25 Apr Best Fronds: Inside Robert Irwin’s ‘Primal Palm Garden’ at LACMA
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.”