Essayist Ann Taylor Fleming takes a look at the art, archetecture and atmosphere of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: For years when people came to visit my home town, I would take them to places that typified it: Rodeo Drive to see the rich and cosmetically altered; Universal City to see a movie studio; Graumann's Chinese Theater to see where the stars had trod in concrete; and always Venice Beach, to see the post hippie beach culture roll by on roller blades.
In short, I presented LA to strangers as one large adolescent theme park, a splashy playground for showoffs and Sybarites. That's how they thought of it, and I did to in part. But over time my tour became much more sophisticated, as, indeed, the city did, notching up from adolescents to adulthood.
Certainly there was bona fide culture, museums to see, a fantastic young orchestra conductor, art galleries near the beach. I'd have to pay attention now. Reservations had to be made at the Getty Museum in Malibu, at the latest hot restaurant, at a theater downtown, at the annual book fare in UCLA. Los Angeles was taking itself seriously, and the rest of the country was beginning to as well. There were still the sleaze spots, as I call them, that people wanted to see, the OJ tour, for example, his house, her condo, and now the thankfully boarded up Mezzaluna Restaurant. In truth, that began to fade pretty quickly. People coming to town now want to see the new LA, the grown-up, up town museum-studded LA they've been reading and hearing so much about.
The locals have been amused and flattered, but nothing, it is fair to say, prepared any of us for the new J. Paul Getty Museum and the immediate hold it would have on this city. We'd watched it go up, flying by it on the freeway, catching sight of it from a West side stop sign, and think it had all gone too far, this gaining of sophistication. This was a massive assertive fortress on a hill, a Hearst castle south if you will, a pretentious monument to one man's fortune and one city's out of control cultural ego. And then it opened late last year, and within a heartbeat it has become the destination of choice for locals, as well as out-of-towners.
Critics from far and wide may have applauded, but it was the word of mouth that mattered. You have to go, people said, wait till you see. They described the buildings, a contemporary version of an Italian hill town, the rough-hewn stone, the grotto slashed by sunlight, and, yes, art. But there was something more going on. Beyond the art, beyond even the buildings themselves, something magic happened up there, they implied, and you had to see it for yourself, which I finally did this spring. And I got it.
Here was the classic LA experience, the classic LA museum, not just a place to see treasures, a Greek torso, or a Rembrandt, but a place to hang out in the sunshine, to drift, dream, muse, and marvel at the sharp line of the travertine stones against the blue sky. Everywhere was a sensual vista, be it the buildings, the water, the city sprawling below, all its angst and tension and gaudiness a pleasing distant blur.
Up here you were safe, cocooned by beauty, be it manmade or natural, this with the ultimate cultural high, a refuge both warm and cold, thoroughly modern yet ancient feeling, vast, yet intimate, like the city, itself.
So we flock to it and grumble when we can't get in or have to make reservations long in advance, hoping to get lucky to be able to get friends in when they come to town to show them a different view of who we are now and what we have become.
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.