January Days South in California
©Charles Shere 2001
for Richard and Marta
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1: The Road to Ojai 4: Pasadena 2: Bombay to Brentwood 5: Barstow to Death Valley 3: Downtown Los Angeles 6: Bishop, Mono Lake and Tahoe
2: Bombay to Brentwood
Monday: Santa Monica and sculpture
Lisa had recommended the Bombay Cafe, and while I like food from the Subcontinent from time to time I wasn't sure our Italians would. But it turned out to be a short walk from our motel, the Travelodge Pico Blvd., so there we went for dinner. The location is dubious: on Pico Blvd., just out from under the San Diego Freeway overpass. It didn't look like it would be very tranquil. And we got there late, at nearly ten o'clock, and the waitress was a little dubious about the kitchen staying open.
But what a fine meal! I had some of the best chicken I've ever tasted, Sindhi Chicken, poached with onions, ginger, garam masala, and green chilies, then sautéed with mango powder, coriander, and cayenne. Of course we shared dal, and samosas, and delicious lamb naan, and washed it down with good Indian beer, and the ticket was very small indeed, $55 for the four of us, tax, tips and beers included.
The next day we discovered we were near not only Bombay but Trader Joe as well, and we had a stove and refrigerator in our room, so we provisioned ourselves with coffee and milk and orange juice and bread and a bottle of wine, and then went out to see Venice Beach.
Not impressive. Even though it had just been all cleaned up, and was the scene of a modest little self-congratulatory ritual thanking the city fathers and some corporate donors, all observed by The Media and safeguarded by the boys in blue. Otherwise Venice Beach was scruffier and more gimmicky than I'd expected, a cross between Telegraph Avenue and Pier 39 (for those readers who know Berkeley and San Francisco); the murals fading, the ersatz Venetian architecture crumbling.
We did buy an L.A. Access to guide us to the new residential architecture, and enjoyed the Gehrys and such; but enjoyed even more the early apartment block that was a decade in advance of Bauhaus. And we took a quick look at one of the few remaining canals, with quiet cottages facing them; and Richard took a direct hit from a seagull, served him right for complaining about the Boardwalk.
And then it was time for our first museum of the week: because a major object of the tour was an inspection of Los Angeles's vaunted musea. Since it was Monday and other places were closed we chose the UCLA sculpture garden in Brentwood, in the shadow almost of the new Getty Museum that would wait until tomorrow.
We hit UCLA just before twilight, l'heure bleue, romantic anywhere but particularly so in Lotusland, even on a wintry Martin Luther King Junior Birthday. The garden was virtually empty of onlookers, and we strolled about, Lindsey and the Italians in a threesome, the retired art critic apart. It's an odd collection, I think, and there are too many unimportant pieces by Important Sculptors; but there are some memorable items, especially the series of Matisse bronzes, those monumental pigtailed backs; and there are some good 20th-c. German figures; and Richard admired Voulkos, whose work he had apparently not known before (and whose Greek ancestry no doubt cemented the affinity, for Richard does love Greekness).
But we all agreed that the starkly pruned sycamores, bereft of leaves, their gracefully contorted limbs shining in the moonlight, were a touch act for the sculpture to compete with -- a theme that would recur almost daily on this trip. And I thought that visually perhaps the most memorable sight in the garden was a young man seated on his skateboard working on his laptop. Lindsey photographed him, and he noticed of course, and I asked what he was writing so earnestly: My personal essay, he said; I'm writing about why I want to be admitted to UCLA. I hope he finds this, and downloads his dorsal portrait, and submits it with the essay: it should win any admissions officer's heart.
Well. Dinnertime, no doubt of it. A Mexican restaurant had been recommended to us, Garibaldi, in Santa Monica. The Italians were dubious -- piquancy is not their favored culinary attraction -- but we went there anyway, and introduced them to Margaritas, and had so-so CalMex staples. Noisy, ordinary, fast, okay. But no Bombay.
Tuesday: a day at the Getty
Next morning we went off immediately to the new Getty, about which we'd heard so much. Arriving at opening time is a good idea: there's a shorter walk from your car to the elevator, and you'll appreciate that a few hours later, when ankles, knees, and back are feeling every accumulated step. Even though we were among the first visitors, four levels of the parking lot were full. Who owns these cars? Surely the staff can't be that big, we thought. Wrong.
