In 1991, when I first moved to Los Angeles, the Getty Villa was the Getty Museum. Though well on its way to becoming a vestigial organ of the maximalist Getty Center (thanks to the surprise windfall of 700 gazillion dollars in J. Paul’s will), it held, for a time, a unique position in the cultural landscape of L.A. The ugly-duckling Malibu landmark — generally despised as the vulgar self-indulgence of a Minneapolis rube and less frequently cited as a prescient example of accidental postmodernism — suddenly became the unlikely locus of a bristling flurry of creative potential, with all the hope that money can buy. And, curiously, people in the art world — conscious perhaps of the scads of cushy appointments in the offing — started to lay off badmouthing the eccentric faux-Roman showroom. After all, it would soon be a mere footnote to the gleaming castle on the hill that was going to finally put Los Angeles on the map!
I always liked the Villa better. Nestled in a womb of greenery, and chock-full of a truly weird mishmash of Rococo desks, Renaissance portraits, Vincennes porcelain and ancient Greek statues of bird ladies, it was about as close to achieving the personal idiosyncrasy of an actual artwork as a museum can get. When the Getty Center finally opened in all its sun-blasted monumental glory, there was an inevitable sense of general disappointment — too many inflated expectations unfulfilled — as well as the more specific sense of disenchantment felt by fans of the Villa: that instead of building on the oddball strengths of J. Paul’s flawed but singular vision, the Trust had opted to correct them, finessing its mandate to fill in the gaps in the Getty canon and immediately starting to chip away at the fervent anti-Modernism that was central to his aesthetic philosophy. Which isn’t to say the Center hasn’t laid down some amazing shit, just that it is patently institutional shit — unassailable in its high-consensus-driven good taste, and therefore never running the risk of true creativity.
And now the process has come full circle, with the opening of the Getty Villa Mach II (or III if you count the Vesuvius-buried Herculaneum chateau from which it was originally copied). Revised to the tune of $275 million, the new-old Getty promises to assume its rightful position as a cutting-edge arts complex — with additions including offices, research and conservation facilities, an auditorium, an outdoor amphitheater, a café and a bookstore — alongside its old-new prototype in Brentwood. Now devoted entirely to antiquities — Greek, Roman, Etruscan, etc. — arranged in user-friendly thematic parcels such as “Dionysos and the Theater” and “Stories of the Trojan War,” the Villa has been recast as the self-conscious doppelgänger of its own allegedly postmodern original.
Architecturally reconfigured by trendy Beantown Argentines Machado & Silvetti as a sort of Norman Klein “scripted space,” the Villa has a vista-laden approach that winds through — no joke — fake excavation strata from the underground parking structure, through an Escher-like maze of overlapping elevators to the white-elephant outdoor amphitheater to the pimped out Villa proper. With new features like the “Timescape” video orientation chamber and the “Family Forum” (featuring a hands-on experience of ancient Greek vases), the Villa has embraced the 21st-century museology of the spectacular, leapfrogging over Las Vegas’ Bellagio Casino in its disorienting simultaneous embodiment of false authenticity and alienating populism. Which isn’t to say they aren’t going to lay down some amazing shit.
As a museum of antiquities per se, the Villa is nearly flawless, with amazing state-of-the-art display cases and a wealth of fascinating artifacts from headliners like The Victorious Youth (one of only six surviving Greek life-size bronzes in the world) or the famously disputed Getty Kouros to hidden treasures like the embossed brass discharge papers of a Roman soldier, the statue of Zeus half-chewed by mollusks, or the tiny, easily missed gallery of Coins, Gems and Jewelry that contains almost as many individual pieces as the rest of the museum put together. The focus on antiquities is to their benefit — they were easily overlooked amid the almost psychedelic barrage of Baroque flourishes that used to glut the Villa. But there’s something about the seamless anonymous authority of the new institution that makes you yearn for the chaos and discontinuity — and the sheer individuality — of J. Paul’s original vision.
