The Millard Sheets mosaic can only be viewed from an angle.EXPAND
The Millard Sheets mosaic can only be viewed from an angle.
Jordan Riefe

Why Is This Millard Sheets Mosaic Hidden Behind a Wall at Marciano Art Foundation?

Last week, the formerly vacant Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire opened its doors as the Marciano Art Foundation, a facility that houses a rotating selection of some 1,500 works of modern art from the collection of Guess Jeans co-founders Paul and Maurice Marciano.

The inaugural exhibit, "Unpacking: The Marciano Collection," features roughly 150 pieces by artists including Paul McCarthy and Sterling Ruby. They're placed in conversation with the jarringly different aesthetic of the 1961 building's original decorative works by artist and architect Millard Sheets, who also designed the building.

At the request of the Marcianos, some of the building’s original works were removed and stored by the artist’s son, Tony Sheets, but others remain. The most prominent is an Italian glass tile mosaic depicting a stylized nature scene, animals under blue and gold trees, all set against a black background. At 25 square feet, the work is best viewed from afar, which is impossible on account of a new wall that's been placed squarely in front of it.

“I didn’t know anything about the wall in front of the mosaic,” says Tony, an artist living in Oregon who's worked to preserve and protect the family legacy since his father’s death in 1989. “It’s sad to see it get covered, or set where it’s hard to see.”

A native of Pomona, Millard Sheets graduated Chouinard Art Institute in the 1920s, and became a progenitor of the California Style watercolor movement. By the 1930s, he was exhibiting in nearly a dozen cities, including Paris. Throughout most of his life he continued to teach, becoming an influential voice at Chouinard, Otis College of Art & Design and Scripps College.

As the sculptured marble and travertine of the new museum might indicate, Sheets primarily designed banks when it came to architecture — some 50 branches for Home Savings of America throughout the west. Like the Masonic Temple, most are adorned with mosaic and painted murals. In terms of his mosaic work, he's perhaps most famous for World of Life, the massive mural he designed for the side of Notre Dame's library, which has come to be known as "Touchdown Jesus."

Millard Sheets' World of Life in South Bend, IndianaEXPAND
Millard Sheets' World of Life in South Bend, Indiana

The piece at the Masonic Temple was the dominant feature of what used to be the banquet hall and is now the main gallery. With such massive dimensions, for a curator it represents an obstacle, albeit a beautiful one. “I believe they put the wall in to not let the mosaic dominate the room, because it’s very different than the modern art that they would be showing in the space,” says artist Brian Worley, who restored the tilework. “It seems a shame, because you really can’t get the full sense of it.”

According to Kulapat Yantrasast, creative director of Culver City–based firm wHY, who redesigned the building, the wall can be removed at the request of future curators because it is not load-bearing, though neither is it temporary nor mobile. “We want to be fair to history, but we want to be fair to the future,” says Yantrasast, who is on a hot streak lately, having opened the new Christie’s space in Beverly Hills last month. He has viewed the work with and without the wall and says he enjoys it in seclusion, and that it reflects the building’s past as a Masonic temple. “History preserved is not going to do anyone any good. History needs to be revived and activated.”

One of the redesign’s biggest challenges was the removal of an auditorium with space for 2,100, which is useless under current zoning laws prohibiting theaters after Larchmont locals complained about occasional raves and boxing matches taking place there. What used to be the auditorium is now host to “Jim Shaw: The Wig Museum,” the artist’s first West Coast solo show, a surrealistic installation featuring a conflagrant Barbara Bush (a "Burning Bush"), Sally Field as the Flying Nun and a vacuum hose rooted in George Washington’s crotch, sucking up translucent souls.

Mosaics taken from the auditorium are in storage until Sheets can find another home for them, which begs the question: Why not find a new, more accommodating home for the mural behind the wall? “It never came up. I would never do it and Maurice would never do it,” Yantrasast says, referring to Marciano. The slightly mystifying reason being: “We feel it’s better for people to see it.”

“The one thing they’ve been wonderful about is protecting all of the artwork that was in the building,” says Sheets, who has been through this process numerous times, whether it’s preserving his father’s work or his own. “Times change and uses of buildings – what [the Marcianos are] doing is saving a building that’s full of wonderful art and sat empty for 10 or 12 years. And it’s nice to have it lively again.”

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