants mention here. Eli Broad, the namesake of the museum, was a local billionaire who arguably played the largest role of any one person in setting up the various cultural institutions along Grand Avenue. The art collection in his museum somehow manages to be both iconic and boring; iconic in that so many of the biggest names in American postwar art are included here: Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring… just about anyone who was a big deal in the art world from the 1960s on is represented here. But it’s also boring in that that you’ve seen it all before; rather than using the museum’s vast collection to reflect the full scope of certain artistic movements and periods, it just sings the praises of whoever had the biggest name. The result is that the permanent collection feels more like an investment portfolio than a serious cultural analysis.

But what makes the museum unusual isn’t the collection, but the building itself. What it impresses upon you in form it definitely lacks in function; signage is virtually nonexistent, the layout is very unintuitive, and the facilities are much too small for the number of visitors the museum attracts. But it’s hard to deny the power of that escalator ride, when you ascend from the dark, cavernous realm of the lobby through a narrow tube and emerge into the bright light of the skylit-galleries of the top floor, with its white walls, colossal forms, and colorful sculptures. It’s a transition so jarring that it has a visible effect on the most suggestible among us; adults are transformed into children, voices raise to shouts, young and old alike lose themselves to the building’s power.

Even if you don’t get a chance to enter the museum (it does require advance reservation), at least spare a moment to analyze the architecture from the outside. Facing Grand, you’ll see the window of “the Oculus” in the middle of the structure. Given that it has no real function in the building itself, I can only presume it was designed as a metaphysical attempt to harness the strange energies of the building to channel Eli Broad’s spirit, so that he may eternally gaze upon the street he remade in his image.

Cross Grand Avenue, continue south, then enter the plaza at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Bill and Coo, by Larry Bell (on the MOCA plaza). Sitting in the entrance plaza for MOCA are these two identical red glass cubes. They have proven quite popular with visitors; you’ll likely see people posing with them or taking a selfie of their reflection in one of the cubes. “Bill and coo” is a really old-fashioned term for the flirtatious behavior of young lovers, which kinda makes sense for the piece: two cubes, bill and cooing in the plaza. Simple enough.

But MOCA cites the main inspiration for the title as the 1948 novelty film Bill and Coo, created to show off a troupe of trained lovebirds (you can actually watch the whole thing on YouTube, and we do recommend it). It’s an adorable film, but what the cubes have to do with it is beyond us and it only serves to make the explanation of the title more confusing.

As for myself, the sight of a cube sitting amidst MOCA’s dated architecture of geometric shapes just makes me think of this old internet classic:

Continue through the MOCA plaza to the terraced fountain at the back, then make a right and walk down until you enter California Plaza.

Pre-Natal Memories, by Mark di Suvero (California Plaza). As you reach the base of the first of the twin, curved corner towers of California Plaza, you’ll come across this odd sculpture. Despite being in the middle of a busy pedestrian junction, most people who walk by don’t seem to even notice it. It’s an awkwardly-placed mess of gray steel beams, arranged like a giant see-saw anchored to the ground.

A nearby plaque identifies the sculpture as part of MOCA’s collection, with the explanation that di Suvero “sculptures, which frequently contain moving parts, are graceful and elegant despite their massive size and industrial components.” The odd placement of this one rather undercuts any grace and elegance, and it’s a shame that this one doesn’t seem to have any moving parts.

Return to Grand Avenue and continue south to the crosswalk connecting California Plaza with the Wells Fargo Bank building across the street. Cross Grand and enter the Wells Fargo Plaza.

Night Sail, by Louise Nevelson (Wells Fargo Plaza). Squeezed between two buildings in the narrow passageway is this massive sculpture towering over pedestrians passing through. It’s an interesting jumble of industrial forms, from the curving “sail” at the front to a boxy shape sticking out the back that, from certain angles, mimics the form of the adjacent towers. The bolts holding it together give it a neat constructivist aesthetic, although the solid black color means that it really struggles to grab people’s attention despite its scale. Still, it’s a nice piece that deserves some scrutiny as you walk by.

