Home Ground: ‘Art is the Client:’ LACMA, the wrecking ball, and surviving jewel box

| April 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

EXTERIOR of the Pavilion for Japanese Art.

Four buildings at LACMA face the percussion hammer, wrecking ball or computer-controlled hydraulic jack — perhaps all three — but not quite yet. Remediation began earlier this year, removing asbestos and other materials, preparing for Los Angeles’ farewell to William L. Pereira’s three 1965 pavilions and the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer wing. Replacing them will be a design by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, hotly contested by its critics.

Remaining as part of the re-imagined museum will be two recent Renzo Piano buildings, along with the Pavilion for Japanese Art, opened in 1988, designed by Bruce Goff (who died in 1982) and finished by his associate Bart Prince — a jewel box, as far as I am concerned. The pavilion was brought into existence by LACMA benefactor Joe Price, now in his 90s, a great character and passionate collector of Japanese paintings and other objects from the Edo Period (1603-1867).

“Remember,” Price repeatedly told his architects, “the art is the client.”

INTERIOR of the Pavilion for Japanese Art.

The Pavilion for Japanese Art closed two years ago for renovations, and I wondered what Bart Prince could tell me about it. I sent a quickly answered email and headed my trusty Volvo for a 12-minute ride east from my house to architect Prince’s home and studio, known since 1984 to almost all of Albuquerque, fans and critics alike, as “the spaceship.” The building rises above the one-story mostly adobe houses in its neighborhood like a house in a dream.

ARCHITECT Bart Prince.
Photo by Paula Panich

Bart Prince is a tall, amiable and witty man, whose imaginative, if not wild, architecture is known throughout the world. As the architect who was responsible for realizing the Pavilion for Japanese Art, what could he tell me about the renovations?

Bart Prince is a great storyteller, and the story of how the Pavilion came to sit at the edge of the Tar Pits is a fascinating one. The Price fortune is based on the family’s oil pipeline and chemical firm; Joe’s aesthetic was educated and honed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a collector of Japanese woodcut prints, who designed the 19-story Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla. Bruce Goff, a protégé of Wright’s, and a connoisseur of Japanese art too, was introduced into the mix, and Goff designed a house for Joe and Etsuko Price in Oklahoma. The couple’s Japanese art collection, according to Prince, grew into what was likely the largest outside of Japan. Joe wanted a museum of his own.

Several sites around the country were considered and rejected. But Rusty Powell, LACMA’s admired director (1980-1992) was enthusiastic, and Joe and Etsuko were enthused about Los Angeles and its cultural ties with Japan. Los Angeles was a fit for their collection, a fit for Goff, who designed the Pavilion, a fit for LACMA (a $5 million donation for the building helped, too), and a fit for the Prices, who asked Bart Prince to design their new home in Corona del Mar, where they live today.

And the renovations of the Pavilion? Bart Prince, who saw Goff’s work to completion and was the architect of record, was not consulted. The results await those of us in love with the building.

I always felt as if I were walking into a place that enveloped one in cut-silk velvet. Part of that feeling was from the diffused, rich light in the building made possible from translucent panels called Kalwall, according to Prince. The subdued light brought to mind that masterpiece treatise on Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows,” by Tanazaki.

Plenty of Japanese art remains with the couple. Interestingly, the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo bought 190 Edo-era paintings from Joe and Etsuko Price. The homecoming of the works will be celebrated with an exhibition there from Sat., Sept. 19 to Sun., Dec. 20, 2020.

So many stories.

By Paula Panich

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