Getty Museum

Getty Museum

WORDS: Kevin McGarry
PHOTOS: Helen Nishi

Los Angeles’s art scene, which, as you may have heard, has exploded over the past five years, can claim its own Mount Olympus of sorts. High up in the hills above Brentwood, lofted over the perpetually snared San Diego Freeway, there is an alabaster fortress of culture known to locals and tourists alike as the Getty Center.

Whimsically removed from the sprawling city below, a visit to the Getty is one of the most transporting museum experiences in Los Angeles, if not the world. This $1.3 billion ancestral home to industrialist J. Paul Getty’s philanthropic initiatives took starchitect Richard Meier most of the 1980s and 90s to design, build, and, in 1997, complete. While it lacks the Mediterranean opulence of its sister institution (The Getty Villa, in the Pacific Palisades), from the moment you exit the parking lot—via an ascending hovertrain funicular—roaming the gleaming grounds of The Getty is like exploring a minimalist, utopian kingdom composed of sky, sun, and more than a million square feet of sleek, white travertine.

While the hard-edged facade of the campus is very much aligned with a postmodern notion of what an art museum might look like, many of the treasures you’ll find inside the Getty are among L.A.’s most hardcore holdings of classical art and antiquities. The museum’s most famous belonging is a shock of purple amid the sea of vanilla stone: Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic Irises.

Some exhibitions on view over the summer include “Illuminating Women in the Medieval World”—a tour of the museum’s extensive holdings of illuminated manuscripts depicting women of all walks of life—and “The Birth of Pastel,” another show curated from the Getty’s own collection, tracing the evolution of the vivid medium from colored chalk drawings. Paying homage to a newer classic, the Getty is also hosting “Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney,” a two-part exhibition celebrating the 80th birthday of British expat David Hockney, who has spent the better part of the past thirty years painting the pools, vistas, and denizens of Southern California from his studio in the Hollywood Hills. Part one of the party is a survey of self-portraits by Hockney made over more than six decades; part two, which opened yesterday, features key photographs and collages from the 1980s investigating time and perspective.

The allure of temporary shows like these is worth a trip across town, but it can hardly compete with the timeless grandeur of this edenic castle in the clouds. Predating Instagram, it is no doubt a selfie factory. Fountains burble throughout the complex. Succulents and cacti grow tall. The central garden is a tour-de-force by installation artist Robert Irwin, with a tree-lined ravine designed to guide a viewer not just through an array of fauna, but light, scent, color, and other sensory meters aligned between nature and art. Inscribed in the floor of the garden’s main plaza is an adage chosen by Irwin: “Always changing, never twice the same.” While the Getty’s special charm stems from its slow, still constancy, a visit to the top of the mountain indeed lives up to these words.