Continue through the Wells Fargo Plaza to the back of the complex facing Hope Street. On the way you’ll pass the four Fountain Figures by Robert Graham, a set of four small nudes standing atop tall fountains. When you reach Hope Street, make a right and then cross the crosswalk into the Bank of America Plaza.

Four Arches, by Alexander Calder (Bank of America Plaza). Calder sculpture tends to come in one of two flavors: colorful shapes dangling from a vane, or giant red arches. This would be a prime example of the latter. Calder was a hot commodity in the ’70s, with his colossal red sculptures showing up in financial districts across the country, from Chicago (“Flamingo“) to Fort Worth (“Eagle,” later moved to Seattle) to here in Los Angeles.

Honestly, what’s there to say about this one? It’s big, it’s red, it’s an arch. Unlike Night Sail, where the jumble of forms forces you to study it and discern its various components, Four Arches is just, well, four arches. It’s a shiny corporate trophy that demands your attention but has nothing to say. It’s here to stand as a marker of the prestige of the institution and nothing more.

That being said, the plaza surrounding the Bank of America building is one of the better-designed corporate plazas in Downtown LA, so do take a moment to admire the giant fountain spilling into the circular abyss nearby, where you can spy the subterranean levels of the building below.

Backtrack across Hope Street, then continue south and cross the overpass over 4th Street.

Ulysses, by Alexander Lieberman (Hope & 4th Street). So far, the sculptures we’ve been looking at tend to blend in with their surroundings. Muted colors, industrial forms, large scale, etc. Even the bright Calder red of Four Arches feels like just another built form, one that can’t distract from all these oppressive, colossal skyscrapers for long. Ulysses, on the other hand, feels like a desperate attempt to defy its environment. And it almost works, too.

Where all the surrounding buildings are brown, gray, blocky and solid, Ulysses tilts wildly towards the street corner, its steel white ribbons displaying an exuberance and mad flight from the earthy brick walkways they are bound to. It’s also hard to deny that the sculpture is very phallic, which I think is actually kind of genius given that it’s competing for your attention with all the surrounding giant phallic bank towers. It’s goofy, but as a willful rebellion against everything around it, it also earns my respect.

From the base of the sculpture, take the pedestrian alley along the side of the building back towards Grand. When you reach Grand, look down into the 4th Street underpass.

Uptown Rocker, by Lloyd Hamrol (4th Street underpass below Grand Avenue). I’ve got nothing bad to say about this one; this is hands-down one of the best pieces of public art in all of Los Angeles, and one of the most fitting for the city. Sitting in a median in the trench below is a giant concrete rocker with the massive frames of automobiles mounted on top, with a bright red car perched on the front as if launching towards the Grand Avenue overpass. It’s playful, it’s clever, and its location in the middle of what is essentially a freeway offramp is a fun way of teasing all the drivers desperate to liberate themselves from traffic. It’s also the rare example of an artwork better seen from a moving vehicle than up-close, although the sidewalk along Grand Avenue does give you a very good view.

Continue south downhill on Grand to the corner of Hope Pl. The next artwork will be on the building directly across the street. Unfortunately, there’s no crosswalk on this section of Grand, so if you want to get an up-close look at the artwork, you have to jaywalk here (take extreme caution) or do some backtracking up Grand to the nearest crosswalk.

Bell Communications Around the Globe, by Anthony Heinsbergen (AT&T Building, facing Grand Avenue). I don’t know if a piece of public art has ever served as a finer example of unintended symbolism. The gulf between what was intended and what this art has come to represent is stunning, but not as stunning as how perfectly it would reflect events that took place over 50 years after its installation, within the very same building.

This mural was commissioned by the Bell Telephone Company, then-occupants of the building, to depict the global effect of the corporation. A colossal figure reminiscent of classical statuary holds aloft a satellite dish and communications equipment, linking the various continents of a world upended by technological development: North America stands in the center of the world, surrounded by the other continents with old Europe pushed to the side. Circuit boards and numbers referencing real-world communications equipment cover portions of the mural, suggesting a world united by technological advancement. Although the work has obviously deteriorated since its installation, on a technical level it’s still a marvelous feat of mixed media art.

