Tag Archives: light and shadow

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!

garden designer, artist

Any rabid garden enthusiast visiting Los Angeles will probably want to put Robert Irwin’s Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum on their list of places to visit. I’ve written about it a few times, including [ here ] and [ here ], and so have a lot of other bloggers. Robert Irwin is also involved in an installation of palm trees at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The garden-making is a fairly recent addition to the projects of this amazing artist. Before taking on biological materials he created a rich body of work that plays with subtle ways you perceive light and space. Yesterday I had a chance to visit a show of some work in progress to see what he’s doing these days.

Robert Irwin. #4 X 8' Four Fold (detail) 2010. Photo credit: Philipp Scholz Rittermann

To look at this image to the left you’d maybe swear that this is a painting of stripes. But step into the gallery and you realize that these works are actually made out of evenly spaced fluorescent tubes, each of which has been wrapped in gels to modify their color and to provide linear patterns on the face of the bulbs. Most of Irwin’s art uses simple techniques like this, but the more you look, the more you get pulled into them.

The effects are so subtle photos can’t really do complete justice to the pieces. But the photographer, Philipp Scholz Rittermann, one of our local really talented camera guys, has made a beautiful interpretation.

You can see the vertical lines of the tubes, the lines of the dark gels, the subtle colors the tubes cast onto the fixtures and the spaces between them, and the delicate shadows of the fixtures. The tubes, the gels, the fixtures, the shadows–everything works together to give you a quietly rhythmic progression.

Robert Irwin. #3 X 6' Four Fold (detail) 2010. Photo credit: Philipp Scholz Rittermann

If I’m remembering the helpful gallery folks correctly, each piece has four different states, with different bulbs being on at different times. One of the big themes of the Getty garden is change–which really isn’t something you have to explain to a gardener–and these new pieces play with how different the same arrangement of bulbs appears as you turn some bulbs on and off.

Take a look at my garden photo at the top of this post, and look how the central topiaries of two kinds of clipped azaleas uses the subtly different leaf and flower colors to create interlocked formations. Next, look at one of the fluorescent bulb pieces and notice the subtle interplays of light and shadow that make up the work. It’s the same basic principle, but applied to wildly differing materials. As the plants in the garden go in and out of bloom, as the seasons change, the relationship of the formations shifts. Same goes for what happens when some bulbs are on and others blacked out.

I don’t often leave an exhibit thrilled and tingling, but this time I did. If you can make it to the exhibition at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla, go quick, before the show closes May 1. Or if you’ll be in New York in the fall, I believe I heard correctly that there’ll be a show of this work at the Pace Gallery.