Tag Archives: J. Paul Getty Museum

getty garden, light and shadow

I try to stop by Robert Irwin’s Central Garden at the Getty Center whenever I’m nearby. This early august day was bright but cool, a perfect day for a stroll through the garden to see what new things I’d find.

If you’ve never been to the garden, it divides into two large parts: a central bowl holding a maze of two colors of clipped azaleas and its surrounding plantings, and, above it, a straight watercourse that is shaded all along its length by London plane trees, a cousin of the American sycamore.

This trip I was concentrating on how the idea of light and shadow, dark and light played out in the overall design and plantings.

To experience the upper watercourse, you follow a path that zigzags back and forth. It takes you in and out of the shade and shelter of the trees, letting you experience the bright Los Angeles sunlight and how it contrasts with the dappled light the trees provide in the spring, summer and fall.

The watercourse near the top of the Central Garden

The watercourse, the sheltered core of this top garden, changes from a noisy stream with large stones in its path at the top, to a waterway that glides quietly over a textured streambed down below.

The effect of the dappled sunlight is repeated in the plantings. Dark, almost black-leaved, plants alternate with light-colored ones. In this photo it’s almost hard to distinguish the alternating light and shadow of the trees above from the dappled plantings below. It’s a little confusing, a tad disorienting. And if you’re fascinated with the effects of light and shadow as I am, you might find it a quietly thrilling experience.

Even this little detail, a planting of succulents, plays with contrasts, light and dark. It’s a little corner that would look great in a home garden, and here it further helps to reinforce the vibrations of light and dark in the upper garden.

When I first saw the garden I thought the plantings were a little chaotic. All this light and dark, all this continual contrasting of colors and plant shapes seemed restless. Small doses would look great as perky little container plantings, but it seemed way too much of a good thing. It seemed like a little English cottage garden doped up on steroids.

But I’ve been changing my mind. All this craziness reinforces the intense vibration of contrasts that you experience walking the zigzag path.

Once you make your way out of the upper portion of the garden you’re set free into the relative calm of the lower bowl. There’s no more zigzagging in and out of the shade, there’s no more quick shifting from light to dark. Still, the sunken design of the lower garden ensures that one of the sides will experience shade during most of the day. And the plantings down here, still alternating dark and light, tell you that you’re still in the same garden.

Yes, each trip here I see something new. But I also realize that making this kind of garden happen is such an extreme commitment of resources and labor.

I haven’t quite figured out a way to photograph the capital outlay it takes to keep this garden looking great. But I’d like to end this post with a tribute to the heroes, those dedicated gardeners who make this place a garden worth visiting several times a year.

Thanks, guys!

some of my favorite photographs

My visit after Christmas to the Getty Center had as its main destination an exhibit of photographs by Carleton Watkins.

Watkins worked all over the West Coast, and was the first person to develop an important body of work on Yosemite. The show contained beautifully preserved examples of his photographs, including a few that rank up there among my all-time favorite photographs ever taken.

Carleton Watkins: El Capitan

Carleton Watkins: El Capitan, 1860s [ Library of Congress ]

More than one person has argued that Watkins is the first important artist to come out of California, regardless of medium, and I would not argue that point. There’s a poise and stillness to the work. The images seem to float in their own time and space that extends to infinity.

Even after an hour in a crowded series of galleries, the work left me with a sense of stillness that I still feel, over a week later. (The fact that I’m still on vacation also probably has something to do with it…)


Carleton Watkins: First View of the Yosemite Valley from the Mariposa Trailca. 1866.

In the image to the left, El Capitan, the light-colored mass of granite to the distance in the left, balances elegantly with the bulk of the nearer hillside on the right. It’s an amazingly formal, modern image. I don’t know of any drawing, painting or other photograph from up to this time that looks anything like it.

(This is one of two versions of this image taken at the same time from the same vantage point. I prefer the other version of this image, which is in the Getty show. I wasn’t able to find anything on the web to borrow of either version, so this quick shot out of one of my books that at least gives you an idea of the image.)

Carleton Watkins: Cape Horn, Columbia River

Carleton Watkins: Cape Horn, Columbia River, 1867 [ National Gallery of Art ]

I had a conversation with Roy Flukinger, Curator of Photography & Film at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, about nineteenth century landscape photographs. He spoke of a “transubstantiation” of matter that occurs in many of them, where the long exposures and photographic techniques rendered water, air and land to be almost equivalent materials. In the image above, the water and sky and distant mountains merge into each other. The cliffs to the right seem to float over the water. At the same time, they seem to fit into the rocks to the left like a key fits into a lock, or the way the shape of Africa reaches across the Atlantic to nestle into the empty space of the Caribbean on a map.