The elevator discharges you in a tramstation. The funicular glides into the terminal soon enough, and you step in. Everything is silent and automatic. Creepy. You're in one of three or four cars with a few other visitors, no employees. The tram glides up its silent railway through a grove of thousands of newly planted oaks -- monoculture without monotony, but God save them from the new oak beetle.
At the top you get out onto a piazza about as big as San Marco, but no pigeons -- perhaps because it's windy as hell and no bird could withstand the blasts. It's also cold. We nearly ran across the plaza, up a few unnecessary but imposing steps, and into the lobby. This is a room about as big as a good-sized railroad terminal, but with an enormously high ceiling and plate glass walls letting you admire site, setting, and architecture.
The Getty Museum is in fact four buildings set at the corners of another big piazza, each several storeys high. We spent the entire day here, taking an acceptable lunch (sandwiches, foccaccias, soups, salads, beer and wine among the beverages) in the café. (There is also a restaurant with table service and a more ambitious menu, but it requires reservations, is more expensive, and seemed unnecessary.)
I won't write about the collections -- you either know where to get information about them, or don't really care that much. The Italians were impressed with the range and depth, and that's a good recommendation. Richard was particularly taken, I think, with the Attic crockery -- not only red and the less well-known black ware, but jars, kraters, amphorae, and for all I know dogfood dishes.
Lindsey liked the architecture. I found it accommodating and clearly organized, qualities I miss in too many recent public buildings; but was too often distracted by the idea of shipping all that stone across the Atlantic and then using it merely as veneer -- and often as curtains, purely ornamental, and contradicting the weight and substance of the material.
We explored the main garden, Robert Irwin's exercise in bringing traditional Italian gardens into Postmodernity. The conventions are all there: central watercourse; topiary; bedding plants; tricks of perspective. But for me the obligation to reinterpret these conventions seemed effortful. To the modern eye -- my modern eye, at least -- a more-or-less garden variety Italian garden, like that at Collodi, say, is well balanced: hedges, topiaries, and knot gardens are mediations of artifice and nature; life-size figurative sculpture mediates nature and artifice; both elements are present in reasonabe equipoise. (At Collodi, too, the "wild," untended garden along one side sets all this off, as does the architecture of the palazzo at the top of the garden, and the desultory street at the bottom.)
Here at the Getty, though, the hardscape -- stone, rebar, glazed terracotta (as I recall now) -- seems overbearing. The water courses too rapidly for a natural sandy bed. Nor does it descend by falls and pools, as it might. It begins on an upper plaza, in a long linear artificial ditch; then falls through hundreds of holes in what looks like a big thin manhole cover. Twenty feet below these drops fall into a basin on the main plaza level, and from there the water streams down another severe trough to the head of the main watercourse, pitched at a steep angle (let's say 35 or 40 degrees), lined with glazed tiles, and interrupted now and then by artfully placed boulders.
At the bottom there's another fairly short waterfall into the final pool, circular, maybe forty feet in diameter, with a labyrinth of clipped rhododendrons entirely surrounded by the water -- the gardeners must wade to their frequent clipping chore.
What we all found triumphant was the succulent garden -- a very big and competely inaccessible backward P, or quarter note; or perhaps a modestly lower-case g for Getty, though I doubt it, composed of hundreds of mammalariae each perhaps two feet in diameter (the stem of the "P"); hundreds more taller cactuses, each say six feet tall and eighteen inches in diameter and the same green as the mammalariae (the head); the whole outlined with smaller grey succulents.
You look down over this garden, and look over it to the panorama below, stretching from the San Gabriel Mountains, snow-covered the day we were there, to San Juan Capistrano Island, also visible that day, though not snowy. The hand of man has set foot nearly everywhere in this panorama, and the result isn't uniformly pretty. But the distant skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, tomorrow's assignment, looked fantastic, and even the bungalows and villas across the freeway, above Brentwood, seemed attractive and charming in the gathering twilight.
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