LACMA's 'Living In a Modern Way' Evokes Star Trek and Other Revelations of 'Insane' Free Museum Day

Resnick Pavilion, LACMA
Resnick Pavilion, LACMA
Sam Bloch

This Sunday, the folks behind Pacific Standard Time leaned in close and said those three words we love to hear: free museum day!

More than twenty-five Southern California art museums offered free admission yesterday. The heavy hitters and their lucky friends were connected by shuttle service -- which meant, with a little patience, a wheel-averse or eco-conscious Angeleno could hitch a ride from the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica to Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood.

Ever the egalitarian, we went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the geographic center of the action.

LACMA's 'Living In a Modern Way' Evokes Star Trek and Other Revelations of 'Insane' Free Museum Day

LACMA's already good about getting children and families in for free on Sundays. Museum docents lead free early afternoon tours, and staff and volunteers host crafts workshops in the courtyard. But today was different. I found education coordinator Alicia Vogl Saenz soliciting for new members through NexGen, the museum's free youth initiative. Were we watching five thousand art fiends, hungry for wisdom and intellectual guidance, jam the doors of the museum? Easily, she said.

Seeking pulpier juice, I followed the massive line for the never free (not even on free museum day) yet eternally popular Tim Burton retrospective into the airy Resnick Pavilion, and then took a sharp right and hit California Design, 1930-1965: Living In a Modern Way, the museum's highly touted mid-century design retrospective. I was not alone.

"It's insane here," a gallery attendant told me.

More insane than a Target-sponsored free Monday?

"Twice as insane."

LACMA's 'Living In a Modern Way' Evokes Star Trek and Other Revelations of 'Insane' Free Museum Day

It was packed. Visitors wanted to see the objects that perpetuated the California dream of the '50s and '60s in the American imagination, whether it was a stone vase, roadside barricade light, or sleek wooden furniture. Most of this stuff was made for living in, so it made sense that it was stacked together in a tight space. But I was struck by the organization: these functional objects were arranged thematically, which meant a Studebaker Avanti was featured in the same room as salt and pepper shakers.

In the Living section, dedicated to domestic spaces, young and old -- mostly old -- snaked around the pavilion's undulating metal partition and stopped to geez and wow at nook-ish display cases. Two friends examined a white chaise designed by Walter Lamb in 1954. "You know, Mom had one of these!" one said. Others debated if that was a Franz Kline painting hanging in the full recreation of the Eames House living room. Like the real thing in the Pacific Palisades, no photography was allowed.

At the front of the exhibit, in the Shaping section, a knot formed in front of a pair of Robert Spence's aerial photographs of Los Angeles, taken looking west from Wilshire. In 1922, a few fruit stands huddled together at Fairfax. Eighty-nine years later, a reporter watched a long line of freeloaders in cars comb those same flatlands for a good spot. He heard the Petersen Automotive Museum was hosting overload parking.

"Look at that," said Abe Flores, holding his four-year-old son William. His hands rested on his father's shoulders. "Do you see what it used to look like here?"

Many of the designs featured at the Resnick Pavilion were understood less as cultural subterfuge than as goofy relics. An elderly woman in a white crochet dress stood in front of five swimsuits designed by Rudi Gernreich, an Austrian émigré embraced by American nudists after he unveiled the monokini. "It's like something out of Star Trek," said her son, pointing at a sea blue, wool knit bathing suit with the sides cut out. He assumed the nasal voice of Freaks and Geeks' Neil Schweiber. "Spock!" He wasn't far off. Gernreich later costumed Martin Landau on Space: 1999.

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