In 2018, one of the revelations of the Edward Snowden leaks was that AT&T, which now occupied the building, had been a willing partner in the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. Across the country, major AT&T internet hubs had been tapped by the NSA to spy on massive amounts of internet traffic. This building, which serves as one of the company’s largest internet hubs, proved particularly useful for the NSA given its proximity and access to One Wilshire, just two blocks to the south. One Wilshire is arguably the most critical internet exchange point on the West Coast, serving as the terminus of the undersea fiber-optic cables that link North America and Asia. Much of that internet traffic also passes through this AT&T building.

In the afternoon, as the sun goes down, the light casts harsh shadows over the mural. The studded cables that link the satellite dish to the world begin to resemble chains, and the wires he holds aloft snake across the globe to every corner of the world. The figure’s heavy brow casts dark shadows over where its eyes would be—but who needs to see when you can hear all that the world has to say?

Turn down Hope Pl and walk a block west. When you get to the corner where Hope turns into Hope (that is, Hope Pl becomes Hope St), cross the street and enter the small plaza.

Source Figure, by Robert Graham (Hope St & Hope Pl, at the top of the Bunker Hill Steps). The Bunker Hill Steps, which wrap around the U.S. Bank Tower to the Central Library down on 5th Street, have so much potential. They could have been one of the most beloved public spaces in Downtown, but boy does the top entrance need some work. Hope St/Pl functions as essentially an alley for the various parking garages along this block, with the view of the steps themselves walled off from the street, making you feel like you’re sneaking in through the back door. This feeling isn’t necessarily helped by the presence of what has to be the most baffling piece of art on this tour.

In the center of a fountain at the top of the stairs is a tall pedestal topped with the nude figure of a woman. Arranged around the base of the pedestal are three crabs holding their claws aloft. The title probably refers to the statue’s point as the source of the water that cascades down the steps below. Had it just been the nude atop the pedestal, the sculpture would have been a perfectly lovely, if not particularly notable, bit of art. The crabs are what make it confounding. Are they supposed to suggest the birth of Venus from the ocean? Are they supposed to have astrological significance? Are they guarding the woman atop the pedestal, or holding her hostage? Or maybe the woman is a witch atop a stake, who turned her captors into animals. Use your imagination. Seriously, go nuts.

Walk about halfway down the steps, then turn right and pass through the arch onto the landscaped deck overlooking the library and 5th Street.

The office complex you’ve just entered, 444 S. Flower Street (also called the Citigroup Center), has a downright shocking collection of art from incredibly prestigious artists, all tucked around various corners of the building that don’t see a lot of foot traffic. On the top deck overlooking the Central Library is Bruce Nauman’s Trench, Shafts, Pit, Tunnel, and Chambers, a steel pyramid and inversed pyramid that plays off the form of the library tower across the street (although aside from the nifty perch, there’s not a lot to say about this one). Down one set of escalators and sitting across from a large waterfall is the most surprising object in the building: a Robert Rauschenberg piece called Fargo Podium which has various cultural ephemera (newspapers, photographs, maps, prints, fabric, etc.) beneath laminated glass, allowing you to actually sit atop it and really get an up-close look. It’s a classic piece of Rauschenberg mixed media, and it’s just sitting here all but completely ignored.

On the same floor as the Rauschenberg, you can walk through a hallway painted with a very dynamic dazzle pattern mural, Two-movement by Augustine Kofie, out to another deck overlooking the corner of Flower and 5th. In the shadow of the tubular towers of the Westin Bonaventure across the street is another Mark di Suvero sculpture, Shoshone. Unlike Pre-Natal Memories, this one is actually pretty easy to spot, made up of giant steel I-beams painted bright red to make it visible from the street below. However, it still has no moving components.

