Best Fronds: Inside Robert Irwin’s ‘Primal Palm Garden’ at LACMA

Photos by Ryan Benoit

Clearly, clearly, we’ve got museums on the brain. And that’s okay — where else can you wander around for a day, let yourself off the leash mentally, and entertain all sorts of vivid ideas?

Last month we spent an afternoon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Located just a few blocks from the cozy, sundrenched studio I lived in when I was fresh out of college.) The museum invited us to explore artist Robert Irwin’s Primal Palm Garden, an outdoor installation that flows through the entire campus — 150 palm trees in 18 species, plus cycads, ferns, even a Queensland bottle tree.

Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis)

A stout Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) embraces guests entering LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

Lepidozamia peroffskyana is a palm-like cycad

Beneath the escalator grows the “primal” Lepidozamia peroffskyana, which is a palm-like cycad. It’s endemic to eastern Australia.

Chamaedorea plumosa, in front of Rhopalostylus sapida

Chamaedorea plumosa trees are lanky in front of a group of compact Rhopalostylus sapida palms.

Male flower of the Chamaedorea plumosa

The male flower of the Chamaedorea plumosa.

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In its natural habitat, the drought-tolerant foxtail palm (Wodyetia bifurcata) grows among the boulders of northeastern Queensland.

We also checked out two LACMA shows: the James Turrell retrospective, and Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, featuring the terrain-changing sculpture of Alexander Calder, on view through July 27.

Created in collaboration with landscape architect Paul Comstock and opened in 2010, the garden is like a call-and-response between living and manmade. A mini grove of prehistoric-looking Lepidozamia peroffskyana creates an intimate surprise under the escalator. Soaring Mexican fan and Canary Island date palms — L.A. arboreal icons — welcome guests into Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation of 202 functioning streetlamps. The silvery crowns of Mexican blue palms punctuate the architecture of Renzo Piano, who designed LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum that opened in 2008.

Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata)

Mexican blue palms (Brahea armata) march alongside the Resnick Pavilion.

Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata)

Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

Our favorite palm on the property was the Bismarck (Bismarckia nobilis) — for its metallic pizzazz and starburst leaves.

Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

From behind the Bismarck.

Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

This one (near the Wilshire entrance) has a lovely iridescence.

Primal Palm Garden, Robert Irwin tells us, was informed in part by the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits and by the anti-palm rumblings of lawmakers. In favor of promoting indigenous species, the L.A. City Council announced it would scale back on the planting of palms, “which I thought was an odd idea,” Robert tells us by phone, “because they’re almost a symbol for the city. I suggested, ‘No, let’s do the opposite.’ ” With the La Brea Tar Pits next door, he adds, “I wanted to bring in a lot of primal plants, [including] very, very old species of cycads.”

The kind of plants you could see woolly mammoths stampeding past. For us humans (at least Ryan and me), it’s a comforting effect. You look up, you see the palms against the blue wedge of sky, and they all seem to say, “Calm down! You’re in California.”

Trachycarpus fortunei or windmill palm. The hairy trunk gives th

Thanks to its compact crown and hardiness, the windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) makes a good patio tree.

Trachycarpus fortunei or windmill palm. The hairy trunk gives th

Plus, it’s got a hairy trunk!

Cabbage-tree Palm (Livistona australis)

The cabbage-tree palm (Livistona australis). In the spring/early summer it produces spikes of creamy white flowers.

Cabbage-tree Palm (Livistona australis)

Jelly Palm (Butia capitata) and

Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta), so iconic across L.A., tower above pindo palms (Butia capitata).

Lepidozamia peroffskyana is a palm-like cycad

Another cycad, this one a Macrozamia moorei. Fossil records indicate that cycads first emerged 280 million years ago (compared to palm trees’ 90 million years).

Famed for works that integrate light and space, Robert Irwin was raised in Southern California and now lives in San Diego. In addition to Primal Palm Garden, he designed the marvelous azalea- and bougainvillea-filled Central Garden at the Getty Center; “before that, I never planted a plant,” he says. His other well-known installations include Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977)Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue? (2006) and Untitled (Acrylic Column), (1969-2011).

False agave (Furcraea foetida)

These false agaves (Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta Alba’) provide sculptural interest.

Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis)

Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) add heft to the slim lines of the Mexican fan palms and Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” installation.

Mexican fan palm (Washintonia robusta)

More Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta) line the facade of the museum.

Mexican fan palm (Washintonia robusta)

The trees are also well-represented in the sculpture garden.

Mexican fan palm (Washintonia robusta), LACMA's Rodin sculpture garden

…as are the works of Rodin.

False agave (Furcraea foetida)

Down the elevator shaft and near the entrance to the parking structure, false agave surounds the massive trunk of a Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis) that is over 120 years old. The sap of this species can be made into a sweetener called palm honey or fermented into wine. (Hence the name!) The seeds are also edible, and taste like coconut.

Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

Another shot of our beloved “bizzy.”

Bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis)

Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

By the Sixth Street entrance, a serene formation of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera).

Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

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At the ‘Levitated Mass’ installation by artist Michael Heizer: feats of strength.

Mexican fan palm (Washintonia robusta)

Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

The joy that’s clear and contagious here at Primal Palm Garden might be linked to his California upbringing, Robert notes.

“Growing up here, the world is your oyster,” he says. “When I was 15, I got my first car and was lifeguarding on Catalina Island. One of the things New Yorkers really dislike is when you tell them you had a happy childhood,” he quips. “A lot of people think art comes from pain and suffering. But it equally comes from beauty — the beauty of things and the beauty of being in the world.”

—TH