From 1923 to four hours ago ... Walking Tour 02 - Painting the Town: Downtown LA Murals from 1923-2010

Led by Leslie Rainer of the Getty Conservation Institute (for my part of a very popular tour run jointly with the Los Angeles Conservancy) this walking tour covered a selection of the huge range and variety of murals and interiors in Downtown Los Angeles, starting with the original 1920s interior decorations of the conference venue itself, the Biltmore Hotel, we were walked through a chronological tour of the richnesses of Los Angeles’ wall works, all the way to work progressing as we watched.

Starting with Giovanni Smeraldi’s lush early Art Deco decorations for the opening of the Biltmore in 1923, and the additional, more modern work by Alan Sonnenmann, Walter Lab and Victor Henderson (1986), we moved out to the Public Library, with its almost temple-like staircase, first floor gallery, decorated dome and soaring allegorical murals by Dean Cornwell (1934). Across the road we then saw the magically, confidently, Art Deco Southern California Edison Building, a complete Deco essay within and without, its beautifully proportioned foyer lined with marble and polished stone, featuring brass accents, coffered ceilings and the power-themed murals by Hugo Ballin, Barse Miller and Conrad Buff (1931). Then on to 1991 and the simply vast external Dusk by Frank Stella, a great assemblage-image across a huge elevation, sadly suffering the privations of pollution damage, light damage and surface erosion but still magnificent in its sheer scale, and breadth of imagination.

Across the road again, we then saw the outside of the Subway Terminal building, now severed from its original role of public transport hub, but still defiantly bearing its elegant 1926 lunette mosaics by the Ravenna Mosaic Company, reminding one of its original public service role. Again, on to a very modern work, just 18 months old, Colors Zip, by Ben Barnes (2014), fresh, quirky, one might say wry, compact but intriguing and questioning. Then, concreteness featured on the side of the Los Angeles Time Car Park building, with Tony Sheets’ The Evolution of Los Angeles, of 1988, carrying on the tradition of Dean Cornwell’s work of the 1930s in the Public Library of public art relating the City’s history to a current audience, telling the story of how the now was delivered by the past.

Finally for me (for I did not take up the offer of the ‘optional extra’ on this tour) the extraordinary site that is the Victor Clothing Company building: a former clothing shop building slathered (the right term) in murals. Some, such as the Bride and Groom (Kent Twitchell, 1972 – 76) again astonishing in its scale, composition and colouring, despite being raddled with age, graffiti and surface decay; El Nuevo Fuego by East Los Streetscapers (1985) an astonishing assemblage of images related to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, again covering the entire side elevation, again neglected but powerful nonetheless. On the other side of the building, Niño y Caballo (1984, Frank Romero) high up and unreachable, peeling and sadly faded.

But the best for the last – then there is the huge, iconic Pope of Broadway (1985) by Eloy Torrez, occupying a whole end wall of the Victor building, celebrating local man Anthony Quinn as Zorba the Greek, reaching out to the observer, owning the space and embracing the site. But wait, there was Eloy Torrez working on the repair, restoration, conservation of his work – and for twenty minutes we were able to ask him why, and how, and when, and all the questions one always wants to ask. Torrez’ motivation for creating the work, his way of working in the first creation, his way of re-creating and maintaining his work – and for him to ask conservators about their ways of working, their techniques, their materials and the tools of their trade. A magical meeting and a very special dialogue about creation, re-creation, responsibility for a work, a sense of ownership and the artist’s slight wonder at what he himself had created. And the mural itself? Magnificent in its scale, almost heroic but at the same time touching and human(e), made richer by having the artist’s intent related at first hand, but also by his humble reaction to its public reception.

The whole afternoon was quite special and it was very much a privilege to see some of what makes Los Angeles tick ...