Taking the second set of escalators down to the lobby, you’ll find Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West, a set of four burnished steel sculptures of abstract shapes that, despite their size and strangeness, are muted enough that they fit in surprisingly well with the corporate furniture and granite tones of the lobby. Before heading outside, make a U-turn and head to the back of the lobby to see Frank Stella’s Long Beach XXIII, a spaghetti of colorful aluminum serpentines weaving in and out of the fiberglass blocks mounted on the wall.

Walk out to the corner of Flower and 5th, then cross 5th and walk past the small park adjacent to the Central Library.

Spine, by Jud Fine (Maquire Gardens, west side of the Central Library). The Central Library building is full of great art, in addition to being a work of art itself. But since we’re walking right past it, Spine is worthy of mention here. Along the stairway leading up to the western portal of the library is a terraced set of pools (currently empty as a water-saving measure), each one with a unique feature suggesting the evolution of life and knowledge as you approach the library. The bottom pool holds the skeleton of a labyrinthodont, an extinct amphibian, with the sculpture of a newt in the middle pool and a peregrine falcon in the upper pool. The steps themselves are engraved with various letters and texts from ancient sources and multiple languages. It’s definitely worth taking a few moments to take it all in (and if you have more time to spare and the library is open, check out the art inside as well).

Continue south on Flower, then immediately cross the street at the crosswalk leading to City National Plaza across the street.

Double Ascension, by Herbert Bayer (City National Plaza, facing Flower Street). This bright red sculpture really stands out, contrasting vividly with the dark grey walls of the office building behind it and even the fountain beneath it. This is a neat one to walk around and admire, and there’s lots of benches surrounding the fountain. A fun anecdote about this piece is that Bayer originally wanted to call it “Stairway to Nowhere,” but was forced to change it when the suits that owned the building felt it would reflect poorly on the company (which, incidentally, was bought out by a competitor and only exists as a brand at this point).

Continue south on Flower Street, then make a right onto 6th, walk a block to Figueroa, cross Figueroa and turn left.

L.A. Prime Matter, by Eric Orr (Figueroa & Wilshire). For such an unassuming sculpture when you see it from the street, this artwork has a lot going for it when you give it a closer look. L.A. Prime Matter is made up of two 32-foot bronze towers with water gently cascading down to the base. Each of the towers are ribbed so that the water makes interesting patterns as it falls to the earth, making this one fun to stop and watch for a bit. But the most exciting thing about it are the gas flames that erupt from the sides of the towers and spill towards the ground. The flames are only turned on for a few minutes at the top of the hour, so try to time your visit appropriately.

Cross Figueroa, then continue south to the corner of 7th Street and peek inside the entrance to the Metro Rail station.

City Above, by Terry Schoonhoven (7th/Metro rail station entrance, Figueroa & 7th). The Metro Rail system has a lot of good public art, but this has to be one of the best pieces. As riders emerge from the escalators out of the underground station, they are greeted by this beautiful mural on the ceiling, painted as if to resemble looking up at the surrounding buildings. It’s very reminiscent of old baroque paintings, using trompe l’oeil to great effect to bring the streetscape into the station building.

Cross the intersection of 7th and Figueroa and walk a little ways west on 7th.

Corporate Head, by Terry Allen (725 South Figueroa, entrance facing 7th St). The thing about public art in financial districts is that it’s all corporate-sanctioned, which means you’re not going to find anything truly challenging to any of these institutions. Which is what makes Corporate Head such a great piece to end the tour on, because you won’t find another work that so flagrantly thumbs its nose at its clientele. It’s basically the public art equivalent of a court jester, both endorsed by the institution while also playfully mocking it.

The artwork consists of a statue of a businessman, briefcase in hand, with his head buried in a pillar on the front of the building. Naturally, this artwork has proved very popular and you might see people trying to get their pictures taken while imitating the statue’s pose. The plaza surrounding the building contains various poems inscribed in the ground; the one at the base of Corporate Head is a fun one that goes perfectly with the statue, though I’ll leave it for you to experience for yourself.

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