Luckily, you don’t have to go far for an authentically fake vanity-museum experience, as I recently learned on an expedition to the wilds of Simi Valley. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is in its 15th year of operation but has only really been beckoning strongly since Ronnie’s highly publicized funerary rituals and, more recently, the installation of the full-size, intact, actual Boeing 707 that served as Air Force One from February 1973 (Nixon) to August 29, 2001 (you know who — conspiracy-buff alert!).
Reagan, like all politicians, was a sociopath. What set him above the herd was the combination of a fierce authoritarianism (unswervingly oriented toward accumulated wealth) with an otherwise relaxed amiability utterly devoid of content. This pretty much describes the conceptual parameters of the RRPLM as well: It insists on Reagan’s greatness but never bothers to make any kind of argument to support it, offering up instead an array of discontinuous diversions of dubious — or nonexistent — historical merit. So where there are a pair of captioned photos tucked in a corner that obliquely reference the Reagan administration’s sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen, there is a massive gallery devoted to the history of the U.S. Cavalry, though RR served only sporadically in the reserves.
But I’m nitpicking. Apart from the busloads of schoolchildren, what kind of person would go to the Reagan Museum to learn anything about history? You go there to see the enormous portrait of the president made entirely out of jellybeans. And the replicated section of the Berlin Wall with graffiti conveniently translated into English. And the broach spelling out “Just Say No” in rhinestones presented to the first lady. And the gummy stealth bombers and “Peace Through Strength” sportswear in the giftshop. And the fashion-mannequin-guarded re-creation of Checkpoint Charlie. And the mismatched copper-finish thrift-store coffee urns in the replica Situation Room. God is in the details. Or is it the devil?
Of course, most of the crowd was there to check out Air Force One. Truly awesome in its specially built pavilion, the 28-year veteran of seven administrations glints majestically — and in this case invitingly. Once inside, though, it seems strangely cramped. “This is much smaller than the one Harrison Ford had,” observed one of my companions. “Wasn’t there a spiral staircase in that one?” Indeed. But again, the nuances — though a little hard to absorb while being hustled by blue-haired docents — compensate for the absent heroic narrative.
Après cockpit, for example, the first exhibit you encounter is a photocopy machine with a plaque detailing its takeoff and landing storage procedures. Past the incongruous cheesy wood paneling/fine oak molding, the vintage IBM Selectric typewriter, and the “not authorized for top security videos” VCR, the docent assures us we shall “Meet Colonel Chealander.” A solitary wax figure crammed behind an empty table, the mysterious Col. Chealander cuts a melancholy profile, perpetually waiting for the arrival of the sole occupant of the galley, perhaps — an ever-ready chocolate birthday cake. “With 50 people on board, chances are good it’s going to be somebody’s birthday! Please move along!”
Expelled from the tail end of the craft, the viewer is more than ready to descend two levels to the tantalizing Ronald Reagan Pub and its well-stocked bar and Guinness-heavy décor. But in a final poetic reversal, the pub only operates as a pub per se during special private functions. Otherwise you can buy jellybeans and 20 fl. oz. bottles of official Ronald Reagan Pub Natural Sparkling Water for $3. Ha ha.
As we walked out through the rose garden, another blue-haired docent told a small group in hushed and urgent tones, “It’s just like it was prophesized in Leviticus where God promises to send a faintness into the hearts of our enemies: ‘And they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.’ And if you look what President Reagan did in defeating communism and what’s happening in the world today, well . . . ” We all nodded knowingly.
Now, it might seem that I’m only appreciating Ronnie’s museum for its kitsch value, and only considering it favorably to the J. Paul’s Villa ironically. Not so. For starters, if it were up to me to judge these two men, I think the actor playing the president would come out with cleaner hands than America’s first and archetypal oil billionaire. We won’t even go into which cultural institution is deploying the more insidious propaganda and to what ends. But for me a museum’s success depends heavily on its ability to surprise me, and while some surprises are deeper and more nourishing than others, I’ll take the Reagan Library’s high what-the-fuck quotient over the Getty’s predictable focus-group-calculated splendor any day.
THE GETTY VILLA | 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades | (310) 440-7300
THE RONALD REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM | 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley | (800) 410-8354