Carlton Watkins: Cape Horn near Celilo, 1867

Carleton Watkins: Cape Horn near Celilo, 1867 [ Metropolitan Museum of Art ]

The quietness and sense of infinite space in this one is phenomenal. If your blood pressure doesn’t drop ten points after viewing this image, nothing will bring it down!

Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California runs until March 1.

let it rust

Picasso and on occasion other artists have been credited with the quote that goes something like, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Getty garden

Left: Garden at the Getty Center, Los Angeles [ source ]

The garden designed by Robert Irwin at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles has both received raves and been the topic of rants. After my visits there I’m torn somewhere in between. There are things I like about it, and there are things that seem like missed opportunities or inappropriate choices.

One of the things I really like is its use of sheets of steel for retaining walls. (You can see it in the foreground and middle-ground in this picture.)

Each material that you use in a garden–whether it be wood or stone or steel–has its own personality. I particularly like the warm brown color that that steel ages to, as well as the industrial vibe that it brings.

While it probably doesn’t rise to the Picasso’s level of theft, using sheet steel for retaining walls is an idea I’ve incorporated into my own garden. Two sides of the raised bed I put in last fall use the material.

Steel retaining wall

Steps in steel retaining wall

My gardening budget is nothing like the Getty Museum’s, so instead of inch-thick material I used 11-gauge sheets (just shy of 1/8 inch thick). Also, since steel is heavy stuff, thinner sheets don’t require heavy equipment and can be handled by two people. I welded inch-and-a-half angle iron to the top edges, both to give it extra rigidity to help hold back the soil and to give my scrawny little sheets some visual heft.

Patina on steel

Over eight months the walls have taken on a warm patina and are almost as alive as the plants in the bed.

I don’t consider myself to be mainly swayed by practicality over aesthetics. Since steel rusts and degrades over time, using it for a retaining wall is probably a less durable option than using other materials. Still, as far as the longevity of the steel is concerned, I’m encouraged by a scrap that I’ve had outdoors for the last ten years. When I cut into it recently the interior was pristine and shiny. Only the outer shell showed any signs of rust. Of course, steel that’s in constant contact with the ground and moisture–like my garden retaining wall–will degrade quite a bit faster.

We’ll see whether this is a five-year solution or one that will outlive me.

extreme gardening

In the late 90s I was fortunate to be part of a show of photography at San Francisco Camerawork, entitled Feed, that centered on our relationship with food. One of the artists in the show was one of my photographic heroes, John Pfahl, who in the 1970s produced his funny and quirkily beautiful Altered Landscapes series. In that San Francisco show he was represented by images of compost, Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile.

The work that I’d to say a few things about are his documents of over-the-top gardenscapes, his Extreme Horticulture series.

Dr. Wadsworth's Tree

John Pfahl: Dr. Wadsworth’s Tree, Chatauqua, N.Y.

These are all beautiful, color-soaked images, most of them of the sort of gardens where “natural” isn’t a word that would immediately spring to mind. The raw plant materials are often gorgeous, but they’re sheared, arranged and manipulated in ways where the hand of the gardener or designer is in-your-face obvious. Often gardens like that give me the creeps. They and talk to a culture where a country’s President is often shown on his Crawford, Texas ranch, clearing brush, like he’s some sort of representative of good humanity battling the evil forces of nature that want to overrun our boundaries. Most of Pfahl’s gardens are testosterone gardens, gardens all about control, gardens all about domination. But at the same time, they’re often beautiful or funny in their overmanicured way.

Bare Trees and Topiary

John Pfahl: Bare Trees and Topiary, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Espalier Demonstration

John Pfahl: Espalier Demonstration, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Pfahl Getty Garden

John Pfahl: Cactus Garden, J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, but the East Coast gardens pictured seem heavy into shaping plants into topiaried sculptures. It’s a heavily European thing–Just think of the immaculately-worked gardens at Versailles. The Western gardens seem to show a little more interest in and respect for the materials. Plants are placed where the designer wants them, but they seem to be chosen more for what they can do in that location, rather than what can be done to them. The arrangements of cactus and succulents at the Getty, for instance, show clear thought about where the plants were placed. But the plants are allowed more to be themselves. (And I wonder if that freedom somehow also translates into freedoms that people are allowed to have…) Besides, have you ever tried to prune a cactus?

The tension of natural tendencies versus control is one that’s always interesting to me. Nature often isn’t convenient, and it’s often never where we want it to be. Scraping a hillside to put in suburban housing and pulling up an errant weed are part of the same continuum. But where do you draw the line about what’s good and what’s bad? Is keeping a garden inherently better than bulldozing native scrub to build more mcmansions? I think the answer is yes, but the question is a complicated one. There’s economics, notions of justice, respect for living things, and all sorts of other things that have to be considered. It’s an intriguing question that resides not far below the surface of John Pfahl’